If social work knowledge is still based on western values, can practice really be anti-oppressive?

A lecturer considers the uncomfortable questions around ‘decolonising’ social work education and practice for an increasingly diverse world

Photo: nito/Adobe Stock

By Sue Cook, lecturer in social work, University of Plymouth

The International Federation on Social Workers’ definition of social work emphasises not only the promotion of social change and social justice, but also respect for diversity, rooted in the use of relevant theory and ‘indigenous knowledge.’

Increasing diversity in the UK population, as well as in the social work workforce, requires us to consider how knowledge is acquired in social work, and how theory is applied to practice. Most of us would say that an ethos of equality and diversity is embedded in social work teaching, learning and practice, but has there been reflection on the evidence-informed base for this, as professional practice currently requires? Do we consider whether through unconscious bias, certain dominant ideas and discourses are privileged as ‘the truth’ – limiting exploration of knowledge and the appropriateness of theory used in practice?

What is ‘decolonisation’ in education?

Education is viewed by some (for example, Paulo Freire), as a tool for oppression that can dehumanise learners, both students and social workers, and stimulate oppressive attitudes and practices. As a socially constructed profession and a product of western values, much of the knowledge base of social work and the disciplines it borrows from is framed within the increasing demand for evidence-informed practice, without appreciating that the chosen research/theory may itself contribute to oppression.

A number of disciplines globally, including social work, are engaging in debate around ‘decolonising’ education. These debates reflect awareness of authoritarian knowledge discourses based on race, class, gender and geography. Decolonisation invites uncomfortable questions that interrogate and challenge accepted knowledge and thinking. And we may be obligated to feel a measure of shame (Hoppers, 2001) at the ongoing use of mono-cultural views of knowledge that have silenced other views and perceptions.

But it is vital to engage in the debate to become more aware of the potential for oppression that traditional educational avenues may replicate and perpetuate.

Reflection on my own social work education, practice – and now, teaching – is rooted in hegemonic, primarily Eurocentric discourse, coupled however with a growing sense of unease that most available theory fails to take account of an increasingly multi-cultural world. Developing critical thinking must be at the heart of social work education, intertwined with a commitment to using this skill to scrutinise our beliefs about what constitutes knowledge and how to apply it to practice, and guard against conformity and dogmatism. This then requires social work educators, both in academia and practice, to themselves develop and model critical thinking, to use it to explore, analyse and evaluate alongside the students.

‘Inherently oppressive?’

Developing critical thinking and a critical consciousness in considering how knowledge is created and validated requires commitment and effort, through being self-directed, self-monitored and self-corrective (Scriven & Paul, 2008). This can then lead to considering other forms of knowledge that open the door to social work practice relevant for an increasingly diverse world.

The PCF specifies diversity and requires social workers and social work students to not only be able to recognise oppression and discrimination, but to work in ways that embody an anti-oppressive ethos. This raises the question of whether some theory, models and methods are inherently oppressive and potentially perpetuate discriminatory ideas and practice. For example, family systems theory and attachment theory might be seen as evidence of Eurocentric standards for family relationships – if these standards are taken as ‘fact’ in the social work knowledge base, education and practice risk becoming ‘myopic’. (Hall, 2005).

Before we come face-to-face with service users, our professional role has been shaped by many influences. Environment, culture, education, legal systems, social systems and family-of-origin experiences, all contribute to our socialisation, develop the ‘self’ and degree of unconscious bias. The social work role is perhaps given more credence than the often less tangible ‘self’, however the professional role requires a critical consciousness – consulting the ‘self’ to facilitate reflective practice and reflexivity. Reflexivity can help us explore the value placed on knowledge and how it is acquired and applied.

‘Blinded by theory’

Theory is a crucial element of practice, illuminating our understanding of the service user’s world. A preoccupation with theory however, may become an obstacle to practice. The views of Keith (1987), although somewhat dated, resonate with contemporary thinking in that professional training may obscure the capacity for reflexivity where one becomes ‘…suffocated by education, blinded by theory’.  Technique can hinder the development of the professional relationship, while the personal characteristics of the social worker (the self) determine whether a particular intervention is meaningful, or not, to the service user.

Becoming more aware of our biases, including allegiance to certain discourses, ‘pet’ theories and preferences is vital for social work educators, students and practitioners. Holding convictions about the merits of a particular theory or model and related interventions over others should be questioned, since comparative studies suggest little superiority of one over another if the professional relationship is absent.

