Skip to main content

About this book

Humankind seems to be heading along a precarious path. If we are to redirect and bring about truly transformative change, we must develop new understandings of the complex issues facing our global society.

In this important new text, renowned scholar Stanley Witkin explores how this might be approached within social work. Using social constructionist-informed critical analyses, Witkin proposes new conceptualisations of significant social work issues and suggests innovative possibilities for transformative change.

Providing a highly accessible discussion of complex theories and their application to practice, this ground-breaking text presents a transformative framework for the future of social work.

Table of Contents


This book is about transformative change and how such change might be approached within social work and related fields. In my view, change of this magnitude is needed if we are to meaningfully address important issues facing humankind and to redirect the precarious course in which our species seems to be heading. These issues are complex and range from interpersonal to international relations and from local concerns to global ones. This assessment was responsible, in part, for my use of the double entendre ‘transforming social work’ in the title. As used here, this term can mean a social work whose aim is to transform and/or about the transforming of social work itself. This was intentional as I believe both are needed. Although social work is limited in its ability to effect change of the magnitude that is needed, its unique location between the dominant social order and those who are marginalized and disadvantaged by that order provides an important standpoint from which to reflect on social processes and to envision new ways of going forward. From my perspective, there is a contradiction between social work’s selfpromotion as an advocate for progressive social change and its conservative intellectualism. The latter reflects the dominance of ‘modernist’ thinking and conventional science as models for social work research, practice, and education. For example, in contrast to the social change aspirations of social work, conventional research is inherently conservative, accepting the extant world as an independent reality whose truth can be discovered through the judicious application of reason and methods. This position has many implications for social work such as an emphasis on skills, the use of certain types of information (called evidence) as justifications for classifying people and how they are treated, and the silencing or marginalizing of diverse perspectives.
Stanley L. Witkin

1. Social Construction as a Transforming Framework

Change is inevitable. Even the dead change. Their bodies decay and eventually become organic matter. Nor is change limited to individuals. Families change. Organizations change. Societies change. Only a metaphysical being like God can be conceived of as unchanging.1 Change is complex. It can be unidimensional or multidimensional. It can occur in one or several areas. For example, we might change our appearance, but not our thinking, or we might change both. An organization can change its personnel policies but not its way of relating to those outside of the organization. Sometimes a change in one area produces changes in other areas. For example, an organization changes its mission statement which leads to changes in the services it offers. An individual might change jobs resulting in a change in their feelings of self-worth. Change implies difference. It involves a process of going from something to something else. In part, this way of thinking is based on the rules of language. It does not make sense, for example, to say that something both changed and stayed the same. Therefore, when we use the word ‘change’ we are implying that something about the subject of our sentence is different from a previous state. Thus, the naming of something as a change cannot be disentangled from the ‘actual’ change. Change occurs over time. Difference implies process which implies temporality. This process can be quick or slow. How we experience this temporality depends on factors such as at what point a change is considered to have occurred and its desirability. Consider, for example, comments like ‘It’s taking forever to get into shape’ and ‘I lost a pound in only one day!’ Process can also vary in how it is perceived;
Stanley L. Witkin

2. Revisioning Social Work Ethics

Values, Ethics, and Morality Values, ethics, and morals lie at the very heart of social work. From its early embrace of the value of charity to more contemporary, individualistic values like self-determination, values and the moral imperatives they imply have been an important dimension of social work’s identity (Goldstein, 1987). Changes in these values over time have tended to reflect corresponding changes in the social and intellectual landscape (Barnard, 2008; Leiby, 1985). These changes have generated differences about the most appropriate values for social work and their proper expression in practice (Reamer, 2006). In everyday discourse, values may express what people think is important or hold in high regard, qualities to which they aspire, and principles that function as guides for behavior, judgments, and decisions. Judgments about the expression of certain values are called ethics. For example, although we may value kindness toward others, its expression such as giving money to a beggar may be judged as good or bad (ethical or unethical). Thus, although there is a connection between values and ethics, the nature of this connection is not straightforward. Further complicating this relationship is that values can apply to specific domains (e.g., family, economics, religion), each of which provides a different interpretative context. A third leg of this discussion is morality. Although often used interchangeably with ethics, I favor the position articulated by the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman. For Bauman (2000a), ethics is the existential condition of humans.
Stanley L. Witkin

