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Adriana Ornelas,
Profesoras Escuela Nacional de Trabajo Social Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Nelia Tello
Profesoras Escuela Nacional de Trabajo Social Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Contemporary Dilemmas in the Education of Social Workers


Social Work is a social science discipline recognised as a profession and, sometimes, as a mere technical support. Its history is associated with the poor, people in need, the vulnerable, assistance institutions, women; as part of the social imaginary that associates it with charity, aid, good will and positive feelings, more than with knowledge (Montaño, 2010). However, the fundamental principle of social work since its origin as a profession has been knowledge built upon academic education. Throughout its development, social work has had to face several dilemmas, i.e., uncertain situations that have led to a debate between two options; below we shall refer to the dilemmas we believe to be more significant in the education and training of future social workers.

Social Work Knowledge

Historically, social workers have received multidisciplinary education, but this positive characteristic becomes a weakness because social work is seen as a profession based in fragmented knowledge coming from other disciplines instead of having its own disciplinary knowledge. Although numerous efforts have been made to build specific knowledge in the field of social work, the truth is that universities discuss the dilemma between education based on universal or specific knowledge. Therefore, the two options appear to apply general social science theories or education based on the construction of complex knowledge units that help to develop a comprehensive understanding of reality, from a social work perspective where the specific professional intervention is designed.

Another dilemma in social work education is based on recognised and approved knowledge because it is “scientific”; or academic studies based on knowledge gradually developed by the discipline, even though this knowledge has not been recognised because it does not form part of the dominant social science paradigms, but it is completely in line with the profession’s practical requirements.

There is also a methodological dilemma that leaves us between the use of methodological constructions created by other social sciences that are only applied in social work; therefore, they lead to the development of non-specific and partial interventions, or the construction of theoretical-methodological proposals based on a strategic view of social work, created by the recovery and conceptualisation of methods and techniques developed through professional experience, aimed at comprehensive intervention. A dilemma interwoven with this is the division created between investigation and intervention, a dilemma expressed in developing research based on problems put forward by other social science disciplines or questioning and building research units about social work practice. This also leaves us between educating social work students for research or for intervention; the dominant tendency has been to assume these moments as “separated” and prioritise research under the supposition that it is more important and it has greater scientific status than intervention; despite the fact that in social work, intervention guides its research.

The enthusiasm to consolidate the scientificity of social work and, hence, the education of its professionals has occasionally resulted in “academicism,” which decisively influenced the division between academic studies and professional practice. This is closely connected to the dilemma between practical training and theory: in the former we find a tendency to think that practice does not require theory and that, in this case, theory is only used to “coat” or “cover” social work practice, i.e., it is viewed in a fragmented manner, which would suggest a fundamental problem, the separation between theory and practice, when in fact social work practice should be assumed to be a unit where they both are interwoven, but not as two superimposed dimensions, as González Casanova explained “the challenge of social sciences is to join critical thinking and technical analyses and scientific research with a clear discourse and political will” (1991, p. 23).

In terms of social work education in intervention, historically the strategies proposed to solve social problems have been designed according to existing social problems that affect society at a specific moment in time, epistemologically creating two lines of action: one that contributes to the operation of the dominant social order and another that searches for an alternative to that imposed order.

Currently, social factors have become displaced, blurred and weakened in a world where economic factors are at the centre, technology dictates the rules of everyday life, the human being is a merchandise; individualism and instant gratification guide, from this fragmentation, the dominant social commitments and this decisively influences professional training. As described by Bauman (2015, p.162): “Changes in education are increasingly related to the discourse of efficiency, competitiveness, profitability and accountability and their professed goal is to link in the workforce the virtues of flexibility and mobility, as well as basic skills and performance skills at work”.

A Dilemma would be to train social workers who intervene from the fragmentation, the immediateness and the technique in institutional operational processes that strengthen socioeconomic policies emanating from neoliberal and antidemocratic governments or train social workers who, from this complexity, transdiscipline and criticism develop intervention processes to strengthen social factors, by developing comprehensive intervention strategies that create participatory social changes.

Hence, we are faced with the dilemma to provide training for fragmented interventions that, despite providing answers, they are not professional interventions; or provide training for comprehensive interventions that are not limited to the application of techniques, but refer to the creation and development of social work intervention strategies. T This will make a difference between social workers acting as operators who implement strategies designed by other professionals, providing answers to problem-situations, from their perspective and knowledge. Thus “we are faced with a fundamental epistemological requirement, which is to define if we are capable of building a relationship based on specific knowledge that avoids being trapped in prevailing logics and that faces the challenges of building alternative discourses” (Gómez, 2002, p. 172), breaking away from the tendency to repeat knowledge in order to create social work’s own theoretical, methodological and practical knowledge.

Developing intervention strategies in social work requires being independent from the currently dominant theoretical construction of social sciences; it has to be seen as a unit, and it should be understood that social work activities are limited to comprehensive theoretical processes, but not as complementary stages, based on the development of intervention objects specific to social work. Therefore, we seek to provide social work education based on complex, transdisciplinary knowledge, enabling the social worker to have a comprehensive understanding of reality and also to intervene in it; this understanding assumes a multi-referential analysis, as Zemelman asserted (2002, p.86) “complexity arises from a context that implies reading a problem in an undetermined number of relationships, in an open number of ramified relationships that will fulfil the role of determining or over-determining it.”

For this reason contemporary social work education requires knowledge about the current context (social, political and economic system) in order to have a comprehensive understanding of reality; furthermore, it must have theoretical elements, both to analyse the social reality and to trigger social change (sociological, anthropological, psychological and communication theories), taking into account methodological elements that support their professional interventions and are completed with processes that build the individual and collective social subjects, based on knowledge, to design proposals to irritate the dominant social processes of reality and trigger processes to change the problem-situation, in the social organisation and/or in the social processes or interrelationships.

This should not be viewed as an accumulation of knowledge, but as the development of the critical and reflective capability of our professionals, i.e., under an educational concept that,

“it is not just the content of specific disciplinary information, how correctly or incorrectly it is being communicated in a good or bad way to a person undergoing a learning process, but it also refers to the logic of reasoning.”
(Zemelman, 2002, p.26).

The education of our professionals will have to be based on the clear conceptualisation of contemporary social work; we believe, hence, that “a prime objective is to provoke an extensive discussion about discipline and profession, educational objectives, recovering the theoretical-methodological production specific to Social Work” (Ornelas &Tello, 2013, p.131). Therefore, it is essential to define the specificity of social work and learn to discuss the different perspectives; however, no concessions should be made to unstructured, inconsistent and incoherent social work discourses. This requires having a critical vision to analyse the paradigms of social work education, to propose alternative outlooks and to build, today, a desirable future for our discipline/profession.