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Social Work Postmodernism and Social Work
by
Elizabeth Ann Danto

Introduction

“The postmodern movement has had a dramatic influence on social work,” wrote Joan Laird in 1995. “It is too early to know how widespread this paradigmatic shift will be. . . . Nevertheless, it is forcing a re-examination of some of social work’s long and dearly held assumptions.” Today the postmodern paradigm has advanced into virtually every aspect of social work practice—psychotherapy, family therapy, gerontology, policy analysis, research, community organizing, and agency administration, to name a few. Social workers have found that postmodernism synchronizes well with the profession’s core “person-in-environment” principle because, as Malcolm Payne defines it, “postmodernism refers to changes in the way in which we think about our societies and the way in which we create and understand knowledge.” After nearly fifty years of reading the post-1960s architects of postmodernism, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, social workers have begun to integrate the terminology and key concepts into the professional literature. In view of this integration, the purpose of this article is twofold: to provide a coherent, organized, and accessible overview of postmodern theory as applied to and interpreted by the social work profession and to identify the influence of postmodernism on major research themes and practice ideologies in the key areas of social work. This bibliography organizes writings on postmodernism in social work according to the profession’s core curriculum areas of human behavior in the social environment, practice (micro and macro), policy, and research. While books and articles have been published in each of these areas, no journal of record has yet emerged.

Introductory Works

Postmodernism is both a theory and a practice. Two of the classic texts in the field, Gergen 2001 and Berger and Luckmann 1966, show how the theory, originally bred in the humanities, is a blend of linguistics (analysis of grammar, inflections, word structure) and cultural criticism (analysis of symbols in written and oral communications, behaviors, and traditions). Far from arcane, postmodernism is applicable to all social work practice methods because, as Fook 2002 and Payne 2008 explain, the paradigm causes us to observe nonlinear exchanges between human beings. For his investigation of exactly how we make meaning of shared social codes (laws, systems, methods, texts, catalogues), Chambon , et al.1989 sifted through thousands of signals (gestures, emblems, flags, clues) contained in these exchanges. Chambon and Irving 1994 is a collection of essays focused on Michel Foucault’s unique understanding of social structures and on postmodern theory of individual placement, status, affluence, class, expectations and prospects, family of origin, geography, race, ethnicity, sex, and religion. These ideas, added to Barbara Berger’s 1996 review of Lacanian theory, help social workers challenge virtually all interpretations of language and culture. While the construction of meaning forms a theory for postmodernism, the construction of social reality (also called constructivism or social construction) shapes postmodern social work practice. Freud 1994 demonstrates that an individual’s reality, of their gender, for example, is not objective but is actually “constructed” by a society’s shared language. “What is recognized as social reality is a matter of definition and conceptualization” (Pardeck, et al. 1994). So too with culture. A culture is an inclusive “text” to be read line by line, a poem with a rhythm all its own.

  • Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor.

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    The classic text that shows how persons and groups interact together in a social system and form, over time, concepts or mental representations of one another’s actions.

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  • Berger, Barbara. 1996. A sense of orders: An introduction to the theory of Jacques Lacan. Journal of Analytic Social Work 2.2–3: 83–98.

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    Clinical vignettes illustrating Lacan’s “mirror stage” theory and his three basic orders—the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic—highlight the explanations of these concepts.

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  • Chambon, Adrienne, and Allan Irving, eds. 1994. Essays on postmodernism and social work. Toronto: Canadian Scholars.

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    An edition that focuses on contemporary research in narrative and discursive constructions within the client-worker dialogue and in policy texts.

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  • Chambon, Adrienne, Allan Irving, and Laura Epstein, eds. 1989. Reading Foucault for social workers. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Michel Foucault’s contribution to interrelated debates about knowledge, power, domination, normalization, and social practice.

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  • Fook, Jan. 2002. Social work: Critical theory and practice. London: SAGE.

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    An engaging overall introduction to the concepts of postmodern and critical social work, with exercises.

