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Modernist and postmodernist ideas in social work theory - 1

Modernist and postmodernist ideas in social work theory

Malcolm Payne Policy and Development Adviser St Christophers Hospice 51-59 Lawrie Park Road Sydenham London SE26 6DZ Phone: +44 20 8768 4511 E-mail: m.payne@stchristoiphers.org.uk

Modernist and postmodernist ideas in social work theory - 2

Modernist and postmodernist ideas in social work theory

Malcolm Payne1
Visiting Professor, Opole University, Poland; Policy and Development Adviser, St Christophers Hospice, London; Honorary Professor, Kingston University/St Georges University of London.

This paper explores current social work debate about modernist and postmodernist ideas as aspects of social work. This debate addresses three important concerns in social work: social work ideas that address current social trends and change. an epistemology within social work that supports an evidence-based practice. flexibility and adaptability within practice.

Postmodernism helps social work practitioners in a variety of ways, therefore. First, it helps practitioners explore and understand in creative and imaginative ways the current social trends that affect their clients. Second, it helps them to think about how theory and practice interact: how they may influence one another as we develop theory about practice and practice that is informed by theory. Third, it offers practitioners some ideas about how to work with people in practice. However, social work has often been regarded as modernist in that it represents universal and timeless humanistic ideas about the responsibility of people for others in an ordered society. Its methods have always assumed, again humanistically, that human beings can and should manage their lives using their rational minds, and helping can and should use evidence-based practice, drawing on knowledge gained through positivist scientific methods (Payne, 2011). These in turn assume that the world can be known through observation and experiment. Also, social work contends that human beings can be understood through research relying on rational analysis based on external observation (Brechin and Sidell, 2000). Many of its theories seek grand narratives, that is overall perspectives that offer a strategy to collect evidence that will eventually explain human life and the development of society in a general way. Postmodernism contests this view that the world and human beings may be understood rationally through evidence built up into one overall perspective of human society and therefore disturbs the stability of some of the assumptions that have been assumed to underlie social work practice. I argue in this paper that, on the contrary, postmodernism and modernism coexist and interact, and both can benefit practitioners in undertaking social work. Moreover, postmodernisms approach to social issues reflects the reality of a more complex and nuanced human society than a single, perhaps over-simplified, perspective can ever do.

Postmodernism and modernism

Postmodernism contains two elements: it is both a set of ideas and also a set of social trends that emphasise those ideas within social relations. Modernism is not cancelled out by

m.payne@stchristophers.org.uk; 51-59 Lawrie Park Road, Sydenham, London SE26 6DZ; +44(0)20 8768 4511

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postmodernism; both run alongside each other. Rather, the importance of postmodernism is that it is a reaction to modernist ideas; elaborating it sets up an opposition or discourse about modernist ideas. As a set of ideas, it says: Modernist ideas are not the only way of looking at things; consider alternatives. As a set of social trends, postmodernism says: A characteristic of present-day societies is that they are open to engaging with alternatives, rather than a single set of social assumptions (Chambon and Irving, 1994). Modernist thinking, as it emerged from the 17th century onwards, set the terms of debate about science, that is, how to understand the world by observing it and providing orderly rules for interpreting it. Particularly from the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment that informed it, modernism became a dominant way of thinking about the world (Harvey, 1990). It emphasised rational, technical knowledge used to achieve social progress through designing products and goods and understanding the world and societies through science, including social science in the form of economics and sociology. In modernist thinking, these natural and physical sciences are positivist. They produce evidence that is both concrete and universal. Through observation and research, we can define and understand how every aspect of the world around us operates to natural rules that always apply. It may be complex, but we can research and eventually define and manage through our research human behaviour and thinking and also society and social interactions. Postmodernism reacts to this way of thinking by emphasising how understanding and knowledge is always provisional and arises and applies only in its social and historical context. Giddens (1990: 4) makes the important point that postmodernism assumes that there are discontinuities in the development of social ideas. This means that ideas about society do not develop smoothly, in a straight line from one to the next, so that all social work knowledge builds up from its source into a universally applicable system of evidence and practice. An idea develops, perhaps, and then is left undebated for a while, to be restarted on a different tack. Others develop alongside each other, competing for attention, commenting on and changing each other, one gaining preeminence for a while and then being displaced, returning perhaps in a different form. The development of other ideas seems to come to a complete stop and they fade away. Howe (2009: 8) connects this phenomenon to wider political and cultural change: Social work finds itself being swept along by the grand themes of history. Particular theories and practices bob up at particular times and places. This characteristic of the development of knowledge in any particular field of study suggests that continuity in the use and application of ideas is not always coherent, developing towards a grand narrative. The main implication for social work practice of postmodernist thinking is an assumption that there will be alternatives to any system of social thinking, to how people think about and understand what is happening to them. Therefore, any social order, anything that says this is how the world is, or how the world should be, cannot be taken for granted. Postmodernism is interpretivist (Brechin and Sidell, 2000); it points to how knowledge is biased by the decisions of researchers and practitioners to choose natural and social events to observe and investigate and by the way they choose to investigate and work on issues that they identify. Some writers suggest that postmodernist thinking therefore requires a moral and political relativism, which argues that nothing can be known or finally agreed. Not so: postmodernism rather asks us to seek out and examine alternative ways of seeing what we think we know and what we expect. Looking at possible alternatives allows us to test out how complete our present understanding is. Moreover, where we do find alternative explanations, it invites us to seek more complete understandings that allow us to see how both alternatives may be true (Fawcett, 2009).