Engaging with multi-cultural perspectives

If we fail to acknowledge the potential for uncritical acceptance of certain theories, we risk continuing to perpetuate practice that is unconsciously biased right from its source – knowledge acquisition. Social work education must incorporate empowerment-based perspectives to ensure equality and diversity in teaching and practice. This involves acquiring, assessing and produce knowledge that engages with multi-cultural perspectives. Avoiding elevating certain theories over others is challenging, however there is increasing interest in models such as Signs of Safety and family group conferencing that stem from a family-inclusive and solutions basis. Michael White’s narrative theory – a non-blaming, collaborative approach where people are experts in their own lives and social workers create a context for discovery and solutions is another example.

The basic premise of Paulo Friere’s (1994) message on education is that pedagogy should be constructed and transformative of the self through critique. Education may collude with oppression with curricula content devoid of criticality and reflexivity. The accepted and assumed superiority of western discourse as the only available resource or evidence base may result in internalised power and potentially oppressive practice. Challenging the status quo has the potential to give rise to more culturally and contextually appropriate knowledge and practice. Friere (1998) emphasises the need for humility which requires courage, respect for others and self-respect, because no-one knows it all and no-one is ignorant of everything.

Social work education is increasingly required to prepare students to work within multiple cultural contexts. The foundations of, and progression through, the profession must be open to critical thinking. Social problems cross borders in our increasingly globalised world, so social workers must be able to work with social issues that diverge from the dominant culture and discourse of their own particular country. It is essential to shine a light on how this may manifest in curricula and education practice, while remaining mindful of the different lenses through which this could be explored.

Honouring all voices

Decolonising education is not about discarding the body of existing social work knowledge. It is about rejecting uncritical thought and acceptance of the ‘truth’ of theory that replicates certain discourses, and research methods that validate and legitimise knowledge based on hidden or unconscious value judgments. Understanding the implications of the knowledge acquisition process is a starting point for developing truly reflexive practitioners who can question how knowledge is constructed within the context of culture, power and oppression. Intervention must be flexible to the needs of diverse people and communities to ensure that it is relevant, meaningful and ethical.

Through genuine open dialogue, the voices of all people can be validated, particularly through research that honours the culturally focused and locally initiated. Expertise is not excluded in the process of decolonisation, however a platform for shared knowledge construction and culturally focused research is required to co-construct an academic community that recognises contemporary need and is respectful of all values and voices.

Failure to comprehend the complexity of diverse social issues and reliance on generic, standardised solutions risks imposing intervention that is superficial, inappropriate and potentially oppressive. Social work education and practice needs to be informed by wider social, political, economic, cultural and environmental ideas and a genuine dialogue about the appropriateness of knowledge based only upon western cultural values.

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22 Responses to If social work knowledge is still based on western values, can practice really be anti-oppressive?

  1. Hilton Dawson February 3, 2020 at 2:31 pm #

    Very interesting piece
    In all this shifting sand isn’t it imperative to root social work in a fundamental statement about the value & significance of all individuals? Something strong enough to sustain itself across differing cultures & societal change

    • Sue Cook February 4, 2020 at 6:27 am #

      I agree Hilton, however some voices will continue to dominate so formulating that shared statement is likely to be weighted more heavily in a particular direction? Social justice is that statement but not yet achievable.

    • CORNILIUS REFEM February 5, 2020 at 2:23 am #

      I agree with you Hilton, and it is everyone’s wish for a fundamental statement to be gotten. The question here is who says what? Who is deciding what is fundamental, for whom and on what bases? First, I think to get to your point, there is still a lot more work to do and it is creating a dialogue that includes all voices and cultures working as one to decide what is fundamental for them. The most important thing here isn’t to have one unifying idea for convenience, but to have convenient conversations and indiscriminate representation of every culture in our work and theory.

  2. Trevor Ponter February 3, 2020 at 4:04 pm #

    A good first step before we confront colonialist concepts would be to defenestrate the social work establishment of the many “honours” happily accepted without any regard to the Empire in their titles.

  3. Wayne Reid February 3, 2020 at 4:57 pm #

    This is a very incisive article that relates to ALL education in my opinion. Well done Sue! This book might also be of interest to this topic of discussion:


    Kind regards

    Wayne Reid
    BASW Professional Officer

    • Sue Cook February 4, 2020 at 6:29 am #

      Thanks Wayne, I will have a look!

