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The History Of The Functionalist Perspective Social Work Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2457 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Social work promotes social change, problem solving within human relationships and empowers and liberates service user’s to enhance their well-being. Social work practice takes place where service users interact within their environments and involve employing theories of behaviour and social systems; essentially social work concerns itself with service users and wider society. This requires social workers to engage with vulnerable people who are finding difficulties in participating fully in society.

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“Social work practice seeks to promote human well-being and to redress human suffering and injustice…..Such practice maintains a particular concern for those who are most excluded from social, economic or cultural processes and structures….Consequently, social work practice is a political activity and tensions between rights to care and control and self-determination are very much a professional concern” (O’Connor et al, 2006, p.1)

In summary, Social workers in effect walk a thin line between supporting on behalf of a service user who has been marginalised, whilst being employed by both the social and political environment that may have played a key role in that marginalisation (…………….).

The Brown family case study will be referred to throughout the essay in an attempt to explore and discuss the lived experiences of service users. With such an array of difficulties faced by the family, in order to be able to provide analysis and critique, some of these difficulties and their correlation within social work practice will not be explored. The essay will begin with examining the political background from Margaret Thatcher to the current Coalition government and emphasize their continued functionalist ideologies. It will also discuss sociological constructions of the family, and refer to some of the factors that impact upon the Brown family’s day to day life.

Functionalist Perspective

There are many different perspectives in which to analyse society but this essay does not provide enough scope to discuss each perspective and will therefore view society from a functionalist perspective. This views society as a large system that is sustained by the institutions and individuals that belong to that system. In order to keep the system sustained Durkeim (…..) suggested that a key issue was social order and that that this can be established when there is a mutual set of rules values and beliefs (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008).

The Neo-Liberal ideology of both Margaret Thatcher and New Labour undoubtedly support this functionalist perspective.

This ideology could have a detrimental impact upon the Brown family. The Coalition government have increasingly remained vocal concerning the public functionalist rhetoric. Therefore, the Brown family become a target for scrutiny and negative attention that is only exacerbated by media perceptions of the deserving and undeserving.

Shipman (2011) refers to Iain Duncan Smiths view that the institution of ‘family’ is fundamental to maintaining a stable society.

It is important to also consider how this Neo-Liberal Functionalism can have an effect on social work practice. The rhetoric that is consistently provided can unknowingly influence or change an assessment or alter the type of interventions that may be offered to a family. When simply browsing through the case study, certain issues that the family have attract attention and perceptions of these issues may start to cloud the a professionals judgement of the family before face to face contact has even been made

Social policy has long been associated with an interest in politician’s efforts to try to change the behaviours of complex and troublesome populations and welfare has remained the method for promoting the desired changes in behaviour (Deacon, 2002). The 2011 Welfare Reform Bill guarantees robust measures to make certain that work pays and terminate welfare dependency. In order implement this, the government will be increasing penalties and introducing new restrictions for people who do not abide by the measures (Department for Work and Pensions, 2010). Despite the fact that politicians imply that work is the responsibility of individual, they also place noticeable importance on the fact that work can produce rewards that are not just concerned with remuneration. These include significant enhancements in mental health and well-being, physical health and improve opportunities for children (Department for work and Pensions, 2008). Essentially, they advocate that ‘work is the best form of welfare’ and this expression is accepted by both the New Labour and the Coalition. Facilitating people back into work is considered by the Coalition to be a key factor in attempting to fix ‘Broken Britain’.

The prolific cases of the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Baby P led to such media scrutiny and a downward turn in public perception of social workers. As a result, this has led to changes in social work practice with children and families.

Due to the current austerity measures, social workers gatekeeping of resources and having to meet stringent thresholds often result in limitations being put on families and creating what ……………..describes as a revolving door syndrome. The Brown case study refers to there being intermittent involvement from social services over several years, which supports the suggestion of a revolving door syndrome. Although the case study is not explicit, I think it would be safe to assume that issues faced by the Brown family may have suggested that they meet the section 47 threshold set out in the Children Act which would have triggered social work involvement with the family. However, if the involvement has been intermittent, this would suggest that once significant risk had diminished the involvement with the family was stopped which suggest risk led practice was employed rather than a needs led (Axford, 2010).

Munro’s recent review of child protection (2011) included 15 recommendations. There is not scope to discuss each recommendation but she urges the government to accept that there will inevitably be an element of uncertainty, to allow professionals to have a greater freedom to use their professional judgement and expertise, and to reduce bureaucracy. The response from government is to accept 9 out of the 15 recommendations (DfE, 2011)


The case study highlights that the Brown family are dependent on welfare benefits and that they find it difficult to manage their finances. Therefore, they are essentially living in poverty. Poverty can be described as a complex occurrence that can be caused by a range of issues which can result in inadequate resources. It impacts on childhoods, life chances and imposes costs on society

“Child poverty costs the country at least £25 billion a year, including £17 billion that could accrue to the Exchequer if child poverty were eradicated. Moving all families above the poverty line would not instantly produce this sum. But in the long term, huge amounts would be saved from not having to pick up the pieces of child poverty and associated social ills.” (Hirsch, 2008: Joseph Rowntree Foundation,p.1)

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Cross national studies have suggested that child poverty is not a natural occurrence. Moreover it is a political occurrence, the product of decisions and actions made by the government and society. Attention concerning a dependency culture has filtered through different political parties and have been utilised with renewed enthusiasm since the formation of the coalition government in 2010. These assertions of dependency create propaganda about the attitudes of the workless and they give the wrong impression of the previous efforts of the Labour government to tackle child poverty who focus was to direct increased welfare payments towards those people who are working in low paid jobs. The coalition is currently reducing benefit payments to families in work. As a result of these cuts, many children will evidently be thrust back into child poverty (………).