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  • Freud, Sophie. 1994. The social construction of gender. Journal of Adult Development 1.1: 37–45.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02252981Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The categories provided by the language of our culture give us a meaning-making framework that guides our perception of the world. However, many categories, such as race and gender, are arbitrary social constructions created to fill some human purpose based on sociopolitical rather than biological or “natural” considerations.

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  • Gergen, Kenneth. 2001. Social construction in context. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    Social constructionism chiefly is a practical, conceptual, and ideological tool that functions differently within particular practice contexts.

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  • Pardeck, John T., John W. Murphy, and W. S. Chung. 1994. Social work and postmodernism. Social Work and Social Science Review 5.2: 113–123.

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    How does postmodern thinking affect the increasing technological thrust of social work practice? To respond to this question, the authors emphasize the relationship of language to the development of postmodern culture, including the impact of this culture on social work practice.

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  • Payne, Malcolm. 2008. Modern social work theory. 3d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    Building on the first two editions of this textbook, Payne covers construction and reality in social work theory, humanism and existentialism, social construction and community development, and other radical and/or critical perspectives. His thesis is that by adopting a postmodernist stance in understanding their construction, social workers will be able to criticize, analyze, and develop theories to meet the needs of contemporary clients instead of wasting energy trying to prove the viability of one theory over another.

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Terminology and Methodology

“Words not only reflect but shape our world . . . [where] the dominant social discourses have tended to be racist, sexist and homophobic,” writes Ann Hartman (Hartman 1991), as she introduces social workers to the methodology for deconstructing language. The postmodern approach, in social work as in other disciplines, is largely predicated on two key concepts, both of which are language based: “deconstruction” and “construction” or “social construction.” Deconstruction is the analysis of socially shared meanings. Actually, as White and Epston 1990 describes it, social workers who have written process recordings and used them as teaching tools are already familiar with this model. Deconstruction explores, gesture by gesture and word by word, how a reality is constructed in today’s society and, as shown in Gregory and Holloway 2005, always has been. One strategy, well articulated by Yapa 1996, is to view all productions (a social policy, a schizophrenic tirade, a family crisis) as a though they were “texts” to be read and then analyzed along certain lines: context, history, power, gender, social class. This kind of close textual analysis attempts to make the most of the subjective experience, language, and culture of the client. Parton 1996 demonstrates how deconstruction can shift socially marginalized (race, sexual orientation) or contradictory (incarcerated mothers) tropes from margin to center. Postmodern writing may seem deliberately obscure—and indeed it is—but Askeland and Payne 2006 helps readers grasp the field’s key concepts in a clear and heartening essay. Dennis Saleebey, the architect of social work’s strengths perspective on practice, suggests in Saleeby and Scanlon 2005 that postmodern critical thinking bolsters social workers’ ability to change societal contradictions and injustice. As an example of the application of this methodology, Baber and Murray 2001 sorts out human sexuality as a showcase for applying postmodern methodology in social work.

  • Askeland, Gurid Aga, and Malcolm Payne. 2006. The post-modern student: Piloting through uncertainty. Journal of Teaching in Social Work 26.3–4: 167–179.

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    How can educators best prepare students to meet the combined personal, cultural, and social changes they will encounter in the classroom and in their fieldwork? Drawing on the postmodern concept of the co-constructed classroom, the authors show how education can be reframed as a process of emergence in which educators and students work jointly to create knowledge and professional identity.

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  • Baber, Kristine M., and Colleen I. Murray. 2001. A postmodern feminist approach to teaching human sexuality. Family Relations 50.1: 23–33.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2001.00023.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Postmodern feminist theory puts the constructivist framework into action. This methodology helps us (1) shift from a problem-oriented to a strengths approach, (2) provide information and skills that are relevant and useful, (3) expand students’ thinking about diversity, and (4) help students maximize their own sexual health and minimize exploitation of themselves and others.

