Paradigm consciousness of county social work

By HE XUESONG and HOU LIWEN / 11-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Handmade paper showcased in Yi County, Anhui Province, Nov. 11, 2023 Photo: Lyu Jiazuo/CSST 

The concept of the “county” is currently lacking in social work research, both as a field space and an academic category. This reflects the neglect of county-level areas as a methodological approach in social work research, which hinders the development of models and discourse systems that encompass unique Chinese characteristics from advancing alongside real-world practice.

Local-oriented landscape

Firstly, as a field space, county social work is lacking. The rich policy implications and practical significance of counties in social work have been replaced by a homogeneous concept of the broader “environment.” This overlooks the diverse regional social and cultural foundations that exist within counties. Few studies have treated the county as a field, analyzing its internal environmental composition, as well as the social work practice activities and professional development within its boundaries. The lack of recognition of counties as spatial fields can easily lead to the abstraction of social work research at the macro theoretical level, which reflects a lack of practical consciousness. 

Secondly, the county as an academic category is absent. As of September 2023, there were only 15 articles indexed with the theme of “County Social Work” on CNKI (China National Knowledge Infrastructure). In other words, the academic value, conceptual positioning, analytical dimensions, and functional space of county social work lack systematic elaboration and construction, which reflects a lack of theoretical consciousness.  

Finally, whether as a field space or an academic category, the absence of county social work points to the abandonment of the “local-oriented approach” in the development of social work, reflecting the lack of internal vision and cultural consciousness in viewing the development of Chinese social work. Therefore, in this new era and stage, it is crucial to regain a conscious paradigm of county social work in order to shape the broader landscape of social work development.

Conscious paradigm

The experiences derived from county-level practices have prompted a conscious shift in the development of social work. The requirement for high-quality development in social work in this new stage necessitates the integration of social work into county-level areas. The diverse and holistic nature of county-level practices provides a crucial foundation for the construction of social work practices. County-level societies, characterized by genericity and diversity, are governance systems with high governance power. They are also considered “acquaintance societies” or “semi-acquaintance societies,” where the government directly faces governance tasks and the primary-level communities, within limited space and characterized by frequent interactions. In this context, we can observe the unity and structural characteristics of institutions, as well as the tangible interactions among the state, societies, and markets. We can also clearly see the agents in the system, the diversity of institutional operations, and the integrated elements behind this diversity. Therefore, in-depth analysis of the services and development of social work in counties can provide a more comprehensive and multidimensional understanding of the development of social work in China.

The county-level model calls for a theoretical awareness of knowledge production in social work. 

Firstly, the traditional resources and the underlying fabric of acquaintance society embedded in the broader historical perspective, along with the principles of “minimalist governance” and “social backgrounds,” form the guiding and foundational elements for the logic of social work services, the integration of service scenarios, and the construction of knowledge.

Secondly, the diverse and holistic nature of county-level practices and the everyday world serve as crucial soil for the production of social work knowledge. The wisdom derived from diverse practices in everyday life, as well as the governance rules, service patterns, and customary practices within county-level societies, all contribute as important theoretical materials for the production of social work knowledge in China. Therefore, the integrity and systematicity of the county, as well as the embedded demand for integrated services and coordinated governance of social work constitute an important foundation and condition for the theoretical and practical construction of social work.

County practices serve as a foundation for cultivating a cultural consciousness in constructing the discourse on social work with Chinese characteristics. Small county towns, represent large societies, encapsulating the essence of China. Counties, as objective realities, are self-contained grassroots societies with defined boundaries, comprising various departments, villages, towns, and markets. Counties, as subjective constructions, embody intellectual homes or familiar societies filled with emotional and imaginative elements. They also function as relational societies with a certain degree of local cultural subjectivity. The former perspective views counties as “governance fields,” while the latter perceives counties as “cultural scenes.”

Bottom-up approach

Therefore, the conscious paradigm of county-level social work must integrate the three dimensions of local cultural foundations, governance structures, and relational societies within counties. This approach should consider the bottom-up professional development of social work service organizations, intertwining and constructing professional development in conjunction with administrative forces. 

In short, county-level social work possesses strong analytical efficacy, accommodating both macro and micro perspectives, as well as abstract and concrete elements. It represents the most distinctive development practice and conceptual space for social work with Chinese characteristics. 

He Xuesong (professor) and Hou Liwen (associate professor) are from the School of Social and Public Administration at East China University of Science and Technology.

Edited by ZHAO YUAN