Social workers are a particular breed of people, this is true. We are those who have voluntarily chosen to dedicate our professional lives to helping the vulnerable members of society. It’s not the career for everyone, and so naturally we stand out from the pack a bit. However, sometimes it can be too easy to get caught up in the unique nature of our sector and forget to look at our profession with an anthropological eye. Understanding how society operates and why humans are the way we are is an incredibly useful tool for practitioners, so we wanted to take a moment to consider how anthropology can help build good practice.
Given our field of interest, there is always a level of crossover between anthropology and social work; and many of us will probably have studied a slightly anthropological module during our academic endeavours. There’s a natural overlap between understanding what makes us human and how to facilitate change in a human life. If anthropologists look at our behaviour, social structures and cultures; then practitioners can utilise this expertise to personalise their practice and ensure they are supporting service users in appropriate ways.
Anthropology, while a bit of a tongue twister to say, is a term that covers a few key areas of study which all centre around understanding humanity and what makes us the way we are. The research is commonly divided into the following categories:
- Physical anthropology (looking at what makes homo sapiens biologically different)
- Archaeology (what artefacts and physical remnants of the past say about our history/culture)
- Linguistic anthropology (what our unique way of communicating says about humanity)
- Social &/or cultural anthropology (how human societies differ from each other due to cultural systems)
- Psychological anthropology (focussing on the relationships between culture, social structure, and the human being as a person)
Anthropological studies can help us understand the subtext in so many social settings and traditions, including marriage, raising children, employment, religion and so much more. Anthropologists look into why we act and react the way we do as humans and as members of certain cultures or societal groups. Why do women from the UK act in one way, while Asian men approach the same scenario differently? Are there actions which will inherently make a Spanish male tick? Or help an American woman change their behaviour? While anthropology is not the secret answer to all life’s questions, it can clarify a lot about our species. With this foundation of knowledge, practitioners can approach scenarios more appropriately and have a higher chance of a positive outcome, since they’re able to be more culturally sensitive and aware.
This area of study looks into what makes us the way we are both biologically and sociologically; something which social workers need to be continuously aware of in the modern age. Thanks to the ease of movement across nations and the slightly blurred class differences, our society is now a conglomerate of various races, religions, orientations and identities; and practitioners need to be able to help everyone. The success of good practice depends on individual professionals being able to recognise what information they need about cultures or backgrounds that are foreign to them, and actually learning that information.
Social work is about helping others. That is the overwhelming definition from our community whenever we ask. Practitioners want to help make positive changes where needed in the lives of the vulnerable. So how can you help people if you don’t understand their traditions and the culture that has shaped them? We are all products of generations of history, and if we ignore that fact, then our society will never be able to move forward in a healthy way.
While You're Here...
Whether you’re already adopting an anthropological approach to your social work practice, or firmly believe in the differences between these two areas, we are here for you. One Stop Social are a community of practitioners who work together to develop the future of social work, and your voice matters to us in this mission. We want to champion the causes that matter to you, celebrate your successes and have a positive impact on your working life however we can.