Social Work:'Profession without Qualities'

Attempt to link Social Work and Cybernetics

by Theodor M. Bardmann (Februar 2003)

Abstract: From the perspective of the practitioner social work is considered as a crypto-cybernetic performance, i.e. the observations formulated by Heinz von Foerster on second order cybernetics are translated into action patterns for social workers: the observation of the observer is institutionalised in the form of 'supervision'; a 'cultivated sense of possibilities' corresponds to a reality that is seen as constructed, rather than objectively given; the contingency of moral expectations leads to a 'practised ethic of responsibility'; the black-box idea corresponds with the proclaimed 'right of the client for self-determination'. Today, due to Heinz von Foerster, social work can unashamedly celebrate its cybernetic 'coming-out'.

Social work is 'a messy business'. Put more properly: Social work is a 'profession without qualities'. This has been the case from its inception and remains so today. 'To be without qualities' means according to Robert Musil (see Musil 1978, pp 151 sq.), the author of this title, to be 'indifferent' to all qualities, to entertain no preferential relations to any one quality. A profession without qualities considers all qualities to be of equal merit. As systemtheorist one may interpret such a condition as 'freedom of self-determination'. In this context freedom means nothing other than 'imperative to self-reproduce'. A 'profession without qualities' is - in Heinz von Foerster's words - its own regulator: at each instance it decides what it is (see von Foerster 1993b, p 71), which qualities it adopts and which it rejects, in short: what form it takes.

If we look at the history of social work or even if we just consider its present performance, it was and is about nothing more than finding 'appropriate' qualities, adopting a 'professional identity'. Over the years a variety of fashions and whims were followed, but none was found to be adequate as a 'professional core' or as 'professional essence'. For these reasons many observers of social work considered it to be only 'semi-professional'. Others completely denied it any professional status. Some offered the comfort that it might become professional in the near or distant future. Others even recommended 'de-professionalisation', even though its professional status had not yet been established.

Throughout this debate social workers had to continue their work, without having an unambiguous professional identity, without having clearly defined aims, tasks and functions, without making use of coherent approaches and concepts. It operates - as mentioned before - in a 'messy' fashion, 'without qualities', in 'imperatively free self-determination'.

The majority of observers, however, cannot or do not wish to imagine social work as a 'profession without qualities'. They never tire of finding ever new qualities, of directing it towards a clear professional course. However, could it be that social work - despite all theoretical, critical and proselytising comments - has already found an answer to its quest for an identity? What if it is the case that social work has accepted the absence of quality? My thesis is: The outstanding professional quality of practical social work is that it is without qualities. Its 'messiness' is not its flaw, but its mark of distinction, not a shortfall, but a measure of its adequacy. I might even say: its success is to be without qualities, its principle is 'messiness', if I didn't realise how unsuccessful and without principles it can be at times.

Such a thesis that presents us with a paradox can only be understood by employing a mode of thought that incorporates paradox itself, i.e. a mode of thought that is as de-ranged (see von Foerster 1984, 1986) as the practice of social work itself. Nowadays thanks to Heinz von Foerster and his outstanding contribution to cybernetics such a mode of thought is available. We will use it here to support our thesis and to reflect also on the practical achievements of social work. Heinz von Foerster hopefully will forgive us for introducing his well ordered cybernetics into the 'messy' world of social work. But maybe social work always was a 'crypto-cybernetic' performance, that was aware of, but not allowed to express its uniqueness because of the prevailing theoretical dogma. However, after the appearance of these opaque 'observing systems' (von Foerster 1982) on the scientific horizon social work could unashamedly celebrate its 'coming out'. In the following we will briefly describe the image that in this process will appear on the screen.

