Something about the Strengths Perspective irks me – this is my attempt to figure out why.
Yet in this direful chaos you’d compose
A general bliss from individuals’ woes?
Oh worthless bliss! in injured reason’s sight,
With faltering voice you cry, ‘What is, is right’?
— Voltaire, Poeme sur le Disastre Lisbonne, 1756
Eighteenth Century French philosopher Voltaire was famously critical of his Optimist contemporaries, whose positions are epitomized by Wilhelm Leibniz’s concept that our world is “the best of all possible worlds” (indeed, Dr. Pangloss of Candide was a satirical caricature of Leibniz), Alexander Pope’s decree that “Whatever is, is right” in An Essay on Man (1734), and by the Church’s belief that suffering is ordained by God’s will. Voltaire contended that there was too much suffering with causes that were too understandable and changeable to justify the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. Those who employ the Strengths Perspective in their work would benefit from Voltaire’s criticism; of course, they do not necessarily endorse positions similar to those of Leibniz or the Church, but the Strengths Perspective is remarkably compatible with the social, political, and economic trends of the past forty years that have caused significant distress to working class and poor families – trends that are undergirded by rationalizations similar to those espoused by the Optimists whom Voltaire despised (the similarities are conspicuously evident in conservative former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s slogan “there is no alternative”). In this document, I will attempt to figure out why I think that the Strengths Perspective intervention framework, regardless of the intentions of practitioners, pushes people to harmonize with disruptive social phenomena by focusing on their ability to acquiesce and adjust to, rather than expect something better from, their environments (resilience vs resistance). I will analyze, perhaps awkwardly, a micro-level framework for practice through a macro-level lens, but such an analysis is necessary to demonstrate how the Strengths Perspective, despite its best qualities and intentions, can inhibit substantive change.
What is the Strengths Perspective?
Strengths-based practice in the field of social work represents a departure from practices focusing on dysfunction and pathology that had dominated (and in many ways continue to dominate) human services and other helping professions for several decades (Saleebey 1996, 297). The paradigm shift is gaining mainstream traction; according to a textbook on generalist practice in social work, a strengths-based perspective is “a primary value of generalist practice (Kirst-Ashman and Hull 2012, 22).”
Strengths perspective practitioners attempt to discover and recognize strengths possessed by those with whom they work, to change the focus of practice from dysfunction to competence, to work with consumers as collaborators, and to cultivate a sense of agency among consumers. According to Dennis Saleebey, one of the main proponents of the Strengths Perspective, clients’ potential, possibility, and promise are constituted by the interaction of their capacities, competencies, and courage on one hand and their reserves, resilience, and resources on the other (Saleebey 2008, 69). Empowerment (facilitated discovery of the resources within and around clients), resilience (accumulation of knowledge, skills, and abilities through struggle and adversity), and membership (“people need to be citizens – responsible and valued members in a viable group or community”) are the cornerstones of strengths-based practice (Saleebey 1996, 298). Saleebey categorized the dynamics that impact client well-being as risk (contributing to struggle or poorer outcomes), protective (increase resilience), and generative (“remarkable and revelatory experiences”) factors, the interactions of which affect how clients perceive themselves, their environments, and their capacities to interact with their environments (300).
In the author’s professional experience, strengths-based practice has been most frequently observed among Coordinated Service Teams (CSTs) – a model of service delivery that situates the client in a matrix of supportive people that meets regularly to, in theory, empower the client. Because they are client-centered and strengths-based, CSTs lack the coercive atmosphere that clients may typically associate with social work and, at least according to author’s anecdotal impressions, clients consequently commit themselves to the process more quickly and fully than they would under more coercive conditions; it appears that the ability to freely withdraw from CSTs allows some clients to feel safer in the process. Beyond these experiences, the majority of social work practice with which the author is familiar appears to be oriented towards dysfunction and pathology, towards diagnosing and fixing a problem, towards processes that Strengths Perspective practitioners argue constrain the self-determination of clients.
