Becoming a critical social work practitioner
Becoming a critical social work practitioner

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Becoming a critical social work practitioner

1.2 Hearing about critical practice

Activity 2

1 hour 0 minutes

Listen to the following audio clips, ‘Panel discussion on critical practice’, Part 1: Critical practice.

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Transcript: Panel discussion 1a

Winifred
In this first discussion we’re going to be looking at the meaning of critical practice, how the views of service users are taken into account and the professional power of social workers.
I'm Winifred Robinson, and with me today are Steve Trevillion, who's Professor of Social Work and Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Leicester. And, prior to that, he was Head of Social Work Education at the General Social Care Council. Steve, hello.
Steve
Hello.
Winifred
Susanna Watson's a qualified social worker. She’s currently working in a community based adult care team in the south west of England. Susanna, hello.
Susanna
Hello.
Winifred
What is it then that you do?
Susanna
I work with a variety of service users – adults, older and younger adults, with physical impairments.
Winifred
Professor Andy Pithouse is also with us. He is Professor of Social Research at Cardiff University, where he specialises in Social Care and Health Services. He's also been a member of a number of reviews for the Welsh Assembly on Children and Social Work Services in Wales.
Andy, tell us a bit about your work.
Andy
Most of my work is evaluation studies into social care and health services. My current work is looking at advocacy services for children in the public care system - how well their voice is heard and how they participate in the various stages of the care system. And I'm also doing some work around error and mistakes in decision making by social workers, and looking at the difficulties and the problems they have in arriving at reliable decisions.
Winifred
And on the line from Edinburgh we have Maggie Mellon, who is Director of Services with Children First in Scotland. It was formally the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. And she's also a Board Member of the Scottish Child Law Centre, and of Community Care Provider Scotland. Maggie, hello.
Maggie
Hello.
Winifred
I'd like to start by looking at the whole concept of critical practice in social work, and what we mean by that. Maggie, perhaps you could start.
Maggie
For me critical practice is one of the most important concepts that social workers should have at the heart of their work. It's so necessary for learning from the job that we're doing, and learning how to help people make a difference in their lives. For me it's about turning good intuitive practice, once you have learned the social work task in its elements, but it's about turning that into both teachable practice and into knowledge that the profession can then use in future and build on.
Winifred
Steve Trevillion.
Steve
Well I think Maggie's absolutely right to emphasis what a core issue this is. Critical practice is absolutely at the heart of good social work practice. As a phrase, of course, it's quite a recent phrase. But, in a sense, the ideas behind it have a very long history within social work. And you can certainly trace them back to all the interest that there was in radical social work practice, in social work with a social conscience, and so on.
Winifred
But what does it mean, ‘critical practice'? What do we mean when we say that?
Steve
I think, behind the idea of critical practice, lies the idea of critical thinking and analysis. And certainly all the older debates about critical issues emphasise critical thinking as the root really of critical practice.
Critical thinking, of course, there is a very long history. And, in one sense, it's all tied up with the questioning approach and the refusal to take things for granted. The idea of critical practice can sound very theoretical, even philosophical, because it deals in issues around questioning assumptions and refusing to take things for granted. However, I think it's worth pointing out that, whenever I talk to service users, one of the first things they emphasise about what's important to them in terms of the social workers they meet is that those social workers are questioning people, are reflective people, are people who can put their problems and concerns in a broader context and really think about it. What they don't want are people who are automatons, people who are they feel are just following procedures. So it's something that people value, as well as being an important concept for academics and professionals.
Winifred
Andy Pithouse, would you then draw a distinction between a social worker who is engaged in critical practice and somebody who is simply ... I suppose, if they were a doctor, you would say practising defensively ... doing what they know is in the law, doing what is laid down in the regulations, doing what the boss says.
Andy
Yes that's a good point. I think most social workers don't have much choice, to an extent. They have to work within legislation and statute. They have to work in relation to certain sets of standards about activities and outcomes. Those are, in many respects, necessary things. And the issue is, not so much are there procedures and technical legal requirements, which of course there are; they have to pursue those. It's to what extent they can take those forward more, and humanise them, and deal with the always with the uncertainty and the exigencies of practice. Practice is never straightforward and clear. You can't apply some sets of certain predictions to the world of social work and the lives of the people we seek to assist.
And so I think critical theory is about having a number of perspectives. You obviously have the organisational perspective, as I say, standards, ethics, requirements and so forth by law. But you also have other perspectives around the rights of people - people's own particular understanding and needs, seeing the world from their own particular perspective. So it's about being empathic, intuitive and searching for ways of promoting people's interests and abilities. And that is a critical theory ... was once described more as sort of a form of jazz, where you extemporise, where you pick up a number of themes. You have an underlying rhythm going through, but you're adding pieces to it as you build in different perspective ... a sort of 'bricolage' of ideas and themes. And of course critical theory is also about being critical about yourself. And so it's not simply the right to criticise the system as such. The system will always be there, we can't be without one. It's about having a sense of balance and proportionality to the complex world of people's lives and recognising that, by and large, there are no real certainties in much of what we do.
Maggie
Could I just add something there about critical practice as opposed to what works, which has had quite a lot of discussion and focus in social work ... you know, what works a ... and which it did need to have because there wasn't a lot of knowledge or gathered knowledge about what kind of interventions and help was useful to people. But I think what critical practice does is move that one on, because we know that, you know, rubbing two sticks together can create a spark that lights a fire. But, if you didn't move on from that, we wouldn't have had much more effective ways of, and quicker ways of, lighting fires. So I think critical practice actually develops what we know and takes it on to another level and helps us to improve our work.
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Transcript: Panel discussion 1b

