1 Tulrajas

Critical Social Work Case Study


perspective is that, while no particular theory is implicitly comprehensive; objectivelyapplied, any theory can prove contextually appropriate.However, Payne, (1997, p. 36) asserts that theories are most effective whencombined and that in isolation, “the theory’s value is vitiated” Indeed incontemporary complex and dynamic society with corresponding heterogeneity in itssocial problems, theory triangulation (combining theories) is essential to better understand, explain and address the myriads of interrelated problems that is

‘social work 

’. The very use of theory in social work per se is indispensible in establishingsome degree of rationality in what would otherwise be a chaotic occurrence.

Reasons for choosing particular theories

Argued on appropriateness rather than convenience; the ‘

Psychodynamic theory 

by Freud and the ‘

 Attachment theory 

by ‘Bowlby’ in particular; and the systemtheory in general seem most applicable to this case study. This preference is basedon the premise that family and relationship problems may be rooted in ineffectivepersonality developmental childhoods. Within this context, Thomas and Pierson,(1999, p.302) state that, “the psychodynamic approach views the adultPERSONALITY as product of childhood development” Similarly, Payne, (1997, p.79) states that “the important focus on social work on childhood and earlyrelationships and maternal deprivation comes from psychodynamics theory” Indeed,Lishman, (2003, p. 14) suggests the use of the attachment theory in cases of relationship and dysfunctional family situations because it seems to appropriatelyexplain behavioural and relationship problems as typical of this case. Thesuggestion here is that, Mr A’s drinking, gambling, aggression with associatedviolence; and Mrs A’s indiscriminate spending could be consequential of their deficient or ineffective childhood developments. Additionally, according to Payne,(1997, p. 291) both theories provide comprehensive models “that claim to offer asystem of thought to cover all the practice social workers might want to undertake”Payne, (1997, p.291). Additionally, Wood and Hollis, (1990, p. 9) perceivepsychodynamic theory as inseparable from family therapy. It is the combination of these arguments, capped with my critical judgement that has influenced the choice



Amy Rossiter, MSW, Ed.D.
Associate Professor
School of Social Work
York University
Toronto, Ontario



This paper concerns the relation between critical reflective practice and social workers’ lived experience of the complicated and contradictory world of practice. I will outline how critical reflection based on discourse analysis may generate useful perspectives for practitioners who struggle to make sense of the gap between critical aspirations and practice realities, and who often mediate that gap as a sense of personal failure. I will describe two examples of discourse-based case studies, and show how the conceptual space that is opened by such reflection can help social workers gain a necessary distance from the complexity of their ambivalently constructed place. Discourse analysis can provide new vantage points from which to reconstruct practice theory in ways that are more consciously oriented to our social justice commitments. I understand these vantage points in the case studies I will describe as: 1) an historical consciousness, 2) access to understanding what is left out of discourses in use, 3) understanding of how actors are positioned in discourse, all leading to: 4) a new set of questions which expose the gap between the construction of practice possibilities and social justice values, thus allowing for a new understanding of the limitations, constraints and possibilities within the context of the practice problem.


This paper concerns the relation between critical reflective practice and social workers’ lived experience of the complicated and contradictory world of practice. I will outline how critical reflection based on discourse analysis may generate useful perspectives for practitioners who struggle to make sense of the gap between critical aspirations and practice realities. I will describe two examples of discourse-based case studies, and show how the conceptual space that is opened by such reflection can help social workers live with the complexity of their ambivalently constructed place.

For some time now, I have been interested in the role of critical reflection in social work practice (Rossiter, 1996, 2001). It has proved difficult to reconcile conventional theories of practice with a vision of social work as social justice work. Thus, I have found myself on the terrain of a kind of critical ethics that views practice theories as stories about the cultural ideals of practice, and that treats practitioners’ experiences as stories that can teach us about the conduct of practice in relation to such ideals. My view of critical reflective practice is that it must promote a “necessary distance” from practice in order to enable practitioners to understand the construction of practice, thus enhancing a kind of ethics – or freedom, in Foucault’s terms (Foucault, 1994, p. 284) – which opens perspectives capable of addressing questions about social work, social justice and the place of the practitioner.

I am interested in a critical ethics of practice because social workers as people suffer when the results of practice seem so meager in comparison to the ideals inherent in social work education, in agency expectations, and in implicit norms which define “professional.” In conventional social work education, practitioners are asked to believe that they will learn a theory, and then learn how to implement it. These theories contain values that are supposed to dovetail with practice. There may be ethical dilemmas that need to be resolved via ethics codes and decision-making schema, but practitioners will follow the prescriptions of liberalism by making correct decisions, craftily implementing theory through the right interventions, and now, even overturning racism, classism and sexism in the process. The failures of this fantasy cause us to suffer, to apologize, to despair.

