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This research paper examines the history and development of critical social work as an approach and a practice. It reviews the major historical perspectives on a critical social work approach and then outlines an approach to critical social work based on the major tenets of critical social theory, which includes postmodern thinking about how beliefs about how knowledge is made and is inextricably linked to power. Specific concepts (knowledge, power, language, and identity) and some specific ways that might translate into the practice of critical social work are also considered. These include critical reflection and deconstruction/ reconstruction, problematization and research, narrativity, and contextuality.
- History of Critical Social Work
- Contemporary Understandings
- Key Concepts
- Common Ideas Underpinning Critical Social Theory
- Common Ideas Underpinning Critical Social Work Practice
- Identity Creation
- Major Practice Applications
- Critical Reflection and Deconstruction/Reconstruction
- Problematization and Research
Critical social work practice is still developing as an approach, and there are varied perspectives on exactly what theoretical frameworks underpin it. In this research paper, I outline a framework using a conception of critical social theory which incorporates common aspects from several related contemporary theoretical approaches such as postmodernism and feminism.
History of Critical Social Work
The idea of a critical social work is relatively recent idea in the history of social work. It is an idea and an approach, which is still developing, and this means that there are many different meanings of the term.
Most writers would, however, agree that critical approaches to social work were born around the 1970s. They were based on the common critique during that era. Social work was characterized, like many other helping professions, as an agent of social control and the state. Contrary, therefore, to its stated helping ideals, the social work profession was seen to support the status quo, and social structures, which worked against the best interests of the very communities and people it purported to help. The social fabric, which justified and supported social inequalities, was viewed as the cause of social problems themselves, and so social workers could not really help people unless they assisted in dismantling the very structures which brought about social ills in the first place. Social change was, therefore, seen as an imperative of social work. This included challenging social oppressions, and empowering disadvantaged groups. Most criticism was directed toward casework, or individualized work, which was seen as founded on personal pathology. Individualized practice was seen as ‘blaming the victim,’ or as pathologizing and changing the people who were actually the blameless victims of a faulty system. This individualized type of approach was regarded as the major influence in the 1950s when the ‘psychiatric deluge’ swamped social work’s initial conceptions of the ‘person-in-context’ (see Fook, 1993 for a full discussion of these terms and trends). These early criticisms were labelled as radical, and spawned a whole body of literature on radical social work, largely underpinned by Marxist analysis (e.g., Bailey and Brake, 1975; Corrigan and Leonard, 1978). These Marxist critiques tended to focus on macro level criticisms directed at material structural inequalities, embodied particularly in class differences. Much of this literature was subsequently criticized for its lack of attention to social work with individuals (Fook, 1993) and indeed for its lack of attention to practice per se.
There was room, therefore, for the radical critique of social work to become more sophisticated. There was a need to include the importance of gender, and gendered inequalities, as an additional aspect of the social structure. Feminist social work (e.g., Dominelli and MacLeod (1982) therefore developed in the 1980s as an important approach in addressing structural inequalities. Critiques of racist and ableist social work were also relevant to this (Dominelli, 1988; Oliver, 1990; Morris, 1991). This development continued, as further types of analyses were introduced which better theorized the nature and causes of social inequalities, and which allowed more sophisticated understandings of power, and the relationship of individuals to their social contexts. How these issues are theorized accounts to a large extent for different perspectives on critical social work which are in contemporary development.
There are now a number of perspectives on critical social work, which include: postmodern, antioppressive, structural, and new radical perspectives based on neo-Marxist analysis. What each of these shares is a commitment to understanding how power operates to sustain social inequalities. However the specific analysis used, and therefore the specific actions recommended, and the types of social changes called for, vary depending on the perspective taken.
