Remote Practice and Culture Shock: Social Workers Moving to Isolated Northern Regions
Zapf, Michael Kim, Social Work
The social work profession has been satisfied for a long time with a relatively simplistic distraction between practice in urban and rural areas. Within the developing rural social work specialty, there is recent evidence of a challenge to expand the accepted urban-rural dichotomy by recognizing remote northern regions as unique practice settings where conventional rural practice models may be inappropriate and damaging.
Very little systematic inquiry has been made into the experiences of social workers in remote northern settings. Empirical studies are rare; the sparse literature is mostly descriptive and anecdotal. One common observation from these descriptive accounts is the intense stress reported by social workers after moving to remote northern settlements. Speculation points to a poor fit between urban-based professional social work training and the realities of northern communities, yet little is known about this adjustment stress or its effects. This study examined the adjustment stress experienced by social workers who relocated to remote communities in northern Canada.
The 1970s witnessed renewed interest in practice issues outside of urban centers: The Encyclopedia of Social Work included its first article on rural social work (Ginsberg, 1971), the Council on Social Work Education produced a major report on rural practice (Levin, 1974), and the publication of papers from the newly established National Institute on Social Work in Rural Areas plus the launching of the journal Human Services in the Rural Environment ensured continued attention to rural practice issues. By the end of the decade, "rural social work had succeeded in gaining a place in the ranks of the profession" (Martinez-Brawley, 1981, p. 201). Since then, the knowledge base for rural social work has continued to develop with the addition of specific textbooks (Collier, 1984; Farley, Griffiths, Skidmore, & Thackery, 1982) and the treatment of rural settings included in recent general practice texts (Bloom, 1990; McMahon, 1990; Morales & Sheafor, 1989; Zastrow, 1989).
Within this rural specialty several Canadian authors began to make a distinction between social work in rural agricultural settings and practice in remote northern communities (Collier, 1984; McKay, 1987; Zapf, 1985a, 1985b).The European Centre for Social Welfare Training and Research proposed a similar category of "remote" or "isolated" practice setting, calling attention to a "nuanced perception of the rural world" (Maclouf & Lion, 1984, p. 8) where isolated regions could be clearly distinguished by geography and lifestyle from rural areas more directly under the influence of urban regional centers. Along with northern Scandinavia, the European Centre identified northern Canada as a remote or isolated region (Ribes, 1985). Such categorizations suggest that important features of northern Canada may not be captured within the conventional notion of rurality.
Most of Canada can be characterized as "wilderness," yet the label applies to less than 2 percent of the United States (outside Alaska), and the term has virtually no application in modern Europe (Stringer, 1975). It has been estimated that nine out of 10 Canadians live within 200 miles of the American border; six out of 10 live in the narrow urban corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario (Beaujot & McQuillan, 1982). In contrast, northern Canada has "only about 250 small communities scattered across a territory as large as Europe" (Hamelin, 1978, p. 68), reflecting the reality that 1 percent of the population occupies the northern 80 percent of the land mass. Northern Canada can be seen as an enormous hinterland resting above a narrow southern heartland, a vast wilderness area that stretches the conventional rural characteristic of low population density beyond relevance. With reference to the urban-rural continuum offered in the American text Rural Social Work Practice (Farley et al., 1982), many communities in northern Canada cannot be placed at the extreme pole of "absolute rural" without multiplying the suggested distances by a factor of at least five!
Power, control, and the ability to innovate are located in the southern heartland. The northern hinterland is dependent on the southern heartland for investment capital, technical expertise, markets, information, and general well-being (McCann, 1987). Development has been imposed on northern Canada in powerful waves (gold rushes, military bases, mineral and oil extraction, recreation), episodic bursts of activity related to the needs of the south rather than the north. Ongoing underdevelopment in the northern hinterland is a purposeful relationship designed to transfer value from the hinterland to the urban areas of the south (Coates & Powell, 1989; Collier, 1984). Dhaouadi (1988) observed that such exploitation can involve much more than economics; local cultural heritage, value systems, language, and self-esteem may be devalued to the point of social disorganization and individual personality breakdown, conditions that are then perceived as pathologies that require intervention from external services.
