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Critical Social Work Theoretical Frameworks Social Work Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3807 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The essay shall explore and analyse the theoretical underpinnings and key elements of critical social work. The account shall then describe assessment in social work practice contexts and consider how critical social work theories like Marxism, Feminism, Radical Social work and Post Modernism have shaped practice. A range of values ranging from personal, professional, institutional, organisational or agency, political, religious and cultural inevitably feature and must be dealt with in practice. Over and above this lies the social justice, emancipatory agenda vehicle by anti-oppressive approaches. Empathy is required and the social worker must be in the clients’ shoes (Egan, 1998). Theoretical bases and approaches enable practitioners to cross social divides and be with the client in a supportive way in an accountable and ethical manner. Vast energy must be invested to dispel and challenge both the personal and the structural dominant forces of oppressive practices. The author shall attempt to demonstrate how theories have shaped the response approaches to service delivery and contributed to professional practice.

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Critical Social Work Theoretical Frameworks

The emergence of Socialism, Marxism, Liberalism and Conservativism shaped the emerging ‘social’ professions at the turn of the twentieth century totally and reshaped the manner in which life was understood. How the social, political, economic shaped that reality became core in conceptualising reality and the way humans reacted to the world around them. In most cases socially constructed realities could be explained through the material realities if one was to look at the world through a Marxist perspective. The 1960-70s interpretation of social problems, described as ‘the rediscovery of poverty’. Marxist principles understood the world as socially divided by class, rendering some classes more susceptible to poverty than others as economically determined by having no control of the means of production. Marxist theory locates class struggle as a means of redressing this kind of socio-economic imbalance and the inequality The core elements in this phase were modes of production and power, the equality that came with the package and the desire for change, social change could only be achieved through class struggle.

The human position could thus be understood as driven and controlled by the external, in this case the poor as the oppressed group desired change. Social work’s role involves working with people’s lives, social problems centred on poverty and disadvantage and the core business involves establishing balance, social stability and social justice. Intervention without challenging social exclusion, inequality and poverty has proved to be insufficient yet traditional social work pathologised the individual.

At the early phases social work was more about maintaining public order and suppressing civil unrest and class struggle rather than getting down to the core issues of poverty alleviation and challenging the sources and reasons for the differences that affected the people. Norms of behaviour and lifestyle for the people were determined by the eligibility criteria as the beneficiary elements of philanthropic interventions more than rights driven determinants.

Radical social work emerged to instil that it was in fact a political activity. Social work should be about supporting those in need, challenging inequality and social change, not social control dealing with material realities. With radical social work emerged the community element in social work, conscious raising approach, gradual incremental change in the process and oppositional activism. As the profession developed critical social work begins to understand oppressive forces and work to reconstruct power imbalances (Thompson, 2007; Dominelli, 1988; Braye and Preston-Shoot

Radical social work had been too minimalistic and was criticised for over focussing on class and paying no attention to other forms of inequalities. Bhatti- Sinclair (2011) argues that ‘social workers remain committed to human rights, ethics and values and continuously seek a sharper understanding of how to apply theoretical concepts found in universal humanitarian principles, professional ethics and national law, policy and procedure’. (xii) Inclusivity and citizenship are the main targets in critical social work practice as opposed to viewing people as collective groups (Glaister, 2008). Anti-oppressive practice thereby pursues social justice and challenges practice discrimination and oppression bluntly. Engagement with social reality must involve critiquing of social systems and structures, and set platforms for social change and difference. The approach has an ethical commitment to social justice by exposing inequalities and challenging unequal power dynamics in society. The manner in which society functions has structures that can either oppress or liberate some social groups. As the practitioner works, there is undoubtedly the challenge of professionally compliant.

Social Work Practice Approaches

Critical social work practice at all times engages with how other people on the other social, cultural, religious divide are understood by us. Understanding diversity and how personal views and values are located must be a constant reflective professional commitment. Personal or societal perceptions are shaped over time or driven by historical and socio-political realities/environments must be understood. Where stereotypes have been shaped over time in individuals; a professional operational base must be adopted. Braye, S & Preston-Shoot, M (2003) challenge hypocritical professionalism by arguing that personal values and attitudes will always be there, the issue is that they should not affect effective service delivery. This is the heart of critical social work practice; being able to transcend the personal and being a professional.

