Social Action as the Most Appropriate Social Work Approach for Reducing Poverty and Income Inequality in India
Social Action is seen within Social Work as one of its auxiliary methods. It has not been given much importance in Social Work Education as well as in Practice. On the contrary it is seen as a difficult method to practice because Social Action is perceived to be very radical and confrontationist and to be inviting problems in a tradition-bound country like India. However, we need to acknowledge that understanding and use of Social Action goes much beyond what is conceptualized and practiced in Professional Social Work. It is because Social Action is practiced mostly by those not trained in Professional Social Work than by those with such a degree. It is also argued, many a time, that professionalization of Social Work has weakened Social Action (Jacob, 1965). In such a context, the present paper argues that Social Action should be seen as having a great deal of potential to bring about the systemic change in a country like India which is still struggling with the issues related to poverty and income inequality and that it should be adopted as an approach of Social Work Profession rather than as an auxiliary method.
Defining Social Action
Several interesting definitions of social action have been provided by both Indian and foreign authors. Some of them are Richmond (1922), Maslin (1947), Baldwin (1966), Community Work Group (1973), Friedlander (1977), and in Indian context Moorthy (1966), and Nanavati (1965) (all cited from Siddiqui 1984, p. 12ff). An analysis of the history of these definitions suggests significant ideological shifts in emphasis.
Mary Richmond (1922, p.23) was the first social worker to use the word ‘social action’ in 1922. She defines social action as ‘mass betterment through propaganda and social legislation’.
Sydney Maslin limits the scope of social action by considering it as a process of social work mainly concerned with securing legislation to meet mass problems. However, Baldwin broadens the scope of social action by emphasizing that any effort to bring about structural changes in the social system falls within the ambit of social action. He defines social action as, An organized effort to change social and economic institutions as distinguished from social work or social service, the fields which do not characteristically cover essential changes in established institutions. Social action covers movements of political reforms, industrial democracy, social legislation, racial and social justice, religious freedom and civic liberty and its techniques include propaganda, research and lobbying (cited in Siddiqui, 1984).
In the same line Friedlander (1977) defines social action as an individual, group or community effort within the framework of social work philosophy and practice that aims to achieve social progress, to modify social policies and to improve social legislation and health and welfare services. Similar views are expressed by Lee who says that ‘social action seems to suggest efforts directed towards changes in law or social structure or towards the initiation of new movements for the modification of the current social practices’ (cited in Siddiqui, 1984).
A broad outlook has also been given by Hill who describes social action as ‘organised group effort to solve mass social problems or to further socially desirable objectives by attempting to influence basic social and economic conditions or practices’ (cited in Saldanha, 2008, p. 118).
Indian writers too have defined social action from different perspectives. Moorthy (1966) states that the scope of social action includes work during catastrophic situations such as fires, floods, epidemics, famines, etc., besides securing social legislation. Nanavatty (1965) views social action as ‘a process of bringing about the desired changes by deliberate group and community effort’. According to him, ‘social action does not end with the enactment of social legislation, but the execution of the policies is the real test of success or failure of social action’.
K.K. Jacob (1965) has defined social action as ‘essentially an effort at initiating suitable changes and reforms to improve socio-economic conditions and to better the social climate, which objective is shared by the social work profession’ (p. 63).
Siddiqui (1997) defines social action as an endeavour to bring about or prevent change in a social institution, social system or society as a whole, through a process of making people aware of the sociopolitical and economic realities conditioning their lives and by mobilising them to organise themselves for bringing about a desired change, or to prevent change that adversely affect them (p. 213).
Similarly, Singh (1984) maintains that social action is a process in which conscious, systematic and organized efforts are made by some elites and/or people themselves to bring about change in the system which is instrumental in solving problems and improving conditions which limit the social functioning of weaker and vulnerable sections. It is, on the practical plane, nearer to social reform than to social revolution, which aims at smashing the entire existing social structure and to build up a new social set-up. It is conflictual in nature but at the same time non-violent.
Britto’s (Siddiqui, 1984) relatively contemporary definition emerging from an Indian context is as follows:
Social action is a conflictual process of varying intensity, initiated and conducted by the masses or by a group of elites, with or without the participation of the masses in the action, against the structures or institutions or policies or programmes or procedures of the government and/or relevant agencies/or power groups, to eradicate/control any mass socio-economic political problem with a view to bringing betterment to any section of the under-privileged at a level larger than that of a sociologically defined community (p. 50).
The definition of Britto draws attention to the reality that social action is essentially embedded in the conflictual character of social relations where there is a conflict of interests over the distribution of resources, understood in an inclusive, multi-sectoral manner and not necessarily reduced only to economic resources. This is all the more significant if one recognizes that a ‘conflict of situation’ confronts a large section of Indian society, especially in the more semi-feudal regions, irrespective of their choice and the nature of intervention. This aspect of the definition also opens up the possibility of an engagement with the Marxian conception structured relations within and between institutions within social systems and inequalities of distribution/access emerging from social relations within productive systems (Saldanha, 2008, p. 115).
