an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 10, April-May-June 2013, ISSN 1552-5112


      Social Work Meets Cultural Studies: Art, Advocacy and Methods in Social Justice


Heather M. Sloane


This year’s Cultural Studies Association conference title, “Beyond Disciplinarity: Interventions in Cultural Studies And the Arts” was the inspiration for this paper. Even if the “theoretical noise” that is cultural studies has made a valiant effort to avoid being named a discipline, it still must cope with the current academic structure that still relies heavily on disciplinarity (During, 1993, p. 35). At the heart of cultural studies is a hope for interdisciplinary work; work that goes outside of academic disciplinary boundaries and questions discipline formation. As Simon During (1993) discusses in his introduction to The Cultural Studies Reader, cultural studies is not a discipline of its own but is academic work beside other disciplines that fosters skepticism about knowledge creation and research practices. Cultural studies has stayed very close to particular academic disciplines (within the United States) most heavily within English and communications programs as discussed by both Lawrence Grossberg (2010) and Michael Bérubé (2009) in their work questioning the future of cultural studies. Cultural studies interventions, for instance, a more thorough understanding of the power associated with popular contemporary art, could prove beneficial to academic disciplines that cultural studies has historically neglected. In this paper I hope to encourage work between cultural studies and social work.


Both social work and cultural studies have worked closely with class and those in the margins with a common mission to fight injustice; however, social work has not been a discipline working beside cultural studies, which leads me to ask, why is this? In what ways could cultural studies contribute to the culture of professional education and what can be learned by cultural studies scholars from direct professional experience with inequality and the practices of marginalization?


The cultural and interpretive turn within the humanities and social sciences occurred in large part due to the entry of young people of color, women and the working class into the academy, some before, but mostly after WWII (people like Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams). The scholarship of cultural studies is resistance to white, male-dominated (Western) scholarship. The make up of social work, however, has not changed much during this same timeframe; it is and has been a field dominated by women. Social work has been an occupation that has long provided opportunities for advancement for women. The social service professions have also played a large role in the increase in black middle-class in the U. S. since the civil rights movement.[1] Professional schools (excluding business, law and medicine) remain on the margins of the academy, perhaps because professional pursuits like social work, nursing and primary and secondary education have been dismissed as for women, people of color and for those hoping to make their way out of the working class.


I have been a practicing social worker for all of my adult life, officially since 1993 when I received my MSW. Social work is a fairly complex profession, which I will barely articulate in this paper. My work as a non-academic social worker focused mainly in critical care medicine, but today I prepare undergraduate and graduate students for social work practice at the university level. My experiences as a social worker, working directly with people in crisis, inform who I am as a person and a scholar.  As an example, my years of witnessing suffering and struggle within the U. S. health care system, have inspired my research focus on the culture of medical education and how the medical profession interacts with poverty. There are times when I find myself aligning with the dominant professional culture and there are many more times that I push up against my profession, one being pursuing a PhD in cultural studies instead of social work.  Cultural studies theories and methods give me helpful tools for understanding culture and politics that I did not receive in my professional training, and help me to develop advocacy interventions that involve analysis of popular contemporary art.


From a cultural studies perspective, social work sometimes feels to me like a place that time forgot. When I put on my cultural studies hat and I pull back the large tropical leaves and peer in at the everyday practices of social work, I am a bit shocked at how the discipline aligns itself with big daddy medicine, as opposed to other academic brothers and sisters that might be more closely related politically. Medicine and social work (generally) still firmly value objectivity and create practices that maintain the role of expert (which also maintain power hierarchies). The professions as a whole have not fully embraced postmodern theory and the work of the humanities (or interdisciplinary scholarship like cultural studies). The dominant culture within social work training is influenced by traditional social science research with an emphasis on modern values of progress, and scientific observation. Social work (again generally) has not taken the cultural/interpretive turn. So what is a given to the audience in front of me at a cultural studies conference, is still rather unexplored territory for my profession.[2]


The concept of culture itself is being re-explored within the professions and I have found this renewed interest, a bit of an “in” to bring cultural studies to social work. Medicine is driving this cultural concern and this response comes partially from social science research generated over the past 20 years about disparity in access and in health care outcomes for people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ community, women, as well as the disabled and the elderly.[3] The public has deemed medicine, as well as closely related professions, insensitive to difference. There is also acknowledgement that the population within the U.S. is becoming more diverse (as well as medical teams within hospitals).


