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Yolanda Guerra
Associate Professor at the School of Social Service, Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro, Studies and Research Coordinator on Social Service Fundamental Principals

The necessary Marxist reading of the fundamental principles of pragmatism in Social Work


An analysis of the history of Social Work and its relationship with “theories” proves that pragmatism is a trend and its theoretical perspective is much more significant than we assume, affecting not just professionals in academia but also those involved in social policies, influencing social workers on how to use social theories, especially Marxism that is often confused with pragmatism.

Pragmatism explored

Pragmatism is responsible for the profound empiricism that feeds the profession and for defining ways to conceive a theoretical and practical relationship. In both cases, practice is overrated, it has been identified as pure experience and since theory is restricted to habits and customs, which will be true and successful if they helped to immediately solve problems. Pragmatism is also responsible for the profound disdain, in general, some professionals feel towards critical theory, not just any knowledge, nor practical-instrumental knowledge, but knowledge that effectively seeks the fundamental principles and, hence, it will not always become an immediate response.

Ideological – Theoretical Pragmatism in Social Work

Seminal authors that deal with the broad universe of what in social sciences is known as pragmatism (1) are very different and they have not reached a consensus about the nature of pragmatism. For some authors, pragmatism is a theory of meaning (Peirce); for others, a method or a theory of truth (James and Dewey); and even for others, a philosophy; there are also those who perceive it as a way of life. However, the extent of this trend is such that it covers not only different, but also opposed conceptions. Its importance goes beyond the fact that, at the beginning of the 20th century, pragmatism became the predominant trend in North America. It became known as the “American way of life.” (2) From that period onwards, pragmatism and neo-pragmatism became dominant trends in specific moments and situations. Important pragmatists, such as Dewey (and his instrumentalism greatly influenced the social sciences, especially education, psychology and social work.)

However, pragmatism, as a way of being in the immediacy of the bourgeois world and of its ideal representation, based on experience, operates with such subtlety making it difficult to perceive that it is merely a way of understanding what is apparently real and not the basis of what is actually real. Pragmatism operates by understanding praxis, through its insertion and its immediate understanding of reality, the common man’s attitude towards everyday life. Pragmatic attitudes and thinking about everyday life become naturalised and are naturalised by the predominant bourgeois rationality: instrumental reasoning. (3)

Pragmatic thinking and attitudes, by allowing social workers to integrate reality, ratify in the profession a naïve type of realism in contrast to critical realism. Hence, this “immediate and naïve attitude of common consciousness” (Sanchez Vázquez, p.28), is limited to immediacy as an option or as a lack thereof, since the bourgeois man has “a consciousness of praxis forged spontaneously and non-reflexively, although it does not lack (...) because it is consciousness, certain ideological and theoretical elements in a degraded, rude or simple manner” (Sanchez Vázquez, 2007. p.35).

In this conception, the usefulness and efficacy characteristic of knowledge is the criterion for acting in analogous situations, with temporary/a priori judgements resulting in prejudice, as marks of pragmatism, caused by a consciousness that does not reflect reality as a whole. It barely expresses the repetitive practice of every day life, (4) where we often act trusting these temporary judgements, and although they may be denied by social reality, they are not addressed because of experience-based habits. However, they are limited and limit the type of intervention in the social context.

There is no place for trust, if a professional does not recognise the theory that guides his/her practice. A professional’s error is to believe that professional practice can be conducted without a theory. A social worker who is unaware of the social theory that guides his/her practice becomes a manipulation tool of such theory. Only by means of a materialist, ontological analysis, the professional may reveal the social meaning of the profession as an activity that, inserted in the social and technical divisions of work, it becomes a particular manifestation of social work. (5)

