First of all, social work theory is defined as “an explanatory framework,” the accumulation of knowledge, ideas, skills and beliefs social workers draw upon to help to make sense of what social work is and how to do it. (Oko, 2008: pp.6) In other words, theory in social work helps to organise and structure the world we live in and help us to make sense. Particularly this is important when dealing with service users. Vulnerable people are those in need and under stress who often lost control under their lives. Therefore, it is critical to assist them in explaining reality to make sense of what is going on and why. Not being able to understand reality is stressful for both service user and practitioner. (Howe: 2009). Beckett (2006: pp.33) defines social work theory “as a set of ideas or principles to guide practice.” The definition stresses the importance of how theory informs practice leading to assessment and intervention. This is supported by Teater (2010: pp.1) who hold the view that “theories help to predict, explain and assess situations and behaviours and provide a rationale for how social workers should react and intervene with clients who have particular histories, problems or goals.” It is worth pointing out that theory to be right has to explain the situation and provides us to solution. However, different types of theory can be used differently in the wide spectrum of intervention. Alternative theories can lead to a different process of understanding, assessing and intervention. It is essential therefore to analyse and adapt theory all the time. (Teater: 2010) Howe (2011) similarly refers to theory as a guide that influence practice in five key area such as observation, description, explanation, prediction and intervention. According to Howe (2011), social workers must answer a serious of question to understand complexity of the situation and to see pattern. Firstly, social workers have to define problems and identify needs of the service users. Secondly, make sense of what is going on by analysing and assessing situation. Thirdly, set out goals, and make action plan. Fourthly, assess available resources, skills and methods that will be utilised in social work process. Finally, review and evaluated the whole process.
The origins of social work theory can be traced back to the early nineteenth century and are strongly embedded within the Industrial Revolution and development of social sciences. (Howe: 2009) The age of Enlightenment was very tough and disruptive period follow by the Scientific Revolution and rapid industrialisation. Migration of people, high degree of destitution, crime and poverty forced to change. Significant attempts were made to utilise developing social sciences such as psychology, sociology and economy to improve social and political conditions of society. (Howe: 2009) The work of Wilson et al. (2008) emphasises the importance of formation the Charity Organisation Society (COS) in the 1869 as the date from which social work as a recognise practice began. It has been suggested that social work originated by the COS resulted in creation a social work theory as a response to “social disadvantage and unrest”. (Wilson et al. 2008: pp.50)
The above explanation the origins of social work theory lead to justification why social work theory is contested. Social work theory has explored all types of knowledge and experience in its attempt to understand relations within society and help people. The work of Maclean and Harrison suggested that “no single theory can explain everything. An eclectic approach is usually required.” (2011: p.15) The statement means there is no dominant theory in social work practice. People their relationships and interactions are complex, consequently social work theories must derive from different sources discipline to explain human behaviour, position in society, relationships within psychological, social, economical and political context. This agrees with the view of Payne (2005: 44) who refers to “borrow knowledge” in social work practice. Oko (2008: p.7) draws attention to “social constructionism” and “fluidity” as a view of social work where everything can changed depends on context, time, legislation, policies and different expectations about people’s behaviour. Social work theory is contested because embrace a variety of different practice setting, with different groups of service users as well as working pattern and constantly changing context of policies and directives. When discussing types of social work theory, it is important to recognise that those can be seen at three different levels; theories of what social work is about, how to do social work and theories of service user world. (Payne: 2005, p.6) The first statement apply to grand theories, these are orthodox theories that seek to explain society as a whole. It is important to mention that there are three main sources of social work theory such as psychology, sociology and systemic. (Howe: 2011) However, social work theory also derive from other discipline such as philosophy, law, medicine, social policy etc. (Howe: 2009) An example of grand theories are psychoanalytic theory, behaviourism, systems theory, humanism, Marxism and Feminism. (Wilson et al. 2008) The other group are mid-range, theories that Wilson et al. (2008: p.107) called “practice theories” these indicate the methods of intervention and are the result of the contribution of grand theoretical perspective with practice experience. The last but not least, are informal theories, use to explain individual cases or behaviour. Informal theory is the practitioner’s own ideas about a situation based on personal and professional experiences. Wilson et al. (2008) refers to practice wisdom, self-awareness, intuition, not knowing and personal experience as issues related to informal knowledge. Whereas, Beckett (2006: p.185) discusses informal theory as “common sense”.