Domestic Third World
The impact of this exploitive relationship on northern Canada has prompted analogies with Third World countries: "It is by no means farfetched to think of Canada possessing a third world area within its own boundaries. Because, however, the region is part of a nation that on the average is relatively wealthy, the similarities with the underdeveloped world go unrecognized by most Canadians. It is ironic, or perhaps even hypocritical, that the kind of measures we advocate for third world nations are not adopted here" (Weller, 1984, p. 200).
The social work literature generally advocates a social development approach in Third World settings, with an emphasis on justice and partnership (MacPherson, 1982; United Nations, 1986). A common starting point for social development work involves challenging the worldview and values underlying any offer of services to assess relevance in the local context. Traditional worldviews in northern Canada have emphasized harmony with the environment as expressed through stewardship, sharing, cooperation, present orientation, and coexistence. This approach conflicts with the assumptions of individual autonomy, future orientation, ownership, and manipulation of the environment for profit evident in the industrial south (Collier, 1984; Jull, 1985, 1986; Lotz, 1977; Moore & Vanderhaden, 1984).
This conflict in perspectives between the south and north is more than an abstraction. Evidence in the literature shows that the conflict is experienced intensely at the level of daily life for social workers in northern communities. Although accounts of northern practice have tended to be descriptive and anecdotal, one observation has been reported consistently: a high rate of staff turnover. Speculation on the causal factors suggests an uneasy fit between urban-based practice models and the realities of northern communities. This poor fit manifests itself in the field as a stressful choice perceived by the worker as he or she comes to view the requirements of the job as incompatible with active membership in the community (Zapf, 1991b). The social worker is pressured to move from an objective position as outsider to identification as an insider in the community, struggling to redefine the work role to meet community needs (Lotz, 1977). What was initially perceived from a professional perspective as a host or target community over time becomes home (Zapf, 1985b). Such a shift from outside to inside identification, to appreciating and adopting the meanings of a new place, is presented in the Third World development literature as a "move across cultures."
A culture can be understood as a network of shared meanings taken for granted as reality by those who interact within the network. When people first move to a new culture, they take with them their assumed meaning structure from home: "They continue to choose actions consistent with it, and to interpret their own and their host's actions in terms of it" (Noesjirwan & Freestone, 1979, p. 190). Misunderstandings and conflict are inevitable because of the differences in meanings, rules, and values between the two cultures. Several occupational groups have been studied with regard to their adjustment experiences in a new culture: foreign scholars and students, business executives, technical assistants, Peace Corps volunteers, teachers, and anthropologists.
There appears to be general agreement in this literature that a person entering a new culture will progress through four stages. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1954, 1960) first described the sequential stages of cultural adjustment using medical terminology: incubation, crisis, recovery, and full recovery. Although later writers incorporated a more interactional perspective, most have chosen labels consistent with Oberg's pattern (Zapf, 1991a). For example, consider Smalley's (1963) sequence of fascination, hostility, adjustment, and biculturalism; Richardson's (1974) pattern of elation, depression, recovery, and acculturation; or Kealey's (1978) sequence of exploration, frustration, coping, and adjustment.
The duration of individual stages may vary by person, but the overall process can be expected to last about a year (Foster, 1973; Ruben & Kealey, 1979). Lysgaard (1955) first suggested that this adjustment sequence over the first year in a new culture could be generalized to a curvilinear trend, a U-shaped curve of well-being plotted against time that has come to be known in the literature as the "U-curve hypothesis." Initial feelings of optimism and challenge give way to frustration and confusion as the person is unable to interact in a meaningful way in the new setting, an experience commonly labeled "culture shock" since Oberg first introduced the term in 1954. Resolution of these difficulties can then lead to a restoration of confidence and integration with the new culture, an experience usually labeled "recovery" in the literature. Culture shock followed by recovery thus constitutes the curvilinear pattern of adjustment during the first year in a new culture. Failure to achieve resolution can mean continuing frustration and a possible decision to leave.
