Social Work Theory:
In conversation with Malcolm Payne
[Transcript for this podcast is found in the tab below]
Theory is critical to how social work is practised. Malcolm Payne makes this important link in this conversation. He takes us on a fascinating journey from debates about theory to examples from his own practice in hospice care.
Malcolm Payne is a social worker and educator and consultant on end-of-life care and social care, author/co-author of 16 books and more than 300 articles and chapters, co-editor of 11 books, on social work, healthcare and end-of-life care, published in 16 languages and 17 countries. From 2002 to 2012, he was director of psychosocial and spiritual care and policy and development adviser, St Christopher’s Hospice London and, prior to that, Professor and Head of Applied Community Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University. He currently has academic appointments at Kingston University/St George’s University of London, England; Helsinki University Finland; Opole University Poland and Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovakia.
Contact Malcolm Payne through his blogs on social work and end-of-life care, listed on his Google Profile, and follow him on Twitter: @MalcolmPayne.
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Interviewer). (2012, September 13) Social work theory: In conversation with Malcolm Payne [Episode 23]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/social-work-theory/.
Payne, M. (2014). Modern social work theory (4th ed.). Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Transcription: Podsocs 23: Social work theory: In conversation with Malcolm Payne
Thank you to Justine White for this transcription
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Malcolm Payne talks to us today about Social Work Theory.
Trish: Hi Malcolm. Welcome to Podsocs.
Malcolm: Good to speak to you.
Trish: And you’re speaking to us from London?
Malcolm: I live in South London now. This is back to where I was born and brought up. I came here about 10 years ago and for the last 10 years or so I’ve been working with a hospice in South London. I gave up my academic job about 10 years ago.
Trish: We’re going to be talking about theory today. Malcolm how do social workers know what to do when they do social work?
Malcolm: Well I would say that they know what to do because of a whole gamete of things that make them as a person a social worker, and the situation that they’re in. And part of that whole gamete of things is a variety of different kinds of theory which are part of what they learn through their life experience, and through their experience at practice, and through their education.
So, for example, if I see someone at the hospice, well, of course one of the things I know what to do is because that person opposite me across the desk, in the room, asks me about. So they lead the way in terms of what I might be going to do with them, but they’ve got that from a general impression in society about what social workers do. They won’t ask me about their medication, for example. They’ll save that for the doctor. They won’t ask me about their dressings or their pain, because they’ll ask someone else that. They will ask me about their family problems and their emotional problems and so on. So partly it’s led by what their assumptions are and they get that from all sorts of things in society, which tell them what to do.
But how I know how to react to that is partly about me as a human being. I act as me, as Malcolm. And I also act according to the kind of requirements that I know social workers need to operate by in order to do a good job with a client. Do you use the word client in Australia?
Malcolm:You do. So those ideas that tell me what to do come from a load of things. They come partly from my agency. They’ve decided to employ social workers and they’ve decided social workers will do this particular job in the agency. It comes partly from the law and the administrative requirements.
But it also comes from the knowledge and understanding that I get professionally through education and my experience. And that’s where theory comes in.
Trish: So, Malcolm, what is theory? That’s a very broad question (laugh).
Malcolm: (laughs). Well I define it as a generalised set of ideas that describe and explain the world around us in an organised way. So, if you break that kind of sentence up, it’s generalised because it doesn’t relate to just one situation. A theory relates to all sorts of similar situations. It’s a set of ideas. So, it’s not just one idea; it’s a complex of ideas. It tries to explain and organise how we think about a situation, and it’s about the real world. It’s about things which are real. It’s not something that’s just in our minds. So, put all those things together as, you know that’s what I say a theory is. However, there is a lot of debate and there are also divisions about the kinds of theory we talk about in social work.
One important division is between what a guy called Roger Sibian called informal and formal theory. And he calls formal theory, the stuff that’s written down in text-books or in research documents, which is clearly stated and has gone through a process of evaluation in some way; some process of setting it down in a formal way. Informal theory is what we know as of operating in a world in general. And we think we just know this stuff but of course we pick it up as people as we run through life, and sometimes you get caught up with and you suddenly realise that something you took for granted that everybody knows isn’t something that some people don’t know, is something that some people don’t know.
