Mimesis: Linking Postmodern Theory to Human Behavior

By Dybicz, Phillip | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Mimesis: Linking Postmodern Theory to Human Behavior


Dybicz, Phillip, Journal of Social Work Education


THE STRENGTHS PERSPECTIVE, narrative therapy, and solution-focused therapy are three prominent examples of postmodern social work practice approaches. This article seeks to examine and expound on the connection between postmodern practice approaches such as these and human behavior theory. One quality that marks postmodern practice approaches is the rejection of positivism and naturalism and the embrace of social constructionism. Neither the theory of positivism nor the theory of naturalism is considered a human behavior theory as commonly understood (i.e., highlighted within social work textbooks on human behavior theory). By extension, neither is social constructionism. Rather, they are all theories of epistemology: They speak to how people understand reality and truth. (1) They are important to understand because they serve as a foundation on which theories of human behavior are built.

For example, widely recognized theories of human behavior such as the various systems theories, behaviorism, and psychodynamic theory all carry within them an implicit allegiance to positivism and naturalism. Yet an interesting wrinkle occurs when examining similar theories supporting postmodern practices. Postmodern thought has been succinctly described as the "linguistic turn" (Munslow, 2005) because of the prominence given to language. In an attempt to elaborate on the theories guiding postmodern practice approaches, practitioners have turned to theories of language. They have described Foucault's theory on power (Horsell, 2006; M. White & Epston, 1990) and discourse (Pickard, 2009; M. White & Epston, 1990), Derrida's theory of deconstruction (Namaste, 1994; Saltzburg, 2007) and his notion of the absent but implicit (De Shazer & Berg, 1992; M. White, 2005), and Wittgenstein's theory of language games (De Shazer et al., 2007). Yet not much discussion occurs about whether these theories represent theories of human behavior per se. They certainly are not present in most if not all social work textbooks on human behavior theory: Robbins, Chatterjee, and Canda (2006) make brief mention of Foucault and cite Derrida, but do not mention Wittgenstein; however, this textbook is remarkable for its breadth and inclusiveness. Most other textbooks make no mention of any of the three (e.g., Ashford, LeCroy, & Lortie, 2006; Urdang, 2008; Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2006).

As stated previously, a theory of epistemology serves as a broad foundation on which theories of human behavior are built. In the past, human behavior theory textbooks never expounded on the theories of positivism or naturalism (Roberts & Nee, 1970; Smalley, 1961; Strean, 1978) because there were no widely accepted theories of epistemology to challenge them. Being part of the dominant discourse, their precepts were accepted as true and expected to already be understood as such by incoming students. It has only been with the advent of social constructionism that within social work literature at least (less so in textbooks on human behavior theory) they are once more recognized as theories and hence contestable.

This article asserts that there is an additional category of theory that contributes to this broad philosophical foundation on which theories of human behavior are built, one that goes hand in hand with a theory of epistemology: a theory of causality. If the task of human behavior theory is to explain human behavior and, consequently, provide a guide for social workers in implementing interventions, then a fundamental theory of causality is vital because it provides a foundation on which specific theories explaining actions arise. Such a postmodern theory of causality serves to link the previously mentioned theories of language more directly to human behavior. In so doing, by supporting their generative natures, it can more clearly elaborate their role in explaining human behavior and thus guiding social work interventions.

Supporting modernist thought is a theory of causality that traces its roots back to ancient times yet gets its modern formulation through Newton's laws of rationale mechanics--that of action-reaction, more commonly described as cause and effect in the vernacular. …

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