What is Anti-oppressive Social Work
Within Canadian social work, the term “anti-oppressive practice” is generally understood as an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of practice approaches including, but not limited to, radical, structural, feminist, anti-racist, critical, and liberatory frameworks (Bailey & Brake, 1975; Dominelli, 1988; Dominelli & McLeod, 1989; Fook,2002; Leonard, 2001; Moreau, 1993; Roche, Dewees, Trailweaver, Alexander, Cuddy & Handy, 1999). Therefore, rather than being seen as one “practice approach”, anti-oppressive social work can be more accurately understood as a stance or perspective toward practice. The term ‘anti-oppressive social work’ represents the current nomenclature for a range of theories and practices that embrace a social justice perspective.
For Dominelli (1998) anti-oppressive social work is a form of social work practice which addresses social divisions and structural inequalities in the work that is done with ‘clients’ (users) or workers. Anti-oppressive practice aims to provide more appropriate and sensitive services by responding to people’s needs regardless of their social status. Anti-oppressive practice embodies a person-centered philosophy, an egalitarian value system concerned with reducing the deleterious effects of structural inequalities upon people’s lives; a methodology focusing on both process and outcome; and a way of structuring relationships between individuals that aims to empower users by reducing the negative effects of hierarchy in their immediate interaction and the work they do together. (p.24)
Carniol (2000) also articulates a key element of anti-oppressive practice, the linking of personal matters and public issues:
For social workers who engage in anti-oppression practice, there is a strong connection between, on the one hand, providing individual assistance to people belonging to disempowered groups, and, on the other hand, working with social movements connected to these disempowered groups. By linking these two ways of working, social service providers are challenging social services from the ground up. We are reframing ‘private’ problems as public issues. (p. 115)
Thompson (1993) contends that anti-discriminatory practice is good practice and defines it as
An approach to social work practice which seeks to reduce, undermine or eliminate discrimination and oppression, specifically in terms of challenging sexism, racism, ageism, and disablism... and other forms of discrimination encountered in social work. Social workers occupy positions of power and influence, and so there is considerable scope for discrimination and oppression, whether this is intentional of by default. Anti-discriminatory practice is an attempt to eradicate discrimination from our own practice and challenge it in the practice of others and institutional strictures in which we operate.
Dalrymple and Burke (1995) describe a framework based on
- personal self knowledge
- knowledge and an understanding of the majority social systems;
- knowledge and understanding of different groups and cultures;
- knowledge fo how do challenge and confront issues on a personal and structural level;
- awareness of the need to be ‘research minded’ (Everitt et. al., 1992)
- commitment to action and change. (p. 18)
and contend that
These six points, together with an understanding of power and oppression, contribute to the development of anti-oppressive practice. The framework enables links to be made between individual action and social structures. It informs practice by enabling the worker to evaluate differences that exist at an individual level and within society and how these impact on each other. It provides the means of making accurate assessments by taking account the inequalities that texture the lives of those denied access to society’s resources because of their defined social status and the exclusionary practices of the dominant system. It demands that we constantly engage in the process of critical self examination, which in turn enable us to engage in the process of change. (p. 18)
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Values and Principles of Anti-oppressive Social Work
While there are variations, theorists and practitioners who ascribe to an anti-oppressive approach
- share the values of equity, inclusion, empowerment, and community.
- understand “the nature of society and the state of an individual’s consciousness [to be] critically related” (Howe, 1987, p. 121) and therefore link the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of individuals to material, social, and political conditions.
- link personal troubles and public issues.
- see power and resources as unequally distributed, leading to personal and institutional relationships of oppression and domination.
- promote critical analysis.
- encourage, support, and ‘center’ the knowledges and perspectives of those who have been marginalized and incorporate these perspectives into policy and practice.
- articulate the multiple and intersecting bases of oppression and domination while not denying the unique impact of various oppressive constructs.
- conceive of social work as a social institution with the potential to either contribute to, or to transform, the oppressive social relations which govern the lives of many people.
- support the transformative potential of social work through work with diverse individuals, groups, and communities.
- have a vision of an egalitarian future.
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The evolution of Anti-oppressive Social Work
Between 1900 and 1970 social workers involved in the Settlement House Movement, the Progressive Era, the Rank and File Movement, the New Deal initiatives, the Social Gospel Movement, and the Canadian League for Social Reconstruction promoted the social justice aims of social work practice (Andrews and Reisch, 1997; Carleton La-Ney, 1994; Fisher, 1980; Hartman, 1986; Hick, 2002; Irving, 1992). However, during the last three decades social workers have witnessed the unprecedented development of an anti-oppression approach as an alternative to more traditional social work models of personal rehabilitation and individual self fulfillment. The articulation and growing sophistication of an anti- oppression approach was, and continues to be, significantly influenced by feminist, civil rights, gay and lesbian, disability, and other social movements.
