Social Work and Structural Analysis


By Thao N. Lam

“I want to do more for my clients, but I can’t. Then I can’t look at my phone and see the news about Ferguson. I feel awful,” said a social service colleague, blinking back tears of frustration and anger.

A common response from within the profession and from the agency where we work may be to practice “self-care”. The term “self-care” refers to activities and practices that social workers can engage in regularly to reduce stress and maintain our health and well-being both professionally and personally. It is important to practice self-care for social workers who work with clients who face a myriad of problems such as abuse, violence, homelessness, mental illness, chronic medical issues and unemployment but feel powerlessness in their ability to adequately address the problem, and in most instances, problems.

What many social workers realize is that self-care is an individual coping practice for the stressors attached to the inability to address structural social problems. This mirrors how we, and the agencies or systems we work within view our clients, as individuals to be “motivated” and encouraged to “comply” with federal or local policies and program requirements to address their presenting problem.

In social work we deliberately use terms like “addressing” problems and not terms like “eliminating” problems, with the knowledge that our interventions are focused on the symptoms of greater social issues. Self-care can and should include a structural analysis of why certain members of our communities are over represented living in poverty, without access to mental and medical health services, homeless, and the subject of institutional profiling and abuse. This structural analysis lends itself to collective action.

Social workers have much in common with our clients, activists, advocates, and organizers. They are the ones who are demanding housing and not just shelters. They are the ones challenging laws that make it easier to evict renters. They are the ones fighting for better wages and conditions for low income workers. They are the ones exposing corporate welfare while social programs are cut or eliminated. They are the ones who are combating police brutality in Ferguson and every city.

We know that the distance between ourselves and our clients is as short as the desk that separates us in our offices. There is space between for us on the other side of the desk and up to in the streets where are we can find clients, activists, advocates, and organizers. We may just need to join them.

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