Reconceptualising Well-being: Social Work, Economics and Choice
Keywords:Well-being, wellbeing, social work, choice, neo-liberalism, adult social care, austerity
In this paper we examine the intersection of well-being, agency and the current political and economic structures which impact on social work with adults and in doing so contribute to ‘interpreting and mapping out the force fields of meaning production’ (Fornäs, Fredriksson & Johannisson 2011: 7). In it we draw upon Sointu’s (2005) work which identified the shift from conceptualising well-being in terms of ‘the body politic’ to conceptualising it in terms of ‘the body personal’ and identified parallels with understanding well-being in English social work. There has been a shift in the nature of social work in the United Kingdom in how the question of agency has been addressed. For many years this was through the traditional notion of autonomy and self-determination (Biestek 1961) and later collective approaches to welfare and services (Bailey & Brake 1975). The development of paradigms of mainly personal empowerment in the 1980s and 1990s (Braye & Preston-Shoot 1995) saw social work become less associated with collective engagement in welfare and more concerned with the enhancement of individual well-being (Jordan 2007). Whilst the rhetoric of well-being, in contemporary English social work, continues to include autonomy and self-determination, this is focused primarily upon the narrower concepts of independence and choice (Simpson 2012).
The UK Department of Health’s A Vision for Adult Social Care: Capable Communities and Active Citizens (DoH 2010) is the template for national social care policy to which all Local Authorities in England had to respond with an implementation plan. This paper draws on a documentary analysis of two such plans drafted in 2012 in the wake of an ‘austerity budget’ and consequent public expenditure reductions. The analysis considers the effect of economic imperatives on the conceptualisation of individual choices and needs in the context of Local Authorities’ responsibilities to people collectively. A concept of ‘reasonableness’ emerges, which is used to legitimize a re-balancing of the ‘body personal’ and the ‘body politic’ in the concept of well-being with the re-emergence of an economic, public construction. Our discussion considers why this is happening and whether or not a new synthesised position between the personal and political is being developed, as economists and policy makers appropriate well-being for their ends.
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