Part 2: A Social Work Student’s Story

So… you’ve been waiting 24hours and FINALLY IT IS HERE, the second part to this fascinating entry based on the experiences of a social work student.

I saw Ada on several further occasions when there was no further repetition of these events. On one occasion, Ada fetched a box from the kitchen to show me some documentation and, once finished with, placed it at the side of a cupboard in the front room. It struck me at the time that this might relate to how things ‘moved’ or went missing, providing an alternative explanation for what she’d said. Together, we addressed the needs identified on the support plan to reduce her isolation. She disclosed information relating to her relationship with her ex-husband relating to domestic abuse. This gave me information to consider in relation to Bowen’s (1966) Family Systems Theory, where each member of the family are influential in affecting every other member of the family in ways that can be longstanding. Her interactions with her children could replicate the interaction with her husband and her sense of resentment, which she disclosed to me.

On another occasion, as I sat and asked how things had been, Ada said ‘no-one believes me’. I asked what they didn’t believe and she told me that the previous Saturday, she had seen hundreds of witches flying around among the trees opposite her window. (She has a large picture window, which she spends a lot of her time looking out of). She told me that she’d seen more that morning before I arrived and that no-one believed her and she thought that she was going mad. I was aware that she had macular degeneration and had to have injections into her eye to try and control it. As a family member has a similar treatment, I suggested that what she was seeing was related to this. She replied that she thought it was a result of her stroke. We discussed it openly, considering whether it might be a combination of the two and Ada seemed to become calmer, though she said that she thought she was going mad. We arranged an introductory visit to a lunch club and I left.

When most of the actions on the support plan had been completed, I visited Ada to find her quite distressed. As I entered, I saw her seated in a chair, with her arm raised, swatting at something. She said that her daughter was being a problem and again she swatted at something. I thought it might be a fly, but it seemed a strange movement. I asked why she thought her daughter was being a problem and she said that she was flying around the room all the time and if she managed to get hold of her, she was going to ‘squidge’ her. She then swatted at something again. I asked if she could see her daughter now and Ada said yes, swatting again. I acknowledged that she was seeing her, but said that I couldn’t, saying that I believed that she was seeing her. I had taken an Attendance Allowance claim form to complete and she was focused while we were doing that. Once we finished, I pointed out to Ada that she hadn’t been bothered while we were doing it, and that maybe she needed to be more busy to reduce her distress as she would be focused on other things.

Reflecting afterwards, I thought about the relationship with her daughter that might be influential in Ada’s hallucinations. Lawler (2014) talks about the development of identity being related to the ‘space between people’ more than individual factors. I considered how Ada’s background might have been instrumental on the formation of her identity and how the stroke might have significantly affected them. Ada was aware that what she was seeing was unusual and thought herself mad, but that didn’t mean that she could stop herself. I thought about this in relation to Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological Systems Theory, how her upbringing and the cultural time that she had been raised in would affect her interpretation of what was happening now. She is a lady who has worked all her life which, using Bronfenbrenner, might predict that she would find it difficult being isolated and alone. Her relationship with her ex-husband might predict the difficulties she has now being positive about other people, affecting her trust in others and preventing her from taking the first step to build friendships. I decided that taking Ada to visit a lunch club with another person who was going to start would be beneficial with both.

I arranged to take Ada and another person I was working with to the local lunch club and, although both were a little wary, they did communicate in a positive way with each other. Unfortunately, the event had been cancelled without notifying me and I had to return them home. When I walked Ada to her door, she hugged me and thanked me for taking her out. I wasn’t sure what reaction to do, thinking immediately of boundaries, but as it was outside and in full view, did nothing.

Reflecting on it afterwards, I considered whether Ada is getting too dependent on me, and what I should do about it. I have had minimal contact with others involved with her, so feel that my perceptions are likely to be influenced by her perceptions. I have spoken to her son and the manager of the project and I’m aware that other agencies are involved. I have been told that she’s receiving treatment from a psychiatrist for psychosis but, when I asked her about this, she said she wasn’t.

The issue now relates to how I disconnect from her. The support plan is virtually complete and her 3 month review is about due, at which point Ada’s case could be closed or allowed to continue for up to a further 3 months.