For many progressive NGOs and civil society organization (CSOs), social action – people’s capacity to organize together for a common, social goal – lies at the heart of their understanding of development. Popular mobilization, whether to defend existing rights that are under threat, or to protest against the denial of these rights, is seen to be just as critical to the development process as economic growth – if not more so. Without this kind of mass engagement in promoting and defending these demands, even concrete gains in the form of economic ‘development’ might remain very fragile and superficial.
Historical Progress of Social Action in India
Beginning with the Ajivikas and Sramanas, nearly 2500 years ago, the subcontinent’s history is replete with inadequately researched, anti-hierarchical socio-religious and cultural manifestations. Pan-Indian heterodoxies such as Buddhism, Jainism and Bhakti movement; regional sects, such as Vira-Shaivism, Sikhism, and Kabirpanth, and numerous other local movements, to a greater or lesser degree, were expressions of anti-heirarchical aspirations and value. More tumultus and localized forms of resistance such as social banditry, caste boycotts and peasant-tribal movements against the impositions and excesses of caste-feudalism in pre-modern times still await serious study (Aloysius, 1998).
The movements of the colonial period were marked by rejection of the traditional socio-political order and a desire of the people for self-government, economic betterment, a social status among peers and such other motives. However, traditional dominance in India transformed itself into state power without undergoing any substantial change. The modern European idiom of secularism, liberal democracy, nationalism, etc. were all appropriated to assert what in substance turned out to be just an updated version of the same old principle of ascription (Aloysius, 1998, p. 226-227).
After independence and in 1950s, most of the voluntary organizations ‘were either relief (satisfying the immediate needs of the people) or institutionalized programmes sponsored by schools and hospitals’ (Fernandes, 1980, p. 14-15). But in the 1960s many realized that this approach fails to reach the neediest and, still more, to make them self-reliant. Efforts were therefore focused on functional literacy and technical education as well as growth-oriented economic and technological inputs.
In the 1970s, this approach was also found wanting. A new type of education, geared to making the weakest sections aware of their situation, to enable them to become active agents of their own development and change in their society, was thus considered essential. Education and organization of people, especially the disadvantaged, were considered essential ingredients to counteract the better-off from monopolizing the benefits of development (Fernandes, 1980, p. 5-7).
In spite of some chronologists discrepancies, Karat basically agrees with the evolution of Voluntary Organizations (VOs) as put forwarded by Fernandes. According to him, the Voluntary Sector was warmly utilized for relief, charity and rehabilitation-oriented projects. Up to 1975-76, the emphasis ‘was on Development Projects: rural development, community development, employment generation, slum improvement, betterment of living conditions, etc.’ (Karat, 1984, p. 19-54).
Constraints experienced during 1975-76 led to voluntary organization adopting another approach, that of education and organization of the disadvantaged. And in this process VOs were often renamed as “Social Action Groups” (SAGs) and “Social Workers” of VOs became “Social Activists”.
SAGs, known by various names like VOs, Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), Grassroots Initiatives, Non-Party Political Formations, Semi-Political Formations, Transformative Action Groups, etc. in the 1970s widely spoke of and utilized social action approach. A large number of people, especially middle class youth who got disillusioned, dared to enter into the lives of the poor and the oppressed to raise the voice of the voiceless (Volken, 1985, p.13). The disillusionment due to which action groups came about was the result of the mess that had set in political, social and economic spheres. Political parties had failed to live up to their expectations. They had no time to reach out and handle the problems of the poor and oppressed in remote areas. The poorest of the poor did not benefit from the faulty ‘top down’ development model, also called the economic growth model that really failed to ‘trickle down’ (Sheth, 1984, p. 260). This trend continued into the 1980s and early 1990s. However, with the onset of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (popularly referred to as LPG) many NGOs experienced resources crunch and many genuine social activists had to put up with the repressive approach of the state. This process has negatively impacted the nature and volume of social action in India. With enormous rise in the influence of globalization and the US imperialism (especially since 1991) social action in India has taken a backseat and is struggling to revive itself with new models and strategies of activism.
Position of Social Action within Social Work in India
Social work education in India started by laying emphasis on curative methods. Hence, social action as a method of Social Work was not given much space either in education or in practice (Siddiqui, 1997, 213).
