Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

37 Unpacking the “Cultural” In Social Work Practice with Immigrants

Friday, January 13, 2012: 8:00 AM-9:45 AM
Constitution E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
Cluster: Gender and Ethnicity
Symposium Organizer:
Rupaleem Bhuyan, PhD, University of Toronto
In this session, we feature three papers that explore constructions of culture in social work practice with immigrants. Historically, immigrants have been a major focus of social work practice. Early social work pioneers such as Mary Richmond and the Charity Organization Society workers and Jane Addams and the Settlement House workers worked with new European immigrants who were often poor and disenfranchised, and their work with immigrants ultimately helped produce major social work practice methods that are still used widely (Axinn & Stern, 2005; Gordon, 2002). However, social workers' attitudes toward and relationships with immigrants have been highly ambivalent in the social work history. Even with the best intentions, social workers often participated in constructions of immigrants as a racialized and essentialized “other” and failed to advocate for them in the face of unjust treatments (Kang, 2010b; Park, 2008; Rober & Selzer, 2010; Sakamoto, 2003).

One enduring consequence of such problematic constructions of immigrants is social work interventions that are “designed to educate, improve, and adjust immigrants to American ways of life” (Park & Kemp, 2006, p. 708). While it is important to help immigrants successfully adjust to their new environment, interventions that focus exclusively on individual adjustment fail to consider power relations and social and historical contexts, thus leaving little possibility of understanding the dialectical relationship between the person and environment (Sakamoto, 2007). Also, an exclusive focus on individual adaptation to the environment undermines social workers' ability to help immigrant clients imagine a variety of creative and flexible strategies to negotiate their complex environments (Kang, 2010a).

The first panelist presents immigrant cultural citizenship as a conceptual frame to apply postcolonial theories to social work practice with immigrants, illustrated by a case study. The author critiques marginalizing discourses that often reduce the immigrant experience to acculturation. Through a case study analysis, she illustrates multi-level (micro/mezzo/macro) interventions that helped an Asian elderly widow with depression to claim social and cultural citizenship, construct new meanings and a sense of identity and healing.

The second paper explores how socio-cultural power dynamics are constructed and re-produced in clinical encounters. This study involves conversational analysis of clinical sessions between self-identified white female therapists and clients who are racialized immigrants in Canada. The authors explore the ways in which whiteness, power, and racism manifest through clinician's efforts to direct client's talk away from 'cultural dialogues' to more 'clinical' content.

The third paper examines the phenomenon in Canada whereby the lack of “Canadian (work) experience” is constructed as a barrier to immigrant employment. A constructivist grounded theory analysis is contrasted to existing theories, and corroborates the utility of Canadian experience as a prerequisite for immigrants' gainful employment. Newcomers to the job and the country learn implicit rules through “legitimate peripheral participation” (e.g., internships, mentoring) on the way to become part of “community of practice” where sense making takes place. Government-funded immigrant employment services attempt to facilitate this process but rarely challenge the problematic requirement of Canadian experience itself.

* noted as presenting author
Constructions of ‘Culture' Versus ‘Clinical' Talk In Cross-Racial Clinical Encounters
Eunjung Lee, PhD, University of Toronto; Rupaleem Bhuyan, PhD, University of Toronto
Why Do Employers Require “Canadian Experience” In Immigrant Job Candidates?: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Leading to Community of Practice
Izumi Sakamoto, PhD, University of Toronto; Jaemin Kim, PhD, University of Toronto; Matthew D. Chin, BA (Hon), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
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