If you are a practising social worker, a social work student on placement or even if you’ve just got something to say about welfare- let us know, we’d love to hear from you.

You can reach me at

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Part 1: A Social Work Student’s Story

Happy May Bank Holiday everyone!

As promised we have a special entry for you today from a social work student. Following the popularity of Rebecca Joy Novell’s entry on the welfare system a few weeks ago, this is yet another brief and fascinating insight into the day-to-day experiences of a social work student on placement.

This is an absolute must-read, not just for those of you in social work, but also for anyone who is interested in welfare, social justice and community.

(names changed to protect anonymity)

I was working in a voluntary organisation for older people, within the Housing Support Team, offering support to people with various issues related to housing in the community, which included moving house, accessing services, reducing isolation amongst others. My role involved an initial assessment to identify needs and development of a support plan to address those needs.

I was allocated a case that had been referred to the organisation by a family member. There was basic information on the IT system about the person and a reason for the referral – in this case concerns about social isolation in particular. The information included reference that the lady concerned was German, but that she spoke English. There was no information about the level of the English. As there was no direction on the case notes to contact the referrer in the first instance, I assumed that the lady would be able to understand English. I based this on my own learning of a foreign language and being able to understand more that I could speak. However, it was possible that the lady only spoke very basic English and that her children had translated for her. I decided that contacting the number given to make an appointment would enable me to assess whether I would need an interpreter for the assessment.

When I rang, Ada was able to engage with me appropriately and clearly understood what I was saying. She retained quite a strong German accent and was easily able to make herself understood in English. I arranged a time to visit.

Ada lived in a sheltered housing project and I was surprised that she had been referred, as the project provided community activities for their residents. When I visited, Ada wasn’t present. I was surprised initially, but then concerned in case she had fallen. I rang the referrer (daughter – Jane) to see if they were aware of any reason Ada wasn’t at home. Jane said she didn’t know where Ada was, but we then had a prolonged discussion about her mother (I hadn’t managed to speak to her previously). She gave me quite a lot of background information and included that Ada was a difficult woman to get along with and could be quite ‘nasty’. Jane said that she’d been like that all her life and regularly fell out with her children (they’d fallen out at the time she’d made the referral), taking turns when each one would be the ‘golden’ child. She warned me that her mother would probably be nice initially and then would start calling me names to others and potentially telling people that I was taking things.

I rearranged another appointment with Ada – she’d double-booked a GP appointment. I reflected on what the daughter had said and whether I should consider asking someone to accompany me to protect myself from accusations of theft. I decided against it on three grounds – the first being that it would be quite oppressive to have two people visit, secondly, I consider myself to have a non-judgemental attitude and able to engage with a variety of people and finally the daughter had said that it would take a few visits before Ada ‘took against me’.

The visit started well with no problems and we confirmed basic information, talking about how long she’d lived in the accommodation and where she’d lived previously. We then moved on to talk about family. Ada told me that she had three children and then told me that one of her daughters belonged to a ‘witch club’. I was a little surprised. I said ‘Oh’. Her body language and demeanour hadn’t changed and my impression was that she believed what she was saying. She went on to tell me that her daughter (Jane) made things appear and disappear and that she had made writing appear on the wall, pointing to the upper part of the wall facing her. There was nothing there that I could see. Again I said ‘Oh’ while my mind was racing trying to consider what my reaction should be. I was aware that there was a belief system that involved people considering themselves as witches and I didn’t know if the daughter subscribed to this. I was conscious that I didn’t want to say anything to Ada that provided ‘ammunition’ in her relationship with her daughter. I was also aware of my own wariness of things that seemed inexplicable. She then went on to tell me that she’d had a severe stroke with an extended recuperation and rehabilitation period. She blamed the daughter for not finding her quickly when she’d had the stroke. This alerted me to the likelihood that her perceptions were influenced by the damage to her brain from the stroke – she was quite proud of the fact that the doctors had told her that half of her brain had been damaged. She then went on to say some other unusual things – that she was being investigated because she’d paid a high fuel bill, that her daughter entered her room and took things, etc. While these things seemed unlikely, they weren’t necessarily untrue and I had no evidence either way. I decided to end the assessment at this point as I felt that her reality was becoming increasingly distorted.