Structural perspectives emphasize the importance of a structural analysis in social work practice, and are more materialist in their orientation (Allan, 2009). A key contemporary Canadian author in this genre is Mullaly (2007). Antioppressive approaches emphasize intersectionality and the imperative against oppression of all types (e.g., Dominelli (2002). Postmodern, and postmodern critical perspectives tend to include more complex analyses of power and difference, and therefore are useful for understanding the operation of exclusion at the everyday level. In social work, the major exponents of this approach include Australians Healy (2000), Pease and Fook (1999) and Fook (2002, 2012). Newer perspectives including human rights, reflexive materialism, and critical race theory are covered in a volume, which includes authors from several different country contexts (Hick et al., 2005).
To a large extent, these varied perspectives are also associated with different country contexts, although there is some overlap. For instance, antioppressive social work is mostly written about from Britain, and is used to some extent in Canada. The term ‘structural social work’ originated from Canadian writers as noted above. Postmodern and postmodern critical perspective have largely been developed by Australian writers (e.g., Fook, 2002; Healy, 2000; Pease and Fook, 1999). Neo-Marxist approaches are having a comeback in the United Kingdom (e.g., Ferguson, 2008). In the United States, it is possible to argue that no specific approach exists, which even roughly equates to critical perspectives (Reisch and Andrews, 2001), although there is significant writing on empowerment (e.g., Simon, 1994). In the United States, there is some argument that critical perspectives have adhered most strongly with postmodern and social constructionist perspectives and it is noteworthy that the term ‘critical’ is rarely used.
Common Ideas Underpinning Critical Social Theory
Agger (2006) argues that there are common ideas shared by many social theorists (e.g., Foucault, Derrida, the Frankfurt School, feminism), which can be loosely grouped together as critical social theory. These include theories termed critical, postmodern, feminist, multicultural, and selected theories from cultural studies. He terms this a critical social theory “theory cluster” (2006: p. 4), which can be identified by seven common features (Agger, 2006: pp. 4–5):
- Opposition to positivist understandings of knowledge making. Knowledge is not wholly ‘objective’ (i.e., simply constructed as an empirical ‘truth’ distinct from and outside of ourselves as knowing human beings). It is also actively made by people (e.g., researchers, theorists, practitioners). We, as members of society are all active participants in creating knowledge from our own social positions and perspectives, and cannot help but bring inherent value stances and biases. (The pronoun ‘we’ is used to refer to us all as people who are ‘social subjects’ i.e., as individuals who live in a society in which we participate to cocreate a shared sense of reality.) Knowledge cannot be value free.
- The possibility of progress. Critical social theories build on the past and present to envisage and create a better future, to be achieved through social and political action. Critical social theory both raises awareness of oppression, and demonstrates the possibility of a different nonoppressive society. It not only seeks to facilitate social change, but also offers an analytical base for change.
- Domination is both personal and structural, that is, people’s everyday lives are affected by structural institutions and constructions such as gender and race.
- Structural domination is also sustained at the individual level through false consciousness or ideology, (or discourse). Ideological or discursive thinking involves believing that there are ideas which are unchangeable, and therefore, taken-for-granted. Continuing to believe that these ideas cannot be changed therefore serves to maintain existing power relations and inequities. The role of critical social theory is to expose these beliefs (and false consciousness or discourse), thereby creating the basis for social change and transformation. By undermining false consciousness (and revealing the discursive functions of ideas, personal, and collective agency are enabled, bringing about personal and social change.
- The belief that social change can be brought about by exposing false consciousness at individual levels implies voluntaristic (rather than deterministic) assumptions about people and the possibility of change. It opens the way for social changes to begin at the site of everyday life.
- A dialectical relationship exists between structure and agency. Although social structures do influence everyday experience and lives, knowledge of how this happens also enables people to change the ways this happens.
- The focus on the connection between everyday life and social structures also places responsibility on personal liberation, rather than on oppressing others in the name of distant future liberation.
