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The Rise of Relativism: The Future of Theory and Knowledge Development in Social Work

Author(s): COLIN PEILE and MAL McCOUAT


Source: The British Journal of Social Work, Vol. 27, No. 3 (June 1997), pp. 343-360
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Br. J. Social

Wk. (1997)

27, 343-360

The Rise of Relativism:


Theory

The Future of

and Knowledge
Development
in Social Work

COLIN

PEILE

and

MAL

McCOUAT

Dr Colin Peile and Dr Mal McCouat


are lecturers in the Department
in Australia.
Social Policy at The University of Queensland

of Social

Work and

SUMMARY
This paper explores a range of paradigms
evident in recent debates about social work
including the positivist, post-positivist,
interpretivist, critical,
theory and epistemology,
and creative positions.
the open
While applauding
feminist, poststructural
ecological,
concerns
are raised about the emer
ness generated
by these competing
approaches,
of relativism.
After identifying the evidence
of this move
gence of a meta-paradigm
the potential problems and limitations of this
towards relativism in various paradigms,
Relativism
trend for social work are explored.
has, however, played an important role
and the paper attempts to
in undermining
attachments
to certain positions
dogmatic
rescue this useful quality of relativism while combining it with a constructive commit
ment to creative
In

the

a shift

social

action.

work

of focus

from

literature
the

over

substantive

the

last

areas

fifteen
of social

years,
work

there
theory

has

been

towards

a greater interest in the very process by which knowledge is developed.


This epistemological
turn has involved considerable paradigmatic con
flict and confusion. This has been a healthy development, in part in that
it has challenged the apparent domination of the positivist paradigm in
social work and opened up the opportunity for other paradigms to make

a theoretical and epistemological contribution. On the other hand, the


new openness disguises the emerging popularity of a relativist orien
tation and, with this, the move away from efforts to develop grand or
universal theories.
Relativism in social work has taken different forms within different
paradigms, but nevertheless it has boundaries which exclude other
of Social
to Colin Peile, Department
Correspondence
Brisbane 4072, Australia
versity of Queensland,

Work and Social

Policy,

The

Uni

1997 British Association of Social Workers

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COLIN

344
possible

approaches.

PEILE

This

AND

MAL

MCCOUAT

and

exclusiveness,

other

of the

consequences

relativist trend, present potential problems for the future of social work
practice and theory. In developing this argument, we will begin by
clarifying what we mean by the term 'paradigm' and how we understand
the process of paradigmatic

development.

IN

PARADIGMS

SOCIAL

WORK

how
Our beliefs about how we think the world works (cosmology),
we understand human behaviour (ontology), how we gain knowledge
and our goals about what society and its people ought
(epistemology),
to be like (values) are not always conscious, but these beliefs neverthe
less have an impact on and are affected by how we act and relate to
others as social workers and as people (practice). This constellation of
beliefs, values and action can be described as our paradigmatic position
(Haworth, 1984). The kind of theory that people adopt, and how they
go about developing
theory, are a reflection of their paradigmatic
position.
At one level we choose our own paradigmatic beliefs, but this choice
is constrained by our context, by what paradigms are operating in this
context, and how dominant they are. Paradigmatic choice and therefore
knowledge

development

are

socially

structured

and

thus

are,

in

part,

political processes with some views favoured and others being sup
pressed at any one point in time (Karger, 1983).
Kuhn (1970) talks about paradigms in science as if one overcomes
and replaces the other in a linear sequence, the new paradigm being
able to solve the problems that could not be solved within the old
in accord with Pepper (1942) and Burrell and
paradigm. However,
the
view
taken here is that many paradigms are always
Morgan (1979),
evident but that each will have a varying influence or dominance at
different points in time. This is particularly so in social work.
One of the dominant paradigms in social work and the social sciences
this century has been positivism. In this paradigm, knowledge is thought
It seeks to
to grow out of careful observation and experimentation.
uncover the facts by breaking problems down into parts so that the

connections between parts can be established. The goal of this


approach is prediction, so that control over our environment can be
achieved (Fay, 1975). In the area of child abuse, for example, the posi
tivists such as Finkelhor (1984) and Kempe and Kempe (1978) have
attempted to locate the causal factors which lead to abuse. If we can
predict where abuse will occur, we can then act to prevent it.
causal