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  • Coates, John. 1993. Ideology and education for social work practice. Journal of Progressive Human Services 3.2: 15–29.

    DOI: 10.1300/J059v03n02_02Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Developments in postmodern theory are challenging the foundations of social work theory, practice, and pedagogy, including the deconstruction of expert knowledge claims and the honoring of multiple ways of knowing. The authors show how pedagogical practice is congruent with progressive clinical and community social work.

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  • Gregory, Marilyn, and M. Holloway. 2005. Language and the shaping of social work. British Journal of Social Work 35.1: 37–53.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bch161Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors trace the development of social work language in its sociopolitical and socioeconomic contexts: the moral enterprise, the therapeutic enterprise, and the managerial enterprise periods. Social work must reclaim its own language in order to meet the challenges to its identity.

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  • Hartman, Ann. 1991. Words create worlds. Social Work 36.4: 275–276.

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    The veteran social worker Ann Hartman urges professionals to value the exploration and analysis of language, and she illustrates why and how.

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  • Parton, Nigel, ed. 1996. Social theory, social change, and social work. London: Routledge.

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    A British edited volume covering the core conceptual and theoretical debates in postmodern social work, from the arena of “children and families” to “depth versus breadth” in education.

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  • Saleebey, Dennis, and E. Scanlon. 2005. Is a critical pedagogy for the profession of social work possible? Journal of Teaching in Social Work 25.3–4: 1–18.

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    Not all arguments are helpful. One form of resistance to unjust social conditions, say the authors, is to reclaim our academic sense of agency by revaluing our practice as educators.

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  • White, Michael, and David Epston. 1990. Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.

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    Key postmodern therapeutic ideas developed by White include “externalizing the problem,” commonly summarized as “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”; “re-authoring” the dominant stories of people’s lives; and the idea of “double-listening” to accounts of trauma: not only the accounts of trauma itself but how people have responded to trauma.

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  • Yapa, L. 1996. What causes poverty? A postmodern view. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86.4: 707–728.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1996.tb01773.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An argument for the idea that “scarcity,” as experienced by poor people in the so-called poverty sector, is actually constructed outside this sector and within a nexus of relations—technical, social, ecological, cultural, political, and academic sectors. The author’s postmodern methodology applies the following themes: development as a grand narrative, the subject/object binary in the conceptualization of a poverty sector, development and underdevelopment as a dividing practice, reductionism and the nexus of production relations, and a substantive view of poverty and power.

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Applications

Postmodernism asks us to focus specifically on contradictions. For example, postmodern practice attempts to avoid building Eriksonian-type stage theories because such linearity inevitably reflects the power positions of the same people involved in developing an empowered practice. For some social workers therefore, postmodern approaches to social work may conflict with a positivist methodology. For others, postmodernism will enrich the core areas of the Council on Social Work Education–approved curriculum. Eventually most contemporary social workers combine aspects of the two perspectives and develop an eclectic slant of their own. This section looks at the “how-to” literature, especially the construction/deconstruction methodology that fits well in at least four of these areas: Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Research, Social Welfare Policy, and Social Work Practice.

Human Behavior in the Social Environment

In the post-9/11 21st century, how can Euro-American theories of normativity still explicate human behavior? To counter cultural hegemony, the postmodern stance on human behavior is deliberately non categorical. Johnson 2006 shows how this stance helps us examine (not define) who we are in relation to “others,” to power, and to authority. Postmodern social workers continually redefine their views and accept change because a group is neither fixed nor cast into an “essentialist” mold but always located within a cultural transformation. Are “women,” for example, ask both Latting 1995 and Sands 1996, a “natural” group, or is their identity constructed by changing social norms? As the discourse heard in Andersen and Collins 2010 demonstrates, “decentering” the voice of privilege democratizes our picture of human life within cultures. Greene 2005 gives us further freedom to think about human behavior outside the dominant Euro-American paradigms, and Ungar 2006 sees these new cognitive precepts at work in the clinic. Even psychoanalytic theorists now observe the totality of human development as actually a process of change, says Frosh 1991, and chapters in Adams 2000 relate this “development as change” concept to multiple “marginalized” populations.