Critical social work, based on the foregoing understanding of critical social theory, is therefore an optimistic approach, based on the possibility of personal and social change for the better, achieved through working together in dialogue. It can be summarized as follows. Critical social work is as primarily concerned with practicing in ways, which work toward a society without domination, exploitation, and oppression. It involves understanding how structures dominate and also how people construct and are constructed by changing social structures and relations, recognizing that there may be multiple and diverse constructions of ostensibly similar situations. This understanding of social relations and structures disrupts dominant arrangements, and changes these so that they are more inclusive of different interest groups and perspectives.
Knowledge to inform this understanding is derived in different ways. Empirical knowledge is needed in order to understand how material structures shape lives. But processes of critical self-reflection are also crucial to ensure that dominant structures and relations are challenged in the way they are implicitly enacted in individual people’s everyday lives. Communication and dialogue are necessary in order to ensure that diverse perspectives are included in forging new and inclusive ways of working. Thus, in a postmodern and critical social work both the kinds of social changes that are sought, and the ways in which they are enacted, are important. Outcome and process are integral to each other (Fook, 2012: p. 18).
Common Ideas Underpinning Critical Social Work Practice
This approach and these common theoretical underpinnings can be distilled to four key concepts, which are crucial to the practice of critical social work, namely, knowledge, power, language, and identity creation.
The nature of knowledge and how it is generated are both technical and political issues in critical social work. What constitutes legitimate knowledge (and truth?); who accepts it as such; and what are the legitimate ways to generate and create it involves questions of hierarchies of knowledge and people (and therefore power).
It is important to note that critical perspectives recognize that knowledge can be generated by more scientific; means – commonly accepted methods which purport to discover the nature of ‘facts’ about our empirical world. However, these ‘facts’ may also be disputed because not everyone will agree with the methods used to develop them, or indeed, some ‘facts’ may not be relevant in different historical times, social contexts, or for different players. In this way, the more subjective nature of knowledge, and its generation, must also be taken into account. Knowledge in this sense can never be value free as it is necessarily influenced by who creates it, using what type of methodology, and in what context.
Reflexivity, or our ability to recognize how aspects of ourselves and our contexts influence the kinds of knowledge we produce and value, is an important concept in understanding how we as individuals can actively participate in creating and maintaining knowledge (which may or may not be relevant for other people in other contexts).
Additionally, to promote particular social actions, the knowledge that supports them is promulgated as factual, and therefore, universally agreed upon as true. To do this successfully, alternative perspectives are often suppressed or denied. Thus, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. In this way, views which are touted as ‘true’ may simply reflect the views of whatever group is dominant. This concept is highly relevant in understanding the operation of knowledge and power in professional life. For example, service users must often conform to a predetermined set of criteria about their situation and themselves as people, in order to qualify for legitimate services under particular policy provisions.
Furthermore, a similar process can occur in a more subtle way, with individual people in their personal and professional lives. For instance, most of us, base our actions, at the microlevel, on barely recognized assumptions, which mirror and support social arrangements. These may not be of our explicit choosing, and can work against our interests, or the best interests of the people we, as social workers, are working to assist. An everyday example of this is the decisions about how we behave in meetings. What culture(s) are we choosing to go along with when we decide where to sit, or who and what to support?
Critical reflection is an important ingredient in becoming aware of how we as individuals may create and support knowledge which excludes different (perhaps marginal) perspectives and which may therefore work to maintain social inequalities. I will discuss this in more detail in the last section on practice applications.
In social work practice, assumptions about knowledge are linked with assumptions about theory, what constitutes legitimate theory, and how it is made distinctive from practice. How we construct theory and practice, and the relationship between the two, is therefore a critical issue (Fook, forthcoming). How ways of understanding the relationship between theory and practice can be empowering or disempowering is an important site for social change.
