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Theories of postmodernism have gathered pace across all aspect of social theory. This is often referred to as the postmodern 'turn' (Best and Kellner, 1997). The emergence of the modern/postmodern debate in response to economic, social and cultural transformation has significant implications for professions such as social work (Crook et al, 1992). A vast array of literature has emerged with an interest in understanding changes to welfare provision and social work in relation to post modernity (Parton, 1994).
This text will critically discuss the extent to which theories relating to post modernism inform our understanding of contemporary social work. Being with the emergence of postmodern theory it will attempt to define this phenomenon by exploring the key themes. Focusing on two elements in particular, welfare and anti-oppressive practice, this text will try to identify features of postmodern social work using modernity as basis for comparison and analysis. To conclude collaborative theories such as 'affirmative' or 'critical' postmodernism will be explored as perspectives that inform understanding and guide social work practice into an approach that combines both personal and social factors.
Postmodernist social theory began to emerge in the 1960's and 1970's. It developed into the 1980's where the concepts of globalization and reflexivity become incorporated. Today the postmodern debate continues to influence social work policy and practice (Walker, 2001). Postmodern theory developed as a response to a perceived 'crisis of modernity' brought on by factors such as accelerated economic growth, consumerism and resource depletion (Boggs, 1993). For many theorists such as Lyotard (1991) modernity failed to achieve its supposed aims of democracy, human emancipation and social justice through its evidence based world view.
Amongst theorists there is little consensus about when the world become post modern or if indeed it has giving rise to a plethora of postmodern perspectives and associated terms such as 'late modern', 'post-industrial', 'post-structural' and 'high or late modernity' (Dodd, 1999). Some theorists attempt to explain postmodernism historically whilst others "consider it synonymous with the demise of historical time" (Felski, 2000, p.2). As a result postmodernism proves difficult to define. There is however a common feature that can be identified within most postmodern theory, the demise of 'mega-narratives' (Lyon, 1994). Factors such as uncertainty, flux, ambiguity, pluralism and diversity have also been identified as characteristics of a postmodern society (Turner, 2006). The influx of postmodern theories has changed the discourse of social science shifting the focus from analysis of social structure to analysis of meaning (Noble, 2004).
In considering the impact of theories relating to postmodernism attention should be given to what characterises modern and postmodern social work. Social work can be considered a child of modernity (Parton and Marshall, 1998). The foundations of modernity were set in understanding the social world through reason, objectively and scientific study (Boggs, 1993). Some argue that it was this presence of logical argument and commitment to reason that equipped social work with tools to identify and address oppression (Noble, 2004). For this reason social work has spent most of its adolescence within the social sciences focusing on an evidence based approach to practice (Payne, 2005). Writers such as Gellner (1992) and Hambermas (1987, cited by Leonard 1997) advocate that if separated from repression and domination human reason is still the most progressive force for tackling the social world.
A modernist perspective assumes that there is some fixed essence or ethical base that informs social work (Noble, 2004). This was a popular perspective in the 1970's where pursuit for a synthesized approach to theory and practice was accelerated and arguments were made for the introduction of generic practitioners and departments (Howe, 1994). The argument that in the age of modernity social order is maintained through self-regulation, systematic enquiry and expertise put forward by Foucault (1975), goes some way toward explaining the development and popularity of therapeutic approaches within social work. Promoting psychological understanding became a basis for social work with treatment and rehabilitation forming the foundations of the profession (Payne, 2005). There is of course considerable debate as to whether social work did begin with such emancipatory aims and its promotion of universalism and objectively is certainly challenged by the postmodern discourse.
Social work, from a postmodern perspective, stresses attention to power dilution, diversity, the authority of the service user, pluralistic perspectives and a fluid approach to intervention (Parton and O'Byrne, 2000). In this approach universalism is rejected and practitioners no longer strive to understand human behaviour through a theoretic framework. Multiple public inquiries into child deaths and institutional abuse have shaken faith in psychologically based techniques, questioning their ability to support individuals to function safely in society (Walker, 2001). This coupled with criticisms from radical social work perspectives has created space for a legal and social justice framework to emerge (Howe, 1994). Within this framework social workers are increasingly judged by their effectiveness giving reason, argues (Aldridge, 1996), for social workers to embrace their expertise and become more confident to articulate responses to criticism.
An implication of accountability culture is that social work practice becomes task-orientated and performance related (Hugman, 2003). It is for this reason that postmodernism has been critiqued for responding only to the surface of events with little inclination to explore what is behind this (Ferguson and Levalette, 1999). Social work is reduced to a set of organisational procedures dictated by codes of conduct, "Once the idea of a common theoretical base underpinning all social work practices is abandoned, the full implications of the controlling nature of legislation and policy can be unleashed" (Howe, 1994, p.524).
