Postffibdernilnd Constructionist Approaches to Social Worl

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Approaches to Social Worl( Nigel Parton
It is only in very recent years that postmodern and social constructionist perspecmt
tives have been drawn upon to think about, analyse and directly contribute to social
work practice (see, for example, Howe, 1994; Parton 1994; Hall, 1997; Leonard,
1997; Meinert et al., 1998; Chambon et al., 1999; Jokinen et a!’, 1999; Pease and
Fook, 1999; Fawcett et al., 2000; Healy, 2000; Parton and O’Byrne, 2000; Taylor
and White, 2000). In many respects, the starting point has been the recognition
that social work has recently been experiencing a major period of change ,lIld
uncertainty in its organisation and day-to-day practice such that it seems qualitaand
tively different from what went before, tlms requiring new skills and new ti:)fJns of
knowledge in order to practise. Social work’s engagement wim postmodern ,md
constructionist perspectives is a recognition that these changes and experiences are
not particular to social work but reflect much wider transtormations in Western
societies and have been the subject of considerable and often heated debate within
social theory. More particularly, the significance of postmodern perspectives is that
they draw attention to a number of areas of social transformation in terms of
” the increasing pace of change;
• me emergence of new complexities and forms of fragmentation;
• the growing significance of difference, plurality and various political
movements and strategies, and me pervasive awareness of relativities;
,. me opening up of individual ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’; and
~ the increasing awareness of me socially constructed nature of existence.
238 SOCIAL WORK: THEMES, ISSUES AND CRITICAL DEBATES Perhaps most centrally, such perspectives have reactivated a question which has
lain dormant in social theory for many years but which touches the heart of much
social work – what kinds of human being have we become (Rose, 1996)?
At the outset, however, it is important to recognise that the term
‘postmodern’ has been hotly contested so that it is almost impossible to impose,
by definitional fiat, an agreed set of terms for the debates (Turner, 1990). While
the primary concern is to consider how far and in what ways ‘current times’ are
diHerent tram what went before, a number of commentators have argued that it
is inappropriate to periodise history in this way (Heelas et aI., 1996), that the
changes and breaks have been exaggerated (Clark, 1996) and that, rather than
characterise the present in terms of the postmodern, it is hetter characterised as
high or late modern (Giddens, 1990,1991). It is tor this reason that I have
previously very consciously used parenthesis for the ‘(post)modern’, pointing to a
provisional and somewhat sceptical use of the term (Parton, 1994b), and have
more recently argued that postmodern interpretations are in danger ofnot taking
the situation of actually living human actors sufficiently seriously (Parton, 1998).
Even so, the debates provide an important vehicle for developing our insights
into the nature of the contemporary complexities, uncertainties and experiences,
and tor opening up new and creative ways of thinking and acting.
Certainly, reference to the postmodern is much older than the recent fashion
in social theory might suggest and in art history and aesthetic theory goes hack
many years (Featherstone, 1988). The term ‘postmodernism’ was first used in the
1930s but became increasingly used in the areas ofJiterature, architecture, philosophy
and the arts more generally trom the 1960s onwards (Turner, 1990; Smart,
1999). The perspective came to particular prominence with the publication of
Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition in 1984. While perhaps ‘postmodern’
perspectives are united by a number of cultural projects which claim a commitment
to heterogeneity, fragmentation and difference, it is perhaps their critiques
of modernity which have proved most influential hut contentious.
Modernity as a summary term is seen to refer to the cluster of social, economic
and political systems which emerged in the West with the Enlightenment in the
late eighteenth century. Unlike the premodern, modernity assumed that human
order is neither natural nor God-given, but is vulnerable and contingent.