A possible contention is that the coalition government argue that they seek to treat the symptoms of poverty, rather than the causes. However, their analyses of the causes are at best partial or incomplete. While in-work poverty is acknowledged, it is often buried beneath the rhetoric of welfare dependency (ESRC, 2011). The suggestion that previous methods to tackle child poverty have inevitably robbed people of their own responsibility and therefore led them to become dependent on the welfare state that simply hands out cash is absurd (Minujin & Nandy, 2012).

Work is frequently referred to as the favoured route out of poverty. Although the government have introduced numerous policies to ‘make work pay’ there are countless families that still do not earn enough money to attempt to lift their family out of poverty (Barnardos, 2009). More than half of all children currently living in poverty have a parent in paid work (DWP, 2009). The Brown family have both parents out of work, with Anne having never been in paid work and Craig struggling to find regular employment since leaving the Army 8 years ago. Both parents have literacy difficulties and so require a complex package of support to enable them to improve their life chances of gaining employment that pays above the minimum wage in order for their family to no longer be living in poverty.

According to the code of practice (HCPC, 2012) social workers are required to……………………………………………………………………

As mentioned previously, successive Neo Liberal governments uphold a functionalist ideology that frequently locates poverty in terms of personal responsibility and deficits.


As mentioned previously, services have changes over the past 20 years and this can be explained by the emergence of a managerial approach to how services are being delivered. Intrinsically, managerialism is a basic set of ideas that transpired from the New Right criticisms of welfare and is founded on the notion that public services need to be managed in the same way as profit-making organisations (Harris & Unwin, 2009). In the UK there has been a rise in managerialism which can often lead to weakening the role and autonomy of social work practice. In the pursuit of becoming accountable and impartial, managers are attempting to control or prescribe practice in increasing detail which inexorably leads to reducing the opportunity for practitioners to implement individual reasoning (Rogowski, 2011). As a result, this leads to policies that represent rules that can often be described as inept and insensitive for the service user. Therefore, the tussle between the managerial and the professional control in social work practice is often a contested issue (Munro, 2008). As managerialism takes more control, then a shift towards defensive practice develops which results in procedures that are insensitive to the needs of families. In essence, the professional role of a social worker can be progressively reduced to a bureaucrat with no possibility for expertise or personalised responses

In addition, a managerial approach causes conflict, as it emphasises the need for targets that will assess performance and the delivery of services (Brotherton et al, 20120). Furthermore, there is a correlation with an apparent distrust or autonomy of professionals. This has led to an upsurge in scrutiny by a variety of inspection bodies such as Ofsted and this has been extremely significant in the area of child protection following the high-profile cases of the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connolly.


The case study draws attention to the socially deprived area in a large city where the Brown family are currently residing and that they are living in private rented accommodation. Recent statistics indicate that increasingly high costs of renting can thrust households and in particular families with children, into poverty or further into poverty. In comparison with other tenures, and with the cost of housing taken into consideration, approximately 54% of children who live in private rented houses are currently living below the poverty line (Harker, 2006).

“Fundamental to all of this is the need for Government to fully recognise the importance of housing as the foundation of people’s lives. Housing must move up the parties’ political priority lists, and become a key part of all policy debates on poverty, standards of living and future economic prosperity. Without this happening, we run the risk that we will damage the fabric of society, and create a bleak future for many.” (Turffrey, 2010, p.25)

According to Shelter, living in poor or insufficient housing can have an immense and possible lasting effect on children’s chances in life. There is also an related shared cost amongst a wide selection of policy areas. In spite of this, policy has afforded little thought to the influence that housing can have on a family. The Every Child Matters agenda offers a unique prospect to improve children’s services, nonetheless it is crucial that housing is incorporated at the core of this agenda. By attempting to tackle unfit or inadequate housing conditions, the government will support children to thrive and it will additionally play a part in the target for the government to end child poverty by 2020.


As previously mentioned, the Brown family live in a socially deprived area of a large city and research has shown that children from deprived areas are often left with modest access to resources and less experienced teachers, as staff with more expendable income chose to relocate to more affluent areas. Therefore, the location in which the Brown children live could have a detrimental influence on their educational opportunities (Barnard, 2011). The case study states that both parents have literacy problems which raise issues about the educational opportunities that they had access to as a child and whether or not the area in which they lived may have contributed to their opportunities. Finally, the case study also highlights the erratic attendance of Holly, Ben and Kirsty at primary school. One could suggest that this may be as a result of their parents own personal scepticism about the educational system and what their children have to gain.


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