As if the economic and political developments discussed in the previous chapters were not enough to contend with, a further challenge faces the profession; in this instance one which operates at a quite different level. Indeed, a very important question confronts social work. Does the emergence of a body of thought, loosely known as postmodernism (which claims to be a radical shift in the foundation of knowledge) have any relevance for the profession? It constitutes an epistemological challenge, in that it calls into question the profession’s knowledge base. It is also an ontological challenge if such a thing can be said to exist in relation to a profession. By this I mean that the notions that social workers might have about themselves as, for example, advocates and change agents for human betterment, are destabilized. At a minimum, developments in theory are critical of assumptions social workers might make about the progressive purposes and positive identities of social work, both collectively and individually. Originating largely with a group of French intellectuals in the 1970s, the challenges arising from this complex body of thought have, since then, spread into many disciplines and practices. It has spawned an intellectual project (or more accurately projects) of such breadth, depth and complexity that a single chapter cannot possibly hope to capture its dimensions, much less its import. It is even difficult to know what to call it. Is it, for example, most accurately represented as postmodernism or post-structuralism? Or has the oeuvre moved sufficiently to warrant an entirely new name? Given the lack of coherence within the total body of work, it is easier said than done to make clear distinctions, and for my purposes here, such distinctions are largely unnecessary. Rather, because of the pervasiveness of the genre and its rapid penetration into so many disciplines related to social work I shall, throughout this chapter, refer to it as contemporary theory.
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