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Anti-oppressive social work theory and practice

Anti-oppressive social work theory and practice
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  Child and Family Social Work2003,8,pp 151–159 © 2003Blackwell Publishing Ltd What Works for Children? EffectiveServices for Children and Families Diana McNeish, Tony Newman and HelenRoberts (eds) Open University Press, 2002, 287pp. ISBN 0 335 20938 6 This book draws together research findings on a rangeof areas pertinent to social work practitioners,stu-dents and academics,although it also addresses areasrelevant to education and health professionals.It is an edited collection in three parts on specific topicsrelated to services for adopted and looked after chil-dren,preventing social exclusion of children andyoung people,and promoting children’s health.The authors are eminent writers in their field,including such well-known contributors as JuneThoburn on family placement,Mike Stein on leavingcare and David Berridge on residential care.Eachchapter seeks to summarize what is known fromresearch on the subject area under discussion.Eachchapter follows a helpful format of presenting keymessages from research and clarifies the scope of thechapter by identifying the questions the author isseeking to address.At stages throughout each chapter,key points are again summarized,making this a bookone can either dip into for core messages or read morethoroughly in relation to areas of particular interest.An innovative and encouraging aspect of this volumeis its attempt to include the views of children,both inseparate chapters and within each subject areacovered.The book claims to be primarily of practical use forthose working with vulnerable children,in particularsocial workers,teachers,youth workers and healthprofessionals.The title may give a false impression of certainty to practitioners avidly seeking the answer tosome of their most difficult situations.The arena of ‘what works?’is rife with academicand political debate on the nature of credible researchin the social science context.The editors explore thisdebate to some extent in their introduction,and pre-dominantly come down on the side of privileging pos-itivist research such as randomized controlled trials(RCTs) over so-called softer research methods andideologies.In so doing,they become hostage tofortune and present the available ‘evidence’of whatworks in a negative light,since few RCTs and littleso-called ‘robust’research has been undertaken in thechild care field in the UK.Therefore many contribu-tors apologetically draw on more ‘robust’researchfrom the US.Moreover the lack of attention to out-comes  per se in social work research is highlighted.However,some of the contributors clearly take acontrary view on the validity of different researchstyles,notably Berridge,who in his chapter gives aclear and reasoned argument on the merits of otherperspectives on research.I fear that the practitioner,unless advanced in critical thinking in relation toresearch,will find the seeming lack of confidence incurrent research knowledge frustrating and hence the title of the book rather misleading.However,theeditors rightly make no apology for introducing thereader to the debates on the nature of ‘what works’research,as a necessary prerequisite to applyingresearch appropriately to practice.Another caution for potential readers is the ten-dency of some authors to present primarily theresearch that supports their arguments and prevailingviewpoint.This is particularly evident in the chapterson looked after children and adoption,with onechapter presenting research showing no difference inbreakdown rates or sense of permanency between per-manent foster care and adoption,followed by anotherauthor who concludes that adoption is substantiallymore stable than long-term fostering.An allied diffi-culty for the reader is being aware of the theoreticalbias of the author.This would be unimportant if allavailable findings on a subject were presented,but inexploration of any subject matter,there will always besome selectivity (hopefully unbiased) in presentationof available material.In places,the key messages (thereader might assume from research) are presentingvalue statements rather than objective assessments of all available material – e.g.