Dialectical critical realism, transformative change and social work

Author: Stan Houston1
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  • 1 Queen’s University Belfast, , UK
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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.

Abstract

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.

Key messages

  • Critical realism, as outlined by Roy Bhaskar, is a philosophy of social science that has relevance to social work.

  • Critical realism accounts for change in the social world by identifying deep-seated mechanisms causing events to occur.

  • Social work scholarship has so far addressed Bhaskar’s early articulation of critical realism, giving little consideration to his later development of dialectical critical realism.

  • This article describes the essential tenets of dialectical critical realism and shows how they can be applied within social work practice to stimulate positive outcomes, human emancipation and well-being.

Introduction

Bhaskar’s enunciation of critical realism (CR) is now well established within the social sciences and social work scholarship (Danermark et al, 2019; Buch-Hansen and Nielsen, 2020). Offering an alternative to positivism and postmodernism (Collier, 1994), this branch of philosophy enables the social professions to gain a deep-seated understanding of causality in the social world. In doing so, it links outcomes with mechanisms triggering change, contextual factors, spatio-temporal considerations and human agency. With its declared commitment to social justice and human emancipation, CR strengthens and animates anti-oppressive social work practice by providing it with a meta-theory that reconciles realism and social constructionism, agency and structure, and free will and determinism. However, up until this point, social work commentators have concentrated on Bhaskar’s early, first-wave rendition of CR, as outlined in landmark texts such as A Realist Theory of Science (Bhaskar, 1975) and The Possibility of Naturalism (Bhaskar, 1979). By maintaining this focus, the social work academy has largely neglected Bhaskar’s later, more mature, development of CR, as rendered in his second-wave iteration, termed ‘dialectical critical realism’ (DCR).

Bhaskar’s aim in DCR was to remedy inconsistencies, gaps and anomalies within CR in order to put the theorisation of dialectical change on a firmer philosophical footing. In this article, I respond to this gap in the social work literature by summarising what I understand to be the core messages emanating from within the DCR thesis, that is, its ideas concerning transformative change in the social world once dialectical processes have been unleashed. I contend that social work practitioners can implement these ideas to buttress anti-oppressive practice, undergirding it with a meta-theory explaining causation and change in the social world. It is axiomatic that social workers practise in a social world increasingly riven with inequalities, social exclusion, rampant xenophobia, neoliberal cleavages and social divisions (Harvey, 2005; Klein, 2007). Consequently, theories that explain the reason why these social outcomes are so prevalent, as well as how they can be tackled, take on a particular prominence.

To set the scene, I first rehearse the central tenets of first-wave CR and summarise how they were extrapolated to social work by several authors. With this foundation in place, the contribution of DCR to emancipatory social work is then considered. Following this presentation, an illustrative case example of a young person leaving care is presented using the six steps that have been adduced to capture the tenets of DCR. In all of this, the vital necessity of meta-theory for social work is underscored.

First-wave CR

In this section, I summarise some of the central tenets of first-wave CR, as delineated by Bhaskar (1979) in his significant text The Possibility of Naturalism. As a pioneering philosophy of social science, it had much to say about ontology (the nature of reality and being), epistemology (the nature of knowledge and how we come to apprehend it) and axiology (the nature of values and ethics). Importantly, when it comes to the study of human agents and social phenomena, to which social scientists and social workers are committed, these branches of philosophical inquiry are indispensable. Theories, methods, investigative questions and practice interventions are all underpinned by philosophical premises requiring critical interrogation. This is the reason why meta-theory and philosophy (of the kind promulgated by CR) are imperative for social workers, particularly when they assess people’s interactions with their social environments. Let us now consider some of the central constructs within Bhaskar’s early rendition of CR.

Within this early body of work, the concepts of the ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ spheres of reality occupy a central place. The former refers to our social construction of the social world: the ideas, notions, theories and conjectures we develop concerning it. Plainly, both social scientists and social workers develop transitive understandings of the social world through their investigation and assessment of it; however, being socially constructed, this knowledge is open to the distortions that come with cognitive bias and the influence of power. In other words, transitive knowledge will never fully or reliably capture social reality; rather, it is at best an approximate encapsulation of the object of study.

The ‘intransitive’ sphere, by way of contrast, is the ‘real’ world that we attempt to appraise and comprehend. It includes multifarious things: material objects, climate change, human interaction, cultural artefacts and so on. Crucially, for CR, these objects of study exist independently of our understanding of them. This is a cardinal realist stance, one held contra radical, post-structuralist views (Burr, 2015) suggesting that nothing exists except socially constructed discourses of meaning – an epistemic fallacy according to Bhaskar. For critical realists, when it comes to social-scientific investigations, or social work assessment, there is a danger of conflating the two spheres, or viewing them as identical.

