In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnicity

  • Introduction
  • Reference Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Aging
  • Crime and Justice
  • Families and Child Maltreatment
  • Health
  • Mental Health
  • Poverty
  • School Violence
  • Substance Abuse

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Social Work Ethnicity
Haluk Soydan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0049


Like social class, gender, and age, ethnicity defines the values, behavior patterns, and life styles acquired, held, and cherished by individuals, groups, and communities. The general categories of values, behavior patterns, and lifestyles break down to an almost infinite number of human dimensions, such as sex roles; relationships with peers of both sexes; sense of marriage; marital relations; child bearing, nutrition, and raising; adaptation to physiological changes; dealing with social, psychological, health, and mental health problems; and moral judgments. Social work as a profession of help, support, and empowerment of individuals, groups, and communities operates in a context of ethnic dimensions while aiming to impact the deficits they generate, partly or entirely. Social work research benefits from the findings of social anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists, and others, which helps social workers understand ethnic minority clients and their communities, and they can adopt such findings in their work and integrate them into social work practice models. Ethnically diverse populations may present multiple challenges, including language and communication, understanding and accepting ethnic differences between the client and the social worker, and understanding how to approach ethnically generated problems for unbiased and efficient interventions. One specific challenge is to understand whether a client’s problem is ethnically driven; many problems are generated by other categories, such as sense of belonging to a social class, migration situation (e.g., illegality, stigmatization, social exclusion), gender, and age. Reducing clients’ problems to ethnicity inaccurately could lead to false problem diagnosis and inappropriate intervention. The literature on ethnicity and social work addresses issues relevant to several research disciplines, including anthropology, ethnology, and sociology, as well as social work. Typically, the literature on ethnicity and social work treats a set of associated ethnic concepts, such as markers, identity, category, relations, conflicts, discrimination, and integration, and the ways in which such factors may condition social work with ethnically diverse populations. Understanding the role of ethnic markers such as religion, values, and traditions is pivotal to successful social work interventions because these markers define the essence of problems the clients present and the meaning they attribute to their problems, as well as influencing the clients to accept a diagnosis and the resulting, recommended interventions.

Introductory Works

Introductory works for social workers include some of the earlier literature in this field (Devore and Schlesinger 1996, Green 1995, Lum 1996, and Lynch and Hanson 1992). These books are the first ones not only to have reached social work reading lists but also to have described aspects of ethnicity crucial to social work practice, as well as the disadvantages generated by ethnic diversity and how they may be remedied. All of the above books provide generic, holistic models for ethnically sensitive social work practice. They may be read as supplementary works. Other introductory sources (Blitz and Pender Greene 2007, Constantine and Sue 2006, and Graham 2007) focus on experiences and needs of African American populations and provide tailored models to support social work interventions pertinent to these groups. Eriksen 2010 studies interconnection between ethnicity and nationalism. Husband 2015 explores the lack of social policy impact on ethnic relations.

  • Blitz, L. V., and M. Pender Greene, eds. 2007. Racism and racial identity: Reflections on urban practice in mental health and social services. New York: Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma.

    This useful reader examines various aspects of race and racism in therapeutic contexts.

  • Constantine, M. G., and D. Wing Sue, eds. 2006. Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and educational settings. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Written from a genuinely racial perspective, this book draws on the experience of peoples of color in the United States. Besides education, its focus is on racially associated limitations in mental health and related services. The book also provides a very useful antiracism strategy recommended for mental health professionals.

  • Devore, W., and E. G. Schlesinger. 1996. Ethnic-sensitive social work practice. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    This is the first-ever comprehensive book to provide a practice model for antidiscriminatory social work. Although the authors rightly take a broad perspective by using “culture” and “ethnicity” as key concepts, they are responding to racially driven discriminatory practices to which social work has been exposed. This book, even in our supposedly enlightened times, still provides a useful perspective for social workers.

  • Eriksen, T. H. 2010. Ethnicity and nationalism – Anthropological perspectives. 3d ed. London: Pluto.

    This book provides an analysis of how ethnicity is connected with nationalism. It is a great resource to understand the resurgence of nationalism worldwide as response to globalism and to globally shared values and patterns of behavior generated by Internet-based communications.

  • Graham, M. 2007. Black issues in social work and social care. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1t89855

    This book draws on earlier models of culturally sensitive social work but with a sharp focus on the experiences of black communities. The antidiscriminatory perspective advocated by the author extends to diverse areas of social work practice, including children and families, mental health, older adults, and clients with disabilities.

  • Green, J. W. 1995. Cultural awareness in the human services: A multi-ethnic approach. 2d ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    Green provides, similar to Devore and Schlesinger 1996, a comprehensive textbook with a social work model to support professionals in multiethnic, including multiracial, practice. This book focuses explicitly on social work interventions with populations of color.

  • Husband, C., ed. 2015. Research and policy in ethnic relations: Compromised dynamics in a neoliberal era. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

    Historically there has always been a gap between the research community and decision makers who are responsible for policies associated with ethnic populations. This book explores the dynamics of this gap and its long-term impact on ethnic populations’ conditions. Some observers of world conflicts relate origins of global problems to deficits of social policy.

  • Lum, D. 1996. Social work practice and people of color: A process stage model. 3d ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

    Lum provides a generic model for social work practice with minorities of color. His model is, however, adaptable to the specific characteristics of specific groups of color. This is a very useful textbook.

  • Lynch, E. W., and M. J. Hanson. 1992. Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

    This book is a reader. The model for a culturally competent social work is presented in a less detailed fashion than that of Lum 1996; the book is, however, distinctive in its focus on families of color with disabled children.

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