My reflection afterwards was interesting. From Ada’s perspective, she had shared some information with me that she was aware other people didn’t believe. She was patently distressed by what she believed she saw and that people didn’t believe her. She was also distressed because she couldn’t understand why her daughter didn’t know that she’d had a stroke and helped her. From my previous degree, I had some significant knowledge about the potential effects of stroke on workings of the brain and understanding, realising that this might be playing a significant role in the lady’s perceptions. Alternatively, I considered whether I had been subjected to ‘grooming’ by Jane, so that I was more disbelieving of what her mother said about her. It was possible that she entered the room when the lady wasn’t there, possible that she took things – unlikely, but possible. I had no evidence to support either side and decided that I must take an anti-discriminatory approach until I had further information.

Don’t worry- this is not the end! Part 2 follows tomorrow morning at 10am so keep an eye for it.

If you have any questions you can reach me at – as always we’d love to hear from you.

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Our welfare system- is it enough?

Good Monday morning to you all.

Rebecca Joy Novell, one of our most acclaimed writers and author of the hugely popular book ‘Starting Social Work‘, has put together this insightful passage inspired by her own experiences as a social worker.

Do you think the welfare system as it is is enough? If not what can we do to improve it? 

See what Rebecca has to say below.

Starting Social Work-Front (1)

The Reality of Social Work in the Age of Austerity


I’ve worked as a Social Worker for four years now; and have worked with young people in the criminal justice system for eight years. Over those four years, I have always found being a Social Worker stressful and emotionally demanding beyond comprehension. I have always had disappointments with the fact that our Government and our society does not do nearly enough to support the most vulnerable people.


In 2014, I stepped out of Social Work for a year and went in to Policy work to see if I could make some of the changes I believed to be necessary. I found that I missed the day-to-day practical support of frontline voluntary sector Social Work and so soon returned back to the coal-face. 


Since returning in September 2015, I can honestly say that the state of our Welfare system and social and health care provision has transformed beyond recognition, in that short time. Our country is on its knees and I witness, on a daily basis, the poor and vulnerable being told, there is no more help for them.


In case you think I’m being dramatic or trying to score political points, I want to share just one of the many stories of people I am currently working with.


Bella is a young woman, aged 22, who has grown up on the same deprived estate her whole life. Crime, anti-social behaviour, drug use, domestic violence and long-term unemployment are the norm in this white, working-class community. Bella began taking drugs before the age of 10 and was raised by an Uncle who taught her how to burgle houses at the age of 5. By the age of 17, Bella was a Mother, by 19 she was a heroin addict and by age 21 she was in prison.


On release from prison, Bella decided she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life like her siblings, going in and out of jail – so she sought support from her local community centre, which she began attending every day. The community centre I manage. In addition to asking for help, with her own amazing strength and resilience, Bella detoxed completely from heroin within two months. 


Bella’s main issue, like many people leaving prison, was having no home to go to. Fortunately, she had some friends who would allow her to sofa surf for weeks at a time, but she was left with no stable place to call home. We supported Bella to apply for housing through the Council. However, she was denied any form of housing whatsoever and was informed that she could “cope well on the streets” and therefore did not meet the threshold for Council support. 


Of course, in addition to this, Bella faced enormous barriers to employment due to her criminal record and was repeatedly rejected from jobs, meaning she had no income other than benefits. 


Somewhat predictably, Bella suffers from acute mental health problems and recognized that she needed to address this in order to stop her offending behaviour. However, after supporting her to put a referral in, we received a voicemail from the local Mental Health Service saying, that due to cuts, there are no longer any counselling services available, as all staff have been asked to work in the acute ward. Therefore, Bella did not – and has not since – received any support with her mental health.


Four months after her release from prison, Bella gave up. With no home, no job and no mental health support, Bella began using heroin again and begged her probation worker to send her back to prison. When her probation worker said no, Bella stole £17 from a purse and was sent to Court, where she begged the judge to send her back. And despite it not being a custodial offence, the judge agreed, stating that there was more support for Bella in prison than there was in the community. 


As I write, Bella is currently sitting in a prison cell; where she has a stable place to sleep, no financial worries and weekly mental health and drug rehabilitation support.