‘randomised controlledtrials are the most reliable source of evidence on theeffectiveness of many social interventions’.Some con- 151 Book Reviews Book Reviews Editor: Fiona Mitchell (these reviews edited by Jonathan Dickens)  Book Reviews  Jonathan Dickens Child and Family Social Work2003,8,pp 151–159 © 2003Blackwell Publihing Ltd tributors to this volume and many others in theresearch field may have objections to this as a keymessage from research.It is of interest to me thatmuch of the research presented indicates personalqualities and commitment of the worker or service asa primary research finding in relation to ‘what works’.On this finding alone,I wonder if the broad brushresearch methods prioritized in the ‘what works?’agenda would be able to explore the nuances of whatmakes an intervention work in one area,but not when‘replicated’in another area.The exploration of research methodology leads meto consider that this volume may have as much,if notmore,to offer to the debate on research in the socialsciences as it has in helping practitioners decide ‘whatworks?’in their area of practice.I would not wish thisassessment to discourage practitioners from readingthe volume,which for the reflective and thinking prac-titioner will provide interesting and informativereading. Shirley E. Jackson Department of Social Work StudiesUniversity of Southampton Anti-Oppressive Social Work Theory andPractice Lena Dominelli Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2002, 211pp. £15.99. ISBN 0 33377155 9 Lena Dominelli is one of the ‘big names’in anti-oppressive practice.She has been recognized as aninternational expert in this area for over 15 years,andher early books on anti-racist social work (Dominelli1988) and feminist social work (Dominelli & McLeod1989) have become classics in the field.Being invitedto review a new publication by Dominelli on anti-oppressive practice therefore brings some trepidationas well as some excitement.Will the book bring any-thing new to the subject,or will it simply rehearsewell-worn themes from her other writing? The answeris that this book offers both the familiar and the newin Dominelli’s writing and thinking.  Anti-OppressiveTheory and Practice is Dominelli at her most uncom-promising and most passionate.As she sets the sceneat the beginning,she asserts that a new economic ide-ology is ‘guiding the planet into increasingly danger-ous terrain’;we are being ‘overwhelmed by apredatory capitalism which greedily ingests those whodo not subscribe to its tenets and then spews themout as worthless garbage’(p.3).She goes on to pro-claim that it is up to social workers to challenge thisand seek to empower others,since ‘promoting socialjustice and human development in an unequal worldprovides the raison-d’etre of social work practice’(p.4).It is this aspect of Dominelli’s writing which suc-cessive generations of social work students with whomI have worked have found most inspirational,and,paradoxically,most frustrating.Some students arethrilled by the call to what social work might  be;to thesocial work which seems capable of challenging andperhaps even changing individuals and institutions.Other students express feelings of demoralization,andsome scepticism.The ‘real world’of social work whichthey inhabited before coming on their social workcourse,and which faces them daily while on practiceplacement,seems far removed from the one to whichDominelli aspires.Day-to-day social work,in bothstatutory and voluntary agencies,seems much moregoverned by routine practice and ‘common-sense’wisdom than by ideas of social justice;it is much more‘ordinary’and less obviously political.  Anti-Oppressive Theory and Practice is not,however,simply a work of polemic.It offers social work stu-dents and practitioners a new synthesis of ideas aboutoppression and anti-oppressive practice,reflecting theinfluence of postmodern analysis on critical andradical social work theory.The book begins by givingthe reader the opportunity to think about differentways of understanding power and oppression,beforemoving on to consider how these theories might beput into practice through case studies which illustratethe issues being raised.Dominelli is highly disparag-ing of conventional social work conceptualization of power and oppression.She criticizes the ‘personal,cultural,structural (PCS)’model of Thompson(1993),which she suggests is uni-dimensional anddoes not sufficiently address the complexities of oppression.She argues that the context within whichsocial work operates is always multi-dimensional,sothat our theoretical understandings must reflect thiscomplexity;social divisions of class,‘race’,gender,age,disability and sexual orientation are not separatefrom each other.Similarly,power is not always oper-ated in one way by a single dominant group,but ratheris created and recreated in social relations betweenpeople;identity is itself multi-dimensional and a ‘fieldof contestation’(p.39).The theoretical perspectiveswhich Dominelli draws on owe much to postmodernand black feminist writing.Her understanding of power draws directly on the work of Michel Foucault 152  Book Reviews  Jonathan Dickens Child and Family Social Work2003,8,pp 151–159 © 2003Blackwell Publishing Ltd (1980);her idea of ‘intersecting