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THE
In

the

1980s,

many

RISE

were

OF

concerned

RELATIVISM
that

345
social

work

was

still

not

scientific enough (Fischer, 1981; Hudson, 1982; Sheldon, 1983, 1984;


to criticisms about social work's effec
Thyer, 1989). Responding
iveness, the positivists argued that social workers should rely on empirt
ically verified practice techniques and theories, and they pushed for the
teaching of empirical research skills to all social work students (Siegel,
With the increased
1983, 1985).
promotion of positivism, those
1985;
favouring the opposite approach of interpretivism (Ruckdeschel,
Scott, 1989) responded in a stronger way and a debate, very heated at
times, developed in the journals (Peile, 1988). In this debate, positivism
was seen by its critics as based on a false hope of objectivity, and as a

very limited approach in that it could only study that which could be
1981).
quantified (Heineman,
Interpretivism is not concerned with objective facts but, rather, with
the subjective meanings people have about their situation, within the
context of which they are a part. The interpretivist says that, although
positivism is fine for the physical sciences, it is completely inadequate

for the social sciences. Humans, s/he believes, can only be properly
understood through a process of empathetic communication.
Inter
pretivist theory has a descriptive explanatory quality; it is not about
prediction (Fay, 1975). This approach to knowledge development fits
well with the non-directive, Rogerian style of practice (Howe, 1987),
and it is often claimed that this should be the paradigm of choice
because it fits with a humanistic orientation to philosophy and practice
which is popular amongst social work practitioners (Goldstein, 1986).
In the area of child abuse, interpretivist research was concerned to
uncover the experience of people who were involved in a situation of
abuse,

the

meanings

they

constructed

about

their

behaviour,

and

how

such abuse is understood within the general community (Miller, 1984).


The debate between these two paradigms is evident in Britain, Amer
ica and Australia and within the social sciences in general. The interest
in the debate marked the beginning of what could be an epistemological
turn in social work, where the focus moved from which theories should
be

adopted,

to

the

more

fundamental

question

about

what

should

be

the epistemology of theory development. The emergence of this uncer


tainty in social work, and in the social sciences in general, has also led
to some increased attention on what have been more marginal paradig

matic positions, such as the critical, ecological, feminist, poststructural


and creative positions. Whilst so far having only a small influence on

the current epistemological debate within social work, the first three of
these have now become well established approaches in relation to social
work practice, and the first four have well established epistemological
positions within the broader social sciences. We can thus expect they

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COLIN

346

PEILE

AND

MAL

MCCOUAT

will have a greater epistemological influence in the future. Each of these


paradigms will be briefly described before moving on to identify some
debate.
emergent trends within this epistemological
The critical paradigm seeks to develop an historical account of how
a group of people has become oppressed and how they can be liberated
from this oppression (Fay, 1987). Knowledge
for the critical theorist
out
of
action
and
is
tested
in
action
grows
(Mao Tse-Tung, 1967; Mar
Action
and
research
methods are advocated,
cuse, 1968).
participatory
as is the radical approach to social work practice (Brake and Bailey,

1980; Galper, 1980; Fook, 1993; Mulally, 1993). In the area of child
abuse, the critical theorist sees the abuse as involving a systemic form
of oppression, and so the responsibility is shifted from individuals and
families to societal structures such as class (Gil, 1970).
The ecological approach is concerned to preserve (as an interdepen
dent whole) a variety of perspectives, and ways of knowing, arguing that
a greater depth of understanding arises by holding different perspectives
1979; Capra, 1983; Devall and Sessions, 1985). It
together (Bateson,
thus opposes the domination of any one position. It fits well with general
systems theory and related approaches to practice (Germain and Gitter
man, 1980). In the child abuse area, the ecological influence can be
seen in attempts to understand the abuse within its whole environmental
context. Various factors, including both personal and structural, are
seen to play an interdependent role (Garbarino and Gilliam, 1980).
While it could be argued that something of a distinctive feminist
epistemology has been emerging, there are currently many versions and
this variety is embraced by the feminist movement (Harding, 1986;
Sands and Nuccio, 1992). Some take a positivist orientation, while
others adopt interpretivist, critical, ecological
or postmodern
type
stances. Across these epistemological
differences, however, is a very
consistent theoretical concern with gender and how gender distinctions
coincide with oppressive and exploitative relationships. The interest
to social work practice
in, and development
of, feminist approaches
and Wearing,
1986; Bricker-Jenkins et al., 1991) and
(Marchant

