Session: Critical Theories for Social Work Practice Research: An Introduction (Society for Social Work and Research 22nd Annual Conference - Achieving Equal Opportunity, Equity, and Justice)

14 Critical Theories for Social Work Practice Research: An Introduction

Thursday, January 11, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Independence BR H (ML 4) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
Cluster: Research Design and Measurement
Josué Meléndez Rodríguez, MA, MSW, University of California, Berkeley and Erin Kerrison, PhD, University of California, Berkeley
Paulo Freire, in his address to the International Federation of Social Workers in 1990, explained that social workers should not be neutral agents and that attempting to be neutral can result in the support of oppressive hegemonic systems. Yet, in social work research, including practice research, there is a strong demand for neutrality. Taking such an approach, often discussed as objectivity, has the potential to lessen the real-world value of research that is meant to positively impact the lives of the oppressed and can have the unintended effect of supporting their oppression. Through engagement with critical theories, the researcher rejects the notion of neutrality, instead using careful judgement to understand and impact social injustices.

The term critical theories refers to theories that critique social injustice from a variety of perspectives, including racism, ethnocentrism, the patriarchy, ableism, and others. Moving away from reflecting dominant paradigms, critical theories assume that existing oppressive structures are unjust and changeable, giving them great potential to influence social justice practice. Critical theories help define social justice, as well as identify sources of oppression that are barriers to achieving it. By doing so, they help develop understandings that can be used by change agents to identify specific issues that must be tackled to effectively promote social justice.

Researchers who engage critical theories explore social phenomena in order to impact social injustice at its roots. This is in line with the goals of the social work profession, which has historically emphasized social justice in its Code of Ethics and has more recently highlighted this focus through the Grand Challenges. Critical research, defined as research that explicitly engages critical theoretical lenses, pursues knowledge creation with the understanding that (a) oppression is hegemonic and (b) findings should inform efforts to change that reality. Through its engagement at the point of praxis, critical research builds on theory to potentiate justice-oriented change efforts, more directly informing the development of evidence-based practices that align with social work values.

This workshop highlights social work's unique potential for engagement with critical research to develop evidence-based practices. Taking into account the grand challenge to “achieve equal opportunity and justice” and social work's commitment to “pursue social change … with and on behalf of (the) vulnerable and oppressed,” the primary theme of this workshop is social justice as integral to both social work and critical theories. Participants with little to no familiarity with the concept of critical research are welcome. They will leave the workshop with a beginning understanding of engaging this concept through quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods studies. Upon completion of the workshop, participants will be able to (1) describe the concept of critical theories, as compared to traditional theories, (2) explain why the field of social work is well-suited for engagement with critical research, (3) identify the ways in which at least three studies engage critical theories in their efforts to develop practice recommendations, and (4) explain how they can conduct critical research themselves.

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