In the mid 1970s people began to speak and write about radical social work (Bailey and Brake, 1975; Corrigan and Leonard, 1978; Galper, 1975, 1980; Pritchard and Taylor, 1978). Rooted in the materialism of Marxism, radical social work introduced a class analysis of the role of the welfare state and the provision of social work services. Workers were encouraged to critically analyze the role of social welfare agencies and recognize the often conflicting interests between agencies and clients. Radical theorists identified the ‘individualization’ of client problems as a political ideology that could be challenged and replaced with an ideology that located problems within the capitalist social structure. Finally, they engaged in a critique of professional power and control (Bailey and Brake, 1975). “The radical social work movement widened the scope of modern social work. It challenged the narrow preoccupation of traditional social work with the individual, introduced a wider set of issues and put politics on the agenda” (Langan and Lee, 1989, p.2).
While not rejecting the insights of radical theory, structural theorists, concerned that radical social work focused on class analysis at the expense of other structural factors, developed what has become known as the structural approach to social work practice (Carniol, 2000; LeComte, 1990; Moreau, 1993; Mullaly, 1997; Rose, 1990). Human relationships were seen to be significantly influenced by inequities in power and privilege based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or age embedded in capitalist societies. Since society had systematically ignored the perspectives of these marginalized groups structural theorists called for the inclusion of these voices in the theory and practice of social work. Heavily influenced by the work of Marx and Freire, structural social work was a key development in the articulation of an anti-oppression stance.
In the 1970s and early 1980s feminist social workers began critiquing the structural approach, claiming that the theoretical analysis and resultant practices had not adequately integrated issues of gender (Diangson, Kravetz, and Lipton, 1975; Dominelli and McLeod, 1989; Levine,1989; Schwartz, 1973; Van Den Bergh, 1995; Wilson, 1977). Believing that the lived experiences of women’s lives raised unique challenges, these scholars and practitioners developed a feminist analysis of practice which has significantly influenced the shape of social work.
Concomitant with critical activity in the feminist movement in general, structural and feminist social work theory were critiqued for lack of attention to the impact of racism, both at institutional and interpersonal levels. Anti-racist and cross-cultural scholars proposed approaches that placed a race analysis at the center, challenging the Euro-centric bias of much social work (Dominelli, 1988; Schiele, 1997).
Post modern theorists have challenged anti-oppressive theorists to re-consider some of the central elements of the perspective. They contend that much anti-oppressive theory is reductionist, continues to perpetuate a false dualism between cause and case, essentializes human identity, is ideological, and is rooted in an outdate modernist tradition. These challenges will be addressed in another section of the site, but the significance of these challenges is central to an understanding of current anti-oppressive theory and practice (Chambon and Irving, 1994; Howe, 1994; Leonard, 2001; Solas, 1994).
While social justice work within social work has a well established and defined history it would be naive to assume that it has been the only, or even the most prominent, paradigm (Howe, 1987). Even a cursory survey of the history of social work indicates the fallacy of such an assumption. For more than one hundred years a dynamic tension has existed between those who understand the mission of social work to be one of cure and control and those who see the mission as one of transformation and resistance. Whether this tension is expressed as the debate between individual treatment verus social reform, as case versus cause, as accommodation versus social change, or as private versus public issues, it has profoundly influenced the evolution of social work theory and practice. Those theories and practices that support social work as a project of curing, controlling, and treating individuals have attracted the most support (Abramovitz, 1998; Franklin, 1986; Haynes, 1998; Howe, 1987; Rothman, 1985). Therefore, while the preceding historical review described the evolution of anti-oppressive theory and practice the supremacy of non-social justice theories and practices cannot be overlooked.
As previously mentioned, the term“anti-oppressive social work” has been adopted as an umbrella term that encompasses the variety of practice approaches discussed above. Concern has been expressed that, by adopting such an ‘umbrella’ approach, the unique and specific expressions of each oppressive construct will be lost, or at least given insufficient attention. This concern prompted some theorists and educators to insist on maintaining a feminist or anti-racist approach (Razack,2002; W. Thomas - Bernard, personal communication, September, 2000; G. Walker, personal communication, September, 2000). Payne (1997), in discussing the attempts to develop such a theoretical umbrella, stated “...this is a current area of theoretical development and it is unclear whether the generic anti-discriminatory/oppressive approaches will prevail...” (p. 247). While recognizing these concerns, for the purposes of this Web Site the term ‘anti-oppressive’ is accepted as the current nomenclature for social justice work within social work.
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