Confusion: A Study in the Theory of Knowledge

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Languages are merely the way in which we organise our interaction with the world. Barnes compare categorisation to cutting a cake: we can always find a different way to cut the slices Barnes et al. In fact, because our system of categorisation is conventional, whatever generalisation can be made about categories is bound to meet counter examples.

Sooner or later the world will present instances to which current generalisations do not apply. Nonetheless, such instances cannot be said to determine anything within languages, nor do they dictate to human beings how they must be treated.


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They can be ignored as irrelevant, or looked upon as accidents or monsters; they may lead to the creation of another category, to a radical change in the language, or to restriction of the scope of the generalisation. If anomalies evoke crises and revolutions, the question is why those responses are preferred to more conservative alternatives. At the same time, classifications cannot follow abstract universal rules.

As we remarked above, criteria cannot be other than words that should be explained. If neither the world nor rules can provide grounds for language, languages are looked upon as institutions, or self-referential practices. Hence the relativism of this perspective: languages, as well as all systems of categorisation, are social institutions and they are incomparable; there are no absolute criteria with which to establish the best or most appropriate way of classifying.

Moreover, if different groups within a community use words or concepts differently, it is impossible to establish in absolute terms who is right and who is wrong, because the only possible parameter is agreement within the group. Bloor discerns a close analogy between Wittgenstein's perspective on language and Von Mises' interpretation of price formation in a market economy. Although prices may appear to be external and objective to the individual who participates in these transactions.

The only real price is the price paid in the course of real transactions as they proceed von Fall zu Fall. Wittgenstein strongly attacks attempts to look for mistakes in the customs of communities. If an entire community uses a concept in a certain way, the only thing that can be said is that this is the way things stand within that community; to talk of mistakes in absolute terms is impossible.

In this view uncertainty about the use of words is not a shortcoming exclusively of social work or of the social sciences. It reminds us that there may be communities with completely different languages from our own, and that there is no absolute standard with which to compare among languages. Of course this is of particular relevance to the social work profession, which is very often — if not always — involved in connecting people from different segments of society, different social classes, different cultures. It helps us make sense of the clash in perspective and power struggle between practitioners and clients, which has been the subject of so much debate Margolin Accordingly, within the social work community, certain terms and concepts are likely to be used by practitioners in ways which academics fail to recognize.

Some research has explicitly treated this as a problem Stevenson and Parsloe ; Marsh and Triseliotis ; Osmond et al. Differences between formal academic definitions and concepts as defined by practitioners simply highlight the differences between the academic and practitioner communities and their respective languages. Differences though cannot be looked at as casual.

Since language is conceived as self-referential, it could be regarded as the outcome of creative processes within specific communities. They emphasise largely undeveloped themes in Wittgenstein's thought, most notably the part played by interests in language games Wittgenstein mainly referred to needs. Language games cannot be explained by an external worldly reality, nor by the intrinsic authority of concepts, nor by their nature as collective habits and routines we change our habits, in fact, and these changes are among the facts that call for explanation.

In the case of theory and practice, we may start by considering how the different interests at work within the social work community can explain different definitions of these terms.

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Before moving to closer consideration of how the theory and practice issue appears from the perspective illustrated above, some specifications are in order. Assumption of this perspective may appear somewhat disconcerting: the importance given to conventional agreements, even in drawing the line between subjectivity and objectivity, seems to involve a nihilist position on reality.

If our categories are the product of an agreement within the community - in other words if they are conventional - then reality may not play any part in them.

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This would be like saying that reality and the world do not exist: there is no world independent of our constructions. This is not Wittgenstein's position, however; nor , on the whole , is it the position of the interpreters of his thought to whom I have referred. The issue is not whether the world exists but rather whether an absolute and unique order exists independently of our conventional cognitive order. What is maintained is that the world and our experiences present us with an infinite, complex criss-crossing of similarities and differences.

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Nothing is totally alike to anything else, and nothing is totally different. It can be hypothesised that human beings have a generic disposition to perceive differences and resemblances in a constant way. But neither the world nor our nature dictates the lines differences and resemblances along which the world should be cut. The way it is sliced is the product of a certain community agreement in practices, and it can be - and indeed is — constantly revised. This is a fundamental point in the strong programme. Giving it due importance enables us to counter some of the criticisms of subjectivism brought against the strong programme and Wittgenstein Lolli ; Nagel Subjectivism and relativism have often been considered high-risk positions in the social sciences, and especially in social work.

In fact, the perspective presented here can be considered as a form of subjectivism when communities are regarded anthropomorphically as individuals endowed with a perceptive apparatus, a will, and a capacity to select among several possible uses of words. But this is not the case here. What is described is, on the contrary, a natural process: cognitive orders, languages, spring from an infinite number of reciprocal adjustments among individuals endowed with a perceptive apparatus, etc. In a sense, to say that objectivity arises from a conventional order is not the same as equating subjectivity and objectivity.

And to say that the distinction between what is subjective and what is objective, what is true and what is false, is the product of ongoing negotiation and adjustments among the members of a community is neither to say that it is arbitrary nor to reject the distinction Hughes , One may regard this way the concepts, crucial to social work, from the ones which designate a phenomenon on which social work intervenes such as child abuse. This kind of relativism questions, not the objectivity of the phenomena denoted by these terms as some have suggested see Sheppard , ; Peile et al.

These terms can be regarded as measuring rods, as socially constructed standards which create an objective reality. We mentioned at the beginning that the debate on theory and practice is characterised by disagreement and uncertainty about the definitions of those very concepts. The question now is whether the perspective presented can cast new light on the entire discussion, and suggest new ways to connect different issues, themes, and trends together. Considering how reflection on language helps to make sense of the debate, we must now shift our focus from the theory and practice issue to the structure of the professional community and its internal segmentation.

