FRAMEWORKS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE AND EDUCATION
Traditional social work education in the English-speaking world, especially generalist social work curricula, has been established in a series of interrelated frameworks, including the ecological approach, the biopsychosocial model, and a systems perspective (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 2011). The ecological approach emphasizes the importance of developing knowledge about the interactions between a person and his or her environment (Germain, 1973). The approach affirms that when a person or his or her environment changes, the other is impacted by the change, and thus survival depends on the other adapting to this change. One concern with this approach, from a transformative perspective, is that it implies that individuals ought to merely adapt themselves and accept the status quo rather than organizing to change oppressive social systems. Thus, social justice-oriented models of social work practice have sought to address this by emphasizing anti-oppression, empowerment, and systems change (Dominelli, 2003).
A biopsychosocial approach to a client views the problems or pathologies experienced by a person as a function of multiple factors, including biology, psychology, and various social systems, such as economic and cultural (Robbins et al., 2011). Recently, a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach has been put forward emphasizing the spiritual dimensions of human beings' needs and strengths (Canda & Furman, 2010). Inclusion of spirituality as a vital dimension of human behavior has only recently been incorporated into social work educational standards, and some countries have yet to include them (Australian Association of Social Workers, 2012; Council on Social Work Education, 2012; International Federation of Social Workers, 2012).
Finally, a systems perspective affirms a sense of interconnectedness and explains that change in one part of a system influences change in other parts of the system (Lee et al., 2009). By understanding how micro, mezzo, and macro systems interact and intersect, social workers are able to intervene in ways that can attend to multiple systems. However, social work education is inclined to privilege the micro and the mezzo systems (Reisch, 2013), and it tends to do so in a way that ignores more subtle forces at play, such as energy in the mind-body continuum (Lee et al., 2009).
Nonetheless, these approaches—ecological, biopsychosocial-spiritual, and a systems perspective—do share some resonance with more holistically oriented methods of social work practice and education, such as the integrative body-mind-spirit social work approach, and can offer building blocks for holistically oriented, transformative education (Lee et al., 2009). What these approaches have in common is that they reject reductionist and linear orientations to social work practice—for example, an approach that defines a person as solely a psychological being who should perform a specific set of prescribed actions to achieve stated psychological outcomes. Rather, they affirm the whole person, the role of the environment, the fact of interconnectedness, and the complexity of the human condition.
Yet, recent methods of social work practice, such as task-centered models (Epstein & Brown, 2001), as well as long-standing medical models focused on symptom amelioration, affirm a more rational-technical orientation to social work that tends to isolate specific phenomena or variables at the expense of complexity and holism (Barter, 2012). As well, the move toward evidence- based social work practice, which has advanced social work's ongoing efforts to be viewed as a legitimate profession, has been appropriately critiqued (Adams, Matto, & LeCroy, 2009). Evidence-based social work is predicated on specific epistemological assumptions that embrace positivism, or the view that there can be unbiased, certain knowledge. The positivist idea that knowledge is incremental intersects with the modernist view that science and technology will solve social problems (Coates, 2003). Furthermore, rational-technical approaches to education arguably result in technical interventions, reflecting a Eurocentric, masculine, and cognitive-behavioral bias (Barter, 2012; Kelly & Horder, 2001).
Such a beliefsystem has led to a “best practices” agenda that “encourages social work students to demand certainty, reject an understanding and incorporation of the role of context, resist learning concepts that challenge their assumptions, and seek a ‘cookbook' approach to social work practice” (Reisch, 2013, p. 721). We argue that a new paradigm for social work education would affirm the ambiguity of human lives and the social world; encourage inquiry into the origins and contexts of social problems; embrace creativity/spontaneity in social work practice; and place self-awareness, reflection, and relationships at the core of social work.