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About this book

Theory and practice are two sides of the same coin: they are inextricably linked. In this second edition of his classic text, Neil Thompson revisits the crucial topic of integrating theory and practice – this time, widening his scope to explore the importance of informed practice not just in social work, but across the full range of human services: from nursing and counselling to youth work, community studies and beyond.

Thoroughly revised and updated, the new edition uses detailed explanations, practitioner quotes and engaging practice examples to guide the reader through the process of ‘theorizing practice’. With his peerless clarity and flair for tackling advanced concepts in an accessible way, Thompson critically discusses the approaches and perspectives of the numerous human services, including postmodernism, morality and organizational culture, and brings particular focus to the role of existentialism in understanding the challenges of contemporary practice.

This important new edition provides much-needed food for thought about the complexities of theory and practice, and is sure to provide fresh inspiration to professionals and students alike.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Throughout my career I have been committed to, and fascinated by, the importance of integrating theory and practice. I have long been a believer that effective, high-quality practice needs to be informed by a sophisticated understanding of the practice world, drawing on a range of concepts that form an explanatory framework or, in other words, a theory. The view – sadly shared by many – that we can safely dismiss theoretical matters as ‘intellectual’ and simply focus on getting on with practice is one that I firmly reject as seriously misguided and dangerous. Working with complex human problems in sensitive, potentially dangerous circumstances is highly challenging work. Expecting to be able to do that safely and effectively without a good grasp of the underlying knowledge base is not only foolish in the extreme, but also highly dangerous and, in some ways, irresponsible. Trying to deal with such complex situations without a proper understanding of some of the key issues involved is potentially a recipe for disaster. This book has therefore been developed to help practitioners (and, indeed, managers – as they too have a professional knowledge base to draw upon) to have a better understanding of the relationship between theory and practice and to feel more confident in making use of the important insights at our disposal. The need for practitioners to theorize Working with people and their problems involves dealing with complexity. The challenges are far too demanding and multi-layered to be amenable to simple, formulaic approaches.
Neil Thompson

Making Sense of Theory

Frontmatter

1. The role of theory

Abstract
Theory is a subject that is often misunderstood, misrepresented and oversimplified. Partly as a result of that, it is also something that can cause a great deal of anxiety and unease, as if it were something to be afraid of. There is therefore a strong need to clarify what is meant by theory in order to establish a baseline from which to develop our discussions in the ensuing chapters. In this opening chapter my aim is therefore to clarify what is meant by theory, why it is important, and how it can sometimes be flawed and therefore unreliable. This will lead to a discussion of the importance of integrating theory and practice as a basis for sound professional practice. Given that (i) theory can be flawed; and (ii) even the best theories cannot be expected to give a complete picture of the subject matter they aim to describe, then our approach to the whole question of theory needs to be a critical one – that is, one which does not take theoretical statements at face value as if they were ‘gospel truth’. Indeed, as we shall see, this is the basis of critically reflective practice and this, in turn, is an important foundation for theorizing practice. This applies as much to the theoretical idea I will be presenting in later chapters (and have presented elsewhere in my writings).
Neil Thompson

2. Theory and postmodernism

Abstract
This chapter explores the significance of postmodernist thought for the contemporary theory base underpinning the people professions. As will become apparent in the pages that follow, I am not advocating postmodernism as a basis for professional practice. Some readers may wonder why, if I am not proposing postmodernism as a theoretical foundation for practice, I am devoting a whole chapter to it. The reason is that postmodernism and the related concept of post-structuralism have become very influential in recent years. My aim is to add my voice to the growing list of critics of this approach to social understanding and to pave the way for presenting an alternative in later chapters (especially Chapters 8 and 11) premised on existentialist thought. In Chapter 3 we will see how the theoretical approach we adopt to practice will have a significant effect in terms of how practice is defined and subsequently carried out. Part of the rationale for this chapter, therefore, is to highlight the problems associated with a postmodernist outlook before we focus down more specifically on practice issues in the next chapter and beyond. Contemporary social thought has been overtaken by a wave of postmodernist thinking. It has been argued that postmodernism is now having a major influence across the social sciences. As Callinicos puts it: ‘For better or worse, we live in an era where postmodernism has come to set the terms of intellectual and cultural debate’ (2007, p. 2).
Neil Thompson

