Urgently Needed Scientific Revolution in Social Work
Scientific Revolution in Social Work
Ibrahim A. Ragab Ph.D.
Professor & Chairman, Dept. of Social Work
Imam M.I.S. Islamic University, Riyadh
Paper submitted to the Seventh International Conference, Inter-University Consortium for
International Social Development, Washington D.C., July 12-16,1992.
[Scientific Revolution - Social Work - Spirituality - Ibrahim Ragab ]
Urgently Needed : Scientific Revolution in Social Work
Social work has since its early beginnings been keenly interested in "what
works". Practice considerations are, understandably, given priority over broader
contextual and "philosophical" assumptions upon which professional
conceptualizations are built (Imre,1984). A sense of impatience with anything
that maybe dubbed "idle philosophizing" runs high among many practitioners;
who would feel more comfortable with "practice wisdom" prescriptions, or may
be the satisfied consumers of social "science" theories- no questions asked! All
this may be benignly tolerated to the extent that professional practices are
deemed highly effective. Trouble begins, however, when practice effectiveness
is seriously questioned by the profession or by significant others.
Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what is happening in social work (and
other helping professions) today. Evaluative studies of practice effectiveness in
the past have generally produced discouraging results (Fischer, 1973), despite
some alleged "grounds for optimism" (Reid & Hanrahan, 1982) or declarations
that "something works" (Thomlinson, 1984). Some consolation indeed!
According to Fisher (1981): "this series of consistently negative findings [up to
the seventies] constituted, in Kuhn's terms a clear set of anomalies or deviations
from the superordinate model...these anomalies led to a crisis...The crisis [led
to] increased examination and investigation...of new models of practice...The
final step in Kuhn's model of scientific and professional revolutions...the
paradigm shift...appears to be taking place in social work (p.200).
Unfortunately, Fisher's reading of the direction of the scientific revolution in
social work, or rather his own prescription as to where we should go, seems to
be grossly misguided. He was severely taken to task by Gordon (1983) for his
"bias toward raw empiricism" and for his emphasis on " empirically
demonstrated techniques" (p.p. 181-182). Gordon , however, instead makes a
plea for a better vocabulary that captures the practitioners' insights; coupled with
a call for a better sharpening of the traditional focus of the profession on the
concept of the "person-environment interface". Fischer and Gordon seem to
represent the two dominant views in American social work literature today as to
where the profession should be heading - aside from dissidents who are calling
for an "alternative paradigm". These same conceptions are echoed in developing
countries, which follow on the heels of the American model, and with the same
results! Social work has reportedly failed to take roots (Ragab, 1990). In the
Middle East, a powerful movement towards a new paradigm, that is, the Islamic
reorientation of social work, is coming to question the basic ontological and
epistemological assumptions upon which our professional practice is based. All
this clearly point to the pressing need for a true "paradigm shift", albeit in a
different direction than the one Fischer suggests. We can readily subscribe to
Gordon's call for a sharper focus on the time-honored "core concept" of the
profession. The nature and extent of the "crisis" situation facing us today,
however, calls for much more than mere evolutionary change as he suggests.
These are not the times when the theoretician (or even the reluctant practitioner)
can afford to avoid or evade seriously examining the broader contextual factors
and the deeper basic assumption underlying practice and research, including
those of science and the scientific method.
In fact, even the cursory investigation of these broader issues uncovers
astonishing facts that should help us understand the roots of the current malaise
in the social sciences and the helping professions. The "scientific method" with
its seemingly pure and ethereal emphasis on objectivity and on the sincere search
for the truth turns out ,under investigation, to rest on questionable philosophical
assumptions and on blatantly ideological, rather than on verified factual,
grounds. The social sciences ,under scrutiny, turn out to be complacently
anchoring their theories and research methods in outmoded worldviews
borrowed from nineteenth century physics; and in research methods which were
then in vogue. The helping professions turn out to be blindly following these
flawed social science theories and utilizing these misguided research methods,
inflicting upon themselves a heavy toll taken out of their effectiveness. The
detrimental effects of all of the above on society could thus be very easily seen.
Just consider the way in which the general public looks "up" to the Freuds, the
Mertons, the Spocks, and even the early Maslows of these sciences and
professions for guidance as to how to conduct themselves, rear their own
children and fashion their societies. The flawed, warped advice they get should
explain, at least in part, the persistence of the myriad social problems and
rampant human suffering plaguing our societies today (Capra, 1982).
The purpose of this paper is to elaborate on the issues alluded to above, and
to show that the "traditional" view of science and of the scientific method , which
the social sciences inherited from the natural sciences, did in fact thwart our
efforts to understand man, or to improve the human condition. We will show that
the positivist/empiricist tradition had contributed to this deplorable state of affairs
by intentionally excluding as non- scientific any reference to the spiritual/ religious
aspects of human beings. All sorts of religious belief systems - undoubtedly
having significant causal effects on human behavior, whether we like it or not -
were also arrogantly dismissed as "nonsense". And not for the sake of
disinterested search for the truth - but for historical/political nuances! An
alternative paradigm that aims at integrating the empirical and the non-empirical
into a unified system of interpretation of human behavior is suggested. Theory
building, from that vantage point, is explored, with an emphasis on the utilization
of "true" revelation- as far as that goes - as an additional source for plausible
hypotheses. This is not meant as a naive or simplistic attempt to reconcile
religion with the science of man, but an attempt to use what "proves" usable of
religious insights. The new model does not in any way allow for a relapse into
unwanted dogmatism, or for submission to arrogant pseudo-religious accretions
to revelation. This is achieved through the good old mechanisms for self-
correction of the traditional model of science i.e. testing and falsification,
however with a different twist !
