Seeing social work through narrative

Clive Baldwin

Clive Baldwin

by Clive Baldwin, author of Narrative social work: Theory and application

Narrative is becoming increasingly a focus of interest across disciplines and professions – philosophy, sociology, psychology, medicine, nursing, psychotherapy, theology, women’s studies, law and so on have all taken up narrative in some form or other.  Social work, too, has taken up narrative, albeit to a lesser extent – social work interest in narrative seems to cluster within three main areas: narrative as an intervention (usually a version of narrative therapy), narrative in social work education and personal narratives of practising social work.  While these three areas are interesting and important, to my mind they do not engage deeply with narrative as an approach to social work per se and as such miss some important insights and opportunities for developing a truly narrative-based social work.

The difference, I think, lies in what I distinguish as the stronger and weaker programs of narrative.  The weaker programs see narrative as something that casts light on a reality that is out there, whether that be the reality of service users’ lives, the reality of practising social work, or the reality of wider social and political movements.  Narrative, in this program, is but a window onto the world of social work.  Alternatively narrative is seen as a tool, an intervention – as in narrative therapy – to be brought to bear when the occasion is apposite.

The stronger program, on the other hand, uses narrative as the lens through which we see all of social work.  In this stronger program narrative is taken as a way of knowing about the Self, others and the world; a way of communicating; a way of acting – narrative does not simply reflect the world, but constantly makes and remakes the world.  In this program, social work, as an activity that seeks to understand individuals in context and work with them toward individual and societal betterment is, through and through, a narrative activity.  Supporting this view is a wide literature on how the Self is constructed in and through narrative; another on understanding policy-making as a narrative process; yet another on how social movements rely on and play out certain stories; and still another on how narrative acts as a means to ethical reasoning and decision-making.  The stories we hear and the stories we tell make up the world of social work. To understand narrative is to understand social work.

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