Empirical support for the U-curve hypothesis has been uneven (Church, 1982; Furnham & Bochner, 1986). However, there is general agreement that a stress reaction derived from the inability to understand cultural cues is inevitable in cross-cultural encounters. Everyone who attempts to live and work in a strange culture can expect a negative experience during the first few months, but that subjective experience varies from person to person in symptoms, intensity, and duration. Whereas adjustment stress has not yet been studied empirically with regard to social workers who relocate to remote locations, much data have been collected on other occupational groups that experience similar task-related moves across cultures. The generalized U-curve hypothesis developed from this literature offers a potentially useful conceptual framework for exploring the adjustment experiences of social workers who relocate to northern Canada.
The major hypothesis for this study was that social workers recruited from southern Canada would exhibit the U-curve pattern over their first year in the north. Social workers recruited from southern Canada were expected to report a decrease in well-being during the first six months in the new setting, followed by an increase in reported well-being by the end of the first year.
The literature also identified several predictor variables thought to influence the duration and intensity of individual culture shock and recovery experiences, usually categorized into individual and structural variables (Church, 1982; Furnham & Bochner, 1986; Goldlust & Richmond, 1974; Morrison, 1973). Individual variables include demographics, personal history (for example, past environmental mobility, breadth of education, related work experiences, understanding of culture shock), and attitudes (for example, openmindedness, comfort with social diversity). Structural variables include general characteristics of the new environment (for example, presence of colleagues) and features of the new job (for example, role clarity). On the basis of the reported studies of other occupational groups such as business executives (Stessin, 1973), teachers (Kron, 1972), scholars (Lysgaard, 1955; Zwingmann & Gunn, 1983), and Peace Corps volunteers (Mischel, 1965), each predictor variable generated a pair of directed hypotheses for this study. For example, it was anticipated that social workers with a broad education would report less culture shock and greater recovery than social workers with a narrower educational background (derived from the assumption that someone who has systematically approached the world through the perspectives of different disciplines would experience less stress when encountering new meanings).
It was not feasible to generate and reach a random sample of social workers from the vast Canadian North. The Yukon Territory was selected as the setting for this study because it lies completely within the northern region as defined by geographers (Hamelin, 1978, 1985), and all Yukon communities were accessible for data collection. Situated above the 60th Parallel in northwestern Canada, the Yukon Territory covers an area of 186,000 square miles and supports a population of only 30,000 people (Yukon Bureau of Statistics, 1991). Two-thirds of the population live in the capital city of Whitehorse, and the rest live in small communities scattered about the territory. About one-quarter of the population are Native Canadians.
From a technical viewpoint, the findings of this study cannot be generalized to any other group of social workers in northern Canada, because the sample selection was deliberate rather than random for practical reasons. Such a narrow outlook, however, may limit needlessly the potential value of this project, because a logical argument can be advanced that the sample is representative of northern practitioners in general: The Yukon Territory falls within northern Canada, the high response rate (91 percent) indicates a valid picture of Yukon social workers, and the limited data available from other jurisdictions in the north reveal remarkably similar population profiles (Callahart & Cossom, 1983). Obviously more data are needed for an accurate picture of northern Canadian practitioners, but at least the available evidence does not contradict cautious generalization from this study to other regions within the North.
In this study social worker is defined as anyone hired to fill a social work position as categorized by the hiring body, an intentionally broad definition appropriate for northern communities. Although 112 social workers were identified by human services agencies in the Yukon, 19 were excluded because they had not been at their job long enough to report on adjustment experiences over the first year. Of the 93 remaining workers, 85 (91 percent) participated by completing survey questionnaires.