However, I give warning that I will follow Heinz von Foerster's motto: "Create possibilities" (see von Foerster 1993a, p 49) and contrary to standard procedures will not focus on a negative picture of shortcomings, flaws and limitations, but create a positive outlook informed by possibilities, chances and freedom. Embellishment? Sure! But: 'Honi soit qui mal y pense!' [1]

1. Blind observers

We are grateful to Heinz von Foerster's epistemological Theory of Observing (see von Foerster 1993a, pp 25 sq.; 1993d, pp 116 sq.) for bringing to our notice a peculiar figure: the figure of the observer who can only see something because he doesn't notice his own 'blind spot' (von Foerster 1993a, p 26) The peculiarity of the observer lies not only in the fact that something must always escape his vision, but even more in the fact that he doesn't realise the condition of his own vision, that he doesn't see his own 'blind spot'. Moreover, he is not permitted to see it, because otherwise he could not see anything at all. Each observation happens, when it happens, blindly, i.e. ignoring the 'blind spot'. Every definition is a definition in an undefinable world and every decision is a decision in an undecidable world. And, with this, basically everything has been said.

Heinz von Foerster shifts the observation of self and the world from the level of first order, that deals with the direct naming of objects and situations, to the level of second order, at which observers are observed as to how and under which conditions they observe the world. "Observe the observer!" is his instruction (see von Foerster 1993d, pp 116 sq.) and it is only at this level of recursive observing relations that the scandalous blindness of the observer can come into focus. It is scandalous because it concerns also the observer of the observer and thus repeats itself on third, fourth, fifth levels to the nth degree. Consequently, any hope of a true reference point for observation is destroyed. Wherever we start, in whatever direction we go, circularity always brings us back again.

With this in mind it seems remarkable that professional social work was first to institutionalise the observation of the observer in the form of supervision [2]. Supervision - after several changes in perspective (see Belardi 1992) - cannot consider itself to be advice or the introduction of outside expertise into one's own professional context, but can only be understood as an instruction towards self-observation, as an incentive to highlight the 'blind spot', without ever being able to rid oneself of it. In the work situation we wear a wide range of 'glasses' for observation (see Schreyoegg 1994), in order to search cooperatively for solutions to problems that people as humans (observers) may encounter in relation to their own or other points of view. We know that the solutions we'll find will be the problems of the next round (of observation). We also know that the conclusions somebody may draw when discussing their problems within a supervision meeting, are exclusively theirs and cannot be used in other supervision situations. Supervision - like cybernetic theories of observing - does not aim at finding solutions, but addresses problems: it does not give final answers, but teaches how to deal with new questions and problems. It doesn't deserve the prefix 'super' for claiming to produce superior, better, binding views. On the contrary it deserves it because after applying clinical, psychoanalytical, counselling, group dynamic (both person and institution centred), communication theoretical and finally system- and culture analytical perspectives it has grasped the dependency of observation and the relativity of descriptions (diagnoses, anamneses and theoretical concepts) and has moved on to take a systematically unsystematic, (irreverent and openly eclectic) approach towards descriptions. Of major importance is that it favours the work situation of the supervised. We do not wish to know, what is 'really' happening or which descriptions are 'true', but which descriptions help the observer to function more effectively in the jungle of work-related situations [3].

Today, supervision of this type can use the work of Heinz von Foerster and connect the core problem of professional work that supervision aims to address (not to solve!) with the issues of the recursivity, the interrelatedness and entwinement of different, often contrary and controversial ways of observing that cannot be reduced to a definite starting, finishing or consensus formula. The observer, belonging to a cascade of observers, says farewell to the idea of unity, unambiguity and unanimity, to expose himself to the adventure of multivalence and the many perspectives on social reality [4].

