This is a summary of the strengths perspective I wrote in 2001. It is a bit out of date, and I would now have a greater focus on working with communities, but I think it is still a useful summary.
The strengths perspective offers service providers a work practice which focuses on strengths, abilities and potential rather than problems, deficits and pathologies (Chapin, 1995; Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Saleebey, 1992d; Weick et al., 1989). Since the mid 1980’s the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare and others have been developing and testing the strengths perspective (Cohen, 1999; Rapp, 1992; Saleebey, 1992d) which Saleebey (1992c, p15) suggests is not a model of practice but rather a “collation of principles, ideas and techniques” (p15).
Seven principles of the strengths perspective are particularly relevant to this study [nonviolence and youth work practice]:
- People have many strengths and have the capacity to continue to learn, grow and change.
- The focus of intervention is on the strengths and aspirations of clients.
- The community or social environment is seen as being full of resources.
- The service provider collaborates with clients.
- Interventions are based on client self determination.
- There is a commitment to empowerment.
- Problems are seen as the result of interactions between individuals, organisations or structures rather than deficits within individuals, organisations or structures. (Chapin, 1995; Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Kisthardt, 1992; Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Rapp, 1992; Saleebey, 1992c; Sullivan & Rapp, 1994; Weick et al., 1989).
People have many strengths and have the capacity to continue to learn, grow and change
Weick (1992) suggests that an essential assumption of the strengths perspective is that “every person has an inherent power that may be characterized as life force, transformational capacity, life energy, spirituality, regenerative potential, and healing power… [which] is a potent form of knowledge that can guide personal and social transformation” (p. 24). This power also means that people “possess the inherent capacity to learn, grow, and change” (Kisthardt, 1992, p. 62).
Saleebey (1992c) suggests that individuals and groups “have vast, often untapped and frequently unappreciated reservoirs of physical, emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, social, and spiritual energies, resources and competencies” (p. 6). People who come to social workers and youth workers for assistance with some problem, are more than that problem (Early & GlenMaye, 2000), they also have strengths and abilities which have allowed them to survive, if not thrive, in the face of the challenges they meet (Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Saleebey, 1992b).
As Saleebey (1992b) describes it:
- People are often doing amazingly well, the best they can at the time, given the difficulties they face and the know resources available to them.
- People have survived to this point – certainly, not without pain – but with ideas, will, hopes, skills, and other people, all of which we need to understand and appreciate in order to help.
- Change can only happen when you collaborate with clients’ aspirations, perceptions, and strengths and when you firmly believe in them. (p.42)
The focus of interventions is on the strengths and aspirations of clients.
Saleebey’s last point just quoted, points to the principle that in the strengths perspective the focus is on the strengths and aspirations of clients and their environments. Frequently service providers have focused on problems, deficits and pathologies (Chapin, 1995; Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Saleebey, 1992d; Weick et al., 1989) which Graber and Nice (1991, quoted in Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001) suggests “empowers the problem and disempowers the person” (p. 79). The strengths perspective argues that clients are motivated to use their capacity to change when the focus is on their strengths (Clark, 1997; Saleebey, 1992b; Saleebey, 1992c; Weick et al., 1989).
A focus on strengths does not mean that people’s concerns and problems are ignored (Saleebey, 1992a) but they are not the main focus of the intervention (Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001). According to Saleebey (1992a) clients have
taken steps, summoned up resources, and coped. We need to know what they have done, how they have done it, what they have learned from doing it, who was involved in doing it, what resources (inner and outer) were available in their struggle to surmount their troubles (p. 172).
Kisthardt (1992) suggests that intervention will work best when there is “an orientation to, and appreciation of, the uniqueness, skills, interests, hopes, and desires of each consumer, rather than a categorical litany of deficits” (p. 60-61).
[For an example of seeing communities from a deficits and a strengths perspective see A story of two communities.]
The community or social environment is seen as being full of resources.
When social environments or communities are viewed as being “pathological, hostile, and even toxic” (Kisthardt, 1992, P. 66) potential helping resources are often overlooked (Sullivan, 1992a; Sullivan & Rapp, 1994) and interventions in these contexts may be avoided (Kisthardt, 1992). The strengths perspective sees the social environment as being “a lush topography of resources and possibilities” with “individuals and institutions who have something to give, something that others may desperately need: knowledge, succor, and actual resource, or simply time and place” (Saleebey, 1992c, p.7).
The social environment provides important resources for everybody, not just clients (Sullivan, 1992a). A wide range of groups and institutions can provide support including family, friends, work, church, sporting groups, and local businesses. A strengths perspective encourages service providers to seek out the full range of support available in a local community rather than relying on welfare and specialist support organisations (Kisthardt, 1992; Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Rapp, 1992).
