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Abstract Principles

Essay by   •  February 12, 2013  •  Research Paper  •  1,595 Words (7 Pages)  •  532 Views

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Theory has a way of weaving itself through everything in my mind. I think we are all creatures of theory in many ways, formal and informal. In a certain sense, we are all naïve, intuitive scientists investigating reality by testing our theoretical assumptions against the data of life. Some of us just make a formal educational project out of it. Theories are the abstract principles of thought that we all use to attempt to understand and to make predictions about our world as we try to achieve some control over life's outcomes. In social work practice, theories becomes something more--they provide an explicit guide and framework to understanding the constellation of individuals and environmental contexts, of how the workings of social organization and power tend to create or tend to exacerbate social ills, and of the nature of the solutions we seek for the problems that lead us to do this work. They can and should serve to provide a menu of intellectual options for thought and action in social work. Yes, my position on the utility of theory in social work is both critical and eclectic.

My own life has long been an example of the utility of using theory to achieve personal insight. Over time as a young person, I came to realize that understanding my life would require some reflection and development that could only be achieved by seeking out those who traveled before me and reported back in a way that allowed me to use their thoughts to feed my self-awareness. For me, this led to an enduring interest in the philosophy of science and scientific methodology. A little later, I realized that my interests were mainly psychological in thrust and that psychology was a good way to organize my self-understanding and to see the connections that run beneath the surface in social life. As a result, I have spent a fair amount of time studying psychological theories about human behavior and applying them to myself. Very few did not register as having some truth, some of the time. I think in the end, however, there is no grand unified social theory of everything; we must make a patchwork quilt to cover the range of human experience. I think the ones I am clearest about rejecting are classical psychodynamic theory with its sexist assumptions and failed utility within psychotherapy and behaviorism with its overly rigid emphasis on the determinative role of environmental contingencies.

I do, however, happily accept the utility of any number of theoretical positions in an eclectic way. As a critical person, I believe that theories are double-edged tools. Perhaps a more accurate metaphor for human behavioral theories is that they are maps for exploring society, but maps are never the equivalent of the territory itself. In my case, I have recognized myself in theories and the constructs used to guide scientific research and form meaningful questions and establish what the meaning of their results are. At the same time, I remain an eternal skeptic unconvinced of the absolute value of anything and a pragmatist who demands that something be shown to have practical value before being accepted in to practice. I think that my position on the utility of theory in my own life is that is has definite value, but that that value has to be understood in context and within limits set by the theory itself.

All theories do have something to offer, however, from the grand framework of general systems theory to the more highly limited theories like behaviorism. It is equally important to remember that all theories carry ideological baggage and that no one theory has unlimited utility--no theory does it all. Furthermore, as our text argues, "[g]iven the inherently ideological nature of human behavior theory, it is crucial that theories be held to open to intellectual analysis, criticism, and evaluation." (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 2006, p. 15). The list of caveats that may be fairly made about theories of human behavior leads to skepticism that can only be overcome by carefully examining theoretical assumptions for their contextual appropriateness and seeking to use them in ways that are most ably suited for. This is an ongoing process in the field and in the real world that has yet to arrive at a final endpoint where there is broad agreement about which theories are best operationalized into which practices to be evaluated by which criteria and for what purpose. Which brings us, perhaps, to the concept of positionality.

My experience with theory over time has been driven by issues relating to the concept of positionality--the categories of social identity that I participate in and which inform my outlook on theory and life more generally, the categories that shape my experience in life in ways that lead to theoretical preferences, perhaps. I come to social work with a range of attributes which predispose me to see and be seen in certain ways: I am white, male, middle-aged, and educated. I was acculturated in a rural setting without significant exposure to other cultures or ethnicities as I grew up. These attributes make me a match for an insider perspective with meaningful access to the paths of privilege within academe and in the larger world. They probably also make me seem like a good bet to be someone who would be likely to uncritically accept dominant

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