II. SCIENTIFIC METHOD AND THE POSITIVIST/EMPIRICIST LEGACY
Contrary to what is widely believed, contemporary reevaluations of the
history of science have shown that the "idea of science... [as we know it today]
is only one of many, and that it is a product of temporary circumstances"
(Ravetz,1975: 366). Historians of science, according to Ravetz, are also coming
to view present conceptions of science as "one phase in a continuing evolution,
and that modern science as we know it is an integral part of European civilization
(and Western way of life), reflecting "its faults as well as its virtues" (p.375). In
the same vein, Johan Galtung (1977) adds that any discussion of scientific
methodology "without reference to the underlying social structure is misleading.
That kind of discussion will only lead to pretenses of universalism and
Tudor (1982) completes the demystification process by stating that
"science is a social activity like any other and thus subject to similar `irrational'
constraints and virtues". (p.31). So, far from being the certain, unbiased,
immutable, and almost heavenly activity that we think, the scientific method was,
and is in fact shaped through its development by such mundane things as culture,
ideology, politics, self interest, and even hatreds. These and similar eye-opening
insights teach us how fallible we all are, and that we cannot grant, even to
science, the kind of respect and trust that only religion did one day muster, which
science valiantly fought to dispossess it of!
Bergin (1980) sums up the situation beautifully when he
"Science has lost its authority as the dominating source of truth it once was.
This change is both reflected in and stimulated by analyses that reveal science to
be an intuitive and value-laden cultural form...Although a belief in the value of
the scientific method appropriately persists, there is a widespread disillusionment
with the way it has been used and a loss of faith in it as the cure for human ills"
We have a moral, or in fact a "scientific", obligation and responsibility to look
very closely into our conceptions of the scientific method to see where it went
wrong, particularly in the study of man. This takes us directly to the positivist/
Any standard definition of the traditional scientific method immediately
reveals its positivist/empiricist biases. Theodorson and Theodorson (1969)
define the scientific method as "the building of a body of scientific knowledge
through observation, experimentation, generalization, and verification." To this
they add that it is based on "the assumption that knowledge is based on what is
experienced through the senses...must be empirically verifiable" (p.375).
The same dictionary defines "positivism" as "the philosophical position
holding that knowledge can be derived only from sensory experience" (p.306).
A variant of positivism, "logical positivism", only concedes that "logical analysis
is needed to clarify meanings that have been verified or falsified through sense
experience, but such analyses should be closely associated with empirical
observation..." (p.307). Logical positivists at the same time condemn"...as
nonsense (really non-sense; i.e.., complete absence of factual meaning)...all
moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical assertions". (Feigl, 1975: 879).
"Logical empiricism", a modified version of the above, developed in the mid
third of this century, relinquished the designation "positivism" because of the
negative attitude it carries toward the existence of any "theoretical" entities.
Empiricism" is, however, retained as it insists on "the requirement that
hypotheses and theories be empirically testable". (p.881). Logical empiricism,
which is the dominant philosophy guiding scientific inquiry today, also insists
that "all statements about moral ...or religious values are scientifically unverifiable
and meaningless" (Levi, 1975: 273)
But how can we explain that messianic zeal the empiricist tradition reveals in
defense of the senses as the only source of acceptable "scientific" knowledge?
And why that vehement insistence on the complete exclusion of all other sources
for attaining knowledge, especially revelation? It would have been interesting if
we could trace here the historical development of science and the scientific
method to be able to give detailed answers to these two questions. That,
however, goes beyond the scope of this paper. Fortunately, there exists a vast
literature on the subject, some of which is fairly accessible, to which the reader
may be referred (Levi, 1975; Ravetz, 1975; Sperry, 1988).
Suffice it at this point to conclude with Polkinghorne (1984) that:
"In Western philosophy, there has been an ongoing search for a foundation or
ground upon which to secure true knowledge. After scriptural authority and
Descartes' clear and undoubtable ideas...were found wanting, there was a
general acceptance of sense experience as the base for certainty". (p.418)
[emphasis mine]. There seems to be general agreement today that the emergence
of that biased positivist/empiricist tradition, with its singleminded emphasis on
human sense experiences was only the bitter harvest of the unfortunate conflict
between church and science during the
Renaissance and the Enlightenment eras. While scientists were decidedly bent on
breaking loose from church authority at any price, it seems that they threw the
baby with the bathwater.
We are told by historians that "Western philosophy in the Middle Ages was
primarily a Christian philosophy, clarifying the divine revelation...[but] the
Renaissance mounted its revolt against the reign of religion and therefore reacted
against the church, against authority, against Scholasticism, and against
Aristotle." (Levi, 1975: 261). Toulmin (1975) adds that "Francis Bacon, author
of the method of exhaustive induction...reacted against the Scholastic reliance on
Aristotle's authority by calling for a return to firsthand experience...was
preoccupied with empirically observed facts as the starting point for all
science..." (p.378) To clear away from Aristotle, whose ideas were adopted as
official doctrine by the church, an independent source for gaining true knowledge
had to be found and to be consecrated! Sense experience, available to
everybody and not monopolized by the clergy was the answer. However, to free
science-forever-from the grip of the church or from any other arbitrary authority
for that matter, sense experiences were to be seen as the "sole source" of
scientific knowledge. This was meant to completely exclude revelation - true or
false - from consideration anywhere in the scientific enterprise.