3. Shaping practice

Abstract
Theory can be understood as a window on the world – a way of making sense of aspects of our experience. To a large extent, theory not only explains significant aspects of practice, but also defines it in terms of how it creates a particular understanding of what it is all about. Different theories conceptualize practice in different ways. That is, they have different understandings of what it is all about. For example, are occupational health practices a caring response to workers’ health care needs or are they mainly a means of enabling employing organizations to make more profit as a result of having a lower level of sickness absence? Or perhaps they are a mixture of both? Is counselling geared towards empowerment or is it intended to help people adjust to their disadvantaged position in society? What these and similar questions highlight is that how a practice (or set of practices) is defined and conceptualized (in terms of theoretical perspectives adopted) will have a significant effect on how such practices are carried out. Theory enables us to develop a set of conceptual understandings and therefore create a framework for making sense of the practice situations we encounter – for example, by linking disparate elements together into a meaningful whole (developing a theory-based narrative).
Neil Thompson

Making Sense of Practice

Frontmatter

4. The person

Abstract
It has been a recurring theme throughout my writings that it is essential to recognize that everyone is a unique individual, but each of us is an individual in a social context. That is, each person’s uniqueness is not a reason to disregard the wider social context. I have argued that it is necessary to take account of both – that is, recognizing, on the one hand, the fact that each of us is a unique person with our own wishes, feelings, history and plans, but, on the other, none of us exists in a social vacuum. We are all in part shaped by the social world we currently live in and were brought up in (or, more specifically, by our reactions to the social world – Thompson, 2016c). To understand the person, we therefore need to understand not only the individual factors specific to him or her, but also the wider social factors, cultural and structural, that play a significant part in making us who we are. My work on PCS (personal, cultural and structural) analysis (Thompson, 2011a; 2016a, 2017) reflects this, with the emphasis on the need to understand not just personal, individual factors, but also the interaction of the three different levels (personal, cultural and structural) with the unique results that emerge from the complex interactions of these different levels, and therefore different sets of factors.
Neil Thompson

5. Interpersonal interactions

Abstract
I was fortunate enough to learn, at an early point in my career, that ‘all action is interaction’. That is, I became aware that what we do as individuals and as groups does not take place in ways that are unconnected with the wider social world. What one person does has an impact on those around him or her. Similarly, what others do has an impact on the individual. The work of Gergen (2009) and many others has emphasized the significance of interaction as a major factor in shaping people’s lives. Consistent with the view of identity presented in Chapter 4, an interactional approach is premised on the idea that our sense of who we are grows from our contact with others and their reactions to us (see the discussion of the ‘looking-glass self ‘ below). Casey captures this idea in pointing out that: ‘As the philosophers Ricoeur and Levinas (and Buber before them) respectively theorize, the subject-self is a relational one. It requires the other to be itself ‘ (2002, p. 192). There is also a long tradition in sociological thinking of recognizing the significance of interaction – for example, in the work of Mead (2015) and other symbolic interactionist thinkers (Forte, 2001) right through to current emphases on post-structuralist approaches (Petersen et al., 1999; Tew, 2002). This interactionist perspective attaches considerable importance to the role of human interactions as a basis of social life. As we shall see, this has major implications for both theory and practice.
Neil Thompson

6. Group dynamics and intergroup relations

Abstract
Almost everybody is a member of one or more groups, whether they are formal, such as teams, clubs or societies, or informal, such as gatherings of friends and other associates. Such groups tend to serve as a powerful influence on us, both directly and indirectly. They can be a source of significant problems for us in terms of conflicts and tensions, but they can also be a significant source of solutions in terms of support, camaraderie and important resources to fall back on (see the discussion of social capital in Chapter 5). A well-informed professional therefore needs to have a good understanding of groups, partly because a significant proportion of practitioners will be members of teams – as teams are, of course, also groups – and partly because group membership and dynamics will often be part of the problems we are presented with and potentially a source of solutions. This chapter therefore explores how group processes tend to operate (the common patterns that tend to emerge in groups) and what implications these have for practice – what issues we need to bear in mind when considering the group dimension of people’s lives and, indeed of the organizations we work for. In addition, I provide an overview of the significance of the distinction between ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’, an important issue that links the topic of groups with the need for anti-discriminatory practice. Finally, we focus on the significance of partnership and teamwork as fundamental underpinnings of practice.
Neil Thompson