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For example, the mother of a disabled man in his twenties is very distressed and angry when a financial allowance is withdrawn that pays his expenses to visit her regularly in her own home. Perhaps the social workers practice focuses on the mother, and on psychological aspects of social work. The social worker might judge that she is making her son overdependent on her, and is behaving irrationally because his dependence meets her emotional needs after the recent loss of her husband. From this point of view, it might be better if the son was able to have greater independence. Ideas from the independent living movement for disabled people might support that interpretation: disabled peoples independence should be enabled. However, if we look at the situation from a family resilience point of view, we could argue that both the man and his mother are strengthened by maintaining contacts between them. Evidence and theory about how people maintain continuing bonds after death would suggest that experiencing strong family relationships now might allow those relationships to continue to support the man after his parents death. A feminist theorist might point to how the mothers strong emotional response is being labelled negatively, pursuing perhaps a paternalistic assumption that calmer, more rational thinking should dominate a relationship between a parent and a man in his twenties. Critical social work theory might emphasise the importance of public financial support for vulnerable and deprived groups such as disabled or bereaved people in the community, and it is the withdrawal of the allowance that has created appropriate anger, and should generate a supportive response and a change in policy. A community activist might well value the continuing relationship between mother and adult son as evidence of good community and interpersonal links. This range of social work theories and the approaches that they offer for social work analysis is explored in Modern Social Work Theory (Payne, 2005). Many of the ideas and possibilities contained in this brief account might well occur to a thoughtful social worker asked to deal with the situation. This draws attention to two things: first, there are many ways in which different people might look at the same situation. Second, careful exploration of the evidence for different aspects of these many interpretations of the situation should allow us to understand it more fully and in a more complex way. It is, therefore, inappropriate for a social worker who seeks to operate on the basis of knowledge informing thoughtful understanding and interpretation based on evidence just to use one way of interpreting situations in which they are called upon to act. Social events and relationships are always complex and shaded by different aspects of the social history that have coloured the event and relationships relevant to it. Understanding complex situations requires social workers to see them in the round, as perceived by the different actors in the situation. Moreover, far from rejecting concrete evidence, a complex, in-the-round understanding of the situation requires a greater attention to evidence and careful research, because it allows us to separate different strands and varying points of view within the complexity and decide which are relevant and which are not. Otherwise, we work on a limited caricature of the situation (Dickens and Fontana, 1994). Similarly, some writers see postmodernist thinking as rejecting social order and social structure. But postmodernism does not deny that social order is valuable and necessary, but asks us to understand all the implications of present and possible social orders and structures. Let us look at the disabled man and his mother again. Some decades ago, parents whose child was disabled at birth were often encouraged not to care for the child themselves, but to place him or her in an institution, a hospital or care home, where they might visit from time to time but could get on with their life. Over time, it has been seen as better psychologically and for