2. Dismission of reality

Heinz von Foerster places his observer exactly at the point, where the grand european humanist tradition either refers to the reality of objective conditions or to ultimate values, reasons and principles, i.e. where it is ontological, objectivistic or normative. Heinz von Foerster dismisses reality, by referring to the 'principle of undifferentiated codification'. This principle claims: "The state of agitation of a nerve cell only codifies the intensity, not the nature of its cause" (von Foerster 1993a, p 31). Thus he leaves every observer to calculate his own reality with exclusive reference to his own calculations. Completely separated from the outside world and without reference to an 'original', the observer has to design his own image of the world. Reality for him remains cognitively inaccessible, accessible alone is his self-constructed reality. The connection that links him to the world and its objects has been severed. 'Objects' to the self-contained observer are only the relatively stable results of his incessantly calculating brain (see von Foerster 1993c, pp 103 sq.). Only when the observer forgets this does reality becomes existent as objective, forcing him to accept its 'being as such' and does not allow for any alternatives.

The principle of objectivity according to Heinz von Foerster (see 1993f, p 63; 1993g, p 88), demands the separation of the observer from the observed and requires that the personal qualities of the observer are kept apart from his descriptions. We can only achieve objectivity if we manoeuvre the observer - that recursive self-referential calculator - into the area of the 'blind spot' and leave him there. If, however, he leaves it, a clear and direct view of the objects of this world will be 'corrupted' by circles, paradoxes and other undecidable factors. Social work never could afford to let the observer disappear into the 'blind spot' of descriptions and therefore as a rule has had to deal with unclear, conflicting, even irreconcilable realities. In addition the realities it had to deal with were too adverse and too deserving of change to allow for an arrangement with their already givenness [5]. However, to open up this reality for change, social work had to entice the observer, the corruptor of all clarity and validity, to abandon his hide out. It had to drag him from behind the descriptions that covered him, and entangle him within the circularity of his constructions of the world.

"This is the way it is! It is a matter of course. There is no way around it!" this is the crude frequently expressed excuse of an observer who is about to disappear into the darkness of his 'blind spot'. By asking "Who says so?" social workers trained in supervision aim at reintroducing the observer. In this way they reveal the so-called objective, factual, true and realistic descriptions to be those of the observer and therefore the only possible point of view. By doing so they upset this point of view and possibly shape it into a new form [6].

Social workers have always opposed the ruling 'sense of reality' with a generous 'sense for possibilities' in order to look for a way out, or for new solutions to problems, together with those affected by them. "Why this way and not any other way?" This question is part of their professional everyday life and is not only directed at the client, but also at the social workers themselves and their way of observing: self-clientification through experiencing oneself, reflection, training and of course supervision is distinctive to social work. However, the price paid for this distinction is messiness, as one's own involvement merges with that of the other. Together they are supposed to find coherent constructions of the social world within the general scramble for 'definitions of reality and normality'.

3. Autonomy means responsibility

With observer observing observers, values, norms and ideals can only be understood as contingent formulas for observation of the self and the world that are in principle inconclusive, but recursive. Thus each observer - having to invent values and norms for his own actions without reference to an external framework - bears the complete risk and the full responsibility for his autonomously arranged stock of values. For according to Heinz von Foerster (1993a, p 47) "autonomy means responsibility!" Thus have we arrived at ethical and moral questions.

Heinz von Foerster argues that ethics cannot be articulated, for in the moment of their expression we tend to 'degenerate' into moralisations. Those talking about ethics become moralisers, for they don't refer to themselves exclusively, but also to others. The ethical proposition 'I should!' turns into the moral proposition 'You should!'. Therefore the issue is not about ethical explication, but to implicitly bring ethics to life through action.

Through his way of building theory, through his thinking in circles and recursions, i.e. through his way of justifying the unjustifiability of respective world views and value judgements, Heinz von Foerster - as constructor of theory - has already practically shown us what he -paradoxically - explicates in his 'ethical imperative': "Act in such a way that the number of possibilities increases!" (von Foerster 1993a, p 49). The number of possibilities increases significantly when we come to deal with a theory that shows the pitfalls of triviliasation and of the reduction in possibilities: i.e. the reference to reality and/or morality.