research

(Davis, 1986; Swigonski, 1993) has grown tremendously over


the last decade. Feminists have made a significant impact in the area of
child abuse, particularly sexual abuse. Abuse is seen as a particular
and
(man)ifestation of the patriarchal structure of society (O'Donnell
Craney, 1982).
Poststructuralism is a term often used synonymously with postmod
ernism. It is a new approach which defies a definitive description,

rather, it would

be fairer to see it as a loose collection of different


(Gorman, 1993). Some general features can be discerned,

approaches
however. The poststructuralists

dismiss the possibility of any universal

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THE

RISE

OF

RELATIVISM

347

or essential truths and, instead, see all claims to understanding within


a political, historical and social context. A primary objective is to under
mine or deconstruct any essential or universalism claims. Meanings are
multiple, unstable, and open to interpretation (Sands and Nuccio,
1992). Poststructuralists would acknowledge the complex and shifting
nature of power relationships in child abuse situations and so move
of villains, victims and answers
away from clear-cut perceptions
(Featherstone and Fawcett, 1994/5). What the implications are for prac
tice in this area, or for social work more generally, is hard to define
but some work in this direction has begun (Rojek etal., 1988; Hartman,
1992; Gorman, 1993; Howe, 1994).
One more minor approach is relevant to our later discussion and so
will be briefly described. The creative paradigm (Peile, 1994) opposes
deterministic views of the world and, instead, sees all reality as being
in a creative process of unfoldment, where everything is a different
manifestation of an inseparable whole (Bhm, 1980). Knowledge arises
via synthetic insight, and involves recognizing the connections between
one's internal and external experience, or one's subjective and objective
observations (Bhm, 1981). In the creative approach, theorizing, prac
tice and research are all inseparable aspects of the same creative pro
cess, where everyone is a potential co-theorist, co-practitioner and co
researcher. Its method of practice and research is thus necessarily
collaborative and action orientated (Peile, 1994b). Child abuse is not
something which can be controlled or predicted but is seen to arise
from the very attachment to the idea of control. It is not something
which occurs in particular relationships but is implied or potential in all

social relationships (Peile, 1994a).


Given this multiplicity of paradigmatic views, a central concern of this
paper is the choice for social workers (individually and as a profession)
between selecting one paradigm as the favoured position for social
work, or whether the multiplicity should be embraced as enriching, or,
again, whether the objective should be one of synthesis. Peile's (1988)
hope

for

synthetic

movement

has

not

come

into

being,

nor

has

one

paradigm emerged as the paradigm of choice for social work, despite


various battles over whose paradigm is the best (Haworth,
1991).
Rather, the epistemological trend has been, in our view, in the opposite
direction, towards the increasing acceptance or tolerance of a wider
variety of paradigms.

Whilst, at one level, the increasing variety of positions and the calls
for tolerance (Hartman, 1990; Atherton, 1993) suggest a healthy open
ness, we wish to argue that this has actually been occurring within
the wider embrace of a meta-paradigm of relativism, an observation
consistent

with Gray's

(1995)

analysis

of recent theoretical

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develop

COLIN

348

PEILE

AND

MAL

MCCOUAT

ments in social work. Relativism, we will argue, has had a broad influ
ence on a range of paradigms, operating as a sort of over-arching frame
work. Our concern about this development
is that it could involve
several potentially dangerous trends which are, in fact, opposite to the
trends anticipated and desired by those encouraging epistemological
and paradigmatic openness.
Relativism, by its very nature, is a difficult position to define as there
are (in a self-consistent, reflexive way) many forms of relativism. For
the moment, we will define the relativist position by: the acceptance
that there are no universal standards of good or bad, right or wrong;
the belief that there is no objective knowledge; and the view that all

knowledge is dependent on the subjective knower (Flew, 1979). We


are left with a 'non-reducible plurality' (Bernstein, 1983, p. 8). A very
of these views is that there is no way to decide
important consequence
between rival theories, and attempts to develop grand or universal the
ories are pointless. Grand theories are those theories which seek to be
relevant

across

contexts

and

through

time.

Relativism has taken many different forms in social work and its
increased popularity has parallelled a similar movement in the social
sciences in general. Bernstein suggests that the relativist stream has
been a trickle over the last two hundred years, until recently, when it
has swelled into a roaring torrent (1983, p. 13). To support the claim
of increased relativism in social work, we will briefly review the various
expressions of this movement within the paradigms discussed above,
before exploring some implications of this trend.

