The strengths perspective and strengths-based approaches offer service providers ways of working that focus 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).
The following are seven important principles of the strengths perspective (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 are recognised as having many strengths and have the capacity to continue to learn, grow and change.
- The focus of intervention is on the strengths and aspirations of the people we work with.
- Communities and social environments are seen as being full of resources.
- Service providers collaborate with the people they work with.
- Interventions are based on 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.
People are recognised as having 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 known 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 intervention is on the strengths and aspirations of the people we work with.
Saleebey’s last point just quoted, points to the principle that in strengths-based approaches the focus is on the strengths and aspirations of the people we worth with 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 people 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) the people we work with 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-based approach see A story of two communities.
Communities and social environments are 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). Strengths-based approach 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-based approach 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).
Service providers collaborate with the people they work with.
People 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-based approaches focus on “collaboration and partnership between social workers and clients” (Early & GlenMaye, 2000, p. 120).
Saleebey (1992b) suggests that the approach to working with people 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 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 a person 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).
Service providers do 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 people are seen as being experts on their own situation (Poertner & Ronnau, 1992; Saleebey, 1992c; Sullivan & Rapp, 1994; Weick et al., 1989) then they should be the ones 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 family and community 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 person’s capacity to act on his or her own behalf, it is important to recognise that 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 is not as frequently identified in the literature, but it is a useful distinction. In models of family and community 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 people’s strengths, it is possible to avoid blaming the victim (Saleebey, 1992c).
Strengths-based approaches are not magic bullets which have all the answers, but they have transformed they way many practitioners and services operate. I’ve found that more critical theories and approaches can help me understand situations, but when it comes to actually working with individuals, families and communities, the strengths perspective helps me to discover ways forward and to help other possibilities emerge. It takes discipline, reflection and practice, but it’s worth the effort.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
- More resources for students on strengths-based practice
- What is community capacity building?
- What is Appreciative Inquiry?
- What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
- Strengths-based approaches = HOPE
- “I try and make it feel more like a home” – families living in caravan parks (the difference between a strengths-based approach and a deficit-based approach)
This was a summary of the strengths perspective I wrote in 2001 so some of the references are a bit old. If I was to write it now, I would have a greater focus on working with communities.
Bricker-Jenkins, M. (1992) ‘Building a strengths model of practice in the public social services’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Chapin, R. (1995) ‘Social policy development: the strengths perspective’, Social Work, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 506-514.
Clark, M. (1997) ‘Strength-based practice: the new paradigm’, Corrections Today, Vol. 59, No. 2, pp. 110-112.
Cohen, B.-Z. (1999) ‘Intervention and Supervision in Strengths-Based Social Work Practice’, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, Vol. 80, No. 5, p. 460.
Early, T. and GlenMaye, L. (2000) ‘Valuing families: Social work practice with families from a strengths perspective’, Social Work, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 118-130.
Kisthardt, W. (1992) ‘A Strengths Model of Case Management: The Principles and Functions of a Helping Partnership with Persons with Persistent Mental Illness’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Miley, K., O’Melia, M. and DuBois, B. (2001) Generalist Social Work Practice: An Empowering Approach, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Poertner, J. and Ronnau, J. (1992) ‘A Strengths Approach to Children with Emotional Disabilities’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Rapp, C. (1992) ‘The Strengths Perspective of Case Management with Persons Suffering from Severe Mental Illness’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Saleebey, D. (1992a) ‘Conclusion: Possibilities and Problems with the Strengths Perspective’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Saleebey, D. (1992b) ‘Introduction: Beginnings of a Strengths Approach to Practice’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Saleebey, D. (1992c) ‘Introduction: Power in the People’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Saleebey, D. (ed.) (1992d) The strengths perspective in social work practice, New York: Longman.
Sullivan, W. (1992a) ‘Reconsidering the Environment as a Helping Resource’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Sullivan, W.P. (1992b) ‘Reclaiming the community: the strengths perspective and deinstitutionalization’, Social Work, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 204-209.
Sullivan, W.P. and Fisher, B. (1994) ‘Intervening for success: strengths-based case management and successful aging’, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Vol. 22, No. 1-2, pp. 61-74.
Sullivan, W.P. and Rapp, C. (1994) ‘Breaking away: The potential and promise of a strengths-based approach to social work practice’, in Issues in social work, (eds.) R Meinert, J Pardeck, & W Sullivan, Westport, CT, USA: Auburn House.
Weick, A. (1992) ‘Building a Strengths Perspective for Social Work’, in The strengths perspective in social work practice, (ed.) D Saleebey, New York: Longman.
Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W.P. and Kisthardt, W. (1989) ‘A strengths perspective for social work practice’, Social Work, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 350-354.