What is “Anticipatory Social Work?” Advancing a Provocation for the Next Chapter of the Profession

Social workers specialize in the effects of cascading failures of our most important community institutions and the very real hope, determination and commitment to justice and well-being for all.   This includes work in poverty, inequity and racism,  homelessness, access to health and behavioral health resources, education and many other issues.

As the world continues to change, old issues transform/evolve and new issues emerge…too much of our intellectual and practice infrastructure positions us to respond to old versions of social issues rather than what is actually in front of us – as well as what is coming in a rapidly changing world. We rely on the trappings of gradual evolution of knowledge and practice, while the world leap frogs ahead in both generative – and – troubling ways. Because of all of this, the future calls us to evolve faster, together on purpose – as a profession and as individual workers.

The new “practice reality” is not just “influenced” by examples like proliferating tech or climate change.  In fact, massive accelerations in the ways that tech and climate change are and will shape future life on this planet are fundamentally changing the frames by which all other issues will be realized, resisted, defined and addressed. Social workers and social work scholarship must be part of the widespread efforts to redefine and reorganize the future if we are to stay relevant and useful in the years to come. If not, we are merely part of “reacting” to what happens next, rather than helping to shape it. Because of all of this, the future calls us to evolve faster, together on purpose – as a profession and as individual workers.

To address this, an evolving frame in social work is needed that accelerates the possibilities, promise and reach of an evolving profession of social work. Anticipatory Social Work seeks to fulfill this need.

Anticipatory social work (ASW) helps people shape their present lives, and create better futures, in a rapidly changing, complex world.  It is an emerging social work practice approach that is a combination of values, tools and skills grounded in a foresight perspective, to advance the aims of more liberatory, anti-oppressive, anti-carceral, and healthy futures where all beings can flourish and thrive.   This involves utilization of practices that are critical (deeply committed to iterative power analysis and mindful of the indisputable political nature of the future), and participatory (deeply committed to engaging with communities most impacted and most traditionally excluded from future-building and democratizing use of these potent tools).  

ASW espouses both rigorous ethics and context-sensitive deployment of foresight frames, analytics and approaches.  It is complemented by an ethos of discovery, play, joy and unlimited imagination in identifying, mobilizing and creating solutions that are beyond the scope of powerful interests traditionally dominating spaces of plausibility in future building. 

ASW uses active and creative variations of classic scenario forms such as utopias and dystopias (and their mutations) to identify emerging challenges calling for urgent attention from a human rights and social justice perspective, construct or uplift new imaginaries of social healing, as well as braid together future-oriented offerings and critiques from diverse voices, especially those most likely to be minoritized.  ASW understands that current social issues (problems, solutions and ethics) are in a constant state of evolution and that the best ways to address them is to claim the power of active and skilled anticipation, and making more informed decisions about how to embrace  change or  create  alternative futures where possible, resist where appropriate, and always prioritizing the mitigation of harms.    

ASW assumes that the future requires rapid evolution of both the profession as a whole as well as supporting our individual workers to flourish in a dynamic practice ecosystem,  to function in environments characterized by increasing turbulence, nonlinear change, unpredictability, novel and emergent variation of both opportunities and risks.  The goal of AWS is to balance a rigorous state of curiosity about the future with a humility-centered agency to make better collective decisions about the future in context and in community.   

ASW is guided and inspired by essential work occurring in social movements, policy advocacy and evolution, and the future of anti-oppressive/anti-racist/anti-colonial practice.   It builds on the foundational  strengths of social work to be focused on social justice (now and with respect to emergent mutations of well-known historical challenges), developmental life course  issues (assuming that traditional and emerging challenges throughout every stage of life will continue to present new challenges), multi-level intervention tactics (micro-individual, couple, meso- group, neighborhood, organization, and macro-institutional, community, social policy). Finally, it embraces a strength-based lens which assumes that strengths of individuals, families, communities, cultures and societies are ever-present even in the face of great risk, change and disturbance, as is the presence and value of collective intelligence, agency and creativity.   Such strengths are understood  to evolve, and can be harnessed to fuel and serve as the foundation of life-affirming futures.  

Stay tuned for a forthcoming book about how to put these ideas into practice coming in 2024.

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