About the topic

“Specialists in knowledge tend to withdraw into pure work because the complexity of the thing known eventually tends to get in the way of the knowledge system. This process is familiar throughout the professions, where applied work ranks below academic work because the complexities of professional practice make practical knowledge messy and ‘unprofessional’” (Andrew Abbott, 2001 : 22).

The international definition of social work proclaimed in 2014 by the IASSW (International Association of Schools of Social Work) and the IFSW (International Federation of Social Work) in Melbourne, first of all invents social work as a profession and an academic discipline, engaging “people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing” for everyone. Thus, social work should “promote social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people” in an attitude of “respect for diversities”. These seem to be, beyond all doubt, worthy objectives and principles. At the same time, they can be read as an expression of the willingness to reach out for a shared identity charged with noble human values, but also some kind of shared standards of action inspired by the ideas of social “development” as well as professional and scientific “autonomy” – equal to other disciplines and professions.

There might be good reasons for the drive to promote social and educational work by making it visible and important as a “global actor”. However, social and educational workers, in their so-called day-to-day activities, find themselves in public organisations, charities or other “private” associations, where they address different target groups, as they work in different social and educational “sectors”, under various legal regulations. In the relations they forge with persons such as “users”, “recipients”, “clients” or “trainees”, the “social worker” or other “professionals” of educational, psychological or social “nature”, as well as “managers”, “directors”, “administrators” or “political decision-makers” invent problems, procedures as well as solutions, as we would put it in the terms of social anthropologist Roy Wagner (1981). They do so with reference to their own “fields of experience”[1]. Invention could be said to be done at the same time in an ideational, material, spatial, temporal and an emotional dimension. It is so to speak never “in vain”, as it can have more or less dramatic effects for those concerned. The latter might even provide counter-inventions of these “problems” or “procedures”, at times even using the same words. As Roy Wagner states, the activity of invention always creates the subject “in the act of trying to represent it more objectively, and simultaneously creates (through analogous extension) the ideas and forms through which it is invented” (1981: 12).

In the relentless work of invention and counter-invention by persons-at-places-in-time – for Wagner (1981) we are all anthropologists -, all kinds of relational categorizations are enacted. Some categorizations may rather refer to spatial or geographic orderings (such as the distinction between “native” and “foreigner”). Others rather evoke a temporal dimension (e.g. sufficient or insufficient time of residence to be eligible) or a moral dimension (e.g. personal fault or blamelessness in someone’s behaviour). Other categorizations seem rather “organizational” (e.g. competence/lack of competence of a service for something). The bracketed examples illustrate that many of these categorizations are made up of binary codes. Some are very current, others at least seem to be relicts of bygone times – just think about the distinctions between “active” and “idle” or “native/local” and “foreigner”. For illustrative purposes, we may cite the 14th century’s very “first” begging law of Nuremberg. It works with a clear distinction of beggars by their affiliation to the town (as a territory). On the one hand, vagrants are expelled from the town. On the other hand, the “local” beggars are forced to carry a visible sign as a testimony of their status. Beforehand, two or three honourable persons had to testify their need on oath in front of a judge. In the cited text, this judge is even mentioned by his name, Pignot Weigel (Sachße et Tennstedt, 1998). In a 15th century amendment of the law, begging as well as giving alms are finally prohibited. The distinction of “target groups” is then made up by the dichotomy of “dignity” and “shame” or “disgrace” of poverty.

The distinction of professionals and recipients/users/clients/trainees also appears as a powerful binary coding. It might even constitute the very root of social and educational work in its actually shared understanding: Professionals are “educated” and “trained” at universities or universities of applied sciences. Therefore, they are supposed to detain a kind of higher-order knowledge about the so-called social and educational problems affecting recipients/users/clients/trainees. The invention of such a hierarchy of knowledges cannot be underestimated with regard to its impact on relationships. In a certain way, one could even say that it creates one of the “paradoxes” inherent to social work as pointed out by Schütze (1982): Should a social worker “enlighten” users about the probability of a negative case dynamic even at the risk of undermining the established relationship? However, could the very dissimulation of this professional knowledge not be the decisive nail in the coffin of their common basis of trust?