Social work has maintained an extremely ambivalent relationship not only with the necessities derived from an 'objectively given reality', but also to the obligations arising from a 'binding morality'. This contributes a great deal to its messiness. On the one hand social workers undertake their job as an enterprise that is undoubtedly morally charged and in the course of which, again and again, they convince themselves and others of irrefutable and incontrovertable values, norms and ideals. On the other hand social workers demonstrate a laid back and sober attitude to morality, in order to guard themselves from even the most persistent moralisation attempts. Social workers are at one and the same time both easy prey to and immune from moralising influences. This may prove to be in part a manifestation of the 'implicit ethic' or rather the 'ethical imperative' of Heinz von Foerster!

Who knows better than a social worker that each value system and each moral imperative - of what ever hue - produces its own victims? Who knows better than a social worker that values and norms can inform their work, as well as severely hinder it? Who other than a social worker would be practised in relating moral question to morality itself and to ask whether the distinction between good and bad in itself is good or bad. Social workers have practised circularity also in relation to morality. They have discovered that often good intentions bring about bad results and that sometimes good outcomes can only be achieved by choosing a negative option. Such experiences have always made social workers juggle between good and bad and look at the usefulness of practical action rather than at its moral integrity. Here and there a contract with the devil had to be made in order to enrich the lives of the clients.

A valid system of values and norms cannot take away responsibility for action and non-action from social workers once they have started to look over their own shoulders as observers. Therefore, in spite of all their moral exhortations, it is part of their implicit ethic to maintain a critical distance from all the usual moral obligations as expressed by clients, institutions, observing third parties or indeed other social workers. They know how to use this distance in order to reflect upon the consequences of their actions in a self responsible manner [7].

Like a midwife Heinz von Foerster's observer delivers social work from the objectivistic and moral corpus of traditional European thought and cuts the cord with a predefined reality as well as to an irrefutable morality. Thus he sets social workers free in a fundamental way: As observers of their own observations, he liberates them even from their own certainties and convictions. When social workers nowadays - together with their clients - look for new possibilities to construct reality or for the common ground of shared norms and values, they can do so without having to consider what they believe to be relevant and right. Delivered from convictions it is justifiable to search even the 'dust bins of one's own and societal conceptions of reality and normality' for practical solutions. When observing an unobservable world, when describing a reality that remains unknown, when deciding undecidable questions, social workers cannot avail themselves of secure reference points and solid grounds. They would raise suspicion if they tried to advocate something as binding on others that no longer remains binding on them, or if they tried to convince others of something that they are no longer convinced of themselves.

Social work has been constantly reminded - not only by its clients, but also by their ups and downs - that in this world we can only live with provisional constructions of reality, and that reference to neither god, nature, reason, nor society can curtail the variety of possibilities and reduce it to 'one best way'.

4. Human beings as 'black boxes'

In Heinz von Foerster's 'cybernetics of cybernetics' reality is only accessible as 'second order reality', which is characterised, nolens volens, by its contingency, i.e. it can always be observed in a different way. Contingency invades not only our sense of reality and our stock of values, but finally also our perception of human beings.

When objects (without inverted commas) still existed, a human being was called a subject and even cyberneticians would have characterised him as a privileged authority on constructing reality, as the 'seat' of all observing activities. To the caring professions a human being was a kind of 'sacred cow' or 'golden calf' that was sacrificed to and in receipt of help and care. Both cyberneticians and social workers accepted the belief that ultimately their job was about humans, their dignity and well-being. Following a cybernetics of the second order, humans as objects, aims and reasons for one's profession hit the turbulence of recursive observation relations and we have to fear that they won't come out of it undamaged. How can we describe humans given the contingent and arbitrary nature of all our categories and definitions (see Fuchs et al 1994)?