A second notion builds on the former. It refers to the three domains of reality. The first, the empirical domain, comprises information about the social world that we gain from our sense impressions. We see leaves falling on a windy day, taste food, hear music and touch substances. In social work, sense impressions are a vital component of social work assessment, occurring when we, for instance, carry out an observation of a home visit. The second domain, according to Bhaskar, is the actual domain. It refers not only to things that are experienced by an observer, but also to events and phenomena that occur when not observed. For example, numerous events happen in households to which social workers are not always privy. This distinction between the empirical and actual domains is an important one. Experiences do not always reflect the nature of actual things. Finally, and most importantly, Bhaskar draws our attention to the real domain. This is the domain where unseen mechanisms cause events and phenomena to occur in the world. For instance, we cannot see magnetism but can notice its effects in patterns of iron filings. Likewise, social workers cannot directly observe the mechanism of human attachment but can nevertheless witness its causative effects in the empirical domain when it is disrupted or broken. A child’s resulting distress might point to the fact that the attachment mechanism has been activated. Typically, throughout the social world, life-diminishing mechanisms include, among other things, racism, patriarchy, classism, homophobia and cultural scapegoating.

Events in the social world occur, then, due to the activation of causal mechanisms and the activities of creative human actors influenced by the contingencies of time, space and the legacy of history (Archer, 2017). Moreover, change in the social world happens, for Bhaskar, in open systems, including families, social networks, cultural and social groups, and institutions. These systems contain multiple types of mechanism, including psychological, social, political and economic types. They collectively point to a stratified or layered social world. Along with the interventions of human agents and situational contingencies, causality in social life becomes a complex affair – one hard to predict and different from the operation of a closed system in a laboratory, involving a natural scientist seeking to determine a predictable regularity between cause and effect. Hence, for the natural scientist, a piece of litmus paper dipped in an alkaline solution can be predicted to turn blue. At this point, a regularity of cause and effect is established. Nevertheless, such prognostic confidence is rarely available to social scientists or professional social workers, who deal with manifold factors shaping behaviours and events.

Pointedly, for social workers, some of these mechanisms operating in the social world have deleterious effects on human actors. Racism causes stigma, stereotyping, othering and discrimination (Dominelli, 2017). Sexism objectifies women (Papadaki, 2012). Neoliberal mechanisms have the effect of commodifying human relations and fetishising them (Buch-Hansen and Nielsen, 2020). Other mechanisms have the opposite effect by enhancing well-being. Hence, social support can lead to mental well-being and build resilience in young people (Pinkerton and Dolan, 2007). Strong, loving caregiver bonds can build confidence in children (Howe, 2011). Social capital reinvigorates local communities (Putnam, 2000). Recognising another’s worth can embolden self-esteem (Honneth, 1996). Forming collectives, mutual networks and alliances can galvanise structural and radical social work practice (Mullaly, 2006). However, social life is invariably fashioned by the interaction between misanthropic and beneficial mechanisms. That said, large numbers of service users in social work have had lives blighted by the former, as indicated in research regarding adverse childhood experiences (Spratt and Kennedy, 2021).

Significantly, Bhaskar (following Marx) contends that when social scientists encounter the operation of negative mechanisms impacting people’s lives, there is a moral obligation to expose their presence and detrimental effects. This stance goes against the predominant view in the social sciences which posits that the research investigator must always remain objective, neutral, value-free and dispassionate. However, as Sayer (2011) argued, we are all indelibly immersed in a social world replete with values and ethical responsibilities for the other. This position was also compellingly extolled by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1969). Therefore, social scientists cannot simply extricate themselves from the fundamental, existential givens of life. Similarly, when social workers encounter negative forces, there is an unassailable professional obligation to ‘call them out’ and challenge them.

Yet, how does the social scientist or social worker identify these mechanisms if they are unseen realities? In response, CR adopts a method termed ‘retroduction’. This method structures a journey into the realm of the ‘deep’ and ‘hidden’, and, in doing so, offers an alternative to the more familiar modes of investigation based on deduction or induction. Retroduction starts with the construction of, what the philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to as, a ‘transcendental question’, that is, the inquirer asks: ‘What must exist for “x” to be the case?’ We observe a phenomenon in the empirical world but then seek to determine what is causing it. This is an a priori investigation that draws on relevant theories, research, information, models, analogies and metaphors to formulate a tentative hypothesis explaining the observed phenomenon in terms of what is causing it. A social worker, for example, observes a young person in residential care alternating between periods of sadness, anger, anxiety, sleep disturbance and guilt. After considered deliberation, they hypothesise that a previous trauma might be part of the reason for these reactions. Retroduction then proceeds to seek evidence to support the hypothesis or disconfirm it. In relation to the aforementioned case example, a social worker might inquire if these behavioural reactions started soon after the inception of a trauma experienced by the young person. If we have confidence that the hypothesis has merit, then ameliorative interventions can be initiated to address it.

So far, the social work academy has drawn on these ideas to inform practice interventions, research design and meta-theoretical questions about the nature of social work. As an illustration of the first of these applications, Blom and Morén (2010) applied CR precepts and premises to develop their unique ‘CAIMeR’  model. The authors argue that the model can be applied within organisational settings to identify pertinent generative mechanisms and how their influence is shaped by social contingencies to eventuate in certain outcomes. Staying with the practice development application, Houston (2001) examined risk assessment in child welfare, arguing that CR underscores an approach to risk that embraces realist tools of assessment, on the one hand, while also adopting social-constructionist methods to examine the meaning of risk, on the other.

