An Assessment of an Application of Western Social Work Theory the Indigenous People of Australia
Today, there is a considerable debate in the Asia-Pacific region concerning the importance of indigenous models of social work. This debate focuses on whether social work needs to discover a unique model for every context which is significantly different from other contexts; for example, socialist instead of capitalist, predominantly rural instead of urban, poorly developed as against medium or well developed, and Buddhist as opposed to Muslim or Christian? In the alternative, does social work actually possess a universal core of theory, values, skills, and intervention methods that can be adapted to, or otherwise modified within, each particular national or local context? (Midgley 1981). To this end, this paper examines the viability of applying Western social work theory to the indigenous people of Australia, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. Developing an overview of social work theory as it applies to the Asia-Pacific region requires an initial decision as to the nature of social work itself. One such approach would be to define social work in highly professional terms, which would thereby limit its presence in the region to a small number of countries, and then proceed to overview developments in those countries; however, such an analysis would not comprise much of the adoption of Western social work by the more developed or industrialized countries of the region, together with less developed countries where the introduction of social work was influenced strongly by colonial or military relations with the West. The main countries to be included in such a review would then include Australia, as well as Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Sri Lanka (Elliott, Mayadas & Watts 1997). In the alternative, such an analysis can adopt a more flexible definition of social work in terms of its traditional origins in various countries, its understandable diversity in the face of varying levels of national development, and its different roles responding to differences in the development of welfare and social services in the various countries.
The fundamental question that arises, then, is not the degree to which emerging practice models reflect the nature of social work in the West, but rather whether such new models of social work theory and practice are emerging, or need to emerge, throughout the region (Elliott, Mayadas & Watts 1997). Terms in the social sciences and in social work are often difficult to define precisely. Terms may have several different meanings, and this is especially true across cultures. The differences in languages provide challenges to a common understanding of social science and social work terms; for instance, the term "social work" is clearly comprised of two important words, "social" and "work." However, these two words may represent different things in Bangladesh, or Saudi Arabia, or Australia. Placing these two words together to create the term "social work" produces further cross-cultural constraints, because the idiom "social work" may assume different meanings in different cultures. "We are all culture bound to a certain extent, even the most internationalist or globalist among us" (Elliott, Mayadas & Watts 1997:3).
According to Sanders and Pedersen (1984), social work "refers to the core functions and specialized helping services performed by social workers in their professional capacity as members of the profession. The functions and specialized tasks that are part of the social workers' helping efforts are goal oriented and geared to problem solving and change" (xiv). These authors concluded by pointing out that there are "obvious interconnections and it is helpful to view social work as a profession functioning in the context of the broad field of social welfare" (xv). The International Code of Ethics for the Professional Social Worker defined social work as follows: "Social work originates variously from humanitarian, religious and democratic ideals and philosophies and has universal application to meet human needs arising from personal societal interactions and to develop human potential" (International Federation of Social Workers 1976:1). Similarly, the National Association of Social Workers in the U.S. (NASW) (1973) stated early on that: "Social work is the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favorable to this goal" (4). According to the NASW, social work practice is comprised of the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends:
Helping people obtain tangible services;
Providing counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups;
Helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services; and participating in relevant legislative processes.
Therefore, the effective practice of social work in Australia requires knowledge of human development and behavior; of social, economic, and cultural institutions, and of the interaction of all of these factors. According to Elliott et al. (1997), this interconnection between social work and social welfare is not so clear to some observers: "Indeed, some social workers, perhaps located more numerously in the West, would view social work as having no more direct connection to 'social welfare' than modern medicine would have to large-scale illness prevention and health promotion" (2). However, this view of social work would cause it to resemble professions such as clinical psychology or related fields.
From a social work perspective that is attempting to integrate applicable indigenous treatment models, then, there would be profound implications for this view, not the least of which would be a denial that social work should be a particular advocate for, or serve the needs of, the poor and the oppressed (Elliott et al. 1997). These authors encourage social work and social welfare to come more closely together, and in so doing, promote a social development model. "This social development model would help social workers to see a wider view of their clients and to be effective agents of change on behalf of their clients" (Elliott et al. 1997:2). The changes that are taking place in the development of social work theory today, then, tend to reflect the overall changes that are taking place in Western society as a result of an overall global culturalization process. Mayadas and Elliott (1990) reported that the "social development model is set in contrast to the residual approach: it emphasizes a multisystems approach, addressing economic, social, cultural, personal, and political levels of development. It is empowering rather than stigmatizing, and incorporates plans for future development as well as immediate needs" (283).
Today, there is an "unprecedented interest in questions of social development, as was evident in the decision to convene a World Summit for Social Development in 1995 (General Assembly resolution 47/92)" (United Nations 1993:iii). The publication of an edition on introducing social development content in the social work curriculum (Healy 1992) points to a growing concern in the social work field that education provide more attention to indigenous models, and the social development model would therefore appear to be appropriate for social work in Australia. According to Mayadas and Lasan (1984), social work as a profession has long had a commitment to the larger environment in which people are located as well as being a profession that has historically been philosophically committed to such marginalized populations.
Application of Western Social Work in Australia. The move to develop improved social work models for indigenous peoples is particularly important for Australia today. Many Australian Aborigines are striving to regain ownership of their traditional lands and some groups have regained title to large areas in the Northern Territory and in the state of South Australia. In 1980, the federal government of Australia established the Aboriginal Development Commission. This commission is composed of Aborigines, and manages lands regained by the Aborigines, and promotes private enterprise and home ownership by…