Just Practice: Steps toward a New Social Work Paradigm

By Finn, Janet L.; Jacobson, Maxine | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Just Practice: Steps toward a New Social Work Paradigm


Finn, Janet L., Jacobson, Maxine, Journal of Social Work Education


SOCIAL WORK is at a critical juncture. Scholars, practitioners, and policy makers are engaged in debates over the epistemology, theory base, priorities, and general relevance of the profession. These debates are fueled by external forces such as increasing economic globalization and inequality (Korten, 1995; McMichael, 1996; Piven & Cloward, 1997), social exclusion and dislocation (Lyons, 1999; Ramanathan & Link, 1999), advances in information and communication technologies (Harvey, 1989; Kreuger, 1997), continued trends toward devolution, privatization, and profitability in the human service sector (Ewalt, 1996; Franklin, 2000), and the precariousness of basic human rights (Lyons, 1999; Witkin, 1998). The predominant theories that currently guide the practice of social work, formulated alongside the profession's emergence as a critic of, palliative for, and, some would contend, servant to 20th-century capitalism, appear increasingly anachronistic in the face of the shifting transnational logic of late capitalism (Korten, 1995; Lowe & Lloyd, 1997; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). As Harvey (1989) contends, the hallmarks of capitalism since the 1970s include the increasing concentration of capital in the hands of the few (primarily multinational corporations), the growth of flexible and mobile labor markets that have weakened unions and placed greater pressures on workers,, the decline of older industries and a surge in the service sector, patterns of uneven development, and the emergence of new forms of production and marketing that shape new kinds of workers and consumers (see Stephens, 1995, for a concise overview).

A new social work paradigm is needed to confront these challenges, tensions, and contradictions and to address human concerns that transcend national, geographic, and cultural borders and domains of practice. Social work scholars contend that we need an integrated approach grounded in the context of critical community practice (Johnson, 1998; Schorr, 1997), a greater emphasis on internationalism (Briar-Lawson, Lawson, Hennon, & Jones, 2001; Hokenstad & Midgley, 1997; Lyons, 1999; Ramanathan & Link, 1999; Sarri, 1997), the incorporation of a political dimension in practice and the preparation of social workers to serve as interpreters of environments for policy makers and the public (Reisch, 1997), and an engagement with critical postmodern theories that envision social work as an emancipatory project (Leonard, 1997; Pease & Fook, 1999). These issues call for approaches to thought and action that challenge our certainties, acknowledge our partial and positioned perspectives, and enable engagement with radically different ways of interpreting and acting in the world (see Reed, Newman, Suarez, & Lewis, 1997, for a discussion of positionality). They offer opportunities to transform social work as we know it into social justice work through the democratization of the processes of knowledge development and the promotion of new forms of partnership and participation. In short, we need a fundamental rethinking of the nature and direction of social work practice as we come to grips with the rapidly changing environment in which we live and work.

In this article, we take steps toward a new paradigm of integrated social work theory and practice that is grounded in the profession's commitment to social justice, informed by its historic possibilities, and responsive to these 21st-century challenges. We argue that the predominant theories and perspectives that inform contemporary social work are inadequate for meeting the current issues that we face. We then examine promising intellectual and political interventions that are being articulated by a range of critical social theorists and consider their value for social work. In particular, we address the important work of contemporary social and cultural theorists who have been articulating a theory of practice which attends to the dynamic, power-laden interplay of structure and human agency (Bourdieu, 1977; de Certeau, 1984; Giddens, 1979; Ortner, 1989; Sewell, 1992). …

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