Representation of Ethnic Identity in North American Social Work Literature: A Dossier of the Chinese People

By Tsang, A. Ka Tat | Social Work, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Representation of Ethnic Identity in North American Social Work Literature: A Dossier of the Chinese People


Tsang, A. Ka Tat, Social Work


Ethnic and cultural identities of people who are not white in North America are conceived as natural and fixed categories. Such conceptualizations are associated with a tendency to take ethnicity as a client characteristic instead of understanding ethnic and cultural differences as constituted by the engagement between social worker and client. Using Foucault's dossier approach, the author uses the Chinese people as a case example to illustrate the politics of identification and identity assignment in professional social work literature in North America. The literature was selected from the Social Work Abstracts database from 1977 to 1997. The article reveals how Chinese people are "essentialized," "otherized," and negatively positioned as an ethnic construct. Four major arguments are presented together with their implications for cross-cultural social work practice.

Key words: Chinese; cross-cultural training; ethnic identity; social work literature

As a profession, social work has been paying increasing attention to issues of ethnic and cultural difference. Competence in cross-cultural practice is now a standard requirement of social work training programs. Practitioners and researchers are actively reporting their experience of working in an ethnically and culturally diverse environment. Values such as justice and equity are being emphasized, and racist attitude and practice are under attack. The profession is, however, not totally immune to the influences of the dominant discourses of society that have ethnocentric or even racist elements.

Some authors have performed the important function of critical self-reflection on the profession. McMahon and Allen-Meares (1992), for example, reviewed the professional literature to assess whether social work as a profession is racist. More recently, Dyche and Zayas (1995) critically assessed the cultural literacy approach as the dominant perspective in social work practice. Along the same line, this article examines professional social work literature as discourse. Using a discourse analysis method, I use the representation of ethnic identity as a site of engagement with the social work professional literature to investigate how ethnicity is constructed as social reality, how social relations are maintained, and how social services are legitimized and controlled. I use Chinese people as a case example to examine the related discourses.

Professional Literature and Discourse Analysis

The importance of published literature in professional discourse and practice is widely recognized. Spender (1981), for example, noted the role of published work in conditioning the research agenda of a discipline. Berger (1990) also identified the power of professional publishing in shaping social work practice. Recognizing the importance of professional literature, McMahon and Allen-Meares (1992) attempted to examine "whether social work is intrinsically tainted by assumptions and practice that can be called racist" (p. 533) by performing a content analysis of the literature. McMahon and Allen-Meares believe that a critical analysis of the professional literature can elucidate how practitioners think about practice, how they perceive their relationship with clients, and what they think is important to the profession. Their analysis included articles published in four major U.S. social work journals from 1980 to 1989. In their analysis, McMahon and Allen-Meares emphasized the role of institutional and struct ural interventions, as opposed to individual interventions, in antiracist social work. Their assumption was that antiracist social work consists of interventions targeting structural changes in the sociopolitical environment to eliminate institutional racism. Based on the content analysis, they concluded that "the literature portrays the social work profession as naive and superficial in its antiracist practice" (p. 537).

As a method, content analysis focuses on professional literature as published texts and examines what is written.

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