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Social Work and the Colonization of the Life-World


Richard Pozzuto, PhD
Associate Professor
School of Social Work
College of Human Ecology
East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina, United States

Paul Dezendorf, PhD
Visiting Assistant Professor
Western Carolina University
Cullowhee, North Carolina, United States

Margaret Arnd-Caddigan, PhD
Assistant Professor
School of Social Work
College of Human Ecology
East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina, United States




This paper examines the effect of technical-rational social work practice upon the lived experience of recipients. The authors explore the influence of technical-rational practice upon the creation of reality from a social constructionist perspective. Kondrat’s (1992) argument for the construction of professional knowledge independent of a technical-rational approach and Rosen’s (1994) response provide a path into the material. The differences between the two views are explored by means of a discussion of theories of language and reality as well as the contrasting worldviews found in comparing existential versus behavioral approaches and strengths perspective versus cognitive-behavioral approaches to social work. The emphasis upon a technical-rational practice is identified as an element in the deformation of the symbolic structure of the life-world.

Kondrat's Professional Knowledge Argument

In 1992, Mary Ellen Kondrat published an article entitled "Reclaiming the practical: Formal and substantive rationality in social work practice," in which she drew heavily from the works of Jugren Habermas (1972), Michael Polanyi (1962), and Donald Schon (1983). She presented an argument for the construction of professional knowledge that was independent of the technical-rational approach as described by Schon (1983). She suggested, among other things, that the truth claims for professional knowledge resulted from methods of authentication not found in the technical-rational approach (p. 237). Kondrat summarized her approach to authentication of professional knowledge as follows, "The starting point for inquiry about practice knowledge should be the empirical question: How does the competent practitioner go about knowing 'in' practice?" (p. 237).

Kondrat's (1992) argued that "When the practice world is viewed primarily as a derivative of the technical, servicing its research needs and providing a market for its products, the metaphor evoked is one of colonization." (p. 251). Such colonization strongly influences the practitioner's and client's 'life-world"' (Husserl, 1970) – the realm in which they live, experience, and perceive – and contributes to the deformation of that world beyond the practitioner and client. Social work theory production and the subsequent practice based on a technical-rational approach leads to the colonization of the life-world and "has arguably been a contributory mechanism in the creation of precisely many of those socially problematic circumstances that social work sets out to address" (Penna, 2004).

Fundamental Basis for Theory

In order to understand the preceding one must understand Schon’s (1983) distinction between technical-rational knowledge and reflective knowledge. According to Schon, technical-rational knowledge is applied science. That is, it is the application of empirically validated grand theoretical claims. By definition, these techniques can be applied across situations regardless of context.

In distinction to technical-rational theory Schon (1983) suggested that there is an alternate way of knowing, which he termed reflective knowledge, or knowledge-in-action. This is an inductively derived knowledge in which the knower interacts in a specific context to formulate ad hoc theories that guide the unfolding of activity. Sometimes this knowledge can be articulated and sometimes elements of it are tacit (Polanyi, 1962) and can be seen from action but remain unarticulated. Schon suggested that this method is akin to artistry, and is used by professionals such as architects, as well professionals who interact intimately with others such as teachers and social workers.

Schon (1983) was concerned that human service practice based upon the technical-rational perspective might unintentionally harm clients as the practitioner attempts to carry out the role of 'expert' based on the application of technical-rational knowledge. He suggested that, fully understood, 'technical' expertise is embedded in a context of meanings requiring a reflective conversation with clients -- his 'reflective practitioner'.

Schon (1983) developed his understanding based on Habermas’s (1972) perspective articulated in Knowledge and Human Interest. The categories used by both Schon and Habermas correspond to the two fundamental streams of modern social theory; those focused upon social integration and those focused upon systems integration (Offe, 1984). What constitutes practice knowledge ultimately has to do with the conceptualization of the nature of reality as reflected in those two streams as can be seen in the differences between existential and behavioral approaches and between a strengths perspective and a cognitive-behavioral approach.

