The Politics of Indigenization: A Case Study of Development of Social Work in China

By Yan, Miu Chung; Cheung, Kwok Wah | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Indigenization: A Case Study of Development of Social Work in China


Yan, Miu Chung, Cheung, Kwok Wah, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Internationalization and indigenization are dialectical processes of knowledge transfer. However, social work literature has paid scant attention to the process of indigenization, which can best be understood as one of recontextualization. This paper introduces Basil Bernstein's theory, which contends that recontextualization is a political process, as an analytical tool for us to understand the politics of indigenization. To demonstrate the usefulness of this tool, this paper analyzes how, in China, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and social work academics interactively compete for this control.

Keywords: Indigenization, recontextualization, China, social work development, Basil Bernstein

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Internationalisation and indigenization are two dialectically interacting processes of knowledge transferring mostly from developed to developing areas (M. C. Yan, 2005). Compared to internationalisation, however, indigenization has received scant attention in Western social work literature. A quick keyword search of articles listed in the Social Work Abstract from 1978 to February 2005, for instance, revealed only eight records containing the word "indigenization". Discussing social work, Walton and Abo El Nasr (1988) suggest that indigenization means a modification of non-native social work discourse, by making it relevant to the importing country's values, needs and problems. They contend that indigenization is a transition from an importing stage to one of authentication, by which a domestic discourse of social work is built "in light of the social, cultural, political and economic characteristics of a particular country" (Walton & Abo El Nasr, 1988, p.136). However, the actual process of indigenization, the means by which an imported discourse is filtered, tested, grounded and reproduced and what social forces may affect this process, has not been satisfactorily explained.

Drawing from the experience of social work development in China, and employing a sociological theory proposed by the late British sociologist Basil Bernstein, this paper discusses and demonstrates how various social forces influence the social work indigenisation discourses in China. In this paper, discourse refers to two closely related meanings. First, a discourse is a social configuration which embodies not only thought, but also meanings and actions. In other words, it is not what is being said but the "true" meaning of "preempted through the social and institutional positions held by those who use them" (Ball, 1990:2). Thus, different institutions generate their own discourse of actions and meanings. In this connection, social work discourse refers to a mode of social configuration with a specific set of values and practices as claimed by its proponents through institutional process.

Second, according to Bernstein (2004), as a process, a discourse also denotes "the social base of the pedagogic [or social] relation, its various contingent realizations, the agencies and agents of its enactment". (p.364, Bracketed is the authors' own interpretation) For Bernstein, recontextualization is a dynamic process in which different discourses "are appropriated and brought into a special relationship with each other, for the purpose of their selective transmission and acquisition" (Bernstein, 2000, pp.46-47). Thus, this selection process is always political, and involves power relations between different social forces, with each of them trying to control the production and reproduction of the dominant social configuration of the discourse which is to be recontextualized into the local context.

The purposes of this paper are twofold. The first is to provide readers involved in transferring social work knowledge to developing countries with an analytical tool--Bernstein's theory--that may help them to understand the politics of indigenization in the local arena. The second is, by examining recent developments in social work in China, to demonstrate the usefulness of this tool for readers who concern the issue of indigenization of social work in other countries.

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