Making Assumptions

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The importance of respecting human diversity is gaining recognition in nonprofit sectors, the business world, and human services areas. As a profession devoted to pioneering human rights and looking out for the needs of the oppressed, social work has maintained its original responsibility to celebrate diversity.
Mayadas, N.S. (1997). Should social work celebrate unity or diversity? Diversity! Journal of Social Work Education, 33 (2), 230-36.


Social work was at the forefront of recognising that individual life chances were fundamentally affected by factors such as “race”, ethnicity, gender, class, poverty, sexuality, age and disability, and that society operates systematically to improve the life chances of members of some groups, and worsen that of others.  At the launch of the Diploma in Social Work in 1989, CCETSW used the term, then barely known and indeed ridiculed, “institutional racism”, and for the first time required social workers to develop and evidence “anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice”.  It was often painful and difficult for social workers to recognise that they, and their agencies, were part of a power structure that operated to oppress people.

In the intervening years, there has been a much wider acknowledgment of the reality of discrimination and oppression, and a more concerted effort to outlaw and combat oppressive practices and attitudes.  However, there is still a long way to go –try looking at any newspaper, and see how many instances of oppressive thinking and practice you can identify. 

In recent years the term “Diversity” has become more common, in social work as in many other areas.  This can be seen positively as an effort to recognise that a society made of many different groupings can be made more effective by the multiple perspectives, traditions and strengths of those groupings- ie difference can be a source of positive strength, and not simply of struggle and conflict.  However, there is a risk that this emphasis on diversity conveniently diverts our attention from the ongoing and real disadvantage that many groups still experience. 

Each social worker, like everyone else, operates from within an overlapping range of groupings, and  interacts with individuals similarly positioned within a range of groupings.  The more like someone we are, the more we are likely to feel at ease in communicating with them, and indeed the more accurate our communication can be.  However, this whole area is a minefield strewn with the risk of assumptions.  There are assumptions of difference, and assumptions of similarity, and both can be wrong. We can assume that someone who is different from us in one way is totally different from us, or that someone who is like us in key ways is totally similar to us. 

In particular, we can wrongly assume that a person belongs to one group on the basis of his/her membership of another eg all Asians are Muslims.  This is stereotyping.  It is of course much worse when the stereotyping is negative (eg all elderly people are vulnerable), but even “neutral” or apparently benign (eg “the Welsh are all great singers”) stereotyping  can be disempowering,  interfere with accurate communication, and lead to misunderstandings.

We must, therefore, always be open to the likelihood that we are operating from assumptions, and also alert to the likelihood that the other person is making assumptions about us.  You will be adding to whatever other groupings you already belong to the group of “social worker” and indeed, for a while, “social work student”, and you may find that other people, including service users, make all sorts of assumptions about you on that basis – although, of course, you shouldn’t assume what they are!

This is clearly an area where it is important to operate as much as possible within the Open Pane of Johari’s Window, although it will never be the case that everything about us and others is Open.    There are some assumptions it is probably safer to make, however; these are that most people prefer to be treated with respect and honesty, and most people prefer to understand and have some control over what is happening in their lives.  If your communication is operating from these principles, you have the best possible chance of opening up a genuine dialogue.