Social work theories represent sets of ideas that assist in explaining the reasons for occurrence of events or why specific events happened in particular ways and are used to predict likely future actions of present outcomes.
It is important to appreciate that theories, whilst based on reasoning and evidence, are not conclusively proved. In social work practice they provide alternative frameworks for understanding issues by the linkage of sets of ideas, and help people to make sense of specific situations or circumstances. Their application helps social workers in guiding practice and in achieving direction in their efforts.
This study takes up the ecological approach for discussion and assesses its usefulness for social work practice. The ecological approach is also compared with humanism and existentialism and its various aspects are critically analysed with respect to achievement of managerialism and accountability in social work practice.
Overview of Ecological Approach
Kurt Lewin, (Plas, 1981), states that good theory is essentially practical. It provides a way to look at the world and guides action for the achievement of vision of the way things should be. Ecological theory, many experts feel, fits with Lewin’s maxim and has the potential to give social workers, both a practical perspective for effective social intervention, and a larger perspective for viewing and assessing the social world (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). Whilst Roger Barker, (1968), initiated the application of ecological concepts to analysis of human behaviour, the application of such ecological perspectives to social work practice did not occur until it was taken up by Carel Germain in the mid 1970s (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The ecological approach has since then become progressively popular among social workers and is now commonly used as a practice approach for intervention (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The approach, despite becoming more commonly used, does have some major limitations, chief among which is the lack of (a) clearly defined procedures for engagement in assessment, and (b) specific sets of techniques and strategies for intervention (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100).
The adoption of the ecological approach enables social work practitioners to understand the significance of the adaptive fit between the environment and organisms (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). An appreciation of such a fit in turn enables the emergence of a practice model that essentially focuses on the importance of locating ways and means to first assist individuals in adapting to their environments and second in the formulation of strategies for changing environmental elements that could cause problems for service users (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). It is important to understand three concepts, namely (a) behaviour settings, (b) the ecosystem and (c) definition of client problems, in order to understand and appreciate the fit between organisms and their environment (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). An understanding of these concepts helps in understanding the significantly unconventional and different approach of the ecological perspective (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100).
The concept of behaviour settings provides fresh insights in the relationship that exists between individual behaviour and environmental setting. Barker and Gum (1964), found that individuals react differently to different types of environment. Analysis of behaviour setting helps social workers to conceptualise the problems of service users and is considered to be a basic unit of analysis for the application of the ecological approach to social work practice. The behaviour setting, it must however be clarified, represents more than the traditional concept of behaviour as the response to a stimulus and is perceived to be a complex relationship of people, setting, time and individual behaviour. A conglomerate of such behaviour settings forms ecology (Germain & Bloom, 1999, p 16-22).
Specific individuals function in more than one specific ecology. The ecosystem of individuals consists of the various inter-relationships and the conglomeration of such ecologies (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The ecosystem of a child, for example comprises of the self, the family, the school and the larger community (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). It is important to understand that the client, in such a concept of ecosystem is an integral component of the ecological system and cannot be juxtaposed with the larger environment (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The ecosystem of an individual consists of four distinct levels, namely the micro-system, the meso-system, the exo-system, and the macro-system. The micro-system represents the immediate environment, viz. the impact of personality characteristics of an individual on other family members (Jones, 2010, p 67). The meso-system is more complex and refers to the interactional processes that occur between multiple micro-systems (Jones, 2010, p 67). The exo-system and macro-system likewise refer to more generalised levels and represent more extensive interaction of ecologies (Jones, 2010, p 67).
The service user in such circumstances becomes the defining and primary member of the eco system that in turn comprises of various overlapping subsistence like the family, the work place and the larger community (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The psychosocial development and adjustment of individuals are perceived to be the consequence of transactions between individuals and their environments. The ecological perspective suggests the occurrence of cyclic and bidirectional activities between individuals and their environments (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100).
