Academic journal article Social Work

Conation: A Missing Link in the Strengths Perspective

Academic journal article Social Work

Conation: A Missing Link in the Strengths Perspective

Article excerpt

In 1984, Karen E. Gerdes was a newly graduated MSW and a wide-eyed Peace Corps volunteer living in a land-filled barrio on Manila Bay in the Philippines. In the following block of text, she describes an experience that profoundly influenced her thinking about the ways that individuals approach challenges in their world.

   I was walking home one day when I spotted a
   10-year-old boy sitting alone in a nipa hut. He
   was emaciated, sitting in his own urine, and too
   weak to swat the flies from his face. Inquiries
   revealed that his name was Ernesto and that he
   lived alone with his grandmother. His grandmother
   was overwhelmed and needed someone
   to take over the care of Ernesto. No one knew
   why he was in such poor condition or why he
   had failed to thrive since about age six. I had
   Ernesto evaluated by local doctors, who believed
   he might be suffering from muscular dystrophy.
   They felt there was nothing they could do for
   him and sent him home. I brought Ernesto's case
   to the attention of some fellow Peace Corps
   volunteers and local Filipinos. One volunteer
   suggested I try to find materials to build Ernesto
   a wheelchair and make some adjustments to his
   nipa hut to improve his maneuverability. Another
   recommended that I interview everyone
   who knew Ernesto (to get a more complete
   biopsychosocial history), and then research treatments
   for muscular dystrophy. The local midwife
   recommended creating a feeding schedule for
   Ernesto's grandmother to follow as well as a
   regular exercise and muscle-stretching routine.
   None of these options appealed to me, and the
   grandmother had already stated she could not
   continue to care for him. The recommendations
   of my fellow volunteers, while sound, seemed
   frustratingly slow. I remembered hearing about
   a nun in Manila who took in disabled children,
   so with Ernesto's grandmother's permission, I
   took him to her facility. Without calling ahead
   or making an appointment, I headed off with
   Ernesto and a neighbor who helped me to
   carry him. In the end, this proved to be a useful
   course of action. The nun accepted Ernesto into
   a beautiful residential facility she operated for
   children with disabilities. His health improved
   and his quality of life was significantly better,
   although as predicted, several years later he died
   from complications of his muscular dystrophy.
   What struck me about this experience was the
   difference between the way I reacted to Ernesto's
   situation and the reactions of my friends. Any
   of our approaches would probably have helped
   the boy, but they were very different. I wondered
   why. With the exception of the local midwife, we
   had similar backgrounds and similar education.
   We all had the same objective, yet our responses
   to the problem were quite different. The individual
   differences seemed shaped by something
   other than intelligence, training, emotion, or
   learned response. We simply tackled the problem
   in very different ways. Yet even at the time we
   discussed this problem, I sensed that being able
   to describe and usefully leverage our differences
   would have made us more effective as a team and
   more helpful to all the people we were serving.
   I would not fully understand these differences
   until decades later when I began to study the
   concept of conation, the individual's natural and
   preferred mode of action when approaching a
   challenge.

Without a clear understanding of the conative aspect of behavior, social workers limit their ability to understand clients' and their own behavior and are unable to use a significant source of client strength. In this article, we describe conation--a group of differing but equally valuable modes of action possessed by all humans. We then discuss how knowledge about conative abilities can be practically applied in strengths-based social work practice. …

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