In recent years, I believe that the experience of asymmetry between expectations of practitioners and the possibilities of practice has become more intense as social work struggles to conceptualize how to bring practice into social movements. In this hope for practice as justice, the responsibility of social work is shifted from change at the more discreet levels of individuals, families, groups, communities, to the social determinants that produce private troubles. Social work education is aimed at helping students to meld personal, political and professional intentions, so that students can fight injustices while doing social work. Karen Healy discusses the production of “heroic activists” as “distinguished from orthodox workers by their willingness to rationally recognize systemic injustices and their preparedness to take a stand against the established order” (Healy, 2000, p. 135). Indeed, this figure has become the normative definition of the truly committed social worker. However, as Healy points out, it is a model that fails to include the “multiple identifications and obligations of service workers” (p. 136). Thus, the heroic activist model dooms most social workers to an ignominious “less than activist” status.

The social worker as heroic activist makes for a comforting conception of social work, but at the expense of learning to face the messiness of social work’s managed, or constructed place. We don’t know how to know social work as a constructed place, and ourselves as constructed subjectivities within that political space (Rossiter, 2000). Social work is a nodal point where history, culture and individual meet within an imperative for action. Given the mandate of working with marginalized people, this particular nexus is a place of crushing ambivalence. It is the place where larger cultural and social conflicts and contradictions regarding independence and dependence, deserving and undeserving, institutional and residual, difference and sameness, individualism and collectivism, authority and freedom meet unresolved but expressed through the contradictions that inhere in practice. No wonder we cling to the fantasy of the smooth trajectory of practice.

Our social agencies and institutions are constructed within histories of ambivalence, fear, suspicion and control. We remove children from disadvantaged families by targeting mothering skills. We administer welfare policies that cement poverty. We’re asked to help but not make people dependent. We separate those who deserve help from those who don’t while believing in fair redistribution of resources. We decry racism and declare our allegiance to anti-oppressive practice while working in primarily white agencies. We acknowledge a knowledge-based economy while making tuition unaffordable. And into this breach enter social workers with our desire to make a difference, and our theories on how to do that. When we fail, we describe the result as burnout. Neatly avoiding how workers are constructed, we ascribe burnout to hearing painful stories of others, to stress, “doing more with less,” dysfunctional organizations and other explanations that implicate individuals.

Most social workers take up the profession because of personal ideals. We want to use our work as a contribution, as something of value to the world. Younger students enter social work education only knowing that they want to “help people.” Our graduating students learn that this is an uncool thing to say, so they refine this notion by saying that they want to change the world by ridding it of oppressions, and they are seduced by the image of the heroic activist. When they enter the world of practice, they are thrown into sites constructed by contradictions and ambivalences where their subjectivities as practitioners embody these contradictions, yet they still expect to enact their ideals. Yet, as Linda Weinberg (Weinberg, 2004), in her work on the construction of practice judgments, notes that “…to locate ethics within the actions of individual practitioners, as if they were free to make decisions irrespective of the broader environment in which they work, is to neglect the significant ways that structures shape those constructions and to erect an impossible standard for those embodies practitioners mired in institutional regimes, working with finite resources and conflicting requirements and expectations” (Weinberg, 2004, p.204).

Our constructed location is often a painful one. We know all too well the struggles of the child protection workers, welfare workers, and hospital workers who find it difficult to face the fate of their ideals within the construction of their practice. Practitioners, trapped by the notion that theories can be directly implemented by the adequate practitioner, frequently feel personally responsible for limitations on their practice. Perhaps an alternative way to understand burnout is to see it as deep disappointment that results when we are unable to enact the values we hold and have been encouraged to hold, and when that disappointment is interpolated as our fault or the agency’s fault, at the expense of understanding the social construction of the failure. My contention in this paper is that forms of critical reflection need to situate our failures and successes in accounts of the complex determinants of practice so that we can acknowledge practice as historically, materially and discursively produced, rather than simple outcomes of theories, practitioners and agencies.

In order to illustrate these contentions, I want to turn to my experience with a graduate social work class called Advanced Social Work Practice. Teaching this class was a daunting prospect. A conventional course on advanced practice should explicate practice theories, perhaps compare and critically analyze them and then devise methods for their application in practice. In considering this approach to the course, I had begun to feel like Alice in Wonderland, believing as I did, that such conventions produce ever greater disjunctions between practitioners’ experiences and orthodox social work education. I was also worried that students coming to class hoping to refine their grasp of narrative therapy, brief therapy, solution-focused therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy, all within the context of an anti-oppressive stance, would be very disappointed by the substitution of esoteric critical ethics for advanced practice.