So why do I have a problem with the Strengths Perspective?
Cultivating agency based on people’s strengths may be a positive departure from focusing on dysfunction and pathology, but the Strengths Perspective emphasizes individual people’s behaviors, resilience, and competencies without regard for (or with intentional disregard for) the broader social environment, however dysfunctional, within which they live. Furthermore, social work has a richer and deeper history (warts and all) than merely diagnosing and fixing individual people’s problems. Social work has also historically been a field responsible for the administration of programs that helped people in tangible, material ways, programs that house, feed, and clothe people and provide healthcare – programs that, in essence, socialize some of the costs and benefits of society (however imperfectly – note too that social workers have also been responsible for the surveillance and discipline of the poor, people of color, and women). For the past four decades, we have witnessed a systematic destruction of such programs (Harvey 2005, pp 19-26), and accompanying their decomposition has been the growth of ideological trends that emphasize the atomization of people, that sever the bonds between person and society, that divorce people from the organizations and institutions (such as unions, governments, and schools) that fostered a sense of mutuality.
According to geographer David Harvey, neoliberalism was the ruling class’s response to the stagnation of profits during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; until then, there had been an uneasy “class compromise” between the ruling and working classes mediated by Keynesian economic policy (characterized by taxation, government spending, public assistance, and public services and goods, even during periods of budget deficits, to cultivate broad stability in consumption). Neoliberalism was the organized effort of the wealthy (globally) to restore profitability by withdrawing from public institutions, services, and goods and returning to market fundamentalism (characterized by labor markets mediated by inter-worker competition and diminishing public assistance programs). Note the expanding margin between worker productivity and wages since 1970 in the charts here, for which data are available at http://www.bls.gov/lpc/.
Concomitantly, this period witnessed the ascension of postmodern theory (Jameson 1991, p 1), which stresses the hyper-subjectivity of people and their role in creating their own narrative and meaning, regardless of the social-historical reality that conditions their lives. It is a convenient relationship – as the programs that socialized some of the costs and benefits of society were defunded and people were increasingly subjected to the irrationality and unpredictability of capitalist markets, the solipsistic backbone of postmodern theory effectively reinforced the neoliberal assault against social programs by explaining that there is nothing to understand about the universe (if such a thing truly exists) but ourselves (and even that’s debatable!).
The strengths-based model (while likely not intended as such) is a service framework that is remarkably consistent with these trends that emphasize the behaviors, interactions, and transactions of isolated individuals. It is predicated on clients’ personal means of understanding and helping themselves using the strengths and resources already available to them. Help comes in the abstract form of empowerment and recognition (see post script) rather than the tangible material form of money, food, shelter, medicine, or, dare I mention it, some degree of workplace safety, stability, and democracy. Saleebey, as quoted in the aforementioned textbook, stressed that resources can be found in any environment (Kirst-Ashman and Hull 2012, 24); although this sentiment can feel empowering, it glosses over the possibility that perhaps an environment, not a person’s outlook, behaviors, or competencies, needs to be changed.
Workers in human services who find merit in the strengths-based orientation but desire a conceptual framework for practice that more fully accounts for macro-level oppressions may find inspiration in Paulo Freire, a late 20th-century theorist of education. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is perhaps the most carefully constructed and meaningfully applicable strengths-based theoretical framework for understanding and overcoming oppression precisely because of its emphasis, in contrast with the Strengths Perspective, on the social and structural dynamics of the challenges people experience and the transformative potential they possess. Freire took for granted that we live in an oppressive society and that good educators (or social workers) “fight alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity… [Our] role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people (Freire 2006, 94-95).” While such an approach might appear impractically radical for the fields of social work and education (which creates occasional dissonance for those who attempt to embrace it), it is the position of the author that educators and social workers genuinely concerned about people’s well-being must acknowledge that present society is oppressive and, as Voltaire asserted, those oppressions are understandable and changeable. Writing in the journal International Social Work, Guo and Tsui posit that the Strengths Perspective (and social workers in general) should move beyond a commitment to building resilience to a commitment to building resistance, cultivating active engagement in movements to overcome oppression among clients (Guo and Tsui 2010, 238). In daily practice, Gardner and Toope argue in the Canadian Journal of Education that a social justice orientation to the Strengths Perspective requires that practitioners engage in a process of “recognizing students-in-context, critically engaging in strengths and positivity, nurturing democratic relations, and enacting creative and flexible pedagogies (Gardner and Toope 2011, 98).” Such a process requires a degree of flexibility that may be uncomfortable for many practitioners, but it gives people the space (or, rather, it doesn’t take that space away) to experiment with their power to interact with their environments, build social solidarity, and intervene in their oppressions in manners that have been denied to them in more traditional social work frameworks for practice.
