“Good social workers will carefully check themselves to make sure that… they aren’t becoming street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 2010) whose actions to protect people involve taking them away from the very thing that we all strive for: a place where they feel settled, accepted, wanted and loved – a place where they belong.”

Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan [1]

If there’s one word that encapsulates all that social care should be about, it’s ‘belonging’. Love. Home. Safety. Meaning. Purpose. Connection. Identity. Inclusion. Rights. Family. Community. Friendship. Hope. All right there, in one word.

And yet belonging – like love – is not a word that appears much in our legislation or guidance. “Love and belonging are words that you very rarely see in assessments and support plans”. [2]

In fact, our practice often resembles and reinforces the very opposite.


“It’s easier to frame people as something different to us, to despise and dismiss someone as being something other, than it is to consider them as equals in the common human cause, a person with the same desires as you, me and other human beings. If we consider people who require social care as people like us, it forces us to consider the totality of that. This leads to a risk that people might possibly be loved. Love and belonging in social care anyone?”

Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan [3]

‘Othering’ is “a process whereby individuals and groups are treated and marked as different and inferior from the dominant social group”. “Othering can be as simple as speaking of a group of people as “them” in relation to another’s “us, or even putting the definite article the in front of a label.” [4]

But surely social work and social care is all about human rights and social justice? Inclusion? Ordinary, equal lives?

Our language reveals otherwise.

We don’t talk about people. We say – and see – others. ‘Service users.’ ‘Customers.’ ‘Clients.’ ‘Cases.’ ‘The elderly.’ ‘The disabled.’ ‘The vulnerable.’ ‘Those’.

This different, distant group don’t move house or live in homes like we do. ‘They’ are ‘placed in’ or ‘moved to’ ‘care settings’. ‘Schemes.’ ‘Accommodation.’ ‘Placements.’ ‘Units.’ ‘Beds.’

They don’t have a wash, brush their teeth, and get dressed like us. They have ‘personal care’. They are ‘fed’ and ‘toileted’.

We have family and friends, lovers and soulmates. They have ‘carers’ and ‘peers’ and ‘nearest relatives’ and ‘next of kin’.

We go to work or meet friends or go out. They ‘access employment’ or ‘maintain relationships’ or ‘engage in meaningful activities’.

We fall over. They ‘have a fall’.

We get cross, or angry, or upset. They are ‘non-compliant’ and ‘display challenging behaviour’.

We have vague plans, and things we might get round to doing one day. They have ‘outcomes’ to achieve.

This ‘professional’ language exposes the ‘them and us’ attitudes that pervade ‘serviceland’. Not just a denial of belonging, but an active barrier too.

“Social work terms creep into every meeting, every report, every encounter you have. There is nothing more isolating… than sitting in a meeting listening to professionals using language or jargon you don’t understand.”

Surviving Safeguarding [5]

Our jargon and our labels are fuelled and perpetuated and amplified by politicians and in the media, and heartbreakingly adopted and repeated by people they’re attached to – leading to further division and exclusion. The recent Scottish Care Review highlighted that care experienced children are singled out and bullied by other young people for “using social work jargon” like ‘unit’ and ‘placement’ and ‘sibling’ and ‘contact’. The Review “heard repeatedly from children that using these words, and system language like them, often compounds a sense of being different.” [6] [7]

How can we promote and support belonging if we don’t believe ourselves that everybody should belong?

“The opposite of othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.”

 john a powell [8]


“Social care has tied up too much of its precious resources in a gatekeeping system that requires ever more proof of dependence and poverty to let people in. It’s like an exclusive nightclub with huge bouncers and an unfathomable door policy, but once inside it is disappointing and hard to find your way out of.”

Alex Fox [9]

“The system is built to say no and turn you away.”

Sue Robins [10]

Being welcomed and feeling welcome is a key element of belonging. But we’re not very good at welcoming people. Sometimes it feels like we focus more on exclusion than inclusion, with our ‘front doors’ and screening and signposting and waiting lists and eligibility criteria and rules and ‘come back when things get worse’ approach.

We’re quick to close our doors to ‘those’ who don’t meet our thresholds, and we inadvertently close more doors to people who don’t want to be associated with our stigmatising entry conditions.

“We had a Public Living Room in a big NHS hospital and the chalkboard sign outside said “Come in, relax, look out for each other”. Our invisible infra-red counter on the door showed approximately 1000 people per week were visiting it. One week the management in the hospital changed our sign to say “It’s time to talk — #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek”. When we checked the counter the numbers visiting fell to 40 for that week.”

Maff Potts [11]

If people do manage to defy all our barricades, we still don’t really welcome them. We merely fit them in.

