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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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1.1 Knowledge

What exactly is meant by knowledge and theory and how can it inform practice? This question is too wide-ranging to be fully answered here, but the following section maps out the kinds of knowledge that are relevant to practice. Hopefully you recognise that you possess a lot of ‘knowledge’, whatever your personal or working background.

A photograph of a person writing in a notebook.

Activity 1 What do I ‘know’ already?

Timing: Allow 10 minutes to complete

Make a list of the sorts of things you think you already know that might be useful to you if you were practising as a social worker.

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Here are some example suggestions that might be similar to yours:

  • I know about some of the services that are relevant and who these are aimed to support, for example there is a lunch club for older people in our street, my friend does fostering of disabled kids, there are schools and playgroups in our area. I work in a mental health team so know about services and the people who use them.
  • I know how to work with people, for example, how to relate to teenagers; I know what to do if someone is angry or upset; I know how to be organised and get things done.
  • I know some of the things about the law, for example at what age you can drink alcohol; the benefits system; deciding if someone has the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves.
  • I know some theories and ideas from previous studies, for example about child development, healthy living, behavioural contracts and reward systems.
  • I’ve used different services in health, education and social care and know what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

As the ideas from the activity above begin to demonstrate, you will probably already have a wide range of things you know that are relevant to social work – maybe more than you expected! The Social Care Institute of Excellence is an independent charity that has been established to provide advice and guidance in social work and social care. In 2003 the Institute undertook a review of the types of knowledge that were seen to be important to inform and think about social work practice. They identified:

  • knowledge of organisations and services and their aims
  • practice knowledge and experience working with people
  • policy ideas and wider priorities of the community
  • research and theoretical ideas
  • user and care knowledge and perspectives gained from experience.

Activity 2 Exploring knowledge

Timing: Allow 15 minutes to complete

Ecological perspective

Look at this example of theoretical knowledge:

The ecological perspective… has become very influential in social work since its integration in the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families (DOH, 2000, 2001). The ecological perspective sees the world as a highly complex web of interacting systems which are mutually dependent (perhaps the food chain is the best-known example). When applied to social work, human society is seen as a network, implying that intervention in one part can have dramatic effects on others.

The tendency to see such a network as concentric circles (with the individual in the middle and society around the outer ring) has led to the idea that intervening to help an individual requires attention at a broader, societal level. For example, helping a child who is truanting may require intervention at both the family and school levels.

Gordon Jack (2000) developed the ecological theory in the context of social work with children and families and suggested that the social and physical environment in which families live can be sources of both support and stresses. In addition, individuals respond differently to these environmental ‘protective factors’. Jack breaks down protective factors into three areas:

  1. social support
  2. resilience
  3. social capital.

Social support refers to supportive social relationships in the family or the community. Resilience refers to the individual’s emotional resources which enable them to survive difficult experiences and learn from them. ‘Social capital’ is a term which Jack uses to explain the experience of a sense of belonging together with a feeling of wellbeing and pride in a community. This does not necessarily equate to wealth, although living in very disadvantaged circumstances with poor access to services is unlikely to create either the sense of belonging or wellbeing needed for social capital to develop.

How is it useful in social work?

An understanding of the ecological perspective takes social workers’ understanding of systems beyond a recognition that people and the social systems around them are interdependent. It introduces the concept of individual coping mechanisms within such systems, as well as the concept of social capital, which is closely associated with ideas of social disadvantage. In addition it moves away from the idea that service users’ problems are a consequence of either their own actions or inherent qualities (pathology), and towards the idea that their needs must be understood within a wider social/political context.

Now have a go at the following tasks:

  • Summarise in your own words what you think ecological perspective theory is saying.
  • Consider how the theory might apply to supporting people in the context of social work.
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Below are some ideas you might have thought of:

  • The theory indicated that it was better to think of people in networks or systems that were connected, rather than individuals who were isolated.
  • A change in one part of the system would mean changes throughout (like ideas about the impact of change on the environment).
  • The different parts of the system could create stress or be protective. Protective elements include social support, resilience (personal strength and attitude) and social capital (feeling of belonging).

An example of this might be an 89-year-old woman who remained living independently at home despite failing eyesight and numerous physical difficulties. This situation might be made possible through the woman’s attitude and determination, the support of close neighbours and family, easy access to local shops and the doctor, and sufficient financial resources to maintain the house. Changes in any of these elements would mean that she might not be able to maintain her present lifestyle and might need more help.