‘How’ we do social work, not ‘what’ we do

  • Anita Røysum
  • Nordic Social Work Research, February 2017, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/2156857x.2017.1284150

Social work as everyday and ordinary knowledge, not expert knowledge?

What is it about?

The professional knowledge in social work practice during and after the Norwegian NAV reform. The study found social workers articulating their professional ethical perspectives (how they do, doing “good”) as social work while defining themselves as ‘us’ distinct from their new colleagues. Paradoxically, they found themselves facing challenges in articulating social work theoretically (what they do). In de-emphasizing the theoretical in favour of the principles and practical benefits of their profession, they took on roles of pragmatic and non-protectionist professionals.

Why is it important?

When Norwegian social workers at the NAV offices experience and explain social work as professional knowledge and theory, - they often became pragmatic in their efforts to safeguard the best interests of clients while being nonprotective of their professional knowledge in claiming everyone can practice social work if what one does is ‘good’ (how). Their focus was not necessarily on what they did as social workers – but on how (doing good) they did it. One possible consequence of this is that the expert knowledge involved in social work may become degraded to ordinary and everyday knowledge.


Anita Røysum
Hogskolen i Oslo og Akershus

After writing this article I think that the crucial question facing the social work profession today is - how we best can integrate ‘how’ and ‘what’. How can ethical principles and values be better integrated - and made more visible into social work practice AS THEORY? An increased awareness of the theoretical knowledge can arise by linking idealism and a view of human life within professionalism with the way in which social workers’ knowledge is focused on ‘what’ to do. Theoretical and factual knowledge require knowledge acquisition, i.e. knowing the what. When ‘how’ might be described in a theoretical language based on theoretical knowledge, their ‘knowing how’ can be a matter of ‘what’. Hopefully this will make their professional knowledge more visible.

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