And the real tragedy is that Bella is one of many who will have a better quality of life in prison than they will in society. Our welfare net is so broken that it is the criminal justice system that is now picking up the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This is not what the criminal justice system is for.


As a Social Worker, I get up every morning with the sole motivation of working with people to give them the happiest and healthiest lives possible. The day Bella was sent to prison (effectively for being homeless) I cried myself to sleep. Partly because I had seen how hard she had worked to make a success of her life on the outside; and partly because, unless something drastic changes in terms of the resourcing of support services, Bella, and many others I work with, are truly better off in prison. For many Social Workers in the voluntary and charity sector, we have been stripped of so much that the only resource we have left is ourselves, and unfortunately, it isn’t enough.


What do you think? Email with your thoughts.

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World Social Work Day

Why is Social Work so important?

Here are a few thoughts from some social work students, authors and trainees.

“Social work is important because in a world of increasing inequality social work paints a shade of humanity onto the canvas of society. It is the thread that weaves social policy and the human ideals of social justice, equality and equity into lived experience of people’s lives and communities.”Claudia Megele, author of ‘Psychosocial and Relationship-based Practice

“Social work is important because it’s a platform to fight social injustice and discrimination of any kind.” – Shanti Boafor

“Carl Sagan said that we make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers. Good social workers make meaningful change through both these things.” Chris Dyke, author of ‘Writing Analytical Assessments in Social Work

“Social work is based upon the principles of social justice. It is important because it uniquely contributes to the well-being of disadvantaged and vulnerable individuals, their families and groups.”Angie Bartoli, author of ‘Anti-Racism in Social Work Practice

“Social work is important for lots of reasons – for some that maybe due to personal struggles and experiences or even tragedies and for others to enable us to support those who are vulnerable and in need of protection and /or support.  Hopefully it helps us give empowerment and a voice to those that need it most.”Julie Adams, author of ‘Positive Social Work‘ and ‘Active Social Work with Children with Disabilities

“Social work is key to how societies function and thrive. It provides an interface between the people and the state and cuts across a number of other professions in terms of what it brings to the health and social care table. It is often a misunderstood and misrecognised profession, even though the narrative around it acutely reflects the complexity and uncertainty it engages with. I see social work as the mediator of adversity, the negotiator of reason and the facilitator of change.”Amanda Taylor, contributor to ‘Social Media in Social Work Education

What’s Your Problem? Activities

In this our final extract from What’s Your Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor, University of Birmingham, Stuart presents three case studies where policy actors have attempted to influence and shape the problem policy process.

If we are wrong, not everything will have been lost, because our organising will have produced a populace that questions, that demands, that moves.

Baptist and Bricker-Jones ( 2001)

This chapter highlights three accounts of actions that have been taken by a range of policy actors in an attempt to influence and shape the problem policy process. These accounts include ‘Feebleminded policies’, ‘The control of tobacco’ and the ‘Piqueteros’. What is notable is that each of these accounts draws attention to the diversity and range of policy actors, positions, practices, relations and sites of action that constitute the problem policy process. Furthermore, each account appears to draw on different assumptions as to what the nature of the problem is, the justification for acting, what is considered to be an ethical act, the nature of policy making and how power and influence can and should be exercised to achieve given ends. Not only does each account provide a different case study for understanding how policy can be read, written and performed, but it also facilitates an examination of the different policy actor positions and if and how their practices seek to reflect and realise such a position.



In Argentina, the origins of what came to be described as the piqueteros, a mobilisation of the unemployed, can be found in the oil towns of Cutral-Co, Plaza Huincul, General Mosconi and Tartagal in 1996 and 1997 (Wolff, 2007 ). Defi ned through the use of piquetes – roadblocks – the piqueteros soon not only became prominent actors on the national stage, but also gained international renown. The term piquete may have been used in Argentina since the end of the nineteenth century to describe unemployed people’s blockades of factories, workshops and other establishments, but in 1996 the word took on a new contemporary resonance as the piqueteros started to take direct action.

