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Drawing on the material from the module, critically discuss the extent to which theories relating to Postmodernism inform our understanding of an aspect or aspects of contemporary social work?
Postmodernism represents a reaction to the theoretical idealism of modernism (Parton, 2000). It rejects the notion of objective knowledge which can be understood by an objective observer and suggests that there are as many realities as there are observers (Dominelli, 2010). Knowledge is rejected as something which is inherently good, and the potential for science to solve the world’s problems piece by piece is undermined. This creates a fundamental challenge to the concept of social work (Hugman, 2003). Social work is borne out of a modernist mindset, emerging as it did from an idealistic belief that the state could overcome social problems through the use of a scientific framework (Payne and Askeland, 2008). Social work has a commitment to the scientific method in ascertaining universal solutions to structural problems that create inequality in society and postmodernism thus undermines this traditional mandate (Howe, 1994).
In investigating these issues, the following structure shall be adopted. First, the challenge presented by postmodernism to social work shall be investigated more closely in attempting to define postmodernism with reference to different perspectives. Secondly, the influence of Postmodernism in affecting our understanding of aspects of contemporary social work practice shall be investigated through a discussion of client-focused service provision, social work research, evidence-based practice and reflective practice. Postmodernism is not an ideological perspective that exists outside the society in which it manifests itself; it rather represents the attempts to describe and link processes that already exist within a society through knowing and thinking (Pease and Fook, 1999). As such, given its close links to social trends, it would be almost impossible for social work to avoid displaying the influence of the postmodernism paradigm (Pease and Fook, 1999).
The feminist perspective leans towards a binary analysis of empowering individuals or groups where as a critical approach see postmodernism as a relativist tendency contradictory to the universal truths (Pease and Fook 1999). Habermas critical theory defended modernity as an unfinished work with unfulfilled emancipator potential. Lyotard (1991) cited by Noble 2004 views the Enlightenment period to have failed with an increasingly pluralistic world with many sites of authority, but with no order. A world characterized by uncertainty and vacuous consumerism. (Bauman 1992) understands that under the meta narratives of modernism lie destruction, alienation and despair. Attempts to create social laws through science are suspect and therefore ethics should be based on a responsibility to the ‘other’. (Bauman,1992) accepts that the principles of modernity still exist and can be made in the everyday decisions. Rather than withdrawing from the ‘postmodern turn’ critics are attempting to draw in the best of both worlds within contemporary social work.
Postmodernism is difficult to define absolutely owing to its different meaning across research paradigms and discourses (Leonard, 1997). In the first place, the notion that history has a shape has been rejected (Giddens, 2004). This has traditionally been stated as referring to the notion that history has an inexorable path towards a situation of lower inequality, where opportunities are available for all individuals (Parton and O’Byrne, 2000). The overall conception of such a historical development would thus seem to render social work without a mandate given its traditional emphasis on social and individual improvement (Pease and Fook, 1999). There is no direction of development for the practice, and thus there is limited meaning to the purpose of social work: inequalities will always exist and thus social work cannot obtain any true alleviation of this situation in any society (Weick and Saleeby, 1998,). The feminist perspective leans towards a binary analysis of empowering individuals or groups where as a critical approach see postmodernism as a relativist tendency contradictory to the universalist truths. (Pease and Fook 1999). Habermas critical theory defended modernity as an unfinished work with unfulfilled emancipator potential. Lyotard (1991) cited by Noble 2004 views the Enlightenment period to have failed with an increasingly pluralistic world with many sites of authority, but with no order. A world characterized by uncertainty and vacuous consumerism. (Bauman 1992) understands that under the meta narratives of modernism lie destruction, alienation and despair. Attempts to create social laws through science are suspect and therefore ethics should be based on a responsibility to the ‘other’
Postmodernism questions the existence of a concept of inequality, which traditionally forms from the notion of there being structural similarities between societies ‘A postmodern point of view rejects objectivism and absolutionism and stresses pluralism, relativism and flexibility,’ (Murphy and Pardeck, 1998,). Inequalities therefore represent an objective viewpoint that suggests there is something inherently better about the framework of interpretation that would emphasize those with greater resources than those who are less well off. The new era of neo-liberalism now deals in ‘managing’ rather than attempting to ‘cure’ society ills. (Parton 1994) (Weick and Saleeby, 1998). The notions that participation in society by all individuals and the existence of social values that result in alienation of those who do not take part in society is a view that is supported by the modernist perspective on which social work is founded (Dominelli, 1996). From this perspective, postmodernism undermines the fundamentals of social work: without some ideas of right and wrong, there can be no notion of the purpose social work is to play (Hugman, 2003,). Without being able to make objective viewpoints to help service users, there can be no direction for social work as its very philosophy is modernist.
