Stretching the Strengths Based Approach Imagination
1st February 2022
Professor Fiona Verity
It is over 30 years since the publication of an influential paper by Ann Weick, Charles Rudd, Patrick Sullivan and Walter Kisthardt, which crystallized a case for a ‘strengths perspective’ in social work. This perspective evolved from a shared determination to turn away from a policy and practice focus on ‘problems’, ‘deficits’, ‘the negative aspects of peoples and society’ (Weick et al 1989, p. 350), and their disempowering mark. Weick et al (1989) situate this perspective as an expression of social work’s values, and as challenge to rethink professional and institutional power which diminishes a person’s capacity to be the expert in their own lives.
This driving motivation remains as relevant now. Strengths approaches are required in social policies and practices. For example, in Wales this is a thread running through the Codes of Practice associated with the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. Strength approaches also inform creative work in community development and prevention work, with numerous examples of resultant positive outcomes. Thinking from a strengths approach keeps before us the need to be alert to human potential, supportive of people and communities and what they can and have the will to do ‘in their terms of reference’, and alive to our own authenticity in acting from social work values.
From personal family experience I know that in times of heightened vulnerability, care encounters based in these approaches are welcome rays of light. But service gaps, under-resourcing in social care, institutional power, and lack of attention to structural factors can dent these good intentions.
Strengths approaches are also not without critique, the substance of which is familiar in community development debates. In discussing strengths perspectives, Social Work Professor Mel Gray succinctly describes a key critical consideration; ‘While stemming from sound philosophical foundations, it is in danger of running too close to contemporary neoliberal notions of self-help and self-responsibility and glossing over the structural inequalities that hamper personal and social development’ (2011, p.10). The uneven impact for different populations of the COVID-19 pandemic has manifestly revealed the link between structural issues and wellbeing (e.g., poverty, uncertain employment conditions, access to health resources) (WHO, 2021; JRF, 2022).
C Wright Mills (2000) articulated a practice to see the interconnections between ‘private pains’ and ‘public troubles’ in their historical time as the hallmark of a sociological imagination. A dual focus on the personal and the dynamic social contexts of the times, is also at the heart of social work. Maintaining this focus does require hard-nosed analysis of what is not working, of oppressive power relations, and the consequences for social justice. Imagination to connect a strengths approach with a spirited examination of the impact of structural factors and how things can be different, is needed.
Mills, C. W. (2000). The sociological imagination. Oxford. England: Oxford University Press.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (2022). UK Poverty: The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK. https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-2022
Gray, M. (2011). Back to Basics: A Critique of the Strengths Perspective in Social Work, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. DOI: 10.1606/1044-3894.4054
Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W., & Kisthardt, W. (1989). A Strengths Perspective for Social Work Practice. Social Work, 34(4), 350-354.
WHO, (2021). COVID-19 and the social determinants of health and health equity: evidence brief. Geneva: World Health Organization. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.