Abstract Although social work has been assigned a pivotal role in the fight against poverty, it is also criticised for adjusting to the retrenchment of the welfare state and its weakening concern in issues of social justice. Hence, critical questions concerning its positioning towards the tension between securing and changing the underlying assumptions of the social order are pertinent. We theorise this issue while drawing on the work of Nancy Fraser, who advocates a politics of redistribution, recognition and representation, and identifies affirmative and transformative ways of dealing with injustices. Based on this theory, our central argument is that social work often tries to escape or ignore the complex nature of its engagement in the fight against poverty by sliding into one-sided affirmative or transformative anti-poverty strategies. We argue that social work should attempt to embrace reflexively the inherent tensions in which it is caught when dealing with the problem of poverty, rather than try to find ways to escape from these tensions and ambiguities. From this stance, a role for social work might be the creation of cultural forums in which public debate about the problem of poverty is stimulated. Nancy Fraser, poverty, participation, ambiguity, representation Introduction The majority of European welfare states currently acknowledge that poverty is a structural, multidimensional and material reality that persistently disfigures and constrains the lives of millions of citizens (Lister, 2004; Libor and Nowalski-Kapuscik, 2015). In that vein, poverty is commonly perceived as a violation of human rights and a form of social injustice (O’Brien, 2011). Although the importance of a structural perspective has been stressed in the rhetoric of policy makers, the complexity of fighting poverty in social practices and interactions in contemporary welfare states often results in ‘a cult of individualism, fostered by the politics of neoliberalism, that reduces the question of how to achieve social solidarity to a matter of individual effort’ (Lorenz, 2014, p. 1). As social work practices unfold within these contentious environments, a critical consideration of the pivotal role of social work in the development of anti-poverty strategies remains a vital issue (Payne, 2005; Schiettecat et al., 2015). This is reflected in the global definition of social work (IFSW, 2014), which places the principles of social justice and human rights at the heart of social work: Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW, 2014) also refers to the long history of social work’s commitment to the eradication of poverty: ‘In practice all over the world, social workers’ concern about poverty has increased because of their long history in working with the marginalized, or excluded, those lacking resources, scenarios which push them to poverty situations’ (2012). Whereas this commitment is sometimes direct, for instance in community care or anti-poverty movements (e.g. Bradshaw, 2007), poverty can also form a more indirect ground for intervention, such as in practices of child welfare and protection that aim to support families in situations of poverty (e.g. Bradt et al., 2015). Notwithstanding the diversity of practices and rationales for social work interventions in relation to poverty issues and situations, the global definition explicitly states that social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance well-being. This engagement has been the subject of a charged yet pertinent debate since the early days of social work and has been described as a historically rooted tension, as social work aimed at social justice is caught in a never-ending story of striking a balance between changing the individual and changing the structural forces (Lorenz, 2007; Villadsen, 2007). In our view, the debate so far has frequently resulted in quite polemical standpoints as regards the vexed question as to whether social work can actually combat poverty by empowering individuals or should, rather, invest in changing the structural and conditions in which people in poverty live (e.g. Dowling, 1999; Ferguson, 2008; Gray and Webb, 2009; Pierson, 2016). Many critical social work scholars have rightly argued that poverty should primarily be seen as a structural problem of major social inequalities with respect to the lack of redistribution of material as well as immaterial resources (e.g. Garrett, 2002; Lister, 2002; Piketty, 2014). In their commitment to working with people in poverty, social workers often witness such widespread issues of deprivation and inequality, which urges them ‘to think hard about inequalities and poverty in our society and what they can do about it’ (Pierson, 2016, p. 2). We therefore want to engage in the discussion on how social work can realise its social justice aspirations while accepting that social work is always intrinsically involved in the ambiguous activity of challenging both the individual and structural forces (Lorenz, 2007), while ‘simultaneously [considering] the rights and aspirations of the individual citizen and collective welfare, solidarity and equality in a democratic society’ (Roose et al., 2012, p. 1593). In an attempt to capture and reconsider the social justice aspirations of social work in relation to poverty and anti-poverty