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Author: Stan Houston

This article describes a piece of social research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Social Care Council. It investigated the significance of a reflexive framework and linked, enabling process for social work practice. Both of these conceptual areas had been previously developed by the author and outlined in a prior submission to the journal. The methodological orientation was qualitative and idiographic so that the participants’ in-depth meanings could be captured in the form of a case study. In terms of data collection, three parallel, coterminous focus groups were convened and met on three occasions. To enhance the study’s representativeness, the sample was purposively drawn from a range of social work sectors and enabling contexts within Northern Ireland. The results showed that the participants wanted a reduced format and presentation of the framework, one that was accessible for busy practitioners and one that helped to clarify the nature of social work within the political and economic spheres. They also strongly registered the barriers to practising reflexivity in the modern organisation. Although the research design was limited to perspectival accounts, it showed how reflexive social work practice can be helpfully conceptualised through an awareness of the impact of various power-laden, psychosocial domains on social life.

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Author: Stan Houston

This article sets out a framework to structure reflexivity in social work practice. It comprises five domains that impact on the individual and social life, namely (a) psychobiography – referring to a person’s unique experience throughout the lifecourse; (b) situated activity – highlighting the impact of everyday social interaction; (c) social settings – addressing the role of organisations in social life; (d) culture – covering the influence of attitudes, beliefs, tastes and ideas on symbolic meaning; and (e) politico-economy – alluding to the ramifications of political and economic forces on people’s lives. It is contended that power circulates throughout each domain as an enabling and constraining force. The article then outlines a process for using the reflexive framework in ‘enabling’ activities such as practice learning, supervision, mentoring and coaching. By applying the framework in these contexts, it is argued that social workers can reflect critically on their role and develop emancipatory forms of practice.

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Author: Stan Houston

Critical realism, as expounded by Bhaskar, is a philosophy of social science that has been applied in social work scholarship addressing such areas as research methodology, practice interventions and programme evaluation. Most of these applications are based on the early rendition of the philosophy, with little attention given to Bhaskar’s later, more mature, development of dialectical critical realism. This article addresses this gap, describing how dialectic critical realism builds on the early iteration of the philosophy to account for emancipatory change in the social world. The contribution of dialectical critical realism to anti-oppressive social work is then considered through the articulation of six, interlinked steps of transformative change. Finally, the preceding meta-theoretical steps are applied to a fictitious case example involving a young person leaving care. The aim here is to show how the steps can be integrated within social work practice to stimulate positive change, human emancipation and well-being.

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Author: Stan Houston

Bronfenbrenner’s model of bio-ecological development has been utilised widely within the social sciences, in the field of human development, and in social work. Yet, while championing the rights of marginalised families and communities, Bronfenbrenner had under-theorised the role of power, agency and structure in shaping the ‘person–context’ interrelationship, life opportunities and social wellbeing. To respond to this deficit, this article first outlines Bronfenbrenner’s ‘person, process, context and time’ model. It then seeks to loosely align aspects of Bronfenbrenner’s model with Bourdieu’s analytical categories of habitus, field and capital. It is argued that these latter categories enable social workers to develop a critical ecology of child development, taking account of power and the interplay between agency and structure. The implications of the alignment for child and family social work are considered in the final section.

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Oppression within society continues unabated, with novel forms of social pathology attenuating life opportunities, social freedoms and the attainment of the ‘good life’. Building on Honneth’s earlier ‘recognition thesis’, this article critically examines his later articulation of four such pathologies: invisibilisation, instrumental rationalisation, reification and organised self-realisation. The impact of these pathologies on social actors, through instances of misrecognition, is examined as a prelude to considering their influence on social work practice. A critical incident framework is then delineated in order to heighten social workers’ awareness of these areas, and how they impinge on service users. It is argued that this framework can engender a socially intelligent, anti-oppressive alertness and response to contemporary forms of misrecognition and injustice in social life.

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The literature considering Bourdieu’s social theory and its relevance for social work is multifaceted and growing. An evaluation of this body of work is now pressing. This critical literature review explores 34 published works on this subject. Six themes emerged from a thematic analysis of the corpus: (1) the intersection between class and poverty; (2) power and symbolic domination; (3) neoliberalism and the state; (4) reflexivity; (5) relations between social workers and other professionals; and (6) the critique of Bourdieu’s thinking and its relevance for social work. The findings show that Bourdieu’s social theory can augment critical and radical social work, especially when the concepts of habitus, capital, field and reflexivity are embraced. Significantly, though, it was discovered that the ‘symbolic’ part of Bourdieu’s theory had been incompletely covered and required much more attention, as it is integral to the understanding of oppression in society.

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Many children are cared for on a full-time basis by relatives or adult friends, rather than their biological parents, and often in response to family crises. These kinship care arrangements have received increasing attention from the social sciences academy and social care professions. However, more information is needed on informal kinship care that is undertaken without official ratification by welfare agencies and often unsupported by the state. This article presents a comprehensive, narrative review of international research literature on informal kinship care to address this gap. Using systematic search and review protocols, it synthesises findings regarding: (i) the way that informal kinship care is defined and conceptualised; (ii) the needs of the carers and children; and (iii) ways of supporting this type of care. A number of prominent themes are highlighted including the lack of definitional clarity; the various adversities experienced by the families; and the requirement to understand the interface between formal and informal support. Key messages are identified to inform the development of family-friendly policies, interventions and future research.

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This study describes an investigation into the characteristics, needs and experiences of kinship foster carers in Northern Ireland. By adopting a mixed-methods approach with 54 carers, a number of salient themes was captured. The respondents were predominantly grandparents who experienced a significant incidence of health-related issues. The cohort also endured high levels of stress, particularly at the beginning stage of the foster placement. Consequently, their need for practical, emotional and respite support was most evident. In terms of the children for whom they cared, many required help at school, and some presented with challenging emotions and behaviours. Overall, these findings emphasised the importance of relationship-based social work and demonstration of accurate empathy to the carer.

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