CONSTRUCTION OF SOCIAL WORK THEORY
(Payne, 2005:3 –23)
SW practice is a process of deciding action from variety of alternative positions
SW’s need to have ideas that try to explain why and how practice decisions are made
disagreement about what social work is, and different groups argue for and against
Description of critical thinking (Kirst-Ashman, 1997)
scrutiny of what is stated as true, and conclusion
formulation of opinion/conclusion; focuses on the
“process of reasoning”
how people think about the truth, analyse and formulate conclusions
question what others take for granted
“triple A approach”: Ask; Assess; Assert
apply to any belief, statement, assumption, reasoning, experience claimed as true
enhances self-awareness; detection distorted thinking
help identify propaganda; distinguish intentionally deceptive claims; choose words
deepening critical consciousness skills toward socially just society
understanding of critical consciousness - work of Paulo Freire
experiencing, analyzing, reflecting on life, history, environment
“becoming subject rather than object of own history
object to subject, victim to social agent: “conscientisation”
routes to critical consciousness depending on histories,
how raised, ‘insider’/‘outsider’ characteristics
use knowledge from one category to understand another
social group membership affects access to societal resources + mobility in society
WHAT IS CRITICAL THEORY?
Early critical theory is broadly Marxist. It is the account of the social forces of domination
that takes its theoretical activity to be practically connected to the object of its study…
Critical theory is not merely descriptive, it is a way to instigate social change by providing
knowledge of the forces of social inequality that can, in turn, inform political action aimed at
emancipation (or at least diminishing domination and inequality).
Rush, F. (Ed). (2004). The cambridge companion to critical theory. United Kingdom:
Cambridge University Press.
Principles of critical thinking
• most are advantaged and disadvantaged by some group identities, but issues differ
• gaining knowledge about discrimination and oppression + guarding against bias
ongoing + lifelong
• learn about culturally shaped assumptions - not impose unknowingly,
• core values and standards
• recognize how bias is structured into policies, practices and norms about social
interactions – institutionalized racism – than we do to perceive individual prejudice
• question the knowledge base and theories that underlie our practice
• acknowledge and manage feelings connected with incomplete understandings ,
identity negotiations, interactions to develop our critical consciousness
• recognize non-conscious learnings shaped by oppressive societal dynamics
• be yourself and be genuine while working on critical consciousness
• reduce communication problems + destructive power related dynamics, use
knowledge about how characteristics affect others similar + different
• incorporate knowledge of contexts of different identity categories
• understanding + competence about dimensions of concern, moves in cyclical patterns
Four presuppositions of the critical social science paradigm:
• Macro-social structures shape social relations at every level of life
• The world is divided between haves and have nots and that the interests of these groups
are opposed and irreconcilable
• The oppressed are complicit in their oppression
• Its emphasis is on empowering oppressed people to act, collectively, to achieve social
Critical theory: “Truth as unmasking” Higgs and Smith (2002)
1970’s, 80’s - critical theory ‘driving force’ behind new forms of marxism, feminism and
Argues that Critical theory believes that it can offer us a comprehensive account of society
and the production of knowledge.
Claims there is no such thing as objective truth – all truth is created by human beings
All we have is opposing claims by different groups of people who are seeing various forms of
All human societies are structured around certain power relationships
All ideas come from human beings and all human beings are influenced by the world they
live in – creates a vicious circle and we are therefore influenced by society and context - far
more than we realise
Critical theory differs from PM in that critical theory claims that society is structured and that
our understanding of that structure will help to partically amend social evil. Society and
education are governed by certain fixed laws and rules.
PM on the other hand claims that society is not structured – society is no more than a series
of unique, irrepeatable and chance encounters between human beings.
Both CT and PM agree there is no objective truth
CT argues that structure of thinking processes is a result of social forces and that problems
can be solved through transformation through praxis - critically reflecting on society,
uncover hidden assumptions that maintain existing power relationships
Through praxis people can discover what enslaves people and begin to alter social reality
through participating in society differently
CT argues that we will be liberated from oppression once conscious of how oppression
operates (critical consciousness)
Critical theory and practice developed by Freire (1921-94) - teaching and schools do not
educate, make learners accept power structures
Ferguson (2008) “Reclaiming social work”
Definitions of critical social work
Healy’s definition the key elements are that it examines and challenges power relations and
as such offers the ability to challenge and change oppression.
