Problem or “mystery” in Care and Social Work?

The (not) knowing of the social worker considered more closely: we attended a symposium (1) in the Netherlands questioning the problem- and solution-oriented approach in social work getting in the way of the social worker’s “knowing”. We regard this a topical issue, in the symposium related to the phenomenological “mystery” notion of Gabriel Marcel (1889- 1973)

A problem is something that I find and see fully before me, and therefore can control and reduce, can define with a technique. But a mystery is something in which I myself am involved, and which transcends all conceivable technique – leading to action based on an intuition I did not know I possessed.’
(Gabriel Marcel in: The mystery of being, 1951)

An impressive play concluding the discussions brought the participants of the symposium even closer to the question. We give a brief impression of this play before turning to the symposium. A mother, whose life journey years ago was marred by domestic violence, collaborated with a playwright to create the play Truusje: “One Woman.”

She brought this part of her own life to the stage. Her inner world became palpable to the audience: in her relationship, after a few months, an atmosphere of everyday threat by her then partner and eventually his assault had crept in. The beginning of the relationship had brought unprecedented hope to her. Her own dreams of togetherness with her partner pulled at her so hard that for some time they became her reality, confirmed by repeated apologies from her partner. These fell on fertile ground with her, as did the simultaneously incessant humiliations by him. The concerns expressed by family and friends could not take root in this situation. One day, three years later, she overcame her dichotomy. She called youth services and asked for her children’s removal from home herself. They are doing well these days. Her partner she never saw again. Following the play, the actress opened up to all questions. When asked if social services were not at her side, she said that social services continually insisted on getting out of the situation immediately, which at the time was a bridge too far for her, trapped as she was in the situation.

At its core, the symposium’s discussion revolved around a question not unfamiliar to social professionals. They operate in the familiar tension between policy and proximity to solve problems of citizens, who are often considered or labeled vulnerable and in “dire straits.” In training and policy, methodical-technical approaches are provided or mostly policy-demanded. Associated with the systematic identification of problems comes the often unrealistic notion of getting a grip on the usually complex and dire situations with which the social worker comes into contact.

The social worker can be involved in various ways: detached and focusing on problem sets, or focused at nuanced observations, taking into account all the unique facets of the situation. Among the speakers at the symposium, perspectives on the actual practice of social workers varied considerably. This problematization led to the question of what might happen once the focus on “problem definitions” and the resulting “methods of solution” is shifted, as prompted by the symposium’s inquiry.

Social work and “the problem”

The first speaker Sabrina Keinemans (2), lecturer in social integration, raised the question whether a “problem definition” can actually put the finger on what is going on with needy citizens in the so-called “margins” of society. Is observation without prior classification of what is going on not the first priority – especially in the context of the whole pluralistic society? Is the term “problem situation”, as a description applied to those involved, appropriate and, above all, not also limiting? After all, the term implies an unambiguously defined and moreover external view of the situation seen from a particular frame, as established by social policy. In Keineman’s PhD research on the lifeworld of young mothers, this question arose again and again, as she stated in opening of the symposium.

“The mystery” – intuitive perception in social work?

Regarding social work, the second speaker Petruschka Schaafsma introduces a notion less obvious in this context, namely “the mystery” in Gabriel Marcel’s definition (3). The (ontological) frame of reference of his mystery notion is the intuitive sensation of “life” in all its dimensions, not yet detached, classified and dissected by analyses. Once intuitively understood as referring to the whole bandwidth of existence, his notion implies that the social worker as a person cannot really withdraw from the situation in which he finds his client. Applying anamnesis schemes, systematic analyses and methodologies risk falling short to perceive this situation to its full extent.

In this field of tension, Schaafsma places the introduced “mystery” notion, which is not to be confused with “mysticism.” For, according to Marcel, a mystery is not impenetrable: a different kind of approach than the contemporary one, which he labels as technical-interventionist, still gives access to concrete situations, provided there is a sense of mystery. The situation, as it were, befalls one perceiving the situation as a whole. He/she thus comes into contact with an existential dimension. In this respect, within the existential frame of reference, a connection with the unexpected occurs.

Through this form of contact, intuition emerges. In the transposition to social work, the admission of intuition can thus be understood as a connecting moment between the social worker and his client. The social worker’s search for a “problem” with a subsequent solution does not have to dominate. (Marcel has a “hopeful” (4) vision: “being an sich” is characterized by interpersonal connections, family ties being a meaningful example of this. He thus also sets himself apart from other existentialist currents (3)).

In this case, the client does not become an observed “object” that can be controlled. This more intersubjective approach to the client situation offers the social worker opportunities to engage partly on the basis of his own intuition, as indicated above. At this point, we make the following comment we will elaborate on later: in the context of professional action, the question is relevant whether the intersubjectively established intuition should not be founded on self-knowledge, life and professional experience, in favor of a professional result serving the client and his co-biographically influenced life circumstances.

