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Praxis, social work and cake…

An ill timed tweet mentioning Paulor Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed bought an invitation from @swscmedia to contribute an opinion piece to this week’s debate on “The fusion of social work theory, evidence and practice – praxis.

It is a busier weekend than I envisaged so this is going to be short and include cake. There are many erudite papers and contributions that describe both Freire and his work and even relate his thinking to social work. I don’t understand most of them. Did you try and read the Wikipedia Praxis Intervention piece that @lilieputian posted? Did you understand it? Kudos if you did. It is a bit like people who believe in ghosts. I occasionally catch a glimpse over my left shoulder and think haha got you and then it vanishes again.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed was the trendy book I struggled with in 1977 in college. It was published in 1970 and it caught the zeitgeist of the move from the ‘Peace is Love’ generation of the 60s to a more interventionist feminist, raising consciousness,  liberation and community and social development approach that informed many of our lives. Whilst culturally Freire was writing about illiterate Brazilians it struck many chords. Talking of which there was also some amazing music that underpinned my college days and have ever since.  Last sentence was a tribute to @nickberbiers.

Mark Smith has written at InfEd about five aspects of Freire’s work and reading them it becomes clearer how Friere’s contribution informed the more radical thinking about both community and social work in the 70s.  One of those aspects is the Greek concept of ‘praxis’ and I would urge you to read all five (they are only a paragraph each) to also see the ghost over your left shoulder if the thinking is unfamiliar to you. But for those of you too timeshort to go further than here – this is Mark’s paragraph on ‘praxis’

Freire was concerned with praxis – action that is informed (and linked to certain values). Dialogue wasn’t just about deepening understanding – but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community and building social capital and to leading us to act in ways that make for justice and human flourishing. Informal and popular educators have had a long-standing orientation to action – so the emphasis on change in the world was welcome. But there was a sting in the tail. Paulo Freire argued for informed action and as such provided a useful counter-balance to those who want to diminish theory.

Smith, M. K. (1997, 2002) ‘Paulo Freire and informal education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Last update: December 01, 2011]

Mark also highlights various critiques of Freire’s work and these too are worth a read as I was not aware of this thinking when I first rather uncritically read the work. But the criticisms do hit another nerve for me about the profession we are engaged in.

A seeming diversion here: many #swscmedia folk will have gathered that the social work education programmes at the University, where until Tuesday, I work, are under threat of closure at the moment. An article I only read last Friday, by a certain @claudiamegele in Community Care on 9th September 2011, is I think the best explanation I have seen as to why this is the case. A tendency to disregard theory could damage implementation of Professor Munro’s report Within this Claudia provides an analysis of why social work as a discipline is not understood or particularly welcomed in research intensive universities but it also provides an  exposition of why we need the fusion of social work theory, evidence and practice.

But if social work is truly to enhance its professional identity, image and status it must overcome the anti-intellectualismin its practice and reconcile the divide between theory and professional day-to-day practice. This is the case in every other profession such as medicine, nursing and psychology. Social work must resort to the Greek notion of praxis where theories are applied, enacted and embodied in everyday practice.

So back to praxis and cake. I am really not sure this is going to hold up as an analogy but it kind of works for me so it might for you. I can make a chocolate cake by following the recipe: using the precise measures of flour, butter, eggs, cocoa powder, milk, etc. Having done this I can be creative and make cupcakes or cake squares or one big cake. I can be even more creative and cut the cake in half and fill it with buttercream or fruit or whatever I like. I end up with something usually edible BUT I do not understand the HOW of it or the WHY of it.

I understand that if I blend the sugar and butter the two separate ingredients are transformed in to a substance that is yummy to eat off of a spoon in the way that separately the ingredients are not. However to be able to make up my own recipes I need a much better understanding of the physics and chemical interactions involved. For instance I just googled Cake Baking Theory and got Andrew Jackson’s physics assignment which includes “…the starch and protein molecules line up along the walls of gas cells and then, as the protein chains form (giving structure), water is squeezed out from between the proteins and absorbed by the starch granules (which can absorb up to ten times their own weight of water).” And that is just in relation to the setting of a cake. It is amazing what I learn whilst writing for SWSCmedia.

So it is with social work, we need to understand much more about the theory behind our work, continue to build the evidence base to prove or disprove the theories as well as understanding the process before we can come up with social work methods and interactions that emulate the best chocolate cake and go beyond that to make something Michelle Roux would be proud of.  Praxis to me is being so familiar with the ingredients, the how and the why of how they work and only then  perhaps we act in a way creates and transforms this society of ours and how we treat each other.

Jackie Rafferty (@jaxrafferty) is a member of Social Work Reform Board and the Director of Social Policy and Social Work Subject Centre at Higher Education Academy, and the Director of Social Work Technology Research, Development and Educational Centre at University of Southampton. She is also a member of SWSCmedia Expert Panel.

After years of tireless dedication to social work, Jackie Rafferty is retiring from her current post on 31 January 2012. But, this does not mean that she is withdrawing from contributing to contribute and enrich this profession. To the contrary, we are certain Jackie will continue to be a beacon of light for Social Work and Social Care.

We salute and Thank You Jackie Rafferty for all you have done and all that you will do for social work and social care.



One thought on “Praxis, social work and cake…

  1. “But if social work is truly to enhance its professional identity, image and status it must overcome the anti-intellectualismin its practice and reconcile the divide between theory and professional day-to-day practice. This is the case in every other profession such as medicine, nursing and psychology. Social work must resort to the Greek notion of praxis where theories are applied, enacted and embodied in everyday practice.”

    Yes, I agree completely. At the same time, I think social workers can bring a fresh perspective to how to work with theory.

    And congratulations on your retirement, Jackie. I’ve only had the privilege of getting to know you a bit recently, through Twitter, but it’s given me a glimpse of the richness of expertise and compassion that you bring to social work and social care. I know you will be deeply missed (but I’m assuming we’ll still have you in our Twitter circles!).

    Posted by njsmyth | January 31, 2012, 2:24 am

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