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Integración de América Latina (Integration of Latin America) by Jorge González Camarena, CC BY-SA 3.0, wikimedia

Giannina Muñoz Arce
School of Social Work, Universidad Alberto Hurtado Chile

Theoretical approaches of social work intervention in Latin America

Diverse theoretical perspectives co-exist, interact and clash in Latin American social work. The multiplicity of perspectives that have shaped social work throughout its nearly hundred years, and the discussion of such an approaches’ ethical and political implications, characterise and distinguish Latin American social work on an international scale.

Latin American Social Work

Social work as a profession in the region was born in 1925 underpinned by a biomedical approach and the participation of European social work educators. In Latin America, the biomedical approach merged with the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition in conjunction with diverse interpretations of Marxism –from analytic Marxism to perspectives related to hermeneutics and Latin American philosophy. These different, and even contradictory theoretical perspectives intertwined resulting in a rhetoric rich in conceptual elements that are more or less explicit and more or less consistent. We can therefore say that “Latin American social work” is not underpinned by a sole theoretical framework, rather a variety of overlapping, historically shaped approaches underlie social workers’ interventions in the region.

The wave of dictatorships that devastated the Latin American region in the 1970s and the 1980s generated a relevant rupture in the profession’s theoretical development. During this repressive period intellectual production was censored, schools of social work suffered closure and the profession lost its university status, producing a trauma still present in many social workers’ memories. All of these changes took place in a neoliberal context marked by a reduction of the state’s role as well as the privatisation, targeting and outsourcing of social services. These changes led to significant impacts in the profession’s theoretical frameworks. Due to the new focalization of social services, many social workers’ practices were reduced to the application of techniques aiming at prioritising service users. This phenomenon, which was identified as a technocratic and anti-intellectual period in social work, continues to pervade in some social work sectors which is in the underestimation of theory and research’s contributions to social intervention.

world Bank

By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( licensed )], via Wikimedia Commons

Once democratic regimes were recovered in the region in the 1980s and 1990s, social work faced a new crossroad. Theoretical frameworks provided by supranational organisations, especially by the World Bank, started to be disseminated throughout the region as the new hegemonic approaches of intervention. The risk management framework, cognitive-behavioural models of intervention and the rhetoric of rights’ approach that underlie the new social protection systems, conceptualize interventions towards individuals´ overcoming of risks. Thus, the neoliberal rationale has co-opted critical theoretical frameworks, reducing interventions to actions oriented towards families living in extreme poverty and more specifically, to each individual family member.

In recent years, conditional cash transfer programmes that have proliferated in the Latin American region, have reinforced this individual-based approach by rewarding personal effort, empowerment and the entrepreneur ability of the poor. In addition, social protection systems have promoted new evaluation indicators that focus particularly on the self-management of poverty and leave little room for professional reflection.

Despite the current dominant theoretical framework focused on individual risk management, “alternative” perspectives, which attempt to contest hegemonic approaches, have also emerged. These alternative perspectives have emerged silently and are found in areas of professional discretion. These perspectives re-edit Latin American's critical tradition in social work, returning to aboriginal traditions as source of useful knowledge and defending the struggles of social movements and subaltern groups. One example of the return to indigenous knowledge for social work include the efforts developed by Ecuadorian social workers to construct a social work theoretical framework based on the Buen Vivir principle or Sumak Kawsay –derived from the Andes indigenous people's philosophy. In a similar vein, during the last decade, feminist approaches have also gained acceptance, seeking intersectional models of intervention in order to provide more integral and social justice based interventions. Decolonial proposals have also emerged as acts of resistance against conventional social work theoretical frameworks, contesting the epistemicide experienced by Latin American indigenous people.

The approaches described above, among others, have refreshed the theoretical discussion in social work in the region. They are the result of wider intellectual forces that go beyond social work and have been possible thanks to the fruitful exchange with other disciplines as well as with the communities in which social work intervenes. In this scenario, the profession faces challenges regarding strengthening the epistemic vigilance of social work, reinforcing theoretical restlessness as well as the active reflection in order to maintain and question the theoretical perspectives that guide social work interventions.