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Relationship-Based Social Work.


Ruch, G., Turney, D, & Ward, A. (eds.) (2010). London: Jessica Kingsley.

pp.272 (pbk) 19.99 [pounds sterling] ISBN 978-184905003-6

This book is a well-structured look at the place of relationships in social work practice and examines the theoretical base as well as the need for training in, supervision of, and reflection on, its use.

The opening chapters by Gillian Ruch and Adrian Ward are well-argued and enlightening, locating the theories of relationship-based work in an historical context, and contextualising the discussions that follow. The links to reflective practice are many and offer sound advice to social work students trying to locate 'self-awareness' in social work and, more explicitly, in reflective practice. The editors' discussion of the ambiguous nature of social work, 'Social Work occupies an ambivalent social space' (p.22), will help the desired 'light-bulb' moment looked for, in my experience of teaching, in this subject area. The book also develops the why's and how's of there being 'no right answer' to service users' problems, and how a sound knowledge of relationships can help with working in 'Schon's (1983) swampy lowlands'. Adrian Ward's note that 'I am suggesting that this is more of an art than a science, more a question of growth and development, rather than merely training' (p.64) sums up, for me, the need for a fluid approach to working from such a perspective.

The next section of the book moves into a series of contributor discussions around the place, and use, of relationships in practice. Chapter Four gives clear evidence of how the understanding of relationships can be used in drawing out information from vulnerable service users and disaffected clients. This aspect provides reference to sound transferable practice skills for working in high-risk situations, such as child abuse cases. However, I felt there was a missed opportunity in the lack of discussion of the evidence from research in such situations, which underpins empowering practice when working with involuntary clients.

Kohli and Dutton's links to short-term work gives added breadth to the use of relationships in brief work where they may often be seen as less important because of the time-limited nature of the intervention. They additionally draw in and provide an anti-managerial argument applicable to child protection when they note, 'there is a danger that with families on the move colliding with professionals making haste, little is made into too much and that too much is left invisible and compressed into too little' (p.101). In my view, they draw out culturally-competent practice, although it is not named as such, with diverse ethnic groups, refugees and asylum seekers.

Chapters Six, Seven and Eight then move into working with strong feelings and the emotional costs of working with service users whose behaviours can be unexpected and, very often, intimidating. These chapters draw out issues from risk assessment to reciprocity, although the debate was not as clearly delineated as in previous sections in making a case for relationship-based practice. However, the links to understanding the possible pitfalls in this side of the work do include and develop the theme of self-awareness as being as important as an awareness of service users' agendas.

Chapter Nine deals with long-term relationships and the necessity of clear professional boundaries that nonetheless allow 'love' to be expressed appropriately. Chapter Ten covers the issue of 'endings start with beginnings' and makes some sound points that, once again, were applicable to other ways of addressing and applying skills of honesty and consistency. Chapter Twelve allowed service users to 'speak for themselves' and modelled a respect that social workers can emulate, as generally this chapter allowed service users to 'speak' without too great a commentary about their input into the associated research project.

Chapter Thirteen drew in supervisory relationships and laid the foundation, in my view, for Chapter Fourteen's look at the future of social work in multi-disciplinary teams and the associated difficulty of maintaining a clear professional identity in modern practice.

This is a book that will have a resonance with both social work lecturers teaching reflective practice to students and the students themselves, especially those struggling with its difficult concepts alongside their placements, where ambiguity reigns. In some ways, I feel the chance to develop counter-arguments to an unthinking adherence to evidence-based practice and risk-averse child protection practice has been missed, although it is touched on in many parts of the book. This, of itself, would not stop me recommending it as a very helpful supplementary book to a range of other texts used on professional programmes. Due to the complexity of relationship-based social work, I am left feeling that it is most appropriate for final year students who should have developed the level of self-awareness and insight to make the best use of the content. However, this book could equally be applicable to unqualified workers, especially in those areas of practice where a balanced view of relationships should underpin more objective assessment. Last, I am, perhaps, a mite disappointed that, whilst alluding to the importance of challenging a managerialist agenda, this was not developed in greater depth.

Courtney Jones, Visiting Lecturer in Social Work, University of Bedfordshire
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Author:Jones, Courtney
Publication:British Journal of Community Justice
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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