strategies, we theorise this issue while drawing on the work of Nancy Fraser (1995, 1997, 2000, 2005, 2008, 2010) and a number of writers in the field of social work who have been inspired by her work (e.g. Garrett, 2010; Webb, 2010; Marston and McDonald, 2012; Davies et al., 2014). Rather than continuing the discussion of the merits and demerits of anti-poverty strategies that aim at changing either individuals or structural forces, Fraser shifts the terms of the debate as she perceives individuals as ‘nodes of convergence for multiple, cross-cutting axes of subordination’ (Fraser, in Garrett, 2010, p. 1523). As such, her work: … theoretically illuminates the sheer complexity of social work practice with a panoply of individuals and groups whose lives (and life chances) are determined by where they are positioned, or stationed, in terms of a number of differing, but intersecting, forms of stratification (Garrett, 2010, p. 1524). In the present article, we therefore argue that the tension between affirmative and transformative strategies for redressing social injustice, which is also identified and discussed by Fraser (1995, 2005), might offer a convincing set of ideas for theorising a potential key role for social work in its pursuit of anti-poverty strategies and social justice. Similarly, we argue that social work should attempt to create cultural forums for public debate, in which the power relationships and underlying framework of the social order can be challenged and changed in transformative ways. Changing welfare state regimes and social work The concept of poverty is a normative construct (Lister, 2004), and the ways in which poverty and anti-poverty policy making are defined and pursued are influenced by prevailing welfare regimes (Roets et al., 2012). Since a growing group of citizens appears to be at risk of ending up in poverty and becoming dependent on the social welfare system, it has been argued that prevailing welfare paradigms and anti-poverty strategies should be revised, as the welfare state has been gradually redefined as a major generator of risk (Beck, 1992; Rosanvallon, 2000). A number of European welfare states have shifted their focus from social protection and redistribution of resources and power to human capital investment strategies (Cantillon, 2011). In these developments, the fact that the social and economic risks people encounter are structural in origin is often ignored, since the premise that the welfare state is responsible for the redistribution of resources to enable the well-being of people shifts to a focus on individual responsibility. As such, the second-class citizenship of people in poverty risks being translated as a problem of deviant individuals, who are expected to become productive citizens within the scope of self-responsibility and self-governance (Clarke, 2005). This can lead to a discursive separation between deserving and undeserving poor (Handler, 2003; Villadsen, 2007; Pierson, 2016). With regard to social work practice, this emphasis on the individual responsibility of citizens in maintaining their own welfare has made rights and citizenship increasingly conditional on the individual (Dwyer, 2004). Similarly, social work research shows that rights are also frequently translated by social work as social obligations (Handler, 2003; Maeseele, 2012). As examples of the conditionality of social rights, the Belgian welfare state recently introduced the requirement to speak the formal Dutch language or the willingness to learn it for citizens as a condition to be eligible for social housing; the willingness to accept all work offered, irrespective of the quality of employment, as a condition to receive an unemployment benefit that degressively decreases; and the demand to do voluntary community work as a condition to receive welfare benefits. Due to the inability to deal with the crisis of the welfare state (Mullaly, 2007), other—and new—so-called anti-poverty strategies are coined by social work, and might refer to the re-emergence of neo-philantropy (Villadsen, 2007; Maeseele, 2012). Examples include the provision of food banks and ‘social’ groceries where people in poverty who are considered to be ‘deserving’ and willing to accept this aid are offered direct relief. Such challenges make it vital for social work to think about ‘where it stands as a profession’ (Pierson, 2016, p. 37), in which critical questions concerning how social work positions itself in relation to the tension between securing and changing the underlying assumptions of the social order are highly pertinent. Since social work is not merely a technical activity or an executor of policy, the potential of social work to be a normative activity in pursuit of a socially just society should be embraced (Mullaly, 2007). As Garrett (2002) asserts, ‘how social workers respond to issues connected to social justice is an issue of international significance for the profession’ (p. 187). We will elaborate further on these topics in the following section. Revealing the social justice aspirations of social work Davies et al. (2014) have argued that ‘the underpinnings of social justice are complex and contentious’ (p. 121). In that sense, the work of Fraser (1995, 2000, 2005, 2008, 2010) mainly offers an abstract theoretical frame of reference that