I mean I’ll give you an example. We have an American daughter-in-law and she’s come to England to live and work with our son. She seems to be, as she speaks English, she functions very well, she’s a wonderful person and you think, ‘Oh, well, she’s just like us really,’ but when she went to start working in an office she got put on the making the tea rota and she had to come round to our house for a discussion about how you make tea in the English way and what it means to go on the making tea rota. What time of day you operate. How you go about making people’s tea. And so on and so on. So, this was something an English person would take for granted when you enter an office. You get put on the tea rota. You would know what to do. But she didn’t because she wasn’t part of our strange culture.
So, this kind of informal theory is there but you can’t always assume that people have the same kind of informal theory as you or that they believe the same things as you, and that’s particularly true if you have a lot of different people from different backgrounds, diverse cultures, all that kind of thing. So, there’s formal in informal theory.
And people tend to say, ‘Well, social work, it’s just common sense really, I mean it’s just being nice to people,’ and so on. But it isn’t because as you meet people, you, as a social worker, you need to do specific things with them. You need to ask them difficult questions sometimes. Working in end-of-life care I have to talk to people about dying. About have you planned for your death? Have you planned your funeral? This isn’t a normal conversation. People don’t have those conversations generally. And so, you have to work out a way in which you talk to people about it. Similarly, if I meet one of our patients I don’t say to them, ‘How are you?’ Because they’re ill; they’re dying. They’re very ill. And so, what I tend to say to them is, ‘How is your illness treating you today?’ Because it gives them a chance to talk about the changes in how they feel today, recognising that they are very, very ill and dying.
So, you do acquire all sorts of informal ways of doing things, which actually comes from research into human communication, and how you get difficult issues raised with people, and how you deal with difficult questions when people ask you them, how you deal with anger and how you deal with challenge, and all those kinds of things. There’s research about those kinds of things which we learn about and which we pick up. But we tend to see as our informal knowledge. So formal and informal theory – there are different kinds of theories about social work which are usually identified.
One bout, one lot of theory is about what is social work as compared with say medicine, nursing, being a priest, being a school teacher, being a psychologist, being a counsellor. How is social work different from those things? And I wrote a book about that, have been writing a book about that over the last twenty years or so, and it’s called, ‘What is Professional Social Work?’ So that’s one area of theory. A second area of theory is what modern social work theory is about, my book, and that’s about how to do social work. That’s about practice. These are theories which say, in this situation as a social worker this is what you do. They prescribe practice in some way.
And then there’s another group of theories that Roger Sibian talks about, he calls them Theories of the Client World. And this is all the kinds of ideas from sociology, from social policy, from the law, from psychology which tell you things about how human being are, how human society is organised and so on. What that tells you is what the situation is that you’re dealing with.
So, to give an example, I deal with a lot of people who are bereaved. Now a famous theory comes from research in the 1970’s by a psychologist called, Kübler-Ross, and she did research into how people dealt with the knowledge that they were going to die and they were going to be bereaved. And she says they go through a series of stages. They’re disbelieving, they bargain, they get angry and so on and finally they accept their position. Now Kübler-Ross’ theory has been very useful to people over the years because it tells you something about what is happening for bereaved people and dying people as you meet them. But actually, it’s been found that the theory doesn’t work in quite the way that she thought originally it did. People do tend to get the emotions but they don’t necessarily get them in a series of stages, in the same standard series of stages. So, the theory’s been adapted. And then there are more recent theories – there’s a theory called Dual Process Theory about bereavement, which suggests people will have, they’ll deal with bereavement in two different ways. Some of their, one of the things they do is they look backwards at the person who has died, and they think about them and incorporate them in their life in a new way. So that’s backward looking. And the other way in which they operate is it’s restorative, they have to do things, they have to get on with life, they have to plan, they have to look to the future. So, they do these two things side by side and they switch between them. In one sentence you can sometimes see people switching from being extremely distressed about the person they’ve lost to, ‘well I’ve now got to plan this’, and looking forward. And one of the interesting things about this theory is people switch their emotions and you have to follow them in doing this. You have not to think there is something wrong in that or peculiar. So, this kind of knowledge tells you things about the situation you’re dealing with, whereas social work practice theory tells you how to deal with them once you’ve learned about that situation.
