Structural and Postmodern Social Work Theories

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Critical social work theory does not hold one single definition; rather it refers to an expansive range of theories that a share similar orientation. Critical social work is committed to working with and for oppressed populations to achieve social transformation. Critical social work recognizes that large scale social processes – namely those associated with class, race and gender – fundamentally contribute to the personal and social issues social workers encounter in practice (Healy, 2001). The core mission of critical social work is to promote social justice through social work practice and policy making. Critical social work draws on structural and postmodern approaches. Similarities and differences exist between these approaches in terms of purpose, principles of practice, underlying assumptions and values and the relationship between the social worker and service user. Both of these approaches possess strengths and limitations – which will be discussed in this essay – and have contributed to the development of critical practices in social work.

Structural and postmodern theories differ in many respects. However, there are also commonalities between the two. Both stand against domination and oppression, with alternative visions of society. Structural critical theory seeks a society based on socialist or collectivist principles, and although post-modernism allows for many alternative visions only those concerned with human liberation are legitimate, given its emancipatory intent (Mullaly, 1997).

The purpose of structural social work is to move away from traditional approaches to social work that were based upon a medical and disease model that places people in a passive position, with the focus of attention on the individual rather than their situation (Rossiter, 1996, p.24). This approach provides a critical framework for analysis of social work knowledge and practice. It is based on an analysis of how economic, social, political and legislative contexts shape individual and societal problems. The ultimate goal of structural social work is to contribute to the transformation of liberal capitalist society to one that is more congruent with socialist principles (Mullaly, 1997). Likewise, the purpose of the postmodern approach is to challenge the grand narrative of modernism. Postmodernism draws attention to analysis of how organisational discourses shape critical practice possibilities and limits (Chambon and Irving, 1994). Postmodernism is a critique of totalizing theories, like structural approaches that set out to explain everything. Postmodernism challenges the idea that there is one universal truth or reality, but rather multiple realities. Postmodernism is concerned with social transformation, with multiple and diverse social realities which are constructed by factors both internal and external to the individual with the importance of local contexts of practice and with the role of discourse in maintaining power (Allan, 2003, p.42). By drawing attention to the productive power of discourse, postmodern approaches invite critical social workers to locate their understandings not only in the material structures of oppression, but also, within the historical and local discourses of practice (Howe, 1994).

A commitment to working alongside oppressed and marginalized populations is common to both structural and postmodern approaches. An orientation towards emancipatory personal and social change, social justice and social equality is also shared by the two approaches. Practice within structural social work includes exploring the socio-political and economic context of individual difficulties and to help collectivize personal troubles (Moreau, 1979). Additionally, structural social work aims to change the client's consciousness in order to reverse the process of internalized oppression (Moreau, 1990, p.54). Empowerment is also a major goal of practice within the structural approach. It is seen to be achieved...
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