Again Heinz von Foerster has found a clever solution: The human being is a 'non-trivial, self-referential machine' (see von Foerster 1993e, pp 206 sq.), a black box, and consequently something 'undecidable and indeterminate'. We could also argue that the human being is the observer without an image of himself, his own blind spot. All these phrases are chosen because they are descriptions that truly refrain from making descriptions (see von Foerster 1993d, pp 116 sq.). This has method, because if they consisted of anything other than non-descript phrases our descriptions would add up to triviliasations. The black-box metaphor leaves human beings in an indeterminate condition and suggests that because we are humans and as such observers amongst observer (see Baecker 1994), we in principle cannot know, what it means to be human and what goes on inside human beings. Following observing theory and Heinz von Foerster's cybernetic black-box concept, Niklas Luhmann (1985, p 41, see also Luhmann 1983, p 204) has recommended silence when it comes to humans, i.e. to quasi excommunicate them (see Luhmann 1994) rather than talk about them in amateurish terms, i.e. in a trivial manner.

However, social workers cannot put up a sign in their shop window: "Humanity temporarily unavailable due to change in theory!" They have to act humanely and take care of human beings, even if it is amateurish and trivial. Human beings - whether shouting, hitting, moaning, silent or abandoned, whether looking for or refusing help - are and remain the object of social workers' efforts. Social workers - other than sociologists - cannot acknowledge their significance just when the annihilation of the species is imminent and the condition for the possibility of society is under threat (see Fuchs 1994). Social work is touched by each single fate that is picked up by its antennae. However, this does not mean it goes on a caring binge where it loses sight of itself and possibly its clients (see Baecker 1992). Long before cybernetics or system theory were fashionable, social workers thought of a trick with which they could take care of people without taking them over. They agreed that on the one hand social work should spring into action when it is about helping helpless humans to help themselves (see Scherpner 1974) and on the other hand the power and influence of social work should come to an end with the 'right of the client to self-determination' (see Salomon 1928). Additionally there was the motto: "To pick up the clients from the point where they are found!" and to direct the work with him according to "his personal resources".

Aid to self-help and the right of the client to self-determination are quasi prototypes of the cybernetic black-box-concept [8]. In the womb of traditional European thought, however, these principles had to be included within the normative order as moral imperatives. Nowadays they are the practical and programmatic complement to the self-referential modus operandi of all systems involved in social work. It is no longer a question of morality to respect the autonomy and the responsibility of others for themselves, but more a question of a practical professional rule of thumb and a strategic intelligence to deal with complex, non-trivial systems.

When social workers report the failures and fruitlessness of attempts at linear intervention or when they talk about the wit and the craftiness, the cunning and the shrewdness, the stubbornness and the agility of their clients, they do not attribute it to a defect in their professional qualification, but to the fact that humans are good for a surprise and are able at any time to evade the definitions of others. Basically they comment on the ever present self-referentiality of the other and on the fundamental impossibility of active intervention in another's operational space. Therefore the labels and descriptions by which social workers understand their clients as persons or cases, can only be seen as preliminary, uncertain and risky attempts at making an incomprehensible and unstable complexity invisible. Nowadays social workers can deduce from their practical experience as well as from cybernetic theory that they do not know what they are talking about when they discuss humans, persons or cases. Because: Each person, each 'case' is only a black-box encased in trivialisation! [9]

The principle of being delivered from convictions [10] does not only apply to knowledge and values, but also to human beings. This means: Social workers do not have to be convinced that human beings are the ultimate and most reliable reference point for social reality, yet, there is no reason for them not 'to pretend' they are in order to realise possibilities. The formula man is used as a means to make others accept what would be otherwise precarious definitions of meaning (see Fuchs 1994). By referring with moral undertones to one's own humanity - what ever that should be - we appeal to the generosity of donors or to our clients 'better nature' [11]. In other words: it is part of the messiness of social work that on the one hand it takes human beings seriously as a source of disturbance and as perturbator (troublemaker) par excellence, whilst on the other hand it involves them in the battle for the construction of reality in order to dispense with contingency, end arbitrariness and set a limit to the fun of constructing, -even if this goes against its better judgement [12].

