Social Work Ethics: Using Theatre to Enhance Judgement
Ethical practice is not a matter of rule following; the art of ethical judgement is more subtle and complex. Ethical deliberation is not the inculcation of rules to be followed by practitioners but should be seen as a critical and thought-provoking process that questions moralising rules and examines assumptions and values. Drama is an approach to help students explore and examine ethics in professional practice. Dramatic forms have the potential to capture and represent ethical issues that are often missed or ignored in traditional pedagogic practice. We will outline the development and delivery of an ethics skills workshop for final year social work students that employed strategies from theatre to identify and explore ethical issues in practice.
Social Workers in England are expected to engage in ethical reasoning, reflect on their values, and recognise conflicting values and ethical dilemmas. (Health and Care Professions Council 2016) However, while professional codes provide support in ethical deliberation they are: ‘...not designed to provide a detailed set of rules about how social workers should act in specific situations or practice guidance. Rather... the aim is to encourage ...[practitioners]... to reflect on the challenges and dilemmas that face them and make ethically informed decisions.’ (BASW 2012:5) Ethical reasoning involves recognising and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives and exploring one’s own ethical commitments and assumptions. This process, though, is challenging because: ‘Ethical ideas, principles and emotions can buttress each other and they can also come into conflict... and they can often make us feel uncomfortable in the knowledge that, while we’ve done our best in that situation, we would have liked to do better.’ (Evans and Hardy 2017:5)
Ethical decision-making, then, is demanding because it involves recognising different perspectives and balancing potentially conflicting principles to manage complex situations. Our ethical commitments are something to which we are strongly attached — we feel them strongly, without necessarily understanding the basis of these commitments and being able to articulate them clearly.
Using Theatre To Enhance Judgment
Ethical decisions infuse the day to day encounters of social work practice. Theatre as a collective practice can recreate something of the character of these encounters and, in doing so, enable participants to recognise and explore the ethical challenges they faced. Furthermore, drama engages understanding in a rich and broad sense. It can convey and help us understand not just cognitively but viscerally and link with knowledge in practice. This is important because professional know-how is not only contained in formal knowledge in statements but also activity dependent concepts — that is ‘...concepts the grasp of which depends on your activities on and with things, including the actives of perceptually attending to things’ (Luntley 2011: 24).
It can also be helpful to see professional practice through the lens of drama – as a process of improvisation. We might link this to Goffman’s understanding of the dramaturgical problems which people negotiate in everyday life (1990) and the creative extemporization which we all engage in within social settings and use this framework to support reflexive learning and develop insights into practice.
As an inter-disciplinary partnership, we wanted to draw on both our areas of expertise – from the nuanced understanding of ethics and the employment of dramatic forms to facilitate experiential learning. We began with an idea that we wanted to provide the students with an embodied experience of ethics which would hopefully help to move them more deeply into their enquiry. We had some fascinating discussions around the different forms available to us – from naturalistic drama which could be employed to re- enact and so re-visit scenes that the social workers had been involved with/witness to through to circus skills such as spinning plates and tightrope walking which might serve to provide a metaphorical container for the work that the social workers may be involved in. We finally settled on Image Theatre as developed by Augusto Boal. We felt this was a useful tool for a number of reasons. Firstly, Image Theatre was conceived as a projective tool that allows participants to reflect on their experiences so the pedagogic aspect was already embedded in the methodology. In Theatre of the Oppressed Boal says: “It is not the place of theatre to show the correct path, but only to offer the means by which all possible paths by be examined” (1985: 141).
Image Theatre is a very accessible form which requires no previous theatre experience. Boal had first used this model to promote literacy and all it requires is a willingness to demonstrate through action and an openness to reflecting critically. Image Theatre is also a ‘poor theatre’ form and did not require any special equipment (very handy when working in an academic environment). Finally, and most significantly, image theatre can work to contain and communicate difficult emotional material. Creating still tableaux of an incident invites participates to identify key elements and to take up a clear attitude in order to effectively demonstrate the scene – e.g. the angry mother, the authoritarian teacher.
On the day we began our work together with inviting participants into a room set-up with a circle of chairs rather than the rows they are used to. We began with an ice-breaker, name game. This built a feeling of trust within the group and we moved on to create a group contract which outlined our code for working together. This included an awareness of the ethical context within which we were working. This was followed by a session which invited the students to reflect on their own ethical perspectives and practices.
After a lunch break we began the session with a practical ‘warm-up’ game which encouraged group members to become familiar with their new environment and experiment with moving their bodies in the space. The group then witnessed a model session facilitated by one of the group leaders. This model coached a group member in the creation of a still image which encapsulated a critical incident which resonated for them. After some discussion around the themes emerging from the modelled session, the group was then divided into smaller groups and each member shared a ‘critical incident’ that resonated with them. Once they had each discussed their experiences with their peers they chose one critical incident to make a tableau. Often in the groups, the tableaux encompassed themes that many of the group members identified with. The group tableaux ranged from the dilemma of working with an elder and her family around a decision to enter a care home to working with an emergency case of an asylum seeker with an autistic child. In each case the group facilitators were struck by the vibrancy of the presentation that had been totally self-directed and also the quality of attention engendered in the rest of the group who observed and offered commentary.
De-roling was very important aspect of the process as some people had become strongly identified with the figure they had been presenting. So, in a circle each person was invited to state their real name and something about themselves e.g. their favourite colour. This helped to bring the performer back to their identity outside the session. This process of distancing serves to allow the participants to begin to process their experience of the work and the themes and emotions that had emerged.
Theatre can help practitioners unearth their ethical scripts and critically explore the role they play in their day-to-day practices. In a post workshop evaluation, we asked participants to identify any impact of the workshop on their practice. Overwhelmingly, their view was that the workshop gave them a strong sense of value pluralism and engaged them in recognising and learning from different perspectives. One person summarised this saying the workshop had allowed participants to consider ‘... the impact that roles, perspectives and positions have in impacting opinions, emotions and then one’s understanding.’ For the participants — and for us as educators – the workshop was a positive experience. The workshop demonstrated that theatre can help practitioners unearth their ethical scripts and critically explore the role they play in their day-to-day practices.
Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
British Association of Social Workers (2012). The Code of Ethics for Social Work. Available at: cdn.basw.co.uk
Evans, T. and Hardy, M. (2017). ‘The ethics of practical reasoning— exploring the terrain’. European Journal of Social Work. Available at: tandfonline.com
Goffman, E. (1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Health and Care Professions Council (2016). Standards of conduct, performance and ethics. Available at: hcpc-uk.org
Luntley, M. (2011). ‘What do nurses know?’ Nursing Philosophy, 12: 22–33