The First Review Committee on social work education in India the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 1965, strangely, said that as the objective of social reform has already been achieved social workers should get into social service and social welfare functions like attending to the needs of children in orphanages. It did not make a mention of social action as a method of social work. However, the veterans in social work education and practice like Kulkarni, Hasan, Dasgupta and Nanavatty came out strongly against this approach in a Seminar organized by Associaltion of Schools of Schools of Social Work in India (ASSWI). Kulkarni, for example, strongly advocated the commitment of the profession to act as a powerful force in favour of democracy, social justice and social development (Kulkarni, 1967).
The Second Review Committee on Social Work Education in India (UGC, 1980) in its report stated that,
Our model of social work practice and education was based on an industrial, urban and metropolis dominated society…. Social work education was thus based on an individual-urban based model…the late sixties have revealed that industrialization cannot eliminate poverty even from the affluent societies….It has brought to the fore the global need to emphasize the teaching of social action, social policy and social administration, since it is the social milieu and not only the individual, that is the major client of the profession.
Siddiqui (1997) opines that the changing characteristics of social workers, together with the reorganization of the work and market situation for social work have led to the marginalization of social action as a method of social work. Given these trends, he feels that social action as a method will remain on the periphery rather than become a central method.
In the quest to attain ‘professional’ status social work had to face the dilemma of finding compatibility between social work which could play conformist role and social action which demanded a confrontationist role. Hence, very often than not, the process of professionalization of social work led to the weakening of social action as a method (Siddiqui, 1997, p. 212).
However, there is a large chunk of social workers who feel uneasy about the lack of ‘social commitment’ within the social work profession. The social commitment is generally assumed to imply involvement of social workers with macro issues and using their power to remedy the prevailing injustice in society. Thus, without their being conscious, many social workers have the regret and guilt that the method of social action which has the potential to show their social commitment is relegated to the periphery (Siddiqui, 1997, p. 212-13).
Need for Mainstreaming Social Action within Social Work
Contextualizing social work today, Lena Dominelli (2004) in her milestone work, Social Work: Theory and Practice for a Changing Profession, says that ‘social work is a troubled and troubling profession. Its role and place in the professional firmament of the twenty-first century are hotly contested’ (p.1).
Explaining this predicament Fred Powell (2001) states that –The challenges faced by social work at the beginning of the twenty-first century are real and formidable. Social work is being impelled into a new orbit defined by an economic imperative or civic mandate. Social work must choose not simply between positivism and humanism but between marketization, radical resistance or reconstruction if it is to become a vibrant civic force in postmodern society (p.165).
In a globalizing world in which the nation-state is being restructured to promote the interests of global capital and neo-liberal ideologies, social work practitioners find themselves in contradictory position of having to justify their existence as professionals, explicitly charged with improving the quality of people’s lives at both individual and collective levels while being subjected to the ‘new managerialism’ (Clarke & Newman, 1997).
Social work reflects the society that produces it (Dominelli, 2004, p. 249). It is a profession that is conducted within a society riven by inequalities which are both produced and reinforced in and through social work itself. Hence, social workers have to oppose existing structural inequalities and oppression, including those which they perpetuate, if they are to become more inclusive (Ibid, p. 17). To do this, social work has to go beyond the regional and inward-looking approach.
In this context, social action, with its dynamism and passion for pro-people change could be act as a transformative force in the interest of professional social work. It could enable social work to renew its commitment to human rights and justice, and also to effectively face the challenges of neoliberal globalization.
Prasad (2008) opines that social action as a method of social work has passed through vicissitudes of hue both conceptually and in practice. There are no field work modules developed in schools of social work to provide proper training in social action. Also, there are very few agencies where social action is professionally practiced and hence placement of the students for field work in this area is difficult to be made. Another reason, for lack of theoretical and practical inputs in this area is that schools and the faculty therein are marginally committed to poverty and other critical problems of the poor.
However, it could be recalled that social Work profession as we understand it now, had developed through and out of the reform movements of earlier centuries, when humanitarian considerations led to organized charity. But what is now pointed out by competent authorities is that the particular methods and approaches had developed in support of, and in the course of reform movement, later became a sort of “be all and end all” of social workers. Gradually the field of social reform in which social workers were the first to function, was increasingly taken over by political luminaries, labour leaders, etc. with social workers playing only a rather minor role (Batra, 2004).
Acknowledging the importance of social action within the field of social work K.K. Jacob (1965) states that:
Social action is essentially an effort at initiating suitable changes and reforms to improve socio-economic conditions and to better the social climate, which objective is shared by the social work profession. Hence, it is easy to see that social workers have to play an important role in social action. In fact they should be the central figures who should get the interested individuals and groups together and function as the prime movers in this primary movement for making the neighbourhood and the country at large, a better place in which to live and function (p. 64).