However, by the development and application of science, nature could he subject
to human control. The distinguishing features of modernity are seen to be: the
understanding of history as having a definite and progressive direction; the
attempt to develop universal categories of experience; the idea that reason can
provide a basis tor all activities and that the nation state could coordinate and
advance such developments for the whole society. The guiding principle of
modernity is the search to establish reliable foundations for knowledge. It aims tu
identity central truths about the world but also assumes that truth does not reside
on the surface of things but is hidden by appearances. The two crucial elements of
modernity in the post-Enlightenment period were thus seen as the progressive
union ofscientific objectivity and politico-economic rationality (Parton, 1994b).
In the modern ‘trame’ the goal is to produce knowledge about a chosen aspect
of the physical or social world by which we can claim greater certainty. At that
point we can confer a sense of truth about that knowledge, and also canter on the
people producing knowledge (tor example scientists or protessionals) the status
of holder-of-truth and expert about that aspect of the world. In short, the
modernist equation is:
external reality – objective knowledge – certainty abotlt that knowledge – claim to
truth – expert statusgiven to holder-oj-trtlthlknowledge. Modernist truth is indeed
bound to certainty, external reality and objective knowledge tl:X modernism both
relies on (and produces) a clear splitting of the subject who wants to know and the
object which is being observed for knowledge and truth. (Flaskas, 1997: 5,
original emphasis)
Increasingly, however, there is a recognition that we now inhabit a world which
has become disorientated, disturbed and subject to doubt. The pursuit of order
and control, the promotion of calculability, belief in progress, science and
rationality and other features which were so intrinsic to modernity are being
undermined by a simultaneous range of unsettling conditions and experiences. In
part this is related to the major social, economic and cultural transtormations that
have characterised recent times in terms of:
1I the increasing signitIcance of the media and the widening networks of
intormation technology, which transtorm and transmit knowledge;
the changes in modes of consumption and production; and
4i1l the increased awareness of risk and uncertainty.
Social work and the postmodern
Howe (1994) has usefully outlined the possible significance of such debates tor
social work. His central argument is that, if social work was a child of modernity,
it now finds itself in a world uncertain of whether or not there are any deep and
unwavering principles which detine the essence of its character and hold it
together as a coherent enterprise.
He suggests that not only can the emergence of social work trom the midI:
nineteenth century onwards be seen as a particular manitestation of the development
of the modern, but also that the three traditional cornerstones of social
work – care, control and cure – can be seen as particular manitestations of
modernity’s three great projects. He suggests that:
in its own way social work has pursued me beautiful (aesmetics), the good (ethics)
and the true (science) as it attempts to bring about a pleasing quality of/ite and a
just society by using me insights of me social sciences. (Howe, 1994: 518)
Howe (1994) and Parton (1994) both suggest that the high point of modern
social work in the UK came in the 1970s when major attempts were made to
rationalise and reorganise social work’s practices, skills and approaches. This was
exemplified by the creation of unified social services departments and the generic
social worker at the organisational and practice level and the search for a common
base tor social work (Bartlett, 1970) via the development of the systems approach
(Pincus and Minahan, 1973) and integrated methods (Specht and Vickery, 1977).
However, Howe suggests that contemporary social work is, in many respects,
experiencing a number of teatures which have been characterised as symptomatic
of the postmodern condition. Modernism’s promise to deliver order,
certainty and security has been unfulfilled, and it is increasingly felt that there are
no transcendental universal criteria of truth (science), judgement (ethics) and
taste (aesthetics). The overriding belief in reason and rationality is disappearing
as there is a collapse of consensus related to the ‘grand narratives’ and their
articulation of progress, emancipation and perfection, and what constitutes the
centres of authority and truth. The rejection of the idea that anyone theory or
system of belief can ever reveal the truth, and the emphasis on the plurality of
truth and ‘the will to truth’, captures some of the essential clements associated
with postmodern approaches.
