Many people would agree that we live in uncertain times. This has become once more apparent during the COVID-19 crisis. In all areas of our life, people experience shifts and changes of an unprecedented scale such as the fear to become incapable of working, losing your current job position or status in the family and society. Also, companies have become more often victims of cyber-attacks that suddenly shut down infrastructure and demand money in return for the release of stolen data.
In this post, I will explore the social economy and have a deeper look at social enterprises that provide individual social services for people in need of care. In particular, care workers have to deal constructively with uncertainty and insecurity, ambivalence and ambiguity. Recently, Herbert Effinger has suggested in his new book that “Social Work Management in the Uncertain” could even be better understood as one of the basic competencies of social workers.
In the following, we will review this book and draw some conclusions regarding the question of how can the current and future workforce be prepared for the management of the uncertain. We will start with a summary of the book before we continue to evaluate the consequences.
1. The Book and its Author
The book with the title “Soziale Arbeit im Ungewissen – Mit Selbstkompetenz aus Eindeutigkeitsfallen” (in English: Social Work in the Uncertain – With Self-Competence From the Trap of Unambiguity), was published in February 2021 at Beltz Juventa in Weinheim. It is intended as a critical review of the study and academisation of social work at German universities over the past 50 years and is not only relevant in the context of the current pandemic. Moreover, the book represents a significant expansion of the author’s previous publication “Consulting in the Social Economy”. The author Herbert Effinger was a Professor of Social Work Science/Social Pedagogy at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Dresden until 2016 and has several years of experience as a certified supervisor, coach, teaching supervisor and organizational consultant.
2. Summary of the book
In its four chapters, the book supports the thesis that dealing constructively with uncertainty and insecurity, ambivalence and ambiguity is one of the basic competencies of “care workers”. It examines which action and coping strategies (rather than uncertainty displacement mechanisms) social workers choose in dealing with uncertainty in their professional environment. Additionally, the book also shows how teachers in academic education can promote this in order to better face everyday contradictions, dilemmas, and conflicts.
The first chapter provides an introduction to essential basic concepts, such as the feeling of uncertainty, and elaborates how an examination of this in the context of increasing complexities, conflicting interests, and tensions can become the basis of social work activities through the body- and feeling-oriented theories and approaches.
In the second chapter, readers are introduced to epistemological and decision-theoretical basic assumptions of human action, dealing, among other things, with the duality of objectivity and subjectivity of human perception and the formation of concepts by analogizing and categorizing. In the course of this, the author points out the chances and the limits of science to produce certainty, truth and unambiguity on the one hand and not to avoid “unambiguity traps” on the other hand. In dealing with problems in professional practice, it is necessary to develop an eclectic, constantly comparing and integrating different approaches. Social work has to position itself as a “hybrid” science of action, both in relation to other professional fields and in the recognition and analysis of social problems. Finally, different types of decisions and the decision-making process in dealing with uncertainty, insecurity and doubt in the context of decision-making are examined in more detail. Subjective decision-making processes and their realization in concrete action are influenced by very different factors and not only emotional and cognitive operations such as need deficits, motives and intentions, ideas about goals and the future, situations, and resources.
The third chapter locates social work as part of the social economy or an intermediary and hybrid system of assistance: The social economy is seen as characterised by conflicting interests and regulatory principles, which must find its task in the midst of, firstly, the sector’s community (reciprocity and voluntariness), secondly, the state (provision and welfare), and, thirdly, the economy (principle of equivalence within trade relation). Hybridity arises from an overlap of interests, goals and control principles and the involvement of a large number of stakeholders from different fields of work and activity. Its social mission, therefore, consists in accompanying and supporting people in transformation processes. In the social economy, employees have more often to cope with situations of uncertainty and insecurity so that they can develop their creative and productive potential for action. Contrary to a restriction of social work based solely on normative mandates, it should, in other words, be about countering the contradictory and tense challenges of the social economy with a questioning attitude, professional self-image and avoidance of simplifications.
In the fourth chapter, a personality-theoretical framework model is first presented, and then the concept of professional self-competence for social workers in the accompaniment and support of addressees is elaborated. Self-competence in social work includes abilities and skills such as humour competence, risk and decision-making competence, power competence, and reflection competence. And it is understood as a domain-specific sub-competence alongside “attitude (ethics competence and values knowledge), ability (practice competence and action knowledge), knowledge (analysis competence and explanatory knowledge), and other competencies (field competence and design knowledge)” (p. 212). From the author’s point of view, the promotion and development of this self-competence is a crucial future challenge in the context of the further development of the academic discipline and profession of social work.
3. Conclusions: How can the current and future workforce be prepared for the management of the uncertain?
The book offers its readers various scientifically sound perspectives and, due to its cross-theoretical and cross-methodological approach, it addresses both teachers and students of social work science as well as experienced practitioners. It builds bridges between everyday knowledge, basic science and action science and above all offers significant points of reflection for the further development of teaching and practice: Firstly, social work can always be seen as relational work under uncertainty and insecurity. Accordingly, in academic teaching, attention should be paid to “questioning old certainties and further developing strategies for dealing with uncertainty and insecurity” (p. 234). The goal should therefore be to teach students curiosity and “theoretical doubt” in dealing with ambivalences.
Secondly, the book clearly points out that both the formulation of goals for professional interventions and the formation of theory and reflection on practice requires emotional anchoring and dialogical negotiation processes between all participants. In this sense, social work should move integratively on a continuum of action between theory, methodology, practise transfer and reflection work. Professional action is always transdisciplinary and can be underpinned by everyday theories as well as scientific theories from different disciplines and schools.
Thirdly, compared to Effinger (2018), there is an expansion to include epistemological and decision-theoretical foundations of human action for a better understanding of uncertainty management as a key competence in social work. Self-competence is thereby seen as an essential component in the interplay between self-awareness, self-control, self-observation, and self-regulation. Fourthly, although the social economy has the task of ensuring framework conditions for the social person-related care of its clients, it can often be observed that practice reflection and supervision in particular have increasingly developed into a place for resolving business-related team and organizational development processes and conflicts triggered by these processes. The focus of consulting and supervision should therefore be shifted back to the genuinely professional level and the competence development of the professional actors in the future.
Effinger, Herbert (2021). Soziale Arbeit im Ungewissen – Mit Selbstkompetenz aus Eindeutigkeitsfallen. Weinheim: Beltz Juventa.
Effinger, Herbert (2018). Beratung in der Sozialwirtschaft: Ungewissheiten als Chance kreativer Problemlösungsstrategien. Göttingen: V&R.