Abstract: The Intersection between Cultural Competence and Political Conflict: Social Workers' Construction of Cultural Competence in Polarized Cities (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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The Intersection between Cultural Competence and Political Conflict: Social Workers' Construction of Cultural Competence in Polarized Cities

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Hisham Abu-Rayya, PhD, Professor, University of Haifa, Israel
Roni Strier, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
Tamar Shwartz-Ziv, MSW, PhD student, University of Haifa, Israel
Background and Purpose

In recent decades, due to the creation of highly multicultural societies worldwide, the cultural competence approach has gained traction in social work theory and practice, and guided the development of multicultural interventions, services and trainings. Less is known, however, about the challenges that interethnic conflicts pose to cultural competence in social work practice. Relatedly, scarce research exists on culturally competent practice in tense multiethnic mixed cities. Using extensive qualitative data, the current study addresses this issue by examining how do social workers in Israeli Jewish-Arab mixed cities construe the meanings of culturally competent services in the context of the national Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Face-to-face, semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 80 social workers at varying levels of seniority and management positions from three Israeli mixed cities (Haifa, Acre, Jerusalem). We employed a purposive sampling method and the sample represents both Jews and Arabs. Most participants were involved in one of the following three domains of social welfare services: children at-risk, domestic violence, the elderly population. The interviews addressed participants’ perceptions of the experiences, dilemmas and challenges that characterize the work of social-welfare service providers in Israeli mixed cities. The data was transcribed and coded thematically using ‘Atlas’, a qualitative software program, guided by the principles of grounded theory. Data was analyzed across fields of social work practice and cities.


Analyses uncovered three main outlooks in the construction of cultural competence among social workers in Israeli mixed cities. First, the “universal” construction, which corresponds to universal and egalitarian value-based approach, by which social work professionalism is claimed sufficient to ensure equal treatment for Israeli-Arab and Jewish clients. Secondly, the “indispensable” cultural approach, which indicates that cultural competence is vital and unavoidable in addressing the ethno-diversity needs of Israeli-Arab and Jewish clients in mixed cities. Research participants who hold this view, were also aware of the difficulties, including unfamiliarity with cultural codes and impact of the Israeli-Palestinian national-conflict on their practices. The third approach, the “critical” construction, critiques the cultural competence and universal approaches as lacking the complexity to address the politically problematic ethno-political nature of mixed city settings. Participants who hold this perspective, believe that the welfare service system’s obliviousness to the ethno-political reality of Israeli mixed cities reproduces discrimination and unequal power relations between the minority and majority

Conclusion and implications

The study reveals three approaches to the provision of social welfare services in Israeli mixed cities: universal, cultural-competence and critical. Endorsement of any of these approaches tended to differ by the social worker’s ethnicity, city of service, and field of social work practice. The study proposes to adopt an integrated cultural competence approach that combines vital elements of each discrete construction to guide social workers’ practices in mixed cities. Context-informed priorities may occasionally emphasize some elements and minimize others. Institutional social welfare support for such a model is unequivocally necessary to effectively implement it in theory and practice.