Final Considerations

Based on these reflections, we acknowledge that the bourgeois order, despite the coexistence of various rationalities, suffers a predominant type of rationality unique to western capitalist civilization. Therefore, by being perceived as the dominant form of current rationality, it crosses the different spheres of social life that are organised based on its pragmatic, utilitarian, instrumental components, creating bourgeois sociability itself across all social classes, class segments, institutions and social and professional practices. This rationality has been present throughout the profession’s history, in the social-occupational space where intervention occurs, in its requirement to solve problems; in the assessment of results through quantitative goals; as well as in the political, ideological and theoretical references that guide professional interventions. In this field, the influence of pragmatism has left its mark on: the concept of this profession as an instrument that serves the capital project, the concept of the psychosocial support practice, its focus on the subject, its educational role in adapting and adjusting, its disinterest in techniques, action instruments and methodologies, the profound eclecticism of its theoretical approaches, the disregard for fundamental principles.

At present these influences are found, for example, in increasingly pragmatic professional training criteria, in the adopted rationality reduced to the logic of skills and manipulative behaviours, in streamlined professional training processes, in reality analysis categories reduced to instrumental categories, in agnostic thinking, as well as negating the possibility to have access to knowledge that constitutes the logic behind processes and practices (social, political and professional), all in all, to reach the fundamental principles of social life. In consequence, research has been reduced to a mere gathering of empirical data.

This rationality does not only invade Marxism but it also becomes confused with it .

For these reasons, inspired by the appropriate term used by Quiroga (1991) who considered there had been a pragmatist “invasion” in Marxism, as a result of the instrumental appropriation of Marxism, expressed in the Marxist demands that solve the immediate problems of the professional practice. This pragmatic appropriation of Marxism by the profession, caused by instrumental reason, based on a view that the truth of a theory is directly related to the outcomes its produces, (re)establishes challenges. The influence of instrumental reason and the tendency to transform all knowledge into intervention models and methodologies; the constant demand for theories that contribute intervention guidelines (a true compulsion for outcome theories); the extreme concern for technical-instrumental procedures, express a social work perspective as a social technique (to provide help, manage conflicts, solve problems, manage poverty). Because we live under the influence of instrumental reason, Marx’s social theory has to evade its attacks and rid itself of its contamination.

In contemporary capitalism, pragmatic logic increasingly finds more space to position itself. Individualism and subjectivism, centred on the subject and not on the social being; the utilitarian view that merely considers its reproductive value and not its social usefulness aimed at transformation, are its determinant and recurrently re-signified marks. The demands we make of Marxism to provide immediate answers to immediate situations cancel its practical-critical content. Pragmatic Marxism derived from the influence of pragmatism on Marxism, has became an instrumental Marxism, sterile, positivised, completely detached from the perspective of becoming a social being, separated from an imperative need for revolution. Only ontological criticism can expose the logic of pragmatism and its influence on the contemporary world, hence the need for Marxist criticism of the fundamental principles of pragmatism and its consequences as a way of being and of reproducing the social being of a bourgeois society.

  1. the late 19th century. In 1871, in Cambridge, U.S., a group of intellectuals were concerned with releasing philosophy from the excesses of metaphysics and from the formalism of the Cartesian theory of knowledge, they held meetings of the Metaphysical Club. Subsequently, in 1872, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), philosopher, scientist and mathematician, presented a set of ideas concerning a method he called pragmatism for his colleagues to criticise. Since then, it became an intellectual movement, a school of thought.
  2. It should be pointed out that pragmatism appears precisely when competitive capitalism was changing to monopoly capitalism (from 19th century to 20th century) in the United States, immediately after the U.S. civil war. This period was also marked by the separation between the Church and the State and by the strong development of science and technology.
  3. For criticism of instrumental reason in Social Work, see Guerra, 2007.
  4. Cf. Vázquez, op.cit.
  5. Based on Marx’s theory.
  6. Vázquez said: Pragmatism identifies truth and usefulness. This thesis of usefulness may confuse some people ifit they consider that Marxism does not see knowledge as an end in itself, but as a human activity related to a person’s practical needs for which it more or less serves directly and in respect of which it develops incessantly (2007, p. 241).