is not easily applicable in social work theory, policy and practice. In our view, however, it provides a productive set of ideas that matches ‘the more persuasive accounts of the multi-faceted nature of oppression and subjugation present in the discourse of social work’ (Garrett, 2010, p. 1517), and can therefore serve as a source of inspiration in theorising the potential role of social work in the fight against poverty. Three dimensions of social injustice According to Fraser (2005), social justice crucially refers to ‘parity of participation’, since ‘justice requires social arrangements that permit all to participate as peers in social life’ (p. 73). Fraser’s social justice framework explicitly includes three crucially inter-imbricated dimensions of social injustice that can impede this parity. She argues that injustices that confront individuals and groups are rooted in the economic, cultural and political realms. Economic injustice concerns the maldistribution of material resources between groups (e.g. income inequality, subordinate living conditions) resulting from economic structures. On the cultural level, injustice is about misrecognition and concerns ideologies and standards, or ‘institutionalized hierarchies of cultural value’ (Fraser, 2010, p. 16) that constitute some actors in the political order ‘as inferior, excluded, wholly other, or simply invisible—in other words, as less than full partners in social interaction’ (Fraser, 2000, p. 113). On the political level, injustice is about misrepresentation, when ‘political boundaries and/or decision rules function to deny some people, wrongly, the possibility of participating on a par with others in social interaction’ (Fraser, 2005, p. 76). This misrepresentation can occur at the political level, where justice is about the possibility of equal political participation, but can also occur at the meta-political level. The latter is called ‘misframing’ and can be defined as arising in situations where ‘polity’s boundaries are drawn in such a way as to wrongly deny some people the chance to participate at all in its authorized contests over justice’ (Fraser, 2008, p. 408). Although these three domains of injustice are analytically distinct, Fraser argues that, in reality, they influence one another: Thus, maldistribution and misrecognition conspire to subvert the principle of equal political voice for every citizen, even in polities that claim to be democratic. But of course the converse is also true. Those who suffer from misrepresentation are vulnerable to injustices of status and class. Lacking political voice, they are unable to articulate and defend their interests with respect to distribution and recognition, which in turn exacerbates their misrepresentation (Fraser, 2005, p. 79). From this perspective, societies appear as complex fields that encompass economic, cultural and political forms of ordering and stratification. In that sense, Fraser (1995, 2005) argues that only by considering these dimensions can one determine what is impeding parity of participation. Social justice therefore requires a transformative politics of representation that is closely inter-imbricated with a politics of recognition and redistribution. She argues that these politics should be founded on helping to create the conditions for what she terms ‘parity of participation’, which implies ‘politics aimed at overcoming subordination by establishing the (…) party as a full member of society capable of participating on a par with the rest’ (2000, p. 113) and that these analyses should be viewed as part of the political aspiration to transform and change the world (Garrett, 2010). Affirmative and transformative ways of dealing with injustice Fraser (2005) emphasises the necessity of reflexivity regarding how societies enable or disable parity of participation, and how welfare states deal with the obstacles that impede parity of participation. Relying on a ‘process notion’ (Fraser, 2005, p. 87), she asserts that social arrangements can be considered according to their democratic legitimacy of whether they permit all relevant social actors to participate as peers in social life. These arrangements should enable all those concerned to participate as peers in the processes of deliberation about these norms. In that sense, Fraser identifies two ways of dealing with injustices: affirmative and transformative. Affirmative strategies deal with the implications of injustices without challenging unequal social relations or, put another way, ‘remedies aimed at correcting inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without disturbing the underlying framework that generates them’ (Fraser, 1995, p. 82). By contrast, transformative strategies are about changing the way society is organised and aim at restructuring the underlying framework (Fraser, 2005). Transformative strategies are therefore ‘remedies aimed at correcting inequitable outcomes precisely by restructuring the underlying generative framework’ (Fraser, 1995, p. 82). It is here that Fraser highlights ‘parity of participation’ as an essential principle: … does the society’s structural-institutional framework … permit all to participate as peers in social interaction? Or does it institutionalize patterns of advantage and disadvantage that systematically prevent