Phenomenology and Social Work

There are very few direct references (in English language publications) to phenomenology and its role in shaping social work as a value-laden, aestheticized form of practice. Webb's view (2006), that no one has comprehensively applied phenomenology to social work, continues to hold weight. However, Gray and Webb's (2008) landmark review of England's (1986) seminal text, 'Social Work as Art', makes an important contribution to this area. These authors build on England's notion that social work is a distinctive form of aesthetic practice defined through its attention to meaning, coping, lived understanding and attunement to the 'other's' pain. Accepting these tenets as ontological givens, they go on to appropriate Heidegger's critique of the presence of a instrumentalized rationality
in modern life including various forms of artistic expression. In doing so, Gray and Webb give credence to Heidegger's notion that authentic art emerges from one's being-in-the world. The corollary to this, is that 'social work as art' emerges from the social worker's being-in-the-world-of-the-social. It is not about attempts to manipulate the 'social' according to some pre-defined instrumental purposes. Importantly, these insights show that authentic social work might be realized through practices that reveal 'Being' in all its richness, pain, solemnity and quotidian predictability.

Aside from this key contribution, most of the other sources that explicitly underscore the value of phenomenology in social work centre on the use of qualitative research methods to reveal aspects of human crisis, loss or pain. Thus, Houston and Mullan-Jensen (2012) attempt to synthesize interpretative phenomenological analysis (an in-depth, idiographic research approach) with a model of social world that recognizes distinct domains of inquiry. They reference the thinking of Husserl and Heidegger in this largely theoretical work which nevertheless can be applied to qualitative investigations into social work and social care. Other researchers have focused on social work's role in palliative care. In this regard, Pascal (2010) contends that Heideggerian phenomenology provides a useful perspective for researching the lived experience of cancer. Heideggarian themes such as attunement, embodiment and temporality were manifest in their results. The theme of embodiment was taken up in a different study carried out by McCormick (2011). This researcher adopted phenomenology to explore how older woman coped with their lived experience of ageing. McCormick concluded that the 'lived body' resonated as a cardinal theme in the woman's accounts and ought to be an essential dimension in social work practice.

In addition to these explicit attempts to use phenomenology in social work, there are a number of important practices which exemplify phenomenological themes even though they may not reference them directly as such. In UK, practices such as family Group Conferences (Hayes and Houston 2007), restorative practices in criminal justice (Sherman and Strang 2007) and person-centred planning (2003) all emphasize the importance of the service user's 'lifeworld' and the key interface between it and the 'system'. Constructivist social work is another approach that chimes with phenomenology given its emphasis on narrative in social work. Parton and O'Byrne (2000), lead proponents of this approach, explicitly draw on Berger and Luckman's (1991) constructionist take on social reality covered in the preceding section. Moreover, the continuing interest in social pedagogy within the UK (Petrie 2007) shows how child care social workers are embracing a more holistic, educative approach to the well-being of young people. The philosophical roots of this approach lie partly in Kant's epistemology and ethics and the German hermeneutic tradition.

What is common to the social work approaches listed above is their attention to lived experience, narrative, human psycho-biography, developing a deep understanding of meaning and 'being-in-the-world' and personal reflexivity. To practice social work in the 'lifeworld', in the spirit of a phenomenological paradigm, is to acknowledge the primacy of the human subject and to fundamentally
grasp the nature of his or her ontology. This is about getting 'back to things themselves', as Heidegger famously observed. In this context, social workers need to attend to the significance of meaning and subjectivity in service users' lives be they children, young people or adults. The manner in which a situation is defined makes that situation real in those terms. Hence, at the outset, it is vital to remember that we are existential, embodied beings-in-the-world who swim in a sea of personalized and inter-subjective meanings. Shared meanings arise in the context of relationships within Shutz's typology; that is, with consociates, contemporaries, predecessors and successors. This is the network of significant others that need to be appraised in social work assessment. For children with troubled histories of parenting, predecessors and successors may take on a particular purchase because of their often fractured psycho-biographies.