The solace that exists for social work within the theoretical framework of postmodernism is, however, substantial, and the influence of Postmodernism on the social work paradigm has been important in affecting the direction of research and practice (Payne and Askeland, 2008,). This is clearly evident in the notion of client-centred services (Bogo, 2006). Given that postmodernism states that there might not be any single objective viewpoint that can be considered universally valid, the prospect of intervention in practice has be mediated (Greene, 2008). Rather than social workers considering that they are aware of the universal and objective truth that exists for all individuals to obey, the existence and recognition of the notion of pluralism in viewpoints has resulted in the prevalence of a client-centred approach to service provision (Greene, 2008). This can be argued to not have directly resulted from the Postmodernist impact upon social work theory and perspectives, but this demonstrates the notion that does not represent a perspective in the traditional enlightenment view but rather a process (Howe, 1994). In other words, social work has demonstrated the impact of the Postmodernist perspective over a long period of time because social work is influenced by social change and as such the Postmodernist perspective seeks to describe a change that is under way rather than an external ideology that informs social work. Social work can be seen as informing Postmodernism in the same way the Postmodernism can be argued to inform social work: they are both part of the same process (Howe, 1994).
The development of a client-centred approach to social work can be seen in a number of important developments such as the Children’s Act (1989), Mental Health Act (2004) and Community Care (Direct Payments) Act 1996 (Butler and Roberts, 2004). In the legislation, the process is underlined that the interest of the client group must be respected at all times (Greene, 2008). From this we can glean a postmodernist perspective that illustrates a shift away from a traditional notion that the social worker exists to decide what is best for the service user (Greene, 2008). In such cases, the social worker exists in order to facilitate the client’s access to services and resources that would benefit them. In particular, the social worker cannot force an individual to take on the benefit that is offered to them and is often restricted in the extent to which they can attempt to persuade the service user that such an action may be of personal benefit (Howe, 1994,). The postmodernist ethos is thus illustrated by the fact that no one in this paradigm is claiming to have a universal idea of what would best benefit the client, but rather only provide suggestions to this end (Butler and Roberts, 2004). Such a policy therefore places the onus upon the service user to choose what they want, rather than have such decisions made for them (Greene, 2008). This is attempted as far as is possible, with the choice being taken away from the service user only in situations where they cannot be judged to be mentally able to make such decisions . Notions of partnership and participation potentially enable the views of the service user to be prioritized and commitment made to the uncertainty and unpredictability of life however the difficulty lies in adequately researched practice.
The impact of the postmodern ethos upon the research paradigm in the social sciences has also resulted in a significant effect upon contemporary social work. This can best be demonstrated by the challenge that was raised against the empirical framework of research by the qualitative studies (Scheurich, 1997). This is an illustration of recognition of a pluralist framework of understanding within the research field (Green, 2008) Rather than use empirical research in order to establish the objective reality that can be observed by the independent observer, the postmodern ethos challenges this notion by demonstrating that the individual’s view of reality is equally valid (Scheurich, 1997). Qualitative research developed which demonstrated the notion of what was valid by each individual’s notion of society rather than one which aimed to impose or discern an overarching empiricist view (Scheurich, 1997). Although this development can be argued not to be a fundamental part of the postmodern thesis in that it was an undercurrent that emerged in contemporary social work theory before the development came about, the postmodern process is a description of this process and it is an expression of the changes that are a fundamental part of postmodernism. Contemporary social work research gains much from the postmodern perspective in the research field which illustrates the ways in which client needs are addressed by social work practice from a more personal perspective rather than imposed from above (Scheurich, 1997). Furthermore, the qualitative research paradigm challenges the presumption that all research can be generalised between different contexts. This is an important influence and has brought a significant richness to social work research .
