World Social Work Day. Thoughts provoked by “Social Work in 42 Objects”!

Today is World Social Work Day. Hope ye had a good one!

My morning kicked off by reading Harry Ferguson’s article in the Guardian which posed the question “Why are social workers so reluctant to celebrate their achievements?” A valid question I thought! Ferguson argues that we need an “affirmative culture” to account for all the good that social workers do. Hold that thought…

All that absorbed, the first task of the day was to head to the office of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages to register the birth of my second daughter (7 weeks old today!). The office on Dublin’s Lombard Street is the only office for the entire city and surrounds. The room, which was about the size of three family cars, was therefore packed with parents and buggies, older people accompanied by family or friends and one or two people on their own. The full gamut of life experience, social class, and family type was represented. People registering family deaths, couples being asked if they were married (if not, a form applied) children of all ages, suits, tracksuits, the whole lot!

It got me thinking about social work and how we get such a bad rap sometimes in the media, especially in respect of our child protection role, yet we work with some many facets of life from birth to death, from mental health and wellbeing to disability and palliative care not to mention our key role in charity and NGO work in developing countries. While the media has great power, which allows it portray aspects of the profession that will sell its papers and provide attractive click-bait online, we need to use what we can to fight back! (Part of the reason I set up this blog!) Ultimately, this is one of the reasons why World Social Work Day is so important.

Baby registered and off I headed to the grounds of Trinity College Dublin, which was basked in sunlight. I attended an event entitled “Social Work in 42 Objects (and more)”. The event was hosted by Trinity College School of Social Work and curated by Emeritus Professor Mark Doel.

Professor Robbie Gilligan opened the event and I was struck by something he said in his opening comments. Remarking on it being World Social Work Day he said that it is very significant that all over the world today people are celebrating our profession. I know it’s in the name, but the actual practicality of the day hadn’t struck me as clearly as when I heard this comment.

Professor Doel spoke about his project which seeks to represent social work via a selection of objects ‘donated’ by social workers around the globe. “Social Work is a contested idea” began Professor Doel. He went on to acknowledge the importance of the international definition of social work but argued that we need something less ‘dusty’, less formal and, I would argue, something more contemporary and relevant to social work on the ground. “Can social work be represented by objects” he asks?

Professor Doel’s endeavour goes a long distance to answer Nigel Parton’s valid challenge that “Social work characterised as an art rather than a science is a theme which has been lost in many recent discussions of social work”. I’ve recently been re-reading Parton’s work in terms of Ethics of Care and like Doel he raises the issue of social work’s difficulty in defining itself.

Social Work in 42 Objects succeeds in not only defining social work but goes far beyond this to provide human stories which serve to educate and enlighten those within and without the profession. It’s something we can be proud of and, by referencing it, enable us to say “this is what I do”.

The book itself has 127 objects from 24 different countries described and explained by those who ‘donated’ them. Professor Doel presented a selection for today’s audience while guest speakers who contributed to the final book presented some of their own. Without giving a run-down of the entire event I’d like to flag two presentations that stuck with me.

The first was one presented by Professor Doel himself and which was submitted by Duduzile Sokhela, a social worker from South Africa. The Object she submitted was ‘food’. Her context and explanation was the issues of poverty and depravation. “For each community I enter, hunger is visible” she remarks in the book. ‘Food’ therefore has become symbolic in her work for these reasons.

This made me reflect on my own work and the images that came to mind were times that I had to check the fridges and cupboards in families’ homes to ensure there was enough food for their children. Trying to do the calculations in my head in someone else’s kitchen, “Ok, two frozen pizzas and some beans and half a bag of spuds. That should last until tomorrow or the next day” and so on. Hard to define that in a job description, hence the complex task of identifying ourselves!

The other ‘object’ was a student presentation which doesn’t feature in the book and sincere apologies I didn’t get his name. But his object was a newspaper and he was discussing the power of the media in social work. This brought me right back to this morning when reading Harry Ferguson’s article. Harry Ferguson spoke about negative criticism creating a “narrative about social work that says whatever it does is not only never good enough, but inept, shameful, oppressive, even naïve”. Ferguson challenges us to think about the opposite to this. Social Work in 42 Objects is that opposite.

We can’t underestimate the power of the media and in fact I would argue we should grab it with two hands and use it to our advantage. Let’s get the good stories out there! Tweet, Blog (use this blog if you like!), report, contact papers, publish, provide clarifications, explain what it is we do. Social Workers do amazing, unseen and sometimes thankless work. I think we are a proud profession, and although it doesn’t fit with our nature, I think it’s time to start making a fuss about it!

Happy World Social Work Day!


For more on Professor Mark Doel’s excellent project and to buy the book check out this link:

Harry Ferguson Article:


4 thoughts on “World Social Work Day. Thoughts provoked by “Social Work in 42 Objects”!

Add yours

  1. The event at Trinity College Dublin was a great way to celebrate World Social Work Day and thanks for your really interesting reflections, Joe. Having lived and breathed ‘social work in 40 Objects’ for the last year, it was refreshing to see how quickly people who are new to the idea can engage with it to give their own expression of what social work means to them – so the presentations by the three student years gave new life to the idea as they told their stories of social work through their chosen Objects, as did those by Michele Clark and Frank Browne. Even the stories I knew well, presented by the people who had their objects and stories published in the book, were cast in a new light through the re-telling of those stories. And there was something powerful about having the actual objects there in the room – a bit like the way we queue to see a famous and renowned object such as the Book of Kells next door.

    If we are to help the wider society understand what social work is, and to support it, I can’t think of a better way than to tell some social work stories; focusing these stories around an Object and a person’s connection to social work through that object is an engaging way to do it.

    Many thanks to Trinity College for hosting this event. And let’s keep the energy of World Social Work Day going through the rest of the year!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joe, really enjoyed your blog, and glad that you liked the Social Work in 42 Objects event. (By the way the student whose work you mention is Luke Somerville, one of our MSW 2 class).

    At the risk of seeming to cast modesty aside, I left the event feeling very satisfied. I have been thinking about why that was. We have had positive feedback from participants and attendees. That was part of it. Undoubtedly, there was also the relief that things had gone quite smoothly – thanks to the efforts of so many. But I think there was something more. Social workers trade in stories. Their job is to listen to stories. The event was an opportunity to listen to our own stories. That seems to me to be what is so powerful in Mark Doel’s wonderful initiative. And the event showed that while social workers may be good at listening to stories, they are certainly very good at telling stories. There were moments of pure hilarity, and also moments of poignancy, and so many responses in between. The audience seemed absorbed, engaged, affected. Speaking for myself, I certainly felt absorbed, engaged, affected. Well done Mark Doel, well done presenters, well done responsive audience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks Profs Doel and Gilligan for your comments on the blog and once again for the event. I’m glad you brought up the theme of ‘stories’ in social work. As someone using narrative methodologies in my research it’s something that struck me on the day also. As a profession immersed in the narratives of people’s lives we can’t but pick up a few story telling skills! They say there’s a book in us all, but I reckon there’s two or three in a social worker. Best wishes and many thanks once again for your feedback.


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