The environment in the first place affects the development and adjustment of individuals. The behaviours of individuals lead to responses inside the environment and the altered environment thereafter exerts a different pressure on the individual (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). Social workers can view this process as sequential or simultaneous mutual influence, for example X affects Y, which again affects X or X and Y come together to form a unity that defines the situation (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). This concept and these view points are important because they lead to the formulation of new ways for conducting of assessment and carrying out of intervention in social work practice (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The adoption of the ecological view point leads to the shifting of focus from individual personality and behavioural characteristics to relationships between individuals, their families, their communities and other ecologies that are included in their eco systems (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). Most people do operate in social ecologies that are adaptive or congruent and where people are in harmony with the social norms of their environments (Norman, 2000, p 11-17). The requirement for social work intervention comes about when such adaptive fits cease to exist and lead to mal adjustments (Norman, 2000, p 11-17).
The ecological perspective differs significantly from traditional social work view points on definition of problems of service users (Tew, 2005, p 31-36). Most conventional perspectives concentrate on individuals for definition of problems of service users and perceive such service users to be deviant, behaviourally troubled or emotionally disturbed (Tew, 2005, p 31-36). The ecological approach very importantly does not perceive the symptoms of service user’s kin terms of individual pathologies but looks at such symptoms to be indicative of malfunctioning eco systems (Tew, 2005, p 31-36). Advocates of the ecological approach are likely to perceive emotional disturbances to be comprehensive problems that are occurring in the continuous adaptation that is taking place between organisms and their environments (Wilson, 1999, p 4-11). Mal-adoptions are thus felt to reside not just in the activity of individuals upon their environments but also of the environments upon individuals (Wilson, 1999, p 4-11). Individual problems and difficulties in social functioning are thus perceived to stem from interactive, dynamic and reciprocal sets of forces that work between individuals and their eco systems (Wilson, 1999, p 4-11).
The relationship between problematic social functioning and ecology has been studied in various relationships between (a) social class and hospitalisation for psychiatric causes, (b) probability of specific types of mental ailments and spatial community patterns and (c) suicide rates and social organisation of communities (Peters & Marshall, 1996, p 17-32). It is evident that the adoption of the ecological perspective requires a radical shift of approach by social workers, who must move away from individuals and try to understand a unit that is termed as individual-in-ecology (Peters & Marshall, 1996, p 17-32). Such an approach requires the viewing of individual problems in terms of mal adaptive systems and even differences in labelling of clients, who for example should be termed as “disturbing clients” rather than emotionally disturbed (Peters & Marshall, 1996, p 17-32).
Application of Ecological Approach for Intervention
The ecological strategy for intervention obviously calls for an ecological assessment of the problems of service users (Norman, 2000, p 11-17). Such ecological assessment essentially involves two important issues, namely (a) the identification of reasons for discord in eco systems and sources of strength, which can be utilised to enhance the level of fit between service users and important people in the lives, and (b) specification of the services that will be needed to allow service users to progress towards achievement of desired goals (Norman, 2000, p 11-17).
Traditional models of social work, it is easy to understand, are far more simplistic than the ecological assessment approach (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). Such methods are narrower and perceive individual service users to be the only focus of the assessment procedure (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). The intervention model in the ecological approach comprises of specific steps that assist in translation of such assessment into appropriate strategies for intervention (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33).
Such an intervention approach consists of seven specific stages and can be applied in a number of practice areas (Nash, et al, 2005, p 32-41). The intervention model in the ecological approach is similar to other traditional approaches with regard to gathering of data but deviates significantly in the ways in which social work practitioners conceptualise and organise the processes of assessment and intervention (Nash, et al, 2005, p 32-41). The seven important stages in the intervention process comprise of (a) entering the system, (b) mapping the ecology, (c) assessing the ecology, (d) creating a vision for change, (e) coordinating and communicating, (f) reassessing and (g) evaluating (Nash, et al, 2005, p 32-41). These steps are significantly different from traditional methods of assessment and intervention and plays far greater responsibilities on the shoulders of social work practitioners (Nash, et al, 2005, p 32-41).
