In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Competence and Ethnic Sensitive Practice

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Resources
  • Manuals and Guides
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Journals in Allied Disciplines
  • Origins and History
  • Ethics and Othering
  • Policy

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Social Work Cultural Competence and Ethnic Sensitive Practice
Sadye L.M. Logan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0060


Cultural competence, cultural sensitivity, multicultural or cultural responsiveness, and ethnic-sensitive practice are interrelated and interconnected concepts but are not necessarily exchangeable terms. Researchers and practitioners in the helping or caring professions view cultural competence and ethnic-sensitive practice as fundamental tenets of professional practice (see Introductory Works and Origins and History). In the social work profession, a cultural competence mandate is contained in both the Council on Social Work Education Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards and the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics and is also promoted in practice textbooks. The initial focus of social work scholarship was on racial and ethnic-sensitive practice as a way of addressing issues of dominance, oppression, racism, identity, difference, and justice. Cultural competence emerged as a practice concept in addressing the needs of individuals and groups from nonwhite racial and ethnic backgrounds. Over time, the term has evolved to encompass group differences pertaining to gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability, language, nationality, and other characteristics related to cultural background. As reflected in this entry, experience and knowledge about the complexity of being and becoming human is continually evolving. Further, the contextual nature of social work problems, practices, and interventions, as well as the intersectionality of heteropatriarchy (a framework that has conjoined heterosexuality, maleness, and power) and multiple axes of other forms of oppression, has expanded the traditional conception of cultural competence. Researchers concerned with implementation and outcomes and/or effective service delivery among culturally diverse groups and scholars from both national and international perspectives have critiqued the dominant cultural competence discourse (see Ethics and Othering and Critical Analysis of Concepts and Terms). Additionally, to further enhance this evolving narrative, specialty non–social work or related publications are increasing.

Introductory Works

Social work’s evolving emphasis on ethnic sensitivity and cultural competence was greatly influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The deficit-oriented perspective coupled with heteropatriarchal and Eurocentric biases in social work practice and education was challenged for a more inclusive orientation. This challenge led to the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE’s) adoption of standards for addressing race, racism, and people of color. The initial response for meeting CSWE’s mandate was Solomon 1977, a textbook on strategies for empowering African American communities. DeVore and Schlesinger 1981, the very popular and best-known text on ethnic perspective practice, followed. Written five years following DeVore and Schlesinger 1981, Lum 1986 is a text that provides a process approach to thinking about and working with people of color. Cross, et al. 1989 is viewed as pivotal in the cultural competence movement. Potocky 1997 provides a historical review of multicultural social work in the United States. Lum 1999 follows with a framework for addressing both self-awareness and skills development in developing cultural competence. With the exception of Lum 1986; Lum 1999; and Cross, et al. 1989, the primary focus of these introductory works is on race, ethnicity, and culture.

  • Cross, Terry L., Barbara J. Bazron, Karl W. Dennis, and Mareasa R. Isaacs. 1989. Toward a culturally competent system of care. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Child Development Center.

    This monograph was viewed as pivotal in defining a culturally competent system of care that acknowledges and incorporates the importance of culture, the assessment of cross-cultural relations, and vigilance toward the dynamics that result from cultural differences.

  • DeVore, Wynetta, and Elfriede G. Schlesinger. 1981. Ethnic-sensitive social work practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    This book was among the first attempts to integrate understanding of the impact of ethnicity, social class, and historically underrepresented groups with principles and strategies of social work practice.

  • Lum, Domain. 1986. Social work practice with people of color: A process-stage approach. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

    This book offers a practical and well-defined five-stage model of social work practice with culturally diverse communities. It specifically focuses on practice with persons of color but is intended to be relevant for culturally and ethnically sensitive practice with any individual or population.

  • Lum, Domain. 1999. Culturally competent practice: A framework for growth and action. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

    This text presents a model for understanding, measuring, and evaluating cultural competency. It is a practical, experiential approach with numerous exercises, which makes it an excellent choice for courses at all levels of social work.

  • Potocky, Miriam. 1997. Multicultural social work in the United States. International Social Work 40.3: 315–326.

    DOI: 10.1177/002087289704000307

    This article provides a review of the historical context in which multicultural social work developed in the United States and its current status and describes the need for an expanded approach to multicultural social work.

  • Solomon, Barbara. 1977. Black empowerment: Social work in oppressed communities. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    This book is a classic and was written to provide social workers and other caring professionals with effective strategies for working with clients in black communities to achieve personal and collective goals.

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