Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Mapping Social Capital: A Critical Contextual Approach for Working with Low-Status Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Mapping Social Capital: A Critical Contextual Approach for Working with Low-Status Families

Article excerpt

Promoting justice in therapeutic work with families demands an analysis of contextual factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and social class in relationship to societal systems of power, privilege, and oppression. A broad understanding of these dynamics, however, is inadequate to inform our work with families whose social capital severely limits available life choices, social influence, and material resources. In this article, we describe working from a critical contextual perspective to consider how families gain and/or lose social capital through participation in multiple contexts. We introduce a technique for mapping social capitol within and across multiple systems as well as suggestions for interventions aimed at increasing the social well-being of low-status families. These include considering the dynamics of boundary crossing, recognizing and optimizing resistance to oppressive dynamics, finding ways to limit constraints and optimize opportunities, and developing webs of allies to support family functioning and access to resources. We offer the example of 13-year-old Pepe as a case in point.

Family therapists are often called upon to help solve social problems. Acting as agents of social control is part of our daily work when we report child abuse, testify on behalf of victims, and help prevent domestic violence. At times, however, we can become inadvertently complicit in maintaining unjust and inequitable social arrangements. Therapy can serve to maintain the status quo of inequity by effectively solving social conflicts while maintaining and reproducing existing social order (Martín-Baró, 1994). This is particularly true when we fail to interrogate how systems of class privilege shape our worldviews, our social role as therapists, and the life worlds of those with whom we work.

In this article, we describe our developing framework for using critical contextual perspectives to inform our work as family therapists. We explore our understanding of how social capital and therefore access to social and material resources are gained and/or lost through participating in and crossing multiple systems. In particular, we share a method for mapping social capital that can guide interventions aimed at helping clients secure necessary resources for solving problems. Finally, we offer a case example of therapeutic work with a low-status Puerto Rican family and retrospectively apply social capital mapping.

We restrict most of our discussion and the case example to low-status families out of concern for how lack of resources (adequate housing, employment, transportation, availability of parents, etc.) contributes to the reproduction of inequality. We use the term "low status" to refer to the intersection of class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, abilities, nation of origin, and language that places some at significant social and economic disadvantage.

A critical contextual perspective is not a model of therapy, but a lens that can inform therapeutic decisions in ways that raise social awareness and support social equity. This perspective builds on ecosystemic and multiple systems concepts (Aponte, 1976; Auerswald, 1968; Boyd-Franklin, 1989; Brofenbrenner, 1977) that emphasize power relative to intersecting identities and the exchange of social capital within and across structural contexts. Viewing multiple systems through a critical lens offers a framework for understanding not only the influence of our multiple intersecting identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nation of origin) relative to power within specific local structural contexts (McDowell et al., 2006), but also how influence and access to resources are built, lost, and exchanged across contexts or systems.

Early in the development of family therapy, Auerswald (1968) argued for an ecosystemic approach as an effective way to work with poor families, challenging the assumption that individuals and families are the sole owners of problems. …

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