5. Understanding conversation

Again and again the observation of the observer refers to black boxes and eventually undermines all hope of finding final descriptions of ourselves and other human beings. Why then try to reach understanding? Why all the attempts to 'put oneself in the place' of other humans, to 'enter into their experience' of the world, to grasp their understanding of themselves and the world? What happens to the ever quoted 'intersubjectivity' when circularity and closure bar the way to the 'outside', the way to the 'other'? What is to be done with all the empathy and the desire for listening, questioning, explaining and enlightening that distinguishes social workers? The uncompromising and brutal message of a cybernetic theory of understanding can only be:

"We do not understand each other!There is no exchange! We remain separate in every possible sense!"

The principle of undifferentiated codification, the blind spot and the self-referential closed circuit, that makes up our own calculations, separates us radically from the other. Consequently social workers can only follow their favourite occupation, i.e. conversation with other humans, informed by the following motto: "Tell me what you're thinking and I will try to work it out!" According to Heinz von Foerster (see 1993c, p 110) we can only construct our own understanding of the others' understanding, and depending on how brave we are, we can assume a similar understanding in the other. The uncertain territory that Heinz von Foerster leads us into will not become much safer. For social workers, who in their professional practice have to find understanding for so much, such a de-ranged understanding of understanding will not come as much of a surprise. It basically rounds off decisions that they have already taken elsewhere in their practical work:

Nevertheless, in everyday life we tend to forget that when it comes to understanding others there is no such thing as looking through, glimpsing into or total insight into the mindset of others. There are only productions for the inner eye the usefulness and suitability of which can only be tested and correspondingly corrected through the medium of observation of the second order (reflection/supervision). Everything that is said is said by an observer for an observer! From this perspective nobody can aspire - without being ridiculed - to treat more than the reality of his own constructions.

Such an outlook opens up excellent possibilities, especially in the context of counselling and therapy. There is no more need for giving out appropriate directives or exclusively correct advice. On the contrary it is sufficient to give non-directive stimuli to change: provocation, paradoxes, symptom prescriptions, circular questioning and many other methods can enrich the instrument case of social workers.

6. Irreverence

As an 'undisciplined' thinker Heinz von Foerster has no regard for disciplinary boundaries. And exactly because he does not respect departmental boundaries, he was able to unleash a multi-disciplinary theoretical debate, that has caused upset within the scientific community with as yet unpredictable consequences. Last but not least this remarkable irreverence towards all closed systems of meaning signals a further link between cybernetics and social work.

Social workers dabble in innumerable theoretical and disciplinary arenas without ever becoming fully immersed in any one theory or discipline. Some 'disciplined' thinkers are annoyed by the 'haphazard way' in which social workers deal with scientific approaches. This is how it may appear at least to the representatives of the different sciences. However, from a social worker's perspective it is a different matter: only very few scientific approaches pass the quality test of practical applicability and usefulness! That is why regarding their scientific status social workers always have remained - for good reasons and in the best sense of the word - without theory, ie. theoretically unorthodox and scientifically irreverent rugrats. They work - in their own sovereign way - through an ever growing heap of 'refuse'; that also includes scientific 'refuse'. They won't be denied the freedom to decide for themselves what is and is not useful to them.

Heinz von Foerster's cybernetics of the second order can supply social workers with neither explanations nor directions, with neither a moral code nor an identity. It answers no questions and has no solutions at hand. The only contribution it can make is a non-imperative imperative to freedom, and maybe it is from this that its discrete and irresistible charm derives.


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Remarks

[1] With these words: "Shame on him who thinks evil!" the English queen bestowed the order of the garter.

[2] In German language the term 'Supervision' stands for a particular type of professional counselling or consultation for a Social Worker (one to one), for Social Work Teams, and for interdisciplinary groups of professionals working with one or various organisations. Thereby, the Consultant (German: Supervisor) is not an employee or member of the involved organisations and supports as an external consultant the professional reflexion upon work related issues and facilitates experimental - and action learning. In German speaking countries SupervisorInnen have to be qualified by a specific training course in order to practise as such.