The first acts were to be found in the context of the privatisation of the state petroleum company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales  (YPF), signifi cant job losses and the relative absence of alternative work opportunities and social and welfare support. Tactics and ideas varied across and within the various groupings of piqueteros, but direct action, particularly the use of blockades, remained a potent intervention. The blockades were organised through word of mouth and the distribution of posters and flyers citing the date, place and time to block roads to stop the transportation of goods. materials that were readily to hand, most notably tyres and the people themselves, were used to form the barricades. Foreshadowing the Occupy movement, tents and makeshift kitchens were established alongside the blockades. The sight of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people at a bridge, main road or town centre not only caused the necessary disruptions and brought the scale of the problem into view, but also, despite concerted efforts on the part of the authorities, limited the effectiveness of the use of force in efforts to move the protestors on.

The use of roadblocks in these towns and cities, despite attempts to suppress them, led to disruptions of transport and industry which effectively forced representatives from the state to hear and negotiate with the piqueteros. These early actions appeared to provide a model for other piqueteros across the country.  Characterised by open assemblies and participatory forms of selforganisation, and constituted by the unemployed from squatter settlements and a number of suburban and urban locations, by the end of 1997, the use of 170 piquetes had been recorded. The number of piquetes in evidence quickly increased. Some of the numbers are disputed but, between 1997 and 2004, it is estimated that the total number of road blocks was 7,135, an average of 892 per year (Ronconi and Franceschelli, 2007 , p 288). The result of such actions was that the piqueteros became, for a short time at least, a robust and infl uential political actor on the national scene.

So why did the piqueteros mobilise at this time? In the 1990s, Argentina was subject to mass unemployment and underemployment and increasing levels of poverty. Then it experienced a fi nancial and political context that saw national unemployment fi gures of around 30 per cent in 1995 and 37.7 per cent in October 2002 (Auyero, 2001 ; Epstein, 2006 ). However, the existence of inequalities, poverty and social deprivation does not necessarily translate into campaigns, protests and practices that seek to address such issues. One explanation offered is that previously and newly marginalised groups were able not only to identify a means of exercising power, but also to use this new-found influence to win material concessions. More specifically, the disruptive potential offered through the use of roadblocks enabled the piqueteros to win concessions from the state, namely what were described as planes socials – social subsidies granted to unemployed households for the purposes of supporting municipal work schemes and local development projects (Benclowicz, 2010 ; Dinerstein, 2001 ).

Arguably an extension of the practice of political clientelism, where goods and services are traded for political favours (Auyero, 2001), these relatively modest forms of financial support, combined with the solidarity and voice that such activities realised (Sitrin, 2006 ) also helped sustain the piqueteros.

However, it should also be noted that the piqueteros did not just spontaneously emerge. The relations and practices that characterised them can be considered to have their origins in the poor’s retreat to the barrio (Wolff, 2007 ). In the absence of state and corporate forms of support and a weakened labour movement, as is the case in a number of the world’s fast-growing global cities, the unemployed, under-employed and self-employed took it upon themselves to occupy land and provide shelter and basic amenities (Davis, 2007 ). It was this self-organisation and the networks that serviced them that provided the schooling for the relations and practices of the piqueteros (Sitrin, 2006 ; Wolff, 2007 ).

The piqueteros were far from the only social or labour movement that was responsible for social protests and campaigns during the financial and political crises of this period. However, what is notable about them was not just the tactics used – open assemblies and roadblocks – but that it was a movement constituted by those normally considered excluded and marginal to the political and policy process (Abal Medina, 2010 ). Other groups and parties may have sought to represent such constituencies in the past, and continue to do so (Dinerstein, 2010 ). However, when such representation, if not the political and policy system as a whole, was found wanting, the piqueteros sought to represent themselves.

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What do you think?

Today’s extract from What’s Your Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor is from Chapter 5 What do you think? which is within part 2 of the text which looks at writing policy

Thought experiment 1

Imagine that you are on a reality/game show in the near future. The increased number of television and digital channels has led to increased competition to attract attention and gain viewers. The show, called Dilemma , puts you in the following real-life situation. In all these scenarios, after the event, should you survive, you will be given a change of identity so that no one will know what you have done and there will also be no legal consequences of your actions. You are standing on a bridge. Beneath you, a runaway tram is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed by the tram unless it is stopped. The only way of stopping the tram and saving the people is to jump off the bridge into the tram’s path.