7. Cultural contexts

Abstract
Just as people are commonly members of a range of groups, as we noted in the previous chapter, each of us is also part of at least one culture and often a range of them. A culture is a very strong influence on every one of us. It acts as a lens through which we see the world, colouring and shaping our perceptions and thus our understandings. A culture is, in a sense, an accumulated collective knowledge base, bringing understanding and sets of meanings that are passed on to its members. This can be linked to Foucault’s work on discourses (Foucault, 1991; 1998; 2001) and how they shape social encounters and also the work of Gadamer (2004) on how traditions develop and create a sense of normality. In trying to understand people and the problems they face, it is necessary to take account of how cultures tend to have profound and far-reaching effects on people. It is significant that I am using the term ‘culture’ in the plural. This is because most people will be exposed to the influences of a number of cultures, including workplace cultures (Thompson, 2013). For example, some of us will be brought up in one culture, but then live our adult life in another cultural setting, in which case both sets of cultural norms will be influential factors in shaping our sense of who we are and how we fit into the world. I shall therefore be using the word ‘culture’ as a shorthand for ‘cultural contexts’.
Neil Thompson

8. Sociopolitical structures and processes

Abstract
Chapter 7, with its emphasis on culture, helped us to appreciate the importance of bringing a sociological perspective to bear in considering the world of professional practice. While there are clearly important psychological issues to consider, we also have to give due attention to the wider sociological picture, with its focus on social processes, structures and institutions. This chapter builds on this idea of recognizing work in the people professions as a broad psychosocial undertaking, rather than simply an individualistic one-to-one process of helping. To understand the significance of sociology, this chapter explores how sociopolitical structures and processes are often crucial factors in shaping the situations that we encounter in professional practice. We have already noted in earlier chapters the dangers of atomism and the way in which an unduly narrow focus on the individual that fails to take due cognizance of the wider social factors can lead to a process of blaming the victim (Ryan, 1988), of making people who are in difficult social circumstances appear to be the villains of the piece. If we fall into this trap, our practice can be seen as oppressive, rather than emancipatory – in other words, part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. This chapter is therefore an important foundation for understanding emancipatory practice, a topic to which we shall return in later chapters, especially Chapter 14.
Neil Thompson

9. The organizational context

Abstract
One of the things that we shall focus on in Chapter 10 will be the importance of adopting a broad perspective that incorporates the moral–political dimensions of professional practice. In this chapter I argue that our perspective also needs to be broad enough to incorporate an understanding of organizational factors: how they affect us and how we can affect them (another example of the dialectic in action). The chapter is premised on the belief that an understanding of the workplace and the processes that go on within it is an essential part of the knowledge base needed to theorize practice. Here I am therefore concerned with exploring some of the key issues as they relate to the organizational context in order to provide a platform from which to develop a fuller understanding of the complexities involved. We begin by looking at the important role of organizational culture and how it creates a set of expectations around how people should behave, think, feel and interact. We then move on to consider the structures, strategies and policies that shape the organizational environment in which we work. Finally, we explore what part practitioners can play, individually and collectively, in influencing the organizations in which they work with a view to minimizing the problems that organizational life can generate and maximizing the potential for highquality practice within a supportive and empowering environment.
Neil Thompson

10. Morality and ideology

Abstract
Working with people and their problems is not simply a matter of providing technical fixes. Rather, it is a complex array of moral and political factors that make a significant contribution to shaping the world of practice and, in turn, the practices carried out can and do contribute to the moral and political domains of the social world. What I mean by this is that professional practice cannot be kept separate from the idea of ethics and values, for what we do involves the exercise of power and that, in turn, brings with it ethical considerations to ensure that such power is not (deliberately) abused or (unwittingly) misused. We noted in Chapter 3 that how a professional enterprise is defined or conceptualized will significantly shape how it is practised. Such definitions will be influenced by, and will in turn influence, notions of morality and, more broadly, ideology. This chapter is therefore concerned with exploring some of the very subtle and intricate issues associated with ethical concerns and their relation to the role of ideology in shaping beliefs, attitudes and values, and thus both thinking and doing – that is, theory and practice. The chapter begins with a consideration of professional practice as a moral-political activity. This leads into an exploration of professional values which, in turn, are connected with an examination of the significance of discourse and ideology as fundamental factors that underpin the people professions.
Neil Thompson

Developing Theory

Frontmatter

11. Developing coherence: drawing on existentialism

Abstract
Postmodernism challenged traditional theoretical understandings, as we noted in Chapter 2. However, we also noted that proponents of this approach brought with them their own problems. This chapter revisits some of these themes and explores the importance of coherence – the need for elements of our understanding to be interconnected or unified in some way, providing a reasonably systematic (as opposed to random) understanding of the social world in general and the world of the people professions in particular. Building on the use of existentialist concepts at various points in Parts One and Two of the book, I present existentialism as a theoretical approach that offers a sound foundation for achieving this. In many ways what I am proposing runs totally counter to postmodernism which has denied the value of a coherent approach, preferring instead to emphasize fragmentation and playfulness. The chapter begins by exploring the importance of coherence as a basis for both theory and practice. From this we move on to consider, first existentialist theory as it applies to the people professions, and then existentialist practice. That is, we look more closely at how existentialist ideas can both inform our understanding of, and actually shape, the practice realities we encounter in our work.
Neil Thompson

