The purview of the social work profession


What makes a community, and how are individuals positioned within a community? What challenges are part of belonging to a community and what are the challenges associated with membership in a community? Answers to these and other questions will be presented in this paper.

The Literature on Community

Among the key questions addressed in social work is this one: how is your role as a social worker influenced by the community you participate with and live within? Moreover, how does the social worker establish his or her identity within the framework of community and social work?

Lori Thomas and colleagues write in the Journal of Social Work Education that because of the attention paid to the concept and position of a “community organizer” during the last presidential election, it provided social work educators with an opportunity to “revisit and enhance community practice” (Thomas, 2011, p. 337). After all, Thomas continues, community work is “a core practice of the profession” (337). The author is of course alluding to the 2008 Republican National Convention during which vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared loudly and forcefully that “community organizing” is not an “adequate professional preparation for the office of the President of the United States (Thomas, 337).

Both Palin and Giuliani “belittled the practice that has long been the purview of the social work profession,” Thomas continued (337). The attacks on community organizing — e.g., the social worker out on the streets helping less fortunate or socially struggling people find the resources to survive and even thrive — revealed “the deep underlying assumptions about [the] community practice” that at the time “clashed with those held by now-President Obama supporters” (337).

Thomas paraphrased the “classic text” titled Community Organizing (Brager and Specht, 1973), and puts forward the four modes of intervention that are an important part of the social worker’s dynamic within the community, and are pertinent to this research. Intervention, Thomas explains, is based on “how the community perceives the goal of the intervention” and also how the organizer (social worker) expects the community to respond to that goal (339).

When the goal is perceived as “mutually enhancing adjustments” the response from the community was assumed to be “consensus, and the congruent mode of intervention was collaborative,” Thomas continues (339). When the goal was perceived by the community as a “redistribution of resources,” the responses from the community often calls for a “campaign mode to convince the community of the intervention’s worth,” Thomas points out (339). In other words, the community might well feel that some kind of social engineering was in the offing, and would be suspicious, hence the need for a campaign to point out what the social worker is really trying to accomplish.

If the goal was perceived as a “change in status relationships” then the social worker / community organizer could “assume dissensus and use a contest mode,” Thomas reports (339). (Dissensus is a difference of opinion, or the opposite of consensus.) And the final mode of intervention for a social worker, according to Thomas’ reporting of the book Community Organizing, is violence, based on “an anticipated insurrectionist response to a perceived goal that threatened to reconstruct the entire system,” Thomas continues on page 339.

Looking deeper into exactly what basic and yet vital components make up communities, the authors of the “Importance of Community” (Chapter 1) point out that without communities it is quite easy for individuals to become lonely and isolated. When positioned in a community, there is always another human to related to. But when isolated, according to the chapter, “mental and physical health problems can develop. In isolation, heart functioning can be jeopardized — to a level that matches the problems related to cigarette smoking — and other health problems can occur, like obesity and high blood pressure. The author claims that social isolated people “are four times more susceptible to the common cold and are two or three times more likely to die prematurely…” than others who are involved with community networks and social groups (p. 2).

The benefits to belonging to a community include a sense of “well-being” and reduced health and social costs; a reduced degree of criminal activity’ and an opportunity for citizens to work cooperatively which in turn leads to an inclusive, and effective democracy (p. 2). As for the challenges facing communities, in the “Importance of Community” chapter (p. 3) the authors point to the fact that communities are struggling to “maintain vibrant organizations”; this is because increasing numbers of people spend more and more time in the workplace and there individuals often have their “needs for social inclusion” met to a greater degree than in their own neighborhoods (p. 3).

Moreover, when communities are going through dramatic changes, the self-image of individuals who live in that community may suffer. People may experience “…a sense of hopelessness and loss of power,” the authors continue. When communities do feel a sense of hopelessness, the citizens may retreat into what Freire describes as a “culture of silence,” or into a “state of learned helplessness,” the authors explain (3).

On page 4 of their chapter, the authors suggest there are “over 90 definitions” of community, and about two thirds of the definitions identify communities as places where “social interaction, common connections, and locations” can be described. Other definitions include places where “commonalities in interests, beliefs, and behaviors” are expressed and experienced. Still another definition of “community” is “…that combination of social units and systems which perform the major social functions having locality [and] relevance” (4). The authors offer five functions of community: a) the need for supply to meet demand in any community is part of the “production, distribution, and consumption” function of a community; b) the socialization function if met through “the process of transmitting to members prevailing knowledge, social values and behavior patterns; c) the social control function is part of a community where conformity to group values and norms is important; d) the social participation function is met by giving members an opportunity to “interact with each other and to participate in cooperative activities”; and e) the mutual support function means that the community can and should act as a kind of “bridge between families and bureaucratized services by providing informal opportunities” (6).

What is community development? Certainly it doesn’t necessarily mean a housing development or “urban renewal” in the strictest sense. The authors in Chapter 2 suggest it is described many ways, including the fact that it should be a “bottom-up approach”: the people in the community determine the “appropriate goals and objectives” for themselves (p. 9). That is, no bureaucrat or autocrat dictates what is best for that community. Community development then is “fundamentally a democrat and social process,” one that “increases the assets and attributes which a community is able to draw upon in order to improve their lives” (p. 9). Moreover, community development is people who act “collectively with others who share some common concern” (p. 9).

The Mi’kmaq native peoples in Newfoundland have not had the ability to enjoy a “bottom-up approach” to their communities, according to Dianisia White. The Mi’kmaq lived in peace and relative prosperity in Newfoundland until the Europeans arrived, White explains. In fact, in Newfoundland became a Canadian province in 1949, the Mi’kmaq were not included in the larger Canadian community of people, albeit they remained a community unto themselves culturally. The brutal bureaucratic decisions made by the Canadian government have hurt the aboriginal people, White continues. For example, here is a cultural community of people that had legitimacy and a legacy crying out for recognition. However, when the “Terms of Union” were established between Canada and Newfoundland, those terms described “…everything from Canada’s transportation obligations… to the color of margarine” but they did not even mention aboriginal people, White writes.

The only acknowledgement of native peoples was the law in Newfoundland that banned the sale of alcohol to Indians — which is an outrageously arrogant and ignorant slap in the face to a bona fide community group. By excluding the Mi’kmaq in the Terms of Union, that basically meant that no Mi’kmaq living in the province had “access to or received any of the benefits, statutory advantages or rights provided by the Parliament and Government of Canada” (White).

However, that having been pointed out, a small group of “mostly Mi’kmaq band members in the coastal town of Conne River in Newfoundland has “gone from being poor and isolated with high unemployment to a strong and vibrant community with nearly 100% employment,” according to “Transcript: Miawpukek First Nation.” This group of first peoples began their community development with Christmas tree farms and fisheries, but have expanded their economic growth to a point that has become self-supporting. In conclusion, the fact that the Mi’kmaq has engaged in community development that has strong economic footings, and has provided good education and opportunities for everyone — in the face of a distant government that didn’t seem to care — shows what a community can do for itself, and stands as a glowing positive symbol for other groups elsewhere in Canada and in the world.

Works Cited

[Chapter 1] “Importance of Community”

[Chapter 2] “Introduction to Community Development”

Thomas, Lori M., Netting, Ellen F., and O’Connor, Mary Katherine. (2011). A Framework for Teaching Community Practice. Journal of Social Work Education, 47(2), 337-354.

Transcript: Miawpulek First Nation.

White, Dianisia. No’kmaq — All My Relations.

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