Fitting in

“The opposite of belonging is fitting in… Fitting in is assessing and acclimating. ‘Here is what I should say/be, here is what I shouldn’t say, here is what I should avoid talking about, here’s what I should dress like/look like,’ that’s fitting in. Belonging is belonging to yourself first. Speaking your truth, telling your story and never betraying yourself for other people. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”

Brene Brown [12]

‘Fitting in’ pervades every element of our practice. Our ‘contact centres’ resemble sorting offices where we swiftly slot people into a category, attach a label and assign a ‘next action’, a ‘referral route’ or a ‘pathway’ – preferably to the nearest exit. If we can’t ‘signpost’ people away, we add them to our waiting lists, fit them in when we can.

Individuals and families know they need to adapt their language – and adopt our language – to proceed. Use the magic words. Say the right thing. In her book ‘Radical help’, Hilary Cottam mentions Olive, labelled ‘housebound’ by her social worker to ensure Olive received support, meaning “Olive felt she must describe herself this way to keep the help she genuinely needed”.[13]

“If you don’t use ‘their language’ on those meetings it makes it more difficult to get support. I regularly use/d language I hate because it has a sort of hyper-functionality.”

Katherine Runswick-Cole [14]

We don’t just fit people in to our categories and our processes, we fit them in to services too. Despite the clear directive in the Care Act 2014 guidance that “local authorities must consider how to meet each person’s specific needs rather than simply considering what service they will fit into” [15], fitting people in to standard service solutions still dominates our practice. Placing people in ‘settings’ and arranging services and ‘activities’ and ‘outings’ for – and with – people ‘like them’.

Then once we’ve slotted people into a service, the ‘provider’ slots them into their schedule.

And when people don’t fit neatly into our categories or our processes or our services, we label and blame them as ‘complex’ or ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’ or ‘non-compliant’ or ‘refusing to engage’.

This fitting in extends, of course, to people working in social care too. “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.” [16] How many people working in social care can genuinely, hand on heart, say they can be who they really are at work? Can you?

“If we make it safe for every patient and caregiver (and health professional, too) to tell their stories, then all the things that separate us will magically disappear. We are all in this together.”

Sue Robins [17]


“One step towards reducing the distancing between “us” as health professionals and “them” seeking help is to create moments of “belongingness”. What this means is using overt means to help people feel welcome.”

Bronwyn Thompson [18]

Being welcomed and feeling welcome is a key element of belonging.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s about creating open and appealing places for being, and spaces for listening, not fixing. Removing labels and lanyards and jargon and forms and clocks and agendas and replacing them with curiosity and compassion. With tea, and with time.

“No more glass screens, waiting rooms with plastic chairs and forms to fill in. More fairy lights and sofas please.”

Maff Potts [19]


“Our role is to stretch beyond giving help and instead connect people with a life outside of programs and services – with meaningful jobs, friends, activities, and places where they experience belonging.”

Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman [20]

Our role as connectors is crucial. In our traditional, transactional approach, we don’t connect. We signpost and triage and prescribe and refer. We keep our distance, establish our boundaries. But in our better, brighter future, we develop and maintain trusted connections with people and families and help to weave webs of relationships and support in local communities. And their communities are our communities – because “you can’t be of value to people and families who are disconnected from community if you are also disconnected from community.” [21]

“Where residents are isolated and without obvious connection to their own and their communities natural resources, introducing those individuals to a local community based worker, who isn’t going to judge them or assess them but come alongside them and help them make sense of their own agenda, leads to better outcomes for all involved.”

Neil Woodhead [22]


“Inclusion should accept and celebrate differences. It should minimise “us and them” and maximise “us”. It’s not just about being in the room but feeling that you belong there.”

Dr Chris Moore [23]

Everything we do should be about dismantling barriers, not reinforcing them. Building bridges, not walls. Making sure that people are included in – and preferably leading – conversations and decisions about their own life and their support, and that they have opportunities to influence and shape wider support and services too. Including the “whole person, whole family, whole community, whole system” [24]. Not parts. Not silos. Creating and nurturing “an ecosystem of relationships and support in our local communities that we can draw on to live our lives in the way that we want to, whatever our age or stage of life.” [25]


“Somebody knew her name. She was taken aback. Felt anchored to something; released from something else.”

Delia Owens [26]

“Belonging is belonging to yourself first.” [27] The places and people and things that we love “anchor us in the world and in our own selves. They reaffirm our identity and are what provide us with meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging.” [28] Without these anchors, we’re drifting. In limbo. Lost.

“So often, when we feel lost, adrift in our lives, our first instinct is to look out into the distance to find the nearest shore. But that shore, that solid ground, is within us. The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal.”

Brene Brown [29]

We don’t pay enough attention to identity in social care, to the “scaffolding of the self” [30]. Too often we do more to erode people’s identity and personhood than to honour it. Too often we strip away individuality and agency in the way that we label people and fit them in to our processes and our services and our agendas. With our incessant focus on life and limb ‘personal care’ – on keeping people alive, but not on reasons to live.