However, over the years, in the quest to become a ‘profession’, social work principles and practice started operating within the generally accepted social framework within which improvements were sought to be made, rectifying specific aspects and eliminating particular defects. This led to criticism that social workers are so very conservative, always upholding the status quo, without a sense of the past and the promise of the future, and without changing the present for a better future (Jacob, 1965; Siddiqui, 1997). Prabhakar (2009), for example, says that,
The social work field has emerged as a buffer against the hidden and open, planned crimes of the state against the people. With state as the main agency of manufacturing poverty, it also creates its army of social workers to take care of the fallout in human rights in the name of democracy and human rights (p. 18).
Jacob (1965) criticizes the profession in the following words,
Many of the social workers have preferred to watch the social revolutions taking place in the fields of Community Development, worker’s welfare, social education, etc. from a safe distance, watching the stream of national resurgence and regeneration pass by under the bridge on which we prefer to stay, waiting to administer casework or group work to those that could not swim along or got obstructed in the course of life (p. 67).
Mullay, writing from a radical perspective, observes ‘humanism and social equality must form the twin pillars of an ideal social work society’ (1997, p. 29). In this spirit, critical social work, spearheaded by Frankfurt School has been giving great importance to social action as it believes that social conflicts could be effectively addressed only through meaningful social action.
It needs to be noted here that there is quite a lot of confusion among the social work writers as to whether Social Action is a method, model or approach of Social Work. Mary Richmond (1922) and many others (Jacob, 1965; Siddiqui, 1984, etc.) argue that Social Action is an accepted method of Social Work. Rothman’s (1974) discusses Social Action one of the three models of Community Organization (other two being locality development and social planning).
Saldanha (2008), however, believes that it is better to look at social action as an approach of social work so that it becomes the primary orientation for the function of all the established methods of social work. He states that,
Social action might be pedagogically transacted, instead of as an isolated method, as a methodological approach that foregrounds the tactics/methods employed by this strategy/approach while being inclusive of other methods (similar to the approach of integrated social work practice). While case work and group work may be visualised as functioning primarily at the level of individual human inter-subjectivity and interaction; and community organization may be seen as organising interest-based, social formations larger than groups for intervention; social action as an approach may justifiably conceptualized as an approach/methodology that is inclusive of the foregoing methods and yet having its own distinct methods based on class and other identities (caste, tribe, gender, race, and so on) for addressing structural issues of redistribution (p. 133).
He further argues that seeing the approach in this cumulatively inclusive, yet distinctive, manner is all the more important given the substantiative shift in orientation that social action implies: from individual to the collective, from persons visualized as objects of relief and welfare to collective human subjects capable of conscious, self-directed action; and from situations analyzed in their relatively static, isolated and symptomatic manifestations in the present to an understanding of dynamic historical causes of processes within given structured contexts. Thus, social action may be conceived as an important theoretical and methodological approach/perspective within social work. Social work research and interventions in policy formulation and through social welfare administration, which are considered as other methods of social work, fall outside the foregoing logical continuum of social units; and may best be conceptualized as methodological practices with respect to social institutions and social processes.
Whatever may be the difference of opinion on the position of Social Action within Social Work profession it needs to be emphasized that there is, by and large, unanimity on its relevance and importance. As Cox, Elrich, Rothman and Tropman (1974) state, ‘to believe that social action is dead is to be badly deceived….Many social action efforts are developing in cities and towns where there had previously been little in the way of grass-roots organizing’ (p. 401-2). Thus, many social work authors agree that there is a need for generic practitioners to engage in the task of transforming the social structure which is the cause of individual problems through the method/approach of social action.
As Kulkarni (1967, p.112) has opined, ‘in developing countries, social action is crucial and must precede social work. It is wasteful in a developing country to start with social work and leave social action behind. Social action…created the necessary conditions and climate in which social work could be done more effectively.’ Hence, it could be argued that a country like India requires the practice of enlightened social action in challenging times like the present. The present attempt of trying to understand the implications of Noam Chomsky’s discourse on globalization and the US imperialism to social action in India could be considered as a small beginning in this direction.
In the light of the discussion so far, it is very evident that methods like Social Case Work, Group Work and Community Organization do not suffice to reduce mass problems like poverty and income inequality which have deep rooted systemic causes. They are also intertwined with the highly prevalent problems such as feudalism, patriarchy, ritualism, casteism, illiteracy, nepotism, red-tapeism, corruption, looting of natural resources, and indiscriminate eviction of indigenous people. These problems are compounded by the Structural Adjustment Policies and crony capitalism promoted by successive governments, irrespective of their identity and ideological claims. In such a context, we believe that we need to examine the traditional approaches used in Social Work Education and Practice, and accept, once and for all, Social Action as the most appropriate approach (and not as a method) for Social Work Profession in India we hope to make any meaningful contribution to sustainable and inclusive development, including reducing poverty and income inequality, in the country.
Ashok Antony D’Souza, PhD
Department of Studies in Social Work, Rani Channamma University, Belagavi, Karnataka.
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