Latting, Jean Kantambu.
Postmodern feminist theory and social work: A deconstruction.
Social Work. 40(6):831-833. 1995 Nov.
If social workers agree with postmodernists that the unique and situated
perspective of each individual is valid, treating the perspectives of
those who are traditionally seen as "oppressors" and their silent
supporters presents a problem. Latting discusses R. G. Sands and K.
Nuccio's (1992) lucid description of postmodernism and feminist theory and
their implications for social work practice.
Social workers take great pride in the value base of their profession.
Among the core values are respect for the dignity and worth of
individuals, remaining nonjudgmental, and the elimination of oppression
(Biestek, 1952; NASW, 1994). The first two values are consistent with
emergent postmodern trends that eschew the notion of a single "reality"
and a single "truth" (Sands & Nuccio, 1992). As both postmodernists and
Western feminists have noted, these beliefs have resulted in the
privileging of the voices and ideology of the dominant and powerful and
the neglect of groups who are marginalized, suppressed, or classified as
"minority." Postmodernists seek to uncover multiple perspectives and
realities so that all voices may be heard. The third value, elimination of
oppression, is consistent with the goals of feminism and other human
rights movements opposed to the various "isms," such as sexism, racism,
classism, ageism, and heterosexism.
Yet herein lies a dilemma: Should social workers respect the dignity and
worth of those deemed oppressive in their behavior? Should the profession
adopt a nonjudgmental stance toward people and institutions that
perpetuate oppression? How might postmodernism and feminism be combined in
social work practice? If as social workers we agree with postmodernists
that the unique and situated perspective of each individual is valid, how
do we treat the perspectives of those who are traditionally viewed as
"oppressors"--or their silent supporters?
Sands and Nuccio (1992) provided a lucid description of postmodernism and
feminist theory and their implications for social work practice. Their
article cogently described how we might "celebrate differences" while
promoting unity and action on women's issues. By doing so, they helped
advance our understanding of an important emergent trend in social work
practice. Yet although Sands and Nuccio admirably reconciled feminism with
social work practice, they did not reconcile the postmodernism emphasis on
multiple perspectives with feminism and social work practice. Through
partial deconstruction of their text, I will show how they inadvertently
failed to address this dilemma directly and, in so doing, appeared to
privilege the voice of feminists to the neglect of other voices. The
intent of this article is to elucidate the difficulties social workers
face in attempting to reconcile a nonjudgmental orientation and respect
for individual dignity and worth with the goal of eliminating oppression.
Consistent with the precedent set by other postmodern feminists (for
example, Flax, 1990), this article is written in the first person and
conversationally rather than in the disembodied voice of the third person.
Thus, I explicitly acknowledge and remind the reader that I am speaking
with my voice as one among many and laying no claim to objectivity or
A key premise in the postmodern worldview is that categorical thinking is
based on a patriarchal symbolic order rooted in language that ignores the
subtleties of multiple perspectives and serves to privilege the viewpoint
of the dominant group. In contrast, Sands and Nuccio (1992) noted that
"postmodern feminism is rooted in poststructuralism, postmodern
philosophy, and French feminist theory" (p. 490). In combining components
of these three schools of thought, postmodern feminists "move away from
'grand theory,' which purports to assert universal truth" (p. 491); seek
to avoid binary opposites (for example, male-female, reason-emotion); and
criticize the pursuit of traditional science that aims to provide
"objective" knowledge of the world. Instead, postmodern feminists seek to
identify multiple perspectives, situated meanings, and the interdependence
and nonhierarchical nature of elements.
One method for conducting postmodern inquiry is deconstruction, a method
of analyzing texts to identify suppressed and marginalized voices and
bring them to the fore. Through deconstruction, the "presumed fixity of
the existing social order" is challenged (Sands & Nuccio, 1992, p. 491).
My own deconstruction of Sands and Nuccio's text reveals a particular bias
given their emphasis on feminist social work practice--an implicit
replacement of the hegemony of the patriarchal political majority with the
hegemony of the feminist. Unfortunately, the authors, despite their
postmodern orientation, lapsed into the same type of dichotomized,
privileged thinking that many social workers find objectionable when used
against "the oppressed." Dichotomous, privileged thinking is certainly not
unique to these authors; all of us tend to privilege our own strongly held
beliefs under predisposing circumstances. I single out this article
specifically because of its emphasis on a postmodern orientation.
Respecting multiple realities while advocating the elimination of
oppression is extremely difficult.