Schon's (1983) categories of technical-rational and reflective practices correspond respectively to Habermas' (1972) categories of an empirical-analytic theory and the combined categories of historical-hermeneutic theory and critical theory. These categories represent different cognitive interests and, as stated above, correspond to the two fundamental streams of modern social theory: systems integration and social integration respectively (Offe, 1984).

Social integration theory refers to the understanding of the coordinated activities of social actors (Habermas, 1975). These activities are based on tradition and cultural consensus. For example, in the United States automobile drivers navigate along the right side of the street. This is so because a rule was set and agreed upon, and later enforced by social structures. Likewise, drivers agree to stop when traffic lights are red, and proceed when they are green. These are social conventions; they are culturally dependent. While there may be a need for clarification of misunderstandings along the way and refinement of actions, ultimately all is potentially knowable to the actors involved. From this perspective the social world is not an object but a process. As a process it does not stand still to be investigated and its investigation becomes incorporated into the process. Social integration theory explores the purposeful actions of people which are derived from shared meaning and values governing social life. The meaning of the actions and traditions that guide those actions are only knowable 'internally,' that is with knowledge of the cultural system. Without reference to the meaning and values, the intent, purpose, and rationale of the action is invisible.

Systems integration, on the other hand, results from the consequences of social actions. The consequences of these actions may not, and frequently are not, intended, desired, or even know by the social actors (Habermas, 1975). While systems integration usually refers to the polity or economic system, a heuristic example in keeping with the traffic metaphor may be instructive. When a driver on a crowded highway slows to look at scenery, the act of slowing will have the unintended consequences of slightly slowing the car behind him or her and in turn the following cars. The result of a small number of drivers slowing, initially to view the scenery and then as a result of the preceding car slowing, may be a slowdown of the entire traffic stream which is far beyond the intent of the drivers. It is in this case an unintended consequence of behaviors that are spatially related but do not share logically connected meaning systems; the consequence is not a purposeful act.

In the example above, the consequence seems independent of the drivers and appear thing-like, 'social facts' in Durkheim's terminology (1972). That is, the consequence seems to follow a set of laws that can, upon close inspection, be deduced. These “laws” might be generalized to other situations, and applied to predict and control. Continuing with the traffic metaphor, civil engineers might decide that in order to keep traffic moving on newly constructed expressways they must construct barricades to obstruct the vista. It must be immediately noted here that while these events appear to have rule-like qualities, they are in fact externalizations of human activity that have become elements in a common world (Berger and Luckmann, 1967).

Habermas (1972) identified two approaches to knowledge production corresponding to social and system integration. These are the empirical-analytic approach corresponding to the natural sciences and systems integration and the historical-hermeneutic approach corresponding to the social integration and the cultural sciences. The concern of the empirical-analytical sciences is with recurring events that appear to operate with the regularity of a ‘law.’ The validity of knowledge derived from empirical-analytical knowledge is determined by the degree to which the sciences are able to predict and/or control the outcome. Further, the goal of the empirical-analytic sciences is technically exploitable knowledge (Habermas, 1972) and the object domain is 'facts' which are constituted under the methodological requirements of controlled observation and measurement (Schroyer, 1975). This approach is what some social work scholars, including Rosen (1994), term ‘science.’

The historical-hermeneutic approach of the cultural sciences is concerned with arriving at a mutual understanding through symbolic interactions, usually ordinary language. The object domain is meaning, not facts, and the goal is the coordination of purposeful human actions. While values are excluded from the empirical-analytic sciences, the consideration of and mutual understanding of values in social life is a focus of the cultural sciences (Habermas, 1972).

All this is well and good but the boundary between the intentional acts of social integration and the actions of systems integration is porous. Berger and Luckmann (1967) suggested that social reality, while often perceived as an 'objective reality,' actually results from the externalization of human actions. Within different historical and cultural settings, the linkage between particular human acts and the resulting 'objective reality' is more or less apparent. To the degree that it is apparent, the social reality loses it's objective status and becomes amenable to purposeful actions. The creation of this transparency is the goal of Habermas's (1972) critical theory.

