• Summary: This article explores relations of power in social work using insights drawn from the critical ‘toolkit’ emanating from work of French philosopher, Michel Foucault. The article discusses the relationship between Foucault’s conceptual tools of ‘knowledge and power’, the emergence of ‘the modern subject’ and the concept of ‘governmentality’. Despite ongoing pressures, professional expertise persists as a core element of neo-liberal government in the management of the population. We use a Foucauldian perspective to explore two issues central to contemporary practice: surveillance and discretion that epitomise dualism of power relations. On the one hand, surveillance brings with it a potentially problematic process especially in context of top down managerial power; yet, on the other hand, discretion is much more focused on what Foucault (1977) calls ‘the microphysics of power’ with opportunities for ‘resistance’ from the bottom up.
• Findings: Professional expertise creates a paradox where surveillance and discretion operate within similar social space as the expression of power relations that encompass the matrix of users, carers and social workers. On one hand, surveillance restricts practice however; on the other, complexity opens the space for resistance and new formulations of power relations.
• Applications : Exposing social work activity to a critical stance enables the exploration of relations of power identifying how commitments such as empowerment and anti-oppressive practice become detached from their original radical and humanitarian moorings to feature now as components of oppressive discourses they might once have challenged.
Uncontrolled Keywords (separate with ;):
discretion; Foucault; power; social work; surveillance