In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postmodernism and Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Terminology and Methodology
  • Social Work Education

Social Work Postmodernism and Social Work
Elizabeth Ann Danto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2017
  • 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.

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.

    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.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02252981

    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.

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