Trish: So, it’s very important to help us know what to do but also to understand why we’re doing it so we’re just not making it up really.
Malcolm: I think that’s right. I recently did, I’m writing a new edition of Modern Social Work Theory at the moment which comes out next year, and I did a study of what social work text books tell you that theory is useful for and I came up with four things.
First of all, it helps us to understand and argue about, contest, ideas. So, people have ideas about situations. People ought to, for example, carry out tasks which are important to do, although there are two different ways to understand what a task is in social work. And so, if you understand the theories, you can look at how you use the concept of tasks and how other people are saying, ‘I’ve got to do this thing. I must do it’. You’re thinking about what kind of task is it they’re seeing. And what theory does there is it reveals things to us which might not be obvious to us in the first place. So, it helps us understand, and argue about, ideas.
The second thing it does is it gives us explanation and understanding. It organises a very complex world. It tells us within its complexity, we can understand the sum of what is going on here.
The third thing it does is it gives us a practice framework. It says, ‘here is some guidance on what you should focus on first, what’s the most important thing to do, and how to deal with these complicated situations.
And finally, it helps us to be accountable, self-disciplined, professionals. It helps us to explain ourselves to our clients. It helps us to check on ourselves – are we doing this in a way in which is a recognised approach to this. And it helps us to explain ourselves to our bosses, and to the world in general in saying, ‘well actually there are these sets of ideas about why we should do it in this way’. And so, theory helps us in all those kinds of things.
Trish: Malcolm, we hear a lot of different words. We hear perspectives, paradigms, models, and that can be very confusing when people are just setting out learning about theory.
Malcolm: Well one of the things that people find most difficult about theory is that there’s a whole technology of talking about theory which comes from philosophy and so on. And to use another of those horrible words, it’s about epistemology, that’s the study of how we know things and how we argue about things. So, there are all these concepts and the meaning of them overlaps and you have to come to an understanding about the different ways in which these ideas are used, and also not everyone uses them in quite the same way or for the same purposes.
Tricia: I think this is where it becomes confusing.
Malcolm: You need to understand the history of the debate about that. For example, paradigm, if you look at a dictionary it tells you it’s a template. A template is a kind of description of how something should be.
But it’s an important concept because a man called Kuhn, a philosopher of knowledge in Chicago in the 1960’s, wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And Kuhn says that in the physical sciences – astronomy, physics, chemistry that kind of thing, scientist have a general overall approach to the world which organises how they study and do research. And then they build up knowledge and understanding in that model of the world which he calls a paradigm, and then suddenly as they do this research, some of it doesn’t fit in with the model. And then suddenly at some point a piece of research turns the whole world on its head. And a whole new way of seeing the world emerges. And one of the early, we all tend to learn at school in chemistry is Phlogiston Theory of Burning. Things burn and something called phlogiston comes from it and it’s that that is the chemical reaction that burning is involved with. And then somebody found out that when things burn they use up oxygen. And the whole idea about what burning meant was turned over; the whole phlogiston disappeared and then burning things was about using oxygen in the atmosphere. And so, a whole new chemistry became possible. And you see a succession of these revolutions in the sciences.
Another one was the change in perception that the earth is not at the centre of the universe, it’s a small planet going around the sun right on the out-skirts of the galaxy, which is one of a whole number of galaxies. When you change that view of the world you change all the possibilities of science.