These conceptions served their purposes very well when the physical
scientists studied natural phenomena. The subject matter, by its nature, was
amenable to observation through the senses and through equipment designed to
extend their reach. Verification of the findings was guaranteed through
replication of experiments. Certainty was easier to achieve, or so it seemed - up
to a point. This explains the exemplary success of the "traditional" scientific
method in the study of natural phenomena.
Hoping to achieve a comparable degree of success in the study of man,
scientists (or rather philosophers) vehemently called for the application of the
same methods used in the natural sciences in the social sciences. But this was
not the only motive behind the call for emulating physical science. Scientists
were also keen to seal out any influence the church may still claim on the
"scientific" study of man. This is where Auguste Compte's positivism fits in,
with its insistence that "The methods of physical sciences are regarded as the
only accurate means of obtaining knowledge, and therefore the social sciences
should be limited to the use of these methods and modeled after the physical
sciences". (Theodorson & Theodorson, 1969: 306). Feigl (1975) points out the
antichurch motive behind this call when he states that "In its basic ideological
posture, positivism is thus worldly, secular, antitheological, and
antimetaphysical" (p.877). But what did all that mean for the social sciences, and
to the helping professions? How did nineteenth century views on the world and
the methods of knowing about it held by the physical scientists affect the study
of man? How did it even affect human societies since then?
III. IMPACT ON THE SOCIAL SCIENCES AND THE HELPING
IN 1843 John Stuart Mill wrote: "The backward state of the moral (human)
sciences can be remedied by applying to them the methods of physical science,
duly extended and generalized." (Polkinghorne, 1984: 416). This advice was very
seriously heeded by social scientists since then. The consequences of emulating
the physical sciences were dire indeed. To appreciate the extent of the damage
done by using these same methods let us examine the character of science and its
methods which were applied in the physical sciences at that time and which still
drag on up to this day. Authorities on the subject would tell us that nineteenth
century science could be described as materialistic, mechanistic, and
reductionist, reflecting conceptions of reality prevalent in that era.
In physics, Newton's formulations have since the seventeenth century been
successfully applied to explain much of the physical world on the basis of the
existence of "matter" alone. As a result, scientists came to view "materialism" as
part and parcel of the scientific method itself (Augros & Stanciu, 1984). This
was, according to Capra (1982), coupled with a "mechanical" view of the
"For two and a half centuries physicists have used a mechanistic view of the
world to develop and refine...classical physics...Matter was thought to be the
basis of all existence, and the material world was seen as a multitude of objects
assembled into a huge machine...[that] consist of elementary parts...complex
phenomena could be always understood by reducing them to their building
blocks and by looking for the mechanisms through which these interacted. This
attitude, known as reductionism, ... has often been identified with the scientific
method." (p.p.31- 32).
There is general agreement that the traditional scientific method applied in the
social sciences reflected these same characteristics. Man was understood and
has been studied in the same mechanical, reductionist, and materialist terms.
Research methods and research designs reflecting these same ontological and
epistemological assumptions were used (Ford, 1984). All this was done without
serious reflection on how the subject matter of the social sciences differed in
very significant ways from that of the physical sciences. This type of confusing
very different phenomena is sometimes called a "category error" or a "category
mistake" , which "occurs when very different categories of phenomena are
treated alike" (Weick, 1987:222) . The effects were debilitating indeed.
We do not need to go to great lengths documenting the failure of the
behavioral and social sciences in their efforts to understand man and to account
for his behavior. This is well documented and all too familiar. And many critics
are even coming to see the connection between these failures and the utilization
of that outdated view of the world and of science which still dominate the social
sciences even today.
Critics of psychological research and practice for example, are coming to say
in different words something like the following: "Psychology has an identity
problem. After more than a century of official existence...there is even debate of
our subject matter...Staats and Kosh agree that psychology's
splintered condition results, at least in part, and probably most importantly, from
the existence of sharply polarized opinion about the epistemological
underpinnings of psychology". (Kimble, 1984:833). Similar assessments of the
situation in psychology abound. (Howard, 1985; Augros & Stanciu, 1984;
Bergin, 1980; Polkinghorne, 1984). The same applies to sociology (Dixon, 1973;
Gouldner, 1970). Echoes of the above could be also heard in the other social
sciences. (Moten, 1990). In social work, a heated debate has been going on for a
decade to the same effect. (see references to such works in, Peile, 1988).
The basic themes which run through most of these critical reviews revolve
around the fact that human beings are different in many ways from things,
machines or other living organisms. This fact should, accordingly, entail
corresponding modifications in the theoretical models and research methods
used to study human beings. Howard (1985) puts it nicely when he says that
"...if humans possess characteristics that are unlike the characteristics of subject
matter studied by other sciences, then an appropriate science of human behavior
might need to be somewhat different from other extant sciences". (p.p.259-260).
