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Analysis Of An Example From Placement Using Critical Theory And Theoretical Perspective

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Coming from a legal/law enforcement career background, my analysing on this case would have focused mainly on the wrongdoing “crimes” of the offender and who they committed these offences with. However, through the studies of critical theory and the Strength-based theory perspective, I have come to the realisation that most human actions are stern from situations and circumstances around the individual’s reality and social environment.

Critical theory is a Philosophy that is aimed towards critiquing and changing the prevailing view of society as whole. The aim of Critical theories is to delve beneath the surface of social life and reveal the assumption that gives us the true understanding of how the world works. It usually advocates towards a movement that is more deconstructive and instinctive in the way of thinking and practicing in social work. It is with these perspectives that practitioners/social workers are able to analyse and deal with social factors that cause the present problems that they are contending with or with social obstacles to the positive aims they are trying to achieve.

Critical theory depicts the ideas that in a practice environment like social work, thinking and analysis should pay great attention on a change that is structural. Critical theory urges social workers to ask questions that pokes and or connects with social action. Such questioning may be;

  • Reflecting on what has shaped and constructed the way we are as individuals?
  • Questioning the way an individual does things and why they think the way they do?

It insists that in order to really understand human behaviour, there is the need to understand the social background and the ideas mingling the problem/behaviour. Marx Horkheimer is one of the theorists that defined critical theory in the book Traditional and Critical Theory. Horkheimer stated that a critical theory has to accomplish two imperative things: it must account for the whole of society within a historical context, and it should seek out to offer a tough and all-inclusive critique by integrating insights from all social sciences.

Marxism is a theory based on the ideas of the philosopher Karl Marx. Marxism is usually known as a conflict theory; this is because it states that society is usually in conflict with each other. Marxism claims that this conflict is mainly between the rich and the poor. Marx placed a great importance on emancipation; he encouraged culture rather than material capitalism. He also determined that civilisation evolves or declines according to the economics of a society. He argued that the well-being of people’s lives is reliant upon how society makes use of its capital and or wealth.

Marx believed that once society becomes awake to the system and how it determines so much of their lives, they can then come together with the common goal to start a revolution that will lead to fairness and equality in every aspect of human life. Hence, the term “Socialism” a fiscal system that promotes fairness and equality for everyone. With this system there will be a societal structure in which everyone gave according to their ability and receive according to their needs.

In such a system people will not suffer because of their lack of capital. It portrayed the idea that everyone will work for common good and receive all that they need so they and their families can prosper. Marx intended for this theory to critique the political structure of the western society.

Reflecting this theory to the scenario above, it could be assumed that there is a system with series of capital exchange in society that has negatively affected the young offender’s life. The dropping out of school and unemployment has played a role in his or her life up to this point. The term “the rich getting richer and the poor get poorer” is somewhat evident in this scenario. This individuals actions/behaviours may be steered from the fact that they do not have any systematic support in society. If Critical theory is used and probe further into the life of this individual, it will perhaps show that they have been at the disadvantaged end of the societal systems.

This is what Theorist Paolo Freire teaches; the concentration on education with people whose communities are fraught by poverty and powerlessness and consequently the numerous connections in social pedagogics[footnoteRef:1]. Freire with other theorist like Habermas promoted the idea that change can only happen through dialogue and the deliberation between equals. This can then lead to social action. [1: Horkheimer, Max. 1937. Traditional and Critical Theory. Translated by O’Connell J. Matthew and Others. 2002.]

Strength-base theory is constructed on the notion that every individual has some strengths and self-determination that they can draw from to make positive change in their lives. This theory really aims at deploying a person’s strength to aid in their recovery or liberation. The goal is to promote the positive potentials in individuals, such as finding a purpose in life, perseverance and optimism. Focussing on the scenario above; the practice of strength-base theory with this client will primarily focus not on the problematic behaviours that the client is engaging in but rather supports the individual to recognise the inherent resources that he/she have at their disposal which they can use to counteract the difficulty/problem. The three most relevant questions that are usually used in implementing this theory in practice are:

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  1. What has worked for the client before?
  2. What does not work for the client/individual?
  3. What might work for individual in the present situation?[footnoteRef:2] [2: Pulla, V. (2017) Strengths-Based Approach in Social-Work: A distinct ethical advantage. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change. 3(2).]

This concept emphasis on helping individual improve their ways and have a sense of empowerment which in tend can lead to the individual’s commitment to change.

“Empowerment theories identify and assist individuals and communities to recognise barriers and dynamics that permit oppression to persist including circumstances and actions that promote change, human empowerment, and liberation”.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Cowger, C. D. (1994). Assessing client strengths: Clinical assessment for client empowerment. Social Work, 39(3), 262-268.]

In reference to the above quote although empowerment is great, it is important to note that liberation comes effortlessly and liberation without determining the efficiency on the part that an individual can play in his or her own recovery is highly damaging to the very practice of empowerment.

