At the heart of social work lies the fundamental belief in human rights, citizenship and social justice (Fook, 2002). Indeed, social workers are ordinarily duty-bound to advocate the principles of empowerment through anti-oppressive practice whilst placing the wishes and needs of clients at the centre of delivery (General Social Care Council (GSCC), 2004; Dalrymple and Burke, 2006). Yet practice is complex not least because the success of any intervention is entwined with the phenomenological attributes of both clients and practitioners (Prynn, 2008). Thus, social work practitioners face significant challenges such as identifying what they contribute to a relationship, how this impacts on decisions and what individual and structural power imbalances influence practice (Fook, 2002).
Critical practice is a conceptual tool which affords practitioners the opportunity to engage in transformational practice whilst recognising the value base and social justice agenda of social work (Fook, 2002). This paper will briefly provide a case study of an experience I encountered as a practitioner. This will then be explored through what Brechin (2000) identifies as the three interrelated domains of critical practice: critical analysis, critical reflexivity and critical action. In doing so it will demonstrate how I have engaged with my ‘self’ to identify what I took into practice and the implications this can have in being a transformational practitioner.
On commencing my role as a project worker within a residential home for young people with behavioural difficulties I was introduced to John (pseudonym). John was fourteen and had a history of anti-social behaviour and a criminal history for burglary and assault although all cases were at least two years prior. John was in care because of a request from his parents who no longer felt they could control his behaviour because his reaction to discipline was often non-compliance and violence. His file illustrated him as mischievous, yet comical, with recent signs of improved behaviour. He enjoyed partaking in various hobbies; however, these were often short-lived with him becoming disinterested very quickly.
I worked with John for several months and at a case-review meeting John’s parents informed the panel that he wished to take up boxing. His parents supported the idea, as did the Social Worker because it was thought it may inspire some discipline. I objected because of his criminal conviction of assault. However, the Social Worker dismissed this by indicating that John’s wishes were important and that our role was to empower him. Despite my objections it was agreed that John could attend. John soon attended a boxing club organised and operated by two retired policemen. Approximately one year later John was convicted of aggravated burglary with the victim being an elderly woman.
The first domain of critical practice, critical analysis, is concerned with how practitioners evaluate evidence, policies, and knowledge to influence decisions (Brechin, 2000; Glaister, 2008). Furthermore, the practitioner becomes conscious of multiple perspectives and the contextual nature of them (Brechin, 2000; Fook, 2002). Chalmers (2003:22) claims that practitioners who intervene in people’s lives have a responsibility to be informed by ‘rigorous, transparent, up-to-date evaluations’. Yet Sheldon and MacDonald (2009) note the reliance on robust evidence being available and the practitioners having the time, resources and skill-base to adequately evaluate evidence. Indeed, Fook (2002) argues that it is often in the interests of agencies to prevent such approaches as it may lead to increased responsibilities and higher costs.
Placing this experience in the context of critical analysis it is unsure at this point what informed the Social Workers knowledge; however, it was clear that he wished to respect John’s voice. The Social Worker believed John had personal agency and a fundamental right to choose his own life direction. The GSCC (2004) concurs with the Social Worker in-so-far as practitioners should promote independence and respect the client’s right to take risks. The Social Worker, as an agent of the state, was further supported by policies such as article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990:4) which stipulates that any child ‘capable of forming his or her own views has the right to express those views…[and this be] given due weight’. Indeed, his employer has signed up to this convention (Somerset County Council, 2009).
However, practitioners also have an obligation to ensure that these risks are managed and necessary steps are taken to minimise the risk of harm to service users or others (GSCC, 2010). I held an alternative view to protect John, and others, from harm. It is clear that both the Social Worker and I had valid points, thus, being guided by knowledge, policies and theories on their own may result in conflicts about what actions to follow (Banks, 2006).
The second domain of critical practice, critical reflexivity, originates from reflective practice and the concept that practitioners learn through experience (Schön, 1983). However, because reflective practice has limited criticalness (Fook and Askeland, 2006) it often fails to acknowledge deeper processes which impact practice (Fook, 2002). Furthermore, reflective practice can result in negative outcomes such as self-doubt or an acceptance of status quo’s (Eby, 2000). Critical reflexivity refers to a practitioner who engages in ‘self-criticism’ whilst being reflective. The practitioner becomes reflexive in questioning pre-established values, assumptions and prejudices (Taylor and White, 2001) and gains an understanding on how this influences negotiated understandings and interventions whilst working across difference (Glaister, 2008; Fook, 2002). Because critical reflexivity permits the practitioner to acknowledge the complex nature of the client’s circumstances and their perspectives there is an organic acknowledgement of cultural and social disparities (Fook, 2002). Indeed, Allport (1978:437) concurs and states how practitioners who engage in inwardness are generally less prejudice, are more tolerant in understanding others, and exhibit a ‘desire for personal autonomy rather than for external, institutional anchorage’.
Critical reflexivity affords me the opportunity to contemplate on how my preformed values and assumptions influenced my perspective. Thus, I needed to consider the opposition I held to John’s participation. As a pre-adolescent child I was bullied in school with a particular individual being prevalent in my memory. This individual attended martial arts which he duly practised on me. Ultimately, this had a significant impact on my belief that violence is wrong. Indeed, in relation to John my assumption was that everyone who attended a power sport had the potential to bully. This was hyperbolised by John’s past and thus my opposition to his partaking. Adams (2009) supports my exploration by indicating how our experiences can have an implicit impact on our decisions and in this instance I can identify how my negotiated understanding had become manipulated by my self.
