Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
After reviewing the literature for fifty years, pertaining to social welfare, social work and development it was observed that some key concepts like social change, macro-micro levels and structures, and problem of inter-linkages between them, empowerment and so on, have neither been adequately and clearly conceptualized nor discussed in operational terms”….and the literature failed to provide guidelines for practice or testable propositions which can be the basis for the further development of usable theory, discovery of operational procedures and techniques for practice”. There has been very little research on the theory building and practice of social development and social welfare “(Pathak, 1997)
Reviewing the literature on group work Joseph observed that “the written contribution of Indian authors to the literature of group work has been extremely sparse or limited ….. There has very rarely been any addition or challenge to the western literature on group work from the experience of social work in India, though the reality in India is significantly different in many ways”(Joseph, 1997).
Reviewing the literature on social action as a method, the author concluded that The changing social characteristics of social work, together with the reorganization of the work and the market situation of social work, seem to suggest that the scale of militancy in the profession will decrease rather than increase…. Social action as a method, therefore will remain on the periphery rather than become a central mode of intervention in India”(Siddiqui, 1997).
In her overview of all the reviews of social work literature during the period of fifty years (1940-1996). Desai noted a declining tendency in the articles published by social work writers in the Indian Journal of Social Work. She concludes “one still comes across masters and doctoral dissertations, which state that these are exploratory studies because no previous literature exists in that area!” (Desai, 1997). If they are not exploratory studies, they may be survey type of research of a field of social work, though this is also rare. A study of medical social work in Bombay by Gita Shah and a study of psychiatric social work in India by Ratna Verma are worth mentioning here. There has not been a single experimental research or evaluative research of the quality and impact of social work intervention. Even in U.K and U.S.A. this is very rare. There has been one modest experimental research in the mental health field as part of an M.Phil dissertation by an Iranian student (!) at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and it has not been published. Practice wisdom has been talked about for a long time, both in the West and in India, but remains elusive or even invisible to the eyes of the academic researchers. The need for documentation of the field experience and experiment, and to attempt at conceptualization and testing has been advocated (Joseph, 1997; Pathak 1997). Both of them have lamented the loss of such valuable knowledge. Practitioners rarely write and when they do, they tend to be either descriptive or recycle what has been written and published before, mostly by the western academics. One exceptional piece of publication of a very high quality of an experiment of social work intervention in field practice, with a family of a schizophrenic patient by Rima Balachandran, perhaps, remains unnoticed and unutilized by social work educators. And the author, alas passed away at a very young age, thus depriving us a possible future contribution to knowledge based on social work practice in India.
Finally, about the professional associations. The I.A.T.S.W went out of existence by mid-1980’s after making some significant contribution. A decade later, the other association A.S.S.W.I, also ceased to exist having made some memorable contribution. An association of psychiatric social workers, which was established in 1970, taking advantage of the void created by the demise of the two associations (I.A.T.S.W; A.S.S.W.I) renamed itself as the Indian Society of Professional Social Workers in 1986 and claims a membership of 900 in 2010. It holds annual conferences for a day or two, arranges a Memorial Lecture and awards Life-time Achievement Awards to the “chosen” academics. Note that the field practitioner is ignored. It also publishes an “annual journal” irregularly. Since 2000 only four or five issues have been published.
An introductory book on social work by an American author, published about two decades ago began with the sentence “social work is a practice-led profession”. It was a practice-led occupation (not a profession) when it grew out of the charity organization movement (C.O.S) in London, New York, Chicago and other cities in U.S.A. When they first thought of offering training to the volunteers, they (the leaders of C.O.S.,) drew upon their own field experience of charitable work, home visits, study of family life and the neighborhood, and assessed the cause of poverty (individual poverty), and looked for causes much more in the “character” of the bread-winner, whether he was thrifty, hardworking and suffered from any character defects like alcoholism etc, rather than in the social environment. They also recognized the importance of personal influence of the visitor on the individual and the family. Gradually all this led to the search for a theory which would unlock the mystery of human behaviour. And then there appeared a visionary, Sigmund Freud who was ignored largely in his own country*. He made a lecture tour of U.S.A on his discovery “Interpretation of Dreams”. The leaders of social work field were mesmerized by the Freudian psychoanalytical theory of personality development, which seemed to explain the causes of problematic human behavior in almost any area-poverty, delinquency, marital/family crisis, neurosis and even psychosis. This led to what one author has called “Psychiatric Deluge”. It took quite some time for disillusion to set in and a quest for another theory. Behaviour theory was now crowned as a major professional practice theory. Evidence of some limited nature from research was available based on experimental research. Psycho-analytical theory was not completely rejected. As Gellner has said elsewhere, if you study the history of basic sciences, you will come across a cemetery full of dead and rejected theories who once ruled their respective fields like physics, chemistry etc. However, in the social sciences, all the theories are alive, though some of them old and weak, with little following. The field of social science is overcrowded, with increasing number of aged theories (like the increasing old age population in many countries developed and developing) in several academic disciplines. (Gellner quoted in Pathak, 1989) There is also additional borrowing of theories from other disciplines and professions.