some people from participating on terms of parity? Do the society’s institutionalized patterns of cultural value create status hierarchies, which impede parity of participation? Does its economic structure create class stratification, which also forecloses the possibility of parity? (Fraser et al., 2004, p. 378). Since, as Fraser emphasises, this parity can be compromised on these different injustice levels, it is important to reflect on the strategies that might be available to deal with them. In what follows, we use Fraser’s analytical framework to elaborate on the contemporary responses of social work towards questions of social (in)justice. We argue that, on the one hand, many social work practices engage in affirmative strategies while dealing with issues of poverty, pulling back from the ambition of transforming societal mechanisms that generate social injustice. On the other hand, social work sometimes specifically aims to develop radical or structural strategies that are perceived as inherently transformative, but that eventually can lose sight of the individual needs and the concerns of service users. In both responses, our argument entails that it is problematic if social work tries to escape or ignore the complex and dual nature of affirmative and transformative elements in its engagement in anti-poverty strategies. Affirmative social work strategies in dealing with poverty as a social problem Social work has become highly involved in ‘the politics of recognition’ (Lister, 2002; Garrett, 2010; Webb, 2010). This interest of social work in the ethics and politics of recognition is intelligible and is based on the acknowledgement that, in contemporary times, people in poverty share experiences of not being recognised as full citizens in social interactions in European societies, which leads to their ‘second-class citizenship’ (Lister, 2004, p. 165). Just like many other marginalised groups, ‘people in poverty have been, and are, systematically denied dignity, self-esteem and recognition’ (Garrett, 2010, p. 1526). ‘Rather than defining group belonging in static terms’, Fraser emphasises the endorsement of ‘the dynamic and continuous processes of collective identification that are an essential part of group membership’ in the politics of recognition (Petoukhov, 2013, p. 76). However, in contemporary societies, these politics are mostly approached via the ‘identity model’ in contemporary societies (Fraser, 2000, p. 109). This implies that recognition is often referred to as an individual and vital human need, where misrecognition is found to be damaging for the development of individuals (Taylor, 1992). It is consequently argued that groups of people who are not recognised by the dominant culture develop a troubled identity. In this approach, recognition is about repairing ‘internal self-dislocation by contesting the dominant culture’s demeaning picture of the group’ (Fraser, 2000, pp. 109–10). According to the dominant conceptualisation of recognition that adopts this identity model, social policy emphasises the search for individual and collective identity while relying on the self-responsibility of individuals (Baistow, 2000). As such, many practices in social work are influenced by a psycho-social understanding of recognition (Garrett, 2010), with a focus on the individual’s self-governance and self-realisation (Villadsen, 2007; Webb, 2010). Fraser (2000) points out that the translation of recognition in an identity model gives rise to practices that set the development of personal identity and optimal self-realisation as the core goals. She also states that the growing focus on recognition during recent decades has led to the decoupling of the economic and cultural domains of social justice, which is now dominated by a cultural understanding that she calls the ‘problem of displacement’ (Fraser, 2000, p. 108). In the engagement in such approaches, social work might be involved in empowering individuals, families and communities, although transformative questions are tackled less often (O’Brien, 2011). Where Lister (2002) stated that the growing importance of ‘a politics of recognition’ might provide opportunities for the acknowledgement of these people as ‘second-class citizens’ without being blind to the lack of material resources in poverty situations, struggles for recognition might entail that the problem of poverty and the ways to fight it are extracted from the power structures within society (Baistow, 2000; Lister, 2004; Webb, 2010). As Oliver (2004, in Garrett, 2010) argues, ‘struggles for recognition and theories that embrace those struggles may indeed presuppose and thereby perpetuate the very hierarchies, domination, and injustice that they attempt to overcome’ (p. 1525). A similar critique can be raised when social work’s ‘objective is to correct the existing income inequality by facilitating transfer of material resources to the maligned group’ (Petoukhov, 2013, p. 75) without tackling the societal conditions in which this happens. In the case of Flanders, Belgium, such redistributive remedies are reflected in the increasing engagement of social work in material support systems such as food or clothing support (cheap meals, foodbanks and second-hand shops). Although these remedies can be of great value to individuals, they ‘do little