Remote Practice and Culture Shock: Social Workers Moving to Isolated Northern Regions

By Zapf, Michael Kim | Social Work, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Remote Practice and Culture Shock: Social Workers Moving to Isolated Northern Regions


Zapf, Michael Kim, Social Work


The social work profession has been satisfied for a long time with a relatively simplistic distraction between practice in urban and rural areas. Within the developing rural social work specialty, there is recent evidence of a challenge to expand the accepted urban-rural dichotomy by recognizing remote northern regions as unique practice settings where conventional rural practice models may be inappropriate and damaging.

Very little systematic inquiry has been made into the experiences of social workers in remote northern settings. Empirical studies are rare; the sparse literature is mostly descriptive and anecdotal. One common observation from these descriptive accounts is the intense stress reported by social workers after moving to remote northern settlements. Speculation points to a poor fit between urban-based professional social work training and the realities of northern communities, yet little is known about this adjustment stress or its effects. This study examined the adjustment stress experienced by social workers who relocated to remote communities in northern Canada.

Literature Review

Remote Practice

The 1970s witnessed renewed interest in practice issues outside of urban centers: The Encyclopedia of Social Work included its first article on rural social work (Ginsberg, 1971), the Council on Social Work Education produced a major report on rural practice (Levin, 1974), and the publication of papers from the newly established National Institute on Social Work in Rural Areas plus the launching of the journal Human Services in the Rural Environment ensured continued attention to rural practice issues. By the end of the decade, "rural social work had succeeded in gaining a place in the ranks of the profession" (Martinez-Brawley, 1981, p. 201). Since then, the knowledge base for rural social work has continued to develop with the addition of specific textbooks (Collier, 1984; Farley, Griffiths, Skidmore, & Thackery, 1982) and the treatment of rural settings included in recent general practice texts (Bloom, 1990; McMahon, 1990; Morales & Sheafor, 1989; Zastrow, 1989).

Within this rural specialty several Canadian authors began to make a distinction between social work in rural agricultural settings and practice in remote northern communities (Collier, 1984; McKay, 1987; Zapf, 1985a, 1985b).The European Centre for Social Welfare Training and Research proposed a similar category of "remote" or "isolated" practice setting, calling attention to a "nuanced perception of the rural world" (Maclouf & Lion, 1984, p. 8) where isolated regions could be clearly distinguished by geography and lifestyle from rural areas more directly under the influence of urban regional centers. Along with northern Scandinavia, the European Centre identified northern Canada as a remote or isolated region (Ribes, 1985). Such categorizations suggest that important features of northern Canada may not be captured within the conventional notion of rurality.

Northern Canada

Most of Canada can be characterized as "wilderness," yet the label applies to less than 2 percent of the United States (outside Alaska), and the term has virtually no application in modern Europe (Stringer, 1975). It has been estimated that nine out of 10 Canadians live within 200 miles of the American border; six out of 10 live in the narrow urban corridor between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario (Beaujot & McQuillan, 1982). In contrast, northern Canada has "only about 250 small communities scattered across a territory as large as Europe" (Hamelin, 1978, p. 68), reflecting the reality that 1 percent of the population occupies the northern 80 percent of the land mass. Northern Canada can be seen as an enormous hinterland resting above a narrow southern heartland, a vast wilderness area that stretches the conventional rural characteristic of low population density beyond relevance. With reference to the urban-rural continuum offered in the American text Rural Social Work Practice (Farley et al. …

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