With trepidation, I began the class by asking students to submit a case study from their practice experience that they would like to study collectively using a form of discourse analysis. These students either had significant work experience, or experience in a previous practicum to draw from. When I read the case studies, I was taken aback to find that students chose to write about stories of pain and distress in their practice contexts. The case studies were stories of clients whom they remembered with a sense of failure or apology or shame. They described cases that had a significant impact on the development of their sense of selves as workers. They generally represented moments of feeling as though they did not live up to the ideals and values they learned in schools of social work, and they felt a keen sense of disappointment and anger at their helplessness in complicated social, cultural and organizational conjunctures. My students came to class as failed heroes.

I was at once horrified by the level of individual self-recrimination in the cases, and inspired by the deep levels of commitment, thought and reflection evidenced by these students. It was clear to me that the emotions described in these cases could only be exacerbated by introducing newer and improved practice theories, as if the proper application of such theories could have achieved different outcomes, thus alleviating individual failure. Indeed, more “how tos” could only add to their apology stance. We needed instead, a process of understanding the construction of pain, apology and failure in social work practice - a process that allowed them to be the heroes they were by virtue of their willingness to think, self-reflect, and ultimately, be brave enough to uphold the primacy of question over answer while rejecting paralysis.

Critical Reflection Through Discourse Analysis

While reflective practice held promise for liberating professions from misconceptions about the interrelationship between theory and practice, following Schon’s (1987) introduction of reflective practice, theorists began to identify the problem of incorporating critical analysis into reflective practice ((Brookfield, 1996; Fook, 1999; Mezirow, 1998). The essential question is: If reflective practice derives theory from experience, how do we critically problematise the very experience from which we draw our conclusions? Joan Scott (Scott, 1992), in her effort to call the innocence of experience into question says:

When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence upon which explanation is built. Questions about the constructed nature of the experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, about how one’s vision is structured – about language (or discourse) and history – are left aside (Scott, 1992, p. 25).

In other words, if experience is the unproblematized foundation of theory, how do we challenge the values and ideologies that are carried in and through experience? After all, says Stephen Brookfield, “Experience can teach us habits of bigotry, stereotyping and disregard for significant but inconvenient information. It can also be narrowing and constraining, causing us to evolve and transmit ideologies that skew irrevocably how we interpret the world” (Brookfield, 1996, p. 36).

Carolyn Taylor and Susan White make a distinction between reflection and reflexivity where the latter adds a critical dimension by calling taken-for-granted assumptions into questions (Taylor & White, 2000). Further, they suggest that reflexivity is not simply an augmentation of practice by individual professionals, but a profession-wide responsibility. “…knowledge is not simply a resource to deploy in practice. It is a topic worthy of scrutiny” (p. 199). In our case, the class project was to scrutinize the knowledge claims embedded in cases – and to understand the implication of such claims for their affective relationship to practice as well as on the experience of their clients.

But how do we scrutinize knowledge claims? In order to achieve a critical social work practice – a practice capable of grasping towards an ethics of practice - we needed to raise questions about the construction of experience in the class’s case studies. Elements of postmodern theory provided a way into the achievement of this “necessary distance.” A postmodern perspective, in Jan Fook’s view (Fook, 1999), “pays attention to the ways in which social relations and structures are constructed, particularly to the ways in which language, narrative, and discourses shape power relations and our understanding of them. In particular, dominant structures are subject to question because of the ways in which meanings are constructed on oppositional lines” (p. 203)

Understanding our constructed place in social work depends on identifying how language creates templates of shared understandings. Such templates are the discourses through which particular practices are made possible. Jane Flax (Flax, 1992) defines discourses as follows:

A discourse is a system of possibilities for knowledge. Discursive formations are made up in part of sets of usually tacit rules that enable us to identify some statements as true or false, to construct a map, model or classificatory system in which these statements can be organized, and to name certain “individuals” as authors. The rules provide the necessary precondition for the formation of statements. The place, function, and character of the knowers, authors, and audiences of a discourse are also functions of discursive rules. All discursive formations simultaneously enable us to do certain things and confine us within a necessarily delimited system (Flax, 1992, p. 205).

