Feminist Theories in Social Work
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Published: Wed, 10 Jan 2018
This research considers the application of feminist thought in social work practise. Specific areas of consideration include the gap from social workers’ personal acceptance of feminist constructs and their use of such constructs in daily practise, the effects of perpetuation of hegemonic gender roles by social workers, and domestic violence victims perceptions of the effectiveness of social work based on the perspectives of their social workers as considered above. This research further describes a focus group of college social work students who are also domestic violence victims.
It records their perceptions of social workers’ worldviewsand the impact of such on service. Conclusions include that there is asignificant gap between the understanding or acceptance of feministconstructs amongst social workers and its application in daily fieldpractise, that social workers are often likely to perpetuate hegemonicgender roles, and because of such perpetuation view domestic violencesituations as individual occurrences rather than part of a greatersocietal pattern of oppression, and that domestic violence survivorsfeel best served when work with them uses a feminist theoreticalframework.
Feminism and social work have been associated for many years; however,although many social workers personally espouse working from a feministperspective, the systems of social work still favour work from atraditional or patriarchal perspective. This research, therefore,seeks to first consider findings from previous study regarding thisphenomenon and the theoretical frameworks for both social work andfeminist thought. In this light of information gleaned from thesefindings, it became apparent that hegemonic gender roles, a commontopic of feminist research, play a relevant part in work with survivorsof domestic violence. Specifically, domestic violence survivors areoften directed, either explicitly or implicitly, that their situationis personal and should be considered and dealt with from a personal andpathological perspective rather than applying the tenets of feministthought that view such situations as manifestations of structural andpower problems in our greater society.
This study then seeks to document whether this gap between social worktheory supportive of feminist worldviews and social work application ofpractise exists, and if so, how prevalent a gap it is. This isaccomplished through use of a focus group of college students, all ofwhom have taken at least one course in social work theory and arethemselves domestic violence survivors who have been served, towhatever level of quality, by social workers. Discussions within thefocus group involved ideas of gender roles and social worker advocacyof hegemonic gender roles, whether explicit or implicit. The focusgroup then built on this foundation to consider group participants’experiences with social workers and whether they presented anindividual / pathological perspective of domestic violence, or whetherthey presented a perspective that consider the wider influence ofsociety and its systems. This was further related to the effect ofsuch perceptions on the understanding of and service to groupparticipants at the time of intervention.
Feminism has emerged in the past thirty years as a viableworldview. Dietz (2000), quoting Bunch (1980), defined feminism as“transformational politics that aims at the dismantling of allpermanent power hierarchies in which one category of humans dominatesor controls another category of humans” (372). “In the feminist andempowerment traditions, the personal is political, and individualchange and social change are seen as interdependent” (Deitz 2000,372). Feminism contends it is not adequate to simply include women inthe world’s political and power systems, as these were designed by andfor men and therefore favour a highly masculinised mechanism forresponding to issues and require women working within these systems todo the same (Scott 1988, Moylan 2003). Simply including women is notenough; society must give women’s experiences equal time andconsideration, eventually recasting the very meanings of the topics itconsiders (Scott 1988). Rather, feminism argues women must be engagedin both the system development and decision-making processes that shapeour society (Moylan 2003).
Consequently, one area where feminism has particularly challengedtraditional views is in the area of gender roles. For example,Dominelli and McLeod (1989) examine the way in which social problemsare defined, recognising gender as particularly important inunderstanding client groups, and stress egalitarian relationshipsbetween therapists and clients. Gender is also an importantconsideration of social work due to the patriarchal society that stilldominates most of our world. This power framework rests on a basis ofhegemonic masculinity (Cohn and Enloe 2003). Connell (1995) createdthe term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ to describe the valued definition ofmanhood in a society. He argues that whilst there are multiplepossible masculinities in a culture, only one or a few are most valuedor considered ideal (Connell 1995). This gender definition isconstructed both in relation to femininity and to other, subordinatedmasculinities, and is used to justify both men’s domination of women,and the hegemonically masculine man’s power over other men (Cohn andWeber 1999).