Winifred
Susanna Watson, I want to bring you into the discussion because I know that you are fairly recently qualified. How useful is this idea of critical practice when you start work, or is it simply something that belongs in the textbook and then, when the textbook is closed, is never pulled out again?
Susanna
No, I think it is useful. I think it provides an invaluable framework for what you're doing and, in a way, helps you to analyse what you are doing and to make decisions from that analysis.
I mean, an example ... I worked a couple of years ago with an older woman, who had some early stages of dementia and was also a heavy drinker. And she lived with her adult daughter, who was her carer. Her adult daughter had a learning difficulty, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to care for her mother.
There were some concerns, I think, when the daughter became very stressed. She often shouted at her mother and there were worries that maybe some times she sort of pushed and shoved her, just because of the levels of stress she was under. And the daughter made it very clear that she was wanting to move out of the house. She was wanting to live independently. She didn't want to look after her mother anymore.
Her mother was equally clear that she wanted to stay at home but there were real concerns that, without her daughter there, she really wouldn't manage. She was becoming increasingly forgetful. On one occasion she was eating the cat food. She was very confused sometimes about where she was.
So you had the conflicting rights of the daughter, who was wanting to move out ... the mother who was wanting stay at home. The GP was saying that he felt that the mother's main problem, if you like, was her alcoholism and she had a right to drink. The psychiatrist was saying her dementia means that she doesn't really know how much she’s drinking. She's vulnerable from that point of view.
So you have a whole plethora of different perspectives, different ideas about what's going on. And none of those ideas are wrong, and none of them are wholly right. And within all that you have to try and come to some decisions about actions that need to be taken, and how to work with that situation.
Winifred
So what did you do?
Susanna
I worked with her over quite a long period, probably between six months and a year, whilst her daughter was looking for accommodation to move to.
Winifred
Did you ever consider trying to persuade the daughter to stay, because obviously for social services that would be the cheapest option?
Susanna
No. I didn't, because I mean that wasn't an option because the daughter was clearly expressing her wish to move, and she was being supported by her own social worker in that move. What I could do was to talk to her mother about the fact that her daughter was moving out ... to repeat that again and again and again so that she did eventually understand that was inevitable.
And she began to understand that she would have to think about how she was going to manage in that situation. And we tried ... we tried different things. At one stage her daughter, again at a particularly stressful moment, was needing an immediate break. Her mother, with some persuasion, agreed to go and stay in a care home for about a week. And then, after that, I was able to talk to her about what she had and hadn't liked about that particular place, and sort of talked to her some more about what might happen next.
And eventually we found a small group home that was happy to accept her, very much as she was - that would still allow her to drink in moderation anyway, and would allow her to smoke, and was a kind of comfortable atmosphere. It wouldn't insist on having a bath, which was something she had loathed in the previous place she'd been in. And just gradually, bit by bit, she agreed to move and, because she was able to move at the same time as her daughter, I think it felt like a kind of logical life progression. And she actually settled very well in her new home, eventually.
Winifrid
Having heard that story, is there anything that anyone around the table would like to draw out from that?
Steve