Social Work Practice

Social workers make a practice choice. Work with individuals and families, an engagement originally called “casework” and today called “micro” or “clinical” practice, is habitually counterposed to work with groups, communities, and organizations, referred to as “macro” practice or community organizing and planning. In postmodern practice, this opposition can be dissolved. Nevertheless this review respects this guiding principle and separates sources into “micro” and “macro” postmodern practice.

Micro Practice

In postmodern micro theory, human systems tend to be self-regulating, and the therapy emerges from within the clients’ telling of their stories. According to Abels and Abels 2001, if in one period of crisis—an acute illness in the family, for instance—depression strikes some members but others react with enhanced coping, in the next period the family adjusts back. Hoffman 2001 and Laird 1995, both masters of family therapy, urge social workers to listen for meanings that are somehow indigenous to the individual or family. Fish 1993 and Dean 1993 are more explicit in their demand for reflection on meaning in client language—which, says Pozatek 1994, we can never actually define. Palombo 1994 and Lee 1996 extend this methodology to areas such as psychosis, multiculturalism, and institutions.

  • Abels, Paul, and Sonia Leib Abels. 2001. Understanding narrative therapy: A guidebook for the social worker. New York: Springer.

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    This original volume shows how narrative goes beyond the traditional helping techniques by incorporating social change and individual resistance and protest within its theoretical and practice creed.

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  • Dean, Ruth Grossman. 1993. Constructivism: An approach to clinical practice. Smith College Studies in Social Work 63.2: 127–146.

    DOI: 10.1080/00377319309517382Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Substituting the term “collaborative inquiry” for assessment would compel social work away from its old empiricist medical models. Dean never forgets that power is conveyed in language, and she finds interactive, exploratory, and non hierarchical qualities in the term “inquiry.”

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  • Fish, Vince. 1993. Poststructuralism in family therapy: Interrogating the narrative/conversational mode. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 19.3: 221–232.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.1993.tb00983.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The narrative/conversational mode of family therapy, based in constructivism and Batesonian cybernetics, has lately associated itself with the poststructuralism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Poststructuralism’s true merit is in its capacity to illuminate the political/cultural context of social work practice, including family therapy as a social institution.

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  • Hoffman, Lynne. 2001. A communal perspective for relational therapies. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 11.4: 5–17.

    DOI: 10.1300/J086v11n04_02Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The eminent scholar, theorist, teacher, and practitioner of family therapy who has been prominent in the field since the 1960s calls postmodernism a “true paradigm shift” for creating meaning between and among social work practitioners and their clients.

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  • Laird, Joan. 1995. Family-centered practice in the postmodern era. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services 76.3: 150–162.

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    The author explores specific ways in which postmodernism has profoundly influenced the family therapy field, and has compelled the field as a whole to reexamine traditional assumptions about assessment and intervention.

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  • Lee, Mo-Yee. 1996. A constructivist approach to the help-seeking process of clients: A response to cultural diversity. Clinical Social Work Journal 24.2: 187–202.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02189731Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A useful and systematic frame for clinicians to understand clients’ subjective experiences and to enhance clients’ ability to resolve problems non presumptuously.

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  • Palombo, Joseph. 1994. Incoherent self-narratives and disorders of the self in children with learning disabilities. Smith College Studies in Social Work 64.2: 129–152.

    DOI: 10.1080/00377319409517405Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The “self-narratives” of learning-disabled children telling their stories of chaos and frustration lead the author to examine which metaphors revealed “personal” and which “shared” meanings.

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  • Pozatek, E. 1994. The problem of certainty: Clinical social work in the postmodern era. Social Work 39.4: 396–403.

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    The adoption of a therapeutic position of uncertainty is offered as a respectful alternative approach to the complex needs of our pluralistic society in the 21st century.