Putting these ideas together, one may determine that Habermas (1972) suggested that there are three types of theoretical approaches to understanding the world. Empirical-analytic theory is used to study systems integration. This type of theory helps one to determine the ‘law-like’ regularity of events in an effort to predict and control. Historical-hermeneutic theory is employed to help understand social meaning and social integration. Critical theory is used to deconstruct the ‘law-like’ regularity of social events, and reveals that those events are indeed the result of human activity thus providing the possibility for other forms of social organization. Combining critical theory with historical-hermeneutic theory, one may come to understand both the meaning of social actions as well as the contextualized nature of consequences. Technical-rational knowledge is application of empirical-analytic theory, and reflective knowledge requires the use of critical and historical-hermeneutic theory.

Critique of Kondrat by Rosen

Following Kondrat's (1992) argument for construction of professional knowledge that was independent of the technical rational approach, she was challenged by critics such as Rosen (1994) who wrote:
While there are a number of methods of coping with the ideographic-normative knowledge dilemmas, there are modes of coping that are professionally inappropriate, because they involve replacement of scientifically based knowledge with other kinds of considerations.
One such attempted resolution of the idiographic-normative dilemmas is reflected in fundamental challenges to the relevance of scientific knowledge to clinical practice. The uncertainty and the limited generalizability to an individual client of scientifically derived practice guidelines are used as reasons for categorical dismissal of the relevancy of research knowledge to practice and for justifying as extra-scientific status of practice knowledge. (p. 563)
Rosen cites, as apparent examples, Rein and White (1981), Schon (1983), and Kondrat. Rosen understood his perspective to be quite different from that of the authors cited. Our interest is focused on the comparison with Kondrat.

Kondrat (1992) and Rosen (1994) apparently do not share a common intellectual background and, while Rosen addressed Kondrat's work in his writing, there appears to be limited intellectual engagement. As shown in the discussion above, Kondrat drew upon traditions that recognize multiple sciences and a variety of methodological approaches rather than a single science and methodological approach. Kondrat’s position allows for differing forms of knowledge, as well. Rosen's approach implies a single scientific method, a narrow understanding of science, and a single valid form of knowledge. His approach thus appears to be in line with the logical-positivist world view. He confirmed his allegiances to the logical-positivist paradigm when he stated in a latter work: "In social work, logical positivism and its kindred epistemological derivatives were challenged as inappropriate models for research and knowledge generation generally and in particular” (Rosen, 2003 p. 198).

Rosen (2003) took exception to the possibility of understanding knowledge differently from the logical positivist perspective. As challengers to this position he cited Davis (1985), Gergen (1985), Heineman (1981), Karger (1983), Kondrat, (1992), Peile (1988), Rodwell (1998), and Witkin (1998). This expands Rosen’s opponents while keep Kondrat among the list.

The consequence of following Rosen’s (1994, 2003) perspective is to categorize, using Habermas’s (1972) language, the understanding and modification of human actions as a systems integration issue. Rosen believed that the objective, outside observer, devoid of applicable contextual understanding, can accurately describe and explain human actions. However, this approach appears to eliminate from humans that which makes them human: agency, intellect, intention, compassion, and imagination; to name a few elements.

Rosen (1994) did not limit his critique to Kondrat's (1992) suggestion that there are at least two forms of knowledge with their own criteria for truth. As noted above, he expanded his criticisms to Gergen (1999, 2003) and Rodwell (1998) who focused on theory, methodology, knowledge, and for that matter, reality as a social construction. These latter perspectives are at strong variance with logical positivism.

