Actor-Centered Social Work: Re-Visioning "Person-in-Enviromnent" through a Critical Theory Lens

Article excerpt

Historically, the profession of social work has been characterized by a sharp divide between macro and micro theories and practice, including sometimes heated debates over the proper focus for "real" social work (Abramovitz & Bardill, 1993; Gibelman, 1999; Haynes, 1998; Specht & Courtney, 1994). Over the years, efforts have been made to bridge this divide through the adoption of overarching perspectives and frameworks for practice that relate the various sizes of social phenomena to each other (Haynes; Kondrat, 1999). Of note in this regard is the groundbreaking work of social work scholars who have contributed to the development of various systems perspectives and ecological or ecosystem frameworks (Germain, 1973, 1978, 1981; Germain & Gitterman, 1980, 1995, 1996; Greif & Lynch, 1983; Meyer, 1983; Pincus & Minahan, 1973). In social work, these ecosystems frameworks have become the most prevalent approaches for explicating the person-in-environment perspective, long considered the organizing framework for pro fessional practice (Wakefield, 1996a, 1996b). Despite these efforts to relate the individual to the larger social systems in meaningful ways, tension over the micro-macro dualism continues to plague the profession (Haynes, 1998; Specht & Courtney, 1994).

This article recasts the micro-macro relationship and the person-in-environment perspective through the lens of critical theory, with special reference to the work of critical sociologist Anthony Giddens (Cohen, 1987; Giddens, 1979, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1993). Giddens is a British sociologist who spent much of his academic career at Kings College, Cambridge. More recently, he has served as Director of the London School of Economics. Giddens (1990) described his work as "radicalized modern" rather than "postmodern," particularly in his emphasis on human agency and on the possibility for effective political engagement and social change on a global as well as local level. It is his empowering focus on human agency in the maintenance, stability, and transformation of society's institutions that gives Giddens's work particular relevance for social work theory and practice. Giddens's major theoretical project has been the development of what he calls structuration theory. In this theory Giddens integrates two previous ly separate streams of thought in the social science literature--theories that have focused on macrosocial structures and those that have examined human interactions at a microlevel. This article outlines major elements in structuration theory and describes how, by connecting everyday life directly to larger social structures in a dynamic way, this theory has the potential to infuse a new, pragmatic, and more activist perspective on the micro-macro dualism in social work theory and practice.

Social Science and Macro-Micro Divide

The divide between micro and macro theory is not unique to social work as a discipline. Over the past century, since sociology became an academic subject, a great deal of sociological thought has gone into developing social--structural explanations for the behavior of human individuals and collectivities. Theorists who have adopted this approach to the study of social phenomena, by and large, have followed a perspective shared by classical social theorists like Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Talcott Parsons, who (though differing considerably in the content of their theories of society) understood social structures and institutions as consisting of social regularities and objective patterns external to individual action, intentions, and meanings, and not reducible to the sum of those meanings or actions (Durkheim, 1964; Giddens, 1979, 1984; Parsons, 1964, 1966). This group of theorists developed macrosocial theories in which the major explanatory variables were larger structural phenomena. The behavior of ind ividual actors was understood to be strongly influenced or even determined by the various structures or institutions of society. …