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Getting Away from a Sole Focus on 'Curative Social Work'

The theory of societal human capabilities, since it belongs to the category of normative theories, suggests changes: that is, to add an additional focus in social work development, that of all-encompassing preventative social work. A number of steps have already been taken in the right direction, away from traditional, purely curative social work (e.g., DuBois and Krogsrud Miley, 2013; Van Wormer et al., 2012; Ife, 2012; Reichert, 2011; Ku and Yeun-Tsang, 2004; Adams, 2003; Morrow-Howell et al., 2001; Beverly and Sherraden, 1997; Gutierrez and Parsons, 1997, etc.).

In France, Pierre Bourdieu (1973, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1997, 2002) developed a theory that explains how we are, and why we are the way we are. The rich marry the rich, because they have a tendency to like each others' personal habits, social circles, each others' choices in music, sports, and the arts. The poor marry the poor, because they may prefer tattoos to fancy-colored polo shirts, drinking beer in a working-class bar instead of Riesling in a Five-Star Hotel, listing to rap music or techno music instead of Italian opera or classical music; and they may prefer soccer to polo, tennis, or golf.

If you combine Bourdieu's theory with the theory of communication of Niklas Luhmann (also known as Luhmann's social system theory) (e.g., Luhmann, 1984, 1995, 1997), then it becomes even more clear why past communication influences and even determines present and future communication, that is, social communication.

Each sentence limits the range of choices for the next, that is, subsequent, sentence; as much as each word limited the range of possible choices for the next word (in every sequence of communication, i.e., social system). In the same way, each year, or each part of our life, limits the possible range of choices we can or dare make in the following year or part of life.

What has this to do with social work? The answer is everything. If we know how we got our problems, we have a way to prevent them in the first place. Health is largely (but not entirely) a function of our past choices of place, time, education, work, social life, family, sports, and culture, and last but not least food.

Social work, hence, has to develop new perspectives that are capable of chaging people's lifetime and everyday choices, so that the personal and social problems may be prevented systematically and at a grand scale, nationwide, and for this one needs to invent and develop new policies and social work services on the ground. Amazingly, many of the new model services – that are yet to be provided systematically and coordinated on a grand scale (with national policies, as well as textbook theories) – already exist, here or there, to a smaller or larger extent. What has calligraphy to do with social work? Visit, for example, a social work center for people with handicaps and migrant workers and their families in Chen Village in Shunde City (Guangdong, China) and you will know. Calligraphy is therapy and as a skill-development exercise, it is employed for preventative and curative

purposes (HXJY, 2013). Or, you may visit the Salvation Army in Hong Kong, where the elderly are planting tomatoes and other vegetables with children from the nearby primary school, passing on their knowledge and appreciation of nature – where both the children and the elderly are gaining, which is most important of all, a great deal of happiness and mutual support (HKSA, 2007). Happiness is a universal, most powerful cure. Happiness is a universal, most powerful preventative means to prevent social and personal problems.

Or, again, you may listen to a social worker from South Africa (François du Toit, 2006) who took his social work clients on foot into the Kruger National Park, to free them of their personal problems (having to focus on the environment, its beauty and possible dangers, instead of their personal problems, during the day when they were walking through the bush, or at night time when they listened to a myriad of strange noises outside their tents); and then to build them up again with social work techniques.

In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004, the very same social worker from South Africa (ibid.) applied a very different community social work method, one that builds on using the entire social capital of the community. In Sri Lanka, he went to the government officers, to the lawyers, the dentists, the rich, everyone that had political clout, economic power, and social esteem. He integrated them into the community social work effort in order to (a) get fully accepted and (b) build on their social and political strengths.

In 2007, I was giving a three-hour-long lecture to hundreds of government officers in Kuala Lumpur, at the headquarters of Institut Sosial Malaysia, from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, Government of Malaysia. The then director of Institut Sosial Malaysia invited a group of 40 or so juvenile delinquents to attend the lecture. The lecture theatre was just big enough to hold them as well. The reason for doing so, I was told, was to let them feel they are part of society – to feel respected and in return to respect society. From their point of view, the lecture hall itself must have been very impressive, the kids also dressed up. I immediately understood that it was to build and strengthen their social and cultural capabilities (social and cultural capital).

Or, you may visit Kemerovo, an industrial city in Siberia, where, for example, the first row in the theatre is reserved for the socially weak, for social service recipients. In Kemerovo, there is free public transport for social workers, and social workers get a library card to be able to borrow books for their clients (Federova, 2006).

