The ‘fallacy of theoryless practice’

The book that convinced me to apply to do a PhD was Social Work and Social Theory by Paul Michael Garrett. I was reminded of the book following the publication of Martin Narey’s ‘review’ of social work education yesterday. The government’s response to the report states that ‘Sir Martin argues that there is too much theory, not enough good practical experience’ although when I looked at the report the closest thing to this that I saw was one Director of Children’s Service stating ‘Universities have been allowed to provide too much theory, too much sociology and not enough about spotting things in a family which are wrong’. Concerns about ‘too much theory’ didn’t feature in any of the recommendations although the report did express concerns about a focus on ‘anti-oppressive practice’ elsewhere, again, without developing the point in any meaningful way.

The reason for the reminder was that in the Introduction to his book, Garrett, drawing on the work of Thompson (2010), deals very effectively with what he calls the ‘fallacy of theoryless practice’. Telling the story of a student called Angela who declared ‘theory won’t get you through the door’ (Garrett 2013 p1), Garrett argues that all social work is based on theory and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, quoting Gray and Webb (2009):

Social work practice is the bearer and articulation of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts. Even those who try to refute the value of theory by claiming that social work is just ‘good common sense’ are, in fact, articulating a distilled version of philosophical theories about common sense’ (p5)

Interestingly, Garrett also presents evidence that the desire to focus on ‘practical qualities’ is a recurring theme in the UK and he finds it ‘particularly insidious’ at the present time ‘during a period of so-called ‘austerity’ when the government is intent on cutting public services’ (Garrett 2013 p2). One of my favourite parts of the book – and one which seems relevant here – relates to a discussion of the importance of the work of Fraser and, separately, Bourdieu on misrecognition. Garrett argues that in relegating structural issues (you, know ‘theoretical’ stuff…) to a marginal role in social work, the state effectively absents itself and seeks to ‘disappear’. In doing so

The resolution of issues … 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)

Or, as Macnicol put it in relation to the Family Service Units approach to working with the ‘problem families’ of the 1950s ‘the remedy of scrubbing floors and painting walls’ (1999 p91) will do little to stop the structural inequality that exists in our society. This inequality – along with the poverty that is increasingly prevalent today – has demonstrable social consequences which cannot be denied or ignored and certainly should not be trivialised as being not as important as a willingness to ‘roll your sleeves up’.


Garrett, P. (2013) Social Work and Social Theory: Making connections, Bristol: Policy Press

Gray, M. & Webb,S. (eds) (2009) Social work theories and methods, London: Sage

Macnicol, J. (1999) From ‘Problem Family’ to ‘Underclass’, 1945-95 in Fawcett, H. & Lowe, R. (eds) Welfare Policy in Britain: The Road from 1945, Basingstoke: Macmillan

Thompson, N. (2010) Theorizing social work practice, Houndmills: Basingstoke

60 years on from ‘the problem family’

Last year I wrote three blog posts on The Trouble with ‘troubled families’ (which I’ve re-blogged here, here and here) not knowing that, nearly 60 years ago, a book called ‘The Problem of the Problem Family’ was published, authored by A.F.Philp and Noel Timms. The similarities do not end there however. In the foreword to the book, and using language very much ‘of the time’ Richard Titmuss writes that:

“(it would be true to say) that there is a long, though discontinuous tradition in this country of concern about a segment of families in the population, supposedly characterised by similar traits, and thought to represent a closed, pathological entity – in Lidbetter’s phrase, ‘a race of subnormals’. This ill defined group has come in for a great deal of attention and investigation. Survey has followed survey. Many remedies have been proposed and some pursued. A variety of measures have been put into practice by voluntary and statutory bodies. Yet … the debate about the ‘problem family’ has been conducted in a singularly uncritical manner. Precision in the use of words and in the observation of phenomena has been generally lacking; heterogeneity has been mistaken for homogeneity; biological theories have obscured the study of psychological and sociological factors; the classification and counting of ‘abnormals’ has proceeded regardless of the need to set them in the context of contemporary social norms; in short, what knowledge has been gained from all these inquiries has not accumulated on any theoretical foundations.

There are lots more similarities in the language used and some of the issues identified with the concept of the ‘problem family’ and I’m sure I’ll be returning to this book a lot during the next three years…..