You will be killed, but the five people will survive. Do you jump? However, as you are about to make your decision, the show’s host steps in and changes the scenario. You are still standing on a bridge. Beneath you, a runaway tram is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed by the tram unless it is stopped. This time, the only way of stopping the tram is for you, as a bystander, to flip a switch that will divert the tram onto another track. It will still kill one person, but the other five people will survive. Should you flip the switch? Once again, as you are about to make your decision, the host steps in and makes another change. The scenario is repeated. The tram is still out of control, with five people in its path. You are back on the bridge, but now there is man standing on the very edge of the bridge next to you. You realise that with very little physical effort, you could push him off the bridge into the path of the tram. He would undoubtedly die, but he would also stop the tram from crashing into the five people, saving their lives. Do you push him?


This is not a format for a game show, not yet, anyway This is not a format for a game show, not yet, anyway, but actually a thought experiment – an exercise of the imagination that can be used to examine a range of questions, including questions of morality and ethics. For example, did you provide different answers in each of the different scenarios? Did you choose to act in any of these scenarios, or do you think it is unacceptable to kill other people, even it saves more people’s lives? If you did act, did you find it easier to flip the switch than to push the man next to you? If so, why? Did you choose to jump and sacrifice your own life? If not, why is your life more valuable than others’?

The terms ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos , which we discussed in the context of rhetoric in Chapter 3 . Ethics can refer to the customs, habits, character or disposition of an individual, community institution or society. However, ethics is also taken to mean what is good, and how we decide what is good, for individuals and society – part of what is described as moral philosophy . It is these questions of how we should live and act that are of interest in this chapter. This may include arriving at prescriptions or methods for establishing what should be our rights and responsibilities and how to recognise what is right and what is wrong. Of course, when it comes to such ethical questions, religion, cultural traditions, professional associations, laws or the values of parents, friends and community may provide the answers to these questions. However,
an examination of ethics allows us to investigate the assumptions that underpin any inherited notions of what is right and wrong.

Ethics also allows us to consider how we are to act if we seek to go beyond such habits and customs. Ethics doesn’t always show the right answer to a moral problem. Indeed, it may be that there is no one right answer as to what ought to be done. However, a rudimentary understanding of different approaches to ethics does provide a map and set of navigational tools for exploring such debates. In this chapter, you are being asked to consider, not just what your own ethics are, but also what status and role do ethical statements have in your world view. For example, do you think that there are ethical ‘facts’ and therefore your role could or should be to identify these facts and to ensure that people are aware of and then abide by these ethical truths. Alternatively, do you think that ethics is subjective , and your role is to clarify your own ethical position and explore the reasons for this position, while also attending to the ethical positions of others? Now consider the implications of these two different positions for policy. As a moral realist, you may argue that the means and ends of a particular policy are wrong and therefore it should not be permitted. The point being that once the truth is established, there is little room for discussion.

Policy becomes the preserve of authorities who are able to decide the nature of these ethical truths. Alternatively, moral subjectivism means that we can never be certain of the ethical goodness of our policies. We also have to take into account the potential myriad of perspectives on what counts as an ethical policy, which also may require us to leave open the possibility that our own view of ethics can be revised, particularly as we have now introduced some doubt as to what is right and wrong.

The approach from moral realism appears to leave little room for debate, while moral subjectivism can lead to a cacophony of dispute and disagreement, with no apparent criteria or mechanism by which to resolve such disputes. Arguably, this is  where policy comes in again, for not only may a policy be intended to do good, but the process of policy making also has the potential to provide a forum for exploring, examining and challenging what is the good to be sought in the first instance. This is part of the role of the analysts, as discussed in Chapter 4 , but is also an issue to be described further in Chapter 7 . For the moment, though, this chapter is concerned with identifying the potential terms of such a discussion and the different approaches available for deriving ethics and what counts as the qualities of goodness that are to be realised. To this end, three approaches, namely consequentialist, deontological and virtue ethics, are outlined and summarised in Table 5.1 . These three approaches do not exhaust all the potential ways of examining ethics, and this overview should not be considered as providing a comprehensive account of each. Rather the aim is to draw attention to some of the key features, assumptions and implications of these ethical approaches for engaging with the problem policy process.

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Making Claims

The second extract from our Book of the Week What’s the Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor, University of Birmingham is taken from the opening chapter.