Now some people want to argue that some theories about social work are paradigms and that old paradigms have been replaced by new paradigms, and one of the classic debates in social work about paradigms was between the traditional view of social work which is basically psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, comes from the work of Freud and his followers, psychoanalysts. And the people who were disputing this behaviour, learning theory supporters argued that that whole theory was discredited and their new theory, which has become cognitive behavioural therapy is a new paradigm. It’s a completely new way of seeing the world, and it completely dismisses psychoanalysis and psychodynamic theory. And what you see here is what I call a Politics of Theory. You see groups of people lining themselves up behind particular theories and arguing, ‘our theory is the best because, and those people over there they don’t really know’. And the use of the word paradigm is partly about that; it’s partly about saying this is like the Kuhnian paradigm, we’ve overturned those people over there, they’re no use any longer, forget about them, just concentrate on our theory. And that’s people wanting to influence us, use their theory.
Trish:So, then Malcolm what is the relationship between theory and practice. How do we connect them?
Malcolm: Well there’s a big debate about this, and one of the debates is how you can simply get prescriptions for practice from general social ideas. And one of the debates here is about whether you can deduce actions from what a set of social ideas tell you. So, you get these social ideas, they suggest things that you can do, you try them out, if they work they become a confirmed practice theory. If they don’t work, you don’t use them any longer. The alternative view is that theory should come from what people do, social work is trying things out, it gets organised into a practice theory, then it gets tested and then it becomes connected with general social ideas.
But I think the picture that I have of that is that neither of those ideas really works. And what seems to me to happen is a process of debate, accumulation, and in some ways constraints. So ideas accumulate one after the other. Now historically when I first started to write ‘Modern Social Work Theory’, that was 25 years ago now, it was in the late 1980’s, we were in the process of what people have called The Theory Wars. And it’s like the argument about paradigms. People were saying, ‘our theory is better than your theory; we should use this theory rather than that theory’, and people wanted to make distinctions between different theories and how important and worthwhile they were. However, a lot of the evidence suggests that most of the time social workers saw themselves as quite eclectic. They would borrow things from different theories according to what seems useful to them.
Now there’s an argument about that too. One of my colleagues, Bill Jordan, had what some social workers do, he calls it Process of Violent Logic – putting ideas together that really shouldn’t be put together. They don’t fit at all. So, I think over the past 10 years or so, there’s come to the view that by being eclectic what you are doing is planning your planning alongside your colleagues within your agency so that you can meet what your agency requires, and you plan how you connect up different ideas from theory. The result of that process is, I argue, in the new edition of ‘Modern Social Work Theory’, that actually we have come to the point where we have five very clear shared values about how we should use this theory.
I use single words for most of these. The first of those is about alliance. Would we try to make an alliance, a therapeutic alliance sometimes people call it, feminists call it a dialogic relationship or an equal relationship. We try and get informed consent from our clients so that we work together with them. And there is a little bit of research shows how effective that is, and I’ll come back to that perhaps in a minute.
Secondly, we move very much towards specifying clear positive outcomes. So there’s a lot less of trying to identify details, specifications of problems that people have and looking back into their past, and a lot more looking forward to the outcomes that they want to achieve.
The third thing that we have most theories now is a series of sequences of actions that you should take. So there are a very clear sequence of things you should do with most of the theories we use now.
The fourth thing is critical practice. Most therapeutic theories and most critical social change theories of social work will say what we’ve got to do is try to avoid what people take for granted. You should not get stuck in what people take for granted in their relationships, and you should not get stuck in normal social assumptions about how people should exist. So this is very much a critical practice, which is present in most social work theory now.
And finally, I think there’s a very much stronger emphasis on human rights, cultural respect, equality, and increasingly sustainability, environmental sustainability.
And these five elements, it seems to me, are being incorporated into, or are naturally part of almost all the theories which are actively being used in social work now. So, I think what we’re beginning to see is a number of principles by which social workers use theory in whatever model their agency and working with their colleagues they seek to do.
The other thing I will say about using theory and practice is there’s quite a lot of evidence it works best if you talk with your clients about it.
Trish: And that’s something we often don’t do.
Malcolm:We often don’t do, and that’s professional stuff. You don’t come in and say, ‘Well now I’m going to attempt crisis intervention here. What you do however is, ‘I’m thinking some people might think you’re in a bit of a crisis here, how do you feel about that?’ So you talk about some of the ideas you’re going to use in sensible language with the people you’re working with so that, and it goes back to alliance, so that they are participating in the decisions that you are doing.
