Rebecca Joy Novell

The creation of a charity, from the very beginning.

Gollum, the Social Worker

I appreciate that this blog is at risk of becoming a monthly discussion of why Lord of the Rings is so, ridiculously great (*swoons at the thought of Legolas*), but there is a good reason why I am referring to it again, I promise.

A few weeks ago I was bed ridden due to flu. A flu that my partner quickly learned was “much worse than any flu anybody else had ever had”. So bad in fact that, “you couldn’t possibly understand what I’m going through” and actually “it’s lucky that I have such a high pain threshold because most people wouldn’t cope with this flu”. (It was just normal flu and no, I didn’t win an Oscar). My poor partner, therefore had to come up with a plan to put either me, or himself, out of our misery. Luckily, he chose to buy me a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and rent the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD. Watching Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli tirelessly trekking across middle earth in order to defend all that is good and true is enough to stop anyone wallowing in their own self-pity.

During this viewing, however, I felt a sense of unease. A feeling that I had not experienced in my previous eight hundred viewings. Obvioulsy, my support was behind the fellowship. But also, I felt an odd affinity with Gollum. What was it about this isolated little river dweller that had me so troubled?

Of course! Gollum is like a Social Worker.

Now before any Social Workers close your browser or send me abuse (‘Yeah?! Well you look like that fat hobbit at the start!’), it has nothing to do with physical appearance. Nor his preference for eating raw fish. No. Gollum is like a Social Worker because he, like us, has a daily struggle with ‘power’.

Social Workers are faced with some of the most difficult decisions any professional has to make. Deciding when, or if, to admit a person to a psychiatric ward or whether or not to take a child away from their family are the most overt examples of the power Social Workers posess. But our power is not always overt. It is often a lot more subtle and lies in our influence, persuasion and expertise. Even when we think that we are ‘working with’ a service user to achieve their goals, the context itself places power with the Social Worker. If someone is in contact with a Social Worker it means they need help with something; be it finding housing, addressing an addiction or adopting a child. Most Social Workers enter the profession wanting to help in this way, and therefore, from the outset we assume that we have some power; power to help. The minute Social Work professionals stop recognizing that their position comes with an inherent power, then their practice becomes incredibly dangerous.

Gollum is so consumed by the ring and the power it posseses that he cannot see that it is destroying him and for Social Workers too, power can be very destructive. If we do not constantly analyze and re-evaluate our practice, values and beliefs, we risk not treating each service user as an individual. I have seen in work with sexually exploited young people how formulaic tools and procedures are put in place to help the young person, when actually they ignore the young person’s wishes, feelings, resiliance; their individuality. Decisions are made on behalf of sexually exploited young people, often against their will, which further isolates them and increases feelings of low self-worth. “Even my Social Worker doesn’t listen to me”. If there is disagreement, we must always ask ourselves why we think our view of how to live is better than our service users and what gives us the right to make decisions on behalf of others. Using our power thoughtlessly will destroy our ability to help.

There are obviously areas where the analogy of Gollum as Social Worker does not fit and you could argue that I should have gone down the Spider Man route of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. I am not asserting that the service user is powerless, nor that Social Workers obsess about gaining power (though the Daily Mail may argue otherwise). Nor does power have to be a bad thing. The point is that if Social Workers do not constantly critique, analyze and review the power-play in their interactions with service users, colleagues, managers and other agencies, our practice can become quite destructive. But what does give Social Workers the right to make decisions on behalf of others, especially if they disagree with us? The law is often an ass, so answering ‘legal powers’ doesn’t answer the philosophical aspect of it.

Seeking some sort of clarity, I went to see my personal tutor. A woman so wise that you instantly feel twice as clever just by being in the same room as her. We had a long, long discussion about the role of power; the theories, faces, contradictions, problems… the list went on. I talked. I listened. I even felt brave enough to challenge her. It was a fantastic discussion. And her conclusion? Her wise parting words that would send me on my way in to the big, scary world of social work?

‘If you’re not in a constant state of confusion, you’re not doing it right.’

Novs  x

One comment on “Gollum, the Social Worker

  1. Hannah

    What is a ‘service user’. This was in your Guardian article and I don’t understanddd! x x However this is my favourite post so far!

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This entry was posted on 14/11/2011 by in The Beginning and tagged , .

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