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Inquiring into the Spirit of Social WorkKsenija Napan & Eileen Oak 1
The Meaning and Purpose of Integrating Spirituality in Social Work Practice
Spirituality is becoming a buzz word in this century, especially non-dogmatic, participatory spirituality separated, and at times in juxtaposition with, religion. At a time when neoliberal managerialist approaches to social work are eroding the relationship-based nature of practice and notions of collective responsibility for welfare; and the ‘old fashioned’ concepts like compassion, reciprocity and mutuality are no longer given prominence; there has never been a more important time to reflect on what spirituality can offer to practitioners and those that they serve.
Spirituality relates not only to human experience and relationship with the numinous, but also to meaning and purpose in life, creativity, the sense of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), authenticity, the sense of coherence and a sense of collective responsibility for all beings. Spirituality (however one choses to define it) has the potential to provide purpose to social work practice and an opportunity for connectivity to others. In relation to connectivity, we assert that inquiry learning and collaboration between academics and postgraduate students that we have been promoting over years within the Social Work and Spirituality symposium, enables participants to find ways of bringing forth the world through non-dogmatic and appreciative social work practices. Unfortunately, the current state of art in social work is different to our ideal of sitting around the round table, discussing ideas, co-supervising one another’s practices and making decisions that will not only benefit service users but their families and communities.
Western social work is in its essence patronising and individualistic. Although it is based on ideals of social justice, cultural respectfulness, reciprocity and appreciation, in everyday practice it often reverts to 'firefighting' and patching up problems created by an unjust society. Social workers in the western world are becoming tools of social control, while being educated to be agents of social change. This schism has a potential of creating compliance or resistance and as a result a crisis in practitioners’ perception of the meaning and purpose of their work.
It is our belief that an exploration of non-dogmatic anti-authoritarian spirituality, (or to put it positively appreciative and respectful spirituality) and its relationship with social work has a potential of enabling social workers to liberate themselves from professional colonisation that neoliberal, managerialistic, individualistic and socially controlling ways of practising have imposed on them. So instead of explaining and ‘stating’ the state of art, this paper lists inquiry questions to create a ‘dialogue in praxis’ that is essential for effective social work practice between writers and readers. At the same time, these questions are meant to point to the state of art in the area of spirituality in social work.
Principles of social justice, human rights and respect for diversity have their strongest articulation and potential for change when they are expressed in terms of meaning and purpose in life. However, spirituality needs to be reconciled with the challenges of organised religions because of the potential for misuse of power, and this is why we argue for an eclectic approach to spirituality which encompasses religious and non- religious expressions of the term. This is the essence of our definition of spirituality in social work.
We assert that the time has come where a solely western interpretation of social work is not adequate anymore in a globalised world. We believe that indigenous and culturally specific ways of practice can offer new directions in social work where one size does not fit all. Social work can be practised and has been practised across the world in many ways and negating or minimising the effectiveness or quality of indigenous practices is not only discriminatory but damaging for the profession as a whole. Collaborative, co-creative and appreciative approaches to explore various ways of social work practice can enable practitioners to expand their knowledge and ensure that their practices are not colonising.
In addition, social work practice is if anything, an ethical endeavour and a key overarching theme of the programme is the ‘Ethics of inclusion’. The inclusion of spirituality in social work seeks to draw out our ethical practice or ethical approaches to practice by asking some fundamental questions of ourselves that will encourage more dialogue and bravery in exploring issues related to beliefs that guide social work practice and clients’ lived experience.
The following inquiry questions provide a starting point for a dialogue about spirituality in social work in praxis.1
What role do your beliefs play in your social work or social work teaching practice?
How do purposeful social work actions energise your practice?
Are there any obstacles (internal or external) that you are aware of that social workers need to overcome in order to become spirited social work practitioners?
Is the spirit of social work the liminal ‘in- between’ space that we co-create with people we work with or somewhere else?
How is the spirit of social work manifested in the new International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) global definition of social work (as referred to above)?
‘Social workers comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable’ – does this saying reflect the spirit of social work, social workers’ ability to balance their role as social change agents and agents of social control? And what does it say about the mission of social work?
Are neoliberalism and globalisation transforming the purpose and mission of social work?
What are the counter balancing philosophies borne out of reaction to neoliberalism and globalisation? Can these be found in secular humanism, unifying religions, scientific discoveries in quantum physics, epigenetics, or in indigenous knowledge?
There are a number of beliefs, contradictions and challenges that may prevent social workers from addressing spirituality in social work:
Nurturing the Soul of Social Work
The search for meaning and purpose expands minds of the rich, makes those in the middle move towards their aspirations and offers hope to the poor. Spiritual congruence enables compassion, reciprocity and mutuality as well as being centred and responsible for actions. The potential future of social work is best depicted in this poem, written by a social work scholar Michael Sheridan.
We may conclude that the future is in nurturing the soul of social work, personally, professionally and politically by caring about our human instrument, promoting life giving and transformative practices, encouraging innovation, collaborating with our clients and colleagues and standing up for the underdog sometimes in our offices, at our computers or on the barricades demonstrating for a just and equitable world.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper and Row, New York.
International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) (2014) Global Definition of Social Work. [Online] Available at: http://ifsw.org/get-involved/global-definition-of-social-work/
McKernan, M. (2007) 'Exploring the Spiritual Dimension in Social Work' in Spirituality and Social Work: selected Canadian readings, eds J. Coates, B. Swartzentruber & B. Ouellette, Toronto, Canadian Scholar's Press, Toronto
Sheridan, M. J. (1997) 'If we nurtured the soul of social work', Society for Spirituality and Social Work Newsletter, vol. 4, no. 2, p. 3.