more than ameliorate the difficulties experienced by oppressed groups’ (Stepney, 2005, p. 1291). The engagement of social work in the creation of alternative socio-economic systems (e.g. alternative currencies, social grocery stores and social restaurants) can also be questioned if these projects neglect to position themselves critically towards the societal order. This concern is exemplified in recent research by Ghys (2016), in which he showed that social work that supports social restaurants emphasises the function of emergency relief for people in poverty in their work, while largely ignoring a commitment to the structural fight against poverty. As such, many social work practices that have redistributive aims do not ‘challenge the deep structures that generate class disadvantage’ (Fraser, 1995, p. 85). Transformative social work strategies in dealing with social problems: the solution? Many contemporary social work practices, being aware of the fact that social work is ‘a dog that didn’t bark’ (Jordan and Jordan, 2000), also aim to be radical and transformative. As such, a revival of so-called radical and structural approaches in social work is noticeable (e.g. Stepney, 2005; Millar, 2008; Mullaly, 2007; Ferguson, 2008; Gray and Webb, 2009; Garrett, 2010). Although diverse in approach and in vision (e.g. anti-oppressive social work, radical social work, new structural social work), these approaches have their main starting point on the transformation of structures in society rather than on changing individual characteristics (Mullaly, 2007). In these approaches, distributive and oppressive mechanisms in society are questioned and it is argued that social work should combat or resist structural exclusion mechanisms on a micro and/or macro level (Hermans, 2013). For instance, anti-oppressive practice profiles itself as a ‘fundamentally different view of the nature of the problems and solutions that should be central to social work’ (Millar, 2008, p. 364). It positions itself as a counter-movement to the dominance of identity politics in social work, based on the critique that notions of social division are no longer given prominence and it is necessary to take ‘a social view of social issues’ (Jordan, in Millar, 2008, p. 366). Similarly, Mullaly’s New Structural Social Work (2007) acknowledges the dual task of social work, which combines helping people while simultaneously transforming society and formulates approaches to deal with this dual task. He positions structural against conventional social work and, as such, attempts to create an alternative identity for social work as a structural response to social problems. However, questions can be raised as to what this standpoint implies for social work practice and the search for a unified ‘structural’ identity for social work in relation to Fraser’s theoretical ideas about ‘transforming the deep structures of both political economy and culture’ (1995, p. 93). First, there can be a gap between the idea of striving for a structural approach and the development of practices in social work that try to convey this idea in reality, since ‘there has also been some recognition of the apparent dissonance between the pursuit of a critical social work agenda, on the one hand, and the practical realities that constrain and govern social work activity’ (Millar, 2008, p. 363). For instance, anti-oppressive work uses the paradigm of empowerment but it is questionable whether its conceptualisation leads to transformative social work in practice (Roose et al., 2012). Second, Millar (2008) stated that, for example, ‘discussions on “anti-oppressiveness” tended to oversimplify a complex relationship between structural oppression and individual service users’ experiences and needs’ (p. 363). As Krumer-Nevo (2016) aptly argued that ‘the structural paradigm tends to abandon the interpersonal relationship’ (p. 1805). While taking this concern into account, questions could be raised about recognising the meaning of strategies in social work practice aimed at the direct relief of the needs and concerns of people in poverty, and whether or not they contribute to affirmation of the societal order. Embracing complexity in social work We have argued that the engagement of social work practice in the development of anti-poverty strategies frequently results in affirmative efforts, complying with societal mechanisms or discourses without challenging or changing the underlying framework of the social order in transformative ways. On the contrary, the attempt of social work to create radical or structural approaches, frameworks and practices to transform society engenders a tangible risk of ignoring the lifeworlds of people in poverty themselves and, as such, discrediting potentially affirmative strategies in social work. Rather than trying to solve or ignore the complexity of engaging in anti-poverty strategies, Lorenz (2007) emphasises the importance of dealing with complexity for the profession via commitment to understanding and addressing social problems. Although poverty, as a social problem, is far too big for social work to solve, he stipulates that it is also not an option for social work to give up its fight for social justice. We therefore argue that social work should attempt to embrace reflexively the inherent tensions