Categorizations and binary codes, however, can by no means be said to be unique characteristics of social and educational work. On the contrary, they seem to “run riot”, as they appear to be omnipresent in all spheres of life including the “sanctuary” of sciences. For example, the American sociologist Andrew Abbott (2001 & 2004) points out that the “big debates” in social science are characterized by patterns of auto-similar replication of different binary distinctions through space and time. For heuristic purposes, he relies on the image of the fractal and draws on the notion of “fractal distinction”. Whatever distinction(s) (realism/constructivism, analytic/narrative, individualism/emergence, freedom of choice/dependency, conflict/consensus, situated knowledge/transcendence) may be worked on by a scientific community, they are endlessly replicated within the community – even if we might be convinced that the respective community has already taken an extreme positioning on one side or the other (2004: 76). Somehow, this reminds of the movie “Groundhog Day” (1993) where the main protagonist is trapped in a kind of time-loop, and by each ringing of his alarm clock he finds himself at the dawn of always the “same” day.

Coming back to social work, could it not be argued that a distinction such as that of “native/local” and the “foreigner” has been extensively discussed over time and space, in all scales and magnitudes of the unities of reference (world, international community, nation, region, town….) and through all thinkable domains of activity (migration, health, work, family…)? As Marilyn Strathern (2004: xiv) highlights, these western-pluralist orderings and perspectives are “… made possible by a modelling of nature that regards the world as naturally composed of entities – a multiplicity of individuals or classes or relationships – whose characteristics are in turn regarded as only ever partially described by analytic schema”. Thus, it seems no less “true” that we, as “social workers” and/or “scientists”, seem to be real enthusiasts of binary coding’s. But it could also be that, as Marilyn Strathern (1990: 7) puts it, we cannot extract ourselves from this mode of knowledge and explanation: we can only “make its workings visible” by trying to “exploit its own reflexive potential”.

Against this backdrop, the 2018 Annual Conference of the REFUTS network (Réseau de Formation Universitaire en Travail Social) in Luxembourg, invites all participants to follow the tracks laid down by Strathern, Wagner and Abbott by conceiving of categorizations, and more specifically of binary coding’s as the “methods” by which we permanently invent, create or enact multiple realities (Mol, 2002). In doing so, the conference aims at sensitizing us for our own self-referential strategies by which we – as scientists, social workers, politicians, etc. – reinvent binary realities with powerful impacts on persons’ lives.

Abbott, Andrew (2001). Chaos of Disciplines. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Abbott, Andrew (2004). Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: Norton.

Mol, Annemarie (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, NC, and London, United Kingdom: Duke University Press

Sachße, Christoph & Tennstedt, Florian (1998). Geschichte der Armenfürsorge in Deutschland. Band 1 : Vom Spätmittelalter bis zum 1. Weltkrieg. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Schütze, Fritz (1992). Sozialarbeit als “bescheidene” Profession. In : Bernd Dewe, Wilfried Ferchhoff & Frank Olaf-Radtke (Hrsg.). Erziehen als Profession. Zur Logik professionellen Handelns in pädagogischen Feldern (pp. 132-170). Opladen: Leske und Budrich.

Strathern, Marilyn (1990). The Gender of the Gift. Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strathern, Marilyn (2004). Partial Connections. Walnutt Creek: Altamira Press.

Wagner, Roy (1981). The Invention of Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[1] This happens to the social worker as to the anthropologist in Wagner’s account: “As the anthropologist uses the notion of culture to control his field experiences, those experiences will, in turn, come to control his notion of culture. He invents “a culture” for people, and they invent “culture” for him (1981: 11). Some paragraphs further down he writes: “What the fieldworker invents, then, is his own understanding: the analogies he creates are extensions of his own notions and those of his culture, transformed by his experience of the field situation (…)” (1981: 12). Consequently, Wagner “renounces” the term “culture” as such, as well as its related concepts, more specifically cultural relativism: “Anthropology is the study of man ‘as if’ there were culture. It is brought into being by the invention of culture, both in the general sense, as a concept, and in the specific sense, through the invention of particular cultures. Since anthropology exists through the idea of culture [we could make this point also with reference to sociology and the term “society”], this has become its overall idiom, a way of talking about, understanding, and dealing with things, and it is incidental to ask whether culture exists” (1981: 10).