Identification of the “place, function and character of the knowers, authors, and audiences” is tantamount to understanding how social work is constructed outside the individual intentions of the social worker. This is how discourse analysis can displace the individualism of the “heroic activist” in favour of a more nuanced, complex and sophisticated analysis. “Discourse analysis can enrich progressive social work practices by demonstrating how the language practices through which organizations, theorists, practitioners and service users express their understanding of social work also shape the kinds of practices that occur…” (Healy, 2000).
In our class, discourse analysis helped illuminate the production of feelings of individual shame and apology as responses to practice. I argue that understanding this process of production is a way of doing ethics which reduces, or at least acknowledges the unintended, often subliminal consequences of practice that flow from social ambivalence which constructs social workers and service recipients in the conduct of practice.

In order to provide a frame for critical reflection on their cases, I chose four elements of associated with discourse analysis: 1) Identification of “ruling” discourses in the case studies; 2) the oppositions and contradictions between discourses; 3) positions for “actors” created by discourses which in turn shape perspectives and actions; 4) and the constructed nature of experience itself. These elements helped students writing cases from memories saturated with unease about their own performance to shift from “what I did” to how the case was constructed, and how their feelings arose from the complicated constructions of their practice within particular locations and time.

Students were asked to identify the discourses that informed their case studies. The purpose was to analyze how such discourses produced their conceptions of the cases – and how they confined their thinking about the case. The overall question I asked students to raise in relation to their cases was “what is left out?” Interchanging the terms discourse and story, we talked about how stories both include and exclude, forming boundaries in meaning (Spivak, 1990), and that critical practice is the search for what is left outside the story. Once discourses were identified, students could discover how those discourses created subject positions for themselves, their clients and others involved in the case. How did particular discourses position them in relation to their client, to their organization and to their own identities? How did some discursive positions conflict with their own self-knowledge? Such a process enabled them to stand back from the scope of their practice in order to understand its construction within a particular discursive space.

We worked to identify oppositions between competing discourses. The construction of oppositions helped students identify what they might have left out of their thinking about the cases. When oppositions are in place, what boundaries are erected? How do some discourses oppose or resist power? Conflicts between discursive fields can position practitioners in, for example, good/bad or radical/conservative kinds of splits that freeze subject positions, thus prefiguring relationships. While not eschewing the need to take positions – in other words, without advocating relativism – students could look at ways of thinking, at alternative perspectives that were outside the terms of the oppositions. We frequently found that dependencies within competing discourses were obscured by oppositions. Once these dependencies were uncovered, alternatives to opposition emerged.

Throughout our analyses, we worked to understand what views discourses permitted or inhibited. In other word’s we challenged the “god trick” of an all-encompassing, unlocated perspective, in Donna Haraway’s terms (Haraway, 1988, p. 581). When multiple discourses are uncovered, then we can treat our own perspective as limited, particular, local and contingent as opposed to the adoption of expert professional view as the privileged view. Understanding our perspectives as contingent enables us to understand our own complicated construction within a field of multiple stories giving rise to multiple perspectives. The sense of the “multiple stories” at play helped relocate the notion of experience as brute reality carrying authority by virtue of being “real” to a notion of experience as constructed, contingent, and always interpreted. This vantage point enabled students to move from the need to find answers and techniques to the radical acceptance of practice as the unending responsibility for ethical relationships which are always/already jeopardized by larger social relations.

Two Case Studies

I would like to turn to two case studies which illustrate how discourse analysis was used by students.

Ms. M

Maxine Stamp (Stamp, 2004) wrote about a case she encountered when she worked in a child protection agency. The case involved a single mother originally from the Caribbean. Maxine was routinely assigned cases involving immigrant people of colour because she herself is an immigrant woman of colour. Her agency had neither an analysis of the sensitivity of her position in relation to immigrant clients, nor the racist assumptions that grounded these case allocations.

The case involved Ms. M, a single mother of two teenage daughters. Ms. M had immigrated to Canada when she was an adolescent. Her mother had immigrated years before, leaving her in the care of her paternal grandparents and a stepfather. Following her immigration, she lived only for a short time with her mother, from whom she had been separated for most of her childhood. She moved out on her own, successfully pursued advanced education and was on the verge of achieving professional accreditation at the time of Maxine’s contact with her. She had two teen-aged daughters who had been left in the country of origin as very young children while Ms. M established herself in Canada. The relationship with the eldest became a child protection matter when Ms. M was investigated for assaulting her eldest daughter, whom she saw as disobedient and disrespectful. Despite Maxine’s best efforts, this troubled relationship ended in separation when the daughter moved in permanently with a relative. Maxine was devastated at her inability to put the relationship between mother and daughter to rights. She remembered the case with a sense of failure, and her recounting of the case was marked by a kind of unexplained sorrow.