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  • Vodde, Rich, and J. Paul Gallant. 2002. Bridging the gap between micro and macro practice: Large-scale change and a unified model of narrative-deconstructive practice. Journal of Social Work Education 38.3: 439–458.

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    Postmodernism may be useful in exploring issues of culture, power, oppression, social justice, and policy making and other issues congruent with social work values.

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Macro Practice

Human behavior develops in the context of larger social, political, and economic forces that cannot be ignored. And social workers practice in organizations, within diverse groups, and among communities. For these reasons, say Pease 1999 and Pease 2002, the postmodern approach is highly effective for social workers because it attends equally to understanding multiple systems and to individuals and families. Leonard 1996 deconstructs past and present meanings in the assumptions underlying social work interventions. Boje 2001 gauges responsiveness between management and employees in organizations, while Parton 1994 looks at similar patterns between government and constituents. Demarginalizing women’s discourse is not a form of reprivileging, say Fawcett 1999 and Taylor 2006, nor is attending to male discourse a regression. Within the macro discourse on health and illness, Murphy and Perez 2002 finds choice and empowerment among people with disabilities. For Saleebey 1994, reading the larger cultural narrative is critical to social work intervention.

  • Boje, David M. 2001. Narrative methods for organizational and communication research. SAGE Series in Management Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    A challenging book by one of the most original thinkers in studies of organizations, this volume presents new strategies to help administrators analyze and understand staff and managerial discourse.

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  • Fawcett, Barbara. 1999. Practice and research in social work: Postmodern feminist perspectives. New York: Routledge.

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    Deconstructing and reconstructing areas such as professional expertise, practice ethics, maternal violence, and disability.

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  • Leonard, Peter. 1996. Three discourses on practice: A postmodern re-appraisal. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 23.2: 7–26.

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    A lively postmodern critique of three historically significant discourses—American casework, British social administration, and Marxist social work—illustrates how a deconstruction of their modernist assumptions can set the stage for a reconstruction of social welfare ideas appropriate to postmodern conditions.

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  • Murphy, John W., and Fernando M. Perez. 2002. A postmodern analysis of disabilities. Journal of Social Work in Disability and Rehabilitation 1.3: 61–72.

    DOI: 10.1300/J198v01n03_06Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Following in the conceptual footsteps of Michel Foucault, the authors describe how the medical model can be challenged by the social model that attempts to decenter the biological body as constitutive of “disability” and by arguing that disability is a social construction.

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  • Parton, Nigel. 1994. Problematics of government, (post)modernity, and social work. British Journal of Social Work 24: 9–32.

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    Locates contemporary developments and tensions in social work, especially in the areas of family policy, within current debates in social theory.

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  • Pease, Bob. 1999. Transforming social work practice: Postmodern critical perspectives. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203279281Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    New strategies for developing practice frameworks, paradigms, and principles that take advantage of postmodern theory without abandoning the values of modernity and the Enlightenment project of human emancipation.

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  • Pease, Bob. 2002. Rethinking empowerment: A postmodern reappraisal for emancipatory practice. British Journal of Social Work 32:135–147.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/32.2.135Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An interesting application of Michel Foucault’s focus on the subjugation of marginalized knowledge by dominant cultural practices; for the author, this suggests that the concept of empowerment can be redefined as the insurrection of subjugated knowledge.

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  • Saleebey, Dennis. 1994. Culture, theory, and narrative: The intersection of meanings in practice. Social Work 39.4: 351–359.

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    A discussion of some newer approaches and techniques in clinical interviewing that adopt a more positive frame and emphasize clients’ coping capacities and thus challenge the traditional problem focus in helping without neglecting human problems.

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  • Taylor, Brian. 2006. Responding to men in crisis: Masculinities, distress, and the postmodern political landscape. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203337455Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on new research looking at gendered assumptions about rationality and men’s mental health, this volume looks at postmodern theory in relation to masculinities and madness and discusses key contemporary debates in political uses of risk, dangerousness, and so on.

