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Critical Social Work And Its Values Analysis Social Work Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The essay analyses theories underpinning and key elements of critical social work and its values. An exploration of counselling as a form of social work practice and how it is influenced by the critical social work approach will be included. Examples from practice experience/ literature and the influence of inequalities, power and social divisions will be discussed. The views of service users and their contribution towards the practice will also be take into account in the essay.

Payne (2005) traces social work in the UK back to the 19th century as a community and charitable activity to support the disadvantaged and poor. From the charitable and community origins it developed into a broader field. Jordan (2004) cited in Collins (2009) believes social work owes its origins to Christian morality than a commitment to social problems affecting individuals. Following the economic crisis in the UK in the 1970s due to escalating oil prices social issues like poor housing, unemployment, and poverty and homelessness social work shifted and broadened its focus and tried to address social issues and problems. Adams et al (2005).

Adams et al (2009) mentions that in attempting to address social problems, disadvantage and inequalities social work practitioners have drawn knowledge and ideas from various disciplines such as sociology, psychology, philosophy and politics. From this multi-disciplinary knowledge base the underpinning ideology was anti oppressive principle which provides theoretical tools to understand intervene and respond to the complex experience of oppression. This means social work practitioners have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to challenge inequalities and disadvantage (Payne 2005).

Fook (2002) claims that critical practice can be traced and associated with radical social work in the 1960s-70s deriving ideas from Marxist theory. Marx analysed the capital society he lived in Germany and argued that the structures within society derived from the economy and the changes in the industrial revolution influenced some people to be more powerful and others not. Individuals were restrained by the demands of capitalism. Marx highlighted issues of class and class struggle where there is a struggle between powerful and powerless resulting in different societal classes. Those in power will seek to retain it mostly by exploitation of the powerless.

Thompson (2006) affirms that society comprises of a diverse range of people in which social divisions emerge which in turn forms the societal structures which networks relationships, institutions and groupings. These groupings determine, control and regulate the distribution of power, privilege, status and opportunities resulting in social stratification and dimensions. From these groupings however it is important to mention that unfairness, inequality and oppression is witnessed in the group of people who are vulnerable and marginalised.

Radical social work upheld the following themes: structural analysis of personal problems, ongoing social critique mainly focusing on oppressive ideas/practice and goals of self emancipation and social change. Parallel to these traditions empowering and anti-oppressive practice to participation in research and community work Adams et al (2005). Several key principles were shared from radical critiques to present critical social work which are: challenging dominant forces and oppression in all forms, a critique of positivist ideas and the need to challenge dominant constructed ways of knowing by developing other ways of knowing. This would be achieved through recognising that knowledge may reflect reality but may also be socially constructed through language and ideology. In order to create more/new knowledge self reflection and interaction are essential tools using communication processes Allan et al (2009).

Moya et al (2009) believes that critical thinking was further enhanced by Marxism through academics from the Frankfurt School of Sociologists (Horkeimer (1979), Adorno and Horkeimer, (1979) and Marcuse (1964) from the 1920s/30s and Habermas (1984, 1987)’s writing in the late twentieth century. The sociologists held that social interpretation was based on assumptions of a fixed social order mainly derived from religion, politics and social beliefs. When this order is rejected and challenged, sociologists believed that this would enhance knowledge of the environment which makes individuals more effective.

Gerth and Mills (1948) and Durkeim (1972) cited in Harrington (2005) established that if we understand how social relationships work we would be able to achieve our objectives in society. This is how critical thinking in modernist way is about and it was termed ‘modernism’ but has expanded and embraced other theories concerned with transformation and social change. Gray and Webb (2008) argue that critical theory is shifting from the Frankfurt school but at the same time it has not defined its critical base. Allan et al (2003); Fook (2002); Healey (2000) acknowledge that there is tension in defining critical theory as it comprises different theories, some argue that it is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of theories and approaches including Marxist, radical, feminist, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory, post colonial, critical constructivist and structural perspectives. This suggests that there are many theories although different they all try to understand the relationship between an individual and society. Thus critical practice involves one’s judgement in a reflective and diverse manner Adams et al (2009).

Critical practice involves exploring different options in a situation or actions in judging the best way to address issues. The practitioner would review their ideas, perspectives and options of others before deciding a “best way forward.” This is underpinned by the fact of accepting change and continuity as practitioners encounter different situations and ideas. Payne et al (2005) further mentions that in order to fulfil the requirements of critical practice which include liberation and empowerment social workers need an open mind, reflective stance that encompasses diverse perspectives, experience and assumptions. This would result in acknowledging individual differences, equal opportunity and respect. Fook and Garner (2007) further identify three aspects of critical practice which are critical thinking, critical action and reflexivity as essential tools to apply when seeking social justice and change.

From these theories we can trace the ideas of critical perspective and acknowledge that the powerless can influence policy, societal views and self emancipation from the oppressors. An example of theoretical development implemented by service users was the theorising of disability from the medicalised interpretation to social model of disability. This shift was championed by disabled people’s movements to express how they felt and were treated for more than a century. This shift and theory influenced societal attitudes, influenced policies and to some extent changed societal attitudes in UK and abroad. Abberley (1998); Barnes, (1998). Morris, (1993) supports this by mentioning that the disability movement has overhauled societal perceptions and upheld disabled people’s rights to live independently, promote anti discriminatory practice, fairness and equal opportunities.