The concept of cultural competence has been created as a goal to better prepare student professionals for work with difference. As one would imagine, in a professional culture mildly influenced by postmodern scholarship, this education is set up as an inoculation. Here are some fun facts about “name your oppressed group,” keep these fun facts in mind when working with particular racial and ethnic groups, and if you complete your cultural competence training successfully, you should be good to go (again, like a shot to the arm). The general research on this type of cultural competency pedagogy is that it is not successful. Students admit not feeling comfortable talking about difference in the classroom, and because of this they don’t feel prepared to work with difference as practitioners (Hyde & Ruth, 2002). Social work educators often avoid discussion of difference in the classroom due to fear of the topic causing conflict (Mildred & Zuniga, 2004). When social workers are observed in practice, it becomes evident that they remain unaware of their privilege (Anderson & Middleton, 2011). Obviously, the way that cultural competence is taught to professionals is an oversimplification of race and ethnicity, and does not go into the sociopolitical aspects of category formations. Sherene Razack (2008) looks at the sociopolitical aspects of cultural competence education with Canadian judges and Inuit populations in her article, “What is to Be Gained by Looking White People in the Eye?” She points out the mistakes that are made when judges compensate for past injustice by lessening the sentences of men that have been charged with domestic violence. The unique oppression of Inuit women is not taken into consideration by these judges because they have a simplified understanding of the cultural challenges. In response to the mistakes in judgment, the answer developed by the judges was to complete cultural competence training. After reading this article it seems a no-brainer: cultural studies can be very helpful in complicating the concept of culture and how power plays a role in how culture moves and changes.


The hope of cultural studies to work across disciplines has challenges. Working beside social work as a discipline presents some obstacles. The longer I am in graduate school the more I feel I am in the middle of an invisible tug of war. I walk in and out of two areas of scholarship on a daily basis with very different languages and very different values.  As cultural studies scholars, we are encouraged to do interdisciplinary work but are given very little practical ways to go about bridging the language and value gap. At Bowling Green State University I have taken: philosophy, communications, English, ethnic studies, women studies, disability studies, history and theater classes as part of my PhD program in American cultural studies. I am expected to pick up language and values for each discipline as I go. What the classes have in common is a concern about contemporary culture – particularly everyday culture and most, but not all courses, have involved interpreting various forms of textual data including literature, film, TV, and various art forms.  Finding commonalities between social work and cultural studies has proved to be challenging. I believe art, particularly popular art forms and texts, have potential as a shared language to bring social work and cultural studies together.


What is considered intellectual and what is considered rigorous is often a barrier to interdisciplinary work. I was exposed to cultural studies for the first time while working near the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign) as a social worker. I had the opportunity, supported by my hospital, to audit Paula Trichler’s class on the culture of medicine and science. The first few lectures were devoted to how science and medicine came up with language to keep regular folks out. Paula explained how language was created that required an expert of science and medicine to interpret. Then, she proceeded to teach us the language of cultural studies. I naively asked: “How is cultural studies language different than the language of medicine and science; is it not also attempting to keep people out?” When I would talk with the students in this cultural studies class, their discussion of particular theories made conversation difficult and the assumption that social workers have no theory or research practices also interfered at times. At one point, one of the students tried to comfort me by saying not everyone can be an intellectual; and I need not be distressed by not being able to name drop Foucault at regular intervals. The theory/method barrier is an important concern when talking with other disciplines, but also important when your shared disciplinary mission is to work with regular, non-academics. A thoughtful exchange of theory and method could be much more fruitful to working across disciplines.