In the examples below, I demonstrate how this new hegemony operates in
their article. The quotes are taken directly from the Sands and Nuccio
article. The comments immediately following are my own deconstructed
analysis of the implicit suppressed voices that the article ignores.
Davis identified "female and male voices in social work," both of which
are needed and desirable. Male social work academics and those researchers
who use a positivistic approach to research represent the male voice. In
contrast, practitioners represent the female voice, which tends to be
suppressed in schools of social work. (Sands & Nuccio, 1992, p. 490)
Although implicitly agreeing with Davis that both female and male voices
are needed and desirable, the authors unfortunately chose an example of an
undesirable male voice within the postmodern paradigm. As the authors
explained, positivistic approaches to research seek objectivity and
universal truths. According to postmodernists, such approaches ignore
multiple realities and are therefore limited, if not misguided. Do the
authors accept that there are aspects of the male voice that are needed
and desirable? If so, could they provide a positive example of this? Also,
do the authors acknowledge that there may be feminist approaches to "doing
Postmodern feminist thought raises challenging issues for social work.
First, the field is permeated with binary categories that influence
theory, practice, research, and education. For example, social workers
polarize the generalist and the specialist, micro and macro, research and
practice, and policy and practice. (p. 493)
How about oppressed and oppressor? Is this another binary category that
ignores the situated realities of diverse perspectives? Does our
legitimation of the labels of oppressed and oppressor restrict our ability
to understand how individuals view their own lives?
Regardless of whether a feminist has a liberal, socialist, radical, or
other perspective, she has a desire to change the social and political
order so that women will no longer be oppressed. Thus, organizing and
taking political action to redress injustices are significant dimensions
of postmodern feminism. (p. 492)
In contrast to other social work roles (for example, mediator, broker,
enabler), the political activist normally cultivates a we-they or
dichotomized orientation. Will postmodern political activists seek to
avoid this dichotomy? Will they be able to recognize--and seek to
retain--positive elements of the targets of their activism? Will they
endeavor to ensure that in their zeal, they seek to empower, not gain
A popular focus among feminist social workers has been eliminating false
dichotomies that emerge from American capitalistic, patriarchal,
hierarchical society. (p.489)
Can one hold "ideological positions"--particularly those entailed in
confrontational politics--and a postmodernist's respect for multiple
realities at the same time?
Sands and Nuccio's (1992) article suppresses several marginalized voices.
Among them are
* groups opposed to patriarchy and hierarchy or in favor of some aspects
of American capitalism, yet who reject the designation "feminist" for
* groups who seek to advance feminism without also adopting "anti-male"
rhetoric or suppressing positive characteristics of maleness
* cultural relativists who seek to understand the situated perspectives of
the "oppressed peoples" and the "oppressors"--or even to eliminate such
designations altogether because they privilege only one worldview
* social workers who act as brokers and mediators between conflictual
parties and regard activism and organizing as last resorts
* groups who believe that any ideology implicitly assumes a single truth
and a single reality.
More than likely, the authors had no intention of subjugating these or any
other voices. Despite their intentions, however, they marginalized those
who might share the goal of social justice yet differ on the methods by
which that goal might be achieved. They illustrate the dilemma the
profession faces in attempting to expose the voices of traditionally
oppressed groups while not marginalizing those of sympathetic others. The
dilemma becomes even more acute when one considers how to maintain a
stance of nonjudgmentalness with those who do even share the goal of
As Sands and Nuccio (1992) noted, some feminists are beginning to affirm
"the unity of all living things" and the "achievement of synthesis."
Despite their implicit favoring of this development, the authors' own
inclination toward promoting a hegemony of feminism--inadvertent as it may
have been--depicts how difficult it is to maintain a postmodernist's
respect for multiple perspectives. As the dialogue continues on the
relevance of postmodern feminism to social work practice, social workers
are challenged to consider how they might continue to advocate against
oppression without devaluing and dehumanizing voices that differ from our
Biestek, F. P. (1952). The nonjudgmental attitude. Social Casework, 34,
Flax, J. (1990). Thinking fragments: Psychoanalysis, feminism, and
postmodernism in the contemporary West. Berkeley: University of California
National Association of Social Workers. (1994). NASW code of ethics.
Washington, DC: Author.
Sands, R. G., & Nuccio, K. (1992). Postmodern feminist theory and social
work. Social Work, 37, 489-494.
Jean Kantambu Latting, DrPH, LMSW, is associate professor, Graduate School
of Social Work, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-4492.