Whilst women are increasingly being included in world systems, thesystems themselves still were designed for and operate by and for men. Therefore, women who participate within the system must do so from maleparadigm, even if it is sometimes at odds with their own preferencesfor how to go about dealing with a situation (Cohn and Enloe 2003).
Feminism historically is a “critique of male supremacy, the belief thatgender order was socially constructed and could not be changed” (Cott1989,205). Masculinity is often defined as what is not feminine, andfemininity as what is not masculine, although understanding thedynamics of one requires considering both the workings of the other andthe relationship and overlap between the two (Cohn and Enloe 2003). Masculine definitions are often based on strength, domination andviolence, whilst feminine on weakness, nurturing, compassion andpassitivity (Rabrenovic and Roskos 2001). The result is pressure onmen adhering to a hegemonic definition of masculinity to view forms ofaddressing conflict other than a physical or “masculine” response asfeminine and a threat to their manhood (Moylan 2003).
The popular concept of gender holds that “masculinity” and “femininity”are unchanging expressions based on the chromosomal male and femalebodies (Butler 1990). “Gender is assumed to be ‘hard-wired,’ at leastin part” (Hawkesworth 1997). Masculine actions and desires for men andfeminine actions and desires for women alone are normal, thesemasculine and feminine traits are not a matter of choice, and allindividuals can be classified as one or the other (Hawkesworth 1997). However, whilst our society men are considered strong and dominant, andwomen passive and nurturing, “the meanings of male and female bodiesdiffer from one culture to another, and change (even in our ownculture) over time” (Connell 1993, 75). For example, there have been“periods in Western history when the modern convention that mensuppress displays of emotion did not apply at all, when men wereeffusive to their male friends and demonstrative about their feelings”(Connell 1993, 75). “Masculinities and feminities are constructed oraccomplished in social processes such as child rearing, emotional andsexual relationships, work and politics” (Connell 1993, 75).
Feminism, however, contends gender is a constructed by each culture,and as a social practice involves the incorporation of specificsymbols, which support or distort human potential (Hawkesworth 1997). Gender is created through “discursively constrained performative acts,”and the repetition of these acts over time creates gender for theindividual in society (Butler 1990, x). People learn to “act” likewomen or men are supposed to; women are taught to behave in a femininemanner, men are taught to act in a masculine manner. This is oftenreinforced by authority figures, such as social workers. Barnes (2003)cites a number of studies which find social workers often assume the“disciplinary gaze” of notions of “what and how to be woman,”perpetuating traditional gender roles (149). “Armed with rigid codesof gender appropriate behaviors, social workers often sought toregulate and mediate women’s interactions with the social, economic,and political world” (Barns 2003, 149).
Feminism and social work share a number of similarities. Both believe“in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, the value of processover product, the appreciation of unity-diversity, the importance ofconsidering the person-in- environment, and a commitment to personalempowerment and active participation in society as a means to bringabout meaningful social change” (Baretti 2001, 266-267). Similarly,both feminism and social work address multiple approaches to handlingsituations, challenging the institutionalized oppression common in manypower structures and supporting “the reconceptualization andredistribution of that power” (Baretti 2001, 267).
It follows that one impact of feminism on social work practise is theconsideration of issues from a societal rather than personalperspective. For example, this might include viewing a domesticviolence situation not from the perspective that the family isdysfunctional, but from the perspective of the society that created thefamily. The psychology-based focus of clinical social work “oftenleads to individualizing social problems, rather than to viewing themas the result of relations of power, primarily oppression and abuse”(Deitz 2000, 369). As such, individuals experiencing such difficultiesare “taught” that their particular experiences are inappropriate,rather than addressing the systems that created the difficulties in thefirst place (Deitz 2000, 369).
Dominelli and McLeod (1989) re-evaluate social work practice from afeminist perspective, considering the functions of social work such astherapy, community interaction, and policy making not from apathological standpoint but from one of defined roles endorsed bysocietal conditions. As such, they contend that working from afeminist perspective allows the social worker to address the causes ofsocial issues, rather than the symptoms played out in individual’slives (Dominelli and McLeod 1989).