Differing values also come in the way. Social workers (particularly those in the trenches) value practicality and shy away from theory talk and research talk once they have left grad school (MSW).  There is a practical argument that also goes on within cultural studies and feminist theory. What good is my writing if everyday people can’t read it? What good is my research if it doesn’t impact the everyday world? Art is embraced and valued in cultural studies (both high and low art) – in social work not so much. Art isn’t scientific, it involves feelings and interpretation –it is not objective, it is creative – it can’t be measured[4]. For example, I get a fair amount of scoffing from my colleagues about the use of film in the classroom. The common feeling is that film is what you use when you haven’t prepared properly for class. This attitude toward contemporary popular art is unfortunate because film, music, photography, literature could have the potential to bridge language and value differences and could be another tool used toward social justice.


            Within social work, it has been helpful to show how contemporary culture is important to cultural competence. Education scholars like Ernest Morrell (2002) and communication scholars like Greg Dimitriadis (2001) look at the helpfulness of bringing in and infusing popular text into the classroom particularly with children from disadvantaged urban areas. Morrell and Dimitriadis serve as examples of how cultural studies theory can be helpful to a social work audience. Popular art/media texts are familiar to students regardless of educational background. Children learn to analyze and think through conflicts and problems using familiar scripts learned through popular media. By bringing contemporary culture into the classroom, my social work students begin to notice popular media interests of their clients as ways to make connections and to build rapport. My students also bring concerns to the classroom about harmful representations that depict their clients in an unflattering light that is not true to the student’s experience with particular groups of people. Also, when I bring my students’ personal popular media interests into the classroom, this respect for familiar text creates a space where different interests are accepted and encouraged. This discussion of contemporary popular art leads to openness and talk about difference between social work students and their clients as well as critical thinking about where categories and deviance come from (on a good day).


Our world is awash with popular texts. My social work colleagues talk almost daily about popular media texts and various forms of art and clearly engage with the media and popular art in their everyday lives, but not critically. Popular art forms are seen as simply entertainment without much political meaning or potential. Popular art as a common language could help with value barriers between professionals and their clients, students and teachers, and between academic disciplines, like social work and cultural studies. Film, in particular, has been very helpful in leading my students to better self-understanding, understanding of others and a way to better understand the power and politics that surround and limit us. For me film has been helpful in building skills that look at the micro, mezzo and macro levels of cultural concern. Film exposes my students to different languages and different values. Films guide my students into homes and communities where they are frightened to go because they have been taught (by society; by their families) to be afraid. Film is helpful in questioning culture from a sociopolitical level. Where do definitions like: good mother, successful adult, mentally ill, and disabled come from? What is the role social work plays in these constructions? Films like: Straight Story; Murderball; Waitress; Lars and the Real Girl; Dirty, Pretty Things; The Beginners, and Raising Victor Vargas (just to name a few) help me ask these questions of my students.


I teach my students that media representations can go against the grain and that popular art can be transgressive. If representations do not reflect the work we do in the trenches – speak out about it – encourage clients to speak out – create an alternative representation. Creation of art within agencies by those that are often not given a voice - brings audience to their silenced stories.[5]  Art can be seen, not only as a treatment option, but as an advocacy (macro-level) intervention. The emphasis on privacy within social work practice is often an excuse to maintain status quo and to squash political action. Advocacy through engagement with and resistance to popular art forms by social workers and their clients is a way to speak out about silenced injustice.


One agency, in Toledo, OH, is an excellent example of using popular art as an advocacy tool. Unison Behavioral Health has been encouraging clients to create art and to showcase this art as a way of raising awareness about people’s everyday struggles and how stereotypes create even more barriers for people. The fact that this community mental health agency employs an art therapist and has a vibrant art therapy program, likely plays a role in how art has become valued within the agency culture. Client artwork is on the website and in the lobby, and clients have regular gallery shows. I use a video that the clients produced in class called Leon and Mia: Crisis and Recovery ( about the experience of living with hallucinations. The film uses claymation and Barbie dolls to play out two characters’ daily struggles. The short film breaks through many stereotypes of people with schizophrenia and has a sense of humor about a very serious issue. I can’t find anything else that inspires empathy in my students about mental illness as well as this short film.



