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Hybrids, Outliers and Pilgrims: Introducing the concept of the HOP Practitioner

Third sector social worker Jack Nicholls sets out some ideas for reconceptualising and regrounding social workers – and members of other humanitarian professions – who work outside of statutory practice.


Hybrids, Outliers and Pilgrims: Introducing the concept of the HOP Practitioner

Since the inception of social work as a recognised and distinct profession, there have been social workers who decide that working inside the state is not for them. Practitioners make the decision to move out of direct local authority or health service employment and into working for independent, voluntary sector, charity, community or social enterprise organisations. This happens for a range of reasons; some plan this route from the start, some have a non-statutory placement while training and get the bug there, and some – in my anecdotal experience the majority – start out in a statutory role and realise that they are, or have become, a square peg in a round hole. After weeks, months or years, they up sticks to find a more quadrilateral space into which they can happily slot.

Like almost all people-facing jobs that now have a statutory presence, social work started in the voluntary sector before it gained statutory legitimacy. Like Dylan and the electric guitar, one could say that social workers who head out of the state are not ‘going’; they are ‘going back’. Arguably, and if it’s not a contradiction in terms, they are the new traditionalists. Something that gets relatively little attention and discussion however is the tendency for non-statutory social workers to arrive in their new workplaces and find a collection of counterparts who have left the mainstream or statutory wing of other registered professions. Teachers, nurses, probation officers and occupational therapists who became unhappy with the normal practice environments; all are represented in the beautiful kaleidoscope that is the third sector, along with members of professions like youth work that have seen the vast majority of their statutory presence cut or outsourced wholesale by many local authorities, such as youth workers and substance recovery practitioners (LGA, 2022 1).

The relationship, formal and emotional, between these types of workers and their respective professional bodies and codes can vary. A decent proportion of them – I should say of us, for I am one – maintain their registration with Social Work England or its equivalents in other vocations. Some make either the active or passive choice to let their registration go for a range of reasons (the financial cost of keeping it is not to be underestimated, especially at the time of writing). Whether or not we keep our formal ties , it is pretty unavoidable that some distance forms between us and our respective professional establishments.

My argument is that those of us, from any humanitarian profession, who move into the non-statutory sector and non-mainstream practice tend to have more in common with one another than we do with the profession for which we originally qualified. I genuinely do not know which of these occurrences is the cause and which is the effect. It may be that the common instinct for independent thinking and non-conformism comes first, and naturally drives us toward the third sector. It could also be that the decision to move comes first, and that the experience of working outside the lines creates the bonds of loosely shared identity. It is probably more complex than that.

If – either way round – this analysis is correct, then we have a situation of which social work and its related fellow professions needs to start taking account. A large number of its graduates, with or without registration, are part of an amorphous and blended vocational world that feels a fair way away from, say, the local authority adult services team. I would be delighted to see the key institutions of social work and other vocations reach out to those members of the professional family who are in the situation I describe – however that is a matter for them; the idea I want to advance in this article puts forward a way we might help ourselves.

I want to propose the formation of informal and mutually supportive networks for social workers and colleagues from other professions who are outside their respective mainstreams. For that, we’ll need a name, a basic ethical framework, and some basic guiding principles. I will set the basic ideas out below, but more comprehensive discussion can be found at the HOP Practitioner Blog.

I propose the term ‘HOP Practitioner’ in the absence of an existing snappy label. HOP stands for Hybrid, Outliers and Pilgrims; three descriptive options that between them seek to articulate different ways of being when one is a non-mainstream practitioner. Personally, I regard myself as an outlier, but there are no hard and fast rules about which label an individual worker could or should pick – it’s a free choice.

Trying to impose a rigid and detailed philosophical code upon a disparate group of practitioners would be presumptuous, egotistic and utterly impractical. I have no prohibitive rights to set such a code, nor would I want them. However, I believe there is merit in suggesting – and only suggesting – a broad and pluralist philosophical framework in which all HOPs could find a basic ethical stance that felt comfortable to them, and which they can develop and embroider in their own hearts and minds.

In my view, one common value that most HOPs share (even if we conceptualise it differently) is a certain anti-authoritarianism and a suspicion of power. This is highly appropriate for a group of workers who almost never have formal power, only in fluence and persuasion. To be clear about my meaning, I am defining authoritarianism as the imposition of power and control without justifiable further moral reason. ‘Eat your greens because they are good for you’ is an arguably justifiable use of authority, depending on who is saying it to whom and what, if any, consequences may result from non-compliance; ‘eat your greens because I said so’ is authoritarian, plain and simple.

Anti-authoritarianism is a fine oppositional position, but a meaningful philosophical outlook requires one to be for one or more values. I suggest three philosophical waystones that, in different combinations, can underpin an anti-authoritarian professional ethical outlook and form the basis of HOP values; liberty, community and the concept of ‘the good life’. Further exposition can be found on the blog post ‘The HOP Diamond’.

In terms of basic guiding practice principles, I would suggest that HOPs would be well served by the following three ideas:
- Preference for working through networks and coalitions rather than through hard hierarchies and professional citadels;
- Desire to find ever-better ways of connecting high values with collaborative day-to-day micro-practice;
- Firm conviction that rather than just informing practice, critical and inquisitive independence of mind is itself an element of practice.

Not everyone will agree with this, but in my view the issues of injustice and inequality with which social workers and others seek to engage will not be improved by the state and its services in its current formula, even with the best possible workers in its employ. HOP practitioners are in a better position to practice radically and to build new mechanisms and opportunities to take on the ever-greater unfairness that characterises our social systems, through resistance and innovation. We can however have a really positive, constructive relationship with our statutory and mainstream counterparts if we are taken seriously as an essential part of the solution. The concept of the HOP Practitioner is an attempt at a first step toward that happening.

This won’t be for everyone, and that is fine. If you are interested, look at the blog, you can get in touch using the contact form on the blog, and you can mention this idea to people you know who are in this category or are thinking of becoming so, whatever their original profession.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of HOP Practitioners doing good humanitarian work off the beaten track, because the beaten track came with constraints, limitations or burnout. There are plenty of others with a foot in each camp. At the moment this is just a set of ideas, and a blog in which they can live. I believe we can, with a little self-realisation, create a supportive and informal set of networks for ourselves, based less on a shared official professional label defined by a well-intentioned authority, and more on the doing of good work, for its own sake and for the results it can produce.

Jack Nicholls is a qualified social worker operating in a development role in the third sector. He blogs at The HOP Practitioner.


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