Discussions of social work usually include, often at an early stage, some reference to the ‘generic’ nature of social work and to the specific application of ‘generic’ principles or knowledge. These related terms, ‘generic’ and ‘specific’, have been frequently used over the last thirty years, but their use has been predominantly practical: they have appeared useful tokens in promoting particular causes, rather than providing possible cues to meaning which required further exploration. Thus, the idea of ‘the generic in social work’ has been used to promote ‘generic’ courses of social work training and a common profession of social work. These may or may not be worthy causes, but the terms employed in their promotion have not been used to deepen any sense of curiosity about the nature of social work.