Social work can challenge or maintain status quo and that social workers are invested with power to care and control. In the context of what shall be discussed later about assessments, Braye & Preston-Shoot (2003) state that,

‘Preparation for and review of practice requires workers to understand themselves, their relationship with and impact on others, and their strengths and weaknesses in relation to maintaining a professional role’ (2003:135).

Respect is necessary both when working with service users and fellow colleagues. As explored in Thompson’s model – PCS, Social work must explore the personal, cultural and structural dimensions of discrimination, and how these come together, and can be challenged in different ways (Dominelli, 2009). Social work must not reinforce oppression, discrimination or any inequality. Social work can reinforce patriarchal and other oppressive systems and power relations.

There are social realities that social work either challenges reinforce, statistically ethnic minority groups generally experience higher rates of unemployment, live in poorer housing, have poorer health, lower levels of academic achievement, higher rates of exclusions from schools and are over-represented in prison statistics. Families who are from black and ethnic minority groups are more likely to be referred to children’s social work services, receive support services later, and children are more likely to go into the care system. There are other forms of prejudice, inequality and discrimination which can intersect, and these can affect people in many different ways. In light of these objective realities, what could be the drivers of such realities? What ideas are generated about the social group and how could this impact on a practitioner’s judgement when dealing with an individual from BME groups.

The same applies when working with Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, awareness of professional responsibility and a social justice approach when conducting an age assessment must be the practice base. The Human rights and child rights must be appropriately accorded without discrimination. Another example is that of mother blaming in a child protection cases. Feminist theory has challenged this gendered approach to problem solving where the female is mostly at the centre of the problem yet ignores the men from the social causal matrix. As a result of critical social work a shift has developed where the whole domestic environment and people must be part of the issue at hand. If all are not challenged this practice reinforces the interests of some groups over others and oppresses women.

Assessment Process

Middleton (1997) describes assessment as part of the planning agenda involving gathering and interpreting information in order to understand a person and their circumstances. It involves making judgements based on information. (Middleton, 1997:5). The process here involves respect for the individual’s values, their core identity and judgements are made without being judgemental. Selective and stereotypical considerations must be avoided, labelling and categorising people and overlooking their individuality and can allow elements of discrimination to permeate the process which must otherwise not be affected by individual values and perspectives. As argued by Clifford (1998) it is important that social workers check their individual biases and ensure that these do not affect the manner in which they undertake assessments.

In direct link with critical social work, assessments must be informed by critical theory to enhance a balanced, just and anti-oppressive assessment process. Personal views held by the social worker must not occupy any space in the assessment process for the sake of justice, fair access to services anti-discriminatory practice.

Parker and Bradley (2005) argue that a balanced approach of an assessment involves wisdom, skills, appreciation of diversity and systematically applied knowledge in direct practice. Service users must feel that they benefit from the assessment process for it to be effective (Addock, 2001) and the social worker and family members must collectively contribute to the process. This involvement enriches the process and eliminates subjective approaches to the assessment.

Social work practice and critical approaches intersect; the worker must be conscious of their personal beliefs and values and strike a responsible, ethical and professional balance in the manner the assessment and intervention is conducted and be honest and explicit with service users. (Parker & Bradley, 2005: 7). Extensive knowledge of the service user’s environmental and living systems and the wider systems that impinge on them must be key determinants in assessments (Parker & Bradley 2005:13) .Service user involvement is empowering and demonstrates citizenship and self driven responsibility as human worth.

Understanding power dynamics in assessments

Power relations inherent in the social work process must be carefully managed and ensure a balanced contributory approach whereby an exchange model would can adopted to acknowledge that the service users are experts of their situations. Service users and social workers exchange ideas, information and ways forward to make a difference and find alternative ways of approaching as collective partners (Parker & Bradley, 2005:14). In terms of skills this involves actively listening to service users being available for them, a professional and non-judgemental or non directive approach, straight and honest talk and social justice pursuit. (Parker & Bradley, 2005).