Polkinghorne (1984) goes one step further identifying five areas in which the
"human realm" is different, and suggesting the appropriate research stance
corresponding to each. The human realm is different in terms of :
a) its systemic character; hence, contextual relations are more important than
those among parts.
b) its unclear boundaries is the rule not the exception; hence, the
inappropriateness of deductive-numeric operations.
c) unfinished quality; the human realm is in flux, and has a history; hence,
correlations between elements may hold at one time but not at another.
d) composition, knowing humans is a "human" activity; hence, there is no
absolute point outside ourselves from which to investigate.
e) difficulty of access, the human realm is not directly observable from the
outside, is saturated with meaning, hence, we have to accept evidence with a
different nature other than observation.
Another theme that runs through criticisms of a social science following on
the footsteps of the physical sciences is the total exclusion of the "spiritual" or
religious dimensions of the human being. Bergin (1980) for example reports that
"an examination of 30 introductory psychology texts turned up no references to
the possible reality of spiritual factors. Most did not have the words God or
religion in their indexes". He further quotes the psychologist Robert Hogan as
saying "Religion is the most important social force in the history of man...But in
psychology, anyone who...tries to talk in an analytic, careful way about religion is
immediately branded a meathead; a mystic; an intuitive...sort of moron" (p.99).
Roger Sperry (1988) talks about a "theoretical turnabout" in psychology. He
describes the emerging "new view of reality" as one that "...accepts mental and
spiritual qualities as causal realities...Instead of excluding mind and spirit, the new
outlook puts subjective mental forces near the top of the brain's causal control
hierarchy and gives them primacy in determining what a person does" (p.p. 608-
609). But how did this turnabout come through? Was it the result of literal
"soul"-searching on the part of behavioral and social scientists experiencing a
theoretical near-breakdown? Or did it stem from helping professionals'
reevaluations of their conceptualizations as they experienced frustrations over
their lack of effectiveness? Far from it! The emerging new paradigm was, to a
large extent, a direct result of revolutionary discoveries in - again - the physical
sciences! Classical physics had, first, to fail under the weight of new discoveries
in the first three decades of this century. And then it had to be replaced with the
new paradigm in physics. Then, social science waits for fifty more years till the
new developments sink in, before it sheepishly follows the new paradigm in the
physical sciences. We are only recently starting to act.
IV. THE NEW PARADIGM
According to Augros & Stanciu (1984) science has, since the beginning of
this century, undergone a series of exiting revolutions in physics, in neuroscience,
in cosmology, and in psychology. Capra, a physicist, in his 1982 monumental
work documented these developments in detail, followed through with a
description of their ramifications and consequences, and went on to map out
radical changes in our present culture which are clearly mandated by these
changes. He states that the "dramatic changes of concepts and ideas that has
occurred in physics...in our current theories of matter...[have brought about a
profound change in our worldview; from the mechanistic...to a holistic and
ecological view...[with]deep insights into the nature of matter and its relation to
the human mind...The worldview implied by modern physics is inconsistent
with our present society...A radically different social and economic structure
will be needed: a cultural revolution in the true sense of the word." (p.p. XVII-
Space would not allow a fuller appreciation of the fascinating developments
which shaped modern physics as a result of Albert Einstein's pioneering work on
relativity, and of Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg's work on quantum theory.
Capra's work contains sufficient details in that respect. However, because of the
centrality of the subject to our argument, we may need to use some extensive
quoting. Capra tells us that these developments "shattered all the principal
concepts of the Cartesian world view and Newtonian mechanics. The notion
of absolute space and time, the elementary solid particles, the fundamental
material substance, the strictly causal nature of physical phenomena, and the
objective description of nature-none of these concepts could be extended to the
new domains into which physics was now penetrating" (p.62).
One of the most important consequences of the theory of relativity for
example was "the realization that mass is nothing but a form of
energy...Physicists...measure the masses of particles in the corresponding energy
units...Atoms consist of particles, and these particles are not made of any
material stuff. When we observe them we never see any substance;...[only]
dynamic patterns continually changing into one another – the continuous dance
of energy"(p.p. 81-82).
The new discoveries in atomic and subatomic physics came as a "great
shock" to scientists. Even Einstein reportedly felt as though "the ground had
been pulled out from under one". Far from being hard, solid particles, atoms
were found to consist of vast regions of space in which electrons moved around
the nucleus, which in turn is comprised of protons and neutrons. Even those
subatomic particles "were nothing like the solid objects of classical
physics...[they] are very abstract entities which have a dual aspect. Depending
on how we look at them, they appear sometimes as particles, sometimes as
waves...The situation seemed hopelessly paradoxical until it was realized that the
'particle' and 'wave' refer to classical concepts which are not fully adequate to
describe atomic phenomena. An electron is neither a particle nor a wave, but it
may show particle-like aspects in some situations and some wave-like aspects in
others". (Capra: 67).
The discovery of the dual aspects of matter has far-reaching consequences
for our understanding of the universe. As Neils Bohr wrote, "Isolated material
particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only
through their interaction with other systems! Subatomic particles, then, are not
'things' but are interconnections between 'things', and these 'things', in turn, are
interconnections between other 'things', and so on. In quantum theory you never
end up with 'things'; you always deal with interconnections. This is how modern
physics reveal the oneness of the universe". (Capra: 69-70). Capra comments
on these insights by saying that theories of contemporary science reveal a
conception of the world which can be "in perfect harmony with [the working
scientists'] spiritual aims and religious beliefs".