And if you look at cognitive behavioural practice, a lot of cognitive practice is very much involved in saying, ‘well actually do you think some of your ideas are wrong here; is your thinking not quite straight?’, and clients will come to you and say, ‘I’m not thinking straight, what can I do?’, and you can say to them, ‘Well actually, there are some of these techniques which we can use to work with you on that.
So, it’s about picking up what they want to do and also explaining much more clearly using the ideas that we get from theory to explain and discuss with them. That’s what I think. Theory makes us more accountable, not only to our bosses, but it makes us more accountable to our clients because it helps us understand what we are doing and explain it better and get their involvement better.
Trish: So theory is really quite dynamic isn’t it? It’s not a static thing.
Malcolm: Well it is and it isn’t. It’s dynamic in the sense that people are trying to improve it and develop it and someone who’s been writing a book about it for 25 years I’m now just finishing the 4th edition which comes out next February. There’ve been a lot of developments. Most of the books I refer to and the articles I refer to are not ones that I was writing about 25 years ago when I started. But what these are is accumulated experience, sophistications, better ways of doing things, of improved ways of thinking that through which we’ve got better and better at.
We’ve not dismissed any one of the major areas of theory that I write about. So what we’ve been doing is trying to develop and systematise and improve and make these theories more useful to ourselves. And also partly what we’ve been doing is picking up ideas from other theories which seem to be useful and adapting the main streams of theory that we use.
Trish: Malcolm to sum up, do you have any final words about theory?
Malcolm: I think what I was ostensibly called in one of our newspapers the other day, British social work theorist, Malcolm Payne, and I don’t actually see myself as massively involved in theory as the centre of my life. The reason why I’m interested in theory, the reason why I got interested in it 40 years ago was because it gave me ideas to practice.
So my final passing shot, if you like, would be it’s really important not to be frightened by the whole intellectual apparatus of debate and the long, complicated, airy-fairy bits of theory. The way in which I approach theory is I look at a theory and I say, ‘what’s the basic idea. What’s distinctive about this? What’s this telling me, what is this saying that is saying something different from all the other theories? What is it telling me to concentrate on?’ And then I look for what are the main things it is trying to tell me to do, and what are the main things it is trying to tell me not to do.
So if you look at crisis intervention theory for example, it says in a crisis start by focusing on people’s emotions because until you’ve got their emotions out of the way you won’t be able to deal with the rational bits of them. Now that makes sense, and you can dress that up in all sorts of intellectual ways, but it’s the sensible bit of practical guidance for somebody in a crisis. A rather similar short-term theory like task-centred case work, task-centred practice, it says not that at all, don’t really deal with emotions, deal with the practical things people undertake in their lives. So, you would use that in a different way for a different purpose and this kind of distinction is completely understandable.
We don’t have to get in to debates about Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action in order to understand these bits of practical guidance which theory gives us. So, I look at all this stuff about theory and I say what does this tell me to actually do that’s better, that helps me understand what I’m doing?
And a final example I look at Jan Fook’s Critical Theory book, which has just come out again, and she’s using some of the same models as she used previously, and she has this idea about deconstruction. Well deconstruction is a post-structuralist theory, you don’t need to know about French post-structuralism, what she talks about is deconstructionism. She says what you need to do is take apart basic assumptions people are having about this situation, get them to think about it in a new way, get them to reconstruct what they are going to do. And she explains how to do that in a really clear way in her book. And it’s those things before theory; those bits of explanation which use the ideas to tell me how to do social work.
And that’s why I’ve spent years studying theory, because it tells me how to do social work better, and involve my clients more, and explain to other people what I’m doing and why.
Trish: Malcolm thank you so much for being here on Podsocs and it’s been an absolutely wonderful conversation. Thank you.
Malcolm: You’re very welcome.
[Musical outro 31.26 to END]
Interview ENDS: 31.42