Sidestep: Perceiving the existential dimension

In Marcel’s reading, the existential dimension is not to be identified as something extraordinary, but has to be tested in the everyday life (3). This is possible by moving one’s perception beyond the narrowing functionalism on which, according to Marcel, the contemporary era leaves its strong mark. Marcel refers to experiencing the whole bandwidth of life, which reveals itself in everyday situations reflecting, still unexpectedly, the depths of life. Marcel is also a playwright. He regards abstract treatises and conceptual reflections as not unimportant, but believes they fall short in capturing the full essence of “being” through lived experience.

This experience can hardly be captured by abstract language. The perception of stage plays is exemplary of this: the audience is close and participates with its own presence in the intense events taking place on the stage. Marcel uses for this process the term ‘evoking ‘ the mystery of “being.” Thinking in “problems” of the characters cannot delve into this deeper dimension. Entirely in the Marcelian vein, therefore, the theater play outlined above had its own repercussions on the symposium participant.

Our Consideration: professional inconvenience in practice

To what extent is what cannot be put into words an issue for social workers, who, after all, do not practice their profession in the role of spectator? Social work is largely a verbal-oriented profession. On the one hand, its tasks include conversation, signaling, policy implementation, reporting and accountability. On the other hand, the social worker participates to a certain extent in a client situation by testing precisely the “being” that reveals itself there in its very diverse (everyday), sometimes unmentionable, manifestations. In acknowledging this supposed “mystery,” we find the enlightening intersubjectivity promoted by Marcel, as mentioned earlier.

It implies a certain form of professional proximity to the person seeking help. An inner movement arises within it through “evocation,” also among social workers. It is a participating, experiential awareness that occurs before it is articulated.

Articulating what the social worker observes is essential, while also recognizing that the verbalization is only an approximation.
In this interpretation, only by enduring this ambivalence can justice be done to the situation of the (help-seeking) citizen. With the mystery notion, social workers are certainly valuing their professional intuition when engaging with the individual seeking help.

Crucial is the contact with the person seeking help in professional proximity. Likewise, the unique, process-oriented nature of the contact and its continuity needs maintained. However, partly because of the ambiguity explained above, the intensity of the contact can vary greatly. In line with the mystery notion, the social worker working in this way also endures this variability without routinely wanting to control this (often lengthy) process. The attitude necessary to do so clashes with the contemporary systemic-bureaucratic imperative of formalization and efficiency that pervades social work. The social worker then senses the gap that arises between his own attitude and current institutional settings.

According to the speakers in the symposium so far, one is still searching for the interpretation of an alternative frame of reference that can substantively fill the perceived gap. The mystery-notion could provide one such frame of reference.

Research-conclusions drawn about workplace-reality

The third speaker, researcher Wim Dekker, lecturer in Informal Networks and Late Modernity, argues that social workers mainly categorize methodically-technically and consequently intervene. On the (Dutch) workplace, such a chain reaction sets in all too quickly, according to the researcher. The corresponding question arises who determines what is a “problem” and for whom. The hypothesis: the social worker answers this question, not the person involved in the alleged “problem” herself. Her living environment is not actually fathomed. Dekker argues that this would take more effort than the social worker nowadays can muster within the framework of his/her usual detached “problem approach”.

Counteracting in social work

Wim Dekker’s portrayal of the social worker as a goal-rational intervening “problem solver” is moderated by the next speaker: Jan Willem Bruins, president of the professional association for social workers. Bruins notes that social workers do consider the client as a subject in their work. The presence theory (5) and practice well known in the Netherlands, for example, explicitly distances itself from a methodological- interventionist basis for social work. Relational alignment from subject to subject is the basis for accessing the client’s situation and environment.

In the current Dutch socio-political reality, however, this attitude can only be expressed to a limited extent. It is neglected by a political context where, despite the goodwill of many sides, opposing dynamics always impose themselves. For example, the multiple tenders for care, which increasingly cause personnel changes, are not only at odds with the relational approach, but also with the necessary continuity and with the input of professional life- and work experience. As a result, experienced social professionals are withdrawing. The professionals present in the audience of the symposium agreed with this analysis.

The mystery – notion, serving as a proposal to fill the above-mentioned gap institutionally anchored, seems especially elaborated for the micro level – as a plea for a deeper, comprehensive observation of the client situation and the importance of interpersonal contact and engagement rather than interventionism. Although this notion underscores the relevance of bottom-up policies in (health)care organizations based on greater attention to the executive social worker, we conclude that the ontological-phenomenological questioning of the notion does not resonate in the politico-ethical field as yet.

