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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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1.2 Nature versus nurture

For everyone, development begins at the moment of conception, and probably few would argue with the possibility that a person’s skills and character are significantly influenced and shaped by their parents and family during childhood. But, by how much? If the same child were to be brought up in a different family would not their skills and their character not have been pretty much the same in the long run? Questions such as these form the basis of what has become known as the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate.

Although knowledge can be shared between professionals, the knowledge base and the various associated theories of development have emerged from different academic disciplines, such as psychology and neuroscience. Academic debates concerning aspects of development exist both within and between different disciplines. For social workers, it is helpful to understand some of these debates and appreciate the extent to which development is viewed as an interaction between environmental, social, and hereditary influences. This reflects one of the fundamental debates concerning the extent to which human development is influenced by either nature (inherent characteristics) or nurture (the care given by others). At the simplest level this debate involves two separate explanations:

  • Nature: people’s development and their behaviours, qualities and identities can be explained by their biological or genetic make-up.
  • Nurture: people’s development and their behaviours, qualities and identities can be explained by the physical and emotional environments in which they grow up.

It is not useful to expect absolute or definitive answers to these kinds of questions. Not only are there varying degrees of certainty between academics, but there are also various professions that tend either to be based upon or are drawn towards one perspective or another. Social workers are not required to offer firm professional conclusions to these matters, but they frequently need to examine the balance of factors on both sides, and on occasions, they may be called upon to offer a professional view about the nature and the consequences of that balance in specific situations.

Activity 1 Your development: nature or nurture?

Think of an activity you are good at (for example, a previous occupation or role as a family carer, an artistic or sporting skill). To what extent are the behaviours, qualities and identities associated with this activity the product of your genes or your environment? Reflect on how you might apply this knowledge to social work practice. Make notes in the table below.

What I’m good at Nature/nurture? How this might help me as a social worker
For example, table tennis. Nature (my mum was British champion) and nurture (she taught me from a young age). Useful skill when doing direct work and relationship building with young people.
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In some cases people will cite very clear influences that side with one or other of the explanations within the nature/nurture debate.

This is a graphic showing two quotations. The first says ‘I’ve inherited my musical abilities from my grandmother who played in a professional orchestra’. The second says ‘I was brought up in a very caring household and practice what I experienced with my own children’.
Figure 4

While people’s behaviours and qualities can on occasions be clearly linked to an aspect of nature or nurture, in most cases it is possible to attribute them to a complex interaction between many factors. This view is explained by Aldgate:

… the relationship between nature, of which one example is genetic factors, cannot be disengaged from the influence of nurture or external influences on development. Rutter (1992), for example, suggests that environment can influence genetic endowment, as in the case of height. The genes that influence height in the UK have changed little in the last century but nutrition has changed and the next generation is on average taller than their parents. Knowledge and intervention are able to mediate the effects of genetically carried metabolic diseases such as phenylketonuria. However, factors that affect one child in a family are more influential than family-wide factors that impinge on everyone in the family. This helps explain why one child in a family may be singled out for abuse. This has important implications for the assessment of individual children who are being scapegoated. Conversely, infant irritability patterns may be influenced more by genetics than child rearing. Anti-social behaviour may run in families but be more as a result of environment than genes (Rutter, 1992).

(Aldgate, 2006, p. 25)

It is also worth reflecting how some aspects of nurture are culturally specific and while proving strength and opportunities for wellbeing, they can sometimes also result in prejudice and discrimination from people and institutions encountered in wider society.

Aldgate goes on to argue that social workers and other professionals need to remain alert to new findings related to child development and to find ways to balance different knowledge about the influence of both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ when assessing and providing services for children.