RELATIVISM

IN

SOCIAL

WORK

Positivism has remained a strong influence in social work for various


structural reasons. Its promise of control and prediction dovetails with
the interests of government and business who are the principal funders
of research (Fay, 1975). However, many positivists have taken seriously
criticisms of the approach
and now accept the
the epistemological
limitations of objectivity, while still retaining objectivity as a goal or
ideal (Mullen, 1985). They have recognized the benefits of qualitative

in strengthening and triangulating quantitative


results
approaches
has
become
more
reformulated
(Brekke, 1986). This,
positivism
open,
known as postpositivism (Fraser et al., 1991) and it has become a very
and Reid, 1990). It can be seen
popular position (see Videka-Sherman

as a more relativist version of positivism as it is less methodologically


dogmatic, recognizing the value of appropriating alternative approaches
whilst still retaining the positivist objectives as ideals.

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THE

OF

RISE

RELATIVISM

349

With this movement amongst the positivists, there has been an


of the interpretivist position as a legitimate
increased acceptance
approach to research. This, in conjunction with developments such as
the more specific articulation of a qualitative methodology and the
development

of

computer

programs

to

assist

in

the

of

organization

data, has led to the increased popularity of this research


and so the paradigm from which it emerges. The interpretivist
recognizes that all people see the world in a different way
It thus embraces a subjective,
meaning is context-dependent.
view of the world (Scott, 1990), and its increasing popularity

qualitative

approach
paradigm
and that
relativist
reinforces the relativist meta-paradigm.
The critical approach recognizes the historical specificity of know
ledge. Ideas are all a product of the particular material conditions of
the times (Bologh, 1979). In this way, it has a greater relativist flavour
than the positivist tradition. However, it still holds to a notion that

there is one truth for everyone within a given historical period; a truth
which it seeks to capture via the development of grand theories. Whilst
the truth is obscured by the processes of oppression, it can be recovered
so as to enable an oppressed group to escape the situation they are in
(Fay, 1987). Not surprisingly, the popularity of the critical approach in
social work has suffered under the shift to relativism. The relativist
critique has alerted people to the dogma of approaches
supposedly
about

liberation,

and

to

the

new

forms

of oppression

and

control

that

can flow from universalist or essentialist views of truth (Poster, 1992).


The declining influence of the critical paradigm is also evident in the
decreased political influence of Marxism around the world.
The ecological approach is clearly a relativist approach in its attempt
to preserve

and

value

multiple

perspectives

in relation

to any

situation.

No one way of knowing is sufficient, there are many ways of knowing


and many kinds of knowers (Reason and Rowan, 1981), a view given
increasing support in social work recently (Hartman, 1990). The influ
ence of the ecological paradigm, whilst still relatively unformulated
epistemologically, has strengthened greatly in the practice area over the
last few years, again reinforcing the relativist meta- framework. Brower
(1988) has claimed that the ecological model is fast becoming the main
model for understanding and working with individuals.
Whilst there are currently many different feminist ideologies, there

does appear to be a trend in feminist theorizing and a direction to


how feminists take account of this variety of feminist perspectives. Our
impression is that there has been a move in two directions: one in th
direction of a more ecological position where many ways of knowing
are explicitly valued and embraced as enriching (a reflection of the
and broad base of the movement) (Wearing, 1986); the other,

openness

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PEILE

COLIN

350

AND

MAL

MCCOUAT

more recent direction is towards poststructuralism (Barrett and Phillips,


1992; Sands and Nuccio, 1992) which cautions feminists against any
strong attachment to a position. Both directions have a relativizing
impact on feminist theorizing, thus moving away from feminist attempts
at grand theorizing (Harding, 1986). The increasing adoption of feminist
theoretical frameworks by social workers thus, again, adds to the rela
tivist trend.
The poststructural approach perhaps represents the most relativist of
all the paradigms discussed. There are many different versions of this
with some adopting an extreme relativist position whilst
approach,
others maintain a clearer political orientation and do not always accept
the relativist label (Nicholson, 1990; Fish, 1993). Although Howe (1994)
identifies several implicit postmodern trends in social work, the explicit
influence of postmodernism in the social work literature is just starting
to emerge (Rojek et al., 1988; Sands and Nuccio, 1992; Gorman, 1993).
Given its rapidly increasing popularity in the social sciences (Fraser and
Nicholson, 1990), we can expect this popularity (and a stronger relativist
perspective of the social world) to flow through to social work.
Like the critical approach, the creative paradigm also seeks the devel
opment of a grand theory through the process of synthesis of other
perspectives. The creative paradigm is new and less clearly formulated,
having little influence within the social work literature at this point
(Peile, 1988; 1993; 1994; 19946). It is unlikely that this influence will
increase within the climate of relativism.
In

