The entanglement of the stuff and practice of human service work: A case for complexity

Michael Emslie


The fact that social welfare professions including social work, youth work and community work deal with the lives and relationships of human beings is far from controversial. What is contentious is that in light of increasing intellectual work on the nature of social practices there is a failure in the human services literature to adequately examine the interdependencies and entanglements between conceptualisations of the stuff that the helping professions deals with and understandings of practice. This article examines the nexus and mediations between the phenomena and practice of social service work. The case is made that human services and the human beings they deal with are often imagined and represented in one-dimensional, unambiguous, calculable and orderable ways that align with neo-liberal inspired and technical approaches to practice. I argue that these accounts are inadequate and I suggest that practices of care and the people engaged in such practices should be constituted as complex, unpredictable, wicked and emergent. A key to good practice in the people professions is acknowledging and attending to this complexity and aporia.

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