I have discussed a great deal about how cultural studies could be helpful to social work and very little about how social work could be helpful to cultural studies. Raymond Williams, in his essay: “The Future of Cultural Studies,” reflects on the early history of cultural studies as important to how scholarship should proceed (Storey, 1996). Williams discusses the importance of “Open University” to the development of cultural studies. The interaction between “intellectuals” and people’s everyday lives was crucial to the knowledge development of cultural studies (p. 172). Social workers are often in settings and have relationships within the community that are enviable by cultural studies researchers. The social worker’s daily experience is rich with people’s everyday lives. Autoethnography, for example, is a method that could be used by social workers and directly by their clients to raise awareness, to develop empathy and to stir people to action. Autoethnography uses techniques of performative writing and is a meld of art and cultural observation. Autoethnography relies on experience as important to knowledge creation and social workers are often a part of the action, and at times the only professional group allowed into the most marginalized spaces. Advocating for stories on the margins to have audience, so that these experiences can inform scholarship, could be a common mission for both social work and cultural studies.


Collaboration between social work and cultural studies is helpful to a deeper consideration of the concept of cultural competence, is helpful in the use of media for advocacy, and could help to encourage client engagement and production of transgressive art. A partnership between cultural studies and social work would likely increase practices of qualitative inquiry like autoethnography. Michael Bérubé makes a good point when he cautions that cultural studies scholars are often unaware that there is more to the academic structure than English departments. Cultural studies could benefit from casting its net a bit farther out into the academic waters. For scholars that are quick to critique, it will also be important to develop collaboration skills, which include finding strengths in potential discipline partners. Grossberg brings up the question, within his work, about the ethical obligation of the intellectual and in particular, the cultural studies intellectual. Looking at popular art through a critical lens, and understanding the sociopolitical aspects of culture have been skills that have been invaluable to cultural studies, and these interventions could prove helpful and practical ways to understand and fight against injustice.



Anderson, S. K. & Middleton, V. A. (2011). Explorations in Diversity Examining Privilege and Oppression in a Multicultural Society. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Bérubé, M. (2009). What’s the matter with cultural studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sept. 14.

During, S. (1993).  Introduction. The Cultural Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Grossberg, L. (2010). Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hyde, C. A. and Ruth, B. J. (2002). Multicultural content and class participation: Do students self-censor? Journal of Social Work Education. 38 (2), 241-256.

Morrell, E. (2002). Toward a critical pedagogy of popular culture: Literacy development among urban youth, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 46 (1), 72-77.

Razack, S. (2008). What is to be gained by looking white people in the eye? Culture, race and gender in cases of sexual violence. In M. Ryan (Ed.) Cultural Studies and Anthology (pp. 311-315). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Williams, R. (1996). The future of cultural studies. In J. Storey (Ed.) What is Cultural Studies? A Reader. (pp. 168-177). New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 10, April-May-June 2013, ISSN 1552-5112




[1] There is a helpful discussion about the black middle-class and the importance of public sector jobs like social work in the roundtable discussion entitled “Progress, Paradox, and the Path Ahead,” in the Poverty Issue of The American Prospect, July/Aug. 2012; particularly, by Angela Glover Blackwell.

[2] There are social work exceptions to this generalization, as one would guess. In my work looking more closely at social cultural competence education and social work practice I have found several social work scholars that are aware of postmodern and poststructural thinkers. Examples: Gentlewarrior, S. et al. (2008). Culturally competent feminist social work: Listening to diverse people. Journal of Women and Social Work, 23(3), 210-222, Jani, J. S., Pierce, D., Ortiz, L. and Sowbel, L. (2011). Access to intersectionality, content to competence: Deconstructing Social Work Education Diversity Standards. Journal of Social Work Education. 47(2), 283-299., Kohli, H. et al (2010). Historical and theoretical development of culturally competent social work practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work. 30,  252-271.

[3] A bibliography of disparity research can be found at the American Association of Medical Colleges website. The guide: Cultural competence education for medical students: Assessing and revising curriculum (2005) can be found at:

[4]  Some social work practitioners use art in their work directly with clients, but in general there is resistance to art as serious scholarship.

[5] I do have colleagues interested in photovoice and theater of the oppressed, and I have been exploring Amherst Writers and Artists workshops as ways of using art creation with clients to increase self-understanding and to raise awareness about the realities of people’s lives.