New developments in neuroscience and in psychology in the last twenty years
proved to be no less revolutionary than those described above in physics. The
"traditional" model of neuroscience and psychology "had proclaimed a full
account of brain function and behavior to be possible in strictly objective
physiochemical and physiological terms, with no reference to conscious
experience...Things such as moral values, the human spirit, purpose, dignity,
and freedom to choose, if they existed at all, were supposed to be only
epiphenomena..[that] supposedly, in no way changed the course of events in the
real world...(Sperry, 1988: p.p. 607-608).
Sperry reports that the early nineteen seventies brought about, with a
remarkable suddenness, a revolution in the scientific treatment of the relation of
mind and brain. In his words, "The new mentalist thinking brings basic revisions
of causal explanation that provide scientists with a new philosophy, a new
outlook, a new way of understanding and explaining ourselves and the world.
The full range of the contents and qualities of inner experience...are not only
given a new legitimacy in science but are also given primacy over the more
physiochemical Forces". (p. 608).
He further elaborates on the causality model on which this "cognitive",
"mentalist", or "humanist" revolution is based. He explains that:
"The traditional assumption in neuroscience...implicit in...all the natural
sciences, supposes everything to be determined from below upward, following
the course of evolution. In this materialist 'microdeterministic' view of nature, all
mental and brain functions are determined by, and can be explained...[in the last
analysis] in terms of subatomic physics and quantum mechanics...[In contrast]
the new mentalist-cognitive tenets...take into account new, previously
nonexistent, emergent properties, including the mental, that interact causally at
their own higher level, and also exert causal control from above
downward...over their constituent neuronal events - at the same time that they are
determined by them. Microdeterminism is integrated with emergent
The new paradigm has now been reflected in a "new philosophy of science".
It seems also to be rapidly gaining momentum in all of the social sciences and the
helping professions. And the movement is manifesting itself in many different
ways. Declarations, for example, that the basic assumptions that informed the
traditional model of science are "no longer considered viable" are repeatedly
made. In 1974, Suppe wrote that "the vast majority of working philosophers of
science seem to fall on that portion of the spectrum which hold the [traditional
view of science] fundamentally inadequate and untenable". Starting from
Suppe's statement, Polkinghorne proceeds to list the indictments against the
traditional scientific method, which read like the following:
a) difficulties with using observational methods as foundational;
b) difficulties with moving from individual observations to general
c) difficulties in relating language to extralinguistic reality (p. 420).
He elaborates on and provides supporting evidence with bearing on each count.
Sociologists also are increasingly voicing dissatisfaction with the experimental
model, with operationalization, and with the perennial preoccupation with
statistics and numbers. Another significant aspect that reveals the extent of
dissatisfaction with the old model is the revolt against the once-popularized
"myth" of value free sociology. Alvin Gouldner (1973) strongly attacked the
dogma that 'thou shalt not commit a value judgment', which many sociologists
propagated. He analyzed Weber's position with regard to this conception of
value-free social sciences. He concluded that it was time- and place-bound. It
served, for Weber, both personal and institutional purposes. Interestingly,
however, Gouldner relates that doctrine also to the science-religion conflict. He
puts it this way:
"...the doctrine of a value-free sociology is a modern extension of the
medieval conflict between faith and reason. It grows out of, and still dwells in,
the tendency prevalent since the thirteenth century to erect compartments
between the two as a way of keeping the peace between them".(p.20).
The advocates of value-free social science would still argue that this doctrine
is meant to guarantee the objectivity of the scientist, who might otherwise fall
victim to his own biases. However, we saw earlier how the new paradigm
replaces the idea of objectivity with that of intersubjectivity. "External reality, as
existing apart from the perceiver, simply cannot be objectively known. Shared
realities are intersubjectively valid, but their objective validity cannot be
known"(strong, 1984: 471). The exclusion of values would never solve the
problem. Instead, the cause of scientific inquiry may be better served if the
particular values on which any theoretical framework is founded were explicitly
laid out. This renders them open to criticism by others, instead of allowing them
to operate sub rosa.
Search is on for alternatives to the narrow positivist/empiricist orientation in
the social sciences, by way of reform or of revolution (Peile, 1988) Borgen
(1984), a reformist, thinks that "it is possible to study humans as active agents", a
basic requirement in the new paradigm, within the traditional view of science.
Dawis (1984) tends to concur. On the other hand, Howard; Patton; and
Polkinghorne are seen by some as calling for "a revolutionary change" (Strong,
1984: 470). However, after considering those same contributions more carefully,
Borgen (1984) concludes that these seemingly revolutionaries may be rather
looking for integration, and that the perspectives of phenomenology and
hermeneutics may help towards achieving that end. And the list could be
endlessly extended of other suggestions for new theoretical and methodological
alterations or alternative designs which sufficiently respond to the challenge of the
new paradigm. A momentous work compiled by Peter Reason and John Rowan
(1981) intended as "A Sourcebook of the New Paradigm Research" is a valuable
compendium of such new methods and techniques.