Theories of Language and Truth

Some of the basis for the differences between Rosen (1994) and Kondrat (1992) may be found in the differing perspectives of logical positivists and social constructionists regarding theories of language and truth. Logical positivists assume a correspondence theory of language. From this perspective, language is assumed to be neutral, corresponding or reflecting the objects of an independently existing world (Rorty, 1979). A word or concept corresponds to an object in the world and language is adjusted to the content of the world. Concepts, and hence language, are seen to be a derivative of an objective reality existing independently of the knower. That view is very similar to the 'doctrine of physicalism' developed by Otto Neurath and the Vienna Circle (Sarkar, 1996). The Vienna Circle claimed that all sciences shared a common language and suggested that all scientific terms could be reduced to a set of basic statements, or 'protocol' sentences, describing immediate experience or perception. This belief suggests a unity and singularity to a scientific method; Rosen (1994, 2003) appears to be a latter day adherent to the perspective.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1966), often considered the founder of modern linguistics, suggested another theoretical approach. As opposed to correspondence, Saussure suggested the arbitrary nature of the sign as a fundamental principle. For Saussure, the term 'sign' is more inclusive than the terms 'word' or even 'concept’ but that distinction is beyond the current need. For example, the concept of 'tree' in English and French are expressed by different sounds, arbre vs. tree. The sounds produced by the words 'arbre' and 'tree' are arbitrarily link to that which we understand as a tree. Any other sound would do as well provided it is socially agreed upon.

Going further, Saussure (1966) suggested that the link between the concept and 'objective reality' is also arbitrary. Languages do not use equivalent concepts but are still able to adequately describe reality. Culler (1986) makes the point this way:
It is obvious that the sound sequences of fleuve and riviere are signifiers of French but not of English, whereas river and stream are English but not French. Less obvious, but more significantly, the organization of the conceptual plane is also different in English and French. The signified "river" is opposed to "stream" solely in terms of size, whereas a "fleuve" differs from a "riviere" not because it is necessarily larger but because it flows into the sea, while a "riviere" does not. In short, "fleuve" and "riviere" are not signified or concepts of English. They represent a different articulation of the conceptual plane. (p. 33-34)
As illustrated, the English and French languages divide reality in a different manner and that reality does not include the neat divisions into categories as a correspondence theory of language suggests. This being the case, the neutrality and transparency of language is highly questionable.

For a correspondence theory of language, relevance is derived from the fit of language to reality. If, as Saussure (1966) suggested, language does not fit into pre-existing divisions of reality, how does it derive relevance and meaning? In short, Saussuer's answer is that language is a system. Meaning and relevance are derived from the system and the relation of words within the system. Thus a word has meaning and relevance in relation to other words. Going one step further with this perspective, it is assumed that reality exists but a particular organization of reality is dependent on language. As humans use language in thinking about reality and as we use language in conveying our thoughts to others we both define and create reality. The extension of this thesis is that the knower and the known cannot be separated.

Bergen & Luckmann's Reality

Bergen and Luckmann's (1967) work The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge argues, "reality is socially constructed and . . . the sociology of knowledge must analyze the process in which this occurs" (p. 1). Further, they define reality as "a quality appertaining to phenomena that we recognize as having a being independent of our own volition (we cannot 'wish them away')..." and they define knowledge as "...the certainty that phenomena are related and that they possess specific characteristics" (p. 1). Further, the sociology of knowledge is justified by the "observable differences between societies in terms of what is taken for granted as 'knowledge' in them" (p. 3) and that a sociology of knowledge must also study the processes by which a body of "knowledge" comes to be taken as "reality." They stated:
It is our contention, then, that the sociology of knowledge must concern itself with whatever passes for 'knowledge' in a society, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidly (by whatever criteria) of such 'knowledge.' And insofar as all human 'knowledge' is developed, transmitted, and maintained in social situations, the sociology of knowledge must seek to understand three processes by which this is done in such a way that a taken-for-granted 'reality' congeals for the man in the street. In other words, we content that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with the social construction of reality. (p. 3)
The concern here is not the sociology of knowledge but the social construction of reality. Reality is not constructed ex nihilo but rather constructed from something. It is the form, the organization, and the 'something' that becomes our concern. The context of our everyday life, the social context in which we live, is socially constructed and that construction both guides and is guided by our knowledge. To quote W.I. Thomas, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (Thomas, 1923 p. 572).

Kondrat (1992) and Rosen (1994) are part of continuing discussion that ultimately has to do with the nature of reality. From a social constructionist perspective, the dispute is part of the construction of reality and it forms, in part, the 'situation' of our life. Rosen, on the other hand, focuses on the discovery of an already existing, objective reality. He does not indicate a concern with the continual process of the creation of reality and hence does not see his actions as part of the construction of reality. The de facto result of actions guided by the perspective that Rosen supports is the creation of a social reality reflecting the logic of his methodological perspective. In other words, adoption of that perspective tends to change the reality of practitioner and client in such a way that the technical-rational is introduced; such an invasive process that changes the reality of both is a form of 'colonization of the life-world,' with all the implications of occupation of a people by a foreign power.

The Life-World Concept

"Life-world" is a concept that is generally attributed to Husserl (1970) and frequently illustrated by his statement, "To live is always to live-in-certainty-of-the-world...being consciously and directly 'conscious' of the world and of oneself as a living in the world, actually experiencing and actually effecting the ontic certainty of the world" (p. 142). The concept is strongly linked to the phenomenological perspective. The life-world is the world in which we live, experience, perceive; the life-world is both understandable and enigmatic. The term is further developed by Gurwitsch (1966) who added that the life-world is "the world in which we pursue our goals and objectives, the world as the scene of all human activities" (p. 120).

The life-world is the world into which we are born (Schutz and Luckmann, 1973). It predates us and assists in structuring our understanding of it. The life-world includes our co-existence with others (Ortega y Gasset, 1975) and, as such, it is more than the action of our will; the life-world is the constantly changing situation of our own self--our thoughts and perceptions-- in relation to others (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Another phrase for life-world might be "lived culture" or the playing out of culture with its meaning systems in the form of actions of concrete individuals in the course of their lives.

This is not to imply that the life-world is a simple replaying of a cultural tradition. Humans have the ability both to be aware of their surrounding, the life-world, and of themselves (Mead, 1934; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Husserl, 1970; Schutz & Luckmann, 1973). This ability allows individuals to 'step back,' creating a distance and perspective for seeing themselves in the world. Such a distancing process provides a choice for the individual. He or she may act as he or she has in the past or he or she can choose to act differently; such acts are a reflective process (Mead, 1934; Blumer, 1969). The action, though, is always within the context of the life-world and is part of the process of the continuing creation of the life-world.

Differing Perspectives in Social Work

Kondrat's (1992) argument can be carried further in examining the foundation of practice knowledge. Different types of questions by practitioners call upon different forms of knowledge and raise the question of what happens when one replaces one type of question for another; what happens when one applies technical-rational knowledge to practical questions?

For example, "How do you travel from New York to Los Angeles?" is a technical question, the answer to which may identify alternatives among highways, airports, or train terminals. All are correct. Automobiles, airplanes and trains can get one from New York to Los Angeles. The question "What is the best way to travel from New York to Los Angeles?" is a question of a different nature. The answer depends on preferences, e.g. speed, cost, scenery, cultural experiences, etc. It is a practical question. The answer is dependent on values and cannot be derived from a technical-rational approach. The values, however, may be hidden; assumed may be a better word. If one asks abut traveling from New York to Los Angeles a likely answer is to fly. This assumes time to be an important concern. It also assumes time to be such a universal concern that other potential concerns are ignored. When this occurs a practical question is interpreted and answered as a technical question.

The technical and the practical are two different approaches to knowledge with true answers being acquired in different ways. The questions are not reducible to one another. In Kondrat's (1992) terms, practical knowledge is not a derivative of technical knowledge.

If we look at social work practice in mental health, we find practice approaches that are based on a practical perspective and others that are based on a technical-rational perspective. The differences between the technical-rationale perspective and the practical perspective are well illustrated, at the extremes, by the differences between existential versus behavioral approaches and, in more moderation, between the strengths perspective versus cognitive-behavioral approaches in psychotherapy.

