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

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Introducing social work: a starter kit

4 Social work and groups

Social workers are frequently engaged in working with groups, whether these be family groups, groups within care living environments, or in the application of more formal groupwork approaches. All practitioners require a good understanding of how groups function and the opportunities they present for development, support, and for empowerment.

Lindsay and Orton (2011) note that being in groups is a normal part of the lives of most people and that those with similar life experiences, situations and problems can be a source of support to one another. They recognise that groupwork can be empowering, with opportunities for giving and receiving help, as well as for feedback and learning. In addition, they suggest that groups can be valuable as an economical way of helping and offering ways of reaching marginalised people, and for bringing hope and optimism at times. Lindsay and Orton pointed out though, that groups can also be strange, offer limited confidentiality and that, inevitably, individuals in groups are less likely to receive undivided attention. They also observed that ‘groups can be complex and expensive to plan and implement’ (p. 15); and for some individuals, groups can actually be harmful.

Mark Doel trained as a groupworker in the 1980s at what was then the National Institute for Social Work. He is a widely published and highly respected groupwork author, practitioner and teacher. First, watch this video where Mark summarises his understanding of the relevance of groups to social work.

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Transcript: Video 3

Well, I think it's important to know about groups, because first of all, they are, or can be, very effective. So they can have a real impact on people's lives, and I think an impact that is sometimes more difficult to achieve one-to-one. I also think they're very empowering. It gives people a sense of being together in the same boat. When people come, they've got difficulties, problems that they've perhaps felt have been theirs uniquely, and they've felt isolated and suddenly they can see other people also have similar difficulties. Groups are a part of being human, and we're part of groups, whether we call it groupwork or not. So I think it's useful for social workers to think group, even if they don't necessarily lead groups for service users. We're all parts of teams, often interprofessional teams and so knowing about how groups function, and the process in groups, is really important to being an effective team worker as well. This is relevant for all forms of social work, not just service users who are old, or children, families, mental health. I mean, one of the things that I particularly enjoy about groupwork is that when I speak to other group workers, they may well be working with very different service user groups, and yet we have a common language that we can communicate together and we can learn from one another, even though we're working with people in very different circumstances. One of the really special things, I think, about groupwork is the diversity that it can engender. So although people are coming together because they've got similar problems – they're all in the same boat, if you like – they also have differences in their circumstances, maybe biographical differences, or differences in the context of their living. And in a group, one gets a real sort of sense of how those differences can be, first of all, perhaps accepted by people who may, in other circumstances, find it difficult to accept differences, but also, then, hopefully celebrated. And as a social worker, it's a kind of real privilege, really, to be able to work with a group of people where those differences can emerge. I don't want to set groupwork up against one-to-one work. I like to see them as complementary. But there are some aspects of groupwork which you cannot get in one-to-one work. There's also the mathematics of it. The first time I led a group, a long time ago now, I remember thinking, gosh – I knew this intellectually, but suddenly realising that I was one, and they were many – that the maths are very different. When you're one-to-one with a service user, you're one-to-one. When you're with a group, you've perhaps got six, eight, ten, or more other people who are there because of the circumstances that have brought them to the group, and you're there with a very different purpose. And it's very democratic, I guess, because you realise that the strength in numbers that they bring is a strength in their numbers, and you may be facilitating that. But it puts you, in a sense, as a minority of one, and that's unique to groupwork. And another aspect of groupwork that I think is difficult to get one-to-one is that you often – I have often – worked with a co-worker, and so I have seen the co-worker working, and he or she has seen me, and we've been able to give one another feedback, either directly within the group, or certainly when we've been debriefing after the group. And I've rarely had that experience of another worker when I've been working one-to-one. I think it often will be overpowering for a single service user or a single family. So I suppose there's an aspect of professional development that is possible with groupwork that is less likely with one-to-one work. I think it's quite difficult to get to grips with the notion of the differences between group methods and methodologies, and a general group approach and group philosophy, and I'll try to untangle these a little bit. Groupwork is a generic word for the context of working in a group. And this might mean, and it often does in contemporary days, mean working with individuals in a group. I have some concerns about that, and perhaps we'll come to that in one of the later questions. Yeah, I think there's a difference between a generalised, almost philosophical approach to groupwork and the specific skills of doing groupwork, as it were. And at a general philosophical level, I guess there needs to be a belief in collective solutions, a collectivist