How do social workers link theories to practice?
In this article, I will explore how a social theory (Durkheim’s theory) can be linked to practice helping us understand how social norms, standards, values, and a shared common purpose can result in a solidified community.
How to link theory to practice
Harrington (2002) highlights that social theories can be referred to as structures or frameworks, which can be used to enhance our understanding of social occurrences. Theory, according to Sutton and Staw (2003), is a concrete proposition or information. To simply put it, theory is a collection of ideas which attempts to examine events or facts in a systematic way, using a set of principles in order for this information to be used universally.
However, Ritzer and Smart (2016) oppose that although social theory may be viewed as a systematic way of using information, they may be described as lacking a precise structure and viewed as fragmented. Such an ideology may indicate that there are different, if not opposing, approaches to the study of a social occurrence. Accordingly, theory can be viewed as a contested concept. Consequently, Coulshed and Orme (2012) argue that by considering the different elements of a theory in particular, the relevance to social work can be highlighted.
There seems to be no single definition of what constitutes inequality in the society. Warwick-Booth (2013) highlights that social inequality can be defined and presented in different contexts–globally, historically and subjectively. In her opinion, social inequalities can result in social divisions measured based on factors such as age, social status, health, sexuality and disability. Similarly, Beynon and Glavanis (2013) share similar views with Warwick Booth (2013). In the views of Beynon and Glavanis (2013) social inequality occurs when differences exist between individual groups in a society based on their social groups, social circles or social status.
On the other hand, Allin and Hand (2014) view social inequality as a process that exists in society and which can limit or negatively influence a group’s social status, social class, and social circle. Whereas Warwick-Booth, Beynon and Glavanis try to relate social inequalities to differences amongst groups in the society, Allin and Hand believe that social inequality influences these groups negatively. Consequently, it is challenging to assign specific definitions to the term ‘inequality’, since it has different implications to people in dissimilar situations.
The term also has diverse meanings within different contexts, including economic, political and sociological settings (Allin & Hand, 2014). Consequently, the expression ‘inequality’ is used in this paper to refer to the existence of imbalanced chances and rewards for social positions which are different or status within the context of groups in the society resulting in these groups being disadvantaged. When inequality is not effectively addressed in the society, it results in unfairness.
The expression ‘social’ and ‘justice’ are very important to social work practice. Social justice is a vital value in social work. The term social justice according to Austin (2014) involves ensuring that people get equal opportunities, have access to the necessities needed in society and are involved in decision-making. On the other hand, the term ‘inclusion’ in the society according to Payne (2014) refers to a process of refining the terms on which people and groups are involved in society.
It includes creating opportunities, improving ones’ ability and encouraging the views and wishes of those disadvantaged using different methods and intervention strategies such as co-production and personalisation. However, Bollard (2009) has critiqued methods used in social work to promote inclusion. In his view, the methods used are coercive in nature and can demean people in the society and do not increase self-determination. Nevertheless, Payne (2014) contends that social inclusion can result in people feeling valued, respected and their basic needs being met.
Social workers seek to promote justice, inclusion and fairness by addressing the needs of vulnerable people within the society using a range of methods. The social work career comprises the application of measures and support to help promote social change and development, problem-solving in human relationships, emancipation and empowerment of individuals to promote social justice (International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), (2014).
Payne (2014) also highlights that as well as arguing for and supporting policies that tackle injustice and inequality, social work as a profession can challenge the cultural practices that lead to misrecognition. However, over the last few years, social work has been viewed as focusing so much on screening, assessment and risk management with less emphasis on ensuring the needs of service users are met effectively (Ayre & Preston-Shoot, 2010). Nonetheless, social workers may employ a range of skills and knowledge to enable them to comprehend the needs of vulnerable people and help promote justice and inclusion in the society (Zastrow, 2010).
Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) was known for his ideas on the structure of society. Durkheim was a consensus sociologist and his views were focused mainly on social solidarity among individuals in the society (Jones et al., 2011). Unlike Marx, in the modern society, Durkheim was focused on reformation and not elimination (Marx & Spencer, 2013). In Durkheim’s view society constituents different systems which work together to ensure effective functioning of the whole. This viewpoint is termed functionalism according to Durkheim (1982). As a result, to maintain a fit social body, individuals have a part to play to ensure social cohesiveness.
