Abstract: A Critical Discourse Analysis of MSW Student and Faculty Perspectives on Cultural Competence and Relevant Constructs: Understanding Praxis of Cross-Cultural Social Work Practice (CCSWP) (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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A Critical Discourse Analysis of MSW Student and Faculty Perspectives on Cultural Competence and Relevant Constructs: Understanding Praxis of Cross-Cultural Social Work Practice (CCSWP)

Friday, January 13, 2023
Valley of the Sun B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Eunjung Lee, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Marjorie Johnstone, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
Toula Kourgiantakis, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Ran Hu, MSW, MA, Doctoral Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Vivian Leung, MA, PhD Candidate, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background and purpose: The concept of cultural competence has been widely debated across social work (SW), since its emergence in the 1980s (Cross et al., 1989). SW scholars underline cultural competence as a central tenet of SW profession (Danso, 2018; Lum, 2003; Williams, 2006). Others view cultural competence as a myth because it is impossible to be competent in another culture (Dean, 2001), even criticize it as the new racism since it ignores racial and structural inequity (Pon, 2009) and lacks a critical analysis of colonial history and its ongoing impacts on Indigenous populations (Fernando and Bennett, 2019). Alternative concepts have been introduced including cultural humility (Gottlieb, 2021), cultural safety (Duthie, 2019), structural competence (Metzl & Hansen, 2014). Amid the semantic, conceptual, epistemological, and sociopolitical debates, we wonder how different frameworks related to cross-cultural social work practice (CCSWP) have been perceived by MSW students and instructors, and how these are translated to embodied cross-cultural interactions in SW practice. Instead of falling into only theoretical debates, we examined the praxis of cultural competence and alternative concepts to promote critically reflective CCSWP. Our research questions are: (1) how do SW students and instructors describe cultural competence or alternative constructs? (2) how do they link each construct to embodied SW practice? and (3) what discourses are constructed as cross-cultural SW practice?

Methods: We conducted five focus groups (3 student and 2 instructor FGs) from Canadian schools of social work after the ethics approval. Using a critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 2013; Gee, 1999), we conducted both language analysis (e.g., examining what lexicons were used and how verbs, adjectives, and or adverbs are deployed and discursively connected to construct the understanding of cultural competence) and social analysis (e.g., which discourses are dominant or marginalized in understanding cultural competence).

Results: The final sample includes 16 SW students and 10 instructors (N=26). Our findings show similar dominant discursive patterns emerged among participants in both student and faculty groups: (1) critiquing the conceptual use of cultural competence, (2) preferring using terms such as cultural humility, cultural safety, or other constructs, and (3) describing the embodied practice of these constructs mainly as ‘general’ practice and eliding ‘cross cultural’ work. Participants differed in their expressed opposition to cultural competence, and the exact terms they each preferred as an alternative. Overall, participants transformed a critical debate on semantic and conceptual differences between these constructs into negating them as altogether meaningless, effacing the very notion of ‘cross-cultural’ social work and its embodied practice. In the end, along with other various discourses, cultural competence is featured as both oppressive and anti-oppressive as reflected in the contested scholarship on cultural competence.

Conclusion and Implications: Social work educators are positioned to shape knowledge in SW practice and influence the next generation of social workers. It would be important to be mindful of the implications of taking a position for certain constructs in practice and resisting oversimplifying CCSWP which cannot be fully captured within one construct, theory, or framework.