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Critical Social Work

Social Work and the Cultural Dialogue


Kevin D. Blair, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Social Work
Niagara University
Lewiston, New York, United States


This article presents an overview of traditional sociological approaches to the role of social work in society and offers an alternative perspective that draws upon anthropological concepts of culture and specifically the conceptualization of American culture as a form of dialogue between dominant and non-dominant groups in American society. Traditional approaches to the sociology of social work have focused on the concept of social workers as intermediaries. Intermediaries convey messages between groups and seek to resolve conflicts and reach agreements. Incorporating anthropological concepts of cultural dialogue, transmission, and reproduction enables a more in depth analysis and understanding of how this intermediary function plays out. It offers the ability to analyze the content of the messages and to create a better understanding of the tension between social change and social control that are part of social work practice. The intermediary approach to social work’s relations with society results in viewing social work as contradictory and somewhat ambiguous in its relationship to society. This ambiguity, in both theoretical and practical terms, has been difficult for the profession to resolve. By incorporating the concepts of cultural dialogue, transmission, and reproduction, it is argued that the role of social workers in society can be more clearly viewed as that of cultural agents engaged in the processes of dialogue, transmission, and reproduction. From this anthropological perspective, it may be possible to resolve the ambiguity between social work as a form of social control and social work as social change.


The most common view of the relationship between social work and society seems to be the perspective offered by Cowger (1977) that social work is an intermediary profession, acting between the individual and society.1 From this perspective, social workers are viewed as objective buffers and mediators between the individual and society. In this intermediary capacity, social work is somehow able to act in ways that are in the best interests of both the individual and society, seeking to empower the individual and to improve society (DuBois & Kodsgrud-Miley, 2002). Further, the definition of intermediary is: somebody who carries messages between people, or tries to help them reach an agreement (Encarta Dictionary). But, what exactly are the messages that are being carried? And how do social workers act in ways that help reach these agreements in a way that is that is best for all groups?

Critics of social work reject the view of social workers as neutral and objective, and see them rather as agents of social control, largely acting in ways that perpetuate existing inequalities (Corrigan & Leonard, 1978; Leonard, 1966; Davies, 1991). Other analysts offer the perspective that social workers are, or can be, agents and catalysts of social change (Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986). Each position—social workers as agents of social control, social workers as agents of social change, and social workers as intermediaries objectively balancing the pressures of social control and social change—has its supporters. However, as can be seen from a review of the literature devoted to the sociology of social work, a definitive answer to the question, “what is the relationship of social work to broader society and are social workers agents of change, agents of control, or neutral intermediaries?”, has proven elusive (Payne, 1997; Sullivan, 1987).

The author will assert that Cowger’s (1977) notion of social workers as objective intermediaries fails to capture the extent to which social workers at all levels, but especially those in direct practice roles with clients, are actively engaged, and typically unwitting, participants in the American Cultural Dialogue that exists between dominant mainstream American culture and non-dominant minority groups (Davies, 1991; Siebon, 1991; Spindler & Spindler, 1990). The American Cultural Dialogue conceptualizes American culture as consisting of a dynamic exchange between a dominant mainstream core group in American culture that holds a significant degree of power, and a range of non-mainstream and non-dominant minority groups that have less power and that are engaged in resistance to the hegemony of the dominant groups. It is argued that social workers are active participants in this exchange: that the intermediary messages being sent are messages of assimilation, resistance to assimilation, selection for success and failure, accommodation, deviance and conformity and that the work of social workers influences the outcomes of the efforts to dominate and to resist domination.

This revised conceptualization of the role of social work in society suggests that social workers are not benign, objective intermediaries, but rather active players in the efforts of members of the dominant culture to control oppressed groups and the efforts of oppressed groups to resist domination. The actions of individual social workers can either aid or resist these efforts, but they cannot be neutral. Seeing social workers as cultural agents engaged in the processes of cultural transmission, reproduction, and dialogue, is a refinement of the intermediary role described by Cowger (1977) that enables the profession to better understand its role in American society. Further, an anthropological approach to social work’s role in society enables the profession to better address the tension between social control and social change that has plagued the profession in both theoretical and practical terms from its beginning in the late 19th century.

This essay will first present a critique of the literature that explores the relationship of social work to society. Second, anthropological concepts of cultural dialogue will be presented and used to develop the concept of social workers as cultural agents. Also in this section data drawn from a qualitative research project that explored the role of school social workers in the transmission of culture in American Public Schools will be incorporated to help provide a more pragmatic understanding of social work and cultural transmission in the day to day work of social workers (Blair, 2002). This project involved interviewing school social workers and a range of others in the public school setting (e.g., principals, teachers, psychologists, parents, and students) and focused on developing an emic understanding of how each of the interviewees conceptualized and defined the social worker’s roles and functions within the school setting. These interviews were transcribed and then analyzed in an effort to understand how school social workers operate within the American cultural dialogue and how social workers participate in the transmission of culture. Two key findings from the data analysis were: 1) persons who represented dominant culture (e.g. principals and often teachers and parents) viewed the social worker’s primary functions as acculturation of clients (i.e. students) into the dominant culture and the obtaining of cooperation from clients and their parents in the acculturation process; 2) The school social workers had little, if any, conscious awareness of the cultural aspects of their role in aiding or resisting efforts to acculturate clients into the dominant culture (Blair, 1996, 1999, 2002). Finally, some implications of this new conceptualization for the practice of social work and social work theory will be discussed.

Review and Critique of the Literature

Explorations of the relationship of social work and society often start by examining the beginnings and origins of the profession. That the history of social work as a profession essentially begins during the mid-nineteenth century (Ehrenreich, 1985; Woodroofe, 1971) and has its origins in the settlement house and charity organization movements of that time is generally well accepted (DuBois & Krodgrud-Miley, 2002; Sullivan, 1987; Woodroofe, 1971). Acknowledged precursors to social work’s development include the failure of poor laws to control, let alone eliminate, the poor in the cities of England and United States, a revival of evangelical Christianity in the mid-1800s that “emphasized rescuing the immoral and preventing immorality” (Sullivan, 1987, pg. 104), and capitalist self-interest that saw a need to control “the proletariat [that] may strangle us unless we teach it the same virtues which have elevated the other classes of society” (Samuel Smith as quoted in Sullivan, 1987, p. 104). These precursors illustrate social work’s roots in the desire of some to aid the poor and needy, and of others to maintain their position of status and control.

Regardless of where they place the origins of social work, all historical authors emphasize the tensions between social control and social change and between individual change and societal change that have been and continue to be central to social work’s role and functions in society (Heraud, 1970). Payne (1997), for example, offers several potential views of the relationship between social work and society, each emphasizing either social control or social change as the ultimate outcome of social work activity. According to Payne, whether social work acts in ways that perpetuate or change society depends largely on the theoretical point of view of the observer. He notes, however, that in all approaches, it is the individual (or possibly small group or family), and not society in the direct sense, that is the real or pragmatic focus of social work’s actions. Social workers act in ways that are intended to be primarily of direct or practical benefit to these individuals; consequently, social workers can be viewed to either perpetuate the elitist power structures of society by not changing anything above the micro/individual level, or to bring about a better society as each individual contributes to society’s improvement. Payne’s analysis points out the central dilemma for social work: does its work with individuals lead to a better society or does its work lead to a perpetuation of an unfair and unequal society? Payne acknowledges that, “the nature of social work, therefore, is ambiguous and debated, but we can see the fundamental elements of that debate” (p. 5).

Finding an appropriate perspective on the tension between social workers as agents of control versus agents of change is the goal of Cowger’s (1977) article entitled “Alternate stances on the relationship of social work to society.” Cowger summarizes the options for conceptualizing social work’s relationship to society as: 1) “social work versus society, 2) social work as a distinct entity independent from society, 3) social work as an instrument of society, and 4) social work as an intermediary between the individual and society” (p. 25). He then proceeds to examine the pros and cons of each position and to dismiss each option as inadequate until he reaches the intermediary relationship, which he finds to be the best overall choice. He completes his analysis by stating that,

Viewing the profession as an intermediary between the individual and society has a number of advantages and would appear to have the greatest utility as an inclusive societal stance…It moves the profession away from the “bleeding heart” image, yet does not place it in the role of being “society’s controllers.” It provides the profession the opportunity to be friend of the poor and powerless while at the same time promoting the public good. (p. 28)

As formulated by Cowger, social work is, or more accurately could be, an objective intermediary capable of balancing the tension between change and control and consequently acting in the best interests of all. This rather optimistic view of social work’s role in society forms the basis of much criticism of the profession. For example, both the Marxist and feminist views of social work reject Cowger’s conclusion that social workers act as objective intermediaries. Both view social workers primarily as agents of social control acting in the guise of objective intermediaries (Corrigan & Leonard, 1978; Davies, 1991; Saulinier, 2001; Sullivan, 1987).

From a strict or functionalist2 Marxist perspective, the role and function of social work is very clear: promote social stability and the reproduction of class and power relationships by getting the working class and the poor to conform to the ideology of the ruling class. Far from intermediaries in the sense provided by Cowger, from a Marxist perspective, social workers are little more than “polite policemen,”3 whose methods and techniques are primarily used,

…to integrate, or socially control, working class people. Its aim is to promote social stability in capitalist society by changing people as individuals, groups, or communities and, in doing so, to protect the social, economic, and ideological hegemony of the ruling class. Marxist functionalists therefore might well agree with Corrigan that “throughout the Western world, states are characterized by one of the two major symbols of control in capitalist society; the tank or the community worker”. (Sullivan, 1987, p. 119)

Responding to such harsh criticism, both Davies (1991) and Sullivan (1987) note that the Marxist arguments fail to hold up to careful analysis. Davies (1991) states, “when you talk to clients who have benefited personally from social work help, [the Marxist] conclusion seems to be wildly at odds with empirical reality” (p. 6). An additional problem is the Marxist portrayal of social work as quite linear and direct, with all social work actions being an effort to control people and to sustain society’s existing social and class structures. This view fails to account for the autonomy of individual clients and social workers and for real changes that can be seen in the lives of clients and documented changes in society (Davies, 1991; Saulinier, 2001).

Feminist scholars have also explored the role of social work in society. They too have found much ambiguity in social work and especially so in its practice with women. Feminist writers have typically placed the goals of social work practice into Cowger’s “social work versus society” category, with an emphasis on “…altering the process and manner in which private and public lives are organized and conducted” and on the role of social work in “ending [patriarchal and class] domination and resisting oppression” (Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986, pp. 1-2). However, these same authors (Saulnier, 2001; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986) have noted that while these are the goals of social work, the actual practice, especially with women, is something quite different. They have criticized social work for acting in ways that reinforce the dependency of women, the exploitation of the poor, and that help maintain patriarchal power structures in society. This characterization of social work as a very direct and deliberate tool of patriarchal power is quite harsh. And as with the Marxist notions of social workers as deliberate tools of social control, seems to be at odds with the actual goals of social workers when they are working with individual clients and the efforts of social workers to genuinely help clients to improve their lives and situations (Payne, 1997).

Each of these analyses creates something of a false dichotomy, suggesting that social change and social control are exact opposites and social workers in direct practice must be doing one or the other. Cowger’s analysis offers the position that acting as intermediaries, social workers are able balance between social change and social control depending on the case situation. Rejecting the either/or dichotomy leads to a view of social work in the real world as both dynamic and contradictory, having the ability to repress on the one hand and the ability to foster substantial change on the other hand, and having done both over the history of the profession (Davies, 1991).

The contradictory nature of social work is the problem, both theoretical and practical, that vexes traditional attempts to articulate the relationship of social work to society. Marxists want to see social workers as a method of social control, social work as an instrument of society in Cowger’s terms, but the actual practice of social workers contradicts this view. Others, such as some feminist scholars, would like to see social work as an instrument of change, social work versus society in Cowger’s terms, but they too collide with contradictions in the actual history and practice of social work. Cowger would like to split the difference and view social work as an intermediary, somehow objective in its practice and possessing the theoretical knowledge and skill needed to balance these competing and contradictory forces. This neutral objectivity also fails to hold up under close analysis. Finally, Payne, taking a more constructivist view, would see social work’s relationship to society as dependent on circumstance and on the social construction of the situation in which the social worker acts. In this final view, social workers become pragmatic realists, doing the best they can at a given time and leaving the broader issues of social control vs. social change for others to ponder. If accepted, Payne’s position suggests that social workers in direct practice more or less ignore the impact of their work in terms of broader social change and focus solely on the pragmatic problems they and their clients are facing. This position contradicts the clear interest in promoting social justice and social change that brings so many people into the profession and the desire noted by Payne to be of both pragmatic help to clients and to simultaneously bring about social change and improvement (DuBois, B. & Krogsrud-Miley, K., 2002; Payne, 1997).

As Sullivan (1987, p. 122) points out, there appear to be “dialectical aspects of social work.” That is, the profession seems to be engaged in some form of dialogue or negotiation between individuals and society, as well as between groups within American society, a dialogue that is full of contradictions, rather than some overt actions of control. Viewing social workers and their clients as participants in the cultural dialogue offers a way to open the intermediary function as described by Cowger to a more in-depth analysis and to explore the messages being sent back and forth in much greater detail and to see from a cultural stance how social workers play out their intermediary functions. This cultural approach may provide a way to refining social work’s actions so that the desire to provide practical help to clients is always consistent with the desire to achieve social change.

Transmission of the American Cultural Dialogue and Social Work

Cultural transmission refers to the intentional efforts of members of a culture to reproduce their culture in the next generation, including the reproduction of gender roles and relationships, class stratifications, forms of power, and group hierarchies (Bennett & LeCompte, 1990; MacLeod, 1996). A culture that cannot be transmitted and subsequently reproduced from one generation to the next generation will eventually cease to exist. Members of the dominant culture will attempt to influence and use social and cultural institutions such as family, religion, government, and education to further their efforts to transmit and reproduce their culture and to dominate and limit the transmission of other cultures (Spindler, 1987). At the same time, various groups from within the culture may be attempting to alter roles and relationships from one generation to the next. Cultural transmission is a complex process that can be full of contradiction and difficulty, and especially so in a multicultural society such as the United States, where numerous groups wish to pass on their culture and way of life (Blair, 2002). From this anthropologic perspective, social and cultural institutions such as family, schools, and religions are powerful apparatus actively engaged in the processes of cultural transmission and cultural reproduction (Spindler & Spindler, 1990, 1994), and all will feel the tension between the desire to maintain stability from one generation to the next and the desire to make changes from one generation to the next.

Understanding how cultural transmission and reproduction function has been the focus of many anthropologists, but the work of George and Louise Spindler has been particularly devoted to the transmission of American culture (Spindler & Spindler, 1990, 1994). Echoing the comments of Sullivan (1987) regarding the dialectical nature of social work in general, Spindler and Spindler (1990) view the central feature of American culture as a dialectical process or dialogue between dominant groups and non-dominant groups in the United States. They state,

Many interpreters of America feel that there are too many subgroups, too many varieties of opinion and lifestyle, too few common interests and experiences, and too little history in common for there to be any ‘American’ culture. In one sense this is bound to be true given the obvious diversity within the American scene. But still, we manage somehow to communicate with each other even if we are often in conflict…perhaps what we have in common is a way of talking to each other about our common interests and differences. We may express our commonalities as clearly in the framework of conflict as we do within the framework of cooperation. We are in a constant dialogue that can be construed as a cultural dialogue. This dialogue has been going on for some time and about the same things, such as individual achievement and community, equality, conformity and difference, honesty and expediency, and success and failure. (p. 1)

In this view, American culture and American dialogue are virtually synonymous. By dialogue, Spindler and Spindler (1990) are referring to all ways in which the various groups in the United States interact with each other and work out some form of existence (hopefully peaceful coexistence, but quite often a conflictual and troubled coexistence). They argue that elements unique to American history required development of cultural forms that enabled the various groups to retain and reproduce their own cultures, while also creating an American culture. These elements include a multicultural population (indigenous, immigrant, conquered, and enslaved) that resisted efforts at both physical and cultural domination and control (e.g., historically known as ‘Americanization’), a vast open country that encouraged and enabled groups to grow and develop independently of other groups, and the desire for the many groups to come together and cooperate at different times (e.g., the Revolutionary and other wars). This history includes a lot of conflict, efforts at genocide, efforts to eradicate other cultures (particularly Native American and African-American cultures), and unequal treatment, as groups attempted to dominate and control the dialogue (Spindler & Spindler, 1990).

When viewed as a dialogue, American culture can be seen as a dynamic interaction between groups that have historically come to dominate the center or mainstream of American culture (e.g., the center has historically been dominated by those with a white, male, Anglo-Saxon, and protestant heritage) and the multitude of groups that are arrayed at some distance from the center. These non-dominant groups are faced with issues of dissonance and cultural conflict. They might choose to move towards the center and attempt to assimilate into the mainstream, or to resist moving towards the center and to maintain their own culture, or to balance the conflicting demands and to somehow become bicultural. Further, the dialogue itself is transmitted from one generation to the next, and, during this process of transmission and reproduction, dominant groups will seek to maintain their status, while non-dominant groups will seek to alter their subordinate positions.

It is into the midst of this swirling and dynamic dialogue that the profession of social work situates itself, helping to solve the practical problems of its clients, while acting as both facilitator and transmitter of the dialogue, that is the exchange of messages between the competing groups. Further, the profession of social work has taken on an advocacy role within the dialogue and it is here that the role of social workers could be significantly strengthened if the efforts of direct practitioners also enabled those with little power to have a stronger, more powerful voice in the dialogue (Blair, 2002).

Currently social work aids in the transmission and reproduction of the dialogue itself from one generation to the next, and in the transmission of the dialogue to non-dominant cultural groups, whether they are newly arrived immigrants (an historically important role in both the settlement house and charity organization society movements from the progressive era), or to persons who have been marginalized to the periphery of the dialogue such as the poor and oppressed who have limited opportunity to be heard and to influence the dialogue and its outcomes (Blair, 2002).

Seen through the anthropological lens of cultural dialogue, the answer to the question, “what is the role of social work in society?” becomes: promoting, transmitting, facilitating, and enabling the cultural dialogue, empowering those with a weaker voice in the dialogue, along with mediating conflicts between groups. If we begin with the concept of social workers as intermediaries between the individual and society (Cowger’s formulation, as well as Payne’s notion that the situations are socially constructed), helping the individual negotiate her or his role and “person-in-environment” fit and then expand this conceptualization by changing the word “environment” to the words “dominant culture,” so that the phrase becomes “person-in-dominant culture,” we can quickly develop a sense of social workers as cultural agents engaged in the processes of cultural dialogue and transmission (Blair, 2002).

In this formulation, social workers are not neutral intermediaries, but rather cultural agents who seek to transmit and facilitate the dialogue itself. In carrying out this function, social workers do not seek to perpetuate existing power structures and the dominance of some groups over others. In fact, by promoting and transmitting the dialogue, social workers hope to give voice to groups that would otherwise not be heard and whose needs would thus be ignored, while at the same time promoting and transmitting a cultural ideal of a working dialogue that enables the multitude of groups within the United States to coexist.

Viewing Social Workers as Cultural Agents: a case example

The American cultural dialogue is a process of conflict and accommodation (Spindler & Spindler, 1994) between the dominant mainstream majority and non-dominant, non-mainstream minority groups. As the following example illustrates, individual social workers and their clients find themselves in the midst of this dialectical process and together they must work not only on pragmatic goals, but also on how to engage in the cultural dialogue. Some clients will be fully incorporated into the mainstream, being already from one of the dominant groups or ultimately joining the dominant, mainstream side of the dialogue. Others, such as the clients in this illustration, will be encouraged to make a positive compromise and accommodations that enable them to better participate in the dialogue without assimilating, essentially a bicultural stance. Finally others may be encouraged to disengage, to move away from the center and to resist all efforts at acculturation and accommodation.

Echoing Cowger, most social workers seem to prefer the second or intermediary choice (Blair, 1996). As will be seen in the example, social workers hope that by encouraging client engagement in the dialogue with the mainstream they will help clients succeed in pragmatic areas but also to empower them in the dialogue and ultimately to bring about changes in the mainstream. This example was selected from a series of interviews with school socials that explored their role in cultural dialogue and transmission (Blair, 1996, 2002). The speaker is Jan, a school social worker with over 15 years of experience discussing her role in helping a student who is African-American and a decided minority in the suburban elementary school where she works. The example was selected because it illustrates the American cultural dialogue—the ways in which both the social worker and the client engage members of dominate culture in a working out of what is going on and what should be done to make things better for all. The members of the school that represent dominate culture want the young man to acculturate and view accomplishing his assimilation as Jan’s primary responsibility. Jan views her role differently, seeing it more as one of advocacy on behalf of the client as he seeks to resist the dominant culture’s effort at hegemony. To do this, she must engage in the dialogue, rather than simply giving in and assimilating and/or accommodating. While she is not particularly aware of the cultural dialogue aspects of her activities, she does her best. If her efforts to advocate and negotiate were informed by an understanding of the cultural aspects of her work, it is likely that she would have a clearer understanding of what is happening, what is at stake in the outcome and thus be more effective in her actions.

One [student] in particular I’m working with right now is in the second grade and he’s black. He’s from the city and he and his mom have moved to this district to have a “so-called” better education. [His family] believe because we’re a suburban school, we must do a better job.

One aspect of dominant culture in a school setting is control over who becomes a client. Like most school social workers, Jan has little control over who becomes one of her clients. As is most common, she was asked to become involved in this student’s situation by the principal who was concerned, stated Jan, “by his difficulty in adjusting to his new environment.” The implication is that the principal views Jan as having the ability to help this young man change and adjust to his new environment. The idea that it is the school and its personnel who will need to change and adjust is not discussed by the principal. The teacher holds a similar view of Jan’s role:

His teacher is on him all the time about how he has to change now that he’s in a ‘real’ school. He [referring to the teacher] can’t get over that this boy’s mom doesn’t go through his backpack everyday, doesn’t make sure that all the notes are taken, and work completed.

From the teacher’s point of view, Jan’s job is also to use her skills and help the boy adjust to the “real” school where he now finds himself. For both the principal and the teacher, Jan is a specialist who can obtain this young man and his mother’s cooperation with the school and subsequently enable him to adjust to his environment. This view represents a skewed version of social work’s concept of person-in-environment fit (Kodsgrud-Miley, O’Melia, & DuBois, 2001), but also demonstrates how clearly the role of the social worker is seen by these educators. From their point of view, Jan’s job is to work with this young man, to acculturate him and “fix him” so that he fits well into his new environment/school. Jan, however, sees her role quite differently and acts according to her own vision of her role,

I’m constantly working with [this student’s] teachers, telling them to lighten up because this kid is coming here from a very different environment and this place is a big shock for him.

In this statement we can see the intermediary function as described by Cowger (1977). Jan is conveying messages back and forth and is making an effort to reach an agreement. The concepts of cultural dialogue allow the analysis to go further. We can see that Jan is asking the teachers to “lighten up” in their demand that the student acculturate and become more mainstream in his behaviors. At the same time she is conveying messages back to the young man of how he might accomplish this accommodation with out compromising his cultural identity and forcing some level of accommodation for his differences from the teachers and others in the school.

[The teachers] would like me to say he is behavior disordered or put some other diagnostic label on him. But I don’t think that’s the way to go in this case. During one session [the student] said to me, “It’s really hard to get into this place because all these white faces are always just staring at me and I think it sure would be nice to have more black faces around.” [The student] is a really neat kid and I have enjoyed working with him. But most of my time is spent talking to the teachers about cultural differences and getting them to be more accommodating. It’s getting the teachers to change and be more comfortable that I feel should be my main goal in this situation…Of course, I definitely spend a lot of time working with [the student and his mother] to make them more comfortable and make it easier for them to communicate with each other. This boy’s mom, I spent a lot of time…bringing her up here [to my office], hanging out with her, and talking and really giving her some specific kind of ideas to work with her son and on how to make all of this less threatening and more comfortable [for everyone].

Jan’s description demonstrates awareness of her role as intermediary—that is the exchange of messages between two sides, but also a far more limited and vague awareness of efforts by the school and its teachers to acculturate, that is to transmit dominant culture and to make this young man and his mother more like them. Jan finds herself helping the student and his mother to handle and, to a large extent, resist the pressures they are feeling to assimilate, while still finding a way to fit into the new school. Further, she views her role as facilitating communication that leads to both sides accommodating and adjusting. Jan shows an appreciation, if not an explicit awareness, of the cultural and class conflicts that are apparent in this case and puts her efforts into helping all parties to have empathy for each other’s position, to communicate effectively, and to accommodate each other so that the situation works for them. How much better and sharper might her actions be if she had a more specific awareness of the cultural aspects of her work in this situation?

Jan wants to help her clients (the young student and his mother) succeed in their new school. But she would like her success to include the school becoming a different place, not solely her client’s adaptation and acculturation, i.e., his learning how to fit into the new environment. This is a common dilemma for social workers. As described by Payne (1997), social workers would like their pragmatic, micro level interventions to not only aid individual clients, but to have a cumulative effect that eventually brings broader social change. However, the criticism is that most practical objectives of social work are small-scale and focused on individual change, which cannot lead to major social changes (Payne, 1997).

In assessing the overall outcomes of her interventions, Jan initially expresses the hope that the school will become a different place for students from non-dominant cultural groups, that the principal and the teachers will learn and grow, and that her interventions have had a mid-level, if not a macro-level, impact. She hopes that “things will be different for the next minority student” who comes to the school. On reflection, however, she becomes pessimistic about the prospects for long lasting change at the school, believing lessons that should be learned from this case will not be generalized to the next case and that there will be no cumulative effect. Her reflection then shifts to the student and his mother and she becomes more positive in her assessment, characterizing her actions as having been empowering to both the student and his mother and expressing the belief that they will be more effective in their future dealings with the school and other representatives of dominant culture. This positive thought leads her to speculate that if all minority groups could be empowered in this way, then the dominant group would have to listen to their needs and accommodate them and how she, as a social worker, can act in ways that more specifically bring about these ends. Her final remarks express a belief in the power of the American cultural dialogue to bring about changes in society and a strong desire for her actions as a social worker to contribute to this outcome. Jan, and all social workers, would be much better at accomplishing these goals if their interventions were more specifically built around an understanding of the American cultural dialogue.


Awareness of the cultural dialogue and social work’s role within that dialogue will not be a panacea, but, as Jan’s final thoughts indicate, an awareness of the dialogue and thinking of ways in which social work interventions can empower minority groups in the dialogue, can help social work reach its goal of a cumulative effect to its micro level interventions. To reach this end, social work theory and practice methods should incorporate and develop the notion of social workers as cultural agents who seek to facilitate the American cultural dialogue, and who seek to give stronger and more powerful voices within the dialogue to oppressed groups.


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Spindler, G. (1987). The transmission of culture. In G. Spindler (Ed.). Education and cultural process: Anthropological approaches (2nd ed.) 148-172. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

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1 For example, Social work text books, such as Kodsgrud-Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, (2001) Generalist Social Work Practice: an empowering approach, 3rd Edition refer to Cowger in their discussion of social work’s relationship to society.

2 A functionalist or strict Marxist begins with the assumption that social work and similar entities must be agents of control and dominance and seeks to demonstrate the validity of their assumption (c.f. Corrigan & Leonard, 1978).

3 This phrase was used by an 11th grade African-American male to describe not only school social workers, but all helping professionals with whom he had come into contact via the schools and courts (Blair, 2002).

The author can be reached at P.O. Box 1942 Niagara University, NY 14109 and by email at

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