  4. Simon February 3, 2020 at 10:43 pm #

    A very interesting read, is true to say, that social work whether taught or as a working relationship needs an infrastructure that takes into account what is not known what should be known what is out into practice and what’s not, and what can be determined as an ideological view, to maintain and manage a healthy social work best practice.

  5. Anna February 4, 2020 at 8:30 am #

    I don’t understand the article … the world is becoming increasingly mono cultural as more and more humans engage in late capitalism? Do I misunderstand the concept of social work ? Malcolm Payne argued that something that serves the function of social work happens in all societies. If you conceptualise social work as the interface between state and family then the theories that have developed to describe that relationship can be built on .i agree there is room for growth .. if you conceptualise social work as something that eases the relationships in communities then then the only applicable theories are those that relate to those communities. But is social work education happening for that type of work ? The general thrust of the article that we need to understand the cultural hegemony of our professional education and be critical of that is one I relate to … but perhaps critical thinking has dropped by the wayside . I am not an educator and don’t know what the fashion is

  6. Annastasia Maksymluk February 4, 2020 at 12:40 pm #

    Well said Sue, thought provoking piece…..

    To go further, an authentic approach to deconolising curricula also requires deeper critique and analysis to challenge research and assessment practices. A genuine commitment to decolonising education lies in enabling all ‘voices’, to not just open the door in academia a little wider in a tokenistic manner.

    From this perspective a fundamental change in practices, and beliefs, on whose voice counts, and how that voice is presented is required. Currently academia validates those able to follow the prescribed ‘rules’ created within a system of research and writing that has been colonised by predominantly Western values and beliefs and white academic males.

    This has led to the exclusion of many voices within academia and the profession.

    We recently took a bold step and launched a journal of autoethnography with the intent to challenge these accepted, and replicated, academic ‘norms’ which maintain the colonisation of writing and research in academia and practice.

    What was this bold step? To remove bureaucratic barriers that prevent individuals from submitting articles for publishing and allowing authors to write in the first person, with their own voice, rather than a distant third person.

    Auto-ethnography demands an interrogation of the self within cultural backgrounds, to expose relationships of power, to enable us to ‘see’ all this article gestures toward ….. a small step, but possibly one academics and professionals might engage in to become the change they want to see?


  7. Respect Farai Mugodhi February 5, 2020 at 12:27 am #

    lovely contribution

  8. Tadious Chiura February 5, 2020 at 6:40 am #

    This is a very interesting and insightful book asking social workers and other professionals to think outside the box in our ever dynamic multi cultural society.

  9. Namal February 5, 2020 at 7:01 am #

    Thanks for the article. As a beginner-doctoral researcher from South Asia I can relate to some of the points you made, i.e.. I am sure many would agree that we all have read inspiring pieces like this before but when it comes to real process of knowledge production that includes ethical review approvals, proposal drafting, method selection etc. the institutional hierarchy is still in charge. The review board and supervisors (who look at the world from frameworks, theories, laws that only exist in the first world) still govern the way knowledge is produced and their approach to innovation and risk-taking in research is pathetically frustrating to say the least. So, having read many articles and books like this, I can’t help but to feel somewhat patronized when the initiatives to walk the talk are discouraged at institutional level. So the ethos is, just do it within the limitation and make the difference when you are in the position of power next time around, I heard this when I was doing my BA, MA and now I am hearing the same during my Phd…

  10. Nicola Downes February 5, 2020 at 1:32 pm #

    “Western Values” don’t originate from White Western Males. They originate from Black freedom fighters forcing the notion of racial equality, of women starving themselves until the right to vote was given, of the LGBTQ community protesting during the stone wall riots until their voices were heard and the colonised fighting imperialism. The name Western Values is a misappropriation by the liberal White West from its global contributers.

  11. Sue Cook February 6, 2020 at 4:04 pm #

    Thank you to everyone for taking the time to comment and keep this debate going. Dialogue may not change the world but it is surely better than no dialogue!

    Sue Cook.

