How Changes in the Pacific/Asia Region Are Shaping Social Work Education and Practice in Hawai'i

By Matsuoka, Jon K. | Social Work, July 2007 | Go to article overview

How Changes in the Pacific/Asia Region Are Shaping Social Work Education and Practice in Hawai'i


Matsuoka, Jon K., Social Work


No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.

Albert Einstein

At the February 2007 Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Board of Directors meeting, Dean Kay Hoffman, CSWE president, opened by making the statement, "Social work is out of step with the most critical social issues and problems confronting us in our society. We have lost ground to other professions and are moving down a path of irrelevance. Unless we change, social work may not exist in 30 years."

I reside in Hawai'i, a place far removed from the political nucleus of U.S. society, which also implies some distance from cutting-edge issues in social work. Yet, I found Dean Hoffman's words bold and profoundly resonating. In the Pacific/Asia arena social developments of capacious proportions are not within social work's rubric of primary concern, such as human trafficking, to name one. Rather than fully concentrating on these critically important issues, too many schools of social work continue to focus on producing clinicians, many of whom opt for private practice; or pressed by intense labor force demands and threats of declassification, too many schools of social work mass produce graduates to fill position slots in the public sector. In addition, social work education and practice face several systemic and structural requirements that make it very challenging for the social work profession to quickly accommodate the changing realities taking place around the world.

In recent years the institutions of political democracy have replaced institutions of political repression in our part of the world, and

classic forms of communism have come to an end. China, although far from being a model of democracy, has opened its economy to market forces. It is pushing hard to expand its middle class, which will have major implications related to purchasing power and consumptive patterns (East-West Center, 2002). It appears, however, that the democratization of China and other developing Asian countries is more a democracy of money. Communities are being disrupted by environmental pillaging to fuel China's insatiable need for resources. Displaced rural dwellers are flooding urban centers in search of employment. Migrant workers often suffer from workplace discrimination and scant family support. Approximately 250,000 Chinese commit suicide each year. Suicide is the leading cause of death among adults between 18 and 34 years of age (Beech, 2003). To address the social fallout from China's economic boom, some 200 social work education programs nationwide have formed since the 1990s.

The "overnight" Chinese phenomenon provides us with insights into the relationship between the U.S. brand of social work and economic development. Our role in the greater scheme is to tend to the needs of the free market's social fallout and the disparity that is the hallmark of a corporate-driven economy. In the field of social work, competence is generally defined by one's ability to heal and repair rather than by an acumen associated with prevention, making it difficult to ascertain our complicit role in sustaining exploitive systems.

In our society, the narratives emerging from a condition of economic wealth and hyper-consumerism include those that attribute social ills to permissive liberalism, emphasize free-market capitalism as the answer for delivering national prosperity, and support extravagant military appropriations as a way to combat terrorism. These themes in turn lead to cuts in federal social welfare programs, the deregulation of markets, and lucrative military contracts for corporate sponsors (Korten, 2006). At the same time, economic growth is held as a "cure" for poverty, unemployment, pollution, debt repayment, stress reduction and mental health, crime, divorce, and even drug addiction. These perspectives are often reproduced at the level of social work education and practice, which tends to valorize its own history of intercepting and reforming victims of capitalism. …

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