Social Dialogue Magazine
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Dr Susan Levy Senior Lecturer, School of Education and Social Work University of Dundee, Dundee, Scotland, UK

Transforming Lives:
Connecting Social Work with the Arts


For many practitioners the connection between the arts and social work will not necessarily be visible. This short paper contends that connecting with the arts and making space for the arts in social work should be integral to the profession. The combined impact on social work of neoliberalism and proceduralism coupled with the ‘social turn’ in art has resulted, Schubert and Gray (2015) argue, in the arts now occupying the space of social change and emancipatory outcomes once held by social work. I propose two ways for the profession to move forward and begin to reverse this scenario. One, to re-engage with the concept of the art of social work (Rapport, 1968; England, 1986) through opening up an intentional space for social workers to learn from how artists use creativity to achieve positive outcomes in the lives of service users. Two, once the impact of participating in arts activities is discernible, there is a social work role in supporting access to the arts to achieve social change.

Art, Creativity and Social Work

Connections between art, social change and social work are neither new nor novel. Back in the 1960s Rapoport argued that ‘both social work and art can be conceived as instruments of social change’ (Rapport, 1968: 144). Almost twenty years later England’s ‘Social Work as Art’ (1986) whilst reminding us of the freedom that art and artists have to engage in aesthetic relationships, also alerts us to the emerging proceduralism, hard empiricism and Evidence Based Practice (EBP) that was beginning to re-shape social work. Both England (1986) and Rapoport (1968) were recognising and countering a tide of change in the profession by highlighting the creativity and art within social work that leads to effective communication, meaningful relationships and empathy. At a time when neoliberalism, proceduralism and managerialism are seeping into ever more aspects of social work, the disconnect between art and social work is widening. This has led Schubert and Gray (2015) to suggest that the core social work values of social justice, communication, relationships, and the valuing of difference and diversity are now more visible in the work of socially engaged arts practice than in social work. Ongoing research in Scotland is evidencing the salience of communication and reciprocal relationships between artists and disabled people in inclusive arts practice (Levy, et al., 2017). In a study on inclusive music classes for disabled children and young people provided by Paragon, an inclusive arts organisation based in Glasgow, Scotland (; music tutors used creative forms of communication to build relationships with the young musicians. Relationships that were trusting, reciprocal and meaningful, and centred the voice of the young musicians. These relationships demonstrate an openness to listening to other knowledges, other ways of being, doing and seeing the world through ‘learning to listen’ (Spivak, 1990:292). Similarly, creative communication and listening should be central to how social workers access the diverse worlds of service users (Gray and Webb, 2008).

Music Tutor: I’m working on communication. I’m trying to build the principle skill in music and that is listening. So how do you do that? You have to demonstrate that, and you have to listen yourself, and if they can see you listening and you are listening genuinely to who they are as people then they will listen to you. Then you’ve established the opportunity for the m to start trying new ideas, new sounds and discover new ways of learning about music.

This Paragon study and others are highlighting the scope for intentional learning on the common ground intersecting the arts and social work. To open a space for dialogue on re-interpreting art and creativity in social work, and to support the profession to enact prevailing policy in social care.

Current social care policy in Scotland is framed within a rights based, social justice discourse, with key policy drivers being personalisation and the use of outcomes based approaches (Social Care (Self-directed Support) (Scotland) Act 2013). Personalisation focuses on providing services that are person centred, responsive to individual needs, and offer greater choice and control in the lives of service users. An outcomes based approach frames practice as a collaborative interaction between a social worker and service user that identifies and works to achieve agreed outcomes for service users. Both personalisation and an outcomes based approach require social workers to think differently and work differently with service users through centring the voice of the service user, and being creative in responding to diversity. Both policy concepts are premised on practitioners working democratically with service users to achieve outcomes in their lives that reflect their capabilities and have meaning to them (Nussbaum, 2006; Sen, 2009). For some service users this might mean having the opportunity to participate in inclusive dance, music or art activities, this requires practitioners to ‘see’ the arts as meaningful activities for marginalised groups.

Placing the arts within the frame of vision of social work in this evolving arena of practice can facilitate for learning from inclusive arts practitioners. There is a dual role here for social work, to learn from the art and creativity used by artists to achieve positive outcomes in the lives of service users, but also to take a step back and to make sense of the significance of the impact of the arts on the lives of service users, and support access to the arts. Aligning social work with the arts within a social justice framework (Sinding et al., 2014), is an acknowledgement of the role and power of the arts to enact social change and to challenge normative assumptions of embodiment.

Arts, Social Work and Social Change

Embodiment is constrained by socially constructed norms of what a body can and should do. These norms are performed within the confines of lived experiences (Butler, 1993). Exposure to different ways of knowing, being and doing help to expand and redefine lived experiences, unsettling and disrupting social norms. Art can provoke change in how we understand and experience the world, it has the ‘capacity to interrupt our habits of seeing, to challenge and alter what (and how) we know, and thus how we interact and relate to one another’ (Sinding et al., 2014:194). Recent research on disability and inclusive arts is evidencing the power of the arts to transform lives and contest normative assumptions of disability. This work is drawing attention to how involvement is impacting on confidence, motivation and identify (Levy et al., 2017; Hall, 2013; Atkinson and Robson, 2012; Parr, 2006), agency and social inclusion (Newsinger and Green, 2016), empowerment (Houston, 2005), activism and social change (Sinding and Barnes, 2015), and disability culture (Kuppers, 2011). In the Scottish Paragon study (Levy, et al., 2017) the development of inter-dependent, meaningful and trusting relationships between artists and disabled children emerged as central to the empowerment and development of agency in the young musicians. The impact on the young musicians participating in the inclusive music classes was visible to their parents, but also to social workers who asked parents what their children were doing in the music classes that was leading to them being ‘more motivated and together’.

Engagement in inclusive arts activities appears to build confidence, motivation and intersectional identities in the lives of disabled people, transferable skills that can be applied to other areas of their lives. Collectively the work of organisations like Paragon are contesting the position of disabled people in society, what it means to be disabled, a musician, dancer or an artist.

music practice


The creativity of the arts opens up opportunities to contest and challenge normative embodiment, and critical social work can and should be part of this process. Fundamental to the positive outcomes for those participating in inclusive and socially engaged arts are core social work skills: effective communication, meaningful relationships and empowerment. If we agree that neoliberalism, proceduralism and managerialism are diluting the profession’s focus on these core skills, then the time is surely ripe for social work to be connecting with the arts. To learn from the creativity of artists, support access to inclusive arts for marginalised groups and to re-engage social work in ‘emancipatory practice and transformative change’ (Schubert and Gray, 2015:1353). The following are some ideas to take forward to support social work connecting with and integrating the arts into practice.

Social Work and Creativity - Learning from the Arts:

Social Work Connecting to the Arts for Social Change:

There is a natural synergy between the arts and social work that coalesces around social change. If social change is central to social work, connecting with and learning from the arts should be integral to the profession.


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