Systems theory is another major theoretical source underpinning social work. The theory emphasised that people’s existence is determined by the environment they live or grow in. It highlighted that people’s problems are a result of how they interact with their resource “systems” which are either formal or informal. The informal include friends, neighbours and colleagues. The formal include support groups/ social clubs and associations. The public/ societal include housing, hospitals, work and school which provide certain structure or particular function in society. The system theory encourages growth and provides a wider range of solutions to problems by identifying areas of improvement or needing improvement. However it is said not to be acknowledging power differences within society and with different roles Adams et al (2009). Coulshed and Orme, (1998) clarifies that the nature of diversity in society makes it difficult to be entirely dependent on one theory or approach. Different situations and different circumstances entail different approaches through reflective practices and perspectives.

Harris and White (2009) further explored events and changes within the welfare state from administering to managing the welfare state. They observed that the Conservative “1979 -1997” and Labour “1997-2010” were influenced by neo-liberalist ideas. This idea upheld the belief that market was superior to the state and as such professionals including social workers were meant to implement competitive government policy and approaches to meet global standards. These changes affected the vulnerable people in society as well because managers had been given the powers to speak on their behalf. These changes, debates and contradictions have put social work practice into a contested dilemma profession although this definition states that “Social work is a profession that promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being”. (International Federation of Social Workers, 2000 p1).

Parton (1998) points out that the present political environment is dominantly global, modernized and authoritarian. As such policies are informed and regulated by market principles which prescribes and narrows professional boundaries which affects the rights of service users. In order to achieve their objectives social workers need to challenge and resist the authoritarian elements by employing critical practice. Fook (2002) articulate that critical social work practice should be concerned with promoting a society without domination, exploitation and oppression. In order to achieve these practitioners need to reflect, reconstruct, deconstruct and unpack more processes for change through careful negotiation within the dominant framework.

Many critical social theorists have challenged the existence of a social order and have questioned social order as evidenced in the work of Habermas (1984, 1987) who distinguishes between the system and the life world which interact and sometimes conflict with each other. The system represents the structures like the government departments, transnational companies emerging from globalisation, ideas promoted by communicative reasoning, education and media. All these structures are relaying a world view through different reasoning. As such social work is not excluded as an agent of systematic managerialism in agencies Pease (2005).

Fook (2002) and Gardner (2007) proposed alternative forms of critical theory which are feminism and post modernism. They focus on the understanding that the world reflects personal experience and social historical context. They argue that personal experience constructs and is constructed by the world we live in. They advocate to listening to people’s experiences (narratives) seriously and from these we can hear how they view and experience the world in different ways.

Powell (2001) suggests that feminists maintain that the narration of experiences by individuals gives us a clue on how they construct the world and how they want to engage with their problems and situations. Thus postmodernists say there is an alternative way of viewing the world than what it seems to be. Post-modernity argue there is a different way of viewing the world and different ways to deal with societal problems hence critical social work seeks for different options and take the best way forward.

Adams et al (2009) suggests that in order to seek the best way forward social workers are encouraged to adopt the eclectic approach which entails selecting crucial aspects from different theories and blend them together as one approach. Alternatively they can use different theories for different cases. This has an advantage of addressing inadequacies in particular theories as they compensate one another. However there are also limitations as to master different theories and selecting crucial aspects may be difficult. It might as well be difficult to select the appropriate theory to use in the first place. To overcome these limitations Epstein (1992) suggested that continuous reflection, agreement, debate and teamwork would encourage flexibility in complex issues.

Milner and O’byrne (1998) propose that in trying to address social injustices and inequality social work uses a variety of skills and knowledge based on theory perspective and methodology. This empowers social workers to put in place intervention which is appropriate to individual circumstances. This intervention empowers social workers with skills to engage service users to bring positive outcomes.

Banks (2001) holds that values are diverse, may overlap, can conflict and socially constructed. Traditional social work and critical social work values overlap and are based on “Biestek 1961” and consist of the following: Individualism, non judgemental, self determination, purposeful expression and controlled emotional development. In post modernity terms these can be interpreted to promotion of social justice, emancipation, anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory, empowerment, non judgemental and respect and dignity. Above all the language used may affect the way we interpret the world resulting in assumptions, overrepresentation or misrepresentation of issues and ideas, Adam et al (2009).

Critical social work as discussed explores the best way forward to individuals’ problems and seeks to listen and engage with the individual to tell their story and work in partnership to find the best way forward. The limitation is critical social work is surrounded by external forces which are beyond it control, for example resources in the current economic climate globally and at home. It is also criticised as its values and origins are Eurocentric and do not represent universal circumstances as what seems to work in UK might not necessarily work in Afro/ Asian communities. For example the issue of confidentiality is valued and essential in UK and Europe whereas in Afro Asian cultures they value kinship support in times of distress. However they would not want anyone else outside the kinship clique to know about their situation. This brings interpretation problems to confidentiality Morley (2003).