Political-ethical, practice-related reflections on the mystery-notion

Some aspects that play a central role in the concept of mystery are already present in contemporary theories and in Dutch social work policy-making. Explicitly the aforementioned intrinsic attitude of the social worker and “making oneself available” is increasingly a policy starting point for professional action. Current organizational structures, however, are not necessarily equipped to do so. The practice of presence, for example, is grounded in the idea of entering the client’s environment, that is, not shunning a certain proximity and sensing what occurs there, even if it involves tragedy and suffering. Sometimes tragedy is a faithful road companion, which in the real world of work does not necessarily mean that the social worker necessarily turns away. In contrast, the actual facilitation of the intrinsically moved social worker is still too often overruled by control mechanisms with improper content at the micro, meso and macro levels.

In addition, professional practical wisdom (6) is a care ethic theme receiving positive reception in the Netherlands, at least in care literature and in care policy. That theme is partly related to the aforementioned intuition advocated by Marcel, which should be further supplemented by work and life experience and self-knowledge in order to professionalize this in social work. It is well known in Dutch higher education for social professions that social workers always include themselves as a person. This aspect is highlighted in the course “supervision” for human-oriented professions offered there.

The social worker’s personality, subjectivity, attitude and life experience in relation to work practice are respectfully brought to the fore, insofar as the curriculum still allows this in today’s socio-and educational political context. By gaining self-knowledge through this approach, exploring intuition can provide a solid foundation for professional development.

Political dynamics and violence

The mystery notion according to Marcel requires a broad view and immediate and situational experience of all aspects regarding depth in “everyday life,” in order to act from this perception. The aforementioned political dimension and its powerful, complex, counteracting dynamics appear to be right out of the picture in the process. The question remains whether and how the mystery notion could have the eloquence to stop these dynamics. The (late) modern Western society has pluriformity as its main characteristic. The mystery-notion is a further indication that channeled conceptual policy thinking, although prevailing, cannot truly deal with the immediate perception of complexity and existential-often tragic-facts. Thus, the social worker operates in this characteristic field of tension with a perception that still remains vulnerable.

Amidst the described, disruptive fields of tension, the social worker also encounters acts of violence. Problem identification then implies intervention, for example in the context of domestic violence. What position can the mystery-notion take here? The sense of “being” in individuals affected by such violence cannot be found in the relationships within the family, but rather in the lack of connection within oneself and with others involved, often passed down through generations.

Marcel speaks of the existential dimension, referring primarily to constructive intersubjective connections. Domestic violence situations, however, make the vulnerable in a family system the object of the violence. Here the mutual commitment to each other does not have the constructive, hopeful basis Marcel refers to in his ontological notion of connectedness through “being.”

Hidden in domestic violence situations is the often very disrupting, tragic intertwining of mutual, long-time insurmountable dependencies. The social worker who has a task in this will have to see his or her own understanding of “being” more broadly than suggested in Marcel’s notion. In particular, that “being” for the social worker may involve a confrontation – up close – with ambivalence, tearing apart and tragedy, which requires endurance. Professional engagement is then sometimes limited to a persistent and unilaterally offered form of closeness in client contact. Intersubjectivity cannot be neglected as yet. The play at the beginning of the symposium referred to this tightrope walking, beyond policy language and provisions and ultimately beyond this text.

The author of this article is social worker and supervisor with a care ethical background. In addition to literature distributed by the symposium organizers, secondary literature on Marcel’s thinking was used for this article.


(1) The symposium “Problem or Mystery” was held in Utrecht on Nov. 9, 2023, in honor of the oration of Petruschka Schaafsma (theological ethicist)

(2) For the work of Sabrina Keinemans see also her interview on our site

(3) See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Marcel’s Ontological Exigence

(4) See Oration Petruschka Schaafsma (Dutch)

(5) See about the presence theory here

(6) About practical wisdom see also on our site: 

(7) For further reading about the ‘mystery notion’: Gabriel Marcel (1951a): The Mystery of Being. London: The Harvill Press.

About the author: Silke Jacobi

Silke Jacobi

Silke Jacobi (1963) had her master’s degree in the Ethics of Care at the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht) in 2019. In her master thesis she investigated 'late modern', invisible power dynamics with seemingly subject-oriented, but equally neoliberal subtitles: this double-tingled, turbulent context influences the morally and critically concerned care-workers and has impact of institutional questions. Since 1990 she explores as a social worker the changes of the complex (institutional) care-praxis also from an inside-perspective. In addition, she worked as a supervisor for upcoming social workers at a university of applied sciences. The broad political-ethical context for care-ethical issues is one of her concerns.

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