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Interrelationship can be defined as a “mutual or reciprocal relation” (Oxford University Press, 2012). A theory in social work is a “framework for understanding” (Thompson, 2000a, p. 22). It provides the practitioner with an understanding of client behaviour and emotions. Where theory enables understanding the client and the situation they are encountering, practice is how the practitioner interprets this ‘knowledge’ and uses it. It is the process of interviewing, accessing and assisting the client. Thompson (2000a) states “the relationship between theory and practice can be seen as a direct parallel with that between thinking and doing” (p. 4).
Social work practitioners learn theories so they can be more competent and professional in their practice. Without theory and a solid knowledge base, the social work practitioner inadvertently becomes less effective (Thompson, 2000a). Howe states (as cited in Collingwood, Emond, & Woodward, 2008) some social work practitioners “believe that theory is not required and that the best decisions are based on pragmatism and common sense” (p. 72). However, according to Fisher and Somerton (as cited in Collingwood et al., 2008) “theory may not be explicitly articulated, and it may not be used well, but there is no such thing as ‘theory-less’ practice” (p. 72).
An example of a how theory interrelates with practice is what Connolly and Healy (2011) call mountain-moving theories (p. 28). These are “approaches that aim to shift oppressive structures and/or dominant discourses so that we can move towards a more equitable society” (Connolly & Healy, 2011, p. 28). Social work practitioners are considered to have power and influence, therefore they need a practice that does not discriminate, oppress or show prejudice in terms of “sexism, racism, ageism and disablism” (Thompson, 2006, p. 40). Anti-oppressive practice is the practice in which a social work practitioner strives to “reduce, undermine or eliminate discrimination and oppression” (Thompson, 2006). When working with a person with a disability, a social work practitioner must be careful not to oppress the client themselves, therefore social work practitioners follow the “principle of minimal intervention” (Connolly & Healy, 2011, p. 29). They need to use skills that involve empowerment which means “believing that people are capable of making their own choices and decisions” (Connolly & Healy, 2011, p. 28). The social work practitioner would use their knowledge, access to resources, and power to enable the client to feel powerful and supported. They would not make decisions for the client but would let them decide for themselves, giving the client the tools necessary to “realise their potential” (Connolly & Healy, 2011, p. 28). By using the right theory in their practice the social work practitioner has enabled the client to feel validated, giving them greater control of their lives, therefore building up their confidence and allowing them to be valued members of society (Connolly & Healy, 2011). Connolly and Healy state “anti-oppressive practice provides a theoretical explanation, guidance in terms of approach, and techniques for responding to the needs of people” (Connolly & Healy, 2011, p. 28).
According to Thompson “a paradigm is a theoretical approach which encompasses a number of related theories” (2000, p. 27). Theoretical paradigms play an important role in social work as they guide the practitioner on what may be happening in the client’s world. Social work practitioners can choose which approach to take by which paradigm they deem more appropriate to the situation (Thompson, 2000b). They can choose to focus their practice on a particular or singular paradigm or use multiple paradigms, in an eclectic manner (Poulter, 2005). Poulter states “eclectic workers argue that not being locked into one particular paradigm frees practitioners to determine what actually works best in practice” (2005, p. 1999). Although there are many theoretical paradigms of social work one main one is systems theory.
An understanding of systems theory involves looking at the sociological effects of society on the client and how they are being affected by them (Thompson, 2000b). With Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory, the social work practitioner takes the client’s current environment into account. This theory includes microsystems, mesosystems, ecosystems and macrosystems (Connolly & Healy, 2011). It is a valuable theory because it allows the practitioner to look at the whole picture. For example if there was a problem with a child, the social work practitioner would firstly look at the microsystem surrounding them. This includes the child’s family, school, peers and neighbourhood which interact daily with them (Santrock, 2011). The social work practitioner would then look at the mesosystems that impact the client’s life; this is the relationship between the child’s microsystems and how they affect each other (Santrock, 2011). The ecosystem “consists of links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role” (Santrock, 2011, p. 29), examples of this are parents work places and social welfare services. Here, the social work practitioner looks at how the parents’ work place or hours of work affect the child or how social welfare is influencing the family’s life (Payne, 2005). The macrosystem “involves the culture in which individuals live” (Payne, 2005, p. 29). This is the family’s values and beliefs and how this affects the child. By looking at the whole picture the social work practitioner can obtain a true picture of the child and his / her environment. By using a theoretical paradigm the practitioner has managed to fully comprehend the client’s situation and what its influences are; now they can use their knowledge of practice to provide assistance to the child and family.