The concept of power, from a postmodern critical perspective, is seen as a dynamic force, which can be shaped and created differently in different contexts. The Foucauldian concept of power, as something, which is exercised, rather than something which is possessed, captures the essence of this idea. This conception of power as something, which can be made in social interactions is vastly different from the more commodified view, which seems to dominate accepted thinking. In dominant thinking, power is seen to reside with social position, and therefore, empowerment involves transferring power from one (more powerful) person to another (less powerful) person or group. This finite view of power is problematic because it infers that empowering one group necessarily involves disempowering another. This means that all situations, which involve empowering people are necessarily conflictual. However, in a postmodern view, this need not be the case. Different people and groups, starting from different social and power positions, may actively work together to create more power and in the process empower each other.
We discussed the relationship between knowledge and power above and it is important to remember that they should not be separated. A site for creating power and empowering others or ourselves, therefore, lies in how we conceptualize power, other people’s power, and our own abilities to influence or act in a situation. This understanding of personal agency is crucial to a critical perspective on power.
How we speak about our world and social phenomena is integral to our understanding of how we actively participate in shaping social structures and relations. Firstly, language involves labelling and categorizing which orders the phenomena we experience. Secondly, language functions to socially recognize phenomena – if something is not named, it is harder to speak or communicate about it, and therefore harder to legitimize or value it.
Furthermore, language is about more than words or phrases. It also includes implications about the phenomena we speak about. This is where the concept of discourse becomes important. Discourse refers to the ways of speaking about, and the messages, which are conveyed about phenomena. In this sense, it is about more than the specific words used in the language itself, but may involve nonverbal messages, implied messages, or messages communicated by the way a situation is structured physically. It may also be about more hidden meanings that are assumed in any given cultures, which are operating in a particular situation. For instance, when binary (‘either – or’ type) categories are used, it is implied that there is no other category or way of being. Often the two elements of the binary are pitted against each other, which suggests that they are mutually exclusive and sometimes opposed to each other. Hence, when we use binary categories, such as ‘theorypractice,’ we get the message that the two are very different and that much education and intellectual gymnastics go into ‘integrating’ the two. Such a split can support other binary categorizations (e.g., the split between academia and practice, or the split between research and practice). So where does ‘practice theory’ fit in such a split? In this way, it is easy to see how any more complex ways of understanding theory and practice may be easily left out. It is this leaving out of other perspectives, categories, or experiences which can also act as a form of power, to silence or devalue alternative views.
When we recognize the power of discourse, and also the power of dominant discourses to discount different perspectives, the concept of narrative becomes important. Narrative in a simple sense refers to the idea that whatever perspective is being touted represents that person’s own story, told from their own social position, experience, and background. Thus, narratives may only represent one perspective, but may also represent a perspective, which has not formerly been recognized. This becomes particularly significant when people have not been allowed to tell their own narrative about themselves, their own biography, and identity. The concept of narrative is an important concept in applying the notion of discourse to practice. This will be discussed further in the last section.
People’s sense of themselves and who they are socially and personally can change over time, and can also include contradictions. Identity making involves both personal and social elements, and these can be reworked in the light of new experiences. This means that people do have the opportunity to remake a sense of themselves in relation to changing social contexts. It is possible that identities can:
- Be contradictory
- Be multiple
This perspective represents a major departure from the accepted way of understanding identity, which assumes that people hold an idea of themselves, which remains relatively coherent and constant over time. Indeed, it may sometimes be assumed that a stable identity is crucial to mental health. However, from a postmodern and critical perspective, we acknowledge that because identity is made in context, then an important aspect of coping in life may involve adjusting a sense of self in relation to changing experiences and contexts.
Since identities are changeable, it is important to understand how identities are made, and how these processes can be crucial in constructing social difference (and also in creating discrimination, inclusion, and exclusion). The process of ‘othering’ is a process whereby individual people or groups reinforce their existing identities by creating binary oppositional categories for other people or phenomena, which do not fit their preconceived notions. The ‘other’ group is by definition different. This type of thinking preserves and strengthens boundaries, and presumably, social comfort and certainty. This then forms a basis for discrimination.
Identity politics, as mentioned in relation to the concept of narrative, is therefore important in critical social work. How, and to whom, we accord power to make their own identities, and to coin their own language, becomes an important aspect of making social changes in our everyday lives. And how and whether we recognize and value these new categories are also an important part of critical practice.
