Improvisation A Practice for Praxis



“All professional practice,” writes practice researcher Donald Schon (1987), “requires an art of problem framing, an art of implementation, and an art of improvisation—all necessary to mediate the use in practice of applied science and technique” (p. 13). The notion of improvisation as part of practice in the field or in education, however, is only sparsely present in social work literature to date, even though it stands to reason that improvisations in the “indeterminate zones” (Schon, 1995, p. 28) of professional social work practice are indeed ubiquitous. Where improvisation is mentioned, it most often refers to the uncertainties of direct practice with clients (Blom, 2009; Graybeal, 2007; Madsen, 2011; Perlinski, Blom, & Moren, 2012; Seligson, 2004). Harold Goldstein (1998) points to improvisation in practice when he argues that the social worker can be thought of as a “performing artist” who will “move beyond the constraints of method and technique and respond imaginatively and creatively to the impromptu, unrehearsed nature of the special human relationship” (p. 247). Similarly, Seligson (2004), herself a social work practitioner and an actress, finds that both activities need the mastery of basic skills, intuitive knowledge of when to let go, self-knowledge in service of an other, and an ability to act spontaneously by being in the moment. Beyond this, however, authors rarely explain or expand on the concept of improvisation.

The same is true for literature on social work education, in which improvisation is even less frequently referenced. Given that role plays or similar activities have long been part of the educational repertoire in classes that focus on counseling skills or group work (Hargreaves & Hadlow, 1997; Petracchi & Collins, 2006), this overall lack of attention to and representation of improvised activity in social work education is somewhat surprising. It likely results from a discourse around professionalism that remains steeped in a technical-rational paradigm (Schon, 1987). Current pressures of neoliberal market ideology dovetail with a technical-rational view and increasingly cast the purpose of education—and much of social work practice—as making people “fit for the market.” For instance, recent publications on “role-play” in social work education highlight the use of so-called “standardized clients”—that is, persons trained to display certain symptom clusters to enhance future clinicians' diagnostic recognition and interviewing skills (Logie, Bogo, Regehr, & Regehr, 2013). Just as practice turns its focus toward securing measurable and typically predefined “outcomes,” education is at risk of being reduced to “training marketable competencies” in students (Giroux, 2011; Reisch, 2013; Scanlon & Saleebey, 2005).

In this atmosphere, improvised activity is rendered largely invisible. After all, improvisation denotes proceeding without preplanning or preparation. Associated largely with the arts, including jazz music, dance, or theater, improvisation invokes associations of uncertainty, irrationality, even frivolity, altogether unbecoming of a scientific profession. Where the status of “scientific profession” is equated with rationality and controlled practices, the idea of improvisation as not only a frequent but also perhaps a valuable part of professional practice in the field and the classroom seems anathema.

The concept of improvisation, however, offers complex ideas for theory and practice in social work. As a heuristic to reimagine professional practices, improvisation has already found its way into the literature of various professional fields, including therapy, organization science, and education. And theorists from diverse fields, such as sociology, psychology, performance studies, or anthropology, have invoked improvisation as a common feature in social and cultural life that deserves further attention (Carlson, 1996; Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998; Rosaldo, 1993). In social work education, improvisation can add what Saleebey (1989) called a “mimetic view” to the profession's analytic tradition. This orientation “requires one to know and do with a kind of spontaneity and simultaneity, and to grasp the world-as-whole rather than according to subject vs. object dichotomies” (Saleebey, 1989, p. 558).

This chapter casts improvisation as part of a heuristic for an epistemology of practice that bridges traditional dichotomies such as art-science, mind-body, or thinking-doing. To this end, I conceive of teaching as improvised performance and introduce principles and exercises of theater improvisation whose lexicon proves useful for communicating improvisational skills and attitudes. My own ongoing practice of these principles, on stage and off, continues to influence my approach to teaching, and some theater games and exercises have found their way into my classrooms. These transpositions between the world of theater and social work education have been exciting and generative, and they continuously bring forth tensions and ambivalences. Most important, I currently wonder how improvisation in social work may need to be similar to and different from improvisation in other contexts ifwe seek to arrive at a critical and creative practice within and without the classroom.

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