Just over half of the sample (n = 45) lived and worked in the capital city of Whitehorse. Most of the workers were women (n = 61). The mean age was 35.8 years, with a range of 21 to 56 years. Only one-fifth (n = 17) of the workers in this study had social work degrees at the time of hire; about half of the sample (n = 42) reported no university degree of any kind.
One unexpected characteristic of this population was the high number (n = 62) who reported residence in the Yukon at the time of hire for their current job, meaning just over one-quarter of the sample (n = 23) were recruited from southern Canada. Two factors likely account for the relatively small proportion of southern hires in the sample: First, local hiring has been both an official policy direction of the Territorial Government since the mid-1980s and a preference of local Indian Band Council administration throughout the territory. Second, this study asked social workers to report on experiences during the first year on the current job. Workers who may have been recruited originally from southern Canada for one job and then promoted or transferred to another would be categorized as a local hire for this study. With only 23 subjects in the southern-hire category, the data analysis for this study required large differences in means to achieve statistical significance on many of the tests.
The questionnaire developed for this study required about 40 minutes to complete and was divided into three sections. Part A consisted of a series of closed questions on demographics and independent variables related to personal
history. For example, subjects were asked to report the number of jurisdictions (provinces, territories, or countries) in which they had lived for at least three consecutive months. Social workers considered to have a history of broad environmental mobility were those in the upper quartile. Similarly, breadth of education was operationalized as the number of general subject areas in which the person had taken at least one formal course since high school graduation. Precoded categories were developed for all the questions, allowing respondents to check off the appropriate answer. The only open question asked for a definition of culture shock. Definitions were categorized according to the presence of the elements of stress and inevitability.
Attitude scale items from the literature were grouped together in part B of the questionnaire, because all used a Likert scale response pattern; these items were arranged randomly to avoid establishing a response set. An Open-mindedness Scale was adapted for this study from the Ethnocentrism and Cognitive Flex Scales of Reddin's (1976) Culture Shock Inventory. A Comfort with Social Diversity Scale was similarly adapted from the work of Ziegler (1980). Items from the Role Ambiguity and the Role Boundary subscales of Osipow and Spokane's (1981) Occupational Environment Scale were selected to form the Role Clarity Scale for this study.
Part C of the questionnaire presented an original Culture Shock Profile (CSP) developed for this study. Building on the work of Kron (1972), Calhoun (1977), and Ruben and Kealey (1979), this scale presented subjects with a list of 33 culture shock symptoms and recovery features, each coded with a valence as positive or negative. Subjects were asked to indicate the intensity of their experience of each symptom on a four-point Likert scale (none, slight, moderate, or great) at three points in time corresponding to the crests and trough of the U-curve (arrival = one month; settling-in = two to six months; end of first year = 12 months). Assignment of numerical values to the Likert scale items allowed for a score to be computed for each subject on arrival, while settling in, and at the end of the first year. The degree of culture shock reported was the variation of these scores in a negative direction between arrival and settling in; the greater the drop in the CSP score over the first six months in the North, the greater the degree of culture shock. Similarly, the degree of recovery reported was the variation in a positive direction between settling in and the end of the first year.
All items selected or developed for the questionnaire were discussed initially with social work faculty members at the University of Toronto. An early draft of the questionnaire was pretested on three former Yukon Territory social workers who resided in southern Canada and on two social work trainers in the Yukon. Their comments resulted in minor wording changes and the inclusion of a map as reference for the questions on mobility and residence patterns.
Because each scale was administered only once to each subject, a measure of internal consistency such as Cronbach's alpha appeared to be the most appropriate coefficient for assessing reliability. Reliability coefficients computed for the scales are as follows: Comfort with Social Diversity Scale, .63; Open-mindedness Scale, .73; Role Clarity Scale, .84; and CSP, .90.