The second category, covering research design, is separated into articles applying CR ideas to research method, data gathering and analysis (Houston, 2010; Oliver, 2012; Craig and Bigby, 2015), and outlines of empirical work applying a CR methodology (Herrero and Charnley, 2019; North, 2019). Oliver’s work, an example of the former, makes a credible case for CR grounded theory. As I have argued elsewhere:

this was achieved by using critical realist ideas (on the nature of agency, structure, and emancipation) to amplify the inductive process lying at the heart of grounded theory. Oliver’s work was helpful in that it showed how critical realism could act as an under labourer facilitating synthesis, complementary understandings and synergies between different concepts and methods. (Houston, 2022: 351, emphasis as original)

In the third category of application, the focus turns to meta-theoretical questions exploring the interface between critical realism and social work. Some of these articles cover epistemological considerations, such as the status of social work knowledge (Houston, 2001; Mäntysaari, 2005; Longhofer and Floersch, 2012), and ontological issues, such as clarifying the nature of human change (Morén and Blom, 2003). Other outputs under this category focus on the social construction of knowledge, the agency–structure conundrum and how to engender emancipation. For instance, McNeil and Nicholas (2019) apply CR as an emancipatory epistemology to inform structural social work.

Although the aforementioned applications of CR ideas to social work make a valuable contribution to the knowledge base, they rely essentially on first-wave CR. Hence, the contribution of second-wave DCR to social work practice remains to be grasped. However, before rising to this challenge, we first need to understand how Bhaskar built on these early formative concepts within CR to foster a ‘dialectical enrichment and deepening of critical realism’ (Bhaskar, 2008: 2).

Second-wave DCR

DCR, as set out in the tome Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (Bhaskar, 2008), is a work of monumental philosophical analysis and formal logic, drawing centrally on the work of Hegel and Marx. Despite its abstruse vernacular, lexicon of neologisms and labyrinth of themes, the text develops a plausible meta-theoretical account of change in the social world. This is an account that explains the role of human agents and social structures in determining outcomes in social life. More specifically, in DCR, Bhaskar examines how social change arises from the dialectical processes of conflict, opposition, contradiction and antinomy such as occur under neoliberalism, where different social classes undergo markedly opposing experiences of prosperity, social stratification and social mobility. In making this case, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom can be viewed as an intellectual lightning rod igniting the sociological imagination. For the acclaimed commentator on CR Alan Norrie (2009: 1), it ‘represents a novel, radical, coherent and deep philosophical system of potentially far-reaching significance’.

A foundational plank of DCR is a philosophical reconceptualisation of the ‘dialectic’ and how it leads to change in human affairs. Whereas Hegel put forward a closed system of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to explain dialectical change at the level of ideas, DCR builds on the Marxist attempt to ground the dialectic in real-life, material affairs. Thus, for Marx and Bhaskar, real-world relations involving opposing classes had the potential to promulgate social change. For Bhaskar, though, the dialectic was more than Hegel’s and Marx’s confrontation of opposing entities of thesis and antithesis because the elements making up the dialectic were not always strictly antagonistic, but rather aligned, connected, complementary or juxtaposed. In this formulation, the dialectic was any type of interaction between differentiated but related elements. For example, actors within institutions can present with different values but nevertheless aspire to a common aim. It is the interaction between these value positions (often after a crisis has occurred) that creates change at an organisational level. Bhaskar also contended that the Hegelian dialectic did not give sufficient credence to ‘absence’ as the prime mover of change – in other words, what was missing in life or lived experience – or sufficiently theorise how transformative change took place.

In the following, I interpret and summarise the essential messages of DCR concerning its emancipatory account of change, condensing Bhaskar’s core thesis about the nature of dialectic into six sequential, interlinked steps leading to transformative praxis. The contention is that social work practitioners can apply these meta-theoretical steps to real-life encounters with service users to understand not only what is absent from their lives, but also how to remedy such privations so that they can experience enhanced well-being or a state of improved ‘presence’ in the social world. The six, sequential steps are enumerated in the following.

Step 1: understanding the reality of ‘presence’

According to Bhaskar, the first step in the dialectical process involves understanding the nature of ‘presence’, that is, comprehending the basis of our ontology, lived experience or being in the world, and how, from a CR stance, it is a ‘real’ presence even though we socially construct our understanding of it. This step involves an awareness of the human condition in all its dimensions: biological, psychological, existential, social and (not least) material. For example, when carrying out a social work assessment, it might involve the need to understand the nature of social class and culture, and how they shape human existence, lived experience and the life course. Drawing on research and theory about class and culture is a way of deepening our understanding of these ontological areas as central aspects of ‘presence’ affecting a service user’s life. Importantly, from within the stance of CR, our lived experience, being real, exists independently of our understanding of it and cannot be reduced to discourse.

This step in the dialectical process also involves acknowledging the presence of what Bhaskar terms ‘non-identity’, that is, entities that exist before our direct knowledge of them empirically is manifest but that nonetheless have causal properties. For example, patriarchy may have a hidden impact on a woman’s life that is not readily evident based on an initial social work assessment. With deeper probing and inquiry over time, and applying mixed methods of assessment, the unseen becomes the seen.