The first step of the social work practitioner concerns entering the exo-system of the world of the service user, such a process involves assessment of various relationships in the life of the service user and identification of an entry point into the world of the service user (Kerson, 2002, p 8-14). Assessment of relationships in such circumstances involves examination of the various sub systems like the immediate family, the workplace and the community that shape the world of the service user (Norman, 2000, p 11-17). The social work practitioner can obtain significant information from examination of such sub systems for the formulation of intervention strategies (Norman, 2000, p 11-17). Assessment of various subsystems is thereafter followed by entry into the world of the client (Norman, 2000, p 11-17). This is largely done through an interview involving the social worker, the service user and people in his or her immediate family (Kerson, 2002, p 8-14). The social worker, after entering the world of the service user commences ecological mapping (Kerson, 2002, p 8-14). Such mapping involves analysis of various sub systems and identification of people and events that are relevant to the challenges confronting the service user (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). Such mapping involves interaction with representatives of different sub systems like spouse, parents or immediate friends and leads to obtaining of very important information (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100).
The mapping of ecology is followed by interpretation and assessment. Social workers, at this stage of the process search for important problems and sources of strength in the eco system of service users (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). The description of relationships and recurring themes in the lives of service users forms an important aspect of this stage and helps in identifying problems as well as sources of strength that can help the service users in achieving a better fit with the environment (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). Assessment of ecology is followed by locating the areas that require to be altered to enhance the social functioning of service users (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). Social workers whilst focusing on the required change need to consider the service users total eco system and use all available strengths in the ecology (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33). Practitioners should be open to different change possibilities and implement proposed plans of action after obtaining the agreement of service users (Meinert, et al, 1994, p 26-33).
Social workers must communicate and coordinate with people in the eco system during much of the intervention process (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). A significant part of the change process lies in the hands of important people in the eco systems of service users and practitioners need to offer support and facilitate change efforts through home visits and telephone calls (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). Reassessment and evaluation also form important components of the ecological intervention process (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). Social workers should be open on remapping the ecology and working through subsequent stages if the intervention efforts do not appear to be achieving their stated objectives (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The final stage of intervention that is the comprehensive evaluation of the process concerns the gathering of information through informal meetings and the use of structure questionnaires (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). The evaluation process is important for practitioners because it enables them to enhance the quality of their ecological approach based treatment procedure (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100).
Advantages and Disadvantages of the Ecological Approach
It is important to understand that ecological perspectives help social workers significantly in understanding human problems to essentially be outcomes of continuous transactions of different types between environments and people (Ginsburg, 1990, p 12-21). The conceptualising of human problems in this way helps social workers in understanding that discord between people and their environment can lead specifically to adverse physical, emotional and social effects upon people (Ginsburg, 1990, p 12-21). Such a focus is also a unifying feature of social work practice. The adoption of this approach helps social workers in taking away their focus from individuals as deviants with emotional and mental difficulties and helps in placing them simply as individuals who have mal-adaption with their environments (Henderson, 1994, p 38-45). The investigation and assessment process under this approach also allows social workers to interact with various people who are important to the service user and build an intervention plan that involves not just the social worker and the service user but also other people who are close to the service user, understand his or her problems and are able to help the service user in achieving the desired objectives (Henderson, 1994, p 38-45).
Whilst the ecological approach helps social workers significantly in conceptualising the essential concerns of social work practice, the approach continues to have some inherent difficulties and problems (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). It does not for example provide clearly laid down sets of procedures and processes for assessment and intervention, as well as strategies and reasoning for their use (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). Social workers thus use the approach for understanding the basic relationships between service users and their environments but have to thereafter devise and formulate their own assessment and intervention procedures (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). It has also disturbingly been found that when social workers intervene in the eco systems of service users by opening up communication channels with other people in the eco system, such interventions often do not have clarity in terms of outcomes and can lead to negative consequences (Pardeck, 1988, p 92-100). Critics of the ecological approach also argue that its application leads practitioners to perceive problems with such broad perspectives that practitioners attempt to plan so comprehensively that actual effectiveness of practice gets jeopardised (Henderson, 1994, p 38-45). Whilst such disadvantages and criticisms do have merit and must be considered by workers who opt to use the ecological approach, its adoption and application does enable social workers to obtain much larger perspectives and greater and more dynamic understanding of individuals and their social, cultural and physical environments (Henderson, 1994, p 38-45). The adoption of such perspectives results in avoidance of blaming of victims and in location of assessment and intervention of the issue in the ecosystem of service users (Henderson, 1994, p 38-45).
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