One area of difference in social work practise between those operatingfrom a feminist framework and a traditional framework is the concept ofdistance. Traditionally, the “patriarchal bias against relationalityand connection” is intended to lead to “connection without harm, lovewithout power abuse, touching without sexual abuse in psychotherapy”(Deitz 2000, 377). Unfortunately, in practise it often results in“power over” relationships where those receiving services feel “lessthan” those providing them. “Healing happens when someone feels seen,heard, held, and empowered, not when one is interpreted, held at adistance, and pathologized” (Deitz 2000, 377). Deitz (2000) finds thatsocial workers often institutionalize a “power over” stance fromprofessional training and discourse that constructs the identities ofclients as somehow disordered, dysfunctional or impaired. “Whetherbetween parents and children; physicians and patients; social workersand consumers of services; Whites and Blacks; or heterosexuals andlesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons, power overrelationships give the dominant partners or group the right to definethe meanings of subordinates’ experiences (including their resistance)and thus their opportunities for self-affirmation” (Deitz 2000,373).This creates professional relationships that ignore theenvironmental, historical, and social contexts of the problem, discountpeople’s strengths and resilience in assessment and intervention, andlead “to the objectification of people as diagnoses, rather than toempowerment” (Deitz 2000, 370). “The keys to empowerment in feministmicro practice are reconnection and transformation through politicalactivity; survivors of oppression and abuse experience reconnectionthrough relationships based on mutuality, collaboration, andtrustworthiness” (Deitz 2000, 376).
Theories from social work, psychology, and particularly developmentalpsychology describe empowerment as primarily a process, with thepersonal transformation of the individual becoming empowered at itsfoundation (Carr 2003, 8). Barriers to empowerment and problems ofdisenfranchisement caused by powerlessness are primarily political,rather than psychological. Powerlessness is defined as the inabilityto effectively manage one’s emotions, knowledge, skills, or resources;it is “derived from the absence of external supports and the existenceof ontological “power blocks” that become incorporated into a person’sdevelopment” (Carr 2003, 13). As such, many survivors also work toreconnect to others in their communities, often seeking politicalactivity that “emphasizes the empowerment of others, such as byorganizing Take Back the Night marches or speak-outs, volunteering forcrisis hot lines, seeking legislative changes, or becoming socialworkers or human service professionals” (Deitz 2000, 376).
For example, feminist work with abuse survivors “emphasizes therelationship between abuse and oppressive social relations (Deitz 2000,374). On the other hand, the dominant clinical social work approach tooppression and abuse relocates the problem of oppression in victims.Psychological theories are typically employed, which “locates pathologyin individuals, rather than in oppressive relationships and systems,and considers the long-term effects of oppression to be symptoms ofindividual pathology” (Deitz 2000, 374). Unfortunately, whilst manysocial workers have been exposed to or even personally supportoperating from a feminist framework, the systems in which they workprevent them from actively utilising feminist insight in their dailypractise.
This research seeks to study the prevalence and impact of traditionaland feminist practitioner constructs from the perspective of thoseserved. Specifically, a focus group study will be conducted with agroup of college students, all of whom are currently studying socialwork and therefore have some concept regarding social work practice,feminist and traditional worldviews. In addition, all students in thefocus group will have experienced domestic violence and have beenprovided the services of a social worker in some form during theirteenage years.
Three areas of discussion will be undertaken by the group. These willbe provided to individual group participants in writing several daysbefore the group in order for students to have time to consider whatthey would like to share regarding their opinions and own experiences. The first group activity will involve creating definitions of“masculine” and “feminine” from the perspective of a typical socialworker based on the students’ teenage experiences. Students will thenbe asked to discuss where, if at all, they personally feel they andtheir family members who were involved in the domestic violencesituation(s) “fit” regarding these preconceived definitions. It isanticipated some students will have been uncomfortable with societalconstraints they or their family experienced as teenagers. As all arestudying social work, they are also anticipated to make moreconnections between societal power issues, hegemonic gender roles, andtheir influence on domestic violence than a focus group without suchbackground. The third area of discussion will centre on how thestudents’ perceptions of their social worker(s) understanding of genderroles influenced their and their families reception of adequateservice.