This section of the essay will examine radical social work theory and empowerment paying special attention to the factors such as professional and political contributors. By the 1960s, more attention was beginning to be paid to the social consequences of capitalism. Capitalism started to be seen as the economic order of an unequal and unfair society shaped by psychodynamic theory especially casework. (Howe: 2009) First strong critical view of the social and personal effect of capitalism and the economic structures became known as Marxism or radical social work. The origins of radical social work date back to 1970s to the Case Con manifesto. (Wilson et al. 2008) People like Karl Marx, Beatrice Webb or Octavia Hill radically questioned existing structures that caused poverty and deprivation. (Howe: 2009). Radicals expressed necessity to work with people within a wide socio-political context and not in isolation. (Wilson: 2008) Ideology of Marxism has had immense impact on social work theory as a result created collectivism, empowerment, anti-oppressive and critical theory. These lead to development of “practice method” with service user such as, anti-oppressive practice, advocacy, welfare rights, service user involvement, radical casework and community development. (Wilson: 2008: p. 107) It is clear that on the grounds of radical theory grew up the idea of empowerment. The concept was developed based on the critique that services provided often contributing to service user sense of powerlessness and lack of choice. Empowerment is about the service users having choice and control over own life. It promotes a way of working with service users based on equality and partnership.
There is no doubt that social work is deeply rooted and shaped by socio-political context. (Wilson et al. 2008) Horner (2009: p.3) rightly points out that “good practice is not a ‘truth’, but is a function of political, moral and economic trends and fashion.” Currently, it has been suggested that the “space” for practicing in an ethical and empowering manner have been progressively limited by the managerial, budget-driven polices of the last few years. (Ferguson & Woodward, 2011: p.15) Social workers still work with service users but normally in the conditions that do not depend on them. The constraints often lead to excessive caseload, lack of resources as well as lack of support, supervision and unfilled vacancies. Professional work setting can limited creative use of theories by imposing favourite well know theories, as a consequence of managerial and bureaucratic agenda. Managerialism and bureaucratisation seems to be a potential danger for contemporary social work theory and critical reflection. Meeting deadlines, filling in forms, standardised and integrated assessment framework are crucial nowadays. It looks like humanity has been lost in paperwork and one size fits all approach. In addition, issues are trivialized by media and political hostile approach to social work. (Ferguson & Woodward: 2011) This can be clearly seen when a tragedy happens such as the death of the child in care then the response is often a blaming one “bloody social” worker instead of wider social and political context. (Thompson: 2009) An illustration of this can be a case of Victoria Climbié and the social worker who was working on this case Lisa Arthurworrey. (The guardian: 2007)
When discussing political influences it is important to recognise that the publication of the Kilbrandon and Seebohm Reports are a matter of the relationship between social work and politics. It is clear that these documents and the follow legislation “lodged social work firmly within the state sector” with the voluntary sector as supplementary. (Ferguson & Woodward, 2011: p.57) Since then social work has been driven to a different degree by politics, professionals, central government and administration. The subsequent evidence of political influences can be observed in a case of Clement Attlee and Jacqui Smith, politicians who have affected contemporary social work. Clement Attlee former Labour Prime Minister has seen social workers as activists. In his understanding social workers should “..work in non-oppressive way…challenge polices and structural inequalities..” (Ferguson & Woodward, 2011: p.15) The statement shows political influences of radical tradition such as to be critically reflective, willing to change the system not the service users. It also identifies the empowerment theory and anti-discriminatory practice in working with service user. In contrast to this, Jacqui Smith, the former Minister for Health argued that “social work is a very practical job….. not about being able to give a fluent and theoretical explanation” of reasons and causes of problems. (Horner, 2009: p.3) Smith claimed that new social work degree courses had to focus on practical training. The above is an excellent example of political influences social work has to deal with. Surely, Jacqui Smith was right practical abilities are critical in social work practice but on the other hand, she has decreased the value of theoretical issues that are equally important. Only through explanation of service users world a social worker empower the individual, make sense of his/her reality, by understanding the situation service user can take control over own life. The next important point when discussing political influences are devolved administrations that shape the politics of social services (Drakeford: 2011) The actions of central government shape the terms and the capacity of social work services but the delivery of those provisions lies within local authorities. This is seen as another example of relationship between social work services and wider political and organisational context.