Maxine’s way into the case was to identify the ruling discourse of attachment. Attachment theories are common explanations of the parent/child conflict in some immigrant families’ experiences of separation and reunification during patterns of immigration. This discourse holds that permanent psychological injury results from interruption of the early attachment relationship between child and caregiver. Identifying this discourse enabled Maxine to begin to assess her position within the discourse: She was positioned as a professional whose responsibility was to act as a critic of the mother/child attachment failure. From this position, responsibility for the problems were located in the mother, who, in attachment terms, did not properly manage the separation and reunification issues. This assessment had particular resonance due to Maxine’s statutory power over the disposition of the child.

This discursive position effectively disallowed a subject position of another sort: solidarity with her client. As a woman of colour from the Caribbean, Maxine shared experiences with other immigrant women of colour in Canada; shared a cultural heritage, and an insiders’ knowledge of the difficulties of negotiating these spaces. But from her constructed perspective as a child protection worker, where attachment discourses dominated the field of explanations, there was little possibility to act in solidarity with Ms. M. Indeed, she was profoundly aware of Ms. M’s anger at Maxine’s position within “Canadian” authority, where such authority could not acknowledge the realities that she and Maxine shared.

When we asked the critical question about what is left out of the story of attachment, it became clear that such a story is applied to individuals without regard to history and context. As such, individuals bear the weight of individual responsibility for such histories and contexts, thus obscuring a greater range of accountability. We began to think about the history of forced separation and forced disruption of families beginning with the importation of African slaves to the Caribbean. We began to think about the ways slavery is replicated in different incarnations following the end of slavery. Maxine pointed out, for example, that Caribbean women were previously allowed to immigrate to Canada to take up positions as domestic servants but were expressly forbidden to bring their children.

A historical perspective, unavailable in attachment discourses and child welfare practices, allowed new possibilities of an ethics of practice to emerge. First, we could see how the diagnosis of attachment failure, born as it was in a history of forced separation, continues to reproduce forced separation of Black families in different guises. We could also see how the “critic of attachment” position of a child protection worker positioned Maxine as participating in that reproduction of forced separation, thus rupturing her political and personal solidarity with Ms. M. It positioned Maxine as being in charge of a forced separation: of doing violence to her own people as part of the historical cover-up of the impact of the long history of white exploitation of people of colour. Maxine made extraordinary efforts to help Ms. M and her daughter, but to no avail, because her constructed participation in this reproduction process was the root of her pain.

Such critical analysis allows us to contemplate a major question at the heart of her practice: How can historical consciousness, left out of psychological discourses, contribute to forming relations of solidarity with our clients, thus enabling practice better aligned with justice? Such an analysis might allow us to ask the kind of questions that are the heart of social work ethics: How, for example, could we think differently about child welfare practices with black families if our work were guided first and foremost by a desire to find forms of practice that take into account centuries of trauma from racial injustice? I suggest that this question is a practical practice question which recognizes that our cherished fantasy that practice emanates from theory is rather grandiose in the face of the complex social and historical constructions that produce the moment of practice.


The second case study (Gorman, 2004) takes place during a practicum in a school setting. A 13-yr old girl, Tara, was referred to Ronni Gorman for counseling. Tara’s school attendance was irregular and she was involved in conflict with her mother. She engaged in low level self-mutilation and in sexual activity. Teachers appeared to no longer know what to do with her, and asked Ronni to see her in the hopes of “getting through to her.” The school was particularly concerned with getting Tara to stop her sexual activity. A conflict occurred between Ronni’s perspective and that of school personnel when Tara disclosed her pregnancy to Ronni. Ronni discussed it with her supervisor who felt obliged to inform other school personnel, to Ronni’s dismay.

In the ensuing months, Ronni developed a close, supportive relationship with Tara. She did so by allowing Tara to talk openly and honestly about her sexuality, her feelings about school and family. Ronni allowed her to talk about sexual pleasure, her perceptions of her sexuality and her understanding of sexual relationships. At no time did Ronni focus on “getting her to stop.”

