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By James N. Wallace [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons wikimedia

Carolina Muñoz-Guzmán
Professor Pontifica Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago

Latin American Social Work, revisiting liberation movements to resist current hegemonies in the region.

This article argues the need of revisiting historical ruptures in Latin American social work, to challenge current hegemonies in the region, therefore moving between the present and past, we can build a transformed future.

Social work in Latin America

Social Work in the 1960’s questioned its professional practice as one profoundly influenced by society’s economic and political forces, and marked by apathy in response to inequities caused by structural sources of oppression over excluded groups in society.

Many movements appeared at that time, in Canada Structural Social Work was developed; in Britain began Radical Social Work which brought social workers in close proximity to service users through action-research and attempts to form alliances with them and to develop new forms of practice.

Structural social work, like radical social work and its successors, as anti-oppressive social work, were conceived of social work within a critical tradition concerned with the broad socio-economic and political dimensions of society that disrupted egalitarian relations among individuals and communities, and aimed to promote the emancipation of oppressed populations, and fight structural barriers that affected the living conditions of service users.

Latin American social work was not indifferent to these reflections, assuming a critical perspective of capitalist societies, impelled by the movement involving the re-conceptualization of social work (Faleiros, 2011; Netto, 1976), based on a Marxist analysis about capitalism, searching for transformations of social structures, critically analyzing social work’s daily practices, and questioning its servile disposition towards dominant social structures.

Guillame Paumier image
By Guillaume Paumier (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (link)], via Wikimedia Commons>wikimedia

This process was a common outcome of both liberation theology and anti-oppressive social work and provided an important element in models for practice. These liberating movements became rooted in Latin America, during the decade of 1960s and represented a challenge for traditional practices within the Catholic Church in the first case, and within the social work practice in the second. Both models have had an enduring legacy in developing forms of social involvement and political engagement.

Liberation theology and Latin American reconceptualization of social work, brought together a rupture with institutional traditions: the poor was understood as an oppressed group, not any more as a receiver / beneficiary but as a protagonist; people become political agents to transform structures not any more just to adapt to the structures; vertical scheme of approach to reality of people were discharged to adapt notions such as popular education.

The contribution that these perspectives give to the discipline is the notion of empowerment as a deliberated process whose protagonist is the person gaining power and taking over control in his/her life. This new role allows people greater access to social resources that not only favor their personal goals, but also their collective aims. Anti-oppressive practice seeks to raise critical awareness and for oppressed communities to understand structural inequalities and obstacles, and contribute in the development of their capacities and social capital to increase their control and influence in society, improve their access to social resources and their participation in social decision making.

Unfortunately, since the seventies Latin America became the center of the neoliberal “revolution.” The neoliberal orthodoxy was promoted by governments, international organizations (WB, IMF), intellectual economists, and regions’ oligarchies, all of them united in a consent to neoliberalism, “which was to dominate most countries for more than a generation” (Kellog 2017). Main achievement of this movement has been channeling wealth from poorest groups to the oligarchies “dismantling of institutions and narratives that promoted more egalitarian distributive measures in the preceding era” (Harvey 2007).

One could argue that de emergency of counterhegemony in Americas, seen in Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela, as well as the current relevance of China in the region, and the emergency of left or centre-left states in Latin American may threatened the traditional hegemony. However, a simple review of political economic practices show us that counter-hegemonic change is still very much a work in progress.

There is a need, then, of revisiting the spirit of Latin American social work reconceptualization, the spirit of liberation theology, and also the spirit of later contributions of critical pedagogy, to bring back to discussion issues concerning social difference, social justice and social transformation promoted by a praxis of resistance. In Latin America, the infusion of liberation theology, processes of reconceptualization, and critical pedagogy in social and community work, were a crucial focus in the very essence of people’s lives, and to question the interface of liberation and domination.

This article is an invitation, to discuss the influences of these perspectives in social work, and the dilemmas the region faces today, to make decisions about perpetuating the status quo or creating the context to question. Resistance seems hard in the middle of the natural hegemony of neoliberalism. We need to recall old practices and its fundaments, moving between the present and past, to build a transformed future.