Major Practice Applications
There are four major practice strategies which derive from the key concepts as follows: critical reflection and deconstruction/ reconstruction, problematization and research, narrativity, and contextuality.
Critical Reflection and Deconstruction/Reconstruction
As discussed earlier, critical social work includes the notion that knowledge cannot be value free, and that the way knowledge is constructed, and the sorts of knowledge (theory), which is believed to be true, often reflects the exercise of power. In the practice of critical social work, it is therefore important to be able to uncover how this power operates through the knowledge that we choose to believe. Deconstructing language and ways of thinking to discover the operation of power is a method integral to critical social work practice.
In essence, deconstruction is a form of analysing discourses, or “uncovering the ways we talk about and choose to label experience, and how these shape experience” (Fook, 2012: p. 105). In other words, deconstruction involves uncovering the ways that power operates through the ways we label and interpret our experience. What preconceived labels or categories do we accept and choose to maintain? What are we leaving out? What is being distorted? What social rules are being affirmed or created? Whose perspectives are they and what do they have to do with power differences and inequalities? These are the sorts of questions, the answers to which help pull apart our own language and thinking to see how power operates in our own experience.
In the critical reflection model I developed (e.g., Fook and Gardner, 2007), the discourse being analyzed is a person’s narrative about their own experience. Although there are many different perspectives on critical reflection, in critical social work practice, it is relevant to theorize critical reflection as a type of deconstruction of the narratives of personal experience, in order to uncover the hidden assumptions, which inform our practice, and therefore the hidden ways we participate in creating power. These can exist at a very deep and personal level, and uncovering these may help reveal how we can be complicit in supporting views or actions, which can also work against us or the people we as social workers are trying to help.
My model includes two stages (Fook, 2012): the first is deconstruction, where hidden assumptions are uncovered and examined; the second is reconstruction when assumptions (thinking) may be changed, and new ways of practice developed accordingly. This second stage of reconstruction must be an integral part of any critical social work practice. Deconstructing practice experience and thinking must be accompanied by concrete ideas of how practice can be rebuilt on the basis of what is discovered. Critical social theory in this sense provides an analysis, a way of enacting this analysis, and a blueprint for making social changes toward a more equitable and inclusive society. These are contained in a structured and purposeful way, through critical reflection.
Problematization and Research
How we conceptualize and understand the daily ‘problems’ that we deal with as social workers is an integral part of the way we work as practitioners and researchers. Much has been made in the past of the way professionals ‘pathologize’ people and problems, often through a process of ‘othering’ so that any behavior or culture, which appears deviant from the norm is categorized as problematic. How then do we choose to understand and categorize social and personal issues in a way which respects them from an insider’s perspective, but which also values the uniqueness of the perspective enough so that it can be acted upon effectively in a broader social context?
A first step is to see the task of conceptualizing and understanding an issue first and foremost as a research task. The aim of the research is to form a complex and deep understanding of the issue fromthe point of view of the person/people experiencing it. The task of the researcher is to stay open to discovering what this perspective is, and to use methods, which enable this to occur. Thismeans starting with as little preconceived idea as possible, to listen to and accept the language of the person/people involved. It may also mean using communicative and investigative methods, which are most culturally comfortable or appropriate. These will vary greatly depending on your (the researcher’s) gender, social context, age, ethnicity, and so forth, and those of the person/people you are interacting with. It may also mean accepting apparent contradictions (or even new viewpoints which differ vastly from your own), multiple perspectives, and changing interpretations (in line with the postmodern acceptance of fluid identities). Rather than glossing over or leaving out contradictions or changing viewpoints, the task of the researcher is to provide a communicable understanding of the issue or experience, which includes these differences. A complex picture (which derives from the person or situation itself) is aimed at, rather than a consistent or even balanced view.
