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The essay is an analysis of theories underpinning and key elements of critical social work and its values. Furthermore I will explore Counselling as one of the areas of social work practice and how it is influenced by the critical social work approach in practice. I will include examples from practice experience and literature and also highlight the influence of inequalities, power and social divisions. The views of service users and their contribution towards the practice will also be taken into account in the essay.
Social work in the UK dates back to the 19th as a community and charitable activity to support the disadvantaged and poor. From the charitable and community origins it developed in strength to a field that aims at challenging inequality, oppression; promote social inclusion/ social justice and independence Parrot (2002). Through these values and aims Social Work broadened its knowledge base and developed into Critical social work. Wooster (2002) supports the above origins when he mentions that 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, poverty and homelessness social work shifted and broadened its focus and tried to address social issues and problems. (Grimwood et al., (1995).
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.
Critical practice can be traced and associated with radical social work in the 1960s-70s deriving ideas from Marxist theory Fook (1993). 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. 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. In order to create more/new knowledge self reflection and interaction are essential tools using communication processes.
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 resulting in structure/agency problem at the expense of structure. Marx highlighted issues of class and class struggle where there is a struggle between powerful and powerless resulting in different societal classes. As such a situation prevails that those in power will seek to remain in power at whatever cost and means mostly exploitation of the powerless by depriving them of their opportunities and access to facilities. Rush (2004) further mentions that Marxist critical theory is not descriptive but a means of influencing social change by raising awareness of forces within society that brings inequality and highlighting how awareness can help individuals to overcome such forces and liberate themselves.
Critical thinking is also linked to Marx and Socilogists from the Frankfurt School of Sociologists (Horkeimer (1979), Adorno (Adorno and Horkeimer, (1979) and Marcuse (1964) from the 1920s/30s and Habermas (1984, 1987) writing in the late twentieth century. These theorists held that social interpretation was based on assumptions of a fixed social order mainly derived from religion, politics and social beliefs. When this social order started being rejected and challenged. Sociologists argued that knowledge of the envinonment makes individuals more effective (Gerth and Mills (1948) and Durkeim (1972) 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.
For the purpose of clarity and continuity I will at this stage define critical social work practice and highlight its values. Adams et al (2009) view critical practice as involving exercising one’s judgement in a reflective and diverse manner. It 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 (2002) 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.
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. Critical social work is also informed by values which overlap the traditional social work values. The value of social justice is upheld from the fact that critical practice is a moral activity and as such professionals are also moral agents.
This is further supported by Thompson (2006) when he suggests 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.
From these theories we can trace the ideas of critical perspective and acknowledge that the powerless can influence policy society views from the oppressors. The 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.
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 dilema 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).
Fook (2002) also argues that critical social work practice should be concerned with promoting a society without domination, exploitation and oppression. In order to achieve this practitioners need to reflect, reconstruct and unpack more processes for change through careful negotiation within the dominant framework. Parton et al (1997) 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.
Adams et al (1998) further identifies that Systems theory is another major theoretical source underpinning social work. The systems 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 provides 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. Furthermore (Coulshed and Orme, 1998) pointed out that the nature of diversity in society makes it difficult to be entirely dependent on one theory or approach. Different situations and different circumstances entails different approaches through reflective practices and perspectives.
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 lifeworld 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. aAs such Social work is not excluded as an agent of systematic managerialism in agencies.
(Fook 2002 and Gardner 2007) further highlighted alternative forms of critical theory which are feminism and post modernism. They have different views from Marxist views and the Frankfurt sociologists in that 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. This is supported by the feminists when they highlight 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. Postmodernity argue there is a different way of viewing the world and different ways to deal with societal prtoblemsa hence critical social work seeks for different options and take the best way forward.
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. Groupwork, 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 BAC counselling is a more deliberate activity and in its definition of the term the British Association for Counselling spells out the distinction between a planned and a spontaneous event. ‘People become engaged in counselling when a person, occupying regularly or temporarily the role of counsellor, offers or agrees explicitly to offer time, attention and respect to another person or persons temporarily in the role of client.’ According to Dryden (2004:40), it 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.
From the above definitions and tracing the historically it is evident social workers were /and are still engaged in counselling as highlighted by the Barclay report in the early 1980s which 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) political, administrative, legislative changes and ideologies have affected the relationship between counselling and social; work. Some social work practitioners are in dilemma as to when 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.
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.
There are a number of Counselling theories which are Person centred, existential, Cognitive behavioural (CBT),motivational, humanistic, psychodynamic, Karpman’s (1969) Drama triangle and eclectic and intergrative 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 a method of intervention that meets the needs presented by the client and specific circumstances. The benefits of this approach are that it is flexible and adoptable to client needs. McLeod (2003) supports this statement when he mentions theapproach 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.This compliments with one of the social work theories of eclecticism which seeks to intergrate different theories to intervene ( quote)
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 some of them are 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-discvriminatory practice based on knowledge to promote inclusive practice. Both professions are being challenged by increasing literature developing and need to engage in best practice and critical practice to reach all individuals and communities.
My privilege as a social worker 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 will give me power to intervene and practice. From my experience as a caseworker at 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 person centred approach which meant clients were treated as individuals and given advice relating to their immigration issues
My identity gives me a privilege because I have my own values. I am black African student social worker. I nave my values, knowledge and prejudices which can impact on the way I will relate with clients when in practice. I will not allow my own values and prejudices influence my practice. I will engage in reflective practice and use the critical social work approach discussed in this essay. Clients have their own views, way of life and interpretation of the world. My role is to promote social justice to the people I work with in order for them to have choice and independence. . This is supported by Carrniol 2005 when they mention that it is important for social workers to deepen their conscience into their social location and privilege as the first step towards empowering clients and challenging oppression.
In my previous role as caseworker for refugees and asylum seekers I worked and experienced that men from other cultures do not cry because of their religion. My belief values say if a person is hurting they cry. Also handshakes are part of my culture to greet but others do not handshake. Appointments with Muslims on Friday afternoon were not appropriate as they attend mosque. I would seek to give appointments on another day. Giving Muslims women make caseworkers to counsel they won’t talk give them women? I will signpost people to their own community groups to give help and support. Once you listen to somebody’s problems you are counselling. I overcame all these by putting the needs of clients first before my own.
Privilege as described by Bailey (1998:109) is systemically, conferred advantages individuals enjoy for being members of a dominants few with access to resources and institutional power that are beyond the common advantages of marginalised citizens Sidanius and Pratto 1999 further suggest that an individual’s privilege is derived from their membership or association to privileged groups rather than their personal achievement. According to Ixer 199 it is important to examine privilege critically in two ways i.e. how it benefits the privileged person and how it affects the individual who does not possess it. In critical social work practice social worker need to reflect upon what causes privilege and explore the socio political dimensions of an individual’s problem than focus on their capability to cope. (Fook 1999 Morley 2004)
Carniola (2005) observed that social workers is 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) echoes the same sentiments when he mentions 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.
It is important to highlight at this stage the values of critical social work practice. It is important to mention that values are in different categories ranging from personal, organisational, ethical, institutional political and religious. Values can conflict each other as well and socially constructed. Traditional Social work values and critical social work values overlap and are based on Biestek 1961 and consists 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. As discussed these are values that underpi critical social work for it to exist.
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 inrterpretation problems to confidentialtity.
Having explored critical social work practice and theories underpinning it it is important to acknowledge that there is continuos 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 bre fulfilled and the theories underpinning it are intergrated social work and counselling would be forces for change to promote social justice.
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