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their own social development both for the parents and also for the child if a continuing relationship is developed between them. Similarly, in the past a disabled person might stay in an institution for much of their lives, while more recently it is has been seen as a social and to some extent public responsibility, to help them attain an independent life and status. These changes illustrate social changes in assumptions about the social structures: the family, the meaning of disability and the social role of care institutions for disabled people. Many people do not have to pay attention to these changes, but social workers work with these situations, so they have to follow what is going on and appreciate how their practice needs to change. They cannot do this if they adhere to a theory of explanation that accepts only one social structure, that it is better to place a disabled person in an institution (the traditional approach) or that continuing care within the family (the modern approach). Instead, social work requires practitioners to consider the possibility even likelihood that the social order will change over time, that social expectations with also change in consequence and therefore that how people will live their lives and how they should be helped to do so will also change. Connected with these changes in social order and social structure, cultural attitudes have also changed. Fifty years ago, many people in a parents social circle would have thought that placing a disabled child in an institution was a sensible and caring approach to their responsibilities, whereas now doing this might well be regarded as selfish, heartless and rejecting. Part of this cultural shift has been informed by changes in the availability of technology and support services to enable disabled adults to live independent lives; external developments in the modern world change how we can manage our social relationships. However, such cultural changes are also the result of general changes in the way in which people see family relationships and the responsibility of the state. Generally, people would value close emotional ties within families and this leads to an emphasis on including disabled people within them. Social expectations are against hiding unfortunate events in your life away, and certainly against cutting yourself off from people who present difficulties in your life. Recognising this, social workers would help people to come to a different accommodation about their lives than they did half a century ago. However, not everyone would have accepted or noticed the change, so there is always room for uncertainty or doubt about perceived change. Cultural analysis is an aspect of postmodernism that helps us to explore different perceptions of this change by looking at how different groups in society see these changes, and also by seeing how powerful groups influence perceptions of social changes. Among those powerful groups the media are often key, and contributors to the media may provide important leadership or influence. However, another recent social trend is the development of social media in which ideas can be circulated, on the internet for example, and gain influence through less structured communication media. Some might also question the extent of the states responsibility for extensive expenditure on supporting disabled people in the community, while others would see the human rights argument for the state accepting this responsibility. Still others, while acknowledging that argument, would also argue for the duty of parents and relatives of the disabled person to make a contribution to the cost and to interpersonal support, and for the disabled person through achieving greater independence to take greater financial responsibility for themselves. Thus, cultural assumptions are not final: aspects of them are often in debate, even where, as in this example, we can see that there have been general cultural shifts. Postmodernist theory in social work, therefore, suggests the importance of understanding complexity and change in social structure and social order, rather than adopting an

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unrealistically static assumption about what the social order is. Moreover, social workers need to examine different positions about the social order and how it is changing if they are to help their clients deal with a complex situation in which there may be many different competing attitudes to be resolved. Thus, it is important for them to explore debates and discourses about important issues in society, so that they can follow trends on issues of concern in social work, such as the role of the family. Moreover, examining these debates closely enables practitioners to understand who has power and influence in that discourse, both widely in society and between individuals and family members that they may be working with. We can see, then, that postmodernism suggests that there is a great deal of uncertainty in society; indeed, I argue in the next section that cultural analysis suggests that uncertainty is increasing in many developed societies. Uncertainty leads to the risk of misinterpretations, inappropriate reactions to social expectations and that risk often leads to social and personal insecurity for everyone. It is easy to be criticised for not fitting in to expectations, when those expectations are more in debate than the critics accept. Therefore, rather than rejecting the importance of social order and social structure, social workers need to understand the importance of the changing nature of social order and structure and help people deal with that change. The postmodernist understanding that social order and social structure change brings one enormous benefit to social work thinking. That is, if social order and social structure change as part of human and social interactions, there is the possibility of creating or influencing change in ways that may benefit clients. If we accept a postmodernist view, we cannot say that individuals can never change because the social order excludes them or the social structure restricts them. It is clearly possible to bring about changes in cultural expectations that will benefit clients, and that will benefit many other people who may not be clients, but are affected by the same changing aspects of social life. Moreover, the importance of cultural change points to possibilities for change that do not require structural change, for example in political or economic systems. This suggests to us that changing the environment in which clients live is more possible than some people have previously contended. One of the criticisms of putting forward a social change model of social work is that social structures are too powerful for change (Payne, 2005: ch 11). Instead psychological change that adapts clients to cope with social structures is more practical. But postmodernist cultural analysis argues that serious changes in structure are not the only way to achieve environmental change to help clients. Postmodernism says that social change is possible; it happens all the time. It therefore rejects determinism, the idea that what we are and what we do are determined by the history of our lives and society and the context in which we develop and live as human beings. Instead, postmodernist thinking argues that human beings can, through developing knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world, interpret life in a range of different ways that enable us to contribute to change, rather than accepting the world as it is and changes as part of an immutable flow of social change that is a burden to us.