in which it is caught when dealing with social problems, rather than try to find ways to escape from these tensions and ambiguities. When these tensions and ambiguities are perceived as an opportunity for social work, this stance might offer a unique option: ‘… every answer to social problems remains incomplete in any case because it is, in a sense, just an answer that opens up new possibilities, questions and limitations’ (Roose et al., 2012, p. 1600). For instance, the affirmative strategies of social work in offering food support might contribute to the pacification of the problem of poverty when these practices merely compensate for material deprivation because people in poverty are urgently in need of this relief, without questioning the underlying societal mechanisms. Nevertheless, such strategies can offer transformative potential if social work brings them into the public debate while framing them as necessary for the relief of people and also framing the need for such relief as unjust in its essence. As such, questioning social problems ‘might be more essential than the answer, as every answer holds the potential to shift evident meanings and to transform realities into provocative issues’ (Roose et al., 2012, p. 1600). Fraser meets social work: creating cultural forums Following on from the vital question of how to embrace this provocative complexity, the key role of social work might be to create cultural forums, being perceived as spaces ‘where private concerns are translated into public issues’ (De Bie, 2015, p. 151, own translation). Cultural in this sense is to be understood as co-constructing the meaning of practices and experiences in everyday life practices, while focusing not only on the concrete lifeworlds of people in poverty, but also on the relation between their perspectives with the bigger societal context and dominant discourses and demands in society (De Bie, 2015). This conceptualisation does justice to how social work might also stimulate public debate in the fight against poverty, which we will refer to as a commitment to a politics of representation. This implies that, in creating such forums, claims of people in poverty on the different injustice domains should not only be discussed in practice, but can and should be submitted to ‘democratic processes of public justification’ (Fraser, 2000, p. 119), by which public debate on the problem of poverty is enhanced. In that sense, Fraser (1990) provides inspiration for how the creation of cultural forums might be conceptualised in social work practice, when she points out that what should count as a matter of common concern can only be decided through discursive contestation in public spheres or publics, implying that issues ‘that bourgeois masculinist ideology labels “private” and treats as inadmissible in such spheres’ (p. 77) should also be included. Such publics then designate arenas or theatres ‘in which political participation is enacted’ (Fraser, 1990, p. 57) through the articulation, exchange and discussion of private and public concerns by individuals and groups. Starting from the ideal of parity of participation, she argues for the acknowledgement of a multiplicity of publics in which such discursive contestation can take place, as opposed to one overall public sphere, since the latter would, in reality, ‘effectively privilege the expressive norms of one cultural group over others’ (Fraser, 1990, p. 69). We believe that social work is in a privileged position to give voice to ‘those silent and oppressed groups or publics whose voice is drowned out by more vocal and powerful publics’ (Dean, 2013, p. S42). This perspective is based on Fraser’s idea of subaltern counterpublics implying ‘discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs’ (1990, p. 67). Where subaltern counterpublics might be considered by the bigger society as opposing forces, social work might have a specific quality, since it obtains its mandate partially from the welfare state to shape the relationship between private troubles and concerns and public issues and concerns (Mills, 1959; Lorenz, 2016). Here social work can be perceived as ‘a veritable laboratory for examining the effects of poverty’ (Pierson, 2016, p. 40) and thus carries the potential to provide ‘a mode for discursive struggle’ (Dean, 2004, p. 200) for different social justice claims and concerns. By everyday encounters with people who experience injustices in inter-imbricated economic, cultural and political domains, social work should not only create opportunities to voice the powerless in practice, but also create cultural forums in which different voices—dominant and countervoices—meet and interact and are deliberated upon. Hence, social work has to take on an active role in challenging injustices in the different domains of social justice by engaging in reframing and projecting individual and collective concerns and lifeworlds of people in poverty ‘from the private sphere of commodities and market relations, on the one hand, and family and personal relations, on the other, into the public forum of political debate’ (Dean, 2013, p. S42). Referring to the example of food support once again, it implies that—while relieving the urgent material needs of people in poverty—social work can also seize opportunities in those practices