The Social Worker adopted a Kantianistic approach by wanting to empower John to make his own life choices. Indeed, the Social Worker wanted to advocate Johns rights rather than impose carers perspectives which is understandable considering the current agenda toward person-centred planning (GSCC, 20100; Kellett, 2009). However, I felt that as professionals there was a justification in adopting utilitarianistic values because the risk of re-engaging in criminal activities was too high. Yet evidently apparent is neither the Social Worker or I respected each other’s perspective. However, notably the issues of the Social Workers claims that he wanted to empower John also become apparent. The very notion that the Social Worker wanted to empower John indicates that the Social Worker was actually the one with the power. Yet, the Social Worker has duties and responsibilities beyond the value of empowerment because of his legislated duty to protect John, and others, from harm (Banks, 2006).
The final domain, critical action, is concerned with practitioners having a robust skill-base whilst being conscious of its contextual nature. A critical practitioner works across difference to promote empowerment whilst confronting structural oppressions (Brechin, 2000; Eby, 2000). A primary principle of critical practice is the notion that practitioners should be research-minded in understanding the contextual basis of empirical evidence (Shemmings and Shemmings, 2003). Utilisation of the best available evidence is essential to contemporary practice (Sheldon and MacDonald, 2009) and yet despite being a ‘self-evidently a good idea’ (Trinder, 2000:3), evidence-based practice has faced fierce opposition because there is a risk that practitioners may abandon reflexivity and personal agency for technical rationality (Taylor and White, 2006; Webb, 2001). However, this view has been adequately challenged by commentators who state that evidence-based practice, which actually means evidence-informed practice (MacDonald, 2003; Chalmers, 2003) has, when scrutinised, the potential to minimise the risk of harm to service users (Chalmers, 2003). Indeed, evidence-informed practice is the critically appraised synthesis of empirical and experiential evidence (Fook, 2002; Sheldon and MacDonald, 2009).
In linking this to my experience with John, it becomes clear that I could not knowingly offer any definitive empirical evidence to support my perspective. However, neither could the Social Worker. In this sense both the Social Worker and I failed to be research-minded. Thus, in opposition to anti-evidence-based advocates, this experience indicates how practitioners can make mistakes when acting on instinct alone. Indeed, a brief search for empirical evidence found a longitudinal study by Endersen and Olweus (2005) which identified how participation in power sports for adolescents with a previous history of anti-social behaviours is likely to result in re-engagement. As John had a previous history of theft, this evidence may well have helped me, the Social Worker, and even John, come to a different decision.
Critical action also involves the practitioner developing a consciousness of the often hidden imbalances of power between themselves, agencies and the client (Payne, 2005). Critical practice occurs within the context of theory and consideration of critical theories permits me to understand my construction of power and how this influenced my action, or inaction. For example, Foucault was concerned with language and how discourse can assist professionals to create ‘natural and unchallengeable’ situations because they are deemed to have knowledge and thus power (Finlay, 2000:85). Indeed, the Social Worker established, chaired and controlled the case-review meeting. Fook (2002) concurs and argues that professionals utilise societal structures in order to suppress service users. Taking my earlier point regarding the construction of the case-meeting further it is clear that it was designed by adults with no real consideration about what John wanted. Indeed it is hard to understand why John, or an advocate, was not at the meeting. Yet, even if John was permitted to attend, it is highly likely he would have faced oppression by being forced to engage with the hegemonic language of adults which he would not have understood, thus he would ultimately been oppressed and possibly disempowered (Kehily, 2009). However, Cocker and Allain (2008) contend that service users have the right to take a pro-active role in decision making processes and suggest that the role of the practitioner is to ensure that service users are fully informed through the provision of concise information. This clearly did not transpire and thus true empowerment was never apparent.
In concluding it is evident a professionals self can impact on the everyday lives of service users and practitioners. As practitioners we all have multiple identities which we take into practice. Not only do these derive from our previous experiences, but also our responsibilities as professionals, agents of the states, as employees and of course as statutory creation created to fulfil a role. Indeed, critical practice assists practitioners highlight how their self has been impacted upon from each of these identities and permits the us to make decisions, along with the service user, that are more likely to produce a more productive, and effective, outcome for all.
In engaging in critical practice I have been able to identify significant factors which may have contributed to a better outcome. Whether John’s participation in boxing contributed to his re-engagement in criminal activities cannot be realistically measured. However, what is certain is John was disempowered in-so-far as he should have been fully informed. It is clear that none of the three domains of critical practice isolated can work independently, however, the careful and intentional synthesis of values, experiences, evidence and knowledge along with an awareness of structural disadvantage caused by agencies can all have a positive impact on the self and ultimately a practitioner’s power to challenge practice.
I misplaced my power as a morally active practitioner and permitted the Social Worker to make a judgement based on instinct. I could have researched the potential issues of boxing and provided John with more in-depth information in a format he would understand. However, as practitioners we have an obligation to learn from our experiences because a critical practitioner who is engaged with their self is more likely to succeed in becoming a transformational practitioner.