Post-modernism as a basis for cultural analysis

Another important aspect of postmodernism for social work is that it is a cultural theory. It derives from examining trends in architecture, art and literature, and its ideas were picked up by the social sciences as a way of understanding social trends (Bertens, 1995). For social work, that is an important and innovative way of thinking because it emphasises cultural

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rather than structural aspects of social life. Culture is a shared view among people in a particular society about three elements of that society: Systems of values and behaviour that are widely acknowledged as characteristic of the society. Aesthetic, artistic and intellectual achievements of that society, again acknowledged as characteristic of it. The way in which that society achieves change in and development of values and behaviours and their expression, which then affects the cultural assumptions that individuals develop (Payne and Askeland, 2008).

These different elements point to the potential breadth of the concept of culture. In social work, interest in culture sometimes focuses on the issue of how the cultural values and behaviour of people from different countries and ethnicities can lead to discrimination and social conflict; for example in multicultural or anti-oppression theory (Payne, 2005: ch. 13). Outside social work, culture is sometimes seen as about elite artistic and intellectual concerns. However, culture is important to social workers because it is central to how human beings respond to their surroundings. Therefore, shared values and behaviour can be an important link between apparently disparate people or a source of conflict between people who share many economic and social interests (During, 1993). Culture is not only concerned with aesthetic and artistic experiences, which may seem distant from social work. Huntingdon (1996), in an important book on globalisation, for example, argues that after the fall of communism as a political force with the collapse of the Soviet regime in the early 1990s, different cultural approaches to organising civilisation replaced political ideology as the major focus of international conflict. In thinking of this kind, cultural explanations become a more important way of understanding relations among different social groups than politics, economics or social policy analysis. Another important aspect of cultural understanding is the way in which peoples cultural identity is being eroded by current social trends such as globalisation. Different cultural traditions, for example, spiritual or religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam, are brought into more extensive contact with each other than previously existed. For example, opportunities to travel across the world and population migration bring previously separated cultures into contact and potential conflict with each other. Internet and other communication technologies, the wide availability of television are mechanisms for communicating culture which often lead to the dominance of Western cultural assumptions through international publishing, international release of cinema films, computer programs and television. These trends may lead to problems because they attack peoples cultural identities, making them more insecure and uncertain of themselves and also because differences may be highlighted, and local preferences excluded from dominant media. Issues in relationships between social groups and individuals, and psychological responses to current social experiences, require a focus on understanding cultural issues and change within more traditional sociological and psychological knowledge (Payne and Askeland, 2008). Using postmodernist ideas, therefore, allows social work to incorporate cultural analysis and theory into practice.

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Connected ideas
Postmodernism is connected to a range of theoretical developments, which are often called post ideas. Looking at these gives a broader perspective of the reach of postmodernism as a contributor to social work ideas. Some examples are as follows: Postcolonialism refers to the trends in international relations where the domination of colonies by military and political control is replaced by economic and cultural domination by transnational companies and the cultures of developed countries. For example, transnational products such as Hollywood films, BBC television, Pizza Hut or McDonalds restaurants replace locally produced products and ideas that are culturally relevant in a particular country. Also, world languages such as English, and products using them, such as books and computer programs, replace local languages and oral traditions. We can understand how people become disconnected or alienated from relationships with others around them whose cultural interests remain with local traditions. This sometimes happens between younger people and their parents, or between older people and younger family members who provide care for them. Post-feminism arises when social movements aiming to free women from social domination by men and male assumptions are replaced by assumptions that equality is a false goal and that feminism has spoiled many female advantages and preferences, for example being able to flirt to gain interest and support from men, and the opportunity to focus on mothering rather than giving priority to working. However, post-feminist social changes may highlight middle-class social advantages and may lead to social policy giving reduced importance to responding to inequalities that continue to affect many women, such as womens poverty or domestic violence. Another important area may be in caring roles. Feminist thinking has questioned how women are often oppressed in their lives by being expected to provide caring within their families. This is sometimes seen as a form of exploitation which arises because of patriarchal assumptions in many cultures. That is, the needs and interests of men as the main participants in the workforce are given priority over womens preferences to work rather than accept unpaid caring roles. Post-feminist ideas might support women in accepting caring roles because these are socially valuable, and in avoiding work roles, which may be stressful and unrewarding. However, this does not negate an analysis that this may be exploitative, leading womens concerns to be devalued in a culture dominated by mens interests and womens poverty to be increased because they lose access to work and pension income. Post-Fordism, referring to the industrial techniques of the American motor car manufacturer, occurs when industrialised processes are replaced by teamwork in groups of highly educated people doing knowledge- and culture-based work such as education and television. This devalues practical and physical labour and puts an emphasis on rapid changes in cultural trends, fashion and design, rather than on stability and tradition. Thus, clients whose personal preferences or family tradition and expectations lie in industrial or physical work, may find themselves excluded from the workforce, losing income and having work that they value devalued in society. Post-industrialisation occurs when, through post-Fordist changes, developed economies reduce their emphasis on industrial production of consumer goods, such as cars, washing machines and computers, instead focusing on work that uses knowledge, such as design, services and software. This in turn leads to the

