Their Social Action and Ours – social change or social control?

Further to the post on the paltry Social Action fund announced by the Cabinet Office, Breathtaking Hypocrisy, a much-needed antidote to today’s distortion of the meaning of social action is to be found in this pamphlet, Their Social Action and Ours – social change or social control?, written by Mark Harrison and Kev Jones under the banner of Social Action Solutions. It’s well worth reading in full. Here’s a flavour of its argument.

Social Action

A difficulty with some of the current measures, particularly those aimed at young people, is the emphasis on the benefits of philanthropy for the people doing the volunteering. “Step up to Serve” (formally the Independent Campaign for Youth Social Action), launched by HRH The Prince of Wales states on its website;

“The most significant areas of impact are: • Improving young people’s skills (academic, metacognitive, character capabilities) and employability; • Strengthening social bonds and integrating young people who are on the margins, thereby reducing crime and anti-social behaviour; • Increasing other dimensions of active citizenship, like formal political engagement; • Better emotional, behavioural and social wellbeing which in turn leads to higher levels of educational attainment and more engagement in school.”

The idea that the “most significant” benefits of volunteering are to be felt by individual volunteers themselves is in direct opposition to the Social Action principle that collective action, by and for a community, can create real benefits for the community as a whole, through creating a greater understanding of shared problems and enacting a collective response to them. Building character through doing good deeds for others may well be valuable and beneficial, but it is not Social Action. It cannot provide the same lasting collective benefits to communities as our version of Social Action sets out to achieve.

Our version of social action was developed in Nottingham in the late 1970s. It was a critical response to the prevailing models of practice in social, youth, youth justice and community development work. What these practices had in common was: • They operated on a deficit model • Professionals were in control – doing to, for or on behalf of communities and service users • Community members were passive recipients in the programmes • The agents of change were the professionals not the service users

The models that social action challenged can be summarised as compensation, modification or reparation. All these models saw community members as being part of the problem but not potentially the people to transform the situation as the agents of change. Social action set out to change this by viewing people as experts in their own lives. Professionals negotiated a new relationship, working alongside people and facilitating them to identify and address issues and concerns that were important to them. The focus was on community members addressing root causes and creating social change for themselves. In the process they would empower themselves and their communities and learn new skills and behaviours, which could be used in other areas of their lives. Central to this was a shift of power in the relationship between professionals and the people we are paid to work with. Professionals were no longer ‘On Top’, but now need to be ‘On Tap’. This required professionals to develop new skills as facilitators rather than leaders, because the leadership now comes from the community and group members.

The Social Action site contains two excellent books by Mark Harrison for download ;

Social Action–co-creating social change A Companion for Practitioners and

Ideas and Outcomes of Social Action


  1. This is a great reflection Tony, thanks. It’s a great reminder to move closer to social action. A core principle of youth work. Yet so may Barriers exist to practicing from this framework. I will share this, hope you don’t mind.

  2. Please share as widely as you think fit and just to say that the Social Action piece itself was written by Mark Harrison and Kev Jones. The two pdf books on the Social Solutions web site are well worth downloading. Best Wishes.

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