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Child centred assessments must be informed by child development theories, ecological approaches, ensuring equality of opportunity, involvement of families and an interagency approach ensures collective creative interventions. When working with unaccompanied asylum seeking children for example, Culturegrams help in analysing the impact of culture in the lives of those individuals and families being assessed (Parker & Bradley, 2005:50-53). This can be very useful when working with BME groups as well as refugees and asylum seekers in a broader context. Values of the families and individuals are explored and these help shape the nature of the intervention where the individual shapes the course of the intervention as opposed to it being driven by the powerful professionals.

Multiculturalism and social work

Multiculturalism is a 21st Century challenge as citizenship recognition and integration a modern society characteristic. Critical multiculturalism suggests that social workers need to intellectually engage with the issues of difference and citizenship, in a manner that detaches practice from monoculturalist norms’ (Powell, 2001:146). Social workers are practically challenged to interrogate the value assumptions of their approach and assess principles and values they use in practice. ‘If social workers are to avoid narrative repression, they need to be capable of challenging discursive hierarchies of meaning in their practice’. (Powell, 2001:146). This becomes the reflexive component in the intervention. This involves challenging the very systems that they use and lobby for the change in structural elements that could be oppressing the very people they would be working with.

Feminist social work engages in redressing gender inequalities, this could be the mother blaming attitude that it challenges. Critical social work engages a need for awareness by practitioners, a transformation of cultural attitudes around race relations, gay rights and the relationship between sexuality, culture and power and of the need for anti-discriminatory practice (Powell, 2001:149). In order to meet the professional demands of the profession, social workers must seek guidance and close the gap between personal values and professional practice. This must make constant reference to human rights, equality, discrimination and racism (Bhatti- Sinclair, 2011). Fook (2000) argues that expert critical social workers are able to create critical knowledge which challenges and resists all forms of domination.

Anti-racist practice

Dominelli (2008) points out that anti-racist practice beyond that presented in Thompson’s (2007) PCS model by emphasising on its interactional nature. For Dominelli (2008) racism is a multidimensional form of oppression over and above discrimination Institutional and Cultural racism are structurally associated and viewed as less evil than the personal racism which society frowns upon, yet the is no better racism. If practitioners hand over responsibility of BME issues to BME staff this may be problematic as it may result in a lack of obligation by white social workers to anti-racist practice and reinforce difference. Institutional practices must be professionally compliant (Bhatti- Sinclair, 2011:128) at their own level.

Treatment of black families/children hits them every day and there are challenges that the social workers have to deal with in the face of these ingrained stereotypical views of the good white family and the bad black family. Dominelli (2008) argues that ‘challenging how white people perceive black families is only possible within positive trusting relationships. Nomadic settlers fall into the same category where as the minority ethnic groups where stereotypical assumptions exist that can influence the social work process.

To work with individuals on the autistic spectrum requires knowledge and understanding of autism. Knowledge of the condition’s characteristics, the basic understanding of the triad of impairments is necessary for use in the social work process. The individuals must not be viewed as unwilling to engage due their limited social interaction skills but must be understood and appropriate communication systems used. For example, instead of talking through an assessment; picture boards, games of their interest, familiar environments and using their preferred mode of communication would help to involve them, engage them and remove a possible stereotypical view that they cannot make decisions. If this process does not involve them, the likelihood is that anti-oppressive practice would have been failed. Good practice recognises individuality and this permeates through the social work process.

Assessment process in practice

The author’s work experience with a forty year old autistic man in Coventry stands as a unique example of the complexity of service user involvement and creativity aimed at raising the level of positive outcomes in reviewing a care plan. The only established access point for his contributions was when he was away from home, on the bus. During any travel by bus, he livened up and opened up, expressed his views about the service he was receiving and it was the best time to evaluate the support care plan, conversationally in a bus. Working around the individual’s world helped the social care provider to reach out to the very important needs that an office based assessment could not achieve. The bus environment had no powerful/powerless unequal binary dynamic in it. It was his comfort zone. Failure to recognise individual likes, obsessions and sensory issues in autistic individuals can hinders the social work process. Effective assessments can only be achievable when the service user is located at the centre of the process by use of approaches that promote social change and justice.