The second task of the practitioner/researcher is then to mold this understanding into a narrative, which can be communicated to those who need to hear it. Who this audience is will depend on context. For instance, a social worker developing an assessment of a person to receive some form of social assistance may wish to use the language of the relevant policy, and choose to leave out aspects, which will diminish the person’s chances of receiving the assistance. Or aspects that appear not to fit may be reworked in appropriate language. An audience of policy makers may need to hear about aspects of individual experiences, which sit outside the norm, so that their own critical thinking can be stimulated. A target group of social work colleagues might need to know about supporting statistics which will broaden their understanding of the social extent of the issue at hand, and give a context to their practice experience.
This process of coming to a comprehensive appreciation of social problems and issues from insiders’ perspectives may be used equally well for assessment of individual or community situations. The key is to view the assessment not as an attempt to pathologize or fit the issue at hand into a preconceived category, but to be open to creating new categories or labels, and ways of communicating about the issue or situation, which suit the context in which the assessment is being made. This recognizes that conducting an ‘assessment’ is really more of a construction of a professional narrative, constructed to be effective, and relevant in a particular context.
The concept of narrativity refers to an understanding that a perspective on particular phenomena may represent only one perspective from a particular vantage point – social, historical, or political. Narratives, constructed as they are by particular people in particular contexts, function as a form of meaning making. Since the meaning is made in a social context, narratives also perform social functions. Narratives, like discourses, embody power. The principle of narrativity builds on this awareness to suggest strategies for destabilizing this power, and this provides the opportunity to remake it.
The principle of narrativity is related to concepts of discourse analysis, deconstruction, and critical reflection. However, it has special mention here as narrative therapy (see White and Epston, 1990) has become particularly well developed as a movement in its own right. The approach is based on the idea of examining and changing harmful narratives. In summary, it involves: identifying narratives, dominant, empowering, and disempowering; validating the positive ones and externalizing the harmful ones; and rebuilding alternative narratives and validating these further by creating an audience. Such an approach has been used successfully in many different fields of therapeutic work (Duvall and Beres, 2011). Narrative methods, however, can also be used more broadly, in work with communities and also in organizations, and are, therefore, an important component of the critical social worker’s repertoire.
The principle of contextuality arises through recognizing that context influences much of analysis and practice in social work. Contextual practice (practice both within and with context) emphasizes several new ways of approaching practice (Fook, 2012: p. 162):
- Understanding the nature of the different contexts in which we work at different times and to developing relevant practice strategies. This may involve recognizing the role of a particular context in shaping certain attitudes or practices; or it may require adapting our ways of working to incorporate methods from past times or other contexts.
- Positionality – assuming a reflexively aware stance, simultaneously being able to see outside but also within contexts. This involves being able to understand and identify how we are inextricably part of a situation can also allow us to see outside it, and to use this dual awareness to be sympathetic to any resistance to change, but courageous enough to seek change.
- Working with whole contexts (rather than a number of disparate players or aspects). This involves the ability to see beyond the separate elements of a context to appreciate how they work together to create a dynamic whole. This enables working with how people work together, rather than working separately with the people themselves.
- Developing practice knowledge/theory that is transferable (not generalizable) between different contexts. This involves understanding that preexisting knowledge is not imposed top-down or from outside a situation, but rather preexisting knowledge is remade as relevant in new situations. New contexts are not made to fit preexisting knowledge, but rather preexisting knowledge is constantly remade from experience with new contexts.
- Reframing skills in contextual terms – developing ‘contextual competence’ is the ability to read the cultural climate of different contexts and to practice effectively with and within these contexts (Fook, 2012: p. 187).
Critical social work practice is still developing. Outlined here are some ideas about what it might look like using a conception of critical social theory, which incorporates common aspects from a number of related contemporary theoretical approaches (including postmodernism, feminism). An important concluding thought is that the practice of critical social work requires an openness to new experiences, people, and situations which allows engagement with each other in contexts of uncertainty which are often outside our control.
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