The intersection between research and practice has received a postmodern influence in the development of evidence-based practice (Smith, 2004). This illustrates a significant postmodern bent in the sense that rather than policy-based practice or a practice approach that is significantly influenced by empiricist research alone, the idea of evidence-based practice rests upon the understanding that there is no fundamental objectivity to the social work context (Greene, 2008). This recognizes that the evidence of past situations and interventions in similar contexts can only inform the potential direction for an action, rather than one that dictates the way in which the action should change (Smith, 2004). This is important in its development for social work, as it demonstrates that not only has the empiricist research paradigm been challenged by the postmodern ethos, but the relationship of such research to social work (Greene, 2008). The interesting result of this is that it is not simply the approach to research that reflects the postmodern ethos, but also the way in which all research is interpreted and applied in social work practice regardless of its theoretical origin. This therefore suggests that the individual needs to find the balance between their own interpretation of a situation and an appraisal of evidence that has been gleaned from numerous perspectives previous to the original one (Menert et al., 2000). This results in the importance of using evidence to back up decisions which is a notion that falls short of founding and guiding decisions by evidence alone. The use of knowledge within social work therefore shows a postmodern angle given that the application of knowledge that is guided by the social work pretensions to scientific validity is not the driving force of the social work interaction of evidence-based practice, but each individual is expected to find a balance between their appraisal of a situation and their application of the use of evidence in an effective way (Smith, 2004).
Contemporary social work would therefore appear to be largely exemplary of a postmodern perspective. This can be illustrated by the fact that the perspective of the individual has emerged not only in the development of client-focused practice, or in the development of a qualitative research, but also in the emphasis of the influence of the social worker upon practice (Smith, 2004). This can be demonstrated by the fact that evidence-based practice falls short of a full and obtainable practice direction, simply offering avenues of development rather than full objective viewpoints. The notion that there are generalisations that can be made from each situation is upheld alongside the notion that there are context-specific elements to each part of social work practice (Dominelli, 2010). As a result, the mediator between all these influences lies in the social worker themselves (Fook and Gardner 2007).Reflexivity complements postmodernism and alerts us to knowledge and power and the dominant discourses. Understanding that power is exercised rather than possessed and can take many forms, enables the recognition of the possibilities of contradiction, change and conflict and their historical significance. ” What it is possible to speak at any moment’ Foucault (1980:93) The social worker needs to recognise within themselves the various influences that lead them to make decisions by the processes of deconstruction. By uncovering hidden assumptions and binary thinking in the construction of identities in relation to biographies both in the workplace and within culture will enable explanations in both international and cross cultural work (Fook and Gardner 2007). Although it is proposed that the social worker themselves needs to obtain an objective viewpoint, the emphasis on reflective practice represents a development that this is not wholly possible given that postmodern critical reflection has little in the way of evaluative processes and the social worker needs to learn from their own inherent tendencies in each practice (Dominelli, 2010).
The factors thus far discussed demonstrate recognition of the subjective element in social work, one which was not understood in the modernist hypothesis where the presence of an objective truth was fundamental. The future of ethical social work practice may be lonely, hazardous, ambiguous and fraught (Hugman, 2003). Reflective practice thus demonstrates the recognition within social work that the individual practitioner holds a view of reality that is equally valid as any other view, and their attempts to uphold any potential values of social work in their practice will necessarily be mediated by this individual (Herrman, 2006,). This ultimately stems from the notion that between the context-specific and the general is positioned an individual social worker or group of social workers who provide the mediation between the client and services (Greene, 2008). The importance of the individual has been increased in social work and every personal view of reality is, as such, examined and emphasized. Social work thus cannot avoid displaying elements of the postmodern, and a discussion of the postmodern allows us to understand how the different influences and ambiguities play in contemporary social work practice in neo-liberal society, and as demonstrated by the development of client-centred practice, qualitative research methodologies, evidence-based practice and reflective practice.
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