Ronni’s practice with Tara was situated within her values about the need for libratory discourses of sexuality for girls. Ronni worked with Tara from a critique of prevention and risk education strategies normally used in dealing with girls’ sexuality. Indeed, Carol- Ann O’Brian (O'Brien, 1999) documents the history of prevention of sexuality as the dominate focus of social work literature related to youth sexuality. Such interventions are aimed at delaying sexual activity until “appropriate” ages and also educating around the risks of sexuality. Ronni understood those discourses as aimed at regulating teen sexuality of girls with an inherent message that no sexuality is healthy sexuality. Ronni’s anti-oppressive analysis focused on the disciplinary intent of social work’s history of excluding the existence of youth sexuality. Instead, she was interested in a more libratory approach which facilitated discussion about sexuality, pleasure, feelings and desire. Ronni’s approach had an explicitly political agenda: she opposed prevention discourses as ways of silencing female desire. Also, she was well-informed about the ways that prevention and risk education inherently set up a trajectory of sex as normatively heterosexual, “age appropriate” sexual experience. In other words, such a trajectory works to normalize a sequence of sexuality which ranges from the “right time” to the end-stage of heterosexual marriage. Ronni believed that such discourses silenced and disciplined not only young women such as Tara, but all young women’s diverse and fluid experiences of sexuality.

In class, we worked to identify the existence of two, opposing discourses: one was the prevention and risk education approach of the school and the other was Ronni’s libratory approach to girls and sexuality. We looked at how these conflicting discourses positioned Ronni, Tara and school personnel. Ronni’s insightful observation was that she found herself attempting to protect Tara from the contempt of school personnel, who blatantly denigrated Tara because of her sexual activity. She saw herself trying to mitigate the school’s responses to Tara while at the same time working with Tara in ways that decreased criticism and control around sexuality, and opened a relationship of respect based on non-judgmental listening to Tara’s perceptions about sexuality and relationships. Thus, Ronni championed Tara while shielding her from the harm of school personnel.

We then asked what was left out when discourses were set in opposition. In this case, those discourses were set up with the prevention and risk discourse as repressive and the validation of sexuality discourse as progressive and libratory for young women. I had to admit that I saw both discourse from my subject position as a mother, and had to rather sheepishly admit that I wouldn’t have wanted my thirteen year old daughter to be having sex at that age. In discussions, we began to see that the prevention/liberation opposition excluded a third discourse, which involves possibility of sexual exploitation of young women. Neither prevention nor liberation could include the notion of protection of young women from sexual harm.

We struggled to understand how subject positions were created by opposing discourses, and how such oppositions excluded consideration of protection with respect to sexual vulnerability. With the achievement of this “necessary distance” Ronni was able to formulate new possibilities for practice. In particular she called for educators to consider alliance with youth based on respect for youth’s own construction of their realities.

I would contend that youth are expressive and creative beings who would likely perceive themselves as benefited by the opportunity to reclaim the language within sexuality discourses which is presently being used to describe, and in some cases, subjugate them. Variant language constructions in which sexual exploration and health are balanced and encouraged as opposed to silenced can ultimately succeed in fostering a sense of recognition amongst youth what challenges discourses of shame and deviance. Acknowledging current terminology that socially regulates sexuality through ‘good girl/bad girl’ ideologies has the opportunity to be reconstructed in alliance with youth. If sexuality is open to be approached as fluid with respect to the variations which are absent from the current risk discourse, these variations will optimistically evolve outside those of deviance and difference (Gorman, 2004, p. 18).

Ronni sees such a health-based approach as capable of including protection from disease, harm, or sexual exploitation by its emphasis on openness, dialogue, and choice. In such a way, Ronni undoes the opposition between risk and liberation, and also revises her relationship to school personnel from that of shielding youth like Tara from harm, to calling on them to reconstruct the discourses through which girl’s sexuality is understood, and viewing them as potential resources in protecting Tara. Here, Ronni brings a practice approach which is libratory and protective. While she understands that such an approach is constructed – a fiction – it is a construction she chooses to empower because it is grounded in her social justice aspirations.

Why is this approach critical and what does critical do for us?

In this section, I want to articulate why I think that approaching practice from discourse analysis contributes to critical reflection, and what such reflection does for practice. When we reflect on what is left out of the discursive construction of our practice, we are “stepping back” from our immersion in such discourses as “reality” in order to examine whether our practice is being shaped in ways that contradict or constrain our commitments to social justice. This is why it is critical reflection. This distance from the immediate thought of practice is enabled by a focus on discursive boundaries, rather than the technical implementation of practice theories that are part of discursive fields. I suggest that we gain new vantage points from which to reconstruct practice theory in ways that are more consciously oriented to our social justice commitments. I understand these vantage points in the two case studies I have described in the four ways: 1) an historical consciousness, 2) access to understanding what is left out of discourses in use, 3) understanding of how actors are positioned in discourse, all leading to: 4) a new perspective which exposes the gap between the construction of practice possibilities and social justice values, thus allowing for field of limited and constrained choices which may either narrow the gap, or make clear the impossibility of options and choice in the particular case.