all

these

different

ways,

we

can

see

a trend

towards

relativism

and

away from positions which seek grand theories, like the positivist, crit
ical and creative. Of course, there has been resistance to this trend.
In the 1980s, simply to suggest someone's
approach had a relativist
orientation was sufficient condemnation
(Schuerman,
1982). More
recently,

the

increasing

acceptance

of the

relativist

label

has

demanded

a more developed critique. For example, Gray's (1995) response to the


emergent relativism is to argue for the common-sense necessity of moral
principles to guide the interactions between people. As we shall see in
the next section, however, it is unlikely that such a critique will have
an impact on the relativists.

CRITICISM

OF

THE

RELATIVIST

META-PARADIGM

A common criticism of relativism is that it is self-referentially inconsist


ent and paradoxical.
Implicit in the relativist claims and critique of
alternative positions is an assumption that their approach is true, but,
since they claim truth is relative, their own position is thus negated

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THE

RISE

OF

RELATIVISM

35I

(Bernstein, 1983). The relativists avoid such criticism,


however, by questioning the very standards of logic or rationality on
which such criticisms are based (Keeney, 1983; Habermas, 1987; Peile,
1994a).
Given, then, that various paradigms dispute the very basis of what
is reasonable,
any arguments we might make on the basis of an
base will have little consequence.
Gray's
opposing
paradigmatic
(1995) argument can be seen as an example of this. What is required
is an immanent critique, that is, a critique which emerges from within
that particular paradigm's
own version of rationality (Bernstein,
1983). This involves turning the paradigm's arguments back on itself.
To do this fully in relation to each paradigmatic version of relativism
is a large, complex task. Here, we will take a simpler path by
or relativized

considering some of the desired outcomes which are common across


Our arguments will point to the
the different relativist approaches.
ways in which relativism can lead to outcomes which oppose what

is anticipated by the relativists.


Relativism has always played a valuable role in criticizing dogmatic
positions, contributing to the 'process' of unsettling dominant positions.
The danger, however, is that, if relativism becomes the paradigm of
choice, then its own content becomes seen as desirable. It may seem
odd to suggest that relativism has a content (since it embraces variety),
but we intend to highlight how relativism can be seen as a closed,
bounded position which leads it: (i) to be exclusive of various positions;
(ii) to distort the character of included positions; (iii) to be resistant or
closed to its own further development;
(iv) to constrain or limit the
potential of marginalized positions; and (v) potentially to become,
itself, a dogmatic and dominating position. All these outcomes are the
opposites of what a relativist would expect. We will look at each in
turn.

EXCLUSIVENESS

Relativists, in giving legitimacy to a great variety of perspectives, appear


to be opening up possibilities. However, when we take a me ta-view of
this, we can see how certain positions are rejected. To reject any process
which claims to move beyond relativism is, itself, a claim to know better
what the relationship between objects and knowledge really is (Barrett,
1991). There is an implicit evaluation of which claims are reasonable
and which need to be rejected or deconstructed. The positions which
the relativist in particular rejects are those which seek a singular or
synthetic view. These are seen as dogmatic, universalist and essentialist
tendencies

which need to be disrupted or critiqued.

Challenge

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to posi

COLIN

352
tions

that

have

become

PEILE

AND

entrenched

MAL
and

MCCOUAT

dominant

within

the

sciences

is

useful, but there are many non-relativist positions which are currently
marginalized and which will remain marginalized if the relativists them
selves come to dominate social theory. For instance, the creative para
digm and some feminist theorizing, whilst also anti-dogmatic, still have
grand theory type aspirations. In this way, relativism can be seen to be
a bounded position like any other; it includes and excludes certain ways
of thinking. Whilst explicitly espousing an anti-exclusionist stance, its
own implicit exclusiveness is masked.
Habermas (1987) develops a more complex version of this argument,
claiming that many poststructuralists (particularly Derrida) collapse all