to explore and discuss their lifeworlds, questions and concerns on the basis of parity, yet frame this relief as problematic in terms of poverty and social inequality in a wider public debate. Creating cultural forums through ‘Associations where People in Poverty Raise their Voice’ Notwithstanding the promising theoretical idea of creating cultural forums to stimulate public awareness of, and debate on, the problem of poverty, this idea requires an empirical translation to refine and enrich our conceptual framework. We are currently attempting to provide depth to these theoretical terms in a current qualitative research project in ‘Associations where People in Poverty Raise their Voice’ (APRV) in Belgium, which provides a highly relevant case study of how social workers think and act when they support and create cultural forums. APRV depart from the definition that poverty is ‘a complex set of instances of social exclusion that stretches out over numerous areas of individual and collective existence’ (Vranken, 2001, p. 86). As such, poverty is related to a lack of resources as well as to the limited possibilities of people in poverty to participate in various social areas such as income, labour, public services. APRV therefore work with a variety of people with different experiences of poverty, while sometimes targeting some specific groups (people from generational poverty, low-income ethnic minorities). Starting from the claim that the welfare rights and well-being of people in poverty are not realised in practice, APRV pursue social justice and social change based on participatory principles and practices that are central to their endeavours (De Bie et al., 2003). In our research project, we theorise the creation of cultural forums in terms of the APRV who try to support people in poverty to share their life experiences, and followingly try to represent and project individual as well as shared experiences on poverty in a wider public debate. This commitment of social workers opens up possibilities for the emergence of a more collective sense of social justice, as space is created to give the knowledge that is reflected in individual and shared experiences on injustice a ‘collective push for systemic change’ (Dalrymple and Boylan, in Pierson, 2016, p. 49). In this regard, APRV initiate public discussions and engage in politics of representation with a wider audience in numerous ways. For example, representatives of APRV often actively take part in consultation groups initiated by the local authorities to discuss issues concerning social policy with different stakeholders (policy makers, service providers, etc.). Many APRV also initiate exchange between different stakeholders themselves. One organisation, for instance, organised a consultation group about the thresholds for people in poverty to participate in cultural and leisure time activities, in which actors of the local and national cultural field and local policy makers were invited to join this initiative. Another strategy involves sensitising actions to bring experiences of people in poverty into the broader public arena. A striking example here is what happens on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (17 October), where almost all APRV engage in public actions and demonstrations to frame poverty-related issues as socially unjust. Some organisations organise a public procession in the community while calling out some of their collective problems; others develop more playful actions such as an activity on a public square where passers-by can spin the ‘wheel of misfortune’ and discover some distressing facts about poverty in their community. In another APRV, hundreds of participants and supporters publicly challenged the waiting list for social housing by all standing in a line in front of the city hall. In all these actions, efforts are made to involve the local and national press, which is most of the time successful. APRV also engage in activities throughout the year to stimulate public debate about the problem of poverty. This is, for instance, the case when an APRV organises a public hearing in the community regarding the evolutions in anti-poverty-policies, in which people in poverty share their own experiences and life stories that inspire public debate with policy makers as well as with citizens of the community. Essential is that all of these strategies of representation are initiated together with people in poverty and serve the purpose of raising public awareness of the problem of poverty without stigmatising people in poverty. Parity of participation in the creation of cultural forums In its fight for social justice, social work should not only consider parity of participation as an ideal, but also be aware of the complexity of translating such an ideal into practice. For example, how can social workers ensure that they do not reproduce existing power inequalities? Who will actually listen to the voices of people in poverty and create social change, and how will such forums connect with government officials or other powerful actors? What if the projection, reframing and representation of both individual and collective concerns for recognition, representation and redistribution in public debate ‘leave the agenda to be set by people whose power has been so much taken