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Social work and childhood in Europe: children’s agency, state relations and realising possibilities through the sociology of childhood

posted on 2023-06-20, 14:17 authored by Jo Moran-EllisJo Moran-Ellis, Heinz Suenker
At the heart of all the situations where social work enters children’s lives is a relationship between the social worker and the child which is framed firstly by the intersection of nationally different forms of the institutionalisation of social help and control in bourgeois-capitalist societies, secondly by how the social worker relates to the child as an ‘object’ of attention and as a subject of help/control, and ultimately by how society views the child. However, the historical, social and political contexts of the framings of this relationship are often either neglected or the implications are set aside in favour of embracing notions of the universality of the child’s needs and rights. In addition there often remains a lack of account for the political nature of the relationship between the child and the state with the consequence that social work risks simply reproducing current structures of inequality and inequity. This risk is even higher when it comes to the idea of developing a set of social work perspectives that transcend nation state interests as in the case of a pan-European social work – unless state interests are recognised, interrogated and overcome, they will continue to have powerful influences on the framing of the social work-child relationship. In this chapter we critically explore some socio-political framings of the child and of social work over time, showing examples of the impact these have had on how children are viewed and positioned in society, and how this has been relevant for the practice of social work. Firstly, we explore some variations in the historical picture of childhood in Europe in order to locate the child who is the ‘object’ of social work attention. We then examine the rise of the idea of the universal child mainly alongside a broad history of social work and children in England and Germany. This comparison enables an examination of different formulations of the presence of social work in children’s lives in two relatively similar societies. We critically consider how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) contributes to a further embedding of the idea of a universal child and facilitates the emergence of the idea of social work as an enterprise that can transcend borders. We finish with an examination of what the social studies of childhood can offer, theoretically and empirically, for moving beyond a simplistic universality to generate an approach to social work with children that radically reframes the social work-child relation as a joint effort with all the implications this has for the enhancement of democratic societies as well as the improvement of the well-being of individuals in pursuit of the “good life” for all.


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  • Published

File Version

  • Accepted version


Barbara Budrich Publishers

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Book title

European social work - a compendium

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Department affiliated with

  • Sociology and Criminology Publications

Research groups affiliated with

  • Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth Publications

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Peer reviewed?

  • Yes


Walter Lorenz, Fabian Kessl, Susan White, Hans-Uwe Otto

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