Monday, October 15, 2007


As often happens with a throwaway post that probably interests no one around here but me, I spent much of the afternoon thinking about George Will's attack on academic social work and my response to it. Will condemns graduate social work programs for enforcing a post-modern progressive orthodoxy. As an example, he uses a case where an MSW student was required as part of her coursework to advocate for a social policy position (the right of homosexuals to adopt and provide foster care) that was at odds with her religious beliefs.

I argued that he's right about academic social work representing a progressive orthodoxy, whose ideal I described as a non-normative society, but that for the most part the normative biases identified by social work -- ie. sexism, racism, classism and a host of others -- are in fact damaging to both individual and society, and find very few defenders among reasonable people, conservative or liberal.

Then I got to thinking about the DSM, the Diagnostic Standards Manual, which is the Bible of psychiatry and a contested but omnipresent pillar of social work. In case you're not familiar with it, I don't call it the Bible for nothing: the DSM is about as normative a book as there is. It serves as the detailed reference of what constitutes a behavioral disorder, complete with checklists of "symptoms", and is the basis against which healthy behavior is differentiated from a treatable disorder. To give you an idea, homosexuality was still diagnosable as a behavioral disorder as of the DSM II, which was replaced in 1973, and remained in watered down form through the DSM III-R as recently as 1987. (The current edition is the DSM IV, with DSM V in the consultation phase.)

There's still, in fact, an undifferentiated category of sexual behavior disorder resulting from anxiety over sexual orientation. Now, of course, the primary cause of anxiety over sexual orientation is the normative gender roles that society communicates explicitly and implicitly from the earliest age. Take away the normative bias and there's no longer any stigma attached to the behavior. It's in that context that the teaching of social work has increasingly contested these norms.

Will's target may ostensibly be the mingling of politics with academics. But like the religious right, he's really using the cloak of a political stigma (social work as a liberal discipline) to reinforce the historic behavioral stigma (homosexuality as sexual perversion). I don't take issue with the former, because he's largely correct on that score. It's the latter one that bothers me.

As for the point I raised, I think it's legitimate to wonder, question or even doubt whether society can function in the absence of normative behavior models. For the model proposed by academic social work to gain traction, it's got to find convincing responses to those doubts. In the meantime, its critique of the existing stigmas, and the harm they do, at the very least allows us to know ourselves a little bit better. Which can only help us make a better choice.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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