I’d really welcome some feedback about how this post could be improved—I might update it depending on the comments. I wonder if I have missed some important points or my logic needs tightening in places. One of the limitations of a blog compared to writing for more formal journals is the lack of peer review. So if any of you are happy to act as a critical friend – I’ll really welcome it! Feel free to suggest changes in the comments section.
Despite the wide spread acceptance of strengths-based practice—What family or community service would not claim to be strengths-based?—practice does not always live up to the rhetoric.
One of the things that often undermines practitioners’ claims to be strengths-based, is that they fail to recognise the way in which strengths-based practice challenges traditional power relationships. As I suggested in my last post, we can differentiate between four types of power[1-3]:
Power over relies on force, coercion, and threats. It allows an individual or group to make decisions for others and to force them to comply[1, 4]. If the “others” fear the consequences or sanctions that may be applied, then they are more likely to comply. Family and community workers often have a range of sanctions or consequences that can be applied if families or communities do not cooperate, including:
- Evicting people from their homes (e.g., public housing) or temporary accommodation (e.g., refuges)
- Cutting benefits
- Removing children from the care of their parents
- Refusing or withdrawing funds for community projects
- Providing negative reports (that might contribute to any of the above)
- Refusing to provide further assistance.
As well as the fairly clear examples control and compulsion, power over is often evident in the value we place on the insights and experience of individuals, families and communities.
It can be easy for practitioners to adopt more of a medical model where they use their expertise to identify what the “problem” is, or what someone “needs,” and then to mobilise a variety of professional services to help support them. There is a real attraction to this approach. Sometimes we can see how some changes could make a big difference and, because we want to help create change, we desperately want to point out what is obvious to us and provide useful advice.
In strengths-based practice, practitioners do not diagnose or determine what needs to be done. The process is closer to the following:
- Support individuals, families or communities to identify their strengths
- Discover their goals
- Explore with them what resources they have, or can access, that could help them achieve their goals
- Consider what other support they might need from professional services.
In the medical model, individuals, families and communities are the object of the process (i.e., they are having something done to them), whereas in the second approach, they are the subject (i.e., they are the ones doing something).
Of course it is not a binary choice: either the one approach or the other. In reality there is a continuum between the two approaches and practitioners move up and down the continuum. There can be a real temptation to diagnose the situation and to tell the people we are working with what they should do. It’s particularly hard when obvious “problems” are overlooked by the people we work with or when there clear things that could make a real difference.
Power is at the heart of the difference in the two approaches.
When we value our “expert, specialist” knowledge more than the “local” knowledge of the people we are working with we are operating from power over. By not giving their experience, insights and values the same credibility as our own, we are reinforcing our position of authority, control and even coercion. We are essentially saying, “We know what is best for you.”
Clearly practitioners are unlikely to speak in these terms, will dress it up in more collaborative language and even try to listen to the people they are working with, but unless we really are committed to power with, power to and power within, and are willing to let go some of the power we have from our position as professionals, we are unlikely to challenge traditional power relationships.
The importance of recognising the expertise and insights of the people we work with is widely recognised and is vital to strengths-based practice. Ife, speaking in the context of community development argues:
Community workers face the temptation common to all human-service workers: to assume that somehow they are the experts, with specialist knowledge to be brought to the community and used to help in some way…. There is no doubt that community workers do often have specialist knowledge, but to privilege this knowledge, and thereby devalue the local knowledge of the community itself, is the antithesis of community development. The valuing of local knowledge is an essential component of any community development work, and this can best be summed up by the phrase “the community knows best”. (p. 139)
Scope (Victoria) Statewide Specialist Service suggests that:
Families are the experts with respect to their child and they can bring a great deal of information to a collaborative relationship with practitioners. It is important for practitioners to recognise this and ensure families have opportunities to share their expertise. (p. 16)
Saleebey argues that:
The role of expert may not provide the best vantage point or tools with which to appreciate clients’ strengths and employ them…. Subjugating clients’ wisdom and knowledge to official views or our views is a mistake because there is something liberating, for all parties involved, in making a vibrant association with clients stories and narratives, their hopes and fears, their wherewithal and resources rather than trying to stuff them into the narrow confines of a diagnostic category or treatment protocol. Ultimately, a collaborative stance may make us less vulnerable to some of the more political elements of helping: paternalism, victim-blaming (or, more currently, victim-creating), and preemption of client views. (p. 19)
This can be very challenging. How do we respond if people are making “poor” decisions or acting on false information? Recently a couple of my colleagues showed me the following clip which highlights the risk of blindly accepting the perspective of others.
Strengths-based practice involves much more than being positive and hoping for the best. We need to be able to have challenging conversations which encourage people to rethink their customary behaviour or long held beliefs, but we need to be able to do it in ways that do not devalue their experience and that do not rely on power over, coercion and control.
When faced with complex problems like family violence or child abuse, this is particularly challenging and we need to be very conscious of potential risks to the safety and wellbeing of others. Strengths-based practice offers approaches that can help tap into people’s hopes and aspirations (I’ve never met somebody who wants to be a bad parent or a partner); can help individuals, families and communities develop new perspectives; and can help other possibilities emerge. But it requires practitioners to critically reflect on the dynamics of power in their relationships and to focus on power with and power to, and to nurture power within.
If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:
- 4 types of power: What are power over; power with; power to and power within?
- What is the Strengths Perspective?
- What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
- Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
- Strengths-based practice: more than being positive
- The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.
- VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2007). A new weave of power, people & politics: The action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing. Chapter 3 on Power and Empowerment is available from https://justassociates.org/en/resources/new-weave-power-people-politics-action-guide-advocacy-and-citizen-participation
- Mathie, A., Cameron, J., & Gibson, K. (2017). Asset-based and citizen-led development: Using a diffracted power lens to analyze the possibilities and challenges. Progress in Development Studies, 17(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1177/1464993416674302 Available from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1464993416674302
- Hunjan, R., & Keophilavon, S. (2010). Making change happen. Fife: Carnegie UK Trust. Available from https://d1ssu070pg2v9i.cloudfront.net/pex/carnegie_uk_trust/2016/02/pub1455011688.pdf
- Starhawk. (1990). Truth or dare: Encounters with power, authority, and mystery. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
- Sharp, G. (1973). The politics of nonviolent action: Power and struggle (Vol. 1). Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.
- Ife, J. W. (2013). Community development in an uncertain world: Vision, analysis and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Scope (Victoria) Statewide Specialist Service. (2005). Family-centred practice: An evaluation of an early childhood intervention service. Stronger Families Learning Exchange Bulletin(7), 15-17. Available from http://content.webarchive.nla.gov.au/gov/wayback/20060820030608/http://aifs.gov.au/sf/pubs/bull7/scope.pdf
- Saleebey, D. (2013). Introduction: Power in the people. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.