Truth takes the guise of ‘truth’ centred neither in God’s word (as in the
premodern) nor in human reason (as in the modern), but is decentred and
localised so that many ‘truths’ are possible, dependent on different times and
places. Notions of ‘truth’ are thus related to context and are culture-specific so
that there is a refusal to accept that some groups have a monopoly on what constitutes
truth, beauty and the good. Relativities, uncertainties and contingencies are
no longer seen as marginal and problems to be overcome as yet beyond the reach
of reason, but as central and pervasive. In fact, the modern approach, rather than
being humanitarian, progressive and emancipatory, is seen as invariably exploitative
and repressive because ofits failure to recognise difference and its reliance on
totalising belief systems, be these patriarchal, capitalist or socialist.
The importance of discourse and language
These developments have contributed to new ways of understanding the self in
context which question the central assumptions of human nature and models of
the person encoded in protessional knowledge and derived from the modernist
projects of sociology and psychology. Language is seen as central:
An understanding of the part that language plays in the formation of human
selves, human thought and human subjectivity underpins the postmodern
perspective. (Howe, 1994: 521)
Instead of being described as a tool that simply reflects objects, language is seen
as mediating and constituting all that is ‘known’. Reality is not just obtrusive, but
is also embedded within interpretation and ‘language games’ (Lyotard, 1984), so
that ‘truth’ is a product of language. We cannot transcend the influence of
interpretation and assume that reality is simply waiting to be discovered; it is
constituted and constructed within language.
If it is the way in which language is structured that provides us with the basis
tor our notion of selthood, personal identity and the way in which we relate to
social ‘reality’, a central part of such approaches is to look at the way language is
…..————~—- structured, used and accomplished in any situation. It is in this sense that the notion of discourse becomes key. For while such approaches give particular weight to the linguistically constituted character of reality, it does not mean that discourses are ‘mere words’. Discourses are structures of knowledge claims and practices through which we understand, explain and decide things. In constituting agents, they also define obligations and determine the distribution of responsibilities and authorities for difterent categories of person, such as parents, children, social workers, doctors, lawyers and so on. A discourse is best understood as a system of possibilities for knowledge and agency which makes some actions possible while precluding others. It is a system of possibility that allows us to produce statements which are either ‘true’ or ‘false’. Thus, whereas modernity assumes that increasing knowledge of the real world produces power, postmodernity reverses the formula, recognising that the formation of particular discourses creates contingent centres of power which define areas of knowledge and truth claims, and trameworks of explanation and understanding. Those with power can influence language and discourse and can therefore influence the way in which life is experienced, seen and interpreted. However, because there is a range of difterent contexts, cultures and discourses available at anyone time and place, there is also a plethora of ditferent meanings, knowledges and truths available and many experiences and interpretations of self and identity. Notions of plurality and difterence are widespread. Thus we should proceed on the recognition that language does not simply rdlect or mirror objects, events and categories existing in the social and natural world – it actively constructs those things. Words do not simply describe things, they do things and thus have social and political implications. Implications for practice However, it has been suggested that the implications for politics, policy and practice of such perspectives are at best ambiguous and at worst undermine many of the central values and principles ofsocial work itself. Similarly, they may neglect the salience of issues of inequality in a simple celebration of difterence. Postmodern perspectives have been criticised for being overly relativistic, nihilistic, negativistic and anarchistic, failing to recognise the importance of agency and resistance, and overturning the past in a way which does not take heed of the positive and progressive elements that have previously gone on under the umbrella of social work (Smith and White, 1997). Such criticisms indicate that social work must be wary of such perspectives, for it is essentially a practice where decisions have to be made and practitioners have to act. For while practitioners need to develop a critical reflexive awareness, they must also feel sufficiently confident to act. The contemporary challenge for social work is to take action, which demands that we have made up our mind, while being open minded. In this