III Theater, Arts, and the Human Spirit

Mimesis A Theory for Holistic Engagement



As social work educators, we seek to promote within our students the acquisition of knowledge on the human condition and the application of this knowledge to facilitate positive change within the life situation of clients with whom they will work. Concerning this knowledge acquisition, there are two types of knowledge of the human condition to consider: objective knowledge (derived from scientific study) and subjective knowledge (derived from humanistic inquiry). A holistic view of what it means to be human needs to include both types. Thus, to holistically engage students in their endeavor at social work knowledge acquisition and application, they must be introduced to both objective and subjective knowledge of the human condition.

It is quite apparent that scientific, objective knowledge is well ensconced in our professional body of knowledge. Since the inception of the profession in the early 20th century, scientific inquiry was seen as the means to build a social work body of knowledge (Dybicz, 2006; Trattner, 1998). It has been only relatively recently (since the 1980s) that postmodern inquiry has yielded subjective knowledge as a contribution to our professional body of knowledge (Applegate, 2000). This imbalance between the overall contribution of both to our social work body of knowledge makes it possible and quite easy to solely present objective knowledge to students as the means to inform practice. Yet to do so carries with it some important limitations, as Rubin and Babbie's (1997) own statement in their text on research methods clearly reveals:

To summarize, the kind of understanding we seek as we analyze social work research data inevitably involves a deterministic model of human behavior. In looking for the reasons why people are the way they are and do the things they do, we implicitly assume that their characteristics and actions are determined by forces and factors operating on them. (p. 23)

A deterministic model of human behavior offered by scientific investigation is woefully inadequate to capture the full measure of the human condition. This deterministic understanding of the human condition arises because Science views humans as creatures of nature (e.g., we are classified as mammals and belong to the animal kingdom). Thus, we can take scientific models that describe the workings of nature (e.g., an ecological system) and apply them to the human condition (person-in-environment). When comparing human beings to other animals, this scientific view depicts us as being different in degree (e.g., use of reason and intellect in attempts at adaptation—which higher functioning animals employ to a limited extent). This difference in degree is why we can take the ecological model and apply it to describe human interaction and also why we can take Pavlov's observations on dogs or Skinner's observations on pigeons and apply them to human behavior. But such an approach only yields half a picture on the human condition.

As human beings, there are many ways in which we are different in kind from animals. People base their actions on such things as the following: values and beliefs we hold, the spirituality we embrace, use of imagination on how one's self or environment could be different, the meaning-making we apply to our experiences, one's purpose in life, a desire to make the world a better place, and so on. This is the area encompassed by subj ective knowledge.

If educators are to holistically engage students in their acquisition of knowledge, both of these aspects to being human (differences in degree and kind from animals) need to be informed by theory that guides practice. As the name implies, the humanities seek to explain the various qualities that make us uniquely human. For example, one mental quality that makes us uniquely human is our imagination. Whereas all creatures interact with their environment, humans are unique in their ability to imagine how things could be different, that rather than simply adapting to one's present environment, one can envision a new environment and work toward achieving it (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech).

Social constructionism (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) and phenomenology (Gadamer, 1999) are two such postmodern theories that speak to this dynamic: They envision human beings as being more than just embedded in an environment; rather, we operate within a world—a world created by our meaning-making ability. Such a view holds much promise in understanding the workings of social work ideas such as resilience and empowerment—qualities that allow an individual to alleviate or overcome the oppressive forces acting against her or him. A Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care (Harris & White, 2012) defines resilience as “an individual's capacity to cope with stress and adversity” and defines empowerment as “the processes through which people who lack power become more powerful.” Uniquely human qualities such as hope and the ability to imagine a better future have a large role to play in fostering resilience and empowerment. Beyond the scientific understanding of simply noting that hope and imagination foster resilient and empowering acts, postmodern theories of meaning-making offer the promise of understanding the dynamics of how these qualities are effectively employed to create acts of resilience and empowerment; how hope and imagination influence one's interpretation of events that allow one to weather blows of misfortune or oppression and to find a better path to influence one's situation for the better.