What I would say is it's a very good illustration actually of the benefits of working closely with people first of all - listening to their views and trying to think ahead in a situation as well, and not just perhaps attend to an immediate crisis ... and try to think about where things are going, having a kind of long-term strategy which is developed in partnership with the people you are working with.
I think it raises all sorts of really interesting questions about the complexity of social work practice and the way in which listening to people can be extremely complex, because you’re often dealing with more than one person, more than one set of views and more than one set of interests. In a sense, I think critical practice is designed just that ... for exactly that situation, to help you negotiate a way through some of these complex situations.
Winifred
Andy Pithouse, I wonder if sometimes some of the language used in the texts isn't sometimes unnecessarily complex?
Andy
Yes, I think that is the case. I mean, when you look at some of the texts, these are fairly impenetrable, theoretical, philosophical positions. But they should be tackled nonetheless, I think, by students and ideally with some critical facility themselves about whether these are actually going to have any benefit, in terms of everyday practice of course. But the underlying ideas of critical theory are about being creative, being intuitive, assertive, thinking about change, thinking about rights and tackling injustice.
Essentially critical theory is about being in a position to recognise, as Steve has just said, that there are many and competing voices in relation to our modern lives. And so the critical theory social worker, for want of a better phrase, has to negotiate the views of education, adult services, the local community, the client and family, and so forth, and recognise that there are some very different interests and different ways of understanding those. And you can't simply operate with the one formal theory. Let me give you an example. I mean, if you visited somebody, a service user in a home for people with learning disabilities, that particular person was engaging in repetitive self harming behaviour - banging their head in some way ... and I can think of a recent case I was involved with. Well clearly you could go and get a psychologist, and do behaviourist intervention and use sanctions and rewards to possibly change that behaviour. But I think you’ve also got to think about whether that person is behaving like that because the environment is unstimulating, because no one quite understands their emotional needs; because they may be missing some intimate person in their lives. One's got to think around the corner and in very imaginative ways to consider the causes and the solutions to people's behaviours. But it shouldn't be a recipe for paralysis and endless introspection. It must be about action. Critical theory and critical practice must be about action and change.
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Panel discussion 1b
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Compare your notes from Activity 1 with the views of the panel. Answer the following questions:

  1. What areas of overlap were there between your views and those of the panel members?

  2. Did you detect any differences between the views of the academics, the manager, and the practitioner? Were they significant? If so, how?

  3. Has your perspective changed as a result of listening to this discussion? If so, in what ways?

Discussion

Listening to people talk about social work, from their particular point of view, can often add new dimensions to your understanding of what different issues mean to you. The two practitioners were clear that ‘being critical’ was essential to their approaches to practice. This was reinforced by both the academic speakers. The academics added that, while critical practice can sound very theoretical, or philosophical, because it requires practitioners to question their assumptions and not just take things for granted, this critical questioning approach isn't simply introspective and reflective; it must also lead to action and change. The social worker's main tool for action and change is ‘talk’.

The next session will illustrate this point by introducing you to some arguments about how talk enables and constructs the nature of your practice.

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