Fall Foliage

Locating and Naming My Social Work Practice


Poulter's (2005) chart of social work theory paradigms, and the practices that go along with each theory, has helped me locate my current social work practice within this particular conceptualization of existing social work theories.

This chart is just one of many possible ways of talking about the theoretical grounding of different ways to practice and do social work. How we categorize or talk about social work theory is not a "sure thing". As Poulter (2005) states, "social work, among many other disciplines, finds it hard to agree on what is or is not a paradigm, and there are relatively few attempts at conducting a structured analysis of the problem" (p. 201). This 'trouble' fits perfectly with my postmodern leaning away from grand narratives of objective knowledge!

Nonetheless, I find it really helpful to have language to describe what I think/believe/wonder about when I am doing social work, and what I see myself doing in my work as an aspiring family therapist and clinical social worker. It is good to have shared language to talk -tentatively - about what one is doing!  

Fig. 2 A model of heuristic social work practice.


In my most recent context of clinical social work practice at the Calgary Family Therapy Centre where I was an intern, my practice model fit best in the Humanist and Existentialist quadrants (Poulter, 2005). My work with families was grounded in postmodern theory, with some engagement with narrative practice.

Poulter (2005) describes the Humanist (individualist-reformist) paradigm as follows:

  • humanists share the belief that human beings are creatures of free will and have the capacity to meet life's existential challenges of growth and responsibility (...)

  • (humanists) seek to raise consciousness about the way in which the individual is affected by structures and processes of power in society (...)

  • (humanists) are concerned about the way in which the individual has internalized the discriminatory effects of social structure (...)

  • (humanists) are more intent on doing something about it through collaborative and strengths-based approaches (Saleebey, 2002). (p. 204)

The Existentialist (reflexive-therpeutic) paradigm is described as follows:

  • an emphasis on "the subjective experiences of people"

  • an implicit belief that "there is regulation and order to our social affairs, and that human exchanges occur within the settled rhythms of a stable society (...) 

  • a belief that "the social world can only be understood subjectively, that the human spirit is free, that people act intentionally, rather than merely behave (Krill, 1986);

  •  ideas of personal growth, responsibility and self-actualization have also continued to elaborate within constructivist theory and this is in essence the focus of the existential paradigm. (p. 2004).

My social work practice in the context of doing family therapy at the CFTC as a student therapist embodied these statements. Going forward into my social work career, my social work practice framework will continue to be centered on the approaches and theories described in these two quadrants, as presented by Poulter (2005).  

In my current practice framework, I use the following approaches to social work practice:

  • the principles collaborative approach to therapy with families I studied and observed in the work of Dr. Tomm and Dr. Wulff;

  • Collaborative therapy as presented and taught by Harlene Anderson (Anderson, 1992, 1997, 2007) and its concepts of "client as expert", "a 'not-knowing' stance, uncertainty;

  • the relational approach and method of assessment of the IPscope (I plan bringing the principles of focusing on the interactional patterns in relationships) (Tomm, et al., 2014); 

  • Narrative practice ideas of deconstructing societal discourses and power (White, 1993; 2011) (I am not trained in Narrative Practice at this time but plan to change that in the future;

  • the principles and practices of an Ethical Stance for Justice-Doing (Reynolds, 2012);

  • Empowering Ethical Posture: as a stance with clients, myself, and my work context (Tomm, 2016).



Poulter (2005) proposes an interesting paradigm of practice that appeals to my theoretical leaning. He describes a "heurist" as someone who "learns by a more conscious process of reflective interaction with the surrounding physical and social worlds.

A heurist does not approach a situation with a particular theory in mind and try to establish points of congruence. Instead, they allow the situation itself to evoke theoretical possibilities. The heuristic thus searches for points of both congruence and incongruence with a range of theoretical perspectives, and in a very real sense is a 'reflective-pluralist' who tries to develop a unique theoretical explanation for each person-situation configuration. (p. 208-209)

Poulter's (2005) ideas about this practice paradigm in many ways describe what other theorists have said about constructivist approach to social work. I am interested in studying these connections further.