Thursday, June 29, 2006

Multi-dimensional assessment

As social workers we are charged with assessing multiple sources of information as we examine the lives of our clients. Elizabeth Hutchison, in Dimensions of Human Behavior: The Changing Life Course (1999, Pine Forge Press) lists eight different perspectives that can inform a multidimensional assessment. These eight perspectives are divided between their sociological and psychological roots. What I will quote below is a brief chart from each perspective. Hutchison does a nice job of practically relating each perspective to a case study in her book.

Sociological Perspectives

Systems Perspective (chart, p. 42)

  • Systems are made up of interrelated members that constitute an ordered whole
  • Each part of the system impacts all other parts, and the system as a whole
  • All systems are subsystems of other larger systems
  • Systems maintain boundaries that give them their identities
  • Systems tend to move towards homeostasis, or equilibrium

A key term in the systems perspective is Role, which is described as the behaviors that a person assumes as a part of a particular social position.

Conflict Perspective (chart, p. 45)

  • Groups and individuals try to advance their own interests over the interests of others
  • Power is unequally divided, and some social groups dominate others
  • Social order is based on manipulation and control of nondominant groups by dominant groups
  • Lack of open conflict is a sign of exploitation
  • Social change is driven by conflict, with periods of change interrupting long periods of stability

Rational Choice Perspective (chart, p. 47)

  • People are rational and goal-directed
  • Social exchange is based on self-interest, with actors trying to maximize rewards and minimize costs
  • Reciprocity of exchange is essential to social life
  • Power comes from unequal resources in an exchange

Social Constructionist Perspective (chart, p. 51)

  • Actors are free, active and creative
  • Social reality is created when actors, in social interaction, develop a common understanding of their world
  • Social interaction is grounded in language customs, as well as cultural and historical contexts
  • People can modify meanings in the process of interaction
  • Society consists of social processes, not social structures

Social constructionist positions seem to occupy a majority of the thought in philosophical and therapeutic realms that embrace postmodernity. It has a close relationship with contextualism and is helpful in narrative forms of therapy.

Psychological Perspectives

Psychodynamic Perspective (chart, p. 53)

  • Emotions have a central place in human behavior
  • Unconscious, as well as conscious, mental activity serves as the motivating force in human behavior
  • Early childhood experiences are central in the patterning of an individual’s emotions, and therefore, central to problems of living throughout life
  • Individuals may become overwhelmed by internal and/or external demands
  • Individuals frequently use ego defenses to avoid becoming overwhelmed by internal and/or external demands

Developmental Perspective (chart, p. 55)

  • Human development occurs in clearly defined stages
  • Each stage of life is qualitatively different from all other stages
  • Stages of development are sequential, with each stage building on earlier stages
  • Stages of development are universal
  • All environments provide the support necessary for development
Personally, this perspective is the hardest for me to embrace. It seems to directly contrast the social constructionist point of view, as well as postmodernity and contextualism. However, this perspective also has a great deal of research to back it up. What needs to be said is that the research is myopic in its scope and only really incorporates the perspective of white middle class men.

Behavioral Perspective (chart, p. 57)

  • Human behavior is learned when individuals interact with the environment
  • Similar learning processes taking place in different environments produce differences in human behavior
  • Human behavior is learned by association of environmental stimuli
  • Human behavior is learned by reinforcement
  • Human behavior is learned by imitation
  • Human behavior is influenced by personal expectations and meanings.

Several key terms function in this perspective. First, Classical Conditioning Theory (Pavlov), uses the relationship of conditioned and unconditioned stimulus to describe the reasons for a particular behavior. Second, Operant Conditioning Theory (Skinner, Watson), uses reinforcement as the primary motivator for behavior. Finally, Cognitive Social Learning Theory (Bandura), uses imitation and cognitive processing as the primary motivators in developing a behavior.

Humanistic Perspective (chart, p. 59)

  • Humans are “spiritual, rational, purposeful, and autonomous” (Monte, 1995, p. 665)
  • Human behavior can be understood only from the vantage point of the phenomenal self—from the internal frame of reference of the individual
  • People make psychologically destructive demands on each other, and attempts to meet those demands produce anxiety
  • Human behavior is driven by a desire for growth and competence, and by a need for love and acceptance

The humanistic perspective has its roots in philosophy and grew through existentialism (Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Camus, Buber, Tillich). Rogerian therapeutic paradigms are probably the quintessential example of the humanistic perspective. Maslow’s work also fits into this perspective.

For the purpose of assessment, these eight perspectives provide an introduction to the possible forms of information that one can gather about an individual’s situation and self. I have to believe that no one can use one perspective exclusively. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the basics of each so that we can utilize their features and theories when particular forms of information appear. Furthermore, while we do not operate out of one perspective totally, we often favor one perspective over others. In order to best serve our clients it is necessary to realize our perspectives and their biases.

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