Journal Article

‘Speaking Back’ to Fear: Responding to the Moral Dilemmas of Risk in Social Work Practice

Sonya Stanford

in The British Journal of Social Work

Published on behalf of British Association of Social Workers

Volume 40, issue 4, pages 1065-1080
Published in print June 2010 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online December 2009 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
‘Speaking Back’ to Fear: Responding to the Moral Dilemmas of Risk in Social Work Practice

Show Summary Details


The rhetoric of risk is used within neo-liberal risk society to mobilise fear as an emotive, defensive and strategic medium for advancing the values of safety and security. In this context it is argued that risk, driven by the politics of fear, has re-oriented social work practice towards managing and securing against risk as opposed to genuine attempts to respond meaningfully to need. According to this discourse social workers are fearful - we fear for our physical and mental well-being; we fear that we will be blamed when things go wrong; and we fear the loss of the integrity of our profession. This paper reports the results of research conducted in Australia that has explored how social workers are able to ‘speak back’ to these fears within their interventions. Despite its pervasive and often foreboding presence, the majority of participants reported that they were able to undermine the conservative impetus of risk within their practice. The research indicates that taking risks is integral to social workers enacting a moral stance against the proclivity towards defensive and morally timid social work practice within the conservative political, social, cultural and economic climes of neo-liberal risk society.

Keywords: Risk; social work; dilemma; ethics and morality

Journal Article.  6642 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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