Similarly in the definition offered by Fook critical social work is conceptualised as a method
by which hegemonic ideas can be challenged. Fook argues that it is because of
postmodernisms recognition of various truths that dominant structures can be challenged to
become more inclusive.
Ferguson suggests that these definitions offer postmodernism as a “basis for an emancipatory
However Ferguson argues that the nature of postmodernism means that it cannot provide this
basis as it lacks ability to challenge structural constraints. He points out that postmodernism
opposes the use of “metanarratives” that act as grand theories in their attempts to make sense
of the world as a whole. In this argument as no one truth has having priority over another.
Objective reality does not exist within the postmodern perspective and this means that radical
perspectivism is adopted.
This key element of postmodernist theory, Ferguson argues, leads to three key tenets which it
is argued undermine critical social works emancipatory objectives. These are, according to
Ferguson its “individualism; its rejection of structural explanations of poverty and inequality;
and its moral relativism”. Ferguson argues that postmodernism denies the existence of
collective identity and rather sees everyone in individualist terms. This he argues is in
contrast with Marxist approaches and has more in common with neo-liberal approaches. This
individualism results in theories of “power as omnipresent” and therefore makes the struggle
against oppressive forces local and individualised rather than structural and collective.
The second argument made by Ferguson is that this failure to make links between the micro
and macro results in the inability of the framework to offer guidance for change. This
emphasis on the local means that oppression such as poverty cannot be explained structurally
and rather becomes a localised or individualised experience. The final point Ferguson raises
in objection to postmodernism as a basis for critical social work is that it has moral relativism
as a key outcome of its prioritisation of different truths. This means that no situation or
actions are better than others.
Challenges to CT (Healy & Mullaly) (don’t think criticisms are essential learning but
handy to know)
Healy argues that critical social work includes the following key premises:
A recognition that large scale social processes, particularly those associated with
class, race and gender contribute fundamentally to the personal and social issues
social workers encounter in their practice.
The adoption of a self-reflexive and critical stance to the often contradictory effects of
social work practice and social policies
A commitment to co-participatory rather than authoritarian practice relations
Working with and for oppressed populations to achieve social transformation
Critical social work emerged out of a different form of capitalism and society, currently these
ideas are being challenged by practice and postmodern analysis.
Healy argues that there is not a link between practice contexts and critical social work
making it difficult for social workers to translate these radical ideas into practice. She
criticizes critical social work theorists for failing to deal with the epistemological and ethical
challenges to social work and for instead simply criticizing social workers for not
implementing the ideas in their practice.
She argues that at a epistemological level there is a concern expressed about the assumption
that structural analyses can be imported into local contexts of social work practice and policy
making process. Healy cites the example of how social workers in fields where the use of
statutory power is integral to their role practice, she states that critical social work has failed
to help these social workers practice critically.
At a ethical level critical social work claims that through rational thought and action people
can change the way that they live. Healy argues that such an assumption is naïve to the
inconstantancies of human action. Oppression can often be the result of utopian and rational
Healy sums up by arguing that the onus is on critical social workers to recognize the
differences in the contexts from which their ideas are drawn and the environs in which social
workers typically practice.
The advent of PM theory has also shaken the foundations on which critical social work is
built. PM. Healy argues, challenges practice theories that seek to unify social work around
common causes and practices, rather PM asks social workers to recognize that social work
like other entities is produced by discourse and so will vary from context to context.
PM authors like Foucault challenge CT negative views of power in arguing that power is
everywhere and can be negative and productive. This analysis of power assists social workers
in seeing that their power can at times be necessary and productive.
Mullaly has a similar argument. He argues that over the last two decades developments in
capitalism (transformation from a rigid and centralized post war form to a flexible and global
form) have challenged the progressive social work project. The effects of neo-liberalism with
the pulling back of state intervention have left a greater gap between the rich and poor, trade
unions are in disarray and social work is being deskilled. These have all contributed to a
radically different climate in which social workers work in and progressive social work no
longer seems able to meet these challenges.
PM argues that the world is characterized by diversity and that no one should try to define
reality, needs or interests of another group. This emphasis on relativism challenges solidarity
around needs and objective evils. Authors argue that PM is stimulating at an intellectual level
but irrelevant to activism and practice.
