Reading 13: Reconstructing social work

Reconstructing social work

Whom do social workers serve? (Bertha Reynolds 1935, p 7)

Social work is laden with contradictions. Despite I good intentions' framed around human rights and social justice tenets, most social work practice remains drawn to individualised constructs. A restricting factor is that human rights, social justice and cultural diversity ideals are constrained not only by organisational impera¬tives but by modernist, Westernised and universal paradigms. Unless social work grapples more effectively with these tensions, human rights will remain a mere illusion.

This chapter examines limitations of social work practice derived from policy and organisational contexts and the emphasis on direct practice. It discusses complexities facing non-Indigenous social workers and Indigenous social workers in mainstream organisations and Indigenous-specific organisations. Leads for practice are provided.

The quotation above by early social work reformer Bertha Reynolds is at the heart of social work obligations. Despite the reminder, English academics lain Ferguson and Michael Lavalette submit that social work has lost its way. Far from principles of human rights and social justice being at its heart, they lament that social work practice is increasingly dominated by such phenomenon as managerialism, service fragmentation, financial restrictions, lack of resources, increased bureaucracy and work-loads, the domina¬tion of case management approaches, performance indicators and increasing privatisation (Ferguson and Lavalette 2005, P 207). These factors do not bode well for the interests of Indigenous peoples.

Organisations can be sites of justice and injustice. They both reflect and contribute to the inequalities of society although there may be opportunities to create change (Dalton, Draper, Weeks and Wiseman 1996, p 79). Most people workers are employed in publicly funded organisations that are framed by a set of ideolo¬gies, sometimes implicit, that influence policy formulation and the manner in which employees are expected to practice. The term 'organisational culture' refers to existing norms and socialisation expectations, although they can be dynamic and changing.

Given that most social work practice is organisational practice social workers need to be cognisant of how such organisations operate and the political climate which influences their activities. As critical policy readers, there is an imperative to contemplate the extent to which the organisational, policy and political climate is antithetical to social work principles.

Questions of racism need to be brought to the forefront if human service practice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is to advance. Anti-racist practices in organisations need to operate at the level of both personnel and service provision (Thompson 2003, p 187). In a submission to the federal government, The National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Workers Association and the Australian Association of Social Workers call for the promotion of structures that allow social and political processes to occur within Aboriginal terms of reference and do not attempt to reshape them to fit structures of governance that exist in wider society (2003, p 11).

Social workers may be employed by government departments that are large and hierarchical or they mightwork for non-govern¬ment organisations that are dependent on government for their funding. To many beholden to organisational dictates, it can seem inevitable that governments and policy makers are intent on either maintaining the status quo, or formulating policies that adhere to broader political interests. Both social workers and those they profess to serve lack power over the institutional dominance. For social workers, this can mean a severe curtailment on their profes¬sional autonomy and constraints on their practice. Those working for both government and non-government organisations have clearly defined codes of practice to follow, including the limits to which they can publicly speak out, talk to the media or even have access to key policy documents (Dalton et al1996, p 20). For Thom-pson, social workers 'have become part of the problem rather than advocates for social reform' (Wharf 1990, p 145) and a recasting of this perception is essential in moving forward. Furthermore, social work practice is laden with contradictions, including in the areas

. . . . .

Among the knowledge and principles that social workers require to advance their practice are: understanding lateral violence, non-judgmentalism, incorporating cultural diversity and being cognisant of questions of power, empowerment and equality.

Social Work with Indigenous Communities
A Human Rights Approach
Second Edition
Linda Briskman
Federation Press 2014

 

Understanding lateral violence

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner Mick Gooda (2012) alerts us to his concern about what has become known as lateral violence. Lateral violence, he says, occurs in all commu¬nities, all families and all organisations and workplaces, but for Indigenous Australians lateral violence can be particularly acute. It is reflected in the worldwide phenomenon of where oppressed peoples eventually internalise that oppression and start oppressing each other.

This kind of behaviour explains Gooda diminishes the capacity of families, communities and organisations. Ultimately, he says, 'it diminishes our capacity to run our own lives - our governance capacity, in the broadest sense of the term'. He adds that it is only through 'having control over our own lives that practical aims of governments will be achieved. No amount of money or resources can compensate for relationships which disempower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people'.

Social Work with Indigenous Communities
A Human Rights Approach
Second Edition
Linda Briskman
Federation Press 2014

Non-judgmentalism

Social work has, at times, been criticised for being judgmental about the people that constitute its 'clients'. Human services workers are bestowed with a great responsibility as it still remains the profes¬sionals who are granted an 'expert' role that, if misused, subjugates and denigrates the expertise and knowledge of Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, traditional conceptions of needs can have positiv¬ist connotations, through a presentation of needs as if they have objective reality and can be measured (He 1995, p 65). In his aptly titled book, Under the Cover of Kindness, Leslie Margolin refers to how, with the advent of social work, people became vulnerable to judgment (Margolin 1997, p 43). This is clearly evident in the contact between the human services and Indigenous communities and has caused great hardship, misunderstanding and, at times, tense relationships.

Although perhaps not intended, judgments are a consequence of the gatekeeping role of professionals that limit the ability of Indigenous people workers to have their knowledge legitimated and validated. Accreditation of social work in Australia is prescriptive, and for those with training and experience outside the recognised university system there is reduced credibility as the social work canon is well entrenched. In considering the prospects of a newly formulated position, it needs to be remembered that Indigenous people are frequently employed to work with their communities without an accredited qualification and they display some sound examples of effective practice.

