Culture as Deficit: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Concept of Culture in Contemporary Social Work Discourse

By Park, Yoosun | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Culture as Deficit: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Concept of Culture in Contemporary Social Work Discourse


Park, Yoosun, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This paper is a critical discourse analysis of the usage of the concept of "culture" in social work discourse. The paper argues that "culture" is inscribed as a marker for difference which has largely replaced the categories of race and ethnicity as the preferred trope of minority status. "Culture" is conceived as an objectifiable body of knowledge constituting the legitimate foundation for the building of interventions. But such interventions cannot be considered other than an instrument which reinforces the subjugating paradigm from which it is fashioned. The concept of culture, constructed from within an orthodoxic, hegemonic discursive paradigm, is deployed as a marker of deficit.

Keywords: culture, culture definition, cultural competence, multiculturalism, discourse analysis, critical discourse analysis, social work discourse

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This paper examines social work's usage of the concept of culture. Using critical discourse analysis (CDA), a neo-Marxist turn to the study of discourse which examines language and its usages to understand their social and political import, this paper investigates the particular ways in which "culture" is inscribed and deployed in social work discourse. In following the tenets of CDA, language and discourse are approached in this study "as the instrument of power and control.... as well as the instruments of social construction of reality" (Van Leeuwen, 1993, p. 193). Discourses are understood to be central modes and components of the production, maintenance, and conversely, resistance to systems of power and inequality; no usage of language can ever be considered neutral, impartial, or a-political acts. This study, consequently, examines the particular meanings social work assigns to "culture," and analyzes the implications for constructing and utilizing such a signifier. It studies, in other words, what the concept of culture does in the disciplinary discourse.

This study is grounded in the theoretical position that the usage of the concept of culture in social work and the meanings social work assigns to "culture" are profoundly political, biased, and partial inscriptions. "Cultural constructions are always 'ideological,' always situated with respect to the forms and modes of power operating in a given time and space" (Ortner, 1998, p. 4). "Culture" is to be understood as a relational demarcator whose usage is an inscription of differential positions and hierarchical identities--a tractable device which can be used to demarcate whatever a particular set of interests dictates should be set apart from something else; included or excluded from the rest. The borders and the contents of "culture," in other words, are understood to be constructed rather than discovered (Allen, 1996).

For the purposes of this paper, social work discourse on "culture" is defined narrowly as the body of academic or scholarly discussions and expositions on "culture" found in social work publications. A preliminary review of such materials indicated that "culture" appears most often as the primary subject of interest in two related arenas: social work education and social work practice. In both cases, the main problematic is pedagogy--methods for teaching either students or workers to become "culturally competent." Twelve such works, selected from social work journals including Social Work, Journal of Multicultural Social Work, Journal of Social Work Education, and Child Welfare constitute the admittedly limited sources for generalizations about the disciplinary discourse. The large body of social work literature focusing on issues of "culture" and "cultural sensitivity" in research was omitted from the review to limit the scope of the discussion. The plethora of articles concerning multiculturalism, diversity, and culture in associated fields such as psychology and sociology were excluded for the same reason. In keeping with the intent to examine the general trend of the discussion in the field, no concerted efforts were made to identify works considered seminal, or authors regarded as notable authorities.

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