This part of the essay attempts to show the prospects of discrimination and empowerment in social work. It is worth pointing out that in the new global economy, neo-liberalism has become a central issue for radical social work practice. In the UK, neo-liberal policies have resulted in creating an unequal society where the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. (Ferguson & Woodward 2011) Neo-liberal approaches such as consumerism and marketism, undermine social work values and relationships with service users as well as limit possibilities for critical and creative practice. An example of this are the differences and dilemmas in terminology between patients, clients, service users and users of service that reflect on the way practitioners think and relate to people. A strong critique is presented by Ferguson and Woodward (2011) who blamed the management of social work for being too willing to decrease values base and increase managerial agenda. The authors also argue that nowadays too many social workers present authoritarian role in relation to service users treating them like objects rather than subjects. In relation to discrimination, radical social work theory direct social workers to work as agents of social control by helping people to understand their situation and unfairness as well as why and how it was created. In other words, social workers are raising people’s political and social awareness; consequently, people are able to recover power and control over their lives. Discrimination in social work, from radical point of view can be viewed through social policy, identification of service user needs, allocation and accessibility of resources. Therefore, it is important to recognise respect of rights, responsibilities and opportunities as main issues of anti discriminatory practice. Social workers can be discriminative because they have a power and control over people’s lives. That is why, they have to exercise them with awareness, thought and sensitivity. (Howe, 2009: p. 146) The concept is supported by Backett (2006: p.186) who suggests that “common sense” which is often used by practitioners in theories, “tends to incorporate the prejudices and assumptions of a particular time” and can be insufficiently used especially by social workers with little personal experience. Practitioners bring into social work practice and theory their own beliefs, values, histories, culture experiences and biases. Judged by these criteria, it is clear, that social workers must be critical and self-reflective. It seems to be a matter to understand that we do not live in equal society. Oppression is deeply rooted in the process of our socialisation. If social workers want to work in anti-discriminatory way they need to develop confidence and skills in exploring the way oppression operates in society. This is supported by Thompson (2009) who argues that empowerment in social work is something more than process of gaining control over service user’s life but is about taking account of discrimination and oppression at the first place. Social work theory can assist practitioners by guiding and explaining the models of oppression. This is necessary in order to support service users to understand and tackle the oppression they may face. An example of this is PCS model presented by Thompson. (2009: pp. 144) The model has been designed to express how our personal prejudices are strongly embedded within cultural influences and structural power. The PCS model operates at three levels such as personal, cultural and structural. Personal refers to individual oppression thoughts and attitudes as well as psychological factors. This can also refers to prejudice and personal views of social workers. Cultural explores the way that groups, based on commonly agreed values, define what is “normal”. Empowerment in this case will include challenging stereotypes. Structural level refers to oppression within wider socio political climate and social power and refers to the way differences are viewed by society such as class, race, gander etc… (Maclean and Harrison: 2011) It is worth pointing out that to treat everyone the same is not to treat everyone equally. Dominelli (1997, pp. 31) draws attention to “colour blind” approach based on false premise that everyone is the same. The potential discrimination when using theories can be “recommended theories” on the grounds of their effectiveness with similar case. Social workers when using theories must take into consideration that everyone is different, has different experiences, needs, problems. They have to be reflective and work against one size fits all approach. It is important not only to assess needs but also to consider differences. The intervention in people’s lives without taking account of key issues such as age, disability, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation can do more harm than good. (Thomson, 2011: p106) Form this perspective social work is a part of emancipatory project promoting social equality and social justice among people who are marginalised or disadvantages. Croft and Beresford (2005) noted that