[3] This is the stated program for the training of supervisors at the 'Institut fuer Beratung und Supervision' (IBS) in Aachen (see Kersting 1992, especially 73pp).

[4] In the spirit of Michel Serres we could imagine a cascade of parasites, instead of one of observers, in order to describe the system of social work (see Bardmann 1990). Both cases refer to unambiguous ambiguity and therefore to the impossibility of making anything other than a 'messy business' out of social work.

[5] Already when we look at work with stigmatised and marginalised groups, we notice immediately that it does not suit social work to define 'deviance' as an objective condition, or intrinsic quality or unchangeable character trait of its bearer. Social work decides against a fixed reality and for changing, negotiating and constructing descriptions of reality. One of its programs was called 'normalisation'. This did not exclusively mean 'adaptation of deviant normalities to ruling standards', but also 'adaptation of ruling standards to deviant normalities'. Social work strives to offer a space for the articulation of those discourses that are underprivileged. This demonstrates that social workers are no 'indifferent pluralists', that content themselves with lip service and pulpit preaching, but understand themselves as 'radical pluralists', that practically question the established meaning, unambiguity and finality of reality designs.

[6] According to Heinz von Foerster each statement has to declare the condition under which it gains clarity and validity, that is it must finally name the observer. The latter, however, can easily be lost in observing loops, so that all clarity and validity disappears. At this point observers can 'go loopy' and allow their world to become more than 'messy', i.e. chaotic, lunatic, absurd. Given this background they can also make a decision for a - paradoxical - self-foundation in order to produce certainties and validities for themselves and their clients: They make a decision for this and no other statement. As long as they do not forget their paradoxical foundation, they can remain capable of amending all their statements even when they defend them as valid in this instance.

[7] In the model degree course for social work and social paedagogics at the FH Niederrhein in Moenchengladbach modules about collective reflection of the different evaluation of problems, adapted values and strategies for action are given special relevance (see Kluesche 1992).

[8] Since social work is not only confined to casework, i.e. helping work with individuals, but also offers social group work (see Krapohl et al 1991), it encounters the black box phenomenon not only on a personal, but also on a social level. For many social workers (as well as cyberneticians) the problem consists in shifting the focus from individuals to groups, or better still: to the level of social system formation. At this level we can also observe a type of modus operandi that is self-referential and circular (see Luhmann 1987). The complexity of social systems cannot be reduced to the willfulness and inner dynamic of persons, but arises from their interactions. On the level of social systems social workers thus operate with a black box so that in reality they always deal with several black boxes; Any attempts at exposing a black box inevitably result in the emergence of ever new ones (see Glanville 1988).

[9] The human being becomes a person (in Luhmann's terms 1991) or case when talked about in specific ways and thus 'collages of expectations' are produced. Official varieties of this procedure are diagnoses, case notes, personality profiles, symptom compilations, criminal records, file notes etc. These techniques are no more than 'fetishes of reality', and with their aid principly unpredictable and inexplicable objects are turned into discrete entities, that seem to allow for predictions. Social workers cannot dispense with the use of such fetishes but they can abstain from fetishism!

[10] Convictions are just the intimate enemy of surprises. Those social workers that exclude surprises (with the help of irrefutable values, valid laws and rigid principles), keep aloof from human beings.

[11] Seriously: Where would we come to if there were not a few dilettantes (or are dilettantes opportunists in disguise?) who every so often remind us of the positive aspects to being human (and thankfully cut out the negative ones): such as non-violence, independence, autonomy, phantasy, tolerance, solidarity and tenderness?

[12] Where humans are used as 'moral weapons', emotionalism and self-righteousness abound. Therefore we need to be careful with this second strategy!


Der Autor:

Prof. Dr. Theodor M. Bardmann


Veröffentlichungsdatum: 1. Februar 2003


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