Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Effect of Ancient Greece on Modern Social Work Practice

           Every career path has a face, a legacy, and a story to tell.  Each has the potential to reshape a piece of the human experience.  Clinical social work is unique because the ability to change individuals' lives is not ancillary to its professional purpose but rather its very core.  In the therapy room perspectives of patient and clinician collide, creating a sense of relationship and situation that shifts and transforms over time.  While the therapist's perspective includes needed expertise that can, when communicated well, be effective in changing a person's long-standing habits, the philosophical predecessors to modern social work that subtly inform his practice can at times also threaten to undermine his patients' wellbeing.  No human-conceived methodology or way of thinking is perfect, and failing to acknowledge  that fact can be detrimental to the progress and general good of individuals and society.

            Much of what a therapist does is often very effective.  The reason that a person goes to a therapist is to get a new perspective on their problems so that they can fix them.  By fostering the understanding of their own inner workings, the social worker shows them where their levers and pulleys are so they can take control of their own lives.  A mind is like a hill made out of dirt.  As time goes on, a person has many thoughts and experiences, raindrops trickling down the hill that turn tiny ruts into large trenches that are difficult to change.  However, clinical social workers have the training to walk people through the process of consciously changing their thought patterns in order to re-carve the grooves of their minds and improve their functionality.  The more clearly a therapist communicates this process to a patient in terms of their particular circumstance and understanding, the better chance there is for recovery.

            As significant as patient successes are, they can also blind therapists to problems and damage that current practice causes and impede forward progress.  In saying this, I don't mean to imply that social work practitioners are not as focused as they should be on their patients' wellbeing.   In fact, compared to  marriage and family therapy and psychology, social work focuses far more heavily on actually helping people rather than merely understanding them.  It is the only discipline that I know of that actively encourages its practitioners to sacrifice their own interests for those of their clients on a regular basis (National Association of Social Workers, 2008).  What I am saying is that very attitude makes it difficult to acknowledge that deficits still exist, just as the advocate for women's rights is often the last to see sexism in himself.  

            The problem itself is a historical one.  Both psychology and social work trace their ideological lineage through Greek philosophy.  One of the prevailing Greek epistemologies, or methods of accepting validating ideas, was empiricism, which involved acquiring knowledge by using sensory observations and is the basis of modern scientific thought.  The problem is that reducing humans to collections of atoms that only act as they are acted upon leaves no philosophical room for free will or moral absolutes, as Dr.  Edwin Gantt of the psychology department of Brigham Young University has argued (Gantt & Williams, 2014).  

            While humans are perfectly capable of embracing ideas that are inherently contradictory, the natural implications of ideas often have a way of squeezing their way into practice.  For example, although as a whole the discipline is a proponent of self-determination, in my experience it is common for social workers to place responsibility for a patient's problems on their environment rather than their own actions (National Association of Social Workers, 2008).  

              Such an approach is useful in encouraging people to feel compassion for those who are disadvantaged, but it also undercuts a patient's self-efficacy because it leads them to believe that they are not in control of their circumstances.  Granted, social workers also value empowerment, which ideally means that a patient is in charge of his or her own development, but without a sense of self-accountability such a standard is of limited usefulness (National Association of Social Workers, 2008).  If a person merely sees themselves as a victim of circumstance it is difficult to help them believe that they can also be its champion.  A personal friend who has been a part of the mental health system for many years said that clinicians' attempts to convince him to "just be content" with his circumstances as a person with a disability damaged his belief in his own capacity to construct a better life for himself.  Human beings can do amazing things when they feel trusted and empowered, even under thorny circumstances.  In therapy situations the difficulty of the patients position should be acknowledged, but social workers should be cautious in implicating that there are goals beyond their patient's reach.  It isn't just the communication itself that is important, but also the underlying messages that accompany it.

            Another Greek idea is that labels define identity.  Being a brother, employee, or a smart person is thought of as relatively permanent.  This contrasts sharply with Hebrew thought, in which labels are tied more specifically to actions.  For example, a Hebrew might describe a pencil as "something I use to write with," while a Greek would describe it as " a yellow wooden stick" (Ancient Hebrew Research Center, n.d.).  Under a Hebrew perspective, to change what a person does is to change the very nature of that person.  In contrast, our ideological history leads us to give labels to people via the diagnosis of mental illnesses, thereby subtly imposing a new identity on them that is far more permanent, one that they often choose to live up to.  Patients tend to see diagnoses, especially for chronic illness, as descriptive of who they are rather than a simple outline of symptoms and behaviors that are distinct from the person himself and are potentially temporary.  We then attempt to elicit attitudes and behaviors from the person that contradict the identity we just imposed on them.  Granted, sometimes this actually works.  One has to wonder, though, what recovery rates would be like without the placebo effect working against us.

            Social work is an agent of great good in society.  However, sharper knives get the job done more effectively than dull ones and make it less likely that someone will get hurt along the way.  Presupposing that the way things always have been is as good as they can ever get is faulty logic with human capital wagered in the balance.  I am not suggesting that decades of thought on ideal clinical social work practice should be completely abandoned, but rather that we should understand more deeply our own assumptions and the effect of those assumptions on other people as they inevitably commandeer and manipulate the messages clients receive.  My prescription is intense intellectual humility, not recalcitrance.  Metacognition, not mutiny.

            Being content with current progress is understandable, but it also leads to stagnation.  To me, being satisfied with doing less than our best to help those within our reach to attain their potential is not acceptable.  Every person within our sphere of influence can be, and already is, a creature beyond comprehension.  The opportunity to change the life of such a person in any capacity is a sacred honor.  Having the power to do so in a more powerful way than at any time in the past is possible.  That should be our goal.  The social work field cannot let clients suffer because we were unwilling to require them to be accountable for their actions or let human-manufactured labels dictate the limitations of their future.  We must constantly evaluate the underpinnings of our beliefs and actions and be willing to question and change fundamental parts of them if doing so will help those around us to reach their potential.

            While Greek philosophy has been the mechanism of great societal growth over the last two millennia, we should not let it limit us from further progress.  Rather, we should gather the initiative to stand on the shoulders of the great thinkers of antiquity, thereby appreciating the goodness of the past while not allowing it to restrain us from striding boldly and innovatively into the future, changing the way that therapists think and communicate so that clients receive the messages of progress and hope that they need to heal.  Such a thought process will naturally lead us to correct problems no one realized needed correcting.  It will lead us to rethink and creatively implement new approaches to finding new approaches.  Ultimately, it will extend the reach of therapists the world over to better combat the overwhelming ills of society and to change the lives of those in their sphere of influence forever.
Works Cited

Ancient Hebrew Research Center. (n.d.). Hebrew Thought. Shamar.org, http://www.shamar.org/articles/hebrew-thought.php#.VmMUMzZdFOw
Gantt, E. E. & Williams, R. N. (2014). Psychology and the legacy of newtonianism: Motivation, intentionality, and the ontological gap. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 43(2), 83-100.
National  Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers.

Image Credits

Cheung, Roy.  Lonely.  Digital Image.  No changes made.  February 9, 2008. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode

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