empowerment has potential to “be both regulatory and liberatory”, it brings about social change based on collective obligation to the individual. Therefore, empowerment is often used as part of discourse of individual rights and responsibilities. (Oko: 2008) It is more than “enabling” is helping service users to become better equipped to deal with the problems and challenges they face. (Thomson: 2009) It is worth noting that empowerment is not about transferring power from social worker to service user this can be very disempowering as well can cause addiction to social work services. Another potential danger in utilising empowerment theory is seeing service users as weak and vulnerable rather than experts who require support to address the needs and achieve goals. (Maclean & Harrison: 2011) Wilson et al. (2008: p. 81) argues that people are “own agents” with not only rights but also the capacity to make choice and decision. Empowerment theory in contemporary practice can be seen by not only having a voice but also having an advocate; informing about services available in relation to needs, supporting in developing skills such as parental skills, information technology etc. The aim of empowerment is to increase self-esteem of service users, currently this is carried out by putting in place self-directed support and personalisation programmes.
The last section of this essay assesses how perception of theory can support to be a more effective practitioner. As presented earlier theories outline explanatory framework for helping to make sense of the situation as well as shape our thinking (Oko: 2008) In other words, theories represent organised ideas and beliefs that guide social workers thinking and practice. Doel (2012: p135) compare theory and practice to “a cup of oil and a cup of vinegar” which shaked mix for a while and separate out. Theory is necessary, in order to gain control over the situation. It not only explains the situation, from a different perspective but provide guidance about what to do with these explanations. (Doel: 2012) Theory to be useful has to be constantly verified and updated. The relationship between theory and practice can be build upon IBL so “issue based approach to learn” (Oko: p. 99). The approach inspires social workers to think about what has been learned and how this new knowledge, experience or skill can be assimilated and utilised in practice. There is no doubt that values base, skills and knowledge facilitate personal and professional development. This is a key of being a critically reflective practitioner. A good understanding of the different theories can guide practice and create effective and successful intervention. Theory makes sense of the situation and creates ideas about why things are as they are. It not only shows the direction of intervention but also explain service users behaviour and actions. Theory can indicate why an action has resulted in a specific behaviour, it also helps to see patterns. Consequently, social workers may get to know the issues affecting service user lives. Another argument for using theories is that its assist social workers to be more confident and better prepare to critique of their point of view. It is vital to be able to justify the decisions made in social work practice. Using theories give social workers a backup to justify actions and explain working practice to service users, managers, other professionals or themselves. This justification of actions on the grounds of theories leads to greater accountability. An example of this can be assessments or reports both are professional papers that look for evidence and not unjustified judgements based on common sense. When working with service user, empowerment theory can be utilised by building positive self-esteem and focus on strength and potential of service users rather than problems and difficulties. It is essential to attempt to work in partnership and collaboration with service users. Radical social theory in practice can be seen as attempt to change system to fit to service user rather than change service user to fit the system. It is important to acknowledge that even if theory seems to match to a service user, it does not always mean that this is the right understanding of service users life. Even if theory appears to work, social workers still need to stay open minded and continue the process of being critically reflective. Social work practice is part of a process of evidence making where issues have to be constantly verified and checked out in the light of new circumstances or information. As mentioned before “no single theory can explain everything”. (Maclean & Harrison: p 15) Different approaches in social work practice are needed to suit different circumstances. As a qualified social worker, having in a depth knowledge of theories will assist me to be a reflective and critical practitioner, open to a greater degree to the needs of service users. Deeply and accurately consider all facts and issues and not taking anything at face value. Instead, one must remember to always probe beneath the surface in looking for a right answer.