Science excels at uncovering truths based within objective knowledge concerning reality; postmodern investigation uncovers truths based within subjective knowledge. Subjective truths move beyond the mere empirical description of reality by offering explanatory power to the meaning attributed to this reality. This involves the examination within a social context of the value judgments that arise from culture and negotiation within the public sphere. Thus, for example, the process of being pregnant and carrying the baby to term is something captured by scientific, objective knowledge and can be applied to all pregnant women. Yet the meaning a woman or society attributes to her pregnancy can fall anywhere within the range of blissful to dreadful. The fact that there are so many subjective valuations that can be placed upon one's situation, all potentially equally valid, offers the opportunity for the social worker and client to collaboratively find a way to embrace the meaning that is most life affirming for the client—hope and imagination play important roles in bringing this life-affirming meaning to fruition.

To continue previous the example, when making a valuation of one's pregnancy, a woman uses observed events in her life that act as evidence for this valuation. This is not a scientific process. Rather, the selecting and ordering of which events are important to include in this valuation is a process of meaning-making through the use of linguistic construction or rhetoric: She is creating a “story” or narrative of her experience. Although rhetoric as commonly used has a negative connotation, it is used here to capture the process of the ordering of events into a persuasive depiction of reality. In the social work literature, much has been written about how social constructionism informs this process (Geraghty, 2012; Keddell, 2011; Parton, 2003; Witkin, 2011). To a lesser extent, there have been writings on how in this vein to apply phenomenology to social work (DePue, Finch, & Nation, 2014; Kowalski, 2010; McCormick, 2011). Both of these theories are worthy of note and have much to offer with regard to informing holistic engagement in the acquisition and application of knowledge.

Phenomenology (Gadamer, 1999) argues that in addition to interacting with our environment, we as human beings attribute meaning to our acts and that which we act upon. Furthermore, this meaning is not something apart from the reality of our interaction but, rather, forms an integral part of it. Consequently, this opens the door for multiple realities to exist. To illustrate, let's take the example of a man who is living his life as an openly gay man. As was the case with the example of a woman's pregnancy discussed previously, the scientific understanding of what comprises gay sexual relations never changes; however, the meaning society attributes to it can create a multitude of realities. Thus, in ancient Greece and Rome, such acts were considered the norm and a sign of virility for the penetrating male (Hubbard, 2003), whereas in Colonial times in America, such acts were viewed as reprehensible—the result of giving in to the temptations of sin (Godbeer, 2002). In our modern times, although one can find both individuals who support the right of a man to live an openly gay life and those who do not, most individuals do not understand this behavior as “a man pursuing a gay lifestyle” but, rather, as “he is gay”: These sexual interactions come to form a core part of this person's identity in a way that was not the case in Colonial America or Ancient Greece. These three examples illustrate how three different “worlds” are created around the same scientific understanding of the behavior.

Social constructionism (Berger & Luckmann, 1966)—as a theory explaining how this meaning is constructed—offers the promise of guiding efforts to assist clients in confronting problematic societal constructions of reality. Rather than accepting the dominant societal construction as a steadfast reality, the client can counter by constructing alternative, life-affirming realities ofhis or her situation in the public sphere. Arising from hope and imagination, the construction of these alternative realities represents a form of resilience and empowerment in action.

Although social constructionism and phenomenology have been widely discussed, this chapter is devoted to elaborating upon a postmodern theory that has received less attention in the social work literature: the theory of mimesis. Mimesis offers a theory of causality based on humans' meaning-making ability. Although it has much to offer in guiding social work practice (Dybicz, 2010), the same principles can be used to inform pedagogy in social work education by guiding the educator in attuning to students' meaning-making around delivered content (attributing importance and relevance), student motivation, and student engagement as a member of the profession.

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