Challenging discrimination in practice

Children are often described as vulnerable, innocent, in need of protection and lacking experience. If not carefully approached the child may be sidelined from the assessment process and overshadowed by adult ideas. If it is around abuse in the home, it is the child’s experience and not the adult’s experience that must take precedence with the child as the expert. The Lamming Report emphasised the need to see the world ‘through the eyes of the child’. The role of the social worker in practice is to challenge discrimination, exclusion of socially excluded groups like children. Children have been looked at as subjects and the critical approach locates them as able to shape and voice. Failure to recognise children and the social worker’s relatively powerful position practitioners reinforce oppression. The critical practitioner ‘engages service users to facilitate the telling of their stories’ in the assessment process.

Law is used to counter oppressive practice and sets out operational parameters for professionals to deal with racism and be aware that discrimination is unlawful (Race relations Act 1976 & Equality Act 2006, Bhatti- Sinclair, 2011).To overcome the practice challenge, social workers have looked up to anti-racist advocates for guidance on methods and models which respond ethically, effectively and efficiently to daily challenges and dilemmas (Bhatti- Sinclair, 2011).

Training and existing regulatory bodies like the HCPC enable practice to be justice based by requiring professionalism by the workforce through compliance and guidance. The Professional capabilities Framework requires the worker to ‘Recognise and manage the impact on people of the power invested in your role’ (PCF 33) and standards of proficiency calls on the need to ‘recognise the power dynamics in relationships with service users and carers and be able to manage those dynamics appropriately’ (SoPS 2.8). Formalised assessments aid in injecting consistency Crisp et al (2005) argues that the absence of a formalised assessment framework results in subjective assessments. Professionally trained and skilled workers enhance a fair assessment. Assessments must not just look at behaviour, but also the cause of the behaviour in a holistic way in order to make correct judgements and this is achieved through service user participation in the process. Milner & Byrne, (2002) postulate that the assessment there is need for mapping before planning the assessment journey. This involves knowing the child, engaging them and drawing their strengths in order to shape appropriate support (Dominelli & Payne, 2002).


Effective anti-racist, anti-oppressive practice must be drawn from practice intelligence, applied research and service users involvement. Empowering practice has an involvement and integration component as opposed to exclusion practice approaches by lack of appropriate language and culture awareness (Bhatti- Sinclair, 2011).Structurally, well planned and coordinated assessments and interventions involve the service user and must respond sensitively to their needs.

Awareness of our own prejudices and past experiences and ideas must be non-threatening to clients (Lindsay, 2010) .Interactive polarisation between the social worker and client can undermine social work effectiveness whereupon families and individuals are pathologised either as unreachable or resistant. Positive communication enhances the relationship building (Kaprowska 2010:5) which is the key to an accurate assessment.

Individuals with disabilities often argue that social workers’ assessments of them emphasise more on impairment and less on being seen as human, instead assessments must explore their individual abilities. In addition when working with individuals who use minority languages it can become a barrier for an accurate assessment hence the need to plan assessments for these individuals with full awareness of this key communication element in order to ensure the service user’s involvement. This could be necessitated by translators or minority language speaking social workers. Similarly, when working with the elderly, assessments must detect abilities and not reinforce ageist stereotypes, shared power and agreed direction principle.


The concept of critical practice locates the social worker as an active participant in a process of interpreting and understanding relationships and communication that must cut across difference. Over and above assumptions, prejudices, personal beliefs, structural frameworks; the critical practitioner must be reflexive and engaged in an empowering way whilst being aware of personal and socio-cultural origins and belief systems and challenging all forms of oppression. Appropriate skills and knowledge must be incorporated for the social work process to be effective.


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