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Social Welfare Policy

Just whose history is it, anyway? Powell 2001 explains how our sequence of teaching of social welfare policy places the delivery of professional social services in the historical traditions recorded over the last several hundred years of western European and American thought. As Castells 1997 clarifies, we select ideological frameworks to analyze current social and economic legislation with reference to precedents set by earlier lawmakers—the very law makers who set up the social hierarchy and economic dominance that creates the social worker’s client base. Rosenau 1994 illustrates this problematic as it unfolds in health care policy. In contrast, the postmodern perspective sets up debates that impel us, says Parton 1994, to examine exactly which assumptions we make (and teach) about identity and diversity in social welfare policy. Leonard 1995 assesses how time, place, and historical contingency have already shaped our understanding of all historical events, while Orum 2005 and Holland 2006 explore the reciprocal influence of these contingencies on each other and on our worldviews. Deconstructing the language of a social policy will open up its attendant constructions of power, hierarchy, subordinate and superordinate positioning, centering, and marginalizations.

  • Castells, Manuel. 1997. The power of identity. Amherst, MA: Blackwell.

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    Examines the rise of national “resistance identities,” which may over time develop into “project identities” with specific socially transformative goals in mind.

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  • Holland, Joe. 2006. The regeneration of ecological, societal, and spiritual life: The holistic postmodern mission of humanity in the newly emerging planetary civilization. Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work 24.1–2: 7–25.

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    Within a new historical context, professionals in religion and social work are called to form young leaders through an alternative educational system that would point toward a postmodern movement of ecological, social, and spiritual regeneration.

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  • Leonard, Peter. 1995. Postmodernism, socialism, and social welfare. Journal of Progressive Human Services 6.2: 3–19.

    DOI: 10.1300/J059v06n02_02Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study argues that postmodern ideas should be used to stimulate an approach that is more diverse, non universalistic, and cross-cultural than that envisioned by earlier forms of socialism and Marxism.

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  • Orum, Anthony M. 2005. Circles of influence and chains of command: The social processes whereby ethnic communities influence host societies. Social Forces 84.2: 921–939.

    DOI: 10.1353/sof.2006.0025Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The most interesting questions about diversity concern the ways immigrants influence the host society, not how they adapt to it. This paper proposes a postmodern theory to account for such influence. For evidence, it draws on a variety of empirical examples from research on ethnic communities in the United States.

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  • Parton, Nigel. 1994. The nature of social work under conditions of (post) modernity. Social Work and Social Sciences Review 5.2: 93–112.

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    Theoretical debates concerning postmodernity both inform social workers’ understanding and contribute directly to day-to-day practice. Under these conditions, social work must rediscover trust between government, managers, and social workers and between social workers and service users.

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  • Powell, Frederick W. 2001. The politics of social work. London: SAGE.

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    Explores contemporary and historical paradigms of social work from its Victorian origins to the development of reformist practice in the welfare state to radical social work, responses to social exclusion, the renaissance of civil society, multiculturalism, feminism, and anti-oppressive practice.

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  • Rosenau, Pauline Vaillancourt. 1994. Health politics meets post-modernism: Its meaning and implications for community health organizing. Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law 19.2: 303–333.

    DOI: 10.1215/03616878-19-2-303Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A comparison of postmodern social movements with their modern counterparts and how the organizational forms, leadership styles, and substantive intellectual orientations of the two differ. Available online for subscribers.

