Here’s some text content from my faculty days at Univ of Calgary
Brief Overview of Common Whole of Social Work
2003 Social Work Course Handout
A longstanding interest in the nature of social work led to my search for an organizing structure to identify a common conceptual framework. I was introduced to the work of Buckminster Fuller and his discovery of nature’s minimum whole system, the geometric tetrahedron (Fuller, 1992; Fuller and Dil, 1983; Fuller, 1975; Fuller, 1969).
Fuller discovered the simplest whole system experience of Universe to be geometrically tetrahedral; a unique set of interdependent connections consisting of four (4) parts, four (4) faces, and six (6) connections. It is nature’s minimum “set of elements standing in interaction” that constitutes a whole experience. Anything less than tetrahedral is not whole. A tetrahedral system provides a geometric way of thinking in which basic properties of the system are invariant (do not change) when undergoing transformations.
Understanding the tetrahedral system recognizes the need for a minimum of four “somethings” (e.g. components, elements, things, persons) all interconnected to form a wholistic conceptual framework. Each component can be unfolded or multiplied into its own minimum system (or more) complexity and then reconfigured to show the progressive complexity between the components.
A common conceptual framework would need a minimum of four interconnected components. Each component would not be unique by itself, but together they would constitute a common whole of social work. Each component would have relevant knowledge bases from the humanities and sciences that inform how they are expressed and apply in different cultures and societies.
Working with a four-dimensional framework, four conceptual components were thought to be universal to the profession. Their selection came from three sources: Bartlett’s Common Base of Social Work Practice (1970); Wilber’s Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm (1990); and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).
Bartlett’s common base had three core components: a central focus on social functioning, a broad orientation to people being served (directly or indirectly), and an interventive repertoire of helping methods. The importance of professional use of self was described but not given the status of a core component in her framework.
Wilber explored three realms of knowledge – empirical realm of the senses, rational realm of the mind, and contemplative realm of the spirit. He argued that any kind of discipline or profession could be considered a science provided it had a distinguishable domain (the central focus described by Bartlett) and a methodology (Bartlett’s interventive repertoire) that was open to knowledge generation and applications being challenged and refuted.
Kuhn introduced the concept of paradigm as a way of identifying communities of like-minded groups engaged in any form of disciplinary or professional endeavor. The paradigm component of a common framework would identify a community of like-minded people who adhere around common questions, problem interests, values, ethics, sanctions, practice approaches, methods of inquiry and validation, curriculum contents, and who have a declared orientation toward people.
Common Components of Social Work
Domain of Social Work Practice
This component includes Bartlett’s social functioning focus, generally recognized as social work’s person-in-environments area of practice. Based on historical and practice evidence, she identified three critical elements in the social work domain: Person-Interaction-Environment (PIE) which describes person-in-environment interactions. The distinguishing feature of this domain is the central focus on the interactional networks and patterns between person(s) and environment(s). This feature identifies social work as a relationship-centered profession. The PIE domain unfolds into minimum four-fold complexity. The core elements are: Person, Personal Otherness, Resource otherness, and Validator otherness (Ramsay, 1994). Social well-being is the primary concern of the social work profession. Central to this concern is a vision of just and civil societies throughout the world (Witkin, 1999).
The ‘person’ element in varying size configurations refers to the developmental, demographic, and social functioning status of individuals in family, groups, and communities. Environment includes the other three elements. How they operate in a society enhances or impedes the development of individual and collective social well-being and reciprocally how people “treat” their environments affects their well-being.
The ‘personal other’ element includes natural support networks; the others in one’s life who are or are deemed to be intimate, close, supportive, and personally connected.
The ‘resource others’ element includes the major institutional structures of a society (e.g. health, welfare, education, transportation, employment, and so on) that enhance and/or impede social well-being.
The ‘validator otherness’ element includes the complexity of societal norms and expectations in the form of influential attitudes, beliefs, customs, policies, and laws that shape and “govern” the nature and interrelationships between all the elements.
Social functioning addresses the relationship between the coping capacity of individuals, families and communities and the demands of their environments. Environments included the social and physical contexts or surroundings in which human behavior occurs. The social functioning of people in their contextual environments offers a strong indication of their social well-being and the level to which the structural institutions that affect them provide a just and civil society to live in.