Step 2: noticing what is ‘absent’ in ‘presence’

The second step in the dialectical process involves noticing what is ‘absent’ in ‘presence’, that is, considering what is missing (from a detrimental point of view) in current lived experience. In other words, the task of the critical inquirer is to locate the absence of well-being in life, or what Aristotle referred to as ‘eudaimonia’ (‘human flourishing’), because of the injurious effects of, for example, class exploitation, the misrecognition of identity or the denial of participatory rights. Significantly, then, ‘absence’ foregrounds the dialectic by highlighting contradictions or anomalies, such as oppressive power relations between mutually antagonistic social classes or inequities between the privileged and oppressed. Put another way, contradictions can be dissonances, strains or tensions between opposing factions that bind, exclude or constrain. ‘Absence’ can additionally refer to a lack of knowledge or a lack of critical understanding of personhood, or a deficiency of some entity, property, state of being or attribute that has negative consequences for the realisation of the good life. The absence of social support, for instance, can negatively impact recovery from mental trauma (Sippel et al, 2015).

In social work, there are many types of contradiction emanating from ‘absence’ that stimulate the dialectic. Thus, we see contradictions between: the rhetoric of social policy and the reality of service delivery; authoritarian, ‘muscular’ social work and activist, empowering practice; bureaucratic social work and therapeutic intervention; the role of social work as taught in social work colleges and the realpolitik of street-level, service engagement; and the new public management approach embedded in welfare organisations and radical discourses in social work. Fundamentally, in all of this, the overriding contradiction driving the dialectic is that between the human imperative to experience a fulfilled, ideal ‘presence’ and the reality of what is ‘absent’ in actual conditions.

Significantly, Bhaskar argues that Western philosophical traditions have been ontologically monovalent as regards an awareness of ‘absence’, that is, inattentive to the concept, instead placing most of the emphasis on what is present to our empirical senses. This concern with ‘absence’ further emphasises a stance of moral realism challenging the ‘is–ought’ conundrum within much of social science (Sayer, 2011). This is because ‘absence’ is often palpably felt as human suffering. If suffering is real, according to CR, then its alleviation is equally pressing from an ethical point of view.

Step 3: connecting ‘absence’ with ‘emergence’

Connecting ‘absence’ with ‘emergence’ constitutes the third step in the dialectical process of change. When we contemplate ‘absence’ within ‘presence’ in the foregoing step, the possibility of emergence to a better or transformed state of being is potentially unleashed. Put another way, an awareness of ‘absence’ leads to questions of how transformative change is possible. Being aware of ‘absence’ therefore becomes the progenitor (and contains the seeds) of protean change and the attainment of eudaimonia. It fosters movement by generating envisioned alternatives of the better life and inculcating the ‘seeds of hope’. Thus, ‘absence’ is a vital step in conscientisation in social work: the development of critical awareness or consciousness of surrounding social structures. In Bhaskarian terms, the ‘absent’ becomes the pulse towards freedom. It is the defining, potentiating force not only of existence, but also of causality. We can only comprehend the movement towards the positive in life, contends Bhaskar, by understanding its opposite: the negative or the ‘absent’. Being aware of a service user’s disabling narrative about self – in other words, the ‘absence’ of positive identity – can foster a social work intervention aimed at co-creating a new identity, one externalising incapacitating stories while building self-efficacy. According to Bhaskar, a decisive factor in this process of change is human agency and how it is associated with creativity, the dawning of understanding and innovation. We see this in social work when a service user is encouraged to use their agency to develop new, enabling narratives about self (Baldwin, 2013).

Step 4: committing to ‘absent’ ‘absence’

Transformative action occurs by committing (in Bhaskar’s words) to ‘absent’ ‘absence’, that is, to negate, remedy or challenge what is absent and its attendant contradictions. ‘Absenting’ is the removal of constraints (material and otherwise), untruths and disempowering ideology impinging on human flourishing. An awareness of our radical incompleteness – our absence – foregrounds the contradictions affecting human actors and generates an ingrained human yearning to move to (in Bhaskar’s terms) greater completeness or totality. Transformation is the negation of this negative, or, as Bhaskar puts it, the absenting of the absent. The emergence of positive change in the preceding step will take place when we morally pledge to end ‘absence’. As with the Marxist tradition, philosophical insights must generate a commitment to steadfast activism or praxis. For example, social workers encountering significant gaps in a child’s development due to an impoverished social environment are morally challenged to advocate and lobby for change on the child’s behalf. Yet, as the next step argues, social workers need to fully comprehend the nature of ‘absence’ before it can be addressed.

Step 5: understanding the causal factors perpetuating ‘absence’

Comprehending what gives rise to ‘absence’ and how to ‘absent’ it means taking account of the multiple factors perpetuating ‘absence’, including spatio-temporal considerations, history, the role of complex social systems, power, the causal mechanisms operating at the ‘real’ level of reality (see earlier), social structure and the effects of human agency. We will only get a true sense of the constraints and entanglements engendered by the ‘whole’ or ‘totality’ when we break it down into its constituent parts and examine their causal interactions. In this step, we employ CR’s analytical process of retroduction (see earlier) to identify the relevant causal mechanisms affecting ‘absence’ within open systems. The transcendental question under the rubric of retroduction therefore becomes: what is happening at the level of causality for this ‘absence’ to occur? This question stimulates the quest for causal mechanisms and properties operating in time and space. In social work, through retroduction, we might identify that neoliberal mechanisms of commodification, welfare retrenchment and competition have introduced unassailable barriers hampering a family’s attempts to get out of poverty despite their best efforts.