respect, Rosenau (1992) provides an important contribution in characterising postmodern perspectives along a continuum from the sceptic to the affirmative postmodernist. While it is difficult to accommodate the sceptic perspective, with its nihilistic stance on truth and other absolutes, within social work, the emphasis ofthe affirmative postmodernist on ‘truth redefinition’ rather 1.41. SOCIAL WORK: THEMES, ISSUES AND CRITICAL DEBATES than ‘truth denying’ is potentially much more suggestive. Rosenau’s interpretation of an affirmative postmodern vision demonstrates that, while it cannot offer truth, it is not without content. It is interpretative and its focus is receptivity, dialogue, listening to and talking with the other. It reveals paradox, myth and enigma, and it persuades by showing, reminding, hinting and evoking rather than by constructing theories and approximating truth. It is suggested that our focus should be narrative, fragmented fantasies and different stories. Social work takes on the guise of persuasive fiction or poetry. Vhat such an approach demonstrates is that postmodern perspectives are not necessarily bleak or anti-social work but provide novel and creative insights that clearly talk to a number of themes and approaches which have been associated with social work for much ofits history. It almost suggests that social work could be (re )interpreted as being postmodern all along. Many social workers will identifY with approaches which blur the difference between fact and fiction, history and story, art and science (England, 1986), and which take the view that what an individual perceives or experiences as her or his reality is the reality, but a reality capable of change in an endless variety of ways. There are now a number of attempts to develop and apply the positive elements of such an approach explicitly to social work practice. In the process, a number of themes and issues are illustrated which are of wide application and which can be developed further in different contexts. Uncertainty is seen as central for as Pozatek (1994: 399) suggests, ‘the acknowledgement ofuncertainty is an ~sse~tial element of the postmodern practice of social work’ and such a position can push workers to make the effort to understand a service user’s experience. A position of uncertainty is seen to represent a more respectful approach to cultural difference, as certainty and objectivity are an illusion. Social workers should not expect, theretore, to know in advance what the outcomes of interactions will be. They can, at best, only trigger an etteet. A position of uncertainty means that social workers will approach each situation respectful of difference, complexity and ambiguity. Words are understood by clients according to how they have constructed the reality embodied in the interaction. It is thus essential tor practitioners to be aware of this and construct, through dialogue with the client, a shared lmderstanding and reality which they agree is a representation of their interaction. It is an approach which recognises that language is crucial for constituting the experiences and identity of both the self and the interaction, and which takes seriously the diverse elements of power involved. It is similarly serious about notions of partnership and participation, and potentially enables the views of service users to be prioritised. This is not to say, however, that such issues are self-evident and clear Cllt. A commitment to uncertainty, indeterminacy and unpredictability will reintorce social workers’ continual attempts reflexively to consider what they are doing, why and with what possible outcomes. Sands and Nuccio (1992) have similarly identified a number of themes central to postl11odern perspectives which can be drawn on in practice. Thus, rather than think and act according to lo~qocentriJ1tl, assuming that there is a singular fixed logical order which is ‘real’ or ‘true’, practitioners need to recognise that there are no essential meanings. Definitions and interpretations are historically contingent (lIJd context bound and hence fluid. Similarly, logocentric thought promotes POSTMODERN AND CONSTRUCTIONIST APPROACHES TO SOCIAL WORK 143 thinking in terms of binary opposites – male/female, black/white, adult/child, true/false ~ which are seen as mutually exclusive, categorical and hierarchical rather than interdependent. Such categories are usually embedded in language in a way which privileges some experiences and marginalises others. It is thus important explicitly to recognise the important, but fluid and changing nature of difference, so that the oppressed and devalued can have a voice and we can think and act in terms of both/and relational terms. One way to recover suppressed meaning is through the key postmodern operation of deconstruction whereby phenomena are continually interrogated, evaluated, overturned and disrupted. Deconstruction is a way of analysing texts, language and narratives that is sensitive to contextual dimensions and marginalised voices. The process of deconstruction recognises that, while multiple discourses might be available, only a few are heard and are