Historical consciousness

The hold of possessive individualism in the helping professions means that the target of practice is the individual, community, or family in the present . Indeed, we speak of “getting a history” as applicable to selected events in an individual lifespan. Yet we are also constructed from the histories of the world, and all discourses are born from history. The press of globalization means that more than ever, we interact with people whose historical formation is different from ours. Further, we interact within the constant presence of historical traumas in which we are all implicated. Maxine’s client, for example, comes to Canada seeking greater opportunity: opportunity that originated over two hundred years ago when my ancestors on the coast of Rhode Island traded with the Caribbean for goods produced by slave labour thus giving birth to the very American capitalism that created the need for Maxine’s and Ms. M’s migration in search of opportunity.

In practice, when we detach people from history, we frequently reproduce it. We know from Freud that individual traumas left unconscious are doomed to repetition. Historical trauma repeats itself in the small micro interactions of practice. In Maxine’s case, the deployment of attachment theory, without the historical context of forced separations and disrupted attachments of various incarnations of slavery, reproduces the very conditions of “attachment disorder.” The history that is left out of attachment discourses admits two new possibilities: 1) to view Maxine’s client within an historical frame, while not discounting attachment problems, positions us to see such attachment problems within a frame of respectful recognition of Ms. M. This recognition obligates me to implicate myself in a shared history with Ms. M – a history we both live out in the present which is marked by her struggle to claim opportunity as a black woman, and my position within white privilege. 2) Such recognition allows us to examine practice for the ways that history reproduces itself in our daily actions and reactions. We can raise questions about practices that may be outside such reproduction. In doing so, we increase our choices or at least, our awareness regarding how we participate in the creation of culture.

What is left out of the discourses in use

Discourses delineate what can be said within a given set of ideas so that critical practice is exercised when we try to look at what is excluded by a particular discourse in order to alternative viewpoints. These alternative viewpoints are important because discourses are structured through power relations so that the identification of what is outside prevailing stories may give us a better picture of how power operates.

In social work, critical practice is crucial because social work is a nexus where social contradictions are manifest. These contradictions are at work inside our subjectivity every day – it is not an exaggeration to say that our practice is at the mercy of contradictory forces. Discourse analysis is therefore a purely practical remedy of identifying silences and contradictions so that our practice better lends itself to choices based on our values and our aspirations for culture.

Ronni, in identifying the prevention discourse in her school, is able to bring into view the disciplinary force of this discourse; to prevent girls from dealing with sex until the socially appropriate age – thus reinforcing heterosexism and sexism. This vantage point opens opportunities for practice that work towards Ronni’s social justice goals.

It is important to consider the role of opposition here. Many times our investigations pointed to opposing discourses - discourses that counteract each other. These discourses are effects of power, usually when an opposing discourse is mobilized to resist another. It is important to understand how the opposition itself locks out practice opportunities. Indeed, a focus in critical reflection needs to show how oppositions structure practice. For example, Ronni mobilizes a libratory discourses as a way of resisting prevention discourses. On reflection, she sees that the opposition excludes aspects which both discursive positions require – the inclusion of protection. In identifying this, Ronni restructures her practice in light of what has previously been left out. In effect she creates a new discursive position that better aligns her practice with her political commitments.


One of the advantages of identifying discourses-in-use in practice is that we gain access to how we are positioned within discourses. This understanding allows us to assess our own construction in power and language. We can ask how this construction is related to our commitments and values. We can also assess how discourses position us in relation to other professionals and to clients. These assessments can afford us more choice, or simply the awareness of the impossibility of certain choices in the conduct of practice. In turn, such assessments act against the internalization of the contradictions played out in social work practice.

Maxine considered how she was positioned both by discourses of professionalism and by the attachment discourses used to explain Ms. M. As a professional with statutory power, Maxine was given Caribbean family cases due to her “insider” status. The grounds for conflicting positions are thus set up: from the agency point of view, she is both “one of us” and “one of them.” Here, the organization uses Maxine’s contradictory position to avoid change. As “one of us,” she is expected to deploy white, Western knowledge with her Caribbean clients - clients she is given because of her “special knowledge.” In other words, she embodies the contradiction between professional expectations to deploy Eurocentric knowledge while also being positioned to deliver service to those who are an exception to that knowledge. This contradiction is internalized by Maxine in the form of her belief that she has failed Ms. M and that her monumental efforts did not make a difference in this case.