“the goal of social care should be to help people to develop, maintain or repair the ‘scaffolding’ and to remain firmly anchored. And that is what ‘personalised care’ must mean too: not the narrow idea of delivering a transactional service in a more ‘customised’ or slightly kinder and more responsive way, but about attending to the things that anchor us in the world and in our own selves. It is about starting with the question ‘what matters to you’…”

Neil Crowther [31]


“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human… It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.”

Desmond Tutu [32]

Ubuntu. I am because we are.

The relationships we have with the people and places and things that matter to us help us to feel welcome and connected and included and anchored. Help us to feel we matter. Help us to feel we belong. And in turn help us to contribute, to be part of communities where we look out for one another. To build a ‘larger us’.

“If you start off with a sense of a place, a sense of ‘I belong here, I have a right to be here’, that sense of place gives a sense of identity. ‘I am so and so because I am connected to so and so’… And with that sense of identity comes a sense of values. Because our values are not just what we have as individuals, our values are about how we are held in what I like to call a ‘basket of community’… And then those values drive the fourth factor which is a sense of responsibility. The ability to respond. The ability to be active. To be an activist. To take action in your community. And that sense of responsibility then feeds back into sense of place, because when you take responsibility for your place… you deepen the sense of belonging.”

Alastair McIntosh [33]

“A sense of belonging, positive relationships and contributing to community life are important to people’s health and wellbeing.” [34] So, our role as people working in social care – and indeed as human beings, and in being human – should be to honour and nurture these relationships. To honour and nurture belonging, and to remove the obstacles that get in the way – including those barriers our current practice imposes and perpetuates.

Stop othering.

Stop gatekeeping.

Stop fitting people in.

And stop fitting yourself in.

Question. Challenge. Be creative. Think differently.

Find a better way – because there’s always a better way.

A way of working, and a way of being, where we all have a seat at the table. Where everyone belongs.


[1] Social work, cats and rocket science, Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019

[2] Social work, cats and rocket science, Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019

[3] Social work, cats and rocket science, Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019

[4] Definitions of ‘othering’ from Oxford Reference, Merriam Webster,

[5] Divisive, demeaning and devoid of feeling: how social work jargon causes problems for families, Surviving Safeguarding, Community Care, 10 May 2018

[6] Children in care singled out for speaking social work jargon, review chief warns, Stephen Naysmith, The Herald, 28 April 2018

[7] Evidence framework Feb 2017 – Feb 2020, Independent Care Review, July 2020

[8] Us vs them: the sinister techniques of ‘Othering’ – and how to avoid them, john a Powell, The Guardian, 8 November 2017

[9] A new health and care system, Alex Fox, Policy Press, 2018

[10] Ducks in a row, Sue Robins, Bird Communications, 2022

[11] Why we dread Mental Health Awareness Week every year, Maff Potts, Camerados, 4 May 2021

[12] Belonging vs fitting in – Brene Brown, YouTube, 4 February 2022

[13] Radical help, Hilary Cottam, Virago, 2018

[14] If you don’t use their language…, Katherine Runswick-Cole, Twitter, 2019

[15] Care and support statutory guidance, Department of Health and Social Care, Updated 2 November 2022

[16] Belonging vs fitting in – Brene Brown, YouTube, 4 February 2022

[17] Bird’s eye view, Sue Robins, Bird Communications, 2019

[18] Ways to avoid “othering”, Bronwyn Thompson, Health Skills blog, 28 January 2019

[19] Why we dread Mental Health Awareness Week every year, Maff Potts, Camerados, 4 May 2021

[20] The trampoline effect: redesigning our social safety nets, Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman, Reach Press, 2020

[21] Power and connections, Eddie Bartnik and Ralph Broad, Centre for Welfare Reform, 2021

[22] Power and connections, Eddie Bartnik and Ralph Broad, Centre for Welfare Reform, 2021

[23] Inclusion should accept and celebrate differences… Dr Chris Moore, Twitter, 16 December 2022

[24] Power and connections, Eddie Bartnik and Ralph Broad, Centre for Welfare Reform, 2021

[25] How to build public support to transform social care: a practical guide for communicating about social care Neil Crowther and Kathryn Quinton, In Control for #socialcarefuture, April 2021

[26] Where the Crawdads sing, Delia Owens, Corsair, 2018

[27] Belonging vs fitting in – Brene Brown, YouTube, 4 February 2022

[28] Reframing dementia, Neil Crowther, Making rights make sense, 14 October 2021

[29] Atlas of the Heart: The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal, Brene Brown

[30] Anchored, Neil Crowther, Making rights make sense, 26 March 2021

[31] Anchored, Neil Crowther, Making rights make sense, 26 March 2021

[32] No future without forgiveness, Desmond Tutu, Rider, 1999

[33] Alastair McIntosh & Ariane Burgess: Reimagine Highlands and Islands 2020, Ariane Burgess, You Tube

[34] Making it real: how to do personalised care and support, Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), 2018

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