The northern setting required alteration of the conventional survey approach of a mailed questionnaire with cover letter and follow-up letters to nonrespondents. Response rate tends to be affected by the subjects' perception of the legitimacy and overall value of the study. General suspicion or mistrust of southern-based research efforts exists in northern Canada because frequently the researcher is not perceived as truly interested in the region, and the final results are seldom made available to northern residents (Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies, 1982). Perceived legitimacy of the study may depend more on appraisal of the demonstrated understanding, competence, and genuine interest of the researcher than on any letterhead or written explanation in a cover letter. People, not sponsors, tend to be assessed for legitimacy in the North. For these reasons, personal visits were made to each Yukon community to meet with the social workers, to explain the study, to ensure that the questionnaire was received by the appropriate people, and to answer questions. Respondents completed the questionnaire after the author left town. Using this approach, a response rate of 91 percent was achieved without the use of follow-up letters.
The 23 social workers recruited from southern Canada reported a mean CSP score of 83.0 (SD = 13.3) on arrival in the North. Over the first six months in the new job, their mean score dropped to 70.0 (SD = 15.8). A paired-samples t test indicated that this difference in means was significant |t(22) = 5.7, p |is less than~ .001~. These southern-hire workers did report the predicted decrease in well-being during the first six months at their northern job, which was followed by an increase in mean CSP score to 80.1 (SD = 11.7) by the end of the first year, also a statistically significant change |t(22) = 2.9, p |is less than~ .001 ~. Overall, the 23 social workers from southern Canada did report an adjustment pattern of culture shock followed by recovery, as predicted.
This aggregate pattern based on the group mean leads to questions of individual adjustment patterns. How many of the southern-hire workers reported a U-curve adjustment pattern rather than another possible pattern? How does this profile compare with the adjustment profile of the local-hire workers? Because the overall sample of Yukon social workers could be divided into two mutually exclusive groups, southern hire and local hire, comparisons were possible of the adjustment patterns reported by both groups. These data have been condensed for Table 1 by collapsing the possible adjustment patterns into two categories: U-curve and other. Two-thirds of the southern-hire workers (65 percent, n = 15) reported an overall U-curve adjustment pattern of culture shock followed by recovery over the first year of their job in the North. The U-curve was characteristic of only about one-quarter of the local-hire workers (24 percent, n = 15). With this support for the U-curve as background, the remaining results illustrate the impact of the various predictor variables suggested in the literature on the culture shock and recovery experiences of the southern-hire group. Table 2 presents the results of testing individual and structural variables with the degree of culture shock and recovery reported by southern-hire workers.
Table 1 Adjustment Pattern of Social Workers by Recruitment Location (N = 85) Southern Local Overall Pattern of Hire Hire Sample Adjustment n % n % n % U-curve 15 65 15 24 30 35 Other 8 35 47 76 55 65 Total 23 100 62 100 85 100 NOTE: ||Chi~.sup.2~ (1) = 10.63, p |is less than~ .001.
The results of this study offer clear support for the U-curve hypothesis, which has a strong conceptual base but uneven empirical support in the literature on cross-cultural adjustment. The study also found a real and substantive difference in the adjustment patterns of local-hire and southern-hire social workers in the Yukon Territory. Most southern-hire workers displayed the U-curve adjustment pattern; most local-hire workers did not, a finding that strongly supports the theoretical argument that workers recruited from outside the North are in fact coming to a new culture.
A question might arise at this point as to just how similar these two subsamples were in the first place. Comparison of the descriptive data for both groups revealed no significant difference in the distribution of the major demographic variables of age, gender, marital status, community of residence, or length of time on the job. There was close correspondence between the reported levels of well-being on assuming the new job for both groups (CSP scores of 83.0 for the southern-hire workers and 84.8 for the local-hire workers on the 100-point scale). Some differences were found on variables logically connected with the features and opportunities of the setting; the local-hire group evidenced more years of social work experience in the North, a history of fewer moves, and lower levels of education. Although the two groups could not be called identical, they were not found to differ significantly on any features unrelated to location.