The researcher will both tape record and take notes on the groupdiscussions. Data gathered from the group will then be compiled andanalysed. In addition, students from the focus group will be given theoption to write a response to the group activity, if they so desire. These will be further included in the group data.
Data collection involved four means. Prior to the group starting,each participant was given a questionnaire (see Appendix 3) to gatherbasic demographic information. The questionnaire also asked for abrief summary of their abusive situation. Regarding data collection ofthe group proceedings, as described above the focus group session wastape-recorded and the researcher took notes to supplement the recordingof group discussion. The recorded sessions were then transcribed intoprint form, with research notes added in at the chronologicallyappropriate points of the transcription to provide a more completewritten overview of the focus group discussion. In addition, groupparticipants had an option to write a response the group to be includedin the group data. Four participants wrote responses, which wereconsidered with the group data following analysis of the focus groupdiscussion. Participants were provided with the three areas of groupdiscussion several days prior to the actual focus group meeting. Theywere not given any directions or guidance regarding the optionalwritten responses to the group activity.
Data analysis first involved dividing and coding group data. Responsesto the first topic of discussion were divided into three categories: those representing a traditional worldview, those representing afeminist worldview, and those that did not clearly represent eitherworldview. From these groupings, overall findings regarding theworldviews typically experienced by the group participants weresummarised. This was then further compared with the definitions oftraditional gender roles identified by the group.
Data from the second topic of discussion were also broken down intothose representing a traditional worldview, those representing afeminist worldview, and those that did not clearly represent eitherworldview. It was important to then note participant perceptions andemotional responses to these codings, and in which worldview groupingthey and their families were reported to feel best served andempowered.
Data from the specific discussion regarding service were then similarlyanalysed, and combined with previous findings to present a picture ofthe impact of traditional versus feminist worldviews on social workpractise, emphasising work with teenage domestic violence survivors andtheir understanding of gender roles in society.
It was anticipated at the conclusion of such research, a view could beasserted as to whether feminist perspective has a significant impact onthe practise of social work as it is currently undertaken and whetherthis impact, if any, leads to improved service.
As the focus group involved a relatively small number of participants(nine total) and data from their interactions were primarilyqualitative in nature, it was decided not to perform any complexstatistical analysis on focus group data. It was felt that such typesof analysis would neither reveal findings that could be consideredstatistically significant nor provide a more accurate understanding ofthe issues under consideration than a more qualitative analyticalapproach. In consideration of space and relevance portions of thediscussion were used to support conclusions in the findings andanalysis sections of this dissertation, whilst an overall summary ofthe most relevant portions of the discussion are included in Appendix2.
IMPLEMENTATION OF PROJECT
Nine students meeting the criteria laid out in the research planagreed to participate in the focus group. They were primarilyorganised by one group participant, who had discovered other domesticviolence survivors through classroom discussions and throughparticipation in a survivors’ group in the local community. All ninestudents were currently studying social work or had taken at least onesocial work course as part of a related course of study, such aseducation or criminal justice. There were six women and three men,ranging in age from nineteen to twenty-seven. Racially, seven wereCaucasian, one was Black, and one was Asian. All present as comingfrom upper working class to middle class backgrounds. All hadexperienced domestic violence as teenagers, making their experiencesfairly recent and therefore providing a relatively current depiction ofsocial work practise. Five students (three women, two men) had beenremoved from their biological parents at some point during theirteenage years. All had been involved in interventions into the familyby a social worker representing either a government organisation, or inthe case of one woman, a local church.
Some of the participants previously knew each other and were somewhataware of each other’s experiences, which should be considered in groupanalysis. Five regularly participated in a survivors’ support group inthe community. One man and one woman were cousins. In addition, twoof the men had known each other as teenagers from intervention throughthe school system.
