Olive Stevenson – Reflections on a Life in Social Work (2013)

olive stevensonThis is an unusual entry for this blog. It is customary for me to write about fiction and make connections with social work and justice that the artist has highlighted for me.  So, what can I learn from reading about actual social work?  I picked up Olive Stevenson’s memoir because it was to be discussed at the Social Work Book Group, an endeavour that excites me and (with candour similar to Olive’s) of which I am slightly jealous.  It is unlikely that I would have read it without that prompt.

The book itself is clearly, even simply written to provide a narrative of the choices, dilemmas and progress of one engaged in social work and policy. Reflections is a very honest book, yet I feel carefully edited.  The writing attempts a certain containment of emotions. They are often described and acknowledged, but in past tenses, as though now completed.  However, writing is not that simple; it can sometimes take us by surprise or betray us.  As Derrida (1978: 11) says:

It is because writing is inaugural, in the fresh sense of that word, that it is dangerous and anguishing. It does not know where it is going.

And as a reader, I found myself picking up on the anguish and self-doubt that permeated some aspects of Olive’s career. Indeed, mistakes were a common theme of the writing and when I first read the memoir I thought that mistakes would be the hook that I would write about here.  However, my own reflections have returned me to this passage:

I was not aware of the awkward boundary between social work and social policy academics, epitomised at the LSE where the twain rarely met. (Separate tables in the dining room were usual.)  To some extent, this has dogged the rest of my career. (Neither fish, fowl, nor good red herring). But the truth is that my academic position is located between two worlds, and it is there that I feel most comfortable. (Stevenson, 2013: 58 – 59 emphasis added)

This uneasy relationship between social work and social policy is summed up by Laura Epstein (1999: 9) who states:

… it is common to state the intentions of social work as helping people to accommodate to the status quo and as challenging the status quo by trying to bring about social change. This dissonance is intrinsic to the nature of social work, to its essence.

Social work, like Olive, has to learn to navigate and enjoy this difficult territory and work with the contradictions around the ‘inner and outer world’ of their service-users. Both worlds are important and social workers need to engage with both.  Social workers will have different disciplinary leanings and preferences between psychology, psycho-analysis and sociology.  Yet, they can never make a straightforward choice for one over the others.  So, what of social policy?  What interests me (amongst many other things) within this biography is that despite an obvious leaning apparent in her writing and her training towards the psycho-analytic, Olive also engaged with the outer world and intervened in the policy process.  She was the social work advisor to the Supplementary Benefits Commission and a member of the inquiry into the death of Maria Colwell. Therefore, she was what Weiss et. al. (2006) would call a “policy practitioner” – a person who engages with change within organisations, communities or wider structures.

It could be argued that opportunities to do this within the current context may seem limited. It is difficult when faced with ‘austerity’ measures and job insecurity to be able to ask what can I do to stimulate change?  The current mistrust of social workers also limits what is allowable.  It does not escape my notice that the current inquiry into historical sex abuse does not look towards the social work profession for potential leaders, despite being the key profession engaged in the investigation of child protection and safety.

LB QUILTHowever, there are good examples of grass roots policy change. In particular, I would like to draw attention to the LB Bill (http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2014/10/27/lb-bill-turning-social-care-policymaking-head/).  This bill aims to improve the care for people with learning difficulties and is named after Laughing Boy, Connor Sparrowhawk, who should still be alive but suffered an avoidable death in an Assessment and Treatment Unit.  Connor died in a health ‘care’ setting, but this has everything to do with social care and social work.  Connor was not ill; he could not be ‘cured’; he was not in need of medicine.  He should not have been in a health setting.  However, social work has made mistakes and failed to establish the role for social care within a social model of disability.  There was also a problem with the social work interpretation of ‘the social’ which did not take full account of the continued importance of family when children are no longer considered children.  Most importantly, the emphasis within social work on short-term interventions and crisis management has meant that the support for people with long-term needs has been reduced and other enterprises have come to fill that gap.  Whilst we may not all have the ability or opportunity to engage with government inquiries, we can all email our MPs to ask for their support for this private members bill.

To prove Derrida right, I did not know when I first started planning this blog that it would lead to a link to the LB Bill. However, that is the role of reflection and writing.  It can take you to different places and ask you to attend to the connections and pre-occupations in your mind.  Having read Olive’s memoir, I am aware that there is something about her standing and insight that means I would have liked to have her approval.  I am hoping that the Oxford graduate in English Literature would have supported this blog, as like her, I am “fascinated by the dynamics and structure of drama and in general by the insight which literature throws on human relationships” (Stevenson, 2013: 21).


Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference London: Routledge

Epstein, L. (1999) “The Culture of Social Work” in Chambron, A., Irving, A. and Epstein, L. (eds.) Reading Foucault for Social Work New York: Columbia University Press

Stevenson, O. (2013) Reflections on a Life in Social Work: A Personal and Professional Memoir Buckingham: Hinton House Publishers

Weiss, I. Gal, J. and Katan, J. (2006) “Social Policy for Social Work: A teaching agenda” British Journal of Social Work 36 (5): 789 – 806

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