V - THE SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS FACTOR
The new discoveries in neuroscience referred to earlier gave a new legitimacy
to the study of inner experience - including the spiritual aspects - as causal
factors in determining human behavior. Droves of theoreticians and clinicians are
now coming to question traditional formulations that denied any legitimate place
for the spiritual or religious factors, neither in theory nor in practice. This was
unthinkable in the past, where it took only individuals with extreme personal and
scholarly courage to venture into that realm, often shyly and only as a side-issue
treated in the shadow of more "important", broader subjects.
As far back as 1915, Charlotte Towle while treating the theme of basic
human needs, wrote that the "spiritual needs of the individual must also be
recognized, understood, and respected". (Spencer, 1956). Spencer, in an
important article in 1957 discussed the fundamental needs religious faiths and
practices fulfilled for human beings. Then she asked: "If these spiritual needs and
impulses are so real a part of life for such a large number of people, and if the
use of a religious faith has actual or potential value for [them], one may well ask
why social workers are hesitant to recognize and to meet the need in this area of
Stroup, in a lecture delivered in 1960, did little more than express hope for
ways to be found in which religion and social work can "relate to each other"
(1962: 93). Only in 1970 could Coughlin go analytical to identify some of roots
of the problem. He identified the antireligious influences of Freud on the
profession this way : "The arteries of Freudian theory have carried blood too
long into social work not to have insinuated into the profession the belief that
God is a delusion..." (p.82) He went deeper than to blame the problem on
certain social science theories. He made a rudimentary critique of empiricism -
although not using the term. This could be noticed in his repeated questioning of
the value of limiting ourselves to the empirical world.
It was only in the nineteen eighties that the echoes of the revolutionary
developments which took place in physics in the twenties and the thirties, and in
neuroscience and psychology in the seventies were really heard in social work
circles. There began a new appreciation of the role played by contextual,
ontological, and epistemological assumptions in social work research and
practice. As Imre (1984) put it: "Human beings are born into a culture...They are
taught how their culture views aspects of their existence..., they acquire...views
of how the world is, and how human beings learn about it". (p.42). She explains
that social workers who fail to recognize these broader philosophical
assumptions only allow them "to operate sub rosa, often with unfortunate
results". No one can hedge the issue by hiding behind technique either, because
techniques "represent methods and tools that serve an underlying philosophy of
some kind" (p.42). She strongly attacked the positivist and the empiricist notions
in social work and called for an "awakening out of acceptance" of these notions.
Colin Peile (1988) reviewed the arguments made by both the critics and the
supporters of the positivist/empiricist paradigm in social work research. He
concluded that both parties agree about the flaws of positivist/empiricist thinking
but differ on the extent of need for change. There are those who argue for what
he called "a revolutionary response" and those who would instead "offer
pragmatic reform". He identifies, however, a common ground
between the empiricists and their critics whom he identifies as "normative". To
him every side has a grasp on the truth. After defining the "paradigmatic context
of empiricism and normativism", he calls for a "creative synthesis" which unifies
them in a way that insures - through insight - a better grasp on the truth. Peile,
however, is not very clear as to the exact meaning of
creative synthesis when it comes to the specifics. How, for example can we
unify the positions taken by the empiricists and the normativists with regard to
"spiritual assumptions"? We are told that the position of the empiricists is one of
"rejection of spiritual explanations..." while the normativists hold that
spiritual beliefs "are important in the social construction of meaning" (p.7) .
Some practitioners of psychotherapy, in comparison, do not mince the
words when they refer to the centrality of the spiritual/religious dimension for
their practice. In an effort, parallel to that of Peile's, Bergin (1980) reviewed the
prevalent value systems in psychotherapy today. He identified two dominant
schools of thought which he called "clinical pragmatism" and
"humanistic idealism". The former is basically interested in "Straight-forward
implementation of the values of the social system ...[It is]... centered on
diminishing pathologies ...as defined by the clinician as an agent of the culture".
The latter seek positive change with an accent on self-exploration, self-
actualization, independence, and active goal orientation. Bergin finds that the two
views "manifest a relative indifference to God, the relationship of human beings
to God, and the possibility that spiritual factors influence behavior...[They]
exclude what is one of the largest sub-ideologies, namely, religious or theistic
approaches espoused by people who believe in God and try to guide their
behavior in terms of their perception of his will" (p.p. 98- 99).
He puts forward an alternative paradigm he calls "theistic realism" which, to
him, should not only reform psychotherapy but also reform and rejuvenate
society. The basic values espoused by this alternative view are "that God exists,
that human beings are creations of God, and that there are unseen spiritual
processes by which the link between God and humanity is maintained" (p.99).
The late nineteen eighties witnessed a renewed interest in the spiritual and
religious dimensions of social work practice. A flurry of articles appeared in
major journals strongly calling for the reinstatement of these factors with full
compensation. This recent attention is attributed to a "renewed emphasis on
religion in society" and/or seen as a sign that "the helping professions have
matured enough to discuss religion openly and to elaborate its implications for
practice" (Joseph, 1987). Some of these articles report research conducted on
different aspects of the issue while some dealt with the subject theoretically. M.
Vincentia Joseph (1988) reported on a study of practitioners' perceptions of the
importance of the religious and spiritual factors for their clients. Respondents
were asked whether they actually dealt with these issues in practice. She found a
recognition of the legitimacy of religious factors for practice. However, there
was ambivalence toward intervention in this area. The need for pertinent training
Dudley & Helfgott (1990), in contrast, surveyed the views of social work
educators on whether spirituality should have any place in the curriculum. They
found considerable support for a general course on the subject in schools of
social work. Canda (1988) wrote very thoughtfully on the same subject. He
suggested that a "comparative approach" should guide the development of such
courses, to cater for religious diversity.