for granted’ (Phillips, 2004, p. 37) and the oppressive power relationships, structural inequalities and injustice rooted in the cultural, political and economic structure of society are not challenged in transformative ways? Similarly, Markell (in Garrett, 2010) provides an insightful criticism, arguing that it is tricky to divert ‘attention from the role of the powerful, of the misrecognizers … focusing on the consequences of misrecognition rather than on the more fundamental question of what it means to commit it’ (p. 1525). Therefore, it seems quintessential to engage in empirical research that explores how social work frames its own strategies and the claims and concerns of people in poverty, and which claims for social justice might be considered as relevant and why (Marston and McDonald, 2012). Thus, a critical consideration of the role of APRV as a producer and circulator of power struggles that are associated with the different domains of social justice is vital (Webb, 2010), since social practitioners might experience major complexities in their commitment to shape such participatory forums in practice. In our study on APRV (Boone et al., 2018), the bottlenecks in creating such forums are researched while relying on the work of Fraser (2005), who has made her work more concrete while emphasising that questions should be raised not only about ‘what’ should count as a just ordering of society, but also meta-level questions on the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of social justice are necessary. Dealing with questions such as ‘what constitutes a just distribution of wealth and resources? What counts as reciprocal recognition or equal respect?’ (Fraser, 2008, p. 396) intrinsically requires questions about ‘who counts as a subject of justice in a given matter? Whose interests and needs deserve consideration? Who belongs to the circle of those entitled to equal concern?’ (Fraser, 2008, p. 399). Moreover, we should treat not only the boundaries of the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of justice in critical ways, but also the ways in which the boundaries are drawn, and think about how we should determine the grammar to reflect on justice: ‘the how’ (Fraser, 2008). Our preliminary findings already suggest that an exploration of the ‘how’, the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of supporting the participatory parity of people in poverty allows a further deepening of the theoretical understanding of the question of how cultural forums can be shaped. For instance, the dialogical way of working in APRV—the ‘how’—runs the danger of creating a privileged delegation of representatives that becomes the embodiment of what it implies to be living in poverty. In relation to the issue of the ‘who’, the most powerless are thus easily excluded, since their individual as well as collective experiences of injustice are interpreted, selected and reframed for them rather than with them. Also, the double focus of APRV on the recognition of individual needs of participants and on enhancing public debate—in relation to the ‘what’—might lead to decoupling the participation of people in poverty from transformative strategies in the fight against poverty. Our research findings show how practitioners sometimes develop affirmative strategies in their attempt to meet the needs of participants (learn to budget wisely, to cope with their burdens, etc.) or support tokenistic approaches of participation in which representatives with poverty experience merely serve an instrumental purpose without having influence. Therefore, more in-depth research on how social practitioners in APRV try to deal with such inherent complexities will be conducted. Concluding reflections In this article, we have stipulated that social work can only fail by engaging in one-sided affirmative or transformative anti-poverty strategies, as poverty is far too complex as a social problem to solve. However, we have also argued that this impossibility should be embraced in social work practices. From this stance, a role for social work might be the creation of cultural forums in which the different experiences of injustice of people in poverty are discussed on a par and public debate about the problem of poverty is stimulated. Nevertheless, as we have argued, the appearance of neo-liberal regimes and the evolution from social towards active welfare states have influenced the commitment of social work towards social justice. Precisely those evolutions are what make the commitment of social work to the creation of cultural forums so important. This idea squares with Lorenz’s call for social work to (re)claim a critical stance and raise what he calls the ‘social question’ anew in changing circumstances: In every act of intervention social workers therefore address not just ‘private troubles’ but treat them in relation to public issues …. ‘Social’ means building and respecting bonds and reciprocity beyond the personal sphere … as the subject of reflexive negotiations. In practice this means that clashes of interests in the social sphere is unavoidable (Lorenz, 2016, p. 1525). 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The British Journal of Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 16, 2018
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