12. The linguistic turn

Abstract
There has been a considerable development in social theory of a focus on language and its role in not only reflecting or describing reality, but also in constructing that reality. That is, it is increasingly being recognized that language is an active part of the development of our sense of reality (see the discussion in earlier chapters of the process of social construction). Language, then, is not simply a form of communication; its role in society generally and professional practice in particular, is much fuller than that. Although the significance of language has been recognized in the theory base underpinning the people professions up to a point, my argument in this chapter is that there is room for a much greater development of this theme. In this chapter I will therefore emphasize the importance of language and point out how problematic it can be if we neglect the central role of linguistic factors in professional practice. This will lead on to a discussion of how our actions and interactions take place through the medium of language – that is, we work through language. Finally in this chapter, we shall explore the important topic of developing ‘linguistic sensitivity’ (Thompson, 2009b; 2011b). This is fundamentally a discussion of the power of language to create problems for people, particularly for members of disadvantaged groups who may be stigmatized or discriminated against.
Neil Thompson

13. Spirituality and meaning

Abstract
In recent years we have seen the growing awareness of the importance of spirituality, partly as a dimension of an enhanced level of awareness of religion and partly as an important issue in its own right, separate from debates about religion. There is an important literature base now developing (see, for example, Coyte, Gilbert and Nicholls, 2007; Holloway and Moss, 2010; Moss, 2005; Pye, Sedgwick and Todd, 2015; Thompson, 2007b), but there is still considerable scope for extending our understanding of spirituality and how it relates to other aspects of the theory base underpinning the people professions and associated practice issues. Spirituality can be seen as a key issue for the people professions for various reasons, but I am particularly interested in it here in the context of this book for three reasons: 1. It links well with existentialism and the rejection of: (i) the rigidity of positivism that loses sight of the human being at the heart of our enterprise; and (ii) the cynicism of postmodernism, with its failure to establish clarity and coherence as a basis of meaning making. Holloway (2006) refers to the work of Nash (2002) who argues that ‘“spiritual practice” unites concern for the personal with concern for social and political justice’ (pp. 274–5).
Neil Thompson

14. Developing emancipatory practice

Abstract
Throughout my career I have witnessed a historical development over the decades from a strong individualistic focus, based predominantly on biological and psychological thinking, to a much broader, more sociological perspective based initially on systems theory and, beyond this, to a more critical sociopolitical perspective based on a commitment to anti-discriminatory practice. An example of this would be the movement from a narrow focus on health care as a matter of addressing individual pathology to a wider public health model and an emphasis on health inequalities (Davidson, 2014). A strong element of theory in the people professions for some time now has been a focus on tackling discrimination and oppression in terms of promoting equality, valuing diversity and contributing to the development of social justice (Thompson, 2011a; Witcher, 2015). It is this aspect of theory development that I shall be discussing here under the heading of ‘Emancipatory practice’. I shall look at two aspects of the legacy left to us by pioneers of this approach. First I shall look at the positives that have emerged from this development from the late 1960s onwards, and then I shall consider the problems that have been associated with it. The discussion here builds on my analysis of these issues in an earlier work (Thompson, 2016b).
Neil Thompson

15. The challenges we face

Abstract
This final chapter serves two purposes. It acts as a conclusion to Part Three, with its emphasis on theory development and also as a conclusion to the whole book, with its emphasis on theorizing practice. The chapter is in four parts. First, we revisit the theme of the nature of theory and theorizing. Next, we examine how theory relates to the current demands of practice. Third, I summarize the particular issues arising in Part Three as they relate to the need for theory development. Finally, I summarize how I see existentialism as a (meta)theoretical foundation for not only meeting the requirements of a well-informed, critically reflective practice, but also for developing the underlying theory base over time. Theory, theorizing, knowledge and truth The need to ‘apply theory to practice’ has haunted generations of students and practitioners who have been misled into thinking that there can be a direct link between the two – what Schon (1983) referred to as the ‘technical rationality’ approach. The development of reflective practice has shown us that what is required is a much more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between theory and practice – it is not simply a matter of taking one and ‘applying’ it to the other.
Neil Thompson
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