  12. Robert February 7, 2020 at 2:11 pm #

    “If social work knowledge is still based on western values, can practice really be anti-oppressive?”
    I’ll assume the underlying assumption is that “every single social worker in the Western world is oppressive”, until things change in line with the career-driven views of a few theoretical anthropologists?
    Further: “a genuine dialogue about the appropriateness of knowledge based only upon western cultural values” is often thrown out as a lofty criticism of anything deemed to be remotely western, but never is there a suggestion of a practical alternative; only that we need to “have more conversations” – These arguments are more about the power of the lecturer, than of real solutions.

  13. Jason M February 10, 2020 at 1:12 pm #

    Nicola Downes – excellent point about appropriation. Ages since someone said something that made me go ‘oh yeah, blimey, hadn’t been thinking that’. I do think it is clearly colonial values, rooted a bit deeper and harking back a bit further, that are being questioned above. But what we hold them up against now, our MODERN “western” values of tolerance, equality etc that you are quite right, were hard fought by others in many cases (though maybe the other was those not in power?) We in the west have been made better by old established ideas being challenged but we never arrive, this process must continue for now and for what comes next.

  14. Lorna Hecht, MFT February 12, 2020 at 6:22 pm #

    If the term “family systems theory” is being used synonymously with Bowen family systems theory, I believe the author’s summation is incorrect. That the Bowen theory reflects a Western, or even patriarchal, perspective (lets face it, the two terms may often be used interchangeably) is a common misconception among those who have not made a formal study of it. The originator of Bowen theory, Murray Bowen, had a goal of developing a scientific theory of the human rooted in evolution. His effort was to account for variation in functioning across time and culture in a way that could make contact with the established biological sciences. This is something Freud and his theoretical descendants (including John Bowlby, father of attachment theory) could not achieve. Evidence for the universal appeal of Bowen theory lies in its adoption in cultures as diverse and collectivist as China and Sweden.

    • David Steare February 14, 2020 at 7:29 pm #

      I was fortunate to meet Kwame Owusu-Bempah when I was a practice teacher to one of his students on placement. From our conversations I read his co-written book ‘Psychology beyond Western Perspectives’ and started using his idea of ‘socio-genealogical connectedness’ to reconsider the attachment theory that seemed to be driving the political pushes for adoption of children in care. Unfortunately, when I mentioned this concept other professionals looked at me with blank expression, and from these experiences I began to appreciate the concept of the dominant narrative.

  15. James Appledore February 13, 2020 at 8:56 am #

    Much as this tries to argue for a shift towards new ways of thinking, even within its own assertions of what it thinks is current basis of social work thinking fails this. What’s the definition of “western” values here? How is patriarchy explained? What is meant by family relationships, how do these differ culturally, what are the implications if so called but undefined dominant ideologies are modified or discarded? There is such an incoherent range of social work theories that the realities of social work practice, austerity,weak but bullying managers, excessive bureaucracy, regulation for example, always overrides what ever is the current academic orthodoxy. Social work has never managed to integrate theory with practice, what we need are ideas that have relevance but are also well defined. My ideas of “western values” will differ from another person at some point in a discourse, my belief or otherwise of the importance of religious conviction will offend someone because personal ideology is fundamental to our being. The important thing is to professionalise beliefs so that we work from a unified set of ideas that override our prejudices. I do not think that this article addresses this.

  16. Liam February 17, 2020 at 12:10 pm #


    This article raises deep and important questions about valus and science. My question is about attachment – isn`t it a scientific concept identified universally and now evidenced by neuropsychology?

  17. Liam February 17, 2020 at 1:05 pm #

    This is a deep and insightful article that raises important questions about the relationship between values and knowledge.

  18. Julian Spurr February 24, 2020 at 7:42 pm #

    I don’t have any issues with the article but I think that we do tend to skirt around the issue that all people in poverty are oppressed whatever their cultural background. Many of my colleagues are completely politically unaware and time and time again it is lack of money that is the problem. Here we are living in a world where the government employs a racist and a fan of eugenics and it hardly gets a mention in community care. The prime minister refuses to condemn those views and after 10 years of austerity and bashing the poor I still have colleagues voting for the “conservative” party.
    We stand by as the Windrush scandal unfolds and people are summarily stripped of their citizenship.
    If ever there was a time for social work to take a political stance and fight for values that presumably we all adhere to it is now.
    I am constantly angry about the way this country is changing and becoming more and more stratified and intolerant.
    If we can’t even get the basics right how can social work actually make a difference? Sometimes it feels to me that whilst the world collapses around us our theorising is tantamount to fiddling while Rome burns.