Taylor (1993, in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994) discusses the concept of entrapping and enabling social niches. The niche represents “the unique place in which one ‘fits’ into the environment, the workplace, or the community. It is the special place within which one feels comfortable; one has made it ‘one’s own’” (Brower, 1988, quoted in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994, p.97). Table 1 compares entrapping and enabling social niches.
Table 1: Entrapping and enabling social niches. (Taylor, 1993 in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994)
Entrapping social niches
|Enabling social niches|
A strengths perspective encourages people to discover enabling niches for themselves and recognises the importance of “the creation of a culture that is supportive of the proactive steps taken by individuals” (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994, p. 96).
The service provider collaborates with clients.
Clients are usually experts on their own situation (Bricker-Jenkins, 1992; Saleebey, 1992b) and Saleebey (1992b) argues that, for service providers, the role of expert or professional may not provide the “best vantage point from which to appreciate client strengths” (p. 7). Thus strengths perspective focuses on “collaboration and partnership between social workers and clients” (Early & GlenMaye, 2000, p. 120).
Saleebey (1992b) suggests that the approach to working with clients is
a give-and-take that begins with the demystification of the professional as expert, an operating sense of humility on the part of the helper, the establishment of an egalitarian transaction, the desire to engage clients on their own terms, and a willingness to disclose and share (Freire, 1973; Rose 1990). (Saleebey, 1992b, p.42).
Interventions are based on client self determination.
If there is a collaborative relationship which avoids the expert/client relationship, then it is unlikely that the service provider will claim the expertise to decide whether or not the client is capable of making decisions for themselves: of self determination (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994). As Poertner & Ronnau (1992) suggests
even well-meaning service providers are too quick to impose their own views of the world upon their clients. The professional’s investment in, and emotional attachment to, their own theory of helping leads them to believe they know what’s best. This tendency to exclude the client from all but the most basic steps in the helping process is even more characteristic of those who work with adolescents and children (p. 117).
The service provider does not need to judge: “a client’s expressed aspirations are accepted as sincere. Acceptance and validation replace scepticism about what clients can ‘realistically’ achieve” (Weick et al., 1989, p.353). When the client is seen as being the expert on their own situation (Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Saleebey, 1992c; Sullivan & Rapp, 1994; Weick et al., 1989) then the client should be the one to “determine the form, direction, and substance” of the intervention (Rapp, 1992, 9. 48).
Weick et al (1989) argue that
it is impossible for even the best trained professional to judge how another person should best live his or her life. The nonjudgemental attitude in social work dictates not only that social workers should not judge but that social workers cannot judge. Instead, the principles of knowing what is best and doing what is best places the power of decision where it should be – with the person whose life is being lived (p. 353).
There is a commitment to empowerment.
Although empowerment is almost a cliché in social work and youth work; it remains an important concept (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994). Empowerment is consistent with a collaborative approach and client self determination. Staples (1990, quoted in Sullivan & Rapp, 1994) defines empowerment as “the ongoing capacity of individuals or groups to act on their behalf to achieve a greater measure of control over their lives and destinies” (p. 92-93).
Because of the variety of factors which can influence people’s capacity to act on their own behalf, it is important to recognise the empowerment can have personal, interpersonal and structural dimensions (Miley, O’Melia & DuBois, 2001). Sullivan and Rapp (1994) suggests that empowerment is analogous to conscientisation and animation which imply “a redistribution or recapturing of power, both personal and social” (p. 93). According to Saleebey (1992b) consciousness raising, which also contributes to empowerment, means that consumers:
begin to develop a less contaminated and constricted view of their situation and identity, and they take on a firmer appreciation of how their lives have been shackled by institutions, agencies, and ideologies. In other words, consumers are assisted in coming to a more authentic sense of who they are, what they can do, and what they want to do (p. 42).
Problems are seen as the result of interactions between individuals, organisations or structures rather than deficits within individuals, organisations or structures.
This is a principle not frequently identified in the literature, but is included here because of its particular relevance to this study. In the models of social work which focus on deficits and pathologies, the problem lies within the person: the person is the problem (Chapin, 1995; Saleebey, 1992c; Weick et al., 1989). According to Cohen (1999) these approaches tend to focus on individualistic rather than social-environmental explanations of human problems. From a strengths perspective, problems are frequently the result of interactions between people, organisations or structures (Sullivan & Rapp, 1994). By focusing on how the interactions contribute to the situation, as well as concentrating on clients’ strengths, it is possible to avoid blaming the victim (Saleebey, 1992c).
If you liked this post, you might also like:
- A story of two communities
- What is Appreciative Inquiry?
- Strengths-based approaches = HOPE
- A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description
- What is social capital?
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Clark, M. (1997) ‘Strength-based practice: the new paradigm’, Corrections Today, Vol. 59, No. 2, pp. 110-112.
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