Academic journal article Social Work

Fundamental Contradictions in Cultural Competence

Academic journal article Social Work

Fundamental Contradictions in Cultural Competence

Article excerpt

What could possibly be amiss with the idea of cultural competence (CC), that is, social workers possession of "a knowledge base of their clients' cultures" and ability to provide "services that are sensitive to clients' cultures" (NASW, 2000a, p. 9)? After all, CC sounds as inviting and benign as an Indian samosa, an Irish scone, or American apple pie.

The social work literature is rich in its discussions of CC, and such discussions are evident in texts that discuss international social work (Healy, 2001), social policy (van Wormer, 1997), human behavior (Robbins, Chatterjee & Canda, 2006), and micro social work practice (Leigh, 1998).The most recent Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) (2008) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards mandate schools (accredited by CSWE) to educate students at the bachelor's and master's levels on 10 core competencies, two of which emphasize the influence of culture on identity and human development (core competencies 4 and 7, respectively). Although the notion of CC has received some critical commentary (see, for example, de Anda, 1997, for a range of opinions), the place of CC in the U.S. social work curriculum appears relatively uncontested.

In this article, we hope to show that, although the notion of CC has been espoused with the worthiest of intentions for social work practice, education, theory, and research, there are conceptual tensions at its center. Our intention is to not discredit the enormous amount of work on CC that has been developed over the years. We do not recommend ignorance of global history and national and international current conditions that include genocide, slavery, oppression, racism, and gross health disparities; the literature on CC that educates social workers about these issues is to be applauded. Rather, we wish to highlight some aspects of the underlying conceptual framework of CC that run contrary to established social work principles and practice and that we believe have been only modestly addressed previously. More specifically, our concerns lie with the CC literature that recommends practice standards concerning, or purports to educate social workers about, the values, worldviews, personality traits, and norms of racial and ethnic groups. The contradictions we identify extend to the epistemological foundations of CC, the rights and dignity of the individual, and the very question of whether a social worker can ever be culturally competent. Moreover, we are by no means alone in our desire to critically examine the conceptual underpinnings of CC; we encounter voiced reservations about the tenability of CC in the arenas of practice, teaching, and professional meetings (Johnson & Munch, 2006).

CC has become an established feature of social work and is found in formal (for example, NASW, 2007; U.S. CSWE publications [for example, Armour, Bain, & Rubio, 2006]) and informal social work parlance. It could be argued that CC has become entrenched within the very culture of social work and appears to have been embraced by many in the profession. This might lead to reticence in challenging the concept of CC for fear of appearing insensitive to cultural issues or even being anti--social work values. However, the established status of CC should not imply immunity from critical analysis. Indeed, there is all the more reason for this investigation; if what the social work profession takes for granted is on less than coherent and rigorous grounds, then an attempt at reassessment or remedy might be not only beneficial, but also imperative.

First, in this article, the discussion focuses on the historical context within which CC emerged. Second, a conceptual analysis of terminology related to CC is undertaken. Third, contradictions noted in the CC literature are examined through the lens of ethics and current identity politics from the field of philosophy juxtaposed with social work values, practice, education, and research. …

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