Social workers seeking to, as expressed in the NASW Code of Ethics, “pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people (NASW 2008)” will find that the Strengths Perspective offers a useful conceptual starting point to engage with people struggling to harmonize with the oppressions they experience. However, without a larger critique of the framework within which people live (including a critique of the Perspective’s – and the social work field’s – limitations and collusions with that framework by ignoring, acquiescing to, or enforcing the neoliberal assault on public goods and services) and embracing a more assertive resistance orientation, the Strengths Perspective offers little potential to tangibly help people.
Bad things happen disproportionately to some people – people in poverty, people of color, women, people who are LGBTQ; Strengths Perspective harbors the risk of atomizing these struggles and relegating them to the realm of individual experience and behavior. If we push people to interpret problems as matters of how people individually react to difficult environments that are in fact imposed on them as part of a collectivity – class exploitation on the poor and working class, white supremacy on people of color, patriarchy on women, heteronormativity on LGBTQ people – then we negate possibilities for people to broaden their struggles, to interpret struggles through the lens of solidarity, and to collectively agitate for meaningful, tangible social change.
Or maybe I’m just an irritable curmudgeon shaking my rake at passers by.
Post Script – regarding recognition and empowerment…
Critical theorist Nancy Fraser attempted through a series of essays during the late 1990’s to reconcile tensions between distribution and recognition politics by arguing that each had unique claims to legitimacy but that each must be understood in relation to capitalism. She warned that oversimplified arguments for recognition can create problems of displacement, whereby class politics are dislodged in favor of recognition, or reification, whereby group identities take on a more concrete rather than fluid conceptualization that encourages “separatism, intolerance and chauvinism, patriarchalism and authoritarianism (Fraser, 2000, 2).” However, she recognized that the politics of recognition represents “genuinely emancipatory responses to serious injustices that cannot be remedied by redistribution alone…Properly conceived, struggles for recognition can aid the redistribution of power and wealth and can promote interaction and cooperation across gulfs of difference (ibid).” The key factor for Fraser regarding recognition is to not “sever its links with political economy” but to examine instead “its relation to economic class (9, emphasis added)”.
Fraser, N. (2000). Rethinking Recognition. New Left Review 3, May-June 2000
Freire, P. (2006). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Press
Gardner, M. and D. Toope. (2011). A Social Justice Perspective on Strengths-based Approaches: Exploring Educators’ Perspectives and Practices. Canadian Journal of Education, 34(3), 86-102
Guo, W. and M. Tsui. (2010). From Resilience to Resistance: A Reconstruction of the Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice. International Social Work, 53(2), 233-245
Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press
Kirst-Ashman, K and Hull, G. (2012). Understanding Generalist Practice. Belmont: Brooks/Cole
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. http://www.naswdc.org/pubs/code/code.asp Accessed 3/5/2015.
Saleebey, D. (1996). The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice: Extensions and Cautions. Social Work, 41(3), 296-305
Saleebey, D. (2008). Commentary on the Strengths Perspective an Potential Applications in School Counseling. Professional School Counseling, 12(2), 68-75