Disrupting the grassroots narrative of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand


  • Sonya Hunt University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Barbara Staniforth University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Liz Beddoe University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand




Social work professionalisation, social work regulation, Aotearoa New Zealand, social worker registration, social justice, neoliberalism


INTRODUCTION: The Aotearoa New Zealand social work professionalisation project disrupted underpinning grassroots narratives of the profession and led to decades of debate and conflict. Social work emphasises egalitarian approaches and, during the 1980s and 1990s, social workers responded to internal and external challenges of elitism, racism, and sexism. However, the ongoing professionalisation project has been at times, at odds with social justice imperatives and undermined by neoliberal drivers.

METHODS: This research investigated how political, sociocultural and economic dimensions impacted on the development and initial implementation of the Social Workers Registration Act (2003) and how key actors at the time were affected. A qualitative realist research methodology has been utilised, analysing qualitative interviews with 22 participants, policy documents and archival data to clarify discourses of power and capture the voices and rich stories of those involved in the debates at the time.

FINDINGS: A sociological lens was utilised to focus and frame the coalescing political, socio-cultural and economic forces that contributed to the problematising of social work professionalisation and the determining of the need for registration. Insight from some key actors at the time, including educators, the profession, tangata whenua, employers, practitioners, the State, and the public were considered.

CONCLUSIONS: Examining these forces behind the professionalisation project provides a platform to consider if social work in Aotearoa New Zealand has been strengthened with registration. There are ongoing challenges and threats to the independence and social justice focus of the profession that grew alongside the grassroots of social work.


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How to Cite

Hunt, S., Staniforth, B., & Beddoe, L. (2020). Disrupting the grassroots narrative of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 32(1), 45–60. https://doi.org/10.11157/anzswj-vol32iss1id703



Original Articles