According to Horowitz (1991), the core of the casework relationship rests on existential themes that he identified as the search for meaning, hope, integration, purpose, faith, and self-worth. Drawing upon existential philosophers, Yalom (1980) argued that humans require meaning (p. 422) and that meaning cannot be found or discovered. Meaning is created or constituted by humans. Sartre (1956) used the notion of "bad-faith" to explain that people are free and can be conscious of being free but that they frequently try to avoid the consciousness of their own freedom. For existentialists the meaning of life is not independent of the individual since meaning is constituted and not a product of the world alone. Accordingly, a core issue in existential therapy is the tension been the need for meaning and its non-existence apart from humans themselves.

For the behaviorist, the world is quite different. Behavioral approaches assume that all behavior is learned. This learning occurs by way of respondent or operant conditioning. Problematic behaviors – consolidating into emotional disorders – are considered to be conditioned responses or habits that can be modified by the same principle of learning that govern all behavior (Speigler and Guevremont, 2003). Bandura (1977) introduced the idea of social learning and added cognitive processes to the learning schema. However, the emphasis of behavioral approaches remains behaviors: acts, habits, or reactions that are observable and measurable (Lazarus, 1997). These behaviors result from learning and can be modified by further learning. This perspective seems to view the individual as an object, acted upon as opposed to authoring thus making the learning experience a technical process.

The issues of responsibility or meaning in the sense that the existentialist applies them are inapplicable or, at best, minimally applicable for the behavioral perspectives. At the same time, the logic of the behavioral approach is quite comparable with the logic Rosen (1994) suggested for scientific inquires, as behaviors are regarded as observable, appear objective, are externally available, and quantifiable. The existential approach, on the other hand, speaks not about increasing or decreasing a behavior but about creating or establishing meaning and, while the result of the meaning may be measurable, the meaning itself does not lend itself to measurement.

A second pair of approaches that can be used to illustrate this discussion is the contrast between the strengths perspective and a cognitive-behavioral approach. Saleeby (1996) noted that the strengths perspective is not a theory but a standpoint, a position from which things are viewed. The standpoint does contain sets of beliefs that guide the conceptualization and interactions with clients similar to that of a theory. In Saleebey's words, "...its (strengths perspective) emerging body of principles and methods does create opportunities for professional knowing and doing that go beyond the boundaries of the ‘technical-rational’ approach (Schon, 1983) so common today" (p. 303).

The strengths perspective draws heavily upon Rosaldo's (1989) work that emphasizes that truth can not be separated from culture, that cultures and, hence, truth change over time. Also, that meanings sustained over time by cultures are generally expressed in stories, narratives, and myths. Like the existential perspective, the strengths perspective suggests a quest for meaning rather than truth. Also, like the existential perspective, the individual gives or constitutes meaning in the world. Unlike the existential perspective, however, the constituting process in the strengths perspective is more social in nature.

Noting that words have power, Saleebey (1997) offered a lexicon of strengths. The lexicon includes the terms empowerment, membership, resilience, healing and wholeness, dialogue and collaboration, and suspension of disbelief. In relation to dialogue and membership Saleebey stated:
Humans can only come into being through a creative emergent relationship with others. Without such transactions, there can be no discovery and testing of one's powers, no knowledge, no heightening of one's awareness and internal strengths. In dialogue, we confirm the importance of others and begin to heal the rift between self, other, and institution. (p. 10)
Saleebey asserted here that humans are necessarily social beings. The social world, for humans, is a place of birth, growth, development, and healing. The exchanges within this world occur in terms of cultural truths. Within this context, the context of meanings, the social worker engages the client. It is the membership in the community of dialogue that offers individuals a sense of belonging, security, and relevance.

