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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 through political education and through consciousness-raising dialogues within an egalitarian relationship between the Social Worker and the service user. Through collective action and emphasizing solidarity among the oppressed, a structural approach links the personal with the political, making it possible for people to consider their personal experience of oppression within a broader political understanding (Mullaly, 1997).

Alternatively, Postmodern approaches focus on discourse analysis and discursive processes (Chambon and Irving, 1994). Postmodern critical social work approaches tend to focus less on targeting change at the broader political/structural level (Allan, 2003, p.57). The language of dominant discourses is analyzed for its potential to marginalize individuals and groups and prevent their rights and needs from being met (Allan, 2003, p.60).

The difference in emphasis between the structural and postmodern approaches on where social workers should focus their attention and actions to bring about change illustrate the tension between diversity and solidarity, or mutual interdependence (Allan, 2003, p.58). Both approaches are committed to change-oriented ways of working, holding particular attention to the socio-political and cultural contexts in which people or issues are situated, and to workings of power through ideologies or discourses (Allan, 2003, p.58).

Structural social work views social problems as arising from a specific societal context, that being liberal/neo-conservative capitalism, rather than from the failings of individuals (Mullaly, 1997). Structural social work is based on socialist ideologies, located within the radical social work camp, and grounded in critical theory. Inequality is viewed as a natural, inherent part of capitalism that falls along the lines of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ability and geographic region. Inequality excludes these groups from opportunities, meaningful participation in society, and a satisfactory quality of life. An assumption in this approach is that prevailing ideology - policies, practices and procedures - of most social organisations maintain the power of workers and reduce the power of the users of their services (Allan, 2003, p.33). The concern of structural social work is with groups in society who are marginalized by an ideology that supports, maintains and legitimates the present social order (Moreau, 1979).

Within postmodernism, there is an emphasis on difference and diversity, attention to language and discourse; and a rethinking of the notions of power and knowledge. Postmodern theories challenge the negative view of power, as it is regarded as being both productive and coercive (Gorman, 1993). Rather than seek to reduce or avoid power, as structural theorists have often done, postmodernists challenge social workers to articulate how such power

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