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Research

Perhaps in this area more than any other, postmodernism challenges the social worker to address the conflict between traditional positivist-empirical concept of knowledge and other concepts of knowledge which, say both Bekke 1986 and Morris 2006, appear more experiential and less measurable but are equally valid. The argument goes beyond quantitative versus qualitative because, for postmodernists, objective reality simply does not exist. No statement is “true”; Trainor 2002 calls it, instead, a perspective. Postmodern social workers locate “facts,” as they are called, within customs, myths, and other cultural frameworks. Neither “facts” nor “truths” are disavowed in themselves, Nissen 2003 proposes, nor are they viewed as free standing icons: facts are interpreted as constructions, as symbols embedded within a cultural “text.” Similarly, Gorman 1993 guides the postmodern social work researcher to an informant’s communications less for the specificity of content than for the “voice” of the narrator. The individual or collective voice conveys levels of privilege, status, and power and lack thereof. The use of narratives, or storytelling, by social work researchers has grown along with the importance of naturalistic inquiry in the social and behavioral sciences. Ristock and Pennell 1996 urges the researcher to observe how narratives, folktales, and myths frame the stories people use to evoke the centrality of meaning making within their individual, family, and community experiences. Thanks to the postmodern researcher’s use of critical theory, as discussed by Kincheloe and McLaren 2000, the ability to listen to this narrative is to become immersed in the world of others. Laitila 2009 understands that working outside the experimental form may seem uncomfortably subjective, but it is probably as close to the “truth” as any objective “expert” assessment.

  • Brekke, John S. 1986. Scientific imperatives in social work research: Pluralism is not skepticism. Social Service Review 60.4: 538–554.

    DOI: 10.1086/644398Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A classic article that instigated an intense and influential exchange on the definitions and boundaries of postmodernism and research.

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  • Gorman, Jane. 1993. Postmodernism and the conduct of inquiry in social work. Affilia 8.3: 247–264.

    DOI: 10.1177/088610999300800302Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Social work’s indigenous treasures are the intensely personal, often brutal stories of everyday life as lived by clients and witnessed by practitioners. Citing postmodern thought, the author suggests that embracing narrative as a transformational tool at the individual and societal levels could bring social work’s practice, research, and social action aspects into harmony.

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  • Kincheloe, Joe L., and Peter McLaren. 2000. Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In Handbook of qualitative research, 2d ed. Edited by N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, 279–314. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    An overview of the usage of the word “critical” in the social sciences and how “being critical” is, perhaps counter intuitively, a process through which criticism is a positive act.

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  • Laitila, A. 2009. The expertise question revisited. Contemporary Family Therapy 31.4: 239–250.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10591-009-9098-2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compared to other specializations in social work, researchers appear to be the most “objective” and the least immersed in relational processes. This assessment is debatable because, at least among family therapists, no researcher has more knowledge of the clients than the clients themselves.

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  • Morris, Teresa. 2006. Social work research methods: Four alternative paradigms. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    Along with ethics, diversity, and technology, author Teresa Morris also describes research methods for positivism, post positivism, critical theory, and constructivism.

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  • Nissen, M. 2003. Objective subjectification: The antimethod of social work. Mind, Culture, and Activity 10.4: 332–349.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15327884mca1004_5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    How social work itself represents a paradoxical form of knowledge, and the method/antimethod dialectic are critical for seeing interventions as continuous transformation. Available online for a fee.

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  • Ristock, Janice L., and Joan Pennell. 1996. Community research as empowerment: Feminist links, postmodern interruptions. Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Process research that affirms real people and distinct cultures while at the same time disrupting categories that are socially constructed as a way to uncover the working of power.

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  • Smith, David. 2002. The limits of positivism revisited. Social Work and Social Sciences Review 10.1: 27–37.

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    A critique of the work of what would now be called “evidence-based practice.”

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  • Trainor, Brian T. 2002. Post-modernism, truth, and social work. Australian Social Work 55.3: 204–213.

    DOI: 10.1080/03124070208410976Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Trainor holds that postmodernism must be applauded for its incisive critique of the “totalising tendency” of the quest for truth, yet forthright rejection of “truth” itself has had serious consequences on professional practice in social work. Available online to subscribers.