Having considered what characterises modern and postmodern social work we can begin to explore how these perspectives inform different aspects of social work. Given that social work is submerged in the welfare debate it seems a logical starting point to consider in relation to postmodernism (Pease and Fook, 1999). Understanding postmodernist theory in this sense gives insight into the political and social climate that shapes practice. Concerns have been raised regarding the impact of the postmodern discourse. Writers such as Powell (2001) suggest that the welfare system provides an essential role in taming unwieldy elements of capitalism through a state supported redistributing welfare system. Although modernist thinkers would concede that the welfare state has never fully succeeded in addressing inherent inequalities, its very existence has improved the standards of living for the majority (Noble, 2004). Therefore it is hardly surprising that concerns are being voiced over an increasing neo-liberal agenda and subsequent downsizing of the state in favour of a free market economy (Midgly, 1999). The introduction of 'quasi-markets' and 'mixed economies of care' has resulted in what is referred to as a 'contract culture' (Ife, 199). Powell (2001) suggests that the erosion of the welfare state has placed barriers to humanistic social policies and as a result professions such as social work struggle to remain central to service provision and to advance their wider aims of social justice.
Postmodernism with its disregard for universal values and ethics coupled with globalisation and the continued spread of capitalism are the driving forces behind this change (Noble, 2004). Ritzer (1995) attempts to define the status of society and social relationships in relation to a global market economy. Warning of the de-humanizing influences of large multi-national corporations Ritzer (1995, p34) highlights working practices that, "exemplify the contemporary rationalisation process within globalization of culture". The four main elements of these working practices; evolving, efficiency, calculability and predictability are increasing present within social work.
Naturally these concerns are not shared by everyone. Many postmodern theorists argue that that the welfare state has always been a source of controversy never reaching consensus on how it should be organized, funded or distributed (Dominelli, 1996). Modernists can be critiqued for failing to acknowledge the welfare state as a mechanism for reproducing social inequality through the way in which resources are accessed and priorities established (Walton 1975, cited by Dominelli, 2004). Giddens (1991) identifies the welfare state as bound to 'traditional family and gender systems'. Fraser and Gordon (1994) observe the gendered nature of welfare suggesting that policies centred on dependency, often associated with femininity, perpetuate negative representations of women and other disadvantages groups. Jordon and Jordan (2000) suggest instead that the Third Way in politics, dismissed as oppressive capitalism by commentators such as Bauman (2002), has a moral fibre in the sense of offering justice and inclusion without forcing conformity. Rights and freedoms are offered in the context of the market place, individuals have choice by means of being a consumer (Howe 1994). It is argued that the growth of the voluntary sector and changes to decision making and management structures are creating space for more innovative and personalised service delivery which is free from the constraints of institutional barriers (Walker, 2001).
The modern postmodern debate gathers pace when considered in relation to anti-oppressive practice. Here there are further concerns regarding the postmodernism influence on social work. Writers such as Ferguson and Levalette (1999) have argued that postmodern perspectives have little to contribute to anti-oppressive practice. Without universal ethics and values it becomes difficult to transform power relations or to identify common experiences that oppressed groups may share (Callinicos, 1995). The main critique that Ferguson and Levalette (1999) lobby on postmodernism is if all discourses are to be treated as valid the basis for distinguishing oppression is removed. Some feminists among other political critics argue that postmodernism, with its rejection of meta-narratives disempowers socially disadvantages groups "at the very point at which they need to demand emancipation in the name of universalistic notions of justice and equality" (Leonard, 1997). To address this requires a separation of emancipatory theory from oppressive ideology. The notion that emancipation can have a 'normative foundation' is considered by postmodernism to be unsound. However advocates of modernity such as Hambermas (1987, cited by Leonard 1997) advocate the need for a standard or a form of 'undistorted communication" to remain in order to distinguish and challenge oppression.
Smith (1994, p.26) raises concerns that in a postmodern society oppression becomes self defined, the relationship between an individual's social situation and their identity becomes separated resulting in "no objective way to locate a primary source of oppression". Smith (1994) also suggests that the celebration of diversity that postmodernism promises only serves to trivialise real oppression felt by many disenfranchised groups. Increasingly concepts of identity have replaced discourses of oppression (Ferguson and Levalette, 1999). Leading the charge on identity is Giddens (1991) who asserts that individuals are rational and reflexive agents who create and shape their own identities. This assumption that identity is a matter of choice has been challenged significantly. Commentators such as (Skeggs, 2001) have argued that choice and reflexivity is a classed phenomenon with many individuals having few and often undesirable lifestyles from which to choose.
