Social Work Practices: Contemporary Perspectives On Change.
Just when many, if not most, social work educators might be feeling confident that graduates were entering professional practice with a reasonable commitment to critical activist work along comes a tough and sophisticated critique of its effectiveness and epistemological correctness. Karen Healy has produced a very readable and sophisticated text/reference book on poststructuralists' reconceptualisation of professional power, identity and change that both identifies and challenges the limitations of critical activist practices in social work. Using mainly an Foucauldian analysis of power and discourse and selected works from feminist post structural theorists such as Grosz, Pringle, Larbalestier, Cixous, and Gatens, Dr Healy argues for pragmatic, critical 'post' activist work for use by social workers, a theory and practice informed by post structural/postmodern theory.
Her book begins with a comprehensive coverage of theoretical developments in social work during the last couple of decades where we see the post structural challenge emerging slowly as the crisis in the enlightenment project of total emancipation loses currency. The enlightenment project of emancipation from poverty, injustice, despotism, oppression, ignorance, and intolerance propelled by a boundless optimism in technology, progress, rationality, subject-centered reason and logic that would propel the world towards a period of enlightenment, freedom of expression and elimination of social problems seems to have fallen on the rocks of despair. As the world continues to engage in wars, civil unrest, mass slaughters, large-scale oppressions and support for despotic rulers, post structualists argue that the emancipation project of modernism is winding down. The great governing faiths of modernism, psychoanalysis, capitalism, Marxism, God, nature and democracy are seen to have failed the enlightenment project, creating a crisis in grand meta theory's ability to explain human actions and direct social change. This post structural critique (for want of a better term) asks for a rethinking, a reconceptualisation in what was taken for granted. Philosophical ideas, grand theories, the humanist subject are all turned inwards as confusion, heterogeneity, ambiguities, chaos, diffuse notions of power and differences emerge as significant.
Post modernist ideas assume this post structuralist critique is valid and social work as an avid consumer of borrowed knowledge from other disciplines seems to be taking on the challenge of applying the post modernist project to social work theory and practice. This is the project undertaken by Dr Healy in her book. Identifying the limits of critical social work as positing a homogenising, and by definition a dominating and oppressive theory for radical egalitarism and reform, she questions critical activists' practice goals and relevance to contemporary settings. She critiques (condemns) critical social science theory as privileging rational ways of knowing and being guilty of dominatory and authoritarian actions that are seen to suppress contradictions, ambiguities and complexities in life, and devalues everyday practices of resistance (Healy 2000, 133).
Dr Healy then maps out an alternative analysis arguing for reflexivity about the context, power, identity and processes of change as essential activities in 'post' activist social work. In using examples from the author's young mothers antiviolence project and a Foucauldian analysis of power and discourse analysis Dr Healy admirably deconstructs notions of worker power, professional expertise, identity, and change. Accepting Foucault's notion of power as diffuse, accepting that known truths are only partially known, and arguing for taking note of language and suppressed voices of marginalised positions, Dr Healy presents an argument for the reconstruction of a 'post' critical practice in order to find news ways of resistance. This resistance is to include a renewal for the appreciation of local 'everyday' contexts of practice as sites for disrupting established critical theories (Healy 2000, 123) as well as resisting the notion of the 'powerless service user' and the concept of the 'heroic activist'. Dr Healy presents a competent textual analysis to support her position.
However, this reviewer remains unconvinced about the validity of her argument. Urban decay, unemployment, an alarming increase in part time and temporary work, increasing numbers of homeless people, poverty (especially for women and children in the developing worlds), and increasing globalised capitalist exploitation of developing countries draw attention to the fact that all is not well in a post modern metropolis. In fact we live in a world where the world's richest 358 billionaires have a greater combined wealth than the combined income of 45% of the world's people. Of the latter, 70% are women and children. The political economy of postmodern society favours free market forces, privatisation of community resources and downgrading of the welfare state. Private is elevated over public, and individual over community and for the avocation of more flexible and non-accountable capital accumulation for a few privilege men. This is the reality in which social work is practised. To abandon a political economic/structural/critical analysis only plays into the hands of those who still have a strangle hold on the world's economy.
In her last chapter I think Dr Healy agrees with the inherent danger of turning our backs on mass emancipatory politics (Healy 2000, 137) and the identification of relations of domination that are unilateral and firmly entrenched (Healy 2000, 141). But I don't think you can have it both ways. In accepting only those aspects of post structuralist analysis that suits a more local, diffuse, contradictory, and uncertain approach to work with people social work runs the risk of masking forms of domination that continue to oppress and exploit large numbers of people. Even Dr Healy acknowledges that many of the mothers in her young mothers' anti violence group were powerless to resist some forms of domination such as acts of extreme violence (Healy 2000, 141). Social work could well do to re-look at and incorporate a theory of difference and accept the many complexities, uncertainties and tensions associated within different practice contexts. To re-look at the way identities are understood and to openly challenge entrenched notions of expert power and the restriction and immutability of defining people as powerless victims dependent on the heroic activist have great relevance to social work practice. But for social work practice to achieve this then, as Dr Healy suggests, it must jettison the emancipatory project of critical social science. I feel this is too high a price to pay for the profession.
The use of borrowed knowledge in social work is common practice and Dr Healy's work takes on the challenge of debating and arguing for the assimilation of certain aspects of post structuralist thinking. But to selectively accept some aspect of post structuralism as leading the way in practice without taking on the whole postmodern epistemological project only confuses the situation. To be true to the postmodern project social work scholars will need to critically re-look at the very ethos and structure of social work practice, philosophy, theory, values, ethics, morality and the notion of the individual subject on which these theories are predicated. The selective use of some concepts, I argue, renders critical 'post' activists' work as merely an exercise in ultra liberalist practice. The harsh, consumerist, dehumanising experience of the late capitalist world does demand a rethinking of political projects. But, I would argue, still with a commitment to the enlightenment ideal of equality and freedom from oppression and injustice. This must be done for social work practice as well if social work is to participate and contribute to the debate about the contemporary formations of social disadvantage. As Habermas says, the project of modernity is not yet finished.
However, I urge academics, students, and critical theorists alike to read Dr Healy's innovative and challenging book and take on the challenge she has set. Theorists and practitioners need to engage in the project of interrogating and reflecting upon social work practices and the diverse contexts in which these practices occur. The privileging of marginalised and minority voices over the professional expert/knowledge dichotomy demands it. But at the same time we must not lose sight of the fact that most of us live in suburbs and in nuclear families and are governed by the whims of capitalist expansion, patriarchal privilege and colonial oppression. This is still the challenge that confronts social work at the present time.
Reviewed by Carolyn Noble PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Western Sydney.