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

power over?

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

whatever reason

* 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

social justice.

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.

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