A cognitive-behavior perspective is quite different. While there are at least twenty different approaches that have been labeled cognitive behavioral (Dattilio and Padesky, 1990), they are all based on a structured psychoeducational model (Corey, 2004). Ellis's (1999) rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is an early contribution. Ellis suggested that inefficient and potentially harmful responses result from irrational interpretation that in turn result from irrational thought processes. The therapy process given Ellis’s perspective involves learning skills to identify and dispute irrational beliefs and the resulting interpretations. For this process, the therapist acts much like a teacher assisting in an educational process. In the strengths perspective, truth and rationality are bound within a culture. They are human products subject to change and modifications. In contrast, Ellis (1999) has the therapist assume expertise in identifying rational and irrational thought as if these qualities, rational and irrational, are stable and independent of cultural context. The perspective is based upon a presumed universal of rational thought. At this level Ellis’s work reveals a technical-rational underpinning.

More specifically, Ellis (1999) asserted that clients often mistake desires for love, approval, and success as dire needs. How can one draw this distinction? It is relatively easy to see basic biological needs such as food and air. No meaning structures change these needs though the meaning structures may change human practices regarding food and air, the significance given to each, and the understanding of both. Love, approval and success are social categories. They both involve other people and are socially constructed. Their meaning is culture bound and historically specific; they change over time. Unless one assumes love, approval, and success to be categories of the same nature as food and air, it is quite difficult to differentiate between desires and needs.

Practitioners of the strengths perspective are likely to contend that what is understood as love, approval and success are culturally bound. In addition, strengths perspective proponents are likely to suggest that human social needs are not universal and vary from one culture to another. Saleebey (1996) identified the strengths perspective as part of a constructionist. From this perspective the categorization of reality and understanding of it are both human constructions. Ellis (1999), on the other hand, seems to have attributed, if not a fixed nature to humans, at least an objective, external approach for knowing a world independent of the knower. While the practitioners of a strength perspective are interested in the creation of the social world, Ellis focused on fitting the individuals to an existing world. Therapy from Ellis' perspective is a technical task of identifying and changing irrational beliefs and resulting behaviors.

Colonization of the Life-world

“It is difficult to distinguish colonization from infection” (Furman, Rayner et al. 2004). In microbiology, 'colonization' includes the idea of a multiplication of a microorganism after it has attached itself to host tissues or more simply, to migrate to and settle in a new setting. Of course, our concern is not medical conditions or microbiology. Our concern is the life-world which, borrowing from Gurwitsch (1966), we understand as "the world in which we pursue our goals and objectives, the world as the scene of all human activities" (p. 120). We create our goals and objectives and pursue them in terms of how we understand the world. Bruner (1986, 1990) suggested that each of us has at least an implicit theory of action; an understanding of the world. In Acts of Meaning he referred to this as a folk psychology. It is more that a psychology in that it ‘explains’ both individual and social phenomena. It is a form of theory, held as a narrative, which provides the content and coherence to the life-world. It is derived from the processes of social life. How can this be colonized?

We have argued that social life is largely a life of meanings. Meaning, as Kondrat (1992) contended, is not within the domain of a technical-rational approach to knowledge. Also, we have argued that the life-world is socially constructed; a person's systems of meaning gives rise to social action that becomes the stuff of the social world. A technical-rational approach can be employed as a system of meaning. That approach, that mentality, that folk epistemology, now has migrated to the realm of meaning by way of practices such as behaviorism and cognitive-behavioral perspectives. Rosen (1994) illustrated the problems inherent in the application of the technical-rational approach to the realm of meanings and purposeful actions. However, behaviorism or cognitive-behavioral perspectives are only a small part of the colonization. There is a worldview beneath these perspectives that has significantly imposed itself upon the realm of meanings. That world view has been the subject of numerous critiques: Polanyi (1957), Snow (1959), Marcuse (1964), Marx (1964), Benjamin (1968), Freire (1970), Husserl (1970), Bruner (1986), Habermas (1989), Bruner (1990), Foucault (1991), Hartman (1992), Scott (1998), and Chambon, Irving et al. (1999), to name a few.