approach, communitarianism, democracy. It's quite a democratic environment, a group, or should be. And although my own approach is secular, I also understand notions of fellowship from perhaps a more spiritual and religious basis as well, and at that level, I suppose group work is a statement, really, about collectivist solutions. But there are also groupwork methods, and within the general family of groupwork there are differences in those methods. For example, there are task-centred groupwork methods, solution-focused. One can use cognitive behavioural therapy in a group context. Then there are also sort of psychodynamic approaches and training group and personal development group. So there's a very broad church, as it were, of groupwork methods, but I think they all relate to this sense of, we can achieve more together in a group than we can individually. We can learn more from one another collectively than we can individually, and we can make use of the fact that we are together in this room, or virtually, in a way that is different from when we're working one-to-one. What's interesting for me is that I think groupwork is very true to the values of social work, which I see as collectivist and communitarian. Of course, we work often with individuals, but we're trying to place individuals, and help them place themselves within their family, within their neighbourhood, within a larger social and, indeed, political context. And groupwork is a sort of stepping stone along that way. So when we're meeting with individuals in a group, we're not just meeting with individuals in a group. We're trying to look at the broader contextual factors that bring them into this group. And I think groupwork sort of forces you to do that in a way that in one-to-one work, one can avoid. So for me, groupwork is in many respects – well, should be – at the heart of social work in terms of its values and its history. The groupwork approach and the one-to-one, individual approach, they both have merits in terms of their outcomes. What I don't know of, I don't think there are randomised, controlled trials that compare outcomes for groupwork and individual work, certainly in the United Kingdom, so the outcomes tend to be soft outcomes. The journal 'Groupwork' which is published by Whiting and Birch, has many examples of groups and the evaluation of groups, and I'd refer students to that journal to look at specific examples of this. My belief is that individual work and groupwork shouldn't be seen in opposition, but as complementary. We could do with more evidence, I guess, more research to find out which of these methods, in which circumstances, might be the better. Frequently, if we have the resources, I think it's good when service users can experience both a one-to-one relationship with a social worker, but also a group. I think there is a difference between being group-aware and being a group worker. You can be group-aware without being a group worker. But if you are a group worker, you have to be group-aware. So when you're in a team meeting, and you are aware of a certain dynamic – somebody in the team who maybe speaks a lot, maybe even tends to dominate – that's kind of being group-aware. I guess intervening, using your skills to bring some resolution to that, or work with it, if it's becoming a problem – that's groupwork. So I guess groupwork is one step further than being group-aware. Many of the personal qualities one needs for groupwork are, indeed, very similar to the ones that one needs for one-to-one work, but there are some differences. I think the commitment to a democratic way of working is really necessary, and it shows if you don't have it in groupwork in the way that it doesn't show in terms of one-to-one work. I think one needs a degree of leadership ability in groups, even if one's role is quite soft facilitation. There is the need for leadership, which is not necessarily there in one-to-one work. And I think there's a kind of creativity, flair, that works well in groups. Works well with one-to-one, of course, but especially in the semi-public forum of a group. That's why I like it, because if you like to express yourself creatively, then the group is a good place for you and for your group members. And I think those three qualities are particularly significant for group workers. I think it is natural to feel anxious moving to a group. I always feel a degree of anxiety before a group begins, certainly a new group. But even before each session. There's a sense of public responsibility when you're in front of a group. And I know that for many students and social workers, groupwork is perhaps very, very-- the thought of group work is very demanding. That anxiety is good, as long as you can harness it, and it becomes adrenaline. I know that for some people, the thought of facilitating a group is paralysing, and in those circumstances, well, maybe one doesn't lead a group. But also maybe one becomes a co-worker, a sort of trainee in the group, as it were, to see how an experienced group worker handles their own anxiety, but also works with the group. But it is anxiety-provoking in a way that one-to-one work isn't, and I think that's one of its strengths.
End transcript: Video 3
Video 3
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Much of current social work is directed towards intervention with individuals, and working with groups can be time-consuming and expensive to organise and to deliver. However, on occasions, there can be advantages to addressing some problems that are common to a number of individuals by meeting together in a group. In a group, individuals can extend awareness, provide mutual support, and investigate solutions that may be difficult or less efficient to work on alone. Sometimes groups are established and maintained by service users themselves, and sometimes groups are set-up by professionals specifically trained and experienced in the theory and practice of groupwork.

For people leading a group, including for social workers, it is important to be aware of a number of guiding principles and features about groups. These are explored in the following sections.


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