Postmodernism and Social Work
- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0132
- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0132
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chambon, Adrienne, and Allan Irving, eds. 1994. Essays on postmodernism and social work. Toronto: Canadian Scholars.
An edition that focuses on contemporary research in narrative and discursive constructions within the client-worker dialogue and in policy texts.
Chambon, Adrienne, Allan Irving, and Laura Epstein, eds. 1989. Reading Foucault for social workers. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Michel Foucault’s contribution to interrelated debates about knowledge, power, domination, normalization, and social practice.
Fook, Jan. 2002. Social work: Critical theory and practice. London: SAGE.
An engaging overall introduction to the concepts of postmodern and critical social work, with exercises.
Freud, Sophie. 1994. The social construction of gender. Journal of Adult Development 1.1: 37–45.
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.
Gergen, Kenneth. 2001. Social construction in context. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Social constructionism chiefly is a practical, conceptual, and ideological tool that functions differently within particular practice contexts.
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.
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.
Payne, Malcolm. 2008. Modern social work theory. 3d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Adolescent Depression
- Adolescent Pregnancy
- Adoption Home Study Assessments
- Adult Protective Services in the United States
- African Americans
- Aging, Physical Health and
- Alcohol and Drug Abuse Problems
- Alcohol and Drug Problems, Prevention of Adolescent and Yo...
- Alcohol Problems: Practice Interventions
- Alcohol Use Disorder
- Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias
- Anti-Oppressive Practice
- Asian Americans
- Asian-American Youth
- Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Baccalaureate Social Workers
- Behavioral Health
- Behavioral Social Work Practice
- Bereavement Practice
- Brief Therapies in Social Work: Task-Centered Model and So...
- Bullying and Social Work Intervention
- Canadian Social Welfare, History of
- Case Management in Mental Health in the United States
- Child Poverty
- Child Welfare
- Child Welfare and Child Protection in Europe, History of
- Children of Incarcerated Parents
- Chronic Illness
- Clinical Social Work Practice with Adult Lesbians
- Cognitive Behavior Therapies with Diverse and Stressed Pop...
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- Community Development
- Community Policing
- Community-Based Participatory Research
- Community-Needs Assessment
- Comparative Social Work
- Conflict Resolution
- Council on Social Work Education
- Counseling Female Offenders
- Criminal Justice
- Crisis Interventions
- Cultural Competence and Ethnic Sensitive Practice
- Culture, Ethnicity, Substance Use, and Substance Use Disor...
- Dementia Care, Ethical Aspects of
- Depression and Cancer
- Development and Infancy (Birth to Age Three)
- Direct Practice in Social Work
- Domestic Violence Among Immigrants
- Eating Disorders
- Ecological Framework
- Economic Evaluation
- Elder Mistreatment
- End-of-Life Decisions
- Epigenetics for Social Workers
- Ethics and Values in Social Work
- Evidence-based Social Work Practice
- Evidence-based Social Work Practice: Finding Evidence
- Evidence-based Social Work Practice: Issues, Controversies...
- Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs
- Families with Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Parents
- Family Caregiving
- Family Group Conferencing
- Family Policy
- Family Services
- Family Therapy
- Family Violence
- Fathering Among Families Served By Child Welfare
- Field Education
- Financing Health-Care Delivery in the United States
- Forensic Social Work
- Foster Care
- Gay Men
- Generalist Practice and Advanced Generalist Practice
- Group Work
- Group Work across Populations, Challenges, and Settings
- Group Work, Research, Best Practices, and Evidence-based
- Harm Reduction
- Health Care Reform
- Health Disparities
- Health Social Work
- History of Social Work and Social Welfare, 1950-1980
- History of Social Work from 1980-2014
- History of Social Work in China
- History of Social Work in Northern Ireland
- History of Social Work in the Republic of Ireland
- History of Social Work in the United Kingdom
- HIV/AIDS Prevention with Adolescents
- Homelessness Outside the United States
- Human Needs
- Human Trafficking, Victims of
- Immigrant Policy in the United States
- Immigrants and Refugees
- Immigrants and Refugees: Evidence-based Social Work Practi...
- Impaired Professionals
- Implementation Science and Practice
- Individual Placement and Support (IPS) Supported Employmen...
- International Social Welfare
- International Social Work
- International Social Work and Education
- International Social Work and Social Welfare in Southern A...
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Intervention with Traumatized Populations
- Intimate Partner Violence
- Juvenile Justice
- Korean Americans
- Latinos and Latinas
- Law, Social Work and the
- Life Span
- Major Depressive Disorder
- Management and Administration in Social Work
- Maternal Mental Health
- Measurement, Scales, and Indices
- Medical Illness
- Men: Health and Mental Health Care
- Mental Health
- Mental Health Diagnosis and the Addictive Substance Disord...
- Mental Health Needs of Older People, Assessing the
- Mental Illness: Children
- Middle East and North Africa, International Social Work an...
- Military Social Work
- Mixed Methods Research
- Motivational Interviewing
- Native Americans
- Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders
- Neighborhood Social Cohesion
- Neuroscience and Social Work
- Nicotine Dependence
- Occupational Social Work
- Organizational Development and Change
- Pain Management
- Palliative Care
- Parent Training
- Philosophy of Science and Social Work
- Physical Disabilities
- Police Social Work
- Positive Youth Development
- Postmodernism and Social Work
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Practice Interventions and Aging
- Practice Interventions with Adolescents
- Practice Research
- Productive Engagement of Older Adults
- Profession, Social Work
- Psychiatric Rehabilitation
- Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Theory
- Psychopathology and Social Work Practice
- Psychopharmacology and Social Work Practice
- Psychosocial Framework
- Psychosocial Intervention with Women
- Qualitative Research
- Race and Racism
- Religiously Affiliated Agencies
- Reproductive Health
- Research Ethics
- Restorative Justice
- Risk Assessment in Child Protection Services
- Risk Management in Social Work
- Rural Social Work Practice
- School Social Work
- School Violence
- School-Based Delinquency Prevention
- Services and Programs for Pregnant and Parenting Youth
- Severe and Persistent Mental Illness: Adults
- Sexual Assault
- Single-System Research Designs
- Social Development
- Social Insurance and Social Justice
- Social Justice and Social Work
- Social Movements
- Social Planning
- Social Policy
- Social Security in the United States (OASDHI)
- Social Work Education and Research
- Social Work Regulation
- Social Work Research Methods
- Solution-Focused Therapy
- Strategic Planning
- Strengths Perspective
- Strengths-Based Models in Social Work
- Survey Research
- Systematic Review Methods
- Task-Centered Practice
- Transdisciplinary Science
- Translational Science and Social Work
- United States, History of Social Welfare in the
- Veteran Services
- Victim Services
- Welfare State Reform in France
- Welfare State Theory
- Women and Macro Social Work Practice
- Women's Health Care
- Work and Family in the German Welfare State
- Working with Non-Voluntary and Mandated Clients
- Young and Adolescent Lesbians
- Youth at Risk
- Youth Services