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

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Becoming a critical social work practitioner

2.3 Objective conditions and subjective definitions

Activity 4

2 hours 0 minutes

Reread the story about the three baseball umpires, which you'll find on page 11 of ‘What do we mean by “Constructive social work”? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

After you have read the story again, read the three paragraphs following it which include a quote from Fuller and Myers (1941), about objective conditions and subjective definitions. Think about what you have read and draft answers to the following questions:

  1. How would you describe the differences between the three umpires in terms of their ‘world view’ (or how they see things) in calling balls and strikes?

  2. If they were three social workers discussing how they ‘see problems’, what difference might this make to their practice?

  3. If social work was practised according to the first or second type of approach used by the umpires what might be the likely result?

  4. What are the implications of the third approach for social work practitioners' power?

  5. In what ways were you persuaded (or not!) by the distinction between objective conditions and subjective definitions?

  6. Did this distinction help to further explain the difference between the three umpires?

  7. Do you think that the existence of ‘problems’ is self-evident – or does it depend, as the authors argue, on someone claiming or asserting that a problem exists?

  8. What are the implications for social workers' practice in general and your practice in particular?

When you have drafted your answers to these questions, you may wish to share them using the Comments section below. You will also be able to see the comments from others studying this course and can, if you wish, post further comments agreeing or disagreeing with them. Your developing thoughts will contribute towards an online group debate about the different views and responses to what you have read.


The story demonstrates three different ways of approaching practice; the first assumes that what we see and hear is not interpreted by us, or filtered by our assumptions – that what we see is the way things ‘really are’. The second accepts that reality appears only as we, or rather ‘I’, see it, that is, only through my own perceptions and prejudices or ‘constructs’. The third approach recognises the importance of our own constructs of reality but, in addition, accepts that there is power in our social positions. In other words, we can use our position within social situations to ‘call’ and thereby create and define an interpretation of what has happened.

What it is crucial to understand is the power of the role that certain people play within certain situations. In baseball, cricket or football, the umpire or referee enforces the rules of the game. Although many people may have contributed to creating the rules, the person who interprets them has power as a result of their position. The rules of the game may have been socially created and constructed from many different sources but they are open to interpretation and professional judgement.

Social work practice shares some similarities with this scenario – but it also has some important differences. The ‘rules’ concerning services and interactions between social workers and service users have been constructed socially via agency and government policy. Nevertheless, these rules have to be put into practice by the social worker interacting with service user(s) and colleagues, often over long periods of time. However, absolute split-second decisions do not have to be made by social workers acting alone! So, in implementing ‘the rules of the game’ social workers can see these rules as:

  • more or less fixed, permanent and outside their control

  • as a matter for their discretion and judgement only

  • as a social process that they and the service user are part of, and over which they have significant influence, but not full control – however, neither does anyone else!

In our view, if social work is practised according to the first or second approaches it is likely that partnership with service users will fail because the service will be bureaucratic and impersonal, or idiosyncratic and judgemental.

In effect, practising the first two approaches would undermine Glaister's pillars of practice, as discussed in Activity 1.

The quote from Fuller and Myers which follows the story makes a key philosophical distinction with profound professional practice implications. There are ‘objective conditions’ in all social work situations, about which disagreement is unlikely. For example, there is no bed for a child; no heating in an elderly person's house; a family has no money. In addition, and overlaying these conditions, there are also ‘subjective definitions’ of situations through which everyone, including social workers, assigns meanings, values, judgements and assessments.

The objective absence of bed, heating or money may clearly be a priority problem in given situations. However, there is an equal possibility that it may not be assessed as a problem, or not one necessarily requiring social work intervention, when a range of other information about specific circumstances and possible future actions are negotiated or taken into account.

To pursue these examples: the parents may be happy for the child to sleep with them until a bed can be found; the elderly person may prefer to wear more clothing rather than spend money on heating; the family may have friends or relatives who are willing and able to help. This key distinction between objective conditions and subjective definitions is crucial to understanding the ‘constructive’ approach to social work practice.


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