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hollowing-out of industry in Western countries, which then move to designing and marketing goods produced in less-developed countries. Greater economic globalisation results, in which pre-industrial or industrial societies supply goods and depend up knowledge from developed societies. In former industrial countries, unemployment and low wages increase among less-skilled, less-intellectually-able people. Post-structuralism is an approach to philosophy. It rejects the ideas of French structuralism, which claimed that all social phenomena displayed evidence of deep structures formed into interlocking systems that could be identified and classified, allowing us to know society through rational analysis. The post-structuralist idea of people sees them as free-floating individuals and groups, pursuing selfish social aims. Social structures, rather than forming an organised structure of relationships enabling people to pursue their personal and social aims, discipline and regulate people. How this comes about is understood by a process of deconstruction of hidden disciplinary processes, through examining power relations in society.

Many of the examples given here show how a cultural analysis can enrich our understanding of the way current trends in society may affect clients feelings and behaviour (Payne and Askeland, 2008).

Contemporary theoretical analysis

Gray and Webbs (2009) recent book is a good example of postmodernist analysis applied to social work. In their initial discussion of social work theory (pp 1-10), Gray and Webb argue that social work is more than a way of intervening in peoples lives, by, for example providing care services. Consequently, its theory must be more than a set of prescriptions for practice. An important additional feature of it is the role of making sense of peoples experiences in the context of the social; the social includes both the apparent social context of cultural and social change within social relationships. Thus, they argue, all social work is about interpreting particular social experiences, events and behaviour, so that we may recover, from ordinary social exchanges, more complex understandings of the origins of those social experiences. To achieve that complex understanding, we have to do more than describe or categorise events, we interpret them. In particular, we interpret them in ways that demand critical thinking and analysis. Criticality is about both methods of thinking that question our initial assumptions about the situations we are facing and also about methods of practice that use ideas from critical sociological theory (White et al, 2006). These two aspects of criticality are connected, because critical theory addresses social issues in ways that seek to transform conventional cultural assumptions, so that using critical theory helps with critical thinking, while critical thinking helps us to work out the practical import of critical theory in our clients everyday lives (Payne, et al., 2009). These ideas are postmodernist because they start from an assumption that there are a variety of alternative ways of viewing social experiences; thinking about social issues is always contestable according to Gray and Webb (2009: 5-6). They identify three different types of theory that help us to contest views of social phenomena: Contemporary theorists with distinctive critical frameworks of thought. These are: Habermas, Giddens, Bourdieu, Foucault, and Judith Butler.

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Theories that offer critical ideas. These are feminism, critical and structural social work, multiculturalism, neoliberalism and postmodernism. Perspectives that identify methods of research and analysis that question the ways of we try to understand the world. These are social network analysis, ethnomethodology, ethnography, discourse analysis and reflexivity, evidence-based practice and ways of knowing or epistemology.

The argument is that by studying these sets of ideas, social workers have access to techniques of analysis and a range of alternative frameworks for examining social situations that enable them to contest assumptions that seem to be embedded in everyday actions. By working with theorists focusing on present-day trends, and with critical theories and research methods that offer alternative perspectives on social situations, practitioners can focus on the present, rather than historical assumptions, and look at building alternative ways forward for their clients and services, rather than simply adapting them to existing assumptions about social life.

