Cultures and Intercultural Social Work
During the 20th International Summer School in Social Work I began to wonder about the concept of culture. How does the culture effect on behavior of people? And how should a social worker take client’s cultural background into account or should it be considered at all? Professor Christian Stark from the University of Applied Sciences, Upper Austria Linz had an interesting lecture about intercultural social work. Different cultures and their impacts on people was also one of the discussed themes of workshop groups during the summer school.
In workshop groups there were conversations about cultural perceptions and how they are seen on behavior and thinking of people. Culture is not something that just exists around us but it is the values, norms, attitudes and the habits that people share. This means that culture affects us via people, groups and communities. There cannot be cultures without people expressing them which means that both people and cultures change each other constantly.
Christian Stark refers people as cultural puppets. This means that every person is primarily a member and a representer of their own cultural group instead of an individualistic subject. Culturalisation causes the idea that knowledge about culture can solve all differences, problems and misunderstandings. But when cultures are continuously developing there is no certainty if the cultural knowledge you have is still relevant. It is also hard to recognize the cultural characteristics when there are multiple subcultures inside the culture and they are constantly mixing and reforming.
Cultural norms and habits can be openly and upfrontly expressed but they also affect subconsciously. One person can have several cultural and subcultural groups to be connected. Social workers need to be aware of that enormous affect cultures have on people’s thoughts and behavior to be able to understand their clients. The successful confronting requires letting the person you meet to be the most valuable information about that person’s own social situation including the culture, not your perceptions.
It is important to be sensitive when you meet people from different backgrounds - but when does awareness and politeness turn into being cold and alienating people? According to Stark there should be a balance between minimization and exaggeration of culture. This includes recognizing differences in a way that does not essentialize being different. It also means to support being different and not subject to the pressures of normalization and homogenization.
Stark talked about canonizing of aliens making a point that being respectful does not mean having no criteria for judgement. Understanding something or someone does not automatically include acceptance. When meeting a person it is different to value the actions of a person and the person itself. As a social worker it is essential to be aware of your own perceptions and values. Reflecting your thoughts and pursuing openness and tolerance are crucial when meeting people with different backgrounds.
In a workshop there also arose an idea of future world where there are no cultures. This means that instead of cultural groups there are only individuals. This idea sounds almost impossible because people have a tendency to categorize and build stereotypes to control and simplify all the information that they are forced to receive and deal with in everyday life. Maybe this world without cultures could be a world without intolerance and value-free stereotypes where all the groups and categories are equally dignified.
Social work student, University of Lapland