Jennifer, a twenty-four year-old Caucasian woman, was chosen to be themoderator, as she had been the one who had assisted the researcher byarranging for most of the participants to become involved in thestudy. The group then moved almost immediately into discussion of thetopics provided. The group had been provided a whiteboard for its use,which Jennifer implemented to organise individual comments and ideas. It is surmised that the easy manner with which the group undertook thediscussion was based on the fact that they were all students andtherefore used to having study groups, group discussions, and the like,and that all of them had at least publicly shared their experiencespreviously, either as part of a classroom discussion or survivors’group, or both, and were therefore more comfortable in engaging in suchdiscussion than might be typical for a focus group dealing with suchexperiences.
FINDINGS AND ANALYSIS
The first finding of this research is that the majority of socialworkers in service or domestic violence survivors to not consistentlyemploy feminist constructs in practise, despite the likelihood ofhaving been exposed to such constructs. This manifested itself inthree significant ways. First, families were overwhelming dealt withas individuals with problems. That is, the abuser was described asmaking poor choices or having some type of pathological issues that ledto his or her decision to abuse (in one participant’s family, bothparents were abusive). As such, the abuser was described from apsychoanalytical standpoint by the social worker(s), and his or herbehaviour labelled as individually deviant.
The survivors of the domestic violence situations, particularly themothers, as the majority of abusers from the groups’ experiences weremale family members or boyfriends of the mother, were also reported tobe consistently dealt with from an individual perspective. In thissense, their behaviour was also reported to be categorised by thesocial workers involved as unhealthy, pathological, and coming fromsome sort of unresolved personal issues, such as low self-esteem. Inthe case of only one participant did the social workers involved ineither intervention or therapy consistently relate the domesticviolence situation to broader issues of oppression, societal powerstructures and the related hegemonic gender roles, or patriarchal normsof society. It is of note that this participant received service froma progressive women-helping-women organisation, rather than atraditional government-organised social work programme.
Group participants also repeatedly described their family situationsas unhealthy, and they certainly were, but from the perspective thatboth the abuser and abused were reacting or displaying emotioninappropriately, rather than that the motivation or norming behind thebehaviour was at fault. For example, Trent described his mother asdrawn to violent, alcoholic men. “She always seemed to go for theseguys that didn’t know how to express anything except by breaking stuff,yelling, hitting, you know.” His further descriptions of his mothers’boyfriends indicated an assumption that if these men had been raisedwith or taught proper means of dealing with their frustrations andemotions, the abuse to him and his mother would have been lessened oreliminated. This idea was supported by at least one social worker, whosuggested counselling for Trent, his mother, and the then boyfriend asone possible way of addressing the abusive situation.
Several participants did bring feminist theory and thought into groupdiscussion, pointing out, for example, that dominance or aggression bymen in any form was unhealthy, and questioning why it was only seen asunhealthy by most of the social workers they had encountered, and byothers they knew in the community, when physical violence was actuallyinvolved.
There was a related discussion, albeit brief, about the unwillingnessof neighbours, relatives, and others in the community, such as membersof the same church, to intervene in the domestic violence situation. Participants indicated their perception that whilst this was often dueto a fear of getting involved or knowing how to help the situation,there were repeated occurrences in everyone’s experience where anunwillingness to intervene derived from others’ implications that theman of the house had some right to choose the way in which thehousehold operated, or that he had a right to discipline his wife /girlfriend and children as he saw fit. Wendy reports hearing an auntstate “Well, its his family, their kids, she wants to stay with him,”and dismiss the ongoing violence as therefore an acceptable familylifestyle, or at least one in which none of the rest of the familyshould be expected to intervene. Participants then acknowledged thisand several other systemic situations that perpetuated their abuse,such as reluctance of authority figures to continue questioning wheninitially told nothing was wrong, and unwillingness of police tointervene repeatedly.