Step 6: enacting transformative change to absent absence

Enacting transformative change arises when human agents exercise their agency through praxis to effectively ‘absent’ the ‘absence’ by using insights from the preceding five steps to develop concrete change strategies. This awareness will foreground opposites, synergies, contradictions and dichotomies, and works to activate beneficial causal mechanisms while minimising unhelpful, misanthropic mechanisms. This is a reconfiguration of the dialectic as the ‘absenting’ of ‘absence’ in the human sphere of radical, agential praxis. To reaffirm once again, change arises from the tension between discordant but related elements. This is the essence of the dialectic.

According to Bhaskar, human agents transform their experience of absence within four planes of social reality, namely: (1) the ‘real’, that is, transactions with nature; (2) the ‘actual’, that is, intersubjective transactions with others; (3) the ‘empirical’, that is, transactions with social structures; and (4) the ‘transcendent’, that is, actions promoting human liberation, fulfilment and eudaimonia, and jettisoning false consciousness. Let us ground these abstract planes in a real-life example. Take a family blighted by poverty and poor housing. Attempts by social workers to advocate for better housing on their behalf exist at the level of the ‘real’. Dealing with the family, listening to their concerns, linking them with empowering networks and planning an action strategy with them come under the plane of the ‘actual’. Challenging unfair eligibility criteria for housing (on the family’s behalf) constitutes action centred within the ‘empirical’ plane. Lastly, the ‘transcendent’ is realised through empowering the family to take action for change by recognising their own capacities and capabilities as active agents.

Having enumerated the six steps, the next section considers, tentatively and suppositionally, how they might apply to a fictitious case example involving a social work intervention. The aim here is to extrapolate these schematic ideas to a practical situation in order to foster change and human empowerment.

Case example

The case concerns John, a young person leaving care after residing in a residential home for several years. In early childhood, he experienced a series of broken attachments and suffered trauma due to witnessing domestic violence within the home. Like many young people in care, John experienced several care placements and disrupted schooling before eventually finding some stability in his last placement. Throughout his care journey, parental contact has been erratic. Given that there is little prospect of John returning to the parental home, a place in a hostel has been identified once he leaves care. In addition, an aftercare social worker has been allocated to support and advise him alongside helpful carers in the hostel. Significantly, John presents with poor self-esteem and limited social and life skills. Due to these factors, the prospect of leaving care is a fearful one. Given this scenario, how would the social worker communicate and engage with John to challenge social exclusion and build well-being, competence and confidence using the six steps within DCR? Let us respond to this question by systematically addressing each of the steps in turn.

Step 1: understanding the reality of ‘presence’

To recapitulate, this first step necessitates a rounded consideration of the lived experience of social actors, or the nature of their ‘being’ in the social world. Applied to the case example, we therefore attempt to apprehend the young person’s lived experience as a care leaver, considering its existential, psychological, social and material dimensions. Practically, this understanding is gained through the time-honoured social work skills of observing, communicating and listening to the young person and significant others around him (Coulshed and Orme, 2013) to gain insight into how the social world is experienced by John, the impact of the life course and the narratives he has developed about himself, others, the past and the future. More than that, it requires the social worker to gather requisite biographical information from background files, reports and other agencies. These multifaceted, interprofessional and triangulated forms of information gathering are congruent with the retroductive search in CR for causative mechanisms operating within the ‘real’ domain of reality (see earlier).

Awareness of the social systems around John and how they influence or detract from his well-being adds vital information regarding the nature of the young person’s presence in the social world. Likewise, from an anti-oppressive stance, a person’s social positioning, for example, their social class, gender and cultural affiliation, can affect meaning, experience and outcomes in deleterious ways (Dominelli, 2002). Such determinations are integral to competent social work assessment and narrative-based forms of inquiry in social work (Baldwin, 2013). In all of this, an attunement to lived experience in social work is a matter of not only fact finding, but also reflection, reflexivity, probing internal conversations and critical thinking. These conceptual skills in social work cast an inquiring eye on our socially constructed, ‘transitive’ understandings (see the earlier section on CR) of the young person’s life (which result from observation). As a result of critical reflection, we realise that these understandings are partialised interpretations of the ‘intransitive’, real world. Closing the gap between the transitive and intransitive dimensions should be the aim of social work assessment.

Comprehending the lived experience of any service user will also involve drawing on relevant knowledge from research and theory on care leavers and the challenges facing them. These sources might reveal what Bhaskar termed ‘areas on non-identity’ (see earlier), or new areas of understanding in relation to the young person’s lived experience. For example, Refaeli’s (2017) research on care leavers found that two distinct narratives concerning lived experienced emerged from the data: narratives depicting a struggle to survive; and stories illustrating how the young people endured through the struggle. The former group had difficulty adapting to challenges and were more at risk, while the latter showed greater tendencies towards self-efficacy and resilience. Other research highlighted that care leavers are a vulnerable population, emotionally and socially (Courtney et al, 2019). Armed with such knowledge, the social worker can begin to surmise how John might respond to the challenge of leaving care. However, critical realists employ judgemental rationality in their theoretical deliberations, that is, they rationally appraise competing theories explaining a social phenomenon. Hence, not every theory or piece of research on leaving care will accurately capture the lived experience of care leavers.