With the desperate search for professional status, succeeding in opening the sacred portals of the prestigious universities like Columbia University, New York, and University of Chicago and other universities in U.S.A., U.K., and later also in India, courses were devised as a two year graduate course (post-graduate), along with teachers with academic degrees of Ph.D, crowding out the earlier practice-rich, methods-course teachers who had worked for several years in the field, mainly in the private family and child welfare agencies, and some in medical college-linked private hospitals and psychiatric departments, child guidance clinics etc. This is as described before elsewhere, the process of academicisation of social work (Pathak 1989). Social work ceased to be a practice-led profession, which once it was, during the first few decades of the twentieth century. In India, right from the beginning in 1936, it has been a “profession” led by social scientists as teachers, with none on the faculty with any kind of field experience*. Even when a significant change in the composition of the faculty and the content of the syllabus took place and fieldwork began to be stressed as part of social work education in some institutions in Bombay (Mumbai), Delhi, Baroda (Vadodara) and Madras (Chennai), it remained a weak, less important part of the curriculum, both in terms of the marks/credits allotted to it and the quality of supervision, which was more a name than a reality. Today what one hears of it in a city like Bangalore with about fifteen undergraduate and postgraduate institutions including several “deemed” universities in addition to the earlier single, dominating (not always for quality) old-style university, is very depressing. The situation in other parts of the country may not be significantly different with rare exceptions.
Certainly there is a change in terms of the numbers of institutions, teachers, acquisition of degrees (M.Phil, Ph.D), and the number of students passing out of these institutions. There is also a change in the academic language , “professional” becoming more popular, replacing the “trained” social worker. Otherwise, there is no change in the status, public recognition, employment, recruitment procedures etc. We are, then back to square one or to put it differently, we have been running only to discover that we are standing still, where we were fifty or sixty years ago.
A popular textbook which is widely used in U.K and U.S.A has listed eleven “theories” under Part II of the book**. Out of these, four are called ‘perspectives’, one, a model and only one is referred to as “theories” (cognitive behavioral), the remaining have titles indicating a field of practice. The author has not clarified the difference between the perspectives, theories and models. Having read a good deal on this subject, I feel the perspective is rather a vague, imprecise concept wider than the theory and model. Theory tries to explain a particular phenomenon that it deals with and may have or should have predictive power in terms of outcome, and model is a concrete concept which may be part of a theory or theories. (cf.Models of Man). Models are ideal-typical constructs which are not mutually exclusive. If there is no terminological or conceptual clarity in a book which purports to deal with “theories”, how can it claim to enlighten the reader who is a beginner trying to grasp what theories are about and how they can help practice. This is an illustration of the quality of writing on theories of social work, which is received wisdom from the west and accepted uncritically by most academics in the developing countries. This book, perhaps, may be found in the libraries of many social work educational institutions in India and also used by some teachers for teaching a course related to the knowledge with claims of scientific knowledge. Note also the observation of Gellner quoted earlier, that theories old and new continue to coexist without one dominant ruling overarching paradigm, characteristic of basic sciences (Kuhn, 1967)*.
Finally, I wish to draw attention to the claim that the book is international in its scope and coverage. In more than one thousand entries under Bibliography I could count only eight which are from non-western countries. Among the listed six Indian authors none of the big names like M.S.Gore, P.D.Kulkarni, G.R.Banerjee and a few more who have written and published articles and books on social work are listed. Among the listed is one little known social work academic, whose two books find a mention. (I wrote a foreword to one of these books). Another is a junior co-author along with a western senior author. Three other Indian authors are non-social work academics who have written on community development, social values, and organizational science in social development. None of the books deal with theories, knowledge etc. The author has picked up a few titles by non-western authors, to decorate his book and justify his claim, that it is international in scope.
Effectiveness of Social Work Theories
Earlier I made an observation that there has not been any evaluative research in India that would tell us the impact of social work practice on the beneficiaries and whether there has been an improvement in the quality of services rendered by professional social workers in any social work service/field. Some attempt has been made in this direction, mainly in U.S.A which evaluated social work practice during the 1950’s and 60’s. I quote the summary of the findings:
“Social workers have sought to see whether our theories are effective as part of that research for improvement. The outcome of such attempts generally do not help us to say that one theory is better than another. Recent research has not tried to answer that sort of question. This is unsatisfactory, because it does not help us to evaluate theories against each other, and we need these theories to help us to practice”….we can only make general statements about the sort of things that is usually useful, often drawn from psychological rather than social work research and not covering the full range of social work activity” (Payne, 2005). (emphasis mine)
This lengthy quotation answers the question whether professional social work has succeeded after more than a century, in its search for theories that would unlock the mystery of human behaviour. The answer should be obvious.
The conclusion arrived at in the main text (chapter No.10) written during the 1970’s, regarding the status of social work as a profession has been confirmed and reiterated by Siddiqui and Bose during the mid-90’s. To quote:
Professional social workers have done little to project the importance of their training to decision makers. The schools of social work, too, have been passive in this matter........
If in the 1950s, the profession of social work was in search of an identity, a recognition and a status, the position has not materially changed even now. It is still knocking at the door for acceptance as a profession and an identity different from that of a social science discipline. (Bose, 1995).
It may be perhaps a futile exercise to try to answer the question whether social work has become or can become a profession on the model of medical profession. We may rather devote our energy in improving the quality of service using the easily available tools to monitor, gather data and evaluate our practice, both as an individual social work practitioner and collectively as a group or a service delivery organization. Single subject design and evidence based practice have been advocated in the social work literature which may be tried, where possible.
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