One of the biggest problems of Hong Kong is that people do not smile, they have forgotten how to smile, or they are too stressed out in their competitive grey asphalt jungle. A new social policy campaign emphasizing happiness could help to change this (Aspalter, 2004, 2007a–c, 2010), through (1) advertisements in the public interest (APIs); (2) massing planting of flowers throughout the city, particularly in the monotonous, neglected working-class areas; and (3) integrative social work services that not only focus on curing clients, but building the strengths and capabilities of all people in their particular neighborhood. A social work
center that offers these kinds of extended services will then run, for example, a community gym, a community karaoke center, a community library, a community Internet center – like the ones I visited recently in Shunde. This would be in fact a living example of true social inclusion of the weak and the disadvantaged.

They do this to find and to get closer to the clients they focus on particularly. They will read the body language, facial expressions, and behaviour of potential clients to eventually be able provide further social work services. But also, they build the strengths of the whole community, all residents, be they problem cases or just ordinary members of the neighborhood. The social work center then has become a kind of 'living room' of the community – where social work services will have a deeper and longer impact, as well as a further reach.

The day that I visited a social service/social work center in Chen Village, I also visited an industrial social work center and a cultural services center (quite futuristic and very comprehensive, which the local government paid 120 million RMB to build; SBCC, 2013) in other parts of Shunde, both of which, in essence, follow a similar strategy: they try to get – if possible all – the families, the youth, the children, and the elderly to come to their services center, or even involve them in outdoor activities, to have as many interactions with them as possible, and – this is the key – to also prevent rather than only to react to personal and/or social problems.

All in all, these few examples show a small selection of the total possible variety of solutions. There is a truly infinite number of possible applications of social work services aiming to build and foster (defend) societal human capabilities: these are, individual human capabilities and social (including political) capabilities, and yetmuch-neglected cultural capabilities.

The former Czech President Vaclav Havel once said,

I consider it immensely important that we concern ourselves with culture not just as one among many human activities, but in the broadest sense—the “culture of everything”, the general level of public manners. By that I mean chiefly the kind of relations that exist among people, between the powerful and the weak, the healthy and the sick, the young and the elderly, adults and children, business people and customers, men and women, teachers and students, officers and soldiers, policemen and citizens, and so on … however important it may be to get our economy back on its feet, it is far from being the only task facing us. It is no less important to do everything possible to improve the general cultural level of everyday life … I would go even farther, and say that, in many respects, improving the civility of everyday life can accelerate economic development. (Vaclav Havel, cited in Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright, 2002: 78)

The same holds true for the personal and social problems that social work tries to

cure – and prevent. We have to improve the 'culture of everything', to focus on

(a) poor and the rich, (b) the weak and the powerful, (c) the sick and the healthy,

the ones that have a particular handicap and the ones that have not, (e) the abused and the abuser, (f) the neglected and the ones that neglect, (g) the ones that are socially excluded and the ones that are at the center of society's attention and social activity, (h) the ones that are not allowed, or cannot afford, or have
not yet learned to participate in all facets of cultural activities of everyday life or special once-in-a-lifetime cultural activities and the ones that are at the center of the cultural life of our society, and so on. This is what we can call a truly comprehensive, and thus preventative, strategy in social intervention.

It is also vital to begin with social work services before personal and social problems begin to manifest, before they grow in quantity, and before they worsen in quality.

A 'very early intervention strategy' is another key aspect when it comes to prevent problems and to address them as early on as possible. Esping-Andersen (2002, 2007) and countless other social policy experts around the world (e.g., Krieger, 1969; Newman-Williams and Sabatini, 2000; Zollinger Giele and Holst, 2004; Georg, 2004; Gitterman and Schulman, 2005; OECD, 2007) have emphasized the fact that early intervention needs to focus on people's childhoods, as much as possible.

Anger, anxiety, depression, lack of enthusiasm, lack of confidence, social exclusion, cultural exclusion, lack of social skills, lack of cultural competence, abuse and neglect of any kind, and so on, have their roots often in one's family or other social environment, or one's early life experiences. Poverty and lack of education are other examples, of how the history of personal conditions and choices earlier on in life (not necessarily in childhood) affect our later phases of life.

Certainly negative effects of vital or repeated conditions or experiences will multiply over one's lifetime, and cause a 'negative domino effect' throughout a person's lifetime. But also, conversely, we can say that positive effects of vital or repeated conditions or experiences will cause – and this is the good news – a 'positive domino effect' throughout a person's lifetime.

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