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Social Work Education

Postmodernism has been discussed, attacked, and maligned, maintains Featherstone and Fawcett 1995, but also forgotten about, revived, and presented in most curricula in the social and behavioral sciences. When it comes to the teaching of social work, however, Martinez-Brawley 1999 illustrates how the implications of the postmodern paradigm shift are only beginning to be examined. Gergen 1997 and Parton 2008, by two of the field’s most fertile authors, believe that the paradigm is now being thought through in its various applications, and Williams 2006 exemplifies this with regard to cultural competence. This section aims to look at both sides of the issue: teaching postmodernism and postmodern teaching. Hartman 1990 describes the epistemologies we bring to academic publishing; Iversen, et al. 2005 offers new ways of teaching assessment skills; and Pardeck, et al. 1994 reconfigures how we teach practice. Danto 2008 joins the question of how to bring postmodern thinking to the attention of graduate-level students, with postmodern implications for traditional educational concepts.

  • Danto, Elizabeth Ann. 2008. Same words, different meanings: Notes toward a typology of postmodern social work education. Social Work Education 27.4: 1–13.

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    Active use of postmodern theory, with its lexicon of words like deconstruction, meaning, sign, and code, can transform the social work classroom into an extraordinary laboratory for critical thinking and clinical inquiry. First, though, we must learn how we use our own language. Available online for a fee.

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  • Featherstone, Brid, and Barbara Fawcett. 1995. Oh no! Not more isms: Feminism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, and social work education. Social Work Education 14.3: 25–43.

    DOI: 10.1080/02615479511220171Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study explores how perspectives drawn from feminism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism can usefully be applied to debates in social work education. Within this framework, the study highlights the centrality of power, knowledge, difference, and subjectivity. Instead of “isms” the author suggests a range of possibilities for producing and using knowledge within social work.

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  • Gergen, Kenneth. 1997. Who speaks and who replies in human science scholarship? History of the Human Sciences 10.3: 151–173.

    DOI: 10.1177/095269519701000311Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    How are we to understand the character of voice in human science writings such that they achieve rhetorical power, and how do these writings variously position their readers?

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  • Hartman, Ann. 1990. Many ways of knowing. Social Work 35.1: 3–4.

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    An influential essay by Ann Hartman, then editor of Social Work. Every time an article is accepted or rejected for publication, the editors make an epistemological decision that not only is part of the process of defining the profession and its truth but also has political implications in the distribution of intellectual leadership, power, and status.

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  • Iversen, Roberta E. R., Kenneth J. Gergen, and Robert P. Fairbanks. 2005. Assessment and social construction: Conflict or co-creation?. British Journal of Social Work 35.5: 689–708.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bch200Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traditional social work assessment techniques emerged within the context of modernist empiricism and contain assumptions of objectivity, measurement accuracy, value neutrality, and scientific expertise. Within the context of postmodern constructionism, however, the authors suggest newer assessment practices.

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  • Martinez-Brawley, Emilia E. 1999. Social work, postmodernism, and higher education. International Social Work 42.3: 333–346.

    DOI: 10.1177/002087289904200307Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In order to truly value difference in higher education as elsewhere, first we must admit to multiple realities. In turn, “minority” language is transformed but not essentialized, and what were universal metaphors are replaced by indigenous narratives.

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  • Pardeck, John T., John W. Murphy, and Jung Min Choi. 1994. Some implications of postmodernism for social work practice. Social Work 39.4: 343–346.

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    Because postmodernism is a linguistic theory that proposes that the social world cannot be treated as an objective system, the authors recommend that practitioners should become aware of the way reality is linguistically constructed.

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  • Parton, Nigel. 2008. Changes in the form of knowledge in social work: From the “social” to the “informational”? British Journal of Social Work 38.2: 253–269.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcl337Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper considers the challenges of the new information and communication technologies and the shift from a narrative to a database way of thinking and practicing.

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  • Williams, Charmaine. 2006. The epistemology of cultural competence. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 87.2: 209–220.

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    What do we really know about cultural competence? Though the professional literature is replete with discussions on the topic, the definition of the concept, as well as how to operationalize, test, and apply it in social service settings, still fails to determine if cultural competence is a theory, model, paradigm, framework, or perspective.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/25/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195389678-0132

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