Postmodern practice concepts: deconstruction, discourse, capital

Since social work is a practical activity, done by people in the real world, an important question for all social work theory is whether it offers new ways of practising or of analysing practice. Deconstruction and discourse are important ideas and modes of critical analysis that we can use in practise with clients. Their practice use is particularly significant because it connects with the importance in all social work of understanding and interpreting communication of many different kinds. Deconstruction is a concept that originates in the arts and literature (Bertens, 1995: ch. 5). It starts from an analysis that takes a situation apart so that we can see the elements of it, understanding it more clearly in this way. But it is more than this: it implies self-reflexivity. That is, any communication or analysis contains a message relevant to a particular situation and also a message or analysis about how communication and analysis are carried out in this setting and also a message about the nature of the setting or social institutions within which the communication and analysis occurs. Sociologists, and particularly Foucault, have extended this idea to emphasise in particular how understanding the ways in which communications and analysis are carried out and the institutional context of them allows you to identify important aspects of social relationships, in particular of the use of power between different social groups. Communication is important because deconstruction works by looking at how the people involved use language. For example, I work in a hospice, a social institution which cares for people who are dying because they are in the advanced stages of serious illnesses and people who are bereaved. Many younger and middle-aged dying people have children, but often do not talk to their children about their illness and impending death. Among the reasons for this is that intense efforts are made by healthcare professionals to cure their illness, and patients often maintain hope in the possibility of cure. There is also a social convention that parents should try to protect children from unpleasantness. As a result, they avoid telling their children about their illness until they are close to death, may not plan the future care of their children after death and may refuse to allow children to go to the funeral of the parent who has died. Palliative care social workers often advise parents in this position quite strongly to be open about their illness and death, but family members by resist this advice. In promoting openness in this

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way, the social workers are communicating an analysis of the situation that parents are often not familiar with in their ordinary social setting, or in healthcare organisations, such as hospitals, where the focus is on cure rather than planning for death. Moreover, they are demonstrating that this is a different kind of healthcare institution. Doctors and nurses reinforce that difference in their open communications about the progression of the illness towards death and the care needed. So also do other patients. For example, one patient told me that he watched and listened to how other people in the day centre explained their illness to other people. He said this helped him learn alternative ways of talking to members of his family about his own illness. Failure to be open with children about their parents serious illness enables us to identify a power imbalance in relationships. Children are not seen as having the same rights to knowledge and understanding as adults; this clearly identifies their limited power in their social relationships (Reith and Payne, 2009). Moreover, we can see that these power relationships in childrens social relationships are a cultural matter. At the time of writing, in a long-running radio soap opera, a popular father with three children has died in an accident. After the death, the script showed his wife, the childrens mother, arguing with their grandmother about whether they should be allowed to go to the funeral. The mother represents the view that they should be protected from a distressing experience, and that if they attended she would have to cope with their distress at a time when she herself will probably upset them further by being distraught with grief. The grandmother, on the other hand, represents the needs of the children to grieve and to take part in memorialising their fathers life. This was taken up in a later womens discussion programme where alternative views were represented, including a professional view similar to that of the social workers in my hospice. Subsequently, there was also debate in newspapers about the appropriate course to take. This is a very clear example of how an important personal and interpersonal decision may be guided by social relationships and expectations. Attitudes revealed in discussion with dying people and their families express attitudes held within the culture of the people involved. It is clear that these are cultural rather than individual because they are replicated in media representations of everyday life and in media discussion. Moreover, there is a clear discourse. Discourses are social interactions, that is, interactions between people and sometimes among groups of people (Fairclough, 1992). These interactions are expressed in language, and enable people in social groups and societies to build up a shared understanding of the meaning of pieces of behaviour. So, people understand what dying may mean because other people explain it to them, or because in discussing the world, they gain an impression of what it is, or they actually experience it happening to someone else. The language used is important in any discourse but discourses may also include actions, discussion and writing because meaning is demonstrated by what people do as well as what they say and write. All social meaning is, however, expressed in language, even if it is identified through observation, and therefore the language used both constructs and reveals discourses. So what people say describes something, but not usually everything, about what people think or understand or have experienced about how children react to someone close to them dying. As we have a number of experiences of one person discussing a topic with others, we gain a clearer view of their position. As we experience a situation, read about it and see it discussed by a number of different people, we gain a perspective on the range of