A thoughtful paper by Ann Weick (1987) calling for a reconceptualization of
the philosophical perspective of social work is well informed by the new
paradigm. It provides a cogent criticism of the empiricist influences in social
work. She identifies the limiting and constraining effects of the experimental
method on the scope of inquiry in social work. She anticipates that "creative
ways will be found for discovering, interpreting, and validating other approaches
to knowledge building" for social work (Weick, 1987).
We may need to pause for a moment now to recapitulate. In the previous
section, we have shown that the new developments in science, reflected in a new
philosophy of science, seem to be ushering in what may be called the
postpositivist paradigm in the social sciences. The new paradigm recognizes the
important role played by cognitive and other inner, conscious phenomena in
determining human behavior. In this way "empiricism is seen in its rightful place,
that is, as only one of many approaches to knowing" ( Weick, 1987: 223). We
found that the spiritual and religious factors, after all, have an important, rightful
place in the "Scientific" enterprise (this, however, comes with a number of issues
to be attended to).
In this section we have, on the other hand, shown that the issue of the place
of the spiritual and religious factors, "the neglected dimension of social work"
(Joseph, 1987: 12) has recently generated enough interest among educators and
practitioners alike (Loewenberg, 1988). There is a feeling that something has to
be done to correct this imbalance.
Assuming that these two basic points are made, i.e. a) that the spiritual and
religious dimensions are now established as legitimate subjects for "scientific"
inquiry, and b)that they are increasingly recognized by the social work profession
as among the major factors that should be considered in our helping activities; we
turn our attention now to an exploration of the requirements for the
implementation of the new paradigm in theory-building.
VI- Needed Revolution in Social Work Research
Man, according to the new paradigm is not only his material being. He combines
material, observable, empirical aspects with spiritual, non-empirical aspects, in an
integrated, indivisible unity as long as he lives. Human behavior is the resultant of
the dynamic interplay between these forces. Man cannot be understood when
reduced to either of these components to the exclusion of the other one, or when
"interaction" between the two components is ignored. Let's, however, set the
"interaction" issue aside for a moment . Now we do not expect to face serious
problems when the focus of our study is on the observable, the empirical. After
all, most of our research methods and techniques in the past have been geared to
the investigation of such phenomena. Our "senses" provide the raw material for
knowledge, and "reason" is supposed to enmesh these "logically" together in a
meaningful way (we now know better than that, but this is not the issue here).
The big question is, how are we ever to study the nonempirical aspects of our
being. The soul, the spiritual aspects are by definition not amenable to study
through sense experience. This aspect of human existence is not space - or time -
bound. The vehicle for the understanding of such phenomena cannot be the
sense organs. Nor could it be reason alone, for reason can only process bits of
data - sensory or otherwise - in accordance with its innate rules. With our human
faculties exhausted, we are left with the only other source of knowledge which
can help us understand those elusive aspects of our existence. It is here that we
come face to face with "revelation", that is "true" revelation of course. The
Supreme Being who created us did withhold for Himself knowledge regarding
this innermost, most valuable component of our being. However, he sent
Messengers to provide valid insights onto these phenomena. The "validity" issue
could be decided upon through scrutiny of evidence that those Messengers
historically existed and that the "subject matter" of revelation, i.e. scripture
reached us intact.
However, as we will see now, we do not need - for the utilization of "alleged"
revelation - to go into the thorny issue of historical and substantive scrutiny to
establish the validity of alleged revelation. Theory-building since Popper gives us
a clue to a fair solution of this issue. But let's dwell for a moment on the pivotal
role played by "theory" in the scientific enterprise.
There is general agreement that "the goal of science is to develop theory"
(Turner, 1978:24). As Dawis puts it "theory is the end product of scientific
activity, but an end product that is never final because it is subject to revision and
eventual rejection if a better theory is found (1984:468). Kerlinger (1979) explains
the "high esteem" held by scientists for theory. He tells us that such esteem
"springs from the basic purpose of science, and theory is the vehicle for
expressing the purpose. Science, then, has no other purpose than theory, or
understanding and explanation" (p.280) .
Many people see empirical observations as the solid, building blocks of
science. However, the new paradigm has shown that observations are first made
and are later interpreted and given meaning only within a specific frame of
reference, a theory of sorts - explicit or implicit. So, observations - whatever the
degree of validity ascribed to them do not determine theory. Howard (1985)
explains the nature of the relations between observation and theories as follows :
"Because empirical 'facts' can support a multitude of incompatible theoretical
positions, and [because] observations in science are, in fact, theory dependent,
the link between theory and observation must be tentative" (p.257) .
But theories are based on certain assumptions, which "are not for testing",
but they limit the situations under which the theory applies. If a situation violates
the assumptions, "it is not legitimate to apply the theory" (Lin, 1976:16) . How
then do we appraise theories? Howard asks, "What are the criteria whereby
choices among theories are made ? McMullin held that the appraisal of theory is
in important respects closer in structure to value-judgment than it is to...rule-
governed inference"... (Howard:257). For this reason, assumptions upon which a
theory stands should be always explicitly laid out, even if they cannot be tested.