This notion according to Durkheim (1982) reinforces the idea that each person in the society has a contribution to make. By recognising and making use of individual strengths, social workers can help promote inclusion. For instance, the child and family assessment framework used in assessing children and families is backed by the Children Act 1989. As a result, the framework encourages strengths of family units to be captured during assessments by also ensuring that the child’s wishes and feelings are captured. This ensures that interventions put in place is appropriate and proportionate to the family circumstances.
According to Maclean and Harrison (2015) strength based approaches can help social workers understand the dynamics in a family in order to channel the right intervention strategy. For instance, in order to understand a family’s structure and direct support in an efficient manner, an intervention strategy such as a family group conferencing can be used. However, this intervention approach has been criticised by Libesman (2016). According to Libesman, where appropriate balances and checks are not put in place, it can result in complexity between family preservation and child protection.
For example, in domestic violence cases, parents may decide to stay together. The impact of such relationships may affect the children involved negatively, and this can last into adulthood. The impact of domestic violence on children may range from children being anxious, depressed, nightmares or a lowered sense of self-worth (Burford & Hudson, 2009).
In addition, during a family group conferencing, intimidation may cause certain family members may perhaps be too scared to make some revelations at meetings or conferences due to having the offender present at such gathering (Davies & Ward, 2011).
If such approaches are used effectively, it can result in the re-establishment of family ties and empowerment (Burford & Hudson, 2009). Social workers can use such strategies to promote inclusion and social justice when working with children and families.
Durkheim (1982) contends that various systems work together, interrelate and rely on other parts for efficient functioning of the society. As a result, when a part of this system is altered, it unsettles the whole system and there is no longer an equilibrium (Lukes, 2013). From this viewpoint, social equilibrium was disrupted as a result of the death of Victoria Climbie in the year 2000 (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2014).
This tragic event was more of a catalyst for fear and anxiety about our social world and the ability of social work to maintain the social order and social justice. As a result, there was a restructure in policies relating to children in order to deal with the short falls of the various processes involved in the shortcomings (Sidebotham & Fleming, 2007).
Commendations made in Lord Laming’s statement after the death of Victoria Climbie were considered in the government green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ (Stein, 2012). The Green Paper also placed emphasis on the fact that the government’s intention was to safeguard children and to ensure that measures are put in place to protect the disadvantaged in the society and also to ensure that social justice is promoted.
Collaboration between multi-agencies to promote the welfare of children was a key component in the safeguarding agenda highlighted in ‘Every Child Matters’. As a result, the duty to work collaboratively with other professionals in order to ensure that the welfare of children was placed on social workers. This was to help protect children and to prevent deterioration to their development and health (Chisnell & Kelly, 2016).
Multi-agency working portrays Durkheim’s functionalist viewpoint on interdependency between individuals in the community. According to Durkheim (1982) among workers in the society there exist social cohesion and individuals co-existed. This feeling of closeness and having a connection existed among workers and Durkheim termed this as ‘mechanical solidarity’.
As the years went by, there was a gradual shift in labour. Labour turned out to be specialised as a result of industrialisation and modernisation. As a result, ‘mechanical solidarity’ quickly changed into ‘organic solidarity’ where social cohesion was reliant on dissimilarities and co-dependence (Lukes, 2013).
Irrespective of the complexities within the mechanical society, Durkheim explains that a very strong feeling of harmony and shared values persisted, constituting the collective conscience that is essential to the survival of a smooth running society (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2014). An understanding of the functionalist viewpoint of Durkheim helps social workers when working with children and families to consider the benefits of multi-disciplinary working.
Through the functionalist viewpoint of Durkheim, social workers can appreciate factors that promote effective collaborative working among different agencies. For instance, good communication, information sharing on a need to know basis as well as an understanding of each professional’s role helps professionals to help improve the protective factors in a child’s life to help promote inclusion and social justice (Chisnell & Kelly, 2016).
The revolt according to Durkheim (1982) resulted in a lot of misunderstanding and tension. Individuals began to lose sight of their shared interests as a result of the developments of division of labour. Subsequently, individuals experienced alienation from group values and goals. This situation resulted in a state of confusion and Durkheim termed this as anomie. However, he shared that this state of confusion and dysfunction in the society was a positive occurrence (Mayes, 1980). An understanding of this state of anomie by Durkheim can help social workers work with strategies and interventions that can help manage situations involving dysfunction in a family and achieve a balance.