Stage 2: noticing what is ‘absent’ in ‘presence’

Some considered notions on ‘presence’ (resulting from Step 1) lead to the second step of dialectical inquiry: the determination of ‘absence(s)’ in the young person’s life. To repeat, ‘absence’ denotes what is lacking regarding the attainment of eudaimonia in lived experience. There are some immediately noted examples of absence in John’s life, such as the lack of educational achievement and the implications this has for securing employment. Centrally, the social worker is also aware of the dearth of supportive social systems around John, fuelling his sense of isolation and loneliness. From conversations with John, it further becomes apparent that he lacks confidence in social interaction, suggesting the possibility of poor self-esteem and unresolved care and control issues from the past.

Reflecting more widely, the leaving care experience has thrust John into a liminal state of accelerated and constricted transition, precarity and unpredictability (Glynn, 2021). The uncertainty this creates is amplified by the lack of capital available to John. In this case, capital refers to money, status, rank, educational qualifications, social connections, symbolic assets and cultural know-how. In effect, John is being thrust into a neoliberal world that valorises autonomy, independence, productivity and competitive advantage – a realm that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency but does not acknowledge an impoverished start to life. In other words, John’s presentation does not conform easily with the notion of homo economicus, or economic personhood, that is, a way of being that amplifies one’s utility in neoliberal market exchanges.

Many of these ‘absences’ are highlighted in the research literature on care leavers. Stein (2006), for example, in a review of international sources, found that social exclusion was a common theme among the population. Likewise, in a Swedish study (Höjer and Sjöblom, 2010), the cohort of young people leaving care experienced ‘absences’ in social, emotional, practical and financial support. Such absences reveal contradictions between the rhetoric of children’s rights within a state’s legal instruments and the reality of service provision in front-line services. By recognising the contradiction, and the ‘absence’ to which it gives rise, social workers working with young people like John can begin to contemplate the next step in the dialectical process of transformative change.

Step 3: connecting ‘absence’ with ‘emergence’

To reiterate, the third step of recognising ‘absence’ reveals the possibility of, and potentiates, a more fulfilled state of being. Thus, the corollary of ‘absence’ is ‘emergence’ – emergence to a new reality of accomplishment and well-being. Put another way, change is immanent within loss. ‘Emergence’ can result from ‘absence’ because the latter state often generates a crisis. Crisis can lead to not only danger, but also opportunities for growth and development, windows of opportunity, the ‘seeds of hope’, and turning points within the life course (Coulshed and Orme, 2013). In this step, the leaving care experience has generated a crisis of confidence within John. This crisis is exacerbated by the lack of various kinds of capital and social support in his life, as well as the barriers created by an unfair socio-economic system that bifurcates between deserving and undeserving recipients of services (Glynn, 2021).

The question of what must change to remedy these deficits becomes pressing. When contemplating this question, the social worker envisions a state of being depicting the young person gaining access to some of the different forms of capital listed earlier and seeing the emergence of supportive social networks, employment opportunities, agreeable accommodation, enhanced life skills and the development of inner confidence. This step is value laden and congruent with CR’s emancipatory drive. Hence, if absence is found, it is impregnated with a moral imperative to tackle and ameliorate it.

Step 4: committing to ‘absent’ ‘absence’

Having seen the imperative and potential for change in the preceding step, Step 4 seeks to target those areas of discerned ‘absence’ in order to ameliorate, remove or modify them. In John’s case, the areas of absence noted in Step 2 become focal issues for social work intervention. Essentially, Step 4 concentrates on setting desired goals following assessment showing how a particular absence has been targeted and what the preferred outcome or ‘presence’ might be. Consequently, absenting ‘absence’ involves a consideration of how life might be different for John if certain barriers, obstacles, forms of misrecognition or deficits were removed or countered. In terms of employment, the goal might be to help John secure meaningful work, rather than succumbing to the alienation of what Graeber (2018) refers to as ‘bullshit’  jobs. The articulation of goals must, however, work on the basis of partnership, seeking John’s preferred scenario. This CR imperative recognises John’s agency and is congruent with the principle of empowerment in social work. Pledging to ‘absent’ ‘absence’ is a stance that moves beyond a moribund, stultified focus on simply monitoring complex situations in social work or engaging in ill-defined supports for service users.

Step 5: understanding the causal factors perpetuating ‘absence’

Let us rehearse the sequence so far before proceeding to articulate the remaining steps of the dialectical process. Step 1 considered the defining features of John’s life as a care leaver – the reality of ‘presence’ and the various challenges it posed. Step 2 went on to elicit what was missing in his life in terms of well-being factors: emotional, psychological, social and material. Having noted these ‘absences’, in Step 3, there was an appreciation of the possibility of change, that is, of moving beyond ‘absence’ to fulfilment. Building on this affirmative realisation, in Step 4, the social worker actively committed to enact change by jointly setting goals with John targeting his essential needs.