Similarly, regarding gender roles, discussion indicated a belief bymost participants that their social workers believed a traditionalstereotype of what was appropriate behaviour for a man and a woman, andthat these behaviours were different. There were reports of acceptanceof physical response as an appropriate masculine reaction, but thelevel of physical response not being considered appropriate. Maleparticipants were encouraged to talk about their experiences, butreport never being given permission to express fear, or an emotionalresponse such as crying. One male participant reported starting to cryas part of a group experience, and being discouraged rather thanencouraged to continue, whilst female members of the group were allowedto and even supported in such emotional expression. There were similarreports of various hegemonically feminine expressions, such as crying,fear, and nurturing behaviours, being supported and encouraged bysocial workers for male family members but not female, as well as anacceptance or assumption of weakness on the part of adult females whochose to remain in an abusive situation.
The discussion then moved to the effect of traditional and feministperspective on social work service. Participants overwhelminglyreported feeling better served when social workers sought to empowerthem and their families. This did usually involve practise of methodsderived from a feminist view, such as the use of reflective journalingand support groups, as well as encouragement from the social workers tothe mother that she could, indeed, survive and prosper outside thedomestic violence situation, that she did have the inner reserves toaddress the situation and move to a healthier lifestyle, and thatsocietal pressure to be with a man, either as a romantic partner or asa father / father-figure for children was not necessary for asuccessful life. Participants also report feeling personally empoweredby such encouragement, and therefore able to support their mothers inattempts to leave relationships.
From their own study in social work theory, focus group participantswere able to briefly discuss the ramifications of the patriarchalsocietal power structure on a woman’s decision to stay in a violentsituation. One issue brought up included the perception that societywill view a woman as a failure and undesirable if she does not have aromantic relationship with a man in her life. A number of womenparticipants in the group reported feeling similar pressure to maintaina romantic relationship with a man in their life, regardless of theirother commitments or interests, and an expectation that they would notbe successful women if they did not ultimately get married and havechildren. When questioned by other participants, the three maleparticipants reported not feeling such pressures. Another issue raisedwas the mothers’ perception that they needed a father figure tosuccessfully raise children, particularly boys. This was perpetuatedin the life experiences of group participants even though the menoccupying these roles were viewed by the male participants asdestructive, rather than constructive, influences. Issues of supportin disciplining children and managing household operations were alsoindicated, as was the financial support provided by the batterer. Thegroup indicated all these issues were societal, rather than individual,and lack of addressing of them affected the effectiveness of the socialservices they had received.
Overall, the participants were generally positive about at least onesocial worker with whom they had a relationship during their teenageyears. Participants typically felt feeling most encouraged and bestserved by those social workers who did not present themselves as beingdistant or above the participants and their families, and who did notoverly emphasise their family’s issues from a perspective of individualdysfunction. These findings indicated that a feminist interactiveconstruct, which avoids “power over” methods and practise is perceivedto be most effective by domestic violence survivors.
It is recommended from findings of this study that social workersare first provided greater exposure to and training in feminist methodsand theory as it relates to their practical, day-to-day practise. Forexample, all participants reported some positive experiences inresponse to reflective methods such as reflective journaling andsurvivor support groups. Considerations of ways to more greatlyinclude such methods in typical practise are therefore indicated.
Of greater concern are the systems in which social workers operate. Whilst most of the social workers in these focus group participants’experiences had some familiarity with feminist theory or methods, asindicated by their emphasis on empowerment or use of specificstrategies, there is something within the government-sponsored socialservices structure that prohibits practise truly based on feministtenets. A sharp contrast was provided by the young woman served at aprogressive, private service, where feminist theory was the obviousframework on which service was based. She was by far the most positiveabout her experiences and workers, and reported insights, understandingand empowerment to change not consistently reported by other focusgroup participants.
It therefore recommended that more research be pursued as to whatfactors constrain social workers from functioning from a more feministframework. Issues such as time (many social workers have far morepeople to see and serve than they would like to have, or often feelthey can serve effectively), lack of material resources such asappropriate space, lack of effective training, or discouragement insuch regards from supervisors or others in power. Specificallyidentifying relevant factors could then form a framework forprogressing with change in social work practise within a typicalgovernment service organisation.
It is further recommended that individual social workers consider whatconstraints they persona
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