universes of oppres-sion’has strong associations with the black feministwriter,Patricia Hill Collins (1991).Dominelli is ulti-mately critical of the idea of ‘postmodern welfare’,which she sees as ‘pessimistic and unhelpful in thetask of eliminating oppressive relationships’(p.162).Postmodernism may have influenced the developmentof her own ideas,but,she asserts,its failure to dealwith structural and collective considerations turn itinto a ‘politically conservative paradigm in whichexisting systems are taken for granted’(p.169).This book will be welcomed by some social workstudents and practitioners who will see it as address-ing key questions which are fundamental to socialwork theory and practice.For others,hard-pressedwith the demands of case management or a heavychild protection caseload,it may seem overly idealis-tic.Whether this book will become a ‘must-read’textin the way that Thompson’s more accessible book(Thompson 1993) has become,remains to be seen. Dr Viviene E. Cree Senior Lecturer in Social Work University of Edinburgh References Collins,P.H.(1991) Black Feminist Thought:Knowledge,Con-sciousness and the Politics of Empowerment  .Routledge,London.Dominelli,L.(1988)  Anti-Racist Social Work ,2nd edn.Macmil-lan,Basingstoke.Dominelli,L.& McLeod,E.(1989)  Feminist Social Work .Macmillan,Basingstoke.Foucault,M.(1980) Power/Knowledge:Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–77  .Pantheon Books,New York.Thompson,N.(1993)  Anti-Oppressive Practice ,2nd edn.Macmillan,Basingstoke. Effective Child Protection Eileen Munro Sage, London, 2002, 183pp. £17.99. ISBN 0 7619 7082 7 Is child protection an art or a science? Is it possibleto end child abuse tragedies,or are some mistakesinevitable? In child protection the stakes are high andthe solutions are neither obvious nor certain.Socialworkers have to assess risk and make life-changingdecisions,under pressure,and often with limitedinformation.Munro asks two fundamental questions – how do child protection workers think,and can weimprove this?Munro frames these questions within the debatebetween empirical and intuitive reasoning.Munrolooks at the strengths and weaknesses of bothapproaches and tries to find middle ground.Thecentral premise of the book is that ‘the trained,ex-perienced professional cannot be replaced with abureaucrat with a set of forms,but he or she can betrained to use a broader range of knowledge and toreason in a way that is more public and open to eval-uation’(p.1).This book appealed to me because it addressed myfeelings about moving from studying social work topractising.I believed I left college with hard knowl-edge that would lead my practice.Within weeks Ifound myself responding not planning,subsumed intoa team culture and overwhelmed by the suddenweight of responsibility and risk.Munro’s book isreassuring,because she values this immediate,intu-itive thinking,and sees practice wisdom as the sum of our previous experiences,including research andtheory.But without clarity about thought processes,mistakes can be made,prejudices will slip through,and sometimes,intuitive thinking will pull us in thewrong directions.The chapter on decision-making illustrates thisusing research on firefighters.Under pressure,theydid not compare alternatives so much as recognizepatterns,then check new information to ensure theywere correct.The problem is that this narrows therange of choices and fosters short-term thinking,without contingency planning.Munro recommendsdrawing decision trees including every option,ratingeach for desirability and probability to clarify thethinking behind decision-making.The chapter on risk assessment focuses on the dif-ferences between intuitive thinking and hard-boiledstatistics.For instance,our evaluation of new evidenceshould depend on existing information.So if we thinkrisk is already high and we get new evidence of risk,this should raise our concerns a little,but if we cur-rently rate risk as low and then receive more evidence,our concerns should be raised significantly more.Thisis almost the opposite of intuitive reasoning – we tendto place greater emphasis on information that confirmsour current hypothesis and subconsciously discount,forget or discredit any information that contradicts it.Munro recognizes that risk assessment is not the wholestory of child protection.Too heavy an emphasis mayinhibit preventive work and focus concerns towardsimmediate risks rather than longer-term damage.Riskassessment focuses on avoiding harm,but our role isto maximize children’s well-being and a lot of evidenceshows that the best interpersonal method for doing thisis to focus on strengths. 