3. Human Rights: A Critical Analysis

The concept of human rights is central to the social work profession, arguably its most important ethical expression. However, despite its significance and taken-for-granted status, the meanings and expressions of human rights turn out to be quite complex and controversial. In this chapter, I will attempt to sort out some of these issues and propose some ways forward. As a context for the chapter, I will begin by briefly discussing social work’s involvement with human rights, both historically and in the present day. Next, I will discuss the relationship between human rights and social justice, terms that frequently appear together. I then will go a bit deeper into some conceptions of human rights; in particular, I will focus on the pivotal issue of universalism versus cultural relativity. I will also introduce postmodern and social constructionist perspectives on human rights highlighting the views of two influential scholars: Richard Rorty and Zygmunt Bauman. Finally, I will propose some ideas for how we might take up a human rights (or a congruent) perspective in social work practice. Social Work and Human Rights Although the modern concept of human rights can be traced back to the doctrine of Just War during the Augustine period and the Enlightenment conception of rights (Gordon, 1998; Ife, 2012), its contemporary institutionalization as a global ethical principle was developed in the aftermath of the Second World War, the subsequent Nuremberg trials, the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, and the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.
Stanley L. Witkin

4. Difference, Noticing, and Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is an example of an idea that was developed for the best of reasons: to help social workers become more aware of, knowledgeable about, and sensitive to ethnic and cultural differences between them and their clients (e.g., Johnson & Munch, 2009; Ortega & Faller, 2014). It also is an example of how problem construction and responses to those constructions are shaped by the dominant discourses of society and our profession; in this case, by a modernist worldview that considers, among other things, knowledge about something as equivalent to understanding, that reifies concepts (converts them into things) and assumes that those ‘things’ can be known by translating them into discrete units of information. Finally, it is an example of how well-intentioned responses to perceived problems can have unanticipated, less-desirable consequences. In this chapter I will attempt to illustrate these themes. Fundamentally, cultural competency is about difference and how it should be addressed. Although only certain differences such as ethnicity and race tend to be addressed, it can be helpful to think more generally about difference, how we come to notice (or not notice) it, why some differences are regarded as significant while others are inconsequential, and how they are understood and valued. Difference is essential to noticing. We can only notice something in relation to something else. For example, if everything was blue would we notice it? We do not notice ‘what is there’ but what is perceivable, discernable, and intelligible within a particular context.
Stanley L. Witkin

5. Social Work as Risky Business

Risk seems endemic to contemporary life. Hardly a day goes by where we do not hear about or consider the risk of taking – or not taking – some action. Whereas at one time the greatest dangers came from natural events over which people had no control, today it is primarily human-generated phenomena (e.g., technology) that engender our sense of risk.1 Does this mean that life is riskier than in past ages? Not necessarily (e.g., Giddens, 1999). In fact, some would argue that we are safer now than ever before (e.g., Mythen & Walklate, 2006); however, our awareness, understanding, and acceptance of risk seem to have changed in ways that magnify its salience in our lives. Some of these ideas are articulated in the risk society thesis, a view most closely associated with the work of German sociologist Ulrich Beck, particularly in his book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992). According to Beck, science, technology, and industrialization in the period of ‘late modernity’ have produced new kinds of risks that, until relatively recently (from a historical perspective), were unimaginable. Consequently, societies are unprepared to address them. The timing of Beck’s book (i.e., its English translation), coming right after the Chernobyl disaster, was a dramatic illustration of the kind of consequences Beck was writing about and increased its impact. As Mythen (2007) wrote, ‘Risk Society (1992) served to document the deleterious environmental side-effects of economic development and tapped into the growing mood of public scepticism towards expert institutions gaining ground in the West’ (p. 794). There is an irony in Beck’s thesis. The achievements of modernity, particularly science, were supposed to lessen risk; instead, they have generated it. Examples abound.
Stanley L. Witkin

