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A Truly Anti-Oppressive Practice?

March 22, 2014

Michel Foucault has argued that no discourse is inherently liberating or oppressive… but that all discourse is dangerous:

‘My point is that not everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is exactly the same as a bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make very day is to determine which is the main danger’ (1983: 231-232).

When I first read this some years ago, I was struggling to make sense of what I was finding in my PhD research, which was a history of a voluntary agency in Scotland that used to be called the National Vigilance Association (Eastern Division). I couldn’t work out how it was that an organisation that had such genuinely good and caring people working for it, and such seemingly feminist aspirations, could, at the same time, be an agency that was so narrow-minded in its approach to human behaviour. At the time, I probably answered my own question historically; I decided that they did things differently then, and that we shouldn’t judge the past on the values and ideas of the present.

But that, I believe, was probably a cop-out. The truth is much more complicated and likely to make us feel much more uncomfortable. The truth is that all discourse has the potential to be dangerous. The National Vigilance Association (NVA) story offers one very clear illustration of this, but, as I will suggest, everything we do has similarly oppressive potential.

The National Vigilance Association began its life in 1885 as an organisation concerned with protecting women and girls from ‘the perils and evils of the white slave trade’ – sexual exploitation in today’s language.  The association’s work was many faceted. Supporters campaigned for sex education and for the employment rights of bar-maids. They challenged the sexual double standard, calling for men’s sexual conduct to be raised to that of women. They removed women working as sex-workers from boats in the docks and took them to ‘safe lodgings’. They campaigned against unsuitable films and for the raising of the age of sexual consent to 21. What all these activities demonstrate is that NVA supporters (volunteers and paid workers) were convinced of the rightness of their cause; they had a particular view of what was acceptable behaviour for women, men and children, and they were prepared to fight to have this view taken forward across society. Along the way, they did a lot of good: providing accommodation and work for women so that they didn’t need to sell their bodies to survive; opening residential homes for ‘illegitimate’ children who might otherwise have starved; investigating the abuse of women working as ‘au pairs’. They also did a lot of harm, as women working as prostitutes were forced out of the relative safety of brothels and onto the streets and as gay men (including Oscar Wilde) found themselves falling foul of the pernicious Criminal Law Amendment Act that the NVA had championed.

It’s easy to look at the NVA as a particularly colourful example – as something that has little relevance today. But, if Foucault is right (and I think he is), we need to take a step back and think more about all of the ideas and practices that we are engaged in today. So, what about current social work practice? What view of human nature is demonstrated in the day-to-day practices of social workers today? What kind of theories currently hold sway in social work, and are these positive or negative and for whom? Is social work a profession in which conversations remain open, or is it a profession that thinks it knows what’s right for others, and so closes down alternatives whenever they surface? Do we sometimes do more harm than good, because we are unwilling to question our assumptions?

Everything I have been trying to say and do since our seminar series began in November 2012 has been about trying to open up spaces for debate about some of these difficult questions for social work. The concept ‘moral panics’ has been a useful peg to hang some of this discussion on – not suggesting that everything is a ‘moral panic’ – but instead, that everything should be questioned, including (and, perhaps, especially) the ideas and practices that we are most convinced are good and true, because it is in those spaces that dangerous things can happen. This doesn’t mean that we should all give up social work and turn our backs on the impulse to care. I have always thought it is a privilege to be a social worker! Foucault urges that, faced with the inevitable contradictions, we should adopt a position of ‘hyper- and pessimistic activism’.  Or to put it as Stan Cohen (2000) argues, we must never be bystanders – and that means, inevitably, we will get it wrong sometimes. And that’s what makes us human.

Viviene Cree

22nd March 2014


Cohen, S. (2000) States of Denial. Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Foucault, M. (1983) ‘On the genealogy of ethics: an overview of work in progress’, in H.L. Dreyfus an P. Rabinow (eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd edition) with an Afterward by and an Interview with Michel Foucault, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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