Now, in Step 5, we come to the stage when the causes of ‘absence’ are appraised through the process of retroduction (see earlier). The transcendental question initiating the retroductive process becomes: what must be happening at the causal domain of reality to explain the observed ‘absences’ in John’s life as a care leaver? A valid hypothesis here might be drawn from a CR understanding of the interplay between agency and structure, and how this has affected John’s life course. Thus, we might opine that John’s socialisation and identity formation have been shaped by external structures and mechanisms. For example, his social class and care status have led to limited expectations of academic achievement within the education and care systems, affecting his inner confidence and self-efficacy. Furthermore, John’s employment prospects have been compounded by the neoliberal mechanisms of ‘dog eat dog’ and competitive, one-upmanship. More than that, the occupational, social and cultural spaces that John has been thrust into have not equipped him with sufficient types of capital to ‘hold his own’ and progress in the zero-sum game that defines this neoliberal world. The mechanism of stigma that is attached to being a care leaver might act as another barrier when it comes to dealing with officialdom.

From a psychological angle, early disrupted and unresolved attachment experience may play a part in explaining the absence of self-belief, confidence and enactment of personal agency. Due to successive cuts in the care budget, the contradictions between agency policy on care leavers and embattled professionals at the front line of service delivery might explain why support for John across his care journey has been variable. In this process of retroductive inquiry into causality, the issue of time and place may take on a particular purchase, along with the actions of significant human agents involved with John. This is because certain junctures (for example, a breakdown in a previous foster home) and locations (for instance, the movement into a new placement) can trigger causal mechanisms that either stymie or promote beneficial change.

Step 6: enacting transformative change to ‘absent’ ‘absence’

This final step collates the information and considerations from the previous five steps to formulate an action plan to enhance ‘presence’ and tackle ‘absence’. Fundamentally, this plan seeks to ameliorate the causal mechanisms sustaining ‘absence’ in John’s life (through advocacy, lobbying, negotiating on his behalf, empowering groupwork and alliance building), while activating identified mechanisms that promote well-being and empowerment. This interplay between these discordant causal mechanisms is the essential dialectic giving rise to transformative change. In the preceding steps, some of the former mechanisms sustaining ‘absence’ in John’s life were identified, but enacting this step further reveals potentially life-enhancing mechanisms pertaining to his situation, such as promoting social connection with others, demonstrating positive recognition of identity and attributes, showing empathy for past loss and change, and engineering meaningful occupation in the here and now. The social worker, moreover, can use their ‘relationship with John’ as a motivating medium to develop his own sense of agency as a causal power in its own right through the mechanism of conscientisation or liberatory consciousness raising. Yet, such actions gain optimal traction and momentum when enacted within a supportive group context: in this case, involving John in a leaving care group following the emancipatory stages of self-directed groupwork (Mullender et al, 2013). These essential planks of the action plan target the ‘personal’ and ‘political’ dimensions of leaving care interventions that are inherent within Bhaskar’s four planes of social reality (see earlier).

Conclusion

To recapitulate the argument, while first-wave CR has made an important impact on social work theory, practice and research, Bhaskar’s refinement of CR under the rubric of DCR has not received much attention by the social work academy. This is the case even though DCR issues forth a fiery magma of philosophical ideas designed to ignite the critical imagination in a world beset with ‘absence’ in a myriad of ways. Translating this latter thesis into a digestible form that can be apprehended by social workers has been a challenge given its high-level meta-theoretical tenor and philosophical meanderings into the nature and role of the dialectic in transformative change. Yet, despite vernacular and schematic obstacles, six sequential steps have been delineated and applied to a practice example to show the relevance of DCR for social work. Praxis in social work, which the final step embraces, must take cognisance of how change in the social world occurs, and this involves a deep-seated investigation into the nature of being, reality and the role of the dialectic. DCR makes a vital contribution to this understanding by reorienting social workers’ awareness from ‘surface’ impressions to ‘depth’ considerations. Finally, one is reminded of Marx’s injunction to use philosophy to not only interpret the world, but also change it.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Papadaki, E. (2012) Understanding objectification, Prolegomena, 11(1): 524.

  • Pinkerton, J. and Dolan, P. (2007) Family support, social capital, resilience and adolescent coping, Child and Family Social Work, 12(3): 21928. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2206.2007.00497.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Refaeli, T. (2017) Narratives of care leavers: what promotes resilience in transitions to independent lives?, Children and Youth Services Review, 79: 19. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.05.023

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sayer, A. (2011) Why Things Matter to People – Social Science, Values and Ethical Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Sippel, L., Pietrzak, R., Charney, D., Mayes, L. and Southwick, S. (2015) How does social support enhance resilience in the trauma-exposed individual?, Ecology and Society, 20(4): 110. doi: 10.5751/ES-07832-200410

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spratt, T. and Kennedy, M. (2021) Adverse childhood experiences: developments in trauma and resilience aware services, British Journal of Social Work, 51(3): 9991017. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcaa080

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stein, M. (2006) Research review: young people leaving care, Child and Family Social Work, 11(3): 2739. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2206.2006.00439.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Archer, M. (2017) Morphogenesis and Human Flourishing, Dordrecht: Springer.