Unlike the Critical theory methodology, the strength-base theory places much responsibility on the client and the social worker to achieve change, without taking into consideration aspects like socio-economic and social structure factors like poverty, discrimination, unemployment etc. This approach helps practitioners see clients as creating and rebuilding rather than broken and failing. Centring the necessary help/assistance on a person’s strength can introduce and even in some cases shape them into becoming more resilient which can foster positive growth. Focusing on an individual’s strength might further increase their vulnerability. And also the “Concept of strength” is a culturally loaded term, simply because what counts as strength may vary from individual’s perspective.

According to Saleebey (2006) “Almost anything can be considered as strength under certain conditions” (p.82). Crucial to this conclusion though is where they arise from? For example if the individual in the above scenario always agreeable to the changes proposed/suggested to him or her in their lives and does not have any boundaries, it could also mean the fear of them losing the relationship with their mentors. This means they are in some way oppressed by the power of the mentorship.

Although the strength-base theory that has an enormous significance and meaning in practice. There have been a number of critiques to this theory over the years. According to Weick (1992), depending on an individual’s “regenerative potential” and supporting an individual’s “positive capacities” (p. 24) are often said than done. It is believed that most practitioners are likely to impose their expert knowledge and prearranged action plans that may depicts insufficiencies rather working in partnership with the individual to discover all possibilities.

Moreover, H. Goldstein (1992) also argues that cherry-picking one perspective over another becomes a “futile” initiative when trying to understand how change happens (p.33). In actual fact he debates that, the theory of strength or any other perspective are a system of “social construction” that imitates professional and public attitudes and beliefs” (p.29). This is of the idea that these functions are used as metaphors in ways of intervention. Also there can be a rise in issues when the individual and or the practitioner refuse take into account the consideration of weaknesses and other risks of performance. The failure to improve on an individual’s areas of non-strength can hinder in the overall achievement of full potential. This approach offers remarkable potential to people management. However, a singular focus on noticing and optimising people’s strength will not return viable improvement in engagement and performance.

In the same breathe Critical theory has been critiqued for not proposing any clear guidance on practice. It is often unambiguously repudiating any solutions; a clear example of this is the Herbert Marcuse’s model of the “great refusal”, which upheld the abstention from engaging in active political change.

Critical theory analysis claims that most of the social problems in society come from structure and organisation rather than the individual behaviour. Challengers of critical theory argues that fundamental change is difficult to achieve and thus the urgency should be immediate social needs and the practice of social examination to understand clients/individuals. Another area of bias in Critical theory is towards collective action. The theory inclines in favour of collective action and often tends to disregard individual personal needs; this creates pressure between helping and valuing people as individuals with their own personal and possible family needs whiles also pursuing collective social justice. There is little to no explanation on emotional and various psychological issues that may have influenced a person’s behaviour or actions.

There is also the constant depiction of negativity and only seeing the downsides of every modernization. This is because critical theory aids in the discovery of a lot of things in organisation of society to be in the wrong, and this negativity can influence relationships of practitioners with the various organisations in which they work for.

Overall, social work framework of practices should facilitate the promotion of practitioners to work in a way that put emphasis on social change. Social workers need to become aware of and avoid oppressive systems and work with theoretical frameworks to achieve social justice and equality. There also has been the need for realisation on the fact that there is no one theory that is sufficient to guide ones practice. In order for one to achieve effectiveness in practice, the adaptation of conceptual pluralism is best. This is based on the idea of selecting the most appropriate approach for different or particular issues.


  1. Ahmed, S. (2004). Collective feelings: Or, the impressions left by others. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(2), 25-42.
  2. Cowger, C. D. (1994). Assessing client strengths: Clinical assessment for client empowerment. Social Work, 39(3), 262-268.
  3. Freire, P. (1992). Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
  4. Goldstein, H. (1992). Victors or Victims: Contrasting views of clients in social work practice. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The Strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 27-38). New York: Longman.
  5. Herz, M., & Johansson, T. (2011). Critical social work – Considerations and suggestions. Critical Social Work, 12(1), 28-45.
  6. Horkheimer, Max. (1982). Critical Theory Selected Essays. New York.
  7. Horkheimer, Max. (1937). Traditional and Critical Theory. Translated by O’Connell J. Matthew and Others. 2002.
  8. Leithwood, K. (1999). Theories of Educational Management.
  9. Liguo, Z. (2014). (Master of social work), Reflections on perspectives of a social worker.
  10. Pulla, V. (2017). Strength-Based Approach in Social-Work: A distinct ethical advantage. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
  11. Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (2006). The Strengths Perspective in social work practice, (4th Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  12. Weick, A. (1992). Building a strengths perspective for social work. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The Strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 18-26). New York: Longman.

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