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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century


As illustrated previously, imagination plays a key role concerning the social construction of an alternate reality and preferred identity. However, in addition to imagining such alternative realities, one must act according to them to make them so—this is where hope comes in. It serves to spark a kindling of the human spirit to take action. Continuing with the extended example presented previously, in order to keep this newly configured narrative active, the student's present and future actions must continue to contribute to it; thus, the student must continue to supply examples ofhis or her resilience in the face of the problem. This is where the importance of hope comes into play as it serves to highly motivate the student to do this because these actions serve to reinforce the life-affirming identity arising from this narrative—and it is this process that produces the desired change that is sought. Hope provides assurances that this new articulation of one's preferred identity is attainable, thus prompting the student to base actions on it. Without hope, and the promise of possible attainment, no action will be taken to correct the situation. In addition, through the introduction of various services (i.e., recommendations for corrective action that arise from the staffing) to this newly configured narrative, student participation in these services acts to support his or her life-affirming identity, as it contributes to the plot of “my ability to use common social work tools (i.e., supervision and critical reflection) in which to overcome the problem and advance my goals” as opposed to the plot of “only those who are dysfunctional need services designed to help them combat the problem.”

One can easily see how this process reflects the metaphor of author-editor used to describe the client-social worker relationship by postmodern practitioners: The student is acting in the role of narrator through the conscious selection of already lived events to include in the counternarrative while seeking to author present and future events to further contribute to this counternarrative. The educator listens to this counterstory and provides feedback and advice on exploring various possibilities to make the counternarrative more life affirming and more believable. As the author and narrator of the story, the client has the final say regarding the direction and elaboration of this counternarrative (i.e., how to incorporate the results of the staffing into the counternarrative). As such, this new direction and elaboration of events in the form of a counternarrative must “ring true” to the client as this new narrative unfolds. The process of “listening” to the emerging counternarrative is captured by Ricoeur's (1984-1988) elaboration of mimesis as refiguration. Refiguration speaks to the process involved in receiving such a narrative (i.e., acting as audience member). Recall that the creation of narratives is our method for understanding our life experiences in a coherent manner. Hence, the narratives that we create need to “make sense” for this understanding to take place.

Now, also as noted previously, this effort at “making sense” of one's life experiences is not a scientific endeavor: that of uncovering objective knowledge of action-reaction mechanisms. Rather, one is seeking a subjective truth of one's identity (an image of who I am and who I want to be), which acts as the source of one's actions. Both objective and subjective truths rely on evidence to maintain their claim as true. Objective truths (sometimes referred to as scientific facts) rely on careful observation as the means to achieve this. Subjective truths (sometimes referred to as poetic truths) rely on a rhetoric of believability—which is captured by the term verisimilitude (Bruner, 1990), meaning “lifelike” and “plausible” (i.e., that the rhetoric “makes sense”). Verisimilitude captures the notion of poetic truth well in that a truth claiming to be plausible does not eliminate the notion that other equally plausible claims may be made.

Within mimesis, the selection of events and their organization within a plot act as “evidence” for the subjective claim one is making about one's identity. The following anecdote may serve as illustration. I pass by a music store and see a guitar in the window. This sparks my imagination, and I start to have images of being a rock star (who I would like to be). I begin taking actions based on this image: I purchase the guitar and sign up for guitar lessons. However, I find myself struggling to master the simplest of chords, and in testing my acuity, the guitar teacher tells me that I am partially tone deaf. I share my heartfelt dream with family and friends who know me well, none of whom express confidence in my ability. In addition, I try writing a few songs and playing them in a public arena, but those who listen respond with little enthusiasm. These experiences of failure produce events that run counter to my narrative of becoming a rock star, thus detracting from its verisimilitude. As these experiences add up, they begin to sap hope that my goal is attainable, and eventually the rhetorical evidence running counter to my narrative of becoming a rock star gets so strong that I no longer find the narrative to be believable and hence stop basing my actions on it. I no longer see qualities within myself (who I am) that will enable me to attain the image ofbeing a rock star (who I would like to be). Lastly, possessing a measure of resilience, I take these same experiences and, with the help of my parents' encouragement in considering other possibilities in interpreting these actions, I craft a counternarrative with them that is life affirming—for example, an image of myself as “someone who is not afraid to take risks to follow my passions.” Within this new narrative, my epic failures at learning to play the guitar serve as positive examples that support the narrative—the greater my failure illustrating the greater the risk I am willing to take.

There are a number of points concerning refiguration that we can take from this anecdote. First, the most important audience member to one's narrative is ultimately oneself. As the actor in one's story, when it no longer possesses verisimilitude in one's view, one no longer bases one's future actions on it. Thus, verisimilitude of a narrative leads to action. Second, although imagination is the productive source for identity features that guide one's actions, one lives and acts in one's world. Life experiences—as events, the building blocks of narrative—occur when one acts within one's world, not within one's imagination. Hence, there is a social component to achieving verisimilitude wherein others act as audience members and play a part as well in contributing to the verisimilitude of the narrative. The previous anecdote illustrates three such ways in which this occurs. One such way is via the value judgments of others with whom I interact in the pursuit of my dream (e.g., playing my songs in a public arena). Another is via the value judgments of family and friends who know me well; because these individuals know “who I am” better than most people, their value judgments will carry a heavier weight. Lastly, there are the value judgments of experts in the area where my narrative is situated (e.g., the guitar teacher); these individuals know about the attainability of the image of “who I would like to be” better than most people and thus their value judgments will carry more weight than that of the average person.

Applying this concept of refiguration to social work education and the previous extended example yields the following insights. Faculty act as experts in the field and thus exert a strong influence in the construction of the student's identity as social worker. This occurs wherever interaction takes place (e.g., staffing, classroom, and evaluation of assignments). Thus, faculty can play a major role in assisting a student trying to construct a counternarrative. The practicum site acts as a public forum for the demonstration of the student's skills and, thus, is another potent source from which to draw support for a counternarrative. Finally, classmates may serve as knowledgeable friends in supporting the construction of a life-affirming identity.

Although I used the scenario of a student staffing to illustrate the various dynamics of mimesis at work, the application of mimetic principles can be applied to minor crisis in confidence as well. For example, one technique that I use as an educator in practice classes is to have the students break up into groups of three (client, social worker, and observer) in order to practice the various skills that we are covering in class. The task of the observer is to provide feedback on the student's performance of the skills (with directions to emphasize the various skills the student did well). Then we reconvene as a class, and in processing the various skills, I ask students who were in the role of client or observer to relate examples of the student acting as social worker who performed the skill particularly well. The experience for students in hearing their classmates speak well of their ability provides a positive event in which to configure within their narrative concerning their potential to be a good/competent social worker. This then helps them to overcome any self-doubts in their ability and thus be more willing to try the skills in their practicum.

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