Gathering Spurs Lively Discussion among International Schools of Social Work

February 1, 2013
by Eric Lindberg
Haluk Soydan, left, associate dean of research, listens to Vimla Nadkarni, International Association of Schools of Social Work president, at an IASSW meeting at USC.

A vigorous debate on the globalization of social work capped off a weeklong gathering of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) hosted by the University of Southern California, allowing a diverse group of participants to share their perspectives on the consequences of cultural and scholarly exchange across geographic boundaries.

The seminar featured presentations by USC School of Social Work professors and lively dialog among attendees on a variety of topics, from promoting translational research in different cultural contexts to increasing awareness of and respect for indigenous social work practices.

“This event is very significant for us because as an organization, we are interested in strengthening social work education all over the world and encouraging exchange,” said Vimla Nadkarni, IASSW president and professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India. “We are trying to bring in so many different views from different countries with different cultures.”

As a preface to the discussion, Haluk Soydan, associate dean of research at the USC School of Social Work, outlined the school’s international activities. In addition to individual research projects that take faculty members and students to other countries, he noted that USC attracts a large cadre of international students.

“We have a very culturally diverse and nationally diverse campus,” Soydan said. The school also hosts more than 20 visiting scholars from overseas on an ongoing basis, he added, to study and participate in research at USC. “They really become ambassadors of our profession.”

The school organizes a large international research conference every year or two, he said, and also maintains six international journals. A recent project in China to establish an online clearinghouse of evidence-based practices for social workers, coupled with the school’s Center for Asian-Pacific Leadership and Network of Korean-American Leaders, has bolstered its standing throughout the Pacific Rim.

Soydan also noted university and school leaders have made a concerted effort in recent years to reach out to new regions, including Latin America, South America and the Middle East. Other school administrators gave short presentations on a variety of global initiatives, including a two-year postgraduate certificate program in the United Kingdom and global immersion programs in countries such as India and the Philippines.

“What you have shown us is a range of possibilities in the development of international social work,” Nadkarni said in response to the presentation.

She said the school is blessed with excellent resources and support from the university to engage with other nations and cultures. However, Nadkarni expressed concern that students and social workers from other countries might become too acculturated or influenced by practices from the United States or Europe, and lose their cultural connections.

In India, for instance, she is worried that aggressive intervention and involvement by outside researchers and practitioners might negatively affect the nation’s traditional approach to social work.

“The issue is of power—who dominates and who initiates the process,” Nadkarni said. “We’ve had a history of the West coming in and transferring its knowledge and practices in many Asian countries.”

In a presentation on cultural exchange and conducting translational research across borders, USC School of Social Work Professor Lawrence Palinkas said a crucial aspect of cross-cultural engagement is maintaining respect and trust. He acknowledged both positive and negative aspects of globalization, including new forms of disenfranchisement and marginalization, but also greater awareness of social challenges.

“I think it has also helped us find common solutions to those problems,” Palinkas said.

He outlined the difficulty inherent in translating research into practice in different cultural contexts by describing an ongoing research project to reduce HIV and sexually transmitted disease infection among sex workers in Mexico. The intervention he helped develop in one area of the country proved effective, reducing the infection rate by 40 percent.

The federal government quickly sought to expand the program nationally, Palinkas said, but the research team had significant concerns about how differences in dialect and culture, even within the borders of a single country, might diminish the effectiveness of the intervention. Further testing of the program throughout Mexico is ongoing.

Palinkas said researchers must not assume that tools and practices will remain effective in different contexts, and must work with local officials to adapt those practices to fit local customs and culture.

“It’s a process of debate and compromise,” he said.

Nadkarni praised the cautious and respectful approach to cross-cultural interaction, and said India and other countries need to adopt similar efforts to share their traditional practices with other nations.

“The problem is that we are not documenting, we are not writing, we are not disseminating enough,” she said. “We’ve had social work traditionally within our own values and religious practices. We are still struggling with professionalizing it.”

In an effort to improve the flow of ideas across geographic boundaries, IASSW leaders established the global exchange seminar four years ago as part of the association’s biannual board meetings, which are held in different locations throughout the world.

Mildred Joyner, who helped organize the board meeting at USC and serves as chair of the Council on Social Work Education, said the seminar series has proved fruitful in sparking debate and discussion about the role of social work on the international stage.

“How do we disseminate our knowledge throughout the world so it has impact on the people we serve?” she said. “Every social worker needs to understand our profession’s role in understanding the disparities that exist not only in the United States but throughout the world and making the commitment to change them.”

To that end, the IASSW recently developed a global agenda with four main tenets: to promote social and economic equality, ensure the dignity and worth of individuals, promote sustainable communities and environmentally sustainable development, and support well-being through human relationships.

Abye Tasse, an IASSW board member and advisor to the president of the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, said although the social work profession may differ from one culture to the next, practitioners and researchers should not only embrace those common values but take active steps to promote them.

“It’s not enough to say we are for equality,” he said. “What are we doing about it?”