Postmodern Feminist Theory and Social Work: A Deconstruction

Article excerpt

Social workers take great pride in the value base of their profession. Among the core values are respect for the dignity and worth of individuals, remaining nonjudgmental, and the elimination of oppression (Biestek, 1952; NASW, 1994). The first two values are consistent with emergent postmodern trends that eschew the notion of a single "reality" and a single "truth" (Sands & Nuccio, 1992). As both postmodernists and Western feminists have noted, these beliefs have resulted in the privileging of the voices and ideology of the dominant and powerful and the neglect of groups who are marginalized, suppressed, or classified as "minority." Postmodernists seek to uncover multiple perspectives and realities so that all voices may be heard. The third value, elimination of oppression, is consistent with the goals of feminism and other human rights movements opposed to the various "isms," such as sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and heterosexism.

Yet herein lies a dilemma: Should social workers respect the dignity and worth of those deemed oppressive in their behavior? Should the profession adopt a nonjudgmental stance toward people and institutions that perpetuate oppression? How might postmodernism and feminism be combined in social work practice? If as social workers we agree with postmodernists that the unique and situated perspective of each individual is valid, how do we treat the perspectives of those who are traditionally viewed as "oppressors" -- or their silent supporters?

Sands and Nuccio (1992) provided a lucid description of postmodernism and feminist theory and their implications for social work practice. Their article cogently described how we might "celebrate differences" while promoting unity and action on women's issues. By doing so, they helped advance our understanding of an important emergent trend in social work practice. Yet although Sands and Nuccio admirably reconciled feminism with social work practice, they did not reconcile the postmodernism emphasis on multiple perspectives with feminism and social work practice. Through partial deconstruction of their text, I will show how they inadvertently failed to address this dilemma directly and, in so doing, appeared to privilege the voice of feminists to the neglect of other voices. The intent of this article is to elucidate the difficulties social workers face in attempting to reconcile a nonjudgmental orientation and respect for individual dignity and worth with the goal of eliminating oppression.

Consistent with the precedent set by other postmodern feminists (for example, Flax, 1990), this article is written in the first person and conversationally rather than in the disembodied voice of the third person. Thus, I explicitly acknowledge and remind the reader that I am speaking with my voice as one among many and laying no claim to objectivity or truth.

Deconstruction

A key premise in the postmodern worldview is that categorical thinking is based on a patriarchal symbolic order rooted in language that ignores the subtleties of multiple perspectives and serves to privilege the viewpoint of the dominant group. In contrast, Sands and Nuccio (1992) noted that "postmodern feminism is rooted in poststructuralism, postmodern philosophy, and French feminist theory" (p. 490). In combining components of these three schools of thought, postmodern feminists "move away from `grand theory,' which purports to assert universal truth" (p. 491); seek to avoid binary opposites (for example, male-female, reason-emotion); and criticize the pursuit of traditional science that aims to provide "objective" knowledge of the world. Instead, postmodern feminists seek to identify multiple perspectives, situated meanings, and the interdependence and nonhierarchical nature of elements.

One method for conducting postmodern inquiry is deconstruction, a method of analyzing texts to identify suppressed and marginalized voices and bring them to the fore. …

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