  • Baldwin, C. (2013) Narrative Social Work, Bristol: Policy Press.

  • Bhaskar, R. (1975) A Realist Theory of Science, London: Routledge.

  • Bhaskar, R. (1979) The Possibility of Naturalism, London: Routledge.

  • Bhaskar, R. (2008) Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, London: Routledge.

  • Blom, B. and Morén, S. (2010) Explaining social work practice – the CAIMeR theory, Journal of Social Work, 10(1): 98119. doi: 10.1177/1468017309350661

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Buch-Hansen, H. and Nielsen, P. (2020) Critical Realism: Basics and Beyond, London: Macmillan.

  • Burr, V. (2015) Social Constructionism, 3rd edn, London: Routledge.

  • Collier, A. (1994) Critical Realism. An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy, London: Verso.

  • Coulshed, V. and Orme, J. (2013) Social Work Practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Courtney, M., Park, S., Harty, J. and Feng, H. (2019) Memo from CalYouth: Relationships between Youth and Caseworker Perceptions of the Service Context and Foster Youth Outcomes, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Craig, D. and Bigby, C. (2015) Critical realism in social work research, Australian Social Work, 4(3): 30923. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2015.1024268

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Danermark, B., Ekström, M. and Karlson, J. (2019) Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciences, London: Routledge.

  • Dominelli, L. (2002) Anti-oppressive Social Work Theory and Practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Dominelli, L. (2017) Anti-racist Social Work, 4th edn, London: Red Globe Press.

  • Glynn, N. (2021) Understanding care leavers as youth in society: a theoretical framework for studying the transition out of care, Children and Youth Services Review, 21: 112.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit Jobs – A Theory, New York: Simon & Schuster .

  • Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Herrero, M. and Charnley, H. (2019) Human rights and social justice in social work education, European Journal of Social Work, 22(2): 22537. doi: 10.1080/13691457.2018.1540407

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Höjer, I., Sjöblom, Y. (2010) Young people leaving care in Sweden. Child and Family Social Work, 15(1): 118-127. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2206.2009.00661.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Honneth, A. (1996) The Struggle for Recognition, London: Polity Press.

  • Houston, S. (2001) Beyond social constructionism: critical realism and social work, British Journal of Social Work, 31: 84561. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/31.6.845

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Houston, S. (2010) Prising open the black box: critical realism, action research and social work, Qualitative Social Work, 9(1): 7391. doi: 10.1177/1473325009355622

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Houston, S., Swords, C. (2022) Critical realism, mimetic theory and social work. Journal of Social Work, 22(2), 345363. https://doi.org/10.1177/14680173211008806

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Howe, D. (2011) Attachment across the Life-Course, London: Macmillan.

  • Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, London: Allen Lane.

  • Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity: An Essay in Exteriority, Duquesne: Duquesne University Press.

  • Longhofer, J. and Floersch, J. (2012) The coming crisis in social work: some thoughts on social work and science, Research on Social Work Practice, 22(5): 890905. doi: 10.1177/1049731512445509

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mäntysaari, M. (2005) Realism as a foundation for social work research, Qualitative Social Work, 4(1): 8798.

  • McNeill, T. and Nicholas, D. (2019) Creating and applying knowledge for critical social work, Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity, 28(4): 35169. doi: 10.1080/15313204.2017.1384945

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Morén, S. and Blom, B. (2003) Explaining human change, Journal of Critical Realism, 2(1): 3760.

  • Mullaly, B. (2006) The New Structural Social Work: Ideology, Theory, Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Mullender, A., Ward, D. and Fleming, J. (2013) Empowerment in Action: Self-Directed Groupwork, Bristol: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Norrie, A. (2009) Dialectic and Difference, London: Routledge.

  • North, G. (2019) It was sort of like a globe of abuse, Qualitative Social Work, 18(5): 83451. doi: 10.1177/1473325018775493

  • Oliver, C. (2012) Critical realist grounded theory: a new approach to social work research, British Journal of Social Work, 42(2): 37187. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcr064

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Papadaki, E. (2012) Understanding objectification, Prolegomena, 11(1): 524.

  • Pinkerton, J. and Dolan, P. (2007) Family support, social capital, resilience and adolescent coping, Child and Family Social Work, 12(3): 21928. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2206.2007.00497.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone, New York: Simon and Schuster.

  • Refaeli, T. (2017) Narratives of care leavers: what promotes resilience in transitions to independent lives?, Children and Youth Services Review, 79: 19. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.05.023

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sayer, A. (2011) Why Things Matter to People – Social Science, Values and Ethical Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Sippel, L., Pietrzak, R., Charney, D., Mayes, L. and Southwick, S. (2015) How does social support enhance resilience in the trauma-exposed individual?, Ecology and Society, 20(4): 110. doi: 10.5751/ES-07832-200410

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spratt, T. and Kennedy, M. (2021) Adverse childhood experiences: developments in trauma and resilience aware services, British Journal of Social Work, 51(3): 9991017. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcaa080

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stein, M. (2006) Research review: young people leaving care, Child and Family Social Work, 11(3): 2739. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2206.2006.00439.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 Queen’s University Belfast, , UK

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