The philosopher Michel Foucault’s theoretical work provides fertile ground for an analysis of areas of significant concern in researching of social work through his development of the ideas of discourse, power/knowledge, surveillance and governmentality. His development of these concepts allows an insight into the function of policy not always apparent in mainstream and contemporary social policy analysis which has been based on the sociological triumvirate of social class, gender and ‘race’. In this article, we can explore how and why these conceptual gifts from Foucault are pertinent to understanding how service users are constructed as objects of social work, particularly with respect to contemporary discourses of social welfare and social exclusion. The paper argues that the use of these ideas challenges some of the less obvious assumptions permeating current developments in social policy and social work provision, whilst also enabling an ability to respond more contextually to shifting frameworks of power and knowledge. There is an acknowledgement of power and its potential positive impact on subjective sense of self and social work has a part to play in this. At the same time, the paper concludes with a warning of ‘risk’ and professional surveillance and its restriction in facilitating empowerment of vulnerable groups.
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