There are of course counter arguments to be considered here. To some postmodernists modernity is, or was depending upon their perspective, a Eurocentric, patriarchal and destructive force legitimised through the language of science (Pease and Fook, 1999). In a modern society those in positions of power are able to determine how knowledge is understood and what knowledge is relevant (Howe, 1994). Postmodernism rejects the idea that grand theories such as liberalism, socialism and psychoanalysis have offered explanations for human development suggesting instead that they perpetuate oppression by demanding consensus to their absolute notions (Bauman, 1992).
A universal knowledge base that informs understanding of human behaviour naturally assumes something transferable that can be applied across all societies and cultures (Dominelli, 1996). It has been suggested that this form of universalism equates to cultural domination and the potential for racist ideology (Leonard, 1997).Within this critique postmodernism suggests that diversity should be celebrated "as a reflection of the polymorphous, non-unitary and con-consensual nature of the social word" (Howe, 1994, p.524). A relativist approach in contrast to a universal approach suggests all forms of behaviour are local rendering notions of human nature redundant (Howe, 1994). Postmodernism challenges the notion that perspectives such as Radical or critical social work are the only means by which emancipation can be achieved. In this context adopting universal truths as a basis for emancipation is deemed arrogant and unethical (Noble, 2004). Postmodernism "spurns the concept of reason as an empancipatory force" and suggests that a more empowering approach is through the embracing of pluralism and difference (Dodd, 1999, p.212).
A key element of postmodernist thinking is the importance of language. From a postmodern perspective it is the discourses that constitute social and economic life (Ferguson and Levalette, 1999). Howe (1994, p.552) explains that "Language, once thought simply to reflect reality, now appears to constitute our reality in an independent domain of its own which carries meaning and culture". The notion that power is embedded in language offers scope for social workers to critically reflect and challenge dominant discourses and assumptions to avoid perpetuating oppressive practices (Fook et al, 2000). This highlights 'the transformative capacity of critical postmodernism to improve practice and facilitate social change' (Morley, 2004 p. 299). However Ferguson and Levalette (1999) observe that new language and terminology although a force for challenging oppressive categorisation, does not change the material situation individual's face.
In summary it is worth considering how postmodern perspectives can be combined and developed to offer an approach to social work that integrates "diversity and flexibility of meaning with the possibility of an ethical discourse that is shared rather than individualised" (Hugman 2003, p.1035). 'Critical postmodernism' based on a constructionist approach, combines flexibility of meaning with the understanding that society is socially constructed through the actions and relationships of its members (Hugman, 2003). In this sense postmodernism does not need to equate to the disappearance of traditional social work but nor does it need to succumb to a neo-liberal agenda (Sim, 1999).
Ferguson and Lavalette (1999, p.28) in support of Leonard (1997) suggest another avenue in combining the postmodernism and structural discourses, "by combining postmodernist themes with socio economic developments (informed by a 'Marxian' perspective on globalisation and post-fordism), a rejuvenated 'emanicpatory' social work can be developed". Parton and O'Byrne 2000) discuss the application of an 'affirmative' postmodern social work which opens up thought towards greater inclusion and less prescriptive theories and methods of practice. Ife (1999) and Pease and Fook (1999) also support a social work that values diversity and uncertainty but maintains a political struggle towards social justice based on a commitment to some universal ethical and values. These theories offer a way of managing a changing society without removing a unified knowledge base or without forcing a postmodern retreat. In other words they provide a way forward that incorporates the "personal with the political so that both are integrated into a more relevant social work discourse" (Noble, 2004, p.2).
This text has gone some way towards outlining postmodern perspectives of contemporary social work. From this brief analysis we can see that social work developed during the period of 'enlightenment' or the 'age of modernity'. As a result its focus became the development of a universal theoretical framework that informs knowledge in order to challenge social oppression. Changes within society have given rise to postmodern theories which offer social work the possibility of a fluid, pluralistic approach that promotes diversity and participation through the validity of all perspectives. As we have discussed neither of these approaches is without challenge or critique.
Consideration has been given to the impact of postmodernism upon the welfare state and thus social work, outlining concerns relating to a neo-liberal agenda but questioning at the same time the suggested empacipatory nature and role of the state. The impact of postmodernism on anti-oppressive practice has been debated and implications for social work considered. Conclusions have been offered in the form of theories that combine postmodernism with elements of universalism and structural analysis. It has been clear throughout this journey that postmodernist theories have and continue to impact upon social work practice. In conclusion giving consideration to a postmodern perspective helps assists "social work to examine the diverse, provisional and uncertain nature of all aspects of our world, including knowledge and skills and values and ethics" (Hugman, 2003, p.1037).