In order for all these theories to be implemented there should be contact with individuals in society who experience inequality and disadvantage. Furthermore it is also important to mention at this point that social work intervention and practice is broad and spreads into other disciplines. Group work, Counselling, Advocacy and Assessment are examples of different forms of practising social work. I will not focus on the broadness of disciplines but will focus on the aims of the essay which are to explore how the critical social work approach influences counselling. Counselling requires a lot of skills and approaches as it seeks to address and resolve individual dilemmas, decision making and resolving issues.

According to Dryden (2004:40) cited in Adams et al (2009) counselling is described as principled relationship characteristics by the application of one or more psychological theories and a recognised set of communication skills, modified by experience, intuition and other interpersonal factors, to clients’ intimate concerns, problems or aspirations. Its predominant ethos is one of facilitation rather than of advice-giving or coercion. It may be of very brief or long duration, take place in an organisational or private practice setting and may or may not overlap with practical, medical and other matters of personal welfare.

The Barclay report in the early 1980s mentioned that it was essential for social workers to engage in counselling as it helped to engage with individuals to help them manage their problems, worries and anxieties, Barclay Committee,(1982). This is no longer the situation today as noted by Brearley (1995) when he states that political, administrative, legislative changes and ideologies have affected the relationship between counselling and social work. Some social work practitioners are in dilemma as to whether they can do counselling or not and where to start with counselling and when to stop. Because social workers operate in a legislative, organisational, ideological, value and ethical context it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in counselling without pushing boundaries, Furthermore the economic environment, budget cuts and lack of resources makes it difficult to manoeuvre and employ uncontested interventions McLeod (2009).

However despite the above constraints social workers at some point carry out counselling as not carrying it out would render their job inadequate and inefficient. McLeod (1998) identified a number of counselling theories which are Person centred, Existential, Cognitive Behavioural (CBT), Motivational, Humanistic, Psychodynamic, Karpman’s (1969) Drama triangle and Eclectic or Integrative approaches. Some of the theories have been criticised as inadequate and resource straining. One approach that is complimentary to social work is the eclectic/ integrative approach.

Integrative theory is adaptable to the needs presented by the client or specific circumstances which is flexible and adoptable to client needs. McLeod (2003) supports this statement when he maintains that eclectic approach enables the counsellor to choose the best option and techniques from a range of theories to meet the client needs. It can mean employing different elements from different theories to blend them into a new suitable model or theory. These compliments with one of the social work theory of eclecticism which seeks to integrate different theories to intervene (Adams, 2009).

It can be argued that the aims of social work and the aims of counselling are both focusing on individuals and their interaction with the society, problems they face and how they solve them. As Egan (2006) puts it and complimented by Coulshed and Orme (2006) social workers adopt skills that compliment counselling skills such as empathy or understanding, respect, self knowledge and acceptance and honest. Although there are criticisms on Egan’s work as being ignorant of psychodynamic ideas meaning it has limited application and effectiveness. A reflective practitioner would seek to promote social justice, anti -oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice based on knowledge to promote inclusive practice. Both professions are being challenged by increasing literature developing and need to engage in best, critical and anti discriminatory practice to reach all individuals and communities Morley (2003).

My privilege in practice working with clients is that I have acquired knowledge and on values of social work issues and intervention. I also have a black African background which has some conflicting values to social work. I will focus on the social work values to overcome any prejudices and biases which may jeopardise my work. I also have the law on my side which would give me power to intervene and practice. In my experience as a caseworker at Refugee Action (RA) I used counselling as a technique to working with clients. Clients from different background accessed the service to resolve their immigration matters. Mostly the approach we used was the integrative approach which meant that the outcomes met the needs of individual circumstances. I did not allow my own values and prejudices to influence my practice.

The advantage of having my own values and knowledge made it easy for me to overcome any prejudices and stereotypes towards my clients. As a person from an African background with different values from those of the British society, it was easy for me to understand how it is to be in the client’s shoes. I also observed that Muslim women preferred to work with female caseworkers and male Muslims preferred male caseworkers. They appeared not comfortable working with people from the opposite sex and tended to withhold information if that was the case. I therefore ensured Muslim clients were assisted by a person of preferred gender. Above all I applied the Narrative approach which solicits encouragement to clients to tell their stories. This enabled me to explore client’s situation at their own pace and actively listened to assess and establish the real problem in the situation.

Carniola (2005) observed that social workers are in the right direction of developing critical consciousness about the psychological impact of oppression on individuals. He further expressed that there is concern on the degree of awareness among social workers on the impact of privilege or dominant status on individual’s subjectivities and world views. Rossitter (2000) concurs that the position/ impact and ways in which professionals engage with clients is overlooked and underestimated as they possess a certain class in the form of gender, race, and sexual privilege.

Having explored critical social work practice and theories underpinning it, it is important to acknowledge that there is continuous transformation and contest within the academic field and socio-political arena. This is greatly impacting on vulnerable people and how they are treated and marginalised in issues affecting their lives. If the values of critical social work could be fulfilled and the theories underpinning it are integrated social work and counselling would be forces for change to promote social justice.


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