Paradigm of the Profession
This component identifies social work as a community of like-minded people who have a shared understanding of the profession and how it is practiced. The concept of a like-minded community stretches beyond national borders. The IFSW has fostered the development of a common adherence to ethics and values since its beginning in 1928. Recent contributions include the international declaration of ethical principles (IFSW, 1994), the updated international definition of social work (IFSW, 2000), and the Global Standards for Social Work Education (IFSW-IASSW, 2004). National organizations of social workers provide their members with contextually developed codes of ethics, complementing legislative statutes in many jurisdictions that require common standards of practice and regulatory systems in the interests of public protection. Social work is a higher education endeavor and common curriculum requirements set by sanctioned accrediting bodies are the norms in most countries that offer social work education. The common sanctions (e.g. society, law, agency/program, and profession) that authorize and give social work permission to be fully or restrictively practiced are contextually connected to the paradigm component and influence the extent to which social workers can practice their profession.
The paradigm component includes generalists and specialists. It “houses” the knowledge part of social work, drawn from indigenous knowledge-traditions, humanities, and sciences (not just the Western sciences) to advance the development of common human rights, distributive justice, and sufficient societal structures for individual, family, and community social well-being in all human societies. Social workers are expected to respect the value of cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to alleviate discrimination, oppression, poverty and other forms of social injustice, even when it is in the guise of cultural and ethnic diversity.
Social workers have practice options enabling them to work directly with client groups, indirectly through other environmental elements, or both. Three interconnected practice options are common in social work:
• Direct work with clients through a relationship;
• Target an environment element to influence it in a way that will benefit a client (case advocacy) or other people served (cause advocacy); and
• Work through established action system networks (internal or external) to provide direct services or provide support for direct and indirect practice options.
Domain of Social Worker/Practitioner
This component identifies the significance of a social worker’s own PIE and its impact on their practice of social work. The disciplined use of self requires a comprehensive understanding of the elements and relationships in his/her PIE network. Social workers must constantly monitor themselves in relation to their natural support networks, societal structures, and the variety of validator norms and expectations in the form of influential attitudes, beliefs, customs, policies, and laws that shape their personal and professional lives. The PIE domain that is brought to the workplace on a daily basis interconnects with the Paradigm of the Profession component to activate the integrated dynamics of one’s personal-professional approach to practice. Social workers are expected to understand the co-existence of the personal and professional and to consciously use this complementary dynamic in their practice activities.
Methods of Practice
This component identifies the professional interventions and particular modalities of practice that are informed by multiple theoretical perspectives and “evidence-based” in today’s parlance and open to refutation. It is generally defined as “an orderly systematic mode of procedure” (Brieland, 1977, p. 345). The other components are systemic in nature (similar to interconnected networks). Systematic methods are usually described in the form of phases (e.g. study, diagnosis, and treatment, Richmond, 1917; observation, assessment, plan of action, NASW, 1958; dialogue, discovery, development, Miley, O’Melia, DuBois, 2001). Tetrahedral principles recognize that the systematic process can have multiple phases but always a minimum of three or four phases. The intervention nature of this component is defined as the “action of the practitioner which is directed to some part of a social system or process with the intention of inducing a change in it” (p. 76). Social work interventions include direct practice with clients, community organizing, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation.
Common Conceptual Framework
Together the four components (three systemic and one systematic) are configured into a Common Whole of Social Work model. The graphic depiction of the constellation allows one to see the individualized pathway of clients and/or other expected beneficiaries in their person-in-environment context becoming connected with the personal-professional networks of a social worker on his/her pathway. In situations where the social worker participates directly with client systems, they will work together in a collaborative relationship through a co-empowering intervention method selected from social work’s repertoire of interventions. In situations where the social worker is working indirectly through others to benefit a client (case advocacy) or people, in particular, situations (cause advocacy), the method selected and skills applied will be directed to expectations of collaborative and co-empowered outcomes that will not advantage or disadvantage one group over another.
Bartlett, H (1970). Common Base of Social Work Practice (1970). New York: NASW.
Brieland D. (1981). Definition, specialization, and domain in social work. Social Work 26(1), 79-82.
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IFSW (2000). International Federation of Social Workers Definition of Social Work. Berne: International Federation of Social Workers.
IFSW (1994). International Declaration of Ethical Principles for Social Work. Oslo: International Federation of Social Workers
IFSW-IAASW (2004). Global Standards for the Education and Training of the Social Work Profession. Adelaide: Final Document adopted at the General Assemblies of the International Federation of Social Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work.
Kuhn T (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed., enlarged), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Miley KK, O’Melia M, DuBois BL (2001). Generalist Social Work Practice: An Empowering Approach (3rd Edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Ramsay RF (1994). Conceptualizing PIE within a holistic conception of social work. In J Karls and K Wandrei (eds.), Person-in-Environment System: The PIE Classification System for Social Functioning Problems (171-195). Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Wilber K (Expanded edition) (1990). Eye to Eye:The Quest for the New Paradigm. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Witkin S (July, 1999). Editorial: Identities and contexts. Social Work Vol. 44(4), 293-297.
Richard Ramsay, Professor Emeritus of Social Work, University of Calgary