Frontline and symbolic violence


Those who govern are prisoners of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats who often know almost nothing about the everyday lives of their fellow citizens and have no occasion to be reminded of their ignorance. (Bourdieu 1999, p627)

Frontline, the ‘Teach First for social work’ launched last week with the help of Richard Branson’s daughter, amid much positive media attention and much scepticism from social work practitioners and academics. I’m not going to comment too much on Frontline or its criticisms of social work. I’m not a qualified and/or practicing social worker and whilst this didn’t stop Josh Macalister believing he had the answer to its ills, I guess I’m not so self-assured. There have already been a number of thoughtful (and thought-provoking) blogs and articles which have been written by social work students, social work practitioners and social work academics (the latter raises the issue of a lack of involvement of service users in the development of Frontline). There has also been a joint statement written by and on behalf of leading social work academics (JUCSWEC & APSW) expressing concerns about Frontline.

Instead I want to try and offer a slightly more sociological perspective and focus a little bit on how it can be that someone who has been a teacher for a couple of years can write a fairly flimsy document (less than 1 side of A4 on the current policy context for social work – really?) and have it adopted and supported by government all in the space of a year or so, whilst the concerns of existing practitioners and academics are largely ignored. Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of doxosophers, Stabile & Marooka argue that there are spontaneous intellectuals (2003, p333) who act as knee-jerk critics and providers of legitimacy(and) tend to subscribe to the doxic view of the world, repeat political slogans, and make it easier ‘to speak glibly about the world’ (p330). Bourdieu himself wrote that

Social science today is up against anyone and everyone with a claim to interpret the most obvious signs of social malaise … It has to deal with all these people, too clever by half and armed with their ‘common sense’ and their pretensions, who rush into print or to appear on television to tell us what is going on in a social world that they have no effective means of either knowing or understanding (1999, p628)

Macalister was supported by IPPR, a ‘progressive think-tank’ who have previously advocated freezing child benefit for 10 years. I have blogged about IPPR and the role of think-tanks in the development of welfare and anti-poverty policy in another guise but Wacquant sums them up better than I can. He accuses similar organisations and researchers of ‘false thinking and false science’ (2004, p99) jumping from ‘social problem’ to ‘social problem’ at the whim of media and political demand (p100).

Bourdieu highlights the role of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats and half-wise economists (1998, p5) within the right hand of the state (central government), with the left hand being workers and junior civil servants tasked with carrying out the states wishes. He suggests that

I think that the left hand of the state has the sense that the right hand no longer knows, or, worse, no longer wants to know what the left hand does

All that is somewhat shocking, especially for those who are sent into the front line to perform so called ‘social’ work to compensate for the most flagrant inadequacies of the logic of the market, without being given the means to really do their job. How could they not have the sense of being constantly undermined or betrayed?

It should have been clear a long time ago that their revolt goes far beyond questions of salary, even if the salary granted is an unequivocal index of the value placed on the work and the corresponding workers. Contempt for a job is shown first of all in the more or less derisory remuneration it is given.(p2)

In response to a question about the scope for government intervention, Bourdieu argues that their scope is less limited than they would have us believe and that there remains one area where governments have considerable scope: that of the symbolic (p3).

Viewed in this way, it is hard to argue that the development of Frontline and the very explicit support it has been given by government is anything other than an act of symbolic violence against current social work practice and training. I would argue that the choice of the term Frontline is itself an act of symbolic violence against social service users. It is unnecessarily adversarial and suggests the need for flak jackets on a daily basis. (If you google images for ‘front line’ the majority of the images are of combat situations). However, the major act of violence here is in misrecognising the causes of ‘problems’ within families by proposing that social work needs an image makeover and that ‘great people’/’outstanding graduates’ can make a real, lasting difference after spending a few weeks at Social Work Summer Camp – by extension implying that current practice and education in this area has ‘failed’, whilst ignoring the wider socio-economic factors which remain undiscussed and unchanged. Garrett highlights this when he writes

