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'Getting Back to the Things Themselves':

Strengthening Phenomenology in Social Work

Stan Houston


Social work in the United Kingdom, particularly in the statutory sphere, is a professional discipline out-of-kilter. Its development over the past 50 years or more has shown an inordinate emphasis on utilizing what the famous sociologist of modernity, Max Weber, referred to as instrumental rationality. This underpinning use of reason is characterized by a means-end approach to problem-solving, one where the attainment of a specified goal drives our intellectual efforts through the most expedient way possible.

Weber also attributed a value-neutral stance to this particular form of reason. In other words, it was not concerned with the right thing to do in response to a specified problem but rather with procedure. Morals and ethics were not primary considerations in these deliberations. It followed, for Weber, the widespread and insuperable use of this form of reason would lead to an iron cage of bureaucracy, ensnaring the citizen of the modern world in forms of intellectual inquiry and disenchanted action that stripped social life of its meaning and ethicality.

From the stance of critical social theory, Jurgen Habermas (1984) adopted Weber's notion of the ubiquity of instrumental rationality to explore modern currents in socio-political life. For Habermas, society had evolved beyond medieval times through the industrial revolution and Fordist forms of production into contemporary post-Fordist society, largely using instrumental rationality as a way of operating. However, this had led to certain societal transformations having a pernicious effect on citizens' well-being. In Habermas's analysis, the State had decoupled from civil society but then, later on, colonized it bringing instrumental rationality to bear on issues and problems in communal life previously resolved through time-honoured and sanctified processes of meaningful communication and co-operation. In Habermas's unique parlance, the 'system' had colonized the 'lifeworld' bringing all manner of social pathologies – loss of meaning, alienation, disenchantment and impoverished social interaction – in its wake. Habermas also identified the need for modern capitalist nation-states to legitimize their ideologies and offset their negative effects by offering members of the 'lifeworld' piecemeal
welfare compensations designed to buttress the state's credibility and quell public discontent. The 'system' had not only colonized the 'lifeworld' but also legitimized its role though power, money and ideology.

Weber's, and subsequently Habermas's, analysis of modern society under the grip of an evolving instrumental rationality, continues to offer a rich set of ideas for explaining some major trends in contemporary welfare in the UK and other Anglophile countries – and the sets the scene for the approach taken within this chapter. In this context, I argue that social work has become overly imbued by an instrumental mind-set. This has led to practices that implement systems and procedures but at the cost of obfuscating the centrality of meaning, relationship and therapeutic growth. Thus, a central aim of this chapter is to explore how we might restore the 'lifeworld' in social work and create a better balance between it and the 'system'.

To address this aim, I review important ideas within phenomenology – a broad philosophical church which provides a rich understanding of human subjectivity and how it is embedded within the 'lifeworld'. The various phenomenological thinkers referred to below contribute different perspectives on the interplay between 'interiority' and the 'social' and hence enlarge our conception of what it means to practice social work in an ontologically intelligent and person-centred manner. Put in another way, phenomenology leads to a deep understanding of the person, putting the actor at the centre-point of inquiry. Building on this precept, I contend that phenomenological social work is rooted in the 'lifeworld'; as such, it requires us to view human relationship as the conduit for realizing human flourishing and optimal identity formation. In all of this, social work needs to be reminded of what lies at the heart of human ontology: the experience of Being or what the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1962) referred to as Dasein.

In considering what this philosophical stance means for social work, I describe a number of approaches that implicitly drawn upon phenomenological principles. They can be considered as providing an important counter-balance to the predominant voice of the 'system' in social work. Yet, in order to strengthen the use of phenomenology in everyday practice, I then concentrate on two phenomenologically inspired existential therapies and reflect on what they contribute to social work. This focus is a much neglected gap in the Anglophile literature and constitutes an important area to emphasize because, in many English speaking countries, therapeutic, relationship-based social work has waned compared with the growth of the instrumentalized practices referred to earlier (Ruch et al. 2010). More broadly, in social work it is imperative to re-vitalize an interest in the philosophy of 'Being'. This foundational source brings us back to the first principles of ontology. In doing so, it enables social workers to move from 'surface' to 'depth', in order to gain a more perspicacious understanding of the human condition and lived experience. In making this move, this chapter recognizes the paucity of explicit, phenomenological thinking in social work (Gray and Webb 2008) and attempts thereby to make a modest contribution to this important field of inquiry.

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