Colonization is at heart a question about tomorrow. Levitas (2001) recalled being asked to address a conference regarding social policy. She took this as an opportunity to look into the future. She stated:
There are essentially two ways of doing this. First, and most common, is the method of extrapolation. This involves the identification of key trends in the present and their projection forwards. It is concerned with what is probable, possible, and possibly desirable, moving in small steps from where we are. It remains rooted in the present, and tends to accept as given the major contours of present society, such as the structures of global capitalism, the dominance of paid work, the inequalities of the market. It is, therefore, always as much (re)capitulation as projection and extrapolation. (p. 449)

We contend that this is the application of a technical-rational approach on a social level. As Levitas (2001) stated, it projects the present into the future. She also identified a second approach:

Much less respectable and more radical is the utopian method, which not only allows but enjoins us to think first about where we want to be, and then about how we might get there—depending of course on who ‘we’ are. The utopian method is intrinsically critical
and evaluative. But it is also necessary. As the French sociologist Andre Gorz puts it, “it is the function of utopias, in the sense the term has assumed in the work of Ernst Bloch or Paul Ricoeur, to provide us with the distance from the existing state of affairs which allows us to judge what we are doing in the light of what we could or should do” (Gorz, 1999, p. 113, original emphasis). (p. 450)

In her way, Levitas addressed the creation of a future that is different from the reproduction of the present in the future. This creation requires a different mode of thinking, a different logic, a different knowledge if you like. The same is true with individual lives. A satisfying life is not simply following assumed rules, doing what is expected, doing what has been done. It is a creative activity that brings into existence, within contextual possibility, that which is desired. Effective social work practice is imagining a desired future and moving toward it. This requires a life-world that is not dominated by the migrated logic of a technical-rational approach to the construction of professional knowledge.


A major question for social work, as raised by Kondrat (1992), is to identify how the competent practitioner goes about knowing 'in' practice. Modern practice may be seen as following one of two avenues toward seeking truth and knowledge as described in this discussion. One, following along what Schon (1983) called a "reflective practitioner" approach, follows Habermas's (1972) idea of a historical-hermeneutic approach to knowledge production, and reflects the social integration strain of modern social work theory. The other is described by Schon as a technical-rational approach and follows Habermas's empirical-analytic approach that reflects the systems integration strain of modern social work theory.

Practitioner knowledge should be seen as embedded in a context of meanings, as suggested by Schon's (1983) "reflective practitioner," where multiple sciences and cultural settings exist. The truth of professional knowledge should rest on a foundation of the historical-hermeneutic approach of the cultural sciences where mutual understanding is arrived at through symbolic interactions, usually ordinary language. The object of professional knowledge is meaning, not facts, and the goal of professional knowledge is the coordination of purposeful human actions. While exceptions may exist, the practitioner's ultimate goal is the creation of a set of social relations that provide for a desired state rather than the recreation of an enduring present.

Practitioner knowledge should not be derived from an empirical-analytical science where a single meaning is sought, derived from 'facts' that support a single truth. The logical-positivist philosophy as evident in the technical-rational approach provides a foundation for social work interventions such as behavioral and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. For heuristic purposes, one can view two different levels for psychotherapy practice, be it cognitive-behavioral or otherwise. At one level, psychotherapy consists of interactions between two specific individuals where the interaction is intended to modify some behavior. On another level, psychotherapy is part of the world in which the actors are embedded. The practitioner holds a privileged position in the practice relation and from this position has significant influence in defining the “social reality.” An example is the practitioner’s ability to distinguish what is “normal” and “abnormal.” From this privileged position the practitioner inserts the logic of his or her practice into the life-world of the client.

The distinction between the means of finding truth in practice knowledge is more than a debate about the procedure for documenting a practice intervention or the efficacy of an expanded range of approaches in psychotherapy. Rather, the authors believe that these technical-rational approaches themselves provide systems of meaning that lead to a "colonization of the life-world" where the powers of a dominant society infiltrate and subvert the life-world of both client and practitioner.

Perhaps the point of most concern is that social work practice is only one aspect of an impending domination of a technical-rational perspective upon human activity. We are, of course, not the first to note this. We wonder, though, how much of the ‘pathology’ found in modern society is inherent in the individual and how much is a reflection of the destructive potential inherent in social interactions and social institutions?


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Richard Pozzuto can be reached at

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