The subject of social work: toward a new perspective on anti-discrimination

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Subjectivity inevitably involves the human subject. It has been an important concept for research, and for intervening in social and political life, since the 1970s. The concern over the meaning of subjectivity has spawned debate across a range of disciplinary fields including studies of the ‘political subject’, ‘white subjectivity’, ‘gendered subjectivities’, ‘workplace subjectivity’, ‘colonial subjectivities’ and ‘embodied subjectivity’. As we shall see, any consideration of discrimination and oppression will inevitably make either direct reference to or assumptions about the nature of subjectivity.
The subject (as a noun) of social work is keenly concerned with subjectivity in its various guises, whether this is as personhood, the self, character, individuality or identity. There are manifold ways of articulating the term 'subject’ that bear upon social work. Indeed, we shall discover how social work values of anti discrimination depend heavily on a very particular perspective of the subject. Moreover, the entire discourse of rights is based on a strong notion of subjectivity as self-ownership. Human rights arguments inevitably appeal to some form of reflective self-direction and personal freedom. To have such autonomy is to be capable of pursuing one’s own projects or values in a suitably unconstrained manner.
What is surprising, given subjectivity’s indispensability in discussions ranging from social work interventions to ethics of social work, is the scant conceptual analysis specifically devoted to the term. Subjectivity, broadly referred to as ‘the subject’ and her or his feelings, desires, interpretations and perceptions, sits centre stage in social work. Indeed, one may go so far as to suggest that social work would be subjectless without a subject (as a verb). It needs a theory of the subject to stay afloat. Resting on contemporary notions of individual autonomy, the preoccupation with subjectivity in social work often bypasses other concerns such as its contrast with objectivity. Let us look briefly at the way these historical influences on subjectivity came to impact on social work.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRethinking Anti-Discriminatory and Anti-Oppressive Theories for Social Work Practice
EditorsChristine Cocker, Trish Hafford-Letchfield
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)9781137023971
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • social work
  • anti-discrimination


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