For instance, to promote inclusion when working with children and families, a personalisation can be used by social workers to ensure that the person is in the center of an assessment. With this, individuals can be assured that their views, wishes and feelings expressed during assessments will be considered. In addition, to maintain balance in the society, social workers may be able to use co-production which can improve upon the relationship between the service user and the wider society.
It can also help promote a positive interdependence where individuals and managers of services or providers collaborate to create a service or idea which works for everyone involved. However, co-production has been criticised by authors such as Beresford and Carr (2012). In their view, such initiatives encouraging service users to participate creates a false idea of power transfer and creates unequal relationships with people who use services.
Durkheim also shared his views on socialisation as a key component of functionalism. Socialisation according to Durkheim highlights ways in which individuals learn values and norms expected of them in a society (Durkheim 1982). Durkheim’s ideology on socialisation indicates that individuals in society are grouped together based on a shared belief such as religion, and this is further reinforced by the values and norms which then acts as a form of social control.
These shared values and norms are embedded in culture and transferred from one generation to the next (Jones et al., 2011). However, it should be noted that culture can also determine whether a system is open or closed. An awareness of this can help social workers identify what sort of strategy to employ when working with children and families. For instance, open systems are more receptive to new ideas (Turner, 2000).
An understanding of Durkheim’s views on socialisation can support social workers when working with children and families. For instance, with the understanding of the cultural values of a Muslim family, social workers can develop cultural appropriate interventions. In addition, through this knowledge of culture, social workers can employ practices that would highlight to the service user that they are being respected and acknowledged.
For instance, wearing appropriate clothing when visiting a Muslim family or asking if it is appropriate to enter a Muslim house with shoes on can help foster a good working relationship between the practitioner and service user. In addition, it can help make the family develop a feeling of inclusion and acceptance.
According to Durkheim, institutions such as peer groups, family and law come together to form society. These groups or institutions share diverse cultures and share common values (Jones et al., 2011). Durkheim emphasised that individuals are born into society and go through a process of socialisation.
Durkheim proclaims that, to keep society operating well, it is important to keep socialisation central. In his view, norms, rules and values should be passed on through generations to keep society functioning well and change nothing to sustain social stability. In the process of socialisation, cultures are taught and norms and values learned and become internalised (Durkheim, 1982).
From birth, the quality of life by a child is determined by the kind of care and education he or she receives from family members in the home. As children start to develop, secure attachments as well as ensure attachments are formed depending on their experiences. Children begin to establish themselves as members of a most basic unit of society, which is the family (Lehmann, 1995).
When working with children and families, an understanding of socialisation can help social workers realise that values, norms and beliefs are picked up in the early years of a child’s life and this is mostly taught by parents or older siblings. However, as children grow, they begin to learn in schools, media, and peer groups, and this continues throughout life. They develop their social identity and learn the roles they play in society.
On the other hand, an understanding of Durkheim’s views on socialisation can help social workers understand that social disintegration is an actual threat and this can cause a feeling of exclusion. According to Durkheim, without norms governing our attitude and actions, individuals may develop a feeling of dissatisfaction and irritation. Such a feel of exclusion and anti-social individualism is a condition termed anomie according to Durkheim (Jones et al., 2011).
Although many strengths can be drawn from Durkheim’s theory in social work practice, there have been some criticisms. For instance, Morrison (2006) states that Durkheim’s theory is of the view that individuals in the society all have the same decisions and choices to make in life. However, the fact is the disadvantaged have fewer options compared to the advantaged. Lehmann (1995) also highlights that Durkheim places too much importance on social order and ignores to place emphasis on the freedom of individual choices, which is an important element of social work practice.
To conclude, this article has drawn attention to the fact that social workers can use social theory to help promote social justice and inclusion when working with children and families. It has highlighted that an understanding of Durkheim’s theory can enhance a social worker’s understanding of changes in cultural and social behaviours. In addition, it can help a social worker understand the need to maintain societal balance to promote social cohesion and equilibrium.
Social workers can use Durkheim’s theory to maintain a stable and balanced state and use certain strategies such as strength-based approaches to prevent anomie. Knowledge of social theories in social work can be enhanced with a combination of social imagination, research and evidence based practice. Durkheim’s theory can help social workers uphold social justice and help promote practices that are anti-oppressive in nature. Hence a combination of skills, research and knowledge can help capture the alienation among individuals and help sustain an interrelated society which can promote social justice and inclusion.
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