Heidegger's ideas present a challenge for social workers forcing them to re-evaluate the significance (and profundity) of 'being' and 'being-unto-others' in the 'lifeworld'. Rather than privileging instrumentalized practices, what is important is paying attention to the service user's lived experience and the rich meanings that unfold from it including the person's narratives. Tuning into this dimension and recognizing its significance verbally creates the conditions for trust and growth. It is axiomatic that 'becoming the person you are, cannot be separated from the historical events and social circumstances that surround you' (Newman 2010, 56). Yet, in modern social work within the UK, there has been a drift away from subjectivity to a data base way of operating. For Nigel Parton (2006) social workers operate less on the terrain of the 'social' and more in the zone of the 'informational' where hard facts supersede human narrative.

In all of this, service users are not objects of the system requiring standardized responses which lead to attempts at classification nor do they deserve to be dealt with mechanistically through impersonal measures of surveillance. The aim of social work assessment is not primarily to fulfil a systems' function or goal, but to grasp what is at the heart of a service's user's thinking about himself, his identity, his relationship to significant others, his view of his future and general attitude to his social world. This is an inquiry in to the nature of a person's typifications, her taken-for-granted assumptions. Following Husserl, social workers must bracket their preconceived assumptions about a family member's 'lifeworld', in order to strive for what is the essence of the person's meaning system.

Not only is this an act of bracketing and reductionism but also one of deep empathy and reflexivity. Moreover, it is to acknowledge social workers need to reflect on their second order perceptions of the family's first order meanings. To carry out such a complex cognitive task, one requiring emotional intelligence as well, organizations need to ensure they provide their staff with supervision conducted through a phenomenological lens. This might take two stages and mirror the process of developing phenomenological insight, namely: (a) acquiring the skills of accurately describing the meaning typifications of say a child or other family member, and (b) interpreting these meanings with accurate empathy and the use of theory. Throughout this process of hermeneutic supervision it is vital
for professionals to realize that their typifications regarding areas, such as good enough parenting, the nature of harm and what constitutes change, may well differ from those of the parents under investigation. Bourdieu's notion of the habitus is also pertinent here. Hence, social workers need to be very cautious about the impact of their habitus in assessing parental capacity and motivation to implement change and be aware of how social class intrudes into judgements about acceptable, parenting behaviours. Relatedly, assessments need to take account of the fields in which parents are located, the level of constriction or openness they afford and the amount of capital they provide. Bourdieusian social work embraces a radicalized phenomenology in the sense it acknowledges the omnipresence of oppressive power on the lower classes in particular.

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge many families coming to the attention of social services experience a significant rupture in their natural attitude and practical consciousness. Everyday, taken-for-granted typifications might well have been thrown into disarray through loss, change, crisis and even due to the fact social services are intervening in their lives in the first place. Such disarray is likely to threaten ontological security and trust – two vital areas to buttress particularly during early contact with the family. This is a matter of connecting with the person in situ and her 'lifeworld' and presents a number of rhetorical questions. Does the contact start with the stamp of officialdom or the act of having a cup of tea with a service user? What time is spent getting to know a young person's connections with his social networks and how they shape his identity? Do we even stop to consider the socially constructed nature of identity – how it serves as a lens, or inner working model, for interpreting ontological views of self, others and the social world as well the person's view of the past and future? Do interviews take place in sterile bureaucratic offices or in the young person's meaningful 'lifespace'

– emdodied zones of meaningful interchange and memory? In what way do social workers construct holistic forms of practice around facilitating a young person's openness to the natural, social, personal and spiritual worlds? Has the young person in question had any experience of natural ecology – a guided walk in the mountains for instance? Heidegger and Nietzsche said we all need experience of wilderness to sustain mental health and spiritual well-being. Mountains exist in the world but also in the mind of those who walk their steep, enriching terrains

< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >