As someone whose previous degree was heavily entrenched in the sciences, I can appreciate and understand why certain things require a sense of understanding or order in order to proceed. Theories, especially scientific ones, provide us as humans the certainty and knowledge based in hard facts, of how to proceed in certain situations. For example theories explaining trauma and mental illnesses provide guidelines about certain issues in regards to both topics that require extra sensitivity and care. For me theories help the world make sense. We draw upon various theories as part of the ways we act in the world so our understanding of the social dimension of social work is also built upon different theoretical foundations (Penna, 2004). They help us see the world in ways we would not have otherwise thought and they help to categorize certain experiences objectively. However this is exactly where theories fall short, because they cannot encompass every lived experience. We have to be conscious and careful that these theories do not define all our knowledge. Theories provide a good basis on which to operate, but we cannot let them hinder our practice. Every individual is different and his or her coping mechanisms vary from person to person. My own values in seeing other people as humans ascribes to the belief that while theoretical models can provide a lot of information, it’s important to remember that we can only truly understand someone’s experience just by listening to them.
As someone who has experienced trauma of her own, I know very well that the firsthand experience of trauma isn’t something one can make sense of through a theoretical model. Trauma hurts. It is painful and hindering. It can terrify and lead to triggers. Trauma can be categorized through various physiological levels and theories that can explain how and why it may occur to certain individuals, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that trauma is felt. It is an emotional response that can trigger physiological reactions. As a social worker I know that going forward just because certain experiences may have theories or models that can explain a generalized version of it, it does not mean these models define the experience of every specific person who identifies as having had that experience. Theories cannot encompass an individual’s experience, but it can lend knowledge to parts of that experience. From personal experience this ideology is what sits best with me, and as a social worker going forward I would like to be able to remember this. Every person carries with them an identity that may or may not be intersectional It is important to listen to the person before you because the only way you can know of their individual experience, is if and how they choose to disclose their experiences to you. It does help that background knowledge of certain parts of that experience help me understand what is happening on maybe a biological, physiological or psychological level, it can help with reading body or vocal cues. However it’s important for me to position myself as a listener to gather a complete picture of the individual’s experience.
McMaster’s philosophy is extremely grounded in anti-oppressive values and practise. From the assertion that most people believe that social work practise does not coincide with School of Social Work’s Statement of Philosophy, I would have to agree. From my own experience growing up in a household of immigrants from India, there has always been a fear of social workers and their roles in the better appeal for society. Many immigrants, when told of social workers, harbour an odd fear or belief that social workers are people who snatch away children for no just or apparent cause. When I told my own parents about my passion for social justice and advocacy and that to do so I wanted to become a social worker, my father’s initial reaction was to exclaim “Like those people who steal our children?” I believe that each social worker has a unique inherent sense of beliefs or moral but it is important to be careful that these beliefs or morals don’t trespass against the beliefs and morals of service users. It is important to be cognisant of how theories have come to light and what the consequences of theories have been in the past. We also have to be careful that any decisions made out of judgement should adhere to the empirical evidence provided to us by the evidence of theories. Assessments must be made through looking at evidence because as social workers as we need to be able to support any decisions we have made with past evidence and research. We need to be able to answer why we have made the judgement calls that we have if we are ever called into question about those decisions. Theories inform policy and practise as well as the practice frameworks and interventions that legally bind social work (Penna, 2004).
One of the most devastating consequences linking theory and its role in social work practice was the Canadian 60s scoop, by which evidences and theories that were rooted in anti indigenous racism and white colonial ways of thinking, created policies that social workers had to adhere by. This ideology harnessed devastating consequences for indigenous children and families. We must be aware that social workers in Canada have a legacy that has been entrenched in colonial attitudes and actions. So it is imperative that in order for social work to be an effective practise it should support the self-determination of clients to choose traditional approaches that must not be limited by textbook theory or policy driven programs (Hart, 2007). We need to be careful to deconstruct theory and its paradigms, to be aware that just because people do not fall into a predicted outcome it does not mean they need to be pathologised. In fact in our dynamic roles as social workers, as counsellors, we have the ability to reject assessment tools that one dimensionally label, personalize and pathologize individual experiences and relate these problems to a larger reality (Hart, 2007). It is impossible to argue that theory finds its way into every aspect of academic work, policy implementation and practise initiatives, however it is important that theory be taught in a way that allows social work students to see how theory-construction occurs and how to unpackage and critically examine theoretical accounts are constructed (Penna, 2004).
As a social work student it is important for me to acknowledge that the career I have chosen has left behind a legacy of distrust and trauma for the indigenous population of Canada. I believe that to move forward in the direction of our school’s policy, I should always be aware the unique social location I hold and with that location the experiences that come with it. How these experiences cannot translate the same for everyone, as everyone experiences oppressive structures differently. I want my practise to hold a strong foundation of theory, as theory for me is able to explain many things on a generalized level but I will always have to be aware of the unique experiences that every service user has. Understanding these experiences comes from listening and transforming injustices stems from the heard accounts of varying lived experiences. I cannot change the world if I as a social worker am complicit in the systems and structures that cause oppression. So in order for me to be the social worker I want to be, I need to critically examine my social location as a social worker and what that means while working in a system that has caused previous harms. I want to be constantly aware of how my role within the system needs to advocate for the self-determination of the people I am seeking to help.
Hart, M. (2007). Seeking Mino-Pimatisiwin: An Aboriginal Approach to Helping. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.
Penna, S. (2004). On the Perils of Applying Theory to Practise. Critical Social Work, 5(1).