Stanley Witkin’s fifth book is an ambitious project. Transforming Social Work is an exploration in applying ‘postmodern’ perspectives, particularly social constructionism, to a range of issues germane to social work. While the mission Witkin took on is incredibly complex, the result is accessible and tangible for the most part. As a renowned social constructionism scholar, Witkin is critically questioning some fundamental aspects of social work, such as ethics and boundaries in social work practice, human rights, cultural competence and the strength perspective, to name a few. While being transparent and humble, Witkin is offering us a critical perspective to re-examine some of the taken-for-granted issues in social work. The book is divided into eight chapters, each discussing a different issue. Chapter One is an exploration of social constructionism. This is a ‘YOU ARE HERE’ chapter where Witkin not only gives an excellent introduction into the main ideas of postmodernism and social constructionism, but he is also being explicit about his point of departure when unpacking issues at the heart of social work. Chapter Two, ‘Revisioning social work ethics’, briefly explores the more traditional theories of ethics (e.g. consequentialism, deontology, virtues), followed by a brief postmodern outlook at ethics and a critical perspective on social work codes of ethics. Witkin presents the notion of ‘communicative ethics’, grounding it in the scholarship of Gergen and Bauman, emphasising the importance of listening and language, and analyses morality as relational and contextual. This all leads to the excellent closing of this profound chapter. In Chapter Three, Witkin takes a critical look at human rights, making the clear connection between human rights and social work as well as social justice. The notion of human rights as a Eurocentric Western project is explored and an alternative way of thinking about human rights through the works of philosopher Richard Rorty and social theorist Zygmunt Bauman is presented. Chapter Four, maybe the strongest chapter in the book, is dedicated to critically examining cultural competency in social work. At the heart of this chapter is the argument that cultural competence is a modern notion born out of good intentions but, as a result, culture is deducted to a list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’. Witkin is offering the idea of noticing—a way to remain humble when encountering the Other—because the ability to notice is always limited and grounded in one’s personal biography, history, culture and language. The second half of this chapter offers a phenomenal and timely analysis of social theorist Emmanual Levinas’s notions of ethical relationship, knowledge and the Other. Witkin then attempts to apply Levinas to pedagogy and social work education—an interesting move, although not clearly articulated given that, up until this point, social work education was not addressed. Chapter Five is dedicated to the concept of risk and how it has been taken up in social work. Following an introduction to Ulrich Beck’s risk-society thesis, the connections between risk, globalisation and media are made. The notion of risk is further explored and presented as a social construction, setting the stage for introducing the concept of ‘risk consciousness’ and its influences on social work. Witkin provides a thorough yet dense exploration of key features that shape the ways in which risk is understood in social work and, in a few pages, he compresses material from dozens of books. Although compacting high volumes of scholarship is a necessity in this kind of a book, this particular chapter felt as if too many strings were held together. ‘Re-constructing the strength perspective’ comes next. In this sixth chapter, one of the key perspectives in social work is re-examined to point to the ways in which the strength perspective has been applied from and with an individualistic and Westernised understanding. Witkin emphasises strength as relational and, although he is making the connections to social constructionism, I was still left to wonder why he decided to include this far less theoretically sound chapter in the book. Chapter Seven deals with ‘Social work from a global perspective’, taking a closer look at globalisation as discourse. The last chapter in the book explores the practice–research relationship, paying particular attention to how evidence-based practice (EBP) has been developed and applied in social work. Measurement, evidence and knowledge—the pillars of EBP—are critically dismantled and an alternative approach to the relation between research and practice is offered. I want to jump forward to the very end of this chapter, which is also the end of this book, where Witkin openly admits that ‘This was a difficult chapter to write. The issues are multifaceted and complex’ (p. 168). I dare to guess that this was not the only chapter that was difficult to write, given the volume and complexity of the scholarship that is covered in this book. Witkin’s ambitious project, which dedicates a chapter to topics that have been picked up in dozens of books, is inspiring. Delving into such grand issues in a few pages can easily turn into a reductionist exploration, but Witkin skillfully avoids that trap. I did get lost here and there in the effort to follow through with the logic and argument being presented, especially in areas I am less knowledgeable about. But, by the end of each chapter, I had a clear understanding of what the chapter was about, what are the key issues and arguments and what are the meanings and implications for social work. The book can be read as a whole or chapter by chapter, and most chapters could be an excellent fit to social work core courses such as ethics, critical thinking, social work theory and more. How should this book be labelled? As a methodology book? Certainly not. As a pedagogy book? In some chapters, Witkin refers to the university classroom, but this is not the main thread of the book. As a theory book? Although theory and theoretical thinking is heavily present in the book, this is not a ‘typical’ theory textbook. Is this a book for social work students and practitioners? Indeed. Those who wish to explore social work from a social constructionism perspective, will surely find insights but not clear guidance on how to do social work from a social construction perspective. This is not a practitioner guidebook into constructionism social work practice, and a good thing that it is not—this would have defeated the purpose and been contradictory to the notion and spirit of critical-constructionism social work. Just like postmodernism and social constructivism, this book is better left unlabelled. Maybe Witkin’s desire to avoid labelling and over simplification might explain the absence of a much-needed conclusion chapter that could have been helpful and insightful in binding all that was covered in the book. It is a very complex mission that Witkin took on: to write a book that unpacks key issues in social work from a social construction perspective while staying loyal to the spirit of constructivism: there is always more than one ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ to be considered and everything is always multi-layered, thus remaining humble, questioning and searching is essential. Stanley Witkin remained humble, questioning, and searching and the social work community should be grateful that he followed through with this endeavour and delivered a book that is of great significance and contribution to social work scholars, students, educators, practitioners and policy makers. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The British Journal of Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: May 24, 2018
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