As theory and practice are interrelated, it is accurate to say that they shape one another as well. Sheafor and Horejsi determine that, not only is it hard to separate theory and practice but “practice is the process of using knowledge and applying theory in order to bring about specific change” (2008, p. 46). During the process of time and practice, a practitioner’s knowledge base develops, changes, and becomes more comprehensive. To help recognise when change is needed, part of the social work practitioner’s role is to “constantly reflect upon what they do and what they think about what they have done” (Dominelli, 2004, p. 250). Reflexivity practice is cyclic, and begins with the experience of the task, reviewing what has happened, conceptualising and trying to understand relationships and finishing by predicting what to do next, thus giving the practitioner a new idea of how to proceed next time (Chenoweth & McAuliffe, 2012). Reflexivity “provides an opportunity to understand the way in which the worker’s personal views and interpretation intersect with practice-in-situation” (Harms & Connolly, 2011, p. 6). Reflexivity leads to praxis when an ideology is added; this is the process of strengthening our practice and a form of continual growth for the practitioner (Harms & Connolly, 2011). During this time theories will also grow and change, leading to a change in practice. As most social work practitioners want to bring about change and ‘help people’, they are more inclined to promote social action (Shaefor & Horejsi, 2008). Examining social injustices and inequalities in society is just part of the social work practitioner’s role (Payne, 2005). According to Payne (2005) “this has led to the development of perspectives that broaden the range of factors that lead to inequality and injustice” (p. 230).
Culturally sensitive practice in New Zealand was developed in order to promote perspectives that encompassed MÄori value and beliefs. Social work practitioners saw the need to treat MÄori within the context of their culture, not the dominant culture of the Pakeha. MÄori well-being is viewed as holistic, containing characteristics from the spiritual, mental, physical and extended family (Durie, 1994). Where a psychodynamic theory might work with a Pakeha, the one to one dynamics and required openness of the dialogue, does not encompass the culture of MÄori. This led to the development of mÄori models like the ‘whare tapa whÄ’ model, Te Wheke and NgÄ Pou Mana” (Durie, 1994). The whare tapa whÄ model was formed from the findings that MÄori health was suffering due to the westernised treatment of them while sick (Durie, 1994). The standard dominant Pakeha model of health was not allowing MÄori to follow their cultural beliefs; therefore a new theory or models were developed to encompass MÄori culture. This in turn led to improved practice. Social work practitioners now understand when working with Maori that it is not just the individual that needs to be considered but the collective (Durie, 1994).
In conclusion, the interrelationship between theory and practice denotes that they are reliant on one another for the social work practitioner to develop their professional selves. For quality practice, a social work practitioner must have a sound knowledge base of theory and practice. The developments of new perspectives enhance the ability of the social work practitioner to have an ethical practice. Thompson states (as cited in Thompson, 2000a) “practice which does not take into account of oppression and discrimination cannot be seen as good practice” (p. 10). The use of theoretical paradigms in social work practice provides the practitioner with an understanding of ‘where the client is at’ in their situation, what they will do to assist the client and how they will do it. Theory shapes practice in the way that what the practitioner learns will affect the way they practice. Similarly how the practice is developed, is based not only on theory but also experience, so this shapes theory in that it may be modified to suit. The process of reflection helps the practitioners ability to look back on their practice and the theories they have used, allowing them to review their thoughts and feelings. A change in theory and practice has enabled MÄori to be treated in a way that is more in line with their culture, making the practitioner more sensitive and well-rounded which leads to an improved practice.
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