There are also international barriers. The International Assoc¬iation of Schools of Social Work and the International Federation of Social Workers have developed Global Qualifying Standards for Social Work Education and Training. The definition of these standards was not without contention with questions arising about whose standards were being applied and the possibility of Western dominance, given the Western hegemony in social work education and practice.

Social Work with Indigenous Communities
A Human Rights Approach
Second Edition
Linda Briskman
Federation Press 2014

Cultural diversity

Recognition of' difference' is not unproblematic. The 'marking' of bodies with differentiated identities, in this case, Indigenous, can result in the production of power-knowledge relationships where differences serve as the vehicles for' the distribution of statuses, rights, entitlements, obligations, rewards and penalties' (O'Brien and Penna 1998, p 123). Whilst it is important not to adopt an essentialist approach, some Indigenous human service workers and advocates point to general leads that can advance social work theorising and practice. Research conducted by Wingard and Lester (2001) points to principal differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of being and the different meanings that are often given to concepts that are central to the provision of services. These include:

1. Health, as a collective and not an individual concept that encompasses wellbeing of extended family members, loss and grief and socio-economic conditions

2. Family, that can have different meanings in Aboriginal people's lives including the importance of extended family.

3. Shame, a concept that can prevent people from using main-stream services or even participating fully in wider society.

4. Grief and loss, which is a constant factor in Aboriginal lives including dispossession, genocide, removal of children, deaths in custody, suicide and ill-health.

5. Lack of understanding of Aboriginal ways and meaning, result¬ing in inappropriate, insensitive and disrespectful practices that present a barrier to the utilisation of mainstream services.

Social Work with Indigenous Communities
A Human Rights Approach
Second Edition
Linda Briskman
Federation Press 2014

 

Power

Power issues and power relations permeate all aspects of engage¬ment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. For Neil Thompson, one common theme in the varying approaches to the concept of power is 'that of the ability to influence or control people, events, processes or resources'. He sees power as a central feature of the struggle to promote equality as there are established structures and vested interests that are likely to stand in the way of progress (Thompson 2003, pp 44-45). The recognition of power is of fundamental importance in social work, given that working with people often involves those working with relative power assisting those in powerless positions. This can manifest itself in a number of ways including control or influence over the allocation of resources, knowledge, expertise and skills and professional discourse and legitimation (Thompson 2003, p 45).

Power is not just vested in government or even senior manag¬ers of organisations. Power is in fact dispersed and can be found in various sites, some of which are referred to in this book. These include prisons, schools and hospitals and even the social worker's office (Mullaly 2002, p 21). From a Foucaltian perspective, wresting power is difficult for the very reason that is does not lie within a central source (O'Brien and Penna 1998, p 118). Through its disper¬sal, systems of power are instilled in the behaviours, habits and practices of an entire society, with the consequence that society's rules and codes are experienced as normal features of institutional and everyday life (O'Brien and Penna 1998, p 120).

Social Work with Indigenous Communities
A Human Rights Approach
Second Edition
Linda Briskman
Federation Press 2014

Empowerment

The concept of empowerment is one that is frequently applied loosely in social work circles to the extent that it can be devoid of meaning. In its purist sense it applies to the means of enabling people to gain collective control over their lives to achieve their interests as a group and to enhance the power of the people who lack it (Thomas and Pierson 1995, cited in Thompson 2003, p 76). Not only can social workers use the term inappropriately but may co-opt the concept to promote the notion of self-reliance to discourage reli¬ance on State welfare provision (Thomas and Pierson 1995, cited in Thompson 2003, p 76). New Zealand writer Lloyd Martin provides a stern warning:

The power that is associated with being 'the helper' can be addic-tive. When helping others becomes a prop for our own self-esteem and a means of avoiding our own problems, it has become both unhealthy and potentially abusive. (Martin 2002, p 122)

Thompson's three levels of empowerment are useful in guiding practice:

1. Personal, whereby individuals can be helped to gain greater control over their lives. This may include enhancement of confidence and self-esteem.

2. Cultural, where discriminatory assumptions and stereo¬types are challenged in order to break down an oppressive culture in which the values and interests of dominant groups are presented as normal and natural.

3. Structural, which recognises that power relations are rooted in the structure of society and empowerment must involve the eradication of structural inequalities. This means politi¬cal responses and a program of social change. (Thompson 2003, p 77)

Social Work with Indigenous Communities
A Human Rights Approach
Second Edition
Linda Briskman
Federation Press 2014

 

 

Equality

A view still pervades that equality means treating everybody the same. As Thompson explains this approach is fundamentally flawed as it does not acknowledge existing inequalities. For Thompson (2003, p 162) equality is not a matter of sameness but is linked to the notion of difference and the valuing of diversity. It is important to dispel any prevailing myths about a 'level playing field' in respect of Indigenous peoples. The equality of opportunity mantra is also faulty in its formulation and implementation. Enacting formalised concepts of equal opportunities, according to Dominelli, has been curtailed by tough realities, financial constraints, high workloads and methodological restrictions. Furthermore, she argues, proce¬dures with their basis in equal opportunities focus on such facets as extended services, rather than redressing group deprivation and exclusion. They also do not equalise the power imbalances of social relations and are largely individualistic (Dominelli 1996, p 157).

Social Work with Indigenous Communities
A Human Rights Approach
Second Edition
Linda Briskman
Federation Press 2014