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alternative views of it, and hardens up in our minds as an agreed view about the topic or as an understanding of the field of disagreement. For example, people will say that: Most people agree that or that People disagree about that, but I agree with the view that. People using language in discussion, acting and reacting as they deal with situations many hundreds of times in different social situations creates a cultural consensus about the general reality of what people in this culture think about childrens reactions to dying and how we might manage those reactions in daily life. This leads to a social construction of the reality of childhood bereavement; social expectations are created by this accumulation of social interactions. The idea of discourse allows us to rise above any particular interaction and ask about the social constructions and power relations represented within it. So when a social worker talks openly about the dying process with a client who is dying, they are expressing a position in the cultural discourse about openness. The client may later have a discussion with a relative who does not accept openness, preferring discretion in expressing emotions about dying. If the client then talks to a third person unconnected with their family, they might choose either position, openness or discretion, or some compromise. By looking at a succession of behaviours, we can identify what the discourse is, and understand some of the power relations within it. How culturally free, for example, is the client to adopt a new more open position with a new contact? How free of the influence of a particular relative is the client to adopt a more open position with another relative known to them both? Do they reserve openness to talking with people employed by the Hospice, accepting its culture, or is the social culture of discretion maintained even in the Hospice? By helping people to deconstruct discourses in their lives, social workers can give people greater power in their relationships with others. This is because giving people a broader experience of alternatives in social relationships offers them social capital. Bourdieu (1977) emphasises the importance of capital held by individuals and groups within their fields (Smith, 2001: 137-9). This gives them power, the capacity to influence the fields they are involved in. Economic capital is the accumulation of resources that gives people and groups the financial power to achieve influence. Cultural capital is the capacity to understand and interpret the world around us in complex ways. People gain influence if they have secure and well-understood ideas about how to interpret the world, such as those offered by integration within a profession such as social work. Social capital is the power that we gain by having wide and supportive networks of relationships. Social work derives from a social science tradition that focuses on economic capital, but postmodernism suggests that cultural and social capital can be just as important is giving people opportunities to gain power over their environment. An example of this is the man who learned from other patients in the Hospice day centre how to discuss his death with family members. He gained greater cultural and social capital, because through experiencing the Hospice, he gained alternative ways of interpreting how to manage the reality that you are dying (cultural capital) and how to gain support without alienating family members who did not want to talk with him about his death (social capital).

This paper engages with the debate within social work about the role of postmodernism as a useful set of ideas in social work practice. I have stressed how postmodernism enhances the importance of accepting that there are many alternatives in the way in which we can respond

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to the realities of the world around us. Because postmodernism introduces cultural analysis into social work thinking, it enables practice to seek realistic social change, without the need to change social structures, which are often sustained by important economic and political interests. However, cultural change can be just as important in peoples environments, because through experiencing wider life opportunities people can gain greater cultural and social capital, giving them a broader range of interpretations of the world and the possibility of creating wider supportive networks. This is because by understanding, through deconstruction, conflicts and barriers as discourses. In discourses, different positions represent the influence of power associated with social institutions such as official agencies or family influence. By being enabled to understand alternative perspectives, clients increase their power by enhancing their cultural and social capital in their everyday social relationships. While postmodernism focuses on exploring and extending the alternative interpretations available to us all in society, however, it does not negate the important of using modernist rational analysis and evidence to assess the alternatives. If we are to make the best use of experiencing alternatives in life to enhance our cultural and social capital, we have to be able to make assessments of which alternatives produce the best outcomes in particular situations. That is the balance between modernist and postmodernist theory. Postmodernism allows us to develop the range of possibilities available to us, while modernism facilitates assessment of how to use them effectively in pursuit of our goals. Modernism identifies the importance of goals and planning in our lives, while postmodernism enables us to explore and manage the environment, enhancing it so that it is easier achieve our goals and plans.

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Reith, M. and Payne, M. (2009) Social Work in End-of-life and Palliative Care. Bristol: Policy Press. Smith, P. (2001) Cultural Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. White, S., Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (eds)(2006) Critical Reflection in Health and Welfare Maidenhead: Open University Press.