In the first week of September 2017 the seventh annual International Conference on Sociology and Social Work took place in Prague. The tradition of this interdisciplinary meeting started more or less spontaneously several years ago on the initiative of some British and Dutch sociologists and social workers. In recent years this international circle has expanded and has now reached the Czech Republic: this year’s conference took place in Prague for the first time, at the Protestant Theological Faculty of Charles University, and there were around 50 participants coming from 11 countries. The theme chosen this year focused on sociology and social work in post-secular societies. The prefix “post-” is often used to express a kind of state that occurs after attaining a peak in the modern era. Modernism was linked to secularisation, but, as can be seen at the end of the 20th century, secularisation has never been fully achieved anywhere. It is true that in modern states the public sphere has usually been separated from the ecclesiastical one and is administered without any direct influence from religious institutions, but religion and the churches still exist and represent a significant alternative to the prevailing rational-technocratic and economic-pragmatic perspective of modern people and modern civilisation. They show that it is possible to imagine a different dimension of life and the world. The conference focused on how the churches can be involved in the shaping of contemporary communities, how human spirituality can be used in social work, and how to recognise and fulfil spiritual needs.
The keynote speakers were Prof. Walter Lorenz, a theologian and social worker who has been working in recent years at the University of Bolzano in Italy; Prof. Grace Davie, a sociologist from the University of Exeter in Great Britain specialising in issues of religiosity; and Dr. André Mulder, a theologian with experience as a social worker from Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Walter Lorenz introduced us to the broad European historical and cultural context of present-day social work, which would be unthinkable without deep Christian roots. In a similar way, André Mulder reminded us of the spiritual and profoundly existential levels of problems that present as social problems and are resolved as such. Grace Davies reflected on whether the churches could take over some of the caring roles of the modern state, which is continually being curtailed and restricted. Today the churches are already important providers of social services, in the Czech Republic as well. In the contributions made by the other participants, which formed a colourful mixture, there were to be heard existential and spiritual themes (such as spirituality in old age), and also social problems like migration, poverty, and exclusion. Some participants pointed out the need to train social workers in the field of community work and community approaches, others were concerned with working conditions (hot-desking), or using social networks to integrate isolated individuals.
Social work today does not only mean casework with individuals or families, but often with large groups and communities. It would appear that sociology and practical theology can make a significant contribution to forming community-oriented approaches. It is likewise possible to involve creative artists or media experts in interdisciplinary cooperation in social work. It is clear that theology and the churches have something to offer people who do not consider themselves to be traditional Christians and are not church members. This was something that emerged convincingly in a presentation on the theme of hospital chaplains in Czech hospitals.
Cooperation between social work and sociology is flourishing, but it is not seen as a key factor in all countries. For example, in Britain knowledge of the structural conditionalities of social problems is not regarded as something that social workers need to understand. In contributions by Portuguese participants, by contrast, there was a strong emphasis on critical social work which uncovers the social determinants of social problems, and there knowledge of sociology is explicit. Today social work has the profile of a field that covers various possible approaches and a tremendous variability in working methods.
Photos of the conference can be found at http://www.etf.cuni.cz/zezivota/Sociology_Sep17/
Eva Křížová, Department of Pastoral and Social Work, Protestant Theological Faculty, Prague