With regard to the predictor variables and the southern-hire group, those with prior northern work experience exhibited a much flatter overall curve (significantly less culture shock and recovery) than workers for whom this was the first social work job in northern Canada. Northern experience does not allow one to avoid the adjustment process on moving back, but it does appear to act as a buffer against the intensity of the experience.
No support was found for a link with past environmental mobility, a surprising outcome because this factor was so prominent in the conceptual literature. It may be that the operationalization of this study failed to catch the essence of the concept. A count of jurisdictions or even communities lived in may not correspond with the incidence of psychological relocation. Another possible explanation arises from the observation that the six workers who had lived in more than 10 communities reported a mean culture shock score of 20.8 (SD = 11.9), significantly higher than the mean score of 10.1 (SD = 9.2) reported by the rest. There may be a threshold after which broad environmental mobility becomes instability or transience.
The finding that women reported significantly less recovery than men is consistent with previous results, but the explanation is far from clear. One possibility is that a woman moving to a new culture for a professional job may encounter more ongoing resistance and role conflict than a man because of higher role expectations in the home, at work, and in the community.
Overall, results of hypothesis testing with the predictor variables revealed a dramatic and unanticipated pattern: Structural variables were associated with culture shock, and individual variables were associated with recovery. This pattern indicates that the stress experienced by new social workers in the north may be connected with the TABULAR DATA OMITTED social work role they are hired to perform, rather than the individual characteristics of the workers themselves. Such evidence confirms the depictions of poor fit in the individual anecdotal accounts in the literature, yet suggests that the difficulty may not be an issue of the wrong people in the North as much as a question of the role of conventional social work itself in that setting.
Given the pattern of these results, it is not possible to present a generalized profile of the social worker most likely to experience culture shock moving to northern Canada; however, it is possible to suggest characteristics of the job that will produce the greatest culture shock. That job is located in a community where no colleagues are present and features priorities and expectations that are ambiguous or conflicting for the social worker. A general profile can be advanced for the social worker likely to report greater recovery by the end of the first year: That person is probably male, open-minded, and comfortable with social diversity and has a broad education and some understanding of the culture shock phenomenon. The new worker from the South likely arrives in the remote community as an "objective outsider" (Relph, 1976). Acquired through professional training and often supported by the employing agency, the objective-outsider perspective is the starting place for conventional assessment. The community is considered theoretically according to systems of attributes rather than as a place of immediate experience. In social work jargon, the community is described as a "target system" (Pincus & Minahan, 1973). The newly located worker attempts to understand the community using frameworks from his or her own familiar culture and profession. Applying metaphors from the South leads to a limited view of the northern community as a pathological variation of the southern experience.
During the settling-in period in the northern community, supports for the familiar professional role weaken, and a new social circle emerges as the worker must interact closely with community residents to meet most of his or her daily needs. Eventually, the worker enters into the system of local meanings and priorities. This shift will probably be accompanied by a stressful period of frustration and disorientation, giving way eventually to regained confidence and a sense of well-being as the worker learns to operate within the new system of meanings.
The social work profession has only begun to identify and explore the characteristics of remote practice. In addition to offering a better understanding of the unique human resources and environmental demands in such isolated regions, the results of this study call for the profession to pay attention to the stress of culture shock experienced by social workers who move to remote northern communities.
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Michael Kim Zapf, PhD, is associate professor, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive, NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4. This research was supported in part by Health & Welfare Canada, Ottawa, through a National Welfare Grant, and by the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies, Ottawa, through a Northern Scientific Training Grant.…
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Publication information: Article title: Remote Practice and Culture Shock: Social Workers Moving to Isolated Northern Regions. Contributors: Zapf, Michael Kim - Author. Journal title: Social Work. Volume: 38. Issue: 6 Publication date: November 1993. Page number: 694+. © 2009 National Association of Social Workers. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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