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.
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.