Forty Years in Social Work: Reflections on Practice and Theory

Over the past 40 plus years the social work profession in the United States has experienced dramatic changes. Such changes include:

  • an increasingly diverse clientele, especially with an influx of immigrants from Latin America;
  • an increasingly conservative, reactionary political climate; and
  • a drive toward quantifiable data, “results” and the mimicry of hard sciences.

Christopher Rhodes Dÿkema chronicles these changes from a personal standpoint, having worked on the front lines of social work. Yet he also is able to draw upon a startling level of erudition to inform a background theory of social work practice. He claims not to have arrived at that theory, but his book points seekers in the right direction.

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Published posthumously, Forty Years in Social Work successfully marries anecdotes from Dÿkema’s years of practice with his wide and deep knowledge of philosophy and social sciences.

Dÿkema’s book is peppered with anecdotes from his practice. These serve to illustrate, among other things, the

changing demographics of his clientele. Early on in his career, he works mostly with older European immigrants and survivors of the Holocaust, as well as African Americans. But soon he sees a shift in clients away from those demographics, and toward persons displaced by conflicts in Latin America. This leads to an interesting reflection on multicultural perspectives in Social Work, and the limitations of those perspectives. Noting the tension between multicultural sensitivity and the needs of individuals, he wrote:

More and more, I came to see multiculturalism as a confused, poorly conceived, and frequently ill-informed combination of sentimentality and guilt. It has clear ties to the 18th century notion of “the noble savage.” Confronted with many realities of life, it has little of use to contribute. For example, most of us are aware of practices like genital mutilation, in particular the so-called “female circumcision,” which is designed to preserve the “virginity” of girls and young women. Obviously, this is an extreme example of the concern for sexual purity that we find in many cultures, including various ones in the United States.

NASW refers to “the strengths that exist in all culture,” but does not mention the obvious fact that some cultural practices are ill-adapted to life in the contemporary United States at the very least. Some too, are oppressive, antihuman, and opposed to social work’s democratic values. In particular, they often perpetuate elite control within the group over women, children, and disfavored subgroups… (p. 111).

He cites as examples certain patterns of spousal and child abuse that were apparently normal and/or acceptable to the perpetrators in their countries of origin, but had to be dealt with firmly and sometimes legally in the US. However, in illustrating the limits of multicultural leniency, he also calls for a far greater multicultural understanding. One cannot do social work with populations that one does not understand. To illustrate, he recommends that anyone who does social work with Latin American people, particularly those from the Caribbean basin, need to understand the religion of Santería (p. 123).

The anecdotes in Forty Years in Social Work illustrate his struggle to search for a theory of social work and human behavior, and Dÿkema studied a wide variety of writers in pursuit this theory. The  philosophers and social scientists Dÿkema studied over the years includes: Adorno, Braudel, Durkheim, Fromm, Goffman, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Nussbaum and Weber. While Dÿkema admitted that never quite arrived at the social work theory he looked for, his book contains a wealth of pointers for arriving at such a destination.

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