dominant, these being intimately related to the dominant powers/knowledges. When one deconstructs, one does not accept the constructs as given but looks at them in relation to their social, historical and political contexts. Constructs are ‘problematised’ and ‘decentred’. Through deconstruction, the presumed tlxity of phenomena is destabilised, and the perspective of the marginalised can be given voice. It involves, among other things, helping people to externalise the problem, examining its influences on their life, reconstructing and liberating themselves from it. The notion of possibility (O’Hanlon and Beadle, 1994) recognises that things can be changed. A vision of possibility can be used to mobilise people’s potential and competence, and can empower them to reclaim and redefine who they are and how they want to act. However, we should not assume that postmodern perspectives are concerned with giving suppressed subjects a voice in any simple way. The notion of subjectivity is itself complex. While, within a logocentric tradition, the individual is autonomous and (if healthy) integrated and has an essential subjectivity, identity, personality, this is not the case with postmodern perspectives. In the latter, subjectivity is precarious, contradictory and in process, constantly being reconstituted in discourses. Accordingly, the subject is multifaceted and speaks in many voices, depending on the sociocultural, historical and interpersonal contexts in which it is situated. It is perhaps the emphasis on language and its intimate relationship with knowledge and power which provides the most distinctive message tor practice arising trom postmodern perspectives. A tocus on social work as text, narrative and artistry, as opposed to social work as science, moves centre stage. Whereas science looks tor explanations and causes, the story or narrative approach is intent on finding a meaningful account. As Howe (1993) has demonstrated, via his indepth analysis of studies of what clients say about what they value from counselling and therapy, it is the latter which is important. Talking not only helps people to understand their experiences, but also allows them to control, reframe and move on. As Howe states: there are no objective fundamental truths in human relationships, only working truths. These decentred contingent truths help people make sense ofand control the meaning of their own experience. This is how we learn to cope. (Howe, 1993: 193) .. 144 SOCIAL WORK: THEMES, ISSUES AND CRITICAL DEBATES Such approaches emphasise process and authorship. An open-minded engagement with people’s stories and the possibility of helping them to re-author their lives using more helpful stories can be both an empowering and respectful way of understanding situations and bringing about change. Constructive social work Recently these ideas have been built upon in terms of the development of constructive social work (Parton and O’Byrne, 2000). The term ‘constructive social work’ has been chosen for two reasons. First, to demonstrate a positive, strengths-based approach; and, second, to reflect the postmodern, discourse and social constructionist theoretical perspectives which inform it. The constructive approach, developed by Parton and O’Byrne, emphasises process, plurality of both knowledge and voice, possibility and the relational quality of knowledge. It is affirmative and reflexive and focuses on dialogue, listening to and talking with the other. Social work practice is seen as a specialised version of the process by which people define themselves, participate in their social worlds, and cooperatively construct social realities. It underlines both the shared building of identity and meaning that is the basis of effective practice, and the positive results for service users that stem from the approach. Constructive social work is concerned with the narratives of solutions to problems, and with change; instead of providing the practitioner with information about the causes of problems, so that she or he can make an expert assessment and prescribe a ‘scientific’ solution, the service user is encouraged to tell the story ofthe problem in a way that externaliscs it, giving more control and agency and creating a new perspective on how to manage or overcome it. These narratives construct the future and anticipate change; questions encourage the service user to identity exceptions to the apparently overwhelming nature of problems – situations where she or he has done something that made a positive difference. Constructive social work develops techniques and thinking associated with ‘solution-focused’ (de Shazer, 1985, 1991, 1994; Miller, 1997), ‘narrative’ therapy (White and Epston, 1990; White, 1993), ‘possibility’ (O’Hanlon and Weiner-Davis, 1989; O’Hanlon, 1993; O’Hanlon and Beadle, 1994) and the ‘strengths’ (Saleeby, 1997) perspectives. The approach attempts to provide questions which elicit clear goals about what the service user wants, in their own words, and which involves her or him in doing something in the immediate future which can launch a new beginning. The practitioner’s mode of address is one of ‘curiosity and respectful puzzlement’ (Parton and O’Byrne, 2000) at the service user’s unique way of making things better, rather than expertise in fitting an intervention to a need. Service users are encouraged to repeat successes, to identi1Y solutions as theirs, and as steps to the achievement of their own goals. Service users are invited to tell their stories using the cultural resources of their communities – local language and interpretation of the problem and the origins of their oppression and exclusion. The language of oppression, domination, subjugation, enslavement and recruitment is used in order to try and establish how the problem is dominating the person. The service user is then encouraged to distance herself or himself from the problem and to give it an unpleasant name, using their own metaphors. It can then be ‘externalised’ and ‘politicised’ in terms of the forces POSTMODERN AND CONSTRUCTIONIST APPROACHES TO SOCIAL WORK 24S —————“——operating against empowerment and achievement in society, in terms of style, appearance, class, gender, race, ability, family relationships or whatever. The approach aims to defeat the stereotypes of the blaming official organisations, and offers service users new ways of giving an account of their situation in which their agency becomes central, and they begin to take control. This reduces conflict between the practitioner and the service user and prepares the ground for cooperation in trying to reduce the influence of the problem, and constructing possibilities and solutions. None of this reduces the accountability tor mistakes, offences or the abuse of others, although it may challenge beliefs about more nmdamental issues of self-worth and potential for change. Thus, a key aspect of the approach is that it encourages service users to retell their stories in terms of cour’lgeous opposition to their disadvantages and heroic resistance to their problems. CONCLUSION What I have attempted in this chapter is to outline a number of approaches and perspectives which have emerged over recent years which explicitly draw on and use ideas and concepts associated with postmodernism and social constructionism. In doing so, a range of creative, critical and challenging possibilities have been opened up – not only in terms of how we can understand and analyse contemporary social work but also in providing positive contributions to practice itself. In doing so, such approaches can be seen as being particularly pertinent to developing and refining the notion of reflective practice.As Imogen Taylor has suggested, reflective practice and reflective learning may be conceptualised ‘as a response to postmodernism, as a positive and creative approach to the prospect of living with contingency’ (Taylor, I., 1996: 159). In a world of uncertainty and rapid change, reflective practice offers the possibility of developing strategies for learning how to learn and how to practise in a self-conscious way. The concern is less with developing our knowledge than with developing and deploying our capacities for reflexivity and action. Dedication This chapter was originally published and planned with Wendy Marshall, who died on 26 March 1997. It is dedicated to Wendy’s memory and her considerable contribution to social work education and practice. She is much loved and missed
Fawcett, B., Featherstone, B., Fook, J. and Rossiter, A. (eds) (2000) Practice and
Research in Social Work: Postmodern Feminist Perspeaives (London, Routledge). This
wide-ranging and lively book considers a range of key issues and possibilities in
response to the question of what it means, practically, to research and practise from
a postmodern feminist point of view.
Leonard, P. (1998) Postmodern Welfare: Reconstructing an Emancipating Project
(London, Sage). From a critical perspective founded in Marxism and feminism, this
book draws on elements of postmodern deconstruction to consider the current
state and future of social work and welfare more generally.
Parton, N. and O’Byrne, P. (2000) Constructive Social Work: Towards a New Practice
(Basingstoke, Macmillan – now Palgrave Macmillan). This book provides a detailed
critical approach to practice which explicitly draws on concepts and insights
derived from social constructionism, postmodernism and narrative perspectives.
Pease, B. and Fook,J. (eds) ( 1999) Transforming Social Work Practice: Postmodern Critical
Perspectives (St Leonards, Australia, Allen & UnWin). Drawing on a number of case
studies, this edited collection explores ways of developing practice frameworks, paradigms and principles which take advantage of postmodern perspectives while
not abandoning attempts to pursue human emancipation and social justice.
Taylor, C. and White, S. (2000) Practising Reflexivity in Health and Welfare: Making
Knowledge (Buckingham, Open University Press). Drawing on social constructionism
and discursive psychology, this book provides an in-depth analysis of the idea of
professional reflexivity. It explores how knowledge is used in professional practice,
and how it is made and generated in everyday encounters.

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