Site Search

Introduction to Anti-Oppressive Practice: Challenges for Social Work


Steven F. Hick
Carleton University



This Special Edition of Critical Social Work is a collection of papers from the Annual conference (2002) of the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work held in Toronto. The theme of the conference was “Anti-Oppressive Practice and Global Transformation: Challenges for Social Work and Social Welfare”. The papers presented here explore how the conceptual ideas of anti-oppressive practice can contribute to social work practice at the individual, community and societal levels. They examine the social work profession from two angles: first, what can social workers do to challenge oppression, and secondly, how do social workers inadvertently perpetuate the oppression of people. Clearly, social workers must not only explore new theories and methods to improve anti-oppressive practice, but we must critically examine the work that we may be doing that contributes further to the oppression of the people we intend to help.

Anti-oppressive practice does not comprise an established and traditional mode. It is innovative, evolving and contentious. This Special Edition captures this ground-breaking character of anti-oppressive ideas, presenting a wide range of topics and approaches, ranging from the use of poetry and creativity in breaking free of the traditional moulds of practice, to the lessons learned from demonstrating at the G8 Summit in Quebec. Even with the variety of perspectives and views, the papers pursue the single-minded goal of how to practice social work, or critically examine social work, such that it confronts oppression.

For me, anti-oppression is more than just combining a bunch of categories of oppressions into one whole. An anti-oppressive stance goes beyond categorizations. Classifying oneself and others, and being classified, can be viewed as central to oppressive relations of ruling. It is a way of linking our lived experience with the categories and discourse of the relations of ruling. The papers here illustrate the need to move beyond categories of oppression to uncover how it is that we are oppressed. The first five papers explore innovative theories and methods toward social work practice that bridge the ‘isms’ and equip us to act against oppression. The last two papers look at the profession critically, examining how our work can contribute to, and perpetuate oppression.

Much of social work in Canada seems to work out of an imagined and idealized space of “neutrality”, according to Suzanne Dudziak. She believes that the profession has deluded itself into thinking that it is possible to bring about social change without action on its behalf. In her paper, Dudziak highlights the importance of recognizing that society needs changing if oppression is to be confronted, and how our notions of professionalism and fears around conflict can impede action to challenge oppressive relations and structures.

Suzanne Dudziak, in reflecting on her experience at the G8 Summit in Quebec discusses three ways to overcome this. The first concerns the need to reconnect notions of the political with the social. She suggests that this can be done by integrating citizenship into our notions of professionalism as social workers and by making the creating of ‘community’ as a vehicle for mediating, resisting and transforming micro-macro relations. Lastly, in challenging the myth of self-reliance, she poses the possibility of a situated praxis that links communities in solidarity as one strategy for attending to both the global and the local. In her view, the challenge for social work in this century will be about seeing and anticipating the global in the local. She concludes that a shift in consciousness is required.

It is Dudziak’s view that a major stumbling block to living out a critical praxis lies in a fear of conflict. The social construction of “critical” as “negative”, which is seen to lead inevitably to “conflict” in practice, serves to reinforce a dominant self-image in the profession as “positive” and “caring” helpers, peacemakers and problem-solvers. An acceptance and understanding of conflict, on the other hand, as a complex human dynamic and part of the reality of an unjust world can open avenues for constructing new social relations, according to Dudziak.

In her paper, Charmaine Williams proposes a framework that can equip social workers to act to challenge oppression. She builds a rationale for anti-oppressive action in the mental health care system that is focused on anti-racist change. The paper contends that the notion of equity and social justice provides a framework to help social workers avoid the “hierarchy of oppressions” which conceptualizes the “isms” through a single axis. She argues that lived experience involves simultaneous activation of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas.

Using anti-racism practice in the mental health system as an example, Williams explores how priorities for action can be established that may result in multi-pronged efforts that transform the system to redress inequities experienced across multiple identity categories. The paper demonstrates that an achievable goal for social work is to be able to articulate and substantiate claims that systemic oppression affects service delivery, and has particular consequences for specific populations. She believes that the promise of anti-oppressive practice is that it prioritizes considerations of equity and social justice across a wide range of social difference.

