Social work and the ill body

Liz Price Liz WalkerLiz Price (left) and Liz Walker both work at the University of Hull. (401 words)

Social work is remarkably silent when it comes to the physical body. By definition, the profession is similarly unnoticed within the experience, and practice, of illness. This book addresses these silences through an exploration of chronic (autoimmune) illnesses engaging in wider debates around vulnerability, resistance and the lived experience of ongoing ill-health.

We demonstrate the role that social work has to play in actively engaging the (ill) physical body, rather than working around and through it. We focus on autoimmune conditions such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma. Conditions like these allow for an exploration of the everyday lived experience of illnesses which can exacerbate social and economic vulnerability and may precipitate personal and social crises, requiring a variety of interventions and support.

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The question central to our enquiry is, what place does physical ill health and chronic illness, in particular, occupy in social work theory and practice? We suggest that the answer to this question is that the space occupied by both the body and daily realities of illness without cure is negligible and configured in very particular ways. Whilst adult social work, in particular, deals very much in the frailties of the older ‘vulnerable’ body, commissioning and distributing resources, it tends to bypass other critical indicators of vulnerability that may be the result of illness at any point in the life course. Indeed, social work intervention more broadly is increasingly focused on intervention at either end of the life course, being most visible in the context of child protection and adult safeguarding. Given that autoimmunity is apt to make itself apparent in the middle (and most productive) years, autoimmune conditions effectively bypass the policy imperatives that drive social work to focus almost exclusively on only certain forms of vulnerability.

Whilst one of our central aims in this book is to make autoimmunity visible, we also assert the place of social work within that broader frame. There are, of course, many ways of defining and practising ‘social work’ and we, of course, recognise that the absences to which we refer are not entirely endemic. However, we argue that our profession fails to adequately address the realities of the physically ill body. In essence, in this book, the personal, the professional and the disciplinary come together to create an enquiry that asks new questions of the everyday lived experience of chronic ill health and our professional responses to it.

Dr Liz Price is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Hull. Dr Liz Walker is Professor of Social Work at the University of Hull.

Book reference

Price, L & Walker, L. (2015) Chronic Illness, Vulnerability and Social Work: Autoimmunity and the contemporary disease experience. London: Routledge.