The state is apt to disappear and the resolution of issues partly rooted in (mis)recognition is almost entirely displaced onto micro-encounters. In this way, such encounters become conceptually overburdened with expectation because they are exchanges lacking the capacity to eradicate and combat structurally generated (mis)recognition. (2013, p182)

So what are social workers and academics to do? Judging by the reaction on social media and other forums for their voices to be heard, it seems like there is plenty of appetite for challenging the design of Frontline and what it represents. Bourdieu would have approved. He believed that nothing is less innocent than non-interference (1999, p269) in these matters.


Bourdieu, P. (1998) Acts of Resistance: Against the new myths of our time, Cambridge: Polity

Bourdieu, P et al (1999) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Stanford: SUP

Garrett, P. M. (2013) Social work and social theory: Making connections, Bristol: Policy Press

Stabile, C.A. & Marooka, J. (2003) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse to Choose the Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17:3-4 pp326-348

Wacquant, L. (2004) Critical Thought as Solvent of Doxa, Constellations, 11:1 pp91-101

6 thoughts on “Frontline and symbolic violence

  1. Thanks for writing this. It won’t surprise you that it links some of the thoughts I had but in a much more erudite way so thank you for verbalising it.

    I also find the term ‘frontline’ troublesome with the thought of a ‘battleline’ between ‘us’ and ‘them and to me, that strikes at the soul of what I think social work should be as opposed to what it is becoming.

    The noise on social media (and I do accept that I can make quite a lot of noise).. I’m not sure how much effect it will have on the reality of the programme or its rollout because those involved have the more influential ears of government ministers who back the ‘easy-fix’ approach without any critical appraisal or reflection.

    But, as you allude to, finally, it might not have much influence but it doesn’t mean we’ll stop shouting. Thanks so much for writing this.

  2. Great piece, wish I wrote it!!!! Think maybe some of us are too close to the subject to look at it with the clarity you have provided. Thank you for writing this, I’ll be checking out your references for my own doctoral studies as well, so double thanks 🙂

  3. Hello to you both, thanks for taking the time to comment and apologies for the delay in replying. I really appreciate the feedback and have had other similarly nice things said about the piece on Twitter – as for being erudite, Bourdieu certainly is but I can’t claim much credit for re-producing his quotes here.I’m sure I’ll return to Frontline again and again – it looks like it offers a very good lense for understanding other wider reforms that are taking place and I’m currently reading Bev Skeggs work on affect and value – I have this view that Frontline is offering the middle classes an ‘authentic philanthropic experience’ that ‘outstanding graduates’ are now able to ‘consume’.

    Di – there are lots of other references that relate to doxa and doxosophers that I haven’t crammed in here – if you’d like any, please feel free to get in touch.

    Best wishes, Steve

  4. It feel like its a chance for the middle classes tocompleted a paid gap year and work with ‘common people’ (Coker,J) – its such a worthwhile thing to do. It seems frontline candidates will be encouraged to become systemic therapists, managers , researchers etc. All these roles are valuable, however, social work is a vocation – a calling. We need people who want to be career social workers. It takes a good few years post qualifying to really experience the role and understand more about ones self and how one responds to daily trauma….

  5. This is an incredibly interesting and thought provoking piece and I would be extremely keen to understand and see more investigation in to aspects around the construction of that ‘battle line’ discourse. I’m a prospective (if all goes well with finals!) SW masters student and I would be incredibly interested in developing some of these ideas in to my dissertation project, as I’m interested in understanding how people are attracted to the professional, and the differing make up of entry routes, especially in terms of class, social and cultural capital (oh, Bourdieu, again!) .

  6. Thanks Clem, glad it was of some use/interest to you. Paul Michael Garrett does a fascinating line in bringing Bourdieu in to bear on social work issues – his work is worth checking out if you’re not aware of it. Good luck with the dissertation and future studies. Steve

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