That professional communities are internally divided on the basis of conflicting interests has been extensively argued with reference to other professional groups Freidson ; Atkinson The discussion of key terms which cuts across the entire debate requires us to consider its relevance to segmentations, different interests or different strategies to pursue these interests within the social work community. Looking at the debate we can see that some key terms are crucial in the discussion.

The distinctive feature of the debate is that different definitions are given to a quite specific set of factors, e. We may fruitfully consider the entire debate and broad approaches, e. In a sense, different definitions and different uses of terms and concepts can be linked to different definitions of the groups concerned practitioners, academic social workers, employers and of their relations. When the different positions in the debate are seen this way, one is struck by the central importance of defining boundaries among groups, associated with the introduction or blurring of distinctions and differences in the terms.

The authors who maintain that theory guides practice see a strong divide between scientific theories and common sense. In contrast, those who deny theory such a role also question the sharpness of the latter distinction.

One cannot help noticing that these different ways of drawing distinctions impact directly on definitions of the relationship between the academic social work community and the practitioners' community. They also affect the related, different ways to draw frontiers between the professions, with informal lay helpers on one side, and other professions on the other. Given the concrete importance of boundary definition, it is likely that behind the debate lies a complex interplay of interests.

Actually several authors have connected the emergence and differentiation of positions with the different interests of the specific groups involved. For instance, Payne declares that the pragmatic position, and the critical views towards theory and theoretical training in social work, rests on a power struggle for control over practitioners. Although he goes no further than this, one naturally thinks of the struggle among agencies to gain control over the training of social workers Lee ; Dominelli Employers and agencies are often seen as critical toward theoretical training for social workers, their position being that a good level of practical information would be enough.

On the other side, many authors connect the debate over the integration of theory and practice with a struggle by academic social workers to gain acceptance in the academic community and at the same time assume control over the practitioners' community. Albeit in completely different ways, Sheppard and Sheldon note that - particularly in order to gain access to the academic community - academic social workers seem to have lost contact with the specificity of social work practice.

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This combines with the fact that, in order to be accepted, they have assumed a subordinate position with respect to other more established disciplines in the social sciences. Some authors anyway have clearly focused on the interests and power struggles identified as driving the debate Karger He sees the debate on the transformation of social work into a scientific practice as an undercover struggle between practitioners and academics. It is a struggle between the researcher-academicians and practitioners for control of social work - a struggle between values, beliefs, and the Weltanschauung of the researchers and the practitioners' perspective.

Krager , Karger remarks that the importance given to science masks a struggle for the definition of a hierarchical relation between different social groups and that there seems to be a wider political dimension in the struggle. First, the division of labour it entails reflects and confirms the division of labour in the wider society. The earlier stories were shrouded in religion and today's are scientific, but both make claims of legitimacy. The function of both stories is to reinforce the existing social paradigm in a society.

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Karger , One cannot help thinking of the present debate over evidence based practice, and the quest for scientific social work, which is still very strong. Under the perspective described here, the entire debate can be taken to be part of negotiations by different groups over their reciprocal positions.


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If one examines the two approaches identified in terms of negotiating strategies, it appears that the former entails a quest for control by academics over practitioners and for recognition of social work within the academic context, albeit in a subordinate position in relation to more established disciplines.

The advantage of this strategy for practitioners would be elevation to the level of other, more accredited professions. In this approach, boundaries, between thinking and doing, between scientific knowledge and common sense, between professional and lay people, are mainly vertical, and they mark out a hierarchy. The second approach tends to underline differences and peculiarities more in qualitative terms, but along continuous lines; boundaries are mainly horizontal. Here an alliance between academics and practitioners is crucial, and, in relation to the academic context, the struggle is for social work to be accepted as different but equal among the social sciences see for instance the emphasis on social work as an autonomous academic discipline in Sheppard Negotiating strategies, in fact, are built up through the different uses made of, and the meanings attributed to, the crucial terms.

Most of the inconsistencies underlined in the past Clark make sense if the positions are seen in terms of strategies for negotiating relationships among groups. A review of the debate in terms of different negotiating strategies for boundary definition, whether between academics and practitioners, social work and other professions, or professionals and lay people, illustrates the complexity of research on theory and practice.

More specifically, it reminds us of the fact that any new definition of the issue is bound to be one step in a negotiating process, and in doing so, it sets the scene for new critical reflections. But reflection on languages prompts a further consideration. The endeavour to define theory and practice by means of a speculative exercise - which many regard to be the first step in research - appears destined to create more confusion than clarity. Likewise, individual attempts to create abstract definitions and to draw abstract distinctions among different kinds of knowledge are unlikely to gain empirical relevance: formal rules can always be interpreted in innumerable ways.

One can learn to repeat abstract definitions in a manner recognised by the other members of the community, and to discriminate them from other abstract definitions. But this is different from the ability consistently to apply labels to specific situations, namely in the same way as other members of the community do.

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The point is that it is not necessary to establish and define what the terms mean; we need only look empirically at how they are used in different contexts. Accounts and descriptions of work are more than means to understand a reality that lies beyond them; they become the direct object of research. Descriptions can be treated as samples of language games, and it is at this level that the connection between theory and practice can be found.

This approach is not new in social work. Paley already noted the difficulty of handling the issue of theory and practice within the more traditional frameworks. In his view, the question of whether social workers do or do not use theory should be avoided.