The knowledge she is expected to deploy is based on attachment theory – the personality damage that results from interrupted early attachment. This theoretical perspective creates discursive boundaries around caregiver and child. Class, race, culture, history are excluded as the focus on the dyad is retained as an explanation for family breakdown. When Maxine regards Ms. M. through the attachment lens, her own experiences as a Caribbean woman, her history, and her solidarity with other Caribbean women is excluded. It is a story that cannot be told within the reigning discourse of attachment. Thus, Maxine is positioned to assess and discipline Ms. M. She cannot find room for the very insider knowledge she is supposed to have. This is because that insider knowledge is knowledge of historical trauma, injustice, racism and white privilege, and it is certainly outside the boundaries of attachment discourses. Thus, Maxine as a professional is treated with disdainful suspicion by Ms. M. Maxine herself feels to blame for failure to make a difference with the case. Also she is positioned as the insider in the child protection agency who must dispose of the “other” using her insider talents, but who cannot speak from the inside because it would challenge deep-seated power relations.

Ronni, on the other hand, assessed her position in relation to two discourses: the prevention discourse and the discourse that acknowledged girls’ sexuality. These were oppositional discourses. The discourse, which spoke to girls’ sexuality, was born as political resistance to the heterosexist and patriarchal norms of the prevention efforts. Ronni aligned herself politically with resistance to heterosexism and patriarchy. In taking up that alignment, she positioned herself as Tara’s protector – her shield against school personnel with their regressive focus on prevention of acknowledgment of sexuality. Ronni came to see that this discursive position cancelled out the possibility of calling on school personnel as resources for Tara - resources that had the potential to protect her as a young girl with particular vulnerabilities. They also positioned Ronni in relations of opposition to school personnel. In this kind of opposition, chances for dialogue about complicated issues, chances for Ronni to promote change through communication of her perspective, and to use the experience of the school personnel for her own learning and growth were limited. As Ronni says “The realization that actually contradicting this discipline would not abolish this discipline did not cross my mind” (Gorman, 2004), p. 16).

Ronni’s analysis moved beyond opposition through a new discourse of health-oriented openness to girls sexuality in which protection is configured as part of healthy sexuality. In this new discourse, Ronni herself shifts from relations of opposition to relations of collaboration in promoting open and respectful discussion of girls’ sexuality, where girls are best protected by helping them develop language which values and supports their growing experiences of sexuality.

The assessment of new possibilities

Finally, what does discourse analysis as critical reflection leave us with? Here, I want to gather strands of the previous discussion. I am arguing that social work, because of its focus on marginalized people, is a concentrated site of social, political and cultural ambivalence and contradiction. Social workers are the bodies in the middle of this site and must act within the force field of contradictions. Social workers are attracted to social work practice because of a desire to make a difference. This desire is subjected to the strange twists and turns of which take place inside the institutions of practice. Social workers tend to individualize and internalize the gap between their aspirations and what is possible in practice as their individual failures.

Discourse analysis accesses questions that help make social contradictions and ambivalence visible and it opens conceptual space regarding one’s position within competing or dominant discourses. When we look outside the boundaries of discourses, we may discover practice questions which help us reflect on power and possibility. Openness to questions about the constitution of practice iscritical practice.

As the art of asking questions, dialectic proves its value because only the person who knows how to ask questions is able to persist in his questioning, which involves being able to preserve his orientation toward openness. The art of questioning is the art of questioning ever further --.i.e., the art of thinking”
(Gadamer, 1992).

Such questioning opens up as social workers attempt to account for their own social construction within the cultural construct of social work. Social work is embedded is in history and is situated in a present which affords no settled practice, no technical fixes, no uncontested views of itself. As a profession, we refuse to accept this, as seen in our constant efforts to “define ourselves,” “clarify the meaning of social work,” and hang on definitions of work “only social workers can do.” Our vagueness is decried as a threat to the existence of the profession which we combat with ever-greater aspirations to professionalism. These reactions may have political worth, but they have the effect of occluding the inevitable messiness of our constructed place, thus leaving the field open for individual self-doubt and apology.
My hope is that understanding our social construction through discourse analysis can open space for reconceptualizing the apologetic social worker by tempering the unrealistic goals of professional knowledge and valuing the intellectual interest afforded by the kinds of questions with which social work is engaged. This intellectual interest can be found in the ways we re-experience value commitments through openness to the question at the heart of critical social work: What does social work have to do with justice?


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Amy Rossiter, MSW, Ed.D., can be contacted via e-mail at: Rossiter@yorku.ca


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