6. Re-constructing the Strengths Perspective

Stories are a useful way of introducing and illustrating aspects of the strengths perspective. Dennis Saleebey, one of the primary architects of the strengths perspective, would often illustrate the basic principle of taking seriously the client’s hope and dreams (see, for example, Saleebey, 2011) through a story about a student of his who worked with a man who loved airplanes and wanted to become a pilot. Despite her client’s checkered employment history and lack of education, the student, mindful of this newly learned practice principle, dutifully took this seriously and worked with him to develop a plan for achieving his dream. In the course of their work together it became apparent to the client that choosing a related, more attainable goal would be a better place to start. This resulted in him becoming an airport baggage handler, a job which allowed him to be around airplanes and which he found satisfying. Similarly, I often use the story of a young man named Martin living in a small town who spent much of his time simply ‘hanging around’ street corners and whose life prospects, according to many in the community, seemed bleak (Witkin, 2001). In this case, the turning point was contact with a vocational counselor whose relationship with Martin allowed for the emergence of other, more pro-social qualities and proclivities. She matched these potentials to community needs and marshalled community support to meet those needs resulting in her client becoming a successful businessman. When social work students and practitioners first hear about the strengths perspective through stories like these, they tend to have three reactions: that the strengths perspective makes good sense, it is straightforward, and it is how I already practice (or would practice).
Stanley L. Witkin

7. Social Work from a Global Perspective

Social work in the 21st century is a global profession. This globalism references a marked growth in the number of social work programs worldwide and the increased awareness of the impact of global factors and conditions on issues of concern to social workers. More specifically, political changes over the past 25 years have led to the development or re-development of many social work programs in Eastern Europe, China, and Africa. Additionally, there is widespread recognition of the worldwide impacts of advances in communication and transportation technology and the interdependencies and global nature of issues affecting people across the globe. For instance, issues related to the environment, health, violence, and economics transcend the arbitrary borders of nation states. Also of importance for social work is the awareness that these issues do not affect people equally but tend to have their most adverse impact on those who are poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized. These developments have highlighted the need to re-consider social work from a global perspective. It invites us to question whether social work’s traditional (i.e., Western) intellectual frameworks and practices are the most useful and relevant for addressing the complexity and diversity of a global context. In other words, the central issue is not whether social work should adopt a global perspective, but how. I will argue that to respond to these changes without radical changes to our analytical frameworks and understandings is to risk reproducing Western hegemony on a broader scale. In response, I will propose an alternative approach to these developments. Before delving into this issue, there are some matters of terminology that need to be addressed.
Stanley L. Witkin

8. Knowledge and Evidence: Exploring the Practice–Research Relationship

We live in a time when demonstrating effectiveness is considered an important criterion for the justification and support of different practice approaches and programs. Both ethical and pragmatic rationales are used to justify this positon. Specifically, it is argued that clients of social workers and related professionals have a ‘right’ to know about and receive treatments or interventions that have been shown to be the most efficacious in preventing or ameliorating their situation or problem (e.g., Barber, 2008; Myers & Thyer, 1997; but see Witkin, 1998, for a rejoinder). Practitioners therefore have a corresponding responsibility to be informed about, communicate, and employ such approaches. Further supporting this position is the claim (e.g., from government sources and health insurers) that in a context of finite resources it is imperative to be able to differentiate effective from less effective programs so as to optimize benefits and minimize cost. These economic justifications are particularly persuasive within the current neo-liberal climate in the United States and Europe. Claims of program or practice effectiveness are seen as credible to the extent that they are backed by ‘evidence’, typically in the form of research-generated, quantitative data. It is not sufficient to opine about the value of a program or approach, or to argue for its virtue; empirical data are required. These data, in turn, are seen as the constituent elements of ‘knowledge’ – a kind of truth bearing information that will enable us to understand and respond to issues in the most effective ways.
Stanley L. Witkin
Additional information