Mullaly tries to make progressive social work relevant and link with PM through three
premises around which he hopes to rebuild progressive social work:
1) universal celebration and promotion of difference and diversity
2) development of a set of universial but transcultural human needs – need for physical health
and need for personal autonomy
3) Recognition of oppression as the major source of social problems which in turn leads to
anti-oppressive social work as a framework
Post colonial theorist - Fanon
• Fanon (1967) raises the issue of the relationship between colonialised people and
language in Chapter one of his book “Black Skin, White Masks”. Here he argues that
“every dialect is a way of thinking” and as such assuming the colonial powers language
means assuming an alternative culture (Fanon, 1967, p.25). In this way colonialised
people are taught that to raise white above black, in language and in culture. However
Fanon (1967) also speaks to the double bind that colonised people find themselves in
through their alienation from themselves and from others – both black and white.
• Fanon (1967) argues that the black man can never be anything other than what he is -
black, to try to be white means to be lost. He argues that to deal with the consequences of
colonialism two wars need to be fought. As Fanon (1967) simultaneously attends to
agency and structure in his discussion he argues that the black man must liberate himself
and at the same time deal with structures that enable his oppression. Fanon (1967, p.11)
argues that “man is what brings society into being...” and therefore man can change
society. This links with his discussion of the inferiority and dependency complex of black
men, seen in the fourth chapter of his book, which Fanon (1967) argues is a result of the
demolition of cultural practices of colonialised people.
• Fanon (1967) uses Mannoni (1964) work contained in his book “Prospero and Caliban:
Psychology of Colonization” as a foundation off which to bounce his arguments. Fanon
(1967, p.85) argues that Mannoni`s (10964) central theme is that “the confrontation of
‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ men creates a special situation – the colonial situation – and
brings about the emergence of a mass of illusions and misunderstandings..” Fanon (1967)
argues that colonialisation is definitely a situation that brings about unique consequences
for the colonized. Fanon (1967) however disagrees with the point that Mannoni (1964)
continues to argue that this dependency complex (that colonisation brings about) is
actually an inherent complex that would have emerged even had colonial encounter not
taken place. Fanon (1967) argues that this is to ignore structures and the environment that
the colonialized live in and locate the problem intra-psychically only. Rather he uses SA
to show that racist structures cause racism, which locates the object of the racism as
• Fanon (1967) argues that Mannoni is incorrect in stating that the inferiority complex of
colonialised people develops from being in the minority (Fanon, 1967). Fanon (1967)
states that this complex develops out of extra-psychic dynamics. He states that the
inferiority complex develops from being put in an inferior position by someone who puts
themselves in a superior position (Fanon, 1967). Fanon (1967, p.93) states clearly that “It
is the racist who creates his inferior”. Not as Mannoni (1964) would have the colonialised
who so want to be white that they independently of their environment feel inferior.
However Fanon (1967) argues that following Mannoni`s argument leads us into a difficult
place where colonialised people only have a choice between a dependency complex or an
inferiority complex with no hope of “salvation”. However Fanon (1967) argument can be
taken to its logical end: to understand colonialisations effects can mean liberation.
• Linking with his earlier discussions on language, Fanon (1967) again brings up the way in
which the Malagasy are alienated from themselves through the process of colonialisation
which seems them as less than human. Fanon (1967) argues that though colonialisation
the Malagasy have lost themselves and are no longer “men”. This is seem clearly in
Fanon (1967, p.97) argument that “The arrival of the white man in Madagascar shattered
not only its horizons but its psychological mechanisms”. Again this links with earlier
discussions on options for intervention arguing that liberation is internal. However Fanon
(1967) also discusses the fact that every citizen of a nation is responsible for the actions
of their nation. This indicates that he believes that the colonialised need to deal with their
dependency/inferiority complex while the colonisers need to deal with their racism and
superior attitude (Fanon, 1967). Neither group can deal with the others issues.
• Interesting in Fanons (1967) writings is that he moves fluidly between structural and
agential explanations of effects. He argues that it is only the black man that can make
himself whole again, advocating here for an agential view. Then he moves to argue that
economic and social conditions of are the causes for behaviour, which is a structural
view. This fluid movement gives his argument a holistic sense that prevents extremism
and offers many opportunities for intervention.