This makes it possible for others to agree or disagree with the assumptions and
to produce alternative assumptions that may prove more useful when hypotheses
based on them are tested .
And it is here that the value of Popper's idea of falsifiability is appreciated.
Theories, for Popper, are often "bold conjectures". Scientists should be
encouraged to construct theories "no matter how they deviate from the tradition".
But "all such conjectures should be subjected to the most severe and searching
criticism and experimental scrutiny of their truth claims. The growth of
knowledge thus proceeds through the elimination of error, i.e. through the
refutation of hypotheses that are logically inconsistent or entail empirically refuted
consequences" (Feigl, 1975: 880). In this way Popper destroyed the logical
positivists' theory of induction, according to Champion (1985). He proposed a
"theory of conjectural objective knowledge
that grows by a process of trial and error, controlled by imaginative criticism and
empirical tests". Champion adds that this is based on a realization "that there are
numerous sources of knowledge: tradition, observation, imagination,
mathematical and logical deduction...but none of these provides anything like a
certain base or a criterion of truth." (p.1415).
Informed by these insights one can hardly disapprove of Dawis's call
"The world of science should by like a classical free enterprise marketplace, with
theories as commodities. When there is a demand for theories (of one sort) it is
to the consumers' advantage to allow the largest possible supply...I find no
problem with including objectively unobservable 'internal states' in our theories,
so long as such theories can be tested" (Dawis, 1984:469).
In the same vein, Allen Bergin (1980) advocates that we examine our values,
admit that they are subjective, be clear and open. Then we state our values as
hypotheses for testing and common consideration by others, and subject them to
test, criticism, and verification (p.102). He goes on further to offer a few testable
hypotheses as examples. And, as one scholar taught "the ultimate test of an
epistemology is in the crucible of empirical or theoretical trials" (Borgen, 1984:
And this is where "revelation" fits into the general picture of theory
development in Social Work. If theories are made possible through the creative
use of our imagination, then what do we loose if we substitute imagination with
insights gained from revelation? Homans tells us that "a leap of imagination" is
required to bring observations together in a meaningful way (Homans, 1980:19).
Dubin (1978) also asserts that "a theoretical model is limited in no way except by
the imagination of the theorist in what he may use as elements in building the
model...", then it is for research tests to decide on its reality. (p.12) .
We cannot make special exemptions of these rules for the insights generated
out from our understanding of what revelation stands for. Scripture is something,
our human understanding derived from it is another. So, the basic strategy
suggested here for the incorporation of religious insights into the scheme of
theory development for social work - without loss in external validity - would
include the following:
1- Theoretical frameworks regarding human nature, man's place in the universe,
societal arrangements, causes of individual and social problems would be
generated from religious sources i.e. scripture alongside its interpretations by
2- Hypotheses would be generated from these frameworks for testing in the
"total reality" which includes both the empirical world and the nonempirical (as
shall be elaborated later).
3- If hypotheses are confirmed (or if they failed to be falsified) this means that:
a) we have generated valid facts, and
b) our confidence in the theoretical framework increases.
4- If hypotheses were rejected, that means either
a) that our understanding or interpretation of revelation is
b) that our research methods and our research procedures are
5- We do not expect contradictions between "true" revelation or its correct
interpretation on the one hand, and valid facts on the other, for God created
both. The proposed strategy rests on the following assumptions:
1- To the extent that a religious idea rests upon "true" revelation we would fail to
falsify it through meticulous testing.
2- Even if ideas rest on true revelation they may fail the test of research in "total
reality" if revelation is incorrectly interpreted by men.
3- If religious personages assumed to have received revelation (Messengers of
God) were known to have historically existed, with their special qualities
assured, and their utterances (as Messengers) recorded without distortion, this
would render plausible the theoretical frameworks generated therefrom.
4- Numbers 1,2, and 3 above would only pause a "fair" challenge to institutional
religion. It should help religion discard any accretions of human origin,
accumulated through that religion's particular development.
5- At the same time, utilization of theoretical framework derived from religion
would take away the unfounded arrogance of scientism. Such frameworks could
be expected to have, at least, a modicum of truth. In any case, they should
be superior to dependence on mere conjecture.
6- Testing hypotheses derived from these theoretical frameworks dictates
devising methods and techniques with the ability to tap "total reality". Siporin
(1985) tells us about "the desire to gain better ways of understanding the
subjectivity and consciousness of the person, as well as how better to
relate to the person in his or her full humanity, including the moral and religious
dimensions..." (p.212)[emphasis mine] .
An example of appropriate approaches geared to such phenomena is
hermeneutics ."The hermeneutic approach seeks to apprehend, interpret, and
explain the objective truth of knowledge, reality, people, and action in terms
of subjective and intersubjective human meanings and felt experience...[this]
understanding...takes place in transactional processes of mutual self-reflexivity
and empathic acceptance...and open dialogical relations between people".
(Siporin, 1985:212) . Ford (1984) also calls for "different research designs,
different measurement approaches, and different mathematical models for
analyzing of data...to fit the nature of the phenomena being studied" (p.p. 465-
466) . The volume edited by Reason and Rowan (1981) provides information on
a collection of such methods.
We described some of the fascinating developments in the physical sciences
which led to a revolu