Postmodernity and Social Work Ethics: Moving On? – by: Prof. Richard Hugman

Prof_Richard_HugmanJoin & share your views in a special evening @SWSCmedia with Prof. Richard Hugman, discussing Postmodernity and Social Work Ethics… Tuesday (14 Mary 2013) at 9:00 PM BST / 4:00 PM EDT.

Prof. Richard Hugman (@profbandicoot) is a professor of social work at the University of New South Wales (Australia). He is also the Chair of IFSW ethics committee and a member of @SWSCmedia expert panel.

In the late 1990s social work appeared to discover the insights of European post-modernist social theory. The greatest impact was from the work of Michel Foucault, although others also were influential if less conspicuous. Prominent among the ideas that characterise this perspective is that how we see the world is constructed from the position that we hold within the world. For example, if I am male, White, heterosexual, middle-aged, able-bodied and Christian I will understand the world very differently to you, if you are female, Black, homosexual, young, disabled and Muslim, or even if we differ in only one or two of these respects. Such an argument leads to the conclusion that it is impossible to discern ‘the truth’ and that instead we should seek to discover the myriad ‘truths’ that are perceived from different standpoints.

Such an argument has appeal for social work if we understand our focus to be (at least partly) a concern with the individual world-view of each person with whom we work. It also resonates with the concern developed through the ideas of ‘radical social work’ that various forms of oppression create vastly different life opportunities according to the facets of social identity. However, it is at this point the postmodernist claim that there is no single ‘truth’ becomes problematic, because the arguments of feminism, anti-racism and other anti-oppressive movements are grounded in very clear, strong truth claims. For example, it is objectively verifiable that (all other things being equal) women are disadvantaged relative to men; other forms of oppression likewise can be established as ‘facts’. Recognition of this challenge led Australian social work writers Jan Fook and Bob Pease (1999) to develop the notion of a ‘critical postmodern’ perspective, within which the insight that world-views are differentiated is integrated with a concern to challenge oppression and disadvantage as a core social work value.

Thinking about social work ethics has been relatively untouched by these debates. The ideas that form the building blocks of social work ethics remain modernist, in that they are based on arguments that were developed out of the European Enlightenment period. In both the deontology of Kant and the consequentialism of the Utilitarians there was a concern to develop a ‘scientific’ ethics, which would address questions about what is objectively and universally good and right in human life. From these approaches, for example, we get the value that all people are equally morally valuable, even if they are differently positioned in social structures, while at the same time we hold that those who are disadvantaged have a greater moral claim to our attention and efforts.

The assertion of social work values made in the International Federation of Social Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work ‘Ethics in Social Work: Statement of Principles’ (2004) centres around the notions of ‘human rights’ and ‘social justice’. In philosophical terms, the ideas of human rights and social justice derive respectively from deontology and consequentialism; thus they have quite different (and potentially contradictory) logics. Social work usually glides over this and treats them as two sides of a single coin. They can be brought together, but we have rarely done the work to make this conscious either for ourselves as social workers or for those outside the profession (especially those who regard social work as confused or naïve).

Although the explicit philosophical work of integrating such competing ideas has only been addressed by a very small number of social work theorists and ‘ethicists’, for the vast majority of practitioners balancing the claims of rights, justice and other values is something that forms part of everyday life. For Sarah Banks (2012) this is best understood as ‘common morality’, the way in which everyone juggles different notions of good and right, so that it only becomes a problem when we encounter genuine ‘ethical dilemmas’ or we find that more powerful interests block the pursuit of our values. Thus, in practice, the vast majority of social workers can be seen as ethical ‘pluralists’ rather than ‘postmodernists’. We hold on to the idea that there is truth, it is just that it is rather messy, complicated and often refuses to be tied down neatly. As with postmodernism, ethical pluralism has not been addressed very much by social work writers, but at the same time many national Codes of Ethics combine values of human rights, social justice and professional integrity in a relatively untroubled fashion (usually by placing them neatly in separate sections).

Yet, it is precisely where social work encounters ‘difference’ that things can get very tricky. For example, the value of human rights is often criticised as a ‘western’ construct and so can be encountered as an oppression by people whose culture gives them an alternative value base. From Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands and from Indigenous peoples in settler countries (such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA) there are claims that the value of human rights itself can oppress by over-riding familial and/or communal relationships and obligations. As a ‘western’ social worker I find this confronting – I was brought up in a culture that also valued family obligations, responsibility, social cohesion and other notions that are supposedly denied by human rights. At the same time, I also have to acknowledge that the expression of these values can at times be more individualistic compared to the way in which colleagues and neighbours who are from other cultural backgrounds experience the moral world. This is especially so when social workers are engaged in actions that are experienced by service users as attacking their cultural norms.

So in social work ethics we find ourselves at a point where there are many things from the past we want to hold on to, while at the same time we are challenged by the recognition of the diversity of contemporary society. For example, how does social work acknowledge the rights of people to live according to their own culture if at the same time their culture appears to withhold the same right from particular sub-groups. (‘Culture’ here might include White service users who do not hold mainstream beliefs as well as members of ethnic minority communities.) This not only concerns international social workers but all those who practise in multi-cultural societies (which today probably is most of use). By challenging the notion of truth as singular postmodernism has helped us to identify the dilemmas and contradictions in such questions. However, at its extreme it can suggest that, as there is no singular ‘truth’, ‘anything goes’. In ethics this is not sufficient and greater attention to ethical pluralism appears to offer more constructive possibilities. While this approach too may run the risk of obscuring (and thus sustaining) oppressive social power, if it is addressed clearly and explicitly it may provide a way of thinking about social work ethics that helps us in the daily struggle to make sense of competing but equally important values.

Join & share your views in a special evening @SWSCmedia with Prof. Richard Hugman, discussing Postmodernity and Social Work Ethics… Tuesday (14 Mary 2013) at 9:00 PM BST / 4:00 PM EDT.

Prof. Richard Hugman (@profbandicoot) is a professor of social work at the University of New South Wales (Australia). He is also the Chair of IFSW ethics committee and a member of @SWSCmedia expert panel.


Banks, S. (2012) Ethics and Values in Social Work. 4th Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Fook, J. & Pease, B. (eds) Transforming Social Work Practice: Postmodern Critical Perspectives. St. Leonards NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Ethical note (possible perception of conflict of interest)

Richard Hugman is currently the chairperson of the International Federation of Social Workers ethics committee. He is co-author of the IFSW/IASSW (2004) Ethics in Social Work: Statement of Principles. Bern: IFSW.


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