The proper course of the sage is to ask three questions. First, what things are and how they are constituted. Second, how we
are related to these things. Third, what ought to be our attitude towards them. 

Pyrrho of Elis ( c. 360– c. 270 BC)

In this chapter, the question of what is a social problem is addressed. Rather than being seen as a given condition or state,  that is taken to be a social problem is best described as part of an ongoing process. This is a process where a range of policy actors, individuals, groups and institutions seek to establish (a) which conditions, events and behaviours should be considered problematic and (b) why and how these problems should be addressed. The means by which the fabrication of social problems can be understood is examined. The chapter begins by examining the grounds for making the claim that this is a ‘real problem’. It then discusses the question of responsibility . That is, what causes the problem and who is responsible for solving it.


When a claim is made that something is a real problem, how does the speaker know this and how is the audience able to judge the truth of such a claim (Guba, 1990 )? In other words, how do we know? First, consider a situation where people are discussing their favourite film. Person A cites Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 fi lm The Bicycle Thieves ( Ladri di biciclette ). Person B names Die Hard 5: A Good Day to Die Hard , starring Bruce Willis. As the relative merits of each film are expounded, it’s an exemplar of Italian Neorealism , there is an incredible car chase scene , it may well result in a stand-off, ending with the line, it’s just my opinion . In the absence of any established or agreed criteria by which to verify a claim, if a person thinks that their claim is true, then ‘who are we’ to doubt them? The logic of such a viewpoint reflects what can be described as an epistemic relativism, where the notion that claims can be assessed from a universal and objective standpoint is rejected (Luper, 2004 ). In discussions of personal tastes and preferences, we may not understand or share other people’s preferences, but such differences are not problematic.

But what happens when discussing the existence of social problems? Are opinions sufficient grounds for establishing levels of poverty, crime and health? Should cuts to social security be made because, in someone’s opinion, recipients are abusing the system and are undeserving? Put another way, an individual’s taste in films, or even their opinion as to the state of the world, does not in itself have any great bearing on other people. However, if those opinions are then considered to provide the basis for how those individuals act towards others or, in this context, the grounds for engaging in the problem policy process, then it may be necessary to identify a method and set of criteria by which claims can be justified and the circumstances identified in which policy actors would be willing to challenge and if necessary change their opinion. This is not a suggestion that people should be told what to think and not allowed to have an opinion, but to raise the expectancy that people should be able to account for and justify their position. In this regard, there is a problem with the relativist position, at least as expressed so far. Namely, how can a relativist position be considered true, when there is no way of knowing the truth? Secondly, even if it is accepted that relativism is ‘valid’, and what an individual takes to be true, is true, this would also include the belief that just because an individual thinks that something is true, does not make it true. But how can both these statements be true – while also holding on to the relativistic position? That is, if relativist statements are true, so objectivist accounts must also be true; this would appear to falsify the relativist claim (Pritchard, 2006 ).

So, it may be possible to establish that just because an individual thinks that something is a real problem, this does not make it a real problem. But this still leaves the problem of how an individual can establish whether something is a real problem or not. This is an enduring problem that can be described as the problem of criterion (Chisholm, 1989 ) – where, for the purposes of this book, in order to know that there is a real problem:

  • I can only identify that I know this ○ to be a problem, provided I already know what the criterion for knowing is;
  • I can only know what the criterion for knowledge is, provided I am already able to identify instances of knowledge by which to derive the necessary criterion.

This appears to lead to a dead end. In an attempt to escape such a position, it is necessary to choose between assuming that it is possible to independently obtain the criteria for knowledge that then makes it possible to know something, or that instances of knowledge first have to be identified in order to determine the criteria. In a similar vein, there is the problem of infinite regress, that is, if every claim is reliant on the support of other beliefs and claims, then aren’t those supporting claims also reliant on their support claims/beliefs, and so on and so on? Such logic may not only be annoying, but it also sits uncomfortably with everyday notions of knowing something.

However, these questions do open up questions of what knowing means. So now the question has been asked as to how a claim can be justified, drawing on the work of Audi ( 2011 ), Baggini ( 2002 ), Foley ( 1998 ) and Fumerton ( 2006 ), it is time to consider some of the answers that have been given.

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