153  Book Reviews  Jonathan Dickens Child and Family Social Work2003,8,pp 151–159 © 2003Blackwell Publihing Ltd The only disappointing chapter was that on thehistory of child protection.This gave a fairly standardrun through of the development of our legal system,stressing the social construction of childhood and therole of child deaths in shaping the law.It failed toanswer the more interesting questions about why atti-tudes to child protection can be so different through-out the developed world,despite similarities at thelevel of economics and family structure,and itdescribed the evolution of policy without reallyexplaining the evolution of thinking.A more psychoanalytic theoretical approach mightfocus more on what makes child protection so diffi-cult.Child protection can involve a complex web of strong emotions involving both clients and workers.Italso touches on big questions about the relationshipof the individual to the state,and the limits of per-sonal responsibility.At the same time it is an intimate,personal endeavour,often boiling down to the qualityof the relationships between parent and child,socialworker and client.Reducing child protection to theavoidance of risk seems attractive,but may notproduce lasting change.Munro’s submission to the Victoria Climbie Enquirydescribes Arthurworry’s actions as predictable giventhe lack of training,supervision and resources.Thetemptation after such a tragedy is to try to reduce theroom for human error,by introducing increasingly pre-scriptive methods of risk analysis.This book shows thatwhile such tools can enhance our analytic and criticalthinking,they can only be a starting point,and willnever be 100 per cent effective.Its key point,thatclarity of thought will produce good practice and befairer to clients,is timely and well made. Clea Barry Children and Families Social Worker London Social Work Practice with Children andFamilies Anthony N. Maluccio, Barbara A. Pine andElizabeth M. Tracy Columbia University Press, 2002, 368pp. ISBN 0 23110766 8 The book is designed both as a primary text for childand family practitioners in training and as a compre-hensive reader for established practitioners alreadyengaged in this area of practice in diverse agency set-tings.The authors,three of the most highly regardedchild and family professionals in the USA,recognizethe increasingly complex and changing nature of thisfield and have sought to construct a text that is com-prehensive and contemporary.The outcome is a bookthat is detailed,scholarly,balanced and a must-havefor those who want to bring conceptual rigour andcareful planning to interventions.The book is organized in four sections.Part 1 hasfour chapters examining the knowledge base andoffers a detailed exploration of concepts of vulnera-bility and risk.There is a full examination of the lit-erature on protective factors and a balanced look atthe diverse and connecting threats posed to the sta-bility of children and families by poverty,e.g.limitingaccess to health care and education.Contemporarydifficulties relating to parental substance misuse andimpact on children are explored.The authorsacknowledge that some children are harmed andinjured by their carers,sometimes very seriously,andplace that component of child and family work in thebroader context of children and families in difficulty.Attention is given to the many ethical difficultiesposed for practitioners in constructing interventions,not least in those situations where culpability isunclear.Part 2 examines the practice base and lookssequentially at engagement,assessment,planning andgoal setting.The constructs and the literature dovetailwith contemporary United Kingdom developments inrelation to assessment frameworks,are consistent withguidance and procedure on partnership with parents,and align with law and policy designed to keep chil-dren in the family of srcin whenever possible.Thereis a concluding chapter in this section wholly devotedto school-based work.This will be of particular inter-est to ‘pioneer’practitioners in community schoolprojects and will encourage the inclusion in teachertraining education of the concept of the school as aprotective environment for children.Part 3 has a useful and timely chapter on evalua-tion and outcome issues,offering general guidanceand specific instruments to help practitioners con-struct practice outcome learning loops.The conclud-ing section is really an extensive collection of appendices,with many containing very helpful infor-mation on measurement tools and assessment instru-ments.A number also offer website addresses.Withincreasing numbers of child and family practitionersnow tuned to the web – often with advice and guid-ance from their own small children – this sectionoffers rich opportunity for exploration.I would like to see this book on the shelves of edu-cational institutions providing teaching and training 154  Book Reviews  Jonathan Dickens Child and Family Social Work2003,8,pp 151–159 © 2003Blackwell Publishing Ltd to social workers,teachers,health staff and other pro-fessionals who undertake work with vulnerable chil-dren and families.It is a richly detailed,informed andbalanced text and will be a lifeline for practitionersstruggling to be effective in an increasingly complexarea of practice. Jim Ennis Director of Studies (Child Care and Protection)Faculty of Education and Social Work University of Dundee Family Centres and their InternationalRole in Social Action: Social Work asInformal Education Chris Warren-Adamson (ed.) Ashgate, Aldershot, 2001, 230pp. £42.50. ISBN 0 75461424 7 The literature on family centres is sparse,and muchof it has not moved beyond the descriptive mode,which is especially unfortunate because,as this bookillustrates,there is a wealth of creative and innovativework in such centres.Part of the problem has beenthat there is perhaps no agreed operational or theo-retical model for family centres,and even the varioustypologies that have been produced have not usedsimilar terms of reference.Some,indeed,would arguethat the family centre is an idea whose time has now gone:their heyday in the UK was in the lateeighties and early nineties,and they became ‘official’with their recognition in the Children Act 1989 andthe rather half-hearted duty imposed on local author-ities to provide ‘such family centres as they considerappropriate’,including ‘therapeutic family centres’,but they have become increasingly constrained and squeezed as the child protection agenda has tightened.What emerges from this collection,however,is howvibrant,responsive,emancipatory and therapeutic in the broadest sense family centres can be.ChrisWarren-Adamson,whose connections with the familycentre movement go back into the 1970s,hasremained true to the cause and makes a very cogentcase here for ‘centre-based practice’,and especially for the integrated centre as a local resource centreproviding a range of people and facilities to be usedflexibly by local communities.This is in some sensesa very inclusive concept,encompassing educational,residential and other types of resource,but at the sametime quite a tight model,based upon a mixture of emancipatory ideology and European notions of social education.The model also has roots in oldertraditions of the ‘mission’,the ‘settlement’and of broader based philanthropy,while early versionsincluded Family Service Units among others.The book is introduced by Warren-Adamson,setting the historical and social context and outliningthe case for the family-centred approach.The mainbody of the text has 14 chapters offering examples andvariations on the theme from around the world,including France,Canada,New Zealand,Ireland andthe US,as well as several from the UK.Some of thesechapters do remain somewhat descriptive,althoughthis is not to undervalue them,since it is always valu-able to have coherent descriptions of models of goodpractice.Some other chapters,however,bring addedvalue to these descriptions by establishing connec-tions with a broader theoretical and/or politicalagenda,or by demonstrating links with other servicessuch as mental health and youth justice.Some chap-ters also include helpful case studies of how particu-lar children,families and neighbourhoods have beenhelped by a centre-based approach.It is especiallyvaluable in the penultimate chapter to have the first-hand accounts,transcribed from interviews,of anumber of users and others involved in a family centrein Ireland.These powerful voices confirmed to meagain how close the emancipatory and the therapeu-tic agendas are in family-centred practice,but alsohow distinct each of these is from the ‘detection andassessment’roles which many UK family centres havefound increasingly expected of them.The biggestchallenge is how to tie all of these agendas togetherinto genuinely integrated practice,which is what someof the centres described in this collection appear tohave achieved.There is still further to go.For example,it wouldhave been good to have included chapters here explic-itly on the skills and knowledge needed by practi-tioners and managers in these settings.My own viewis that centre-based practice relates much more toother forms of group care including residential care(as well as to youth and community work) than it doesto some forms of office-based social work practice.The skills required include the ability to work in apublic or semi-public arena with and between groupsand groupings,and yet still to sustain supportive rela-tionships with vulnerable and sometimes desperateand oppressed individuals and families.This requiresa very different approach to teamwork,networkingand boundary management from that found in someoffice-based settings,and here Malcolm Payne’s 155
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