Session: Roundtable on Positive Deviance for Social Work As an Approach to Reduce Racial and Economic Inequality (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

201 Roundtable on Positive Deviance for Social Work As an Approach to Reduce Racial and Economic Inequality

Saturday, January 18, 2020: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM
Liberty Ballroom K, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
Cluster: Social Work Practice (SWP)
Betty Wilson, MSW, University of South Carolina, Terry Wolfer, PhD, University of South Carolina, Jason Carbone, PhD, Wayne State University and Stephen Edward McMillin, PhD, Saint Louis University
With great potential for social work, positive deviance (PD) is a systematic method for identifying positive deviants (i.e., statistical outliers) in communities as a source of insight and innovation for tackling difficult problems in those communities. Despite having similar constraints and resources as people around them, so-called positive deviants tap into solutions that have yet to be discovered and implemented by others in the community. They engage in uncommon behaviors and practices that deviate from the status quo. After early application in Vietnam to address child malnutrition, PD has been used for problems as diverse as reproductive health, weight control, school retention and truancy, infections in hospitals, child trafficking, and health service delivery (Herington & van de Fliert, 2018).

Positive deviance as an approach investigates how some deviant behaviors produce valuable and desired behavioral change, and PD has become more widely disseminated within fields such as public health. Within prevention science, PD is used to inform program implementation by uncovering strategies used by client outliers to achieve desired outcomes. However, so far within social work PD remains an innovative approach that thus far is not well known.

This roundtable session will begin a dialogue about the potential for the PD approach within social work. Presenters will particularly focus on ways PD can be used to reduce racial and economic inequality. For example, two presenters will describe how they used PD to study exceptional police officers to understand what the best officers do to build relationships and handle race-related tensions in African-American communities. While there is increasing research about relationships between law enforcement and African-American communities, it typically focuses on failures in these relationships—limiting our understanding of “what works” in communities. Thus, drawing on the PD approach, the presenters sought to discover practices used by positive deviants (i.e., police officers) who have succeeded in building positive relationships and effectively managing racial tensions, so that other police officers and departments can replicate their practices. A third presenter will discuss how the PD approach can be used in studying allostatic load, "the wear and tear on the body" that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress over time, noting how wear and tear is unequally distributed and is a special concern for racial minorities and people experiencing poverty. A fourth presenter will discuss how a PD approach can be used to develop and empower a racially diverse social service workforce drawn from positive-deviant former clients. Clients who are particularly engaging, active role models to other clients can be trained in implementing evidence-based peer interventions and then later evaluated to see how their engagement and affect holds up through training and implementation. Our goal is to stimulate conversation that will promote shared understanding of PD for social work to identify and extend emerging areas of scholarship and practice that reduce racial and economic inequality.


Herington, M. J., & van de Fliert, E. (2018). Positive deviance in theory and practice: A conceptual review. Deviant Behavior, 39(5), 664–678.

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