Using poetry, Si Transken explores how social workers can use cultural studies to reclaim and ‘reknow’ the flows of knowledge necessary to be able to resist oppression. As social work professors and activists we become healthier, more integrated, more effective (and better role models) when we are in touch with multidisciplinarity and multigenre-ing (i.e. our creativity), according to Transken. Creativity is explored as a way of authentically experiencing the chaos and possibility of the world and empower us to change it. She summarizes how the social work profession is strengthened by welcoming the breakdown of boundaries (or Genre-Jumping) between all the “ism” bodies of knowledge, and the role of creativity is helping us do this.

Bill Lee, Susan McGrath, Ken Moffatt and Usha George explore the notion of identity categories from a different perspective. They report on a study where community workers from four diverse communities were interviewed. The study explores the experience of the community practitioner who is an "insider" (experiencing the oppression her/himself) and how these individuals perceive their work and the meaning it has for them. They found that the insider role has an important function both in terms of defining the nature of community work practices and in terms of the community practitioner's sense of self. There research found that community workers believe that the ability to function in the community was in part related to the fact that they had many of the same experiences as those whom it was their responsibility to serve. They found that personal connections with the community meant that the work had a special meaning for the practitioners.

Both the Lee, McGrath, Moffatt and George study and the Williams study illustrate the importance of understanding the actual lived experience of people when challenging oppression. Clearly an ‘insiders’ perspective provides important insights into the experience of oppression. But, Williams’s discussion points out that practitioners need the ability to examine lived experience in multiple areas or across multiple axes of oppression.

Alice Home examines how oppression can remain hidden by exploring gender-based oppression experienced by mothers caring for children with disabilities. Examples are drawn from three exploratory studies of role quality and supports, reported by mothers caring for children with disabilities. Findings from the studies illustrate some complexities of the oppression experienced by mothers of children with disabilities. Oppression for Home, refers to denial of a groups right to full participation in society, through undervaluing the group and limiting its access to power and resources. Home’s review of the literature illustrates how mothers caring for children with disabilities are largely ignored in policy and practice. Their gender-based oppression is often hidden even from themselves, perhaps because the impact of disability is minimised by families “if it only limits the mother”. In addition, professionals and the community were found to be taking mothers’ constant availability for granted, while holding them responsible for conditions they cannot control.

Looking at the oppression of another group in Canadian society, Wesley Crichlow examines how the child welfare system oppressed Canada’s First Nations. The purpose of Wesley Crichlow’s paper is to bring to the attention of practising social workers, how Canada’s child welfare system as one of the colonial exploits has acculturated and assimilated Native people with a new disease. He views the Canadian child welfare system as reflecting white dominant mainstream ideas and ideals that have historically been used on Aboriginal peoples in ways that conflict with, and are inconsistent with Aboriginal people’s values and family traditions. By invoking a disease analogy of Western Colonization and by extension Canada’s child welfare system, Crichlow argues that the child welfare system aided in the maintenance of the western colonization disease against Aboriginal people.

The papers by Home and Crichlow present critical challenges for the social work profession. In both cases, social workers have acted, and continue act in ways that perpetuate and reinforce oppression. By ignoring and even assuming the hidden unpaid work of mothers in their caring work, and by placing Aboriginal children in non-aboriginal households, social workers are inadvertently contributing to oppression.

Anti-oppression practice as explored in this Special Edition has raised important considerations for the social work practitioner. Doing anti-oppressive work that is in the best interests of the people we work with, pushes us to explore how the organizations in which we practice may perpetuate and organize oppression. In addition, new ways of conceptualizing oppression from a multi-axis standpoint may be necessary to avoid categorizing or inscribing people into the institutional categories and processes that underpin oppression in our society.



[Return to top]