forms of discourse into rhetoretical forms preventing more specialized


forms of discourse, like problem-solving and critical discourses, from
being legitimately deployed, thus reducing diversity and impoverishing
what he calls the 'life world'. He further argues (against Foucault) that
the

poststructural

position

flattens

out

the

contradictory

nature

of

modern culture and society onto one plane of power, so that the liberat
ing potential of the development of law and morality is obscured. He
points to the ways postmodern ideas cannot escape the performative
contradiction involved in using the tools of reason to criticize reason
(McCarthy, 1987, p. xv), and in which they implicitly assume a tran
scendental status while explicitly disavowing it.
While relativism does not wish to be 'a' position, its various paradig
matic assumptions can be specified to further highlight its boundaries.
For example, cosmologically,
relativists are anti-realists. They do not
necessarily deny that there is a real material world but claim that our
only access to it is via: language in the case of the poststructuralist
(Barrett, 1992); partial, limited perspectives constructed by human
minds (for the ecologists);
or empathetic communication
to uncover
the
The
of this
subjective meanings (for
interpretivists).
consequence
is that the concept of any independent reality looses its relevance and
utility (Barrett, 1991). We are left with a plurality of possible realities.

This plurality, and the undecidability involved, however, can them


selves be considered to occupy a particular cosmological position. Such
a view actually mirrors a theory in physics called the many worlds inter

pretation (Weinberg, 1993).


Similarly, there appears to be a consistent, anti-deterministic cos
mology amongst relativists (Bateson, 1979; Morgan and Smircich, 1980;
Barrett, 1991). Thus, whilst appearing to negate the possibility and

utility of universalist or essentialist ideas, the relativists have actually


The fact that
conceptions.
imported particular negative cosmological
this 'totalizing' conception is obscured behind a rejection of totalizing

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THE

RISE

OF

RELATIVISM

353

is confusing and limiting. It is very hard to challenge


of view if they deny that they are holding one.

someone's

point

CLOSED-NESS

The lack of awareness of this boundedness


creates the danger that a
self-sealing (Argyris and Schon, 1977) or self-reinforcing approach is
created. This closes the approach to critique and limits possible develop
ment. The very approaches which could provide a challenge to relativ
ists are rejected and devalued. This closed-ness, however, is masked in
a self-deceptive way behind the appearance of inclusion and openness.
The lack of possible critique may well lead to a stagnation of thought
and reduction in rigour, as conflicts between relativist and opposed
positions are not worked through, and any criticism of relativism is

easily rationalized away by relativists as simply representing a different


position which is not relevant to one's own views, or in dismissing the
claims of alternatives because they do not arise from relativist assump
tions. Relativism, paradoxically, may turn out, if it becomes popular,
to be a bounded, defensive and singular orientation, rather than an
open, inclusive orientation governed by a respect for difference.
DISTORTION

Further, where relativists do include other positions, a process of distor


tion takes place. For example, the post-positivists embrace qualitative
methodologies but, in doing so, they distort what was intended by the
interpretivists and, instead, give qualitative approaches a positivist fla
vour where rules of validity and reliability are applied and strict meth
odological

procedures

are

developed.

This

all

becomes

another

tech

nique rather than a process of empathetic communication (Fay, 1975).


Similarly, the critical theorist sees their analysis as the correct approach
to liberation, not as something that can be used alongside conservative
positions. To do so, would be to conservatize the critical position. Thus,
whilst inclusiveness appears desirable, it can be seen to have a subvers
ive potential. Differences are not really valued, they are colonized.
This relativist distortion, or reformulation, highlights the dominating,

Positivist
colonializing
capacity of supposedly inclusive approaches.
domination may simply be replaced by the domination of relativism,
taking the form of a distortion of included positions.
DOMINATION

The relativist trend appears to affirm and strengthen the fragmentation


and separateness that already exist in our society. Whilst opposing the

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354

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AND

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domination of universalizing approaches, its success may well serve the


interest of powerful forces and result in further marginalization
and
fragmentation of the interests of the powerless. Relativism emphasizes
the differences and multiplicity of meaning and experience, rather than
the unifying factors which emerge out of the assumption of a common
action can develop. It does
experience and from which collaborative
not offer clear norms to guide practice or a vision of a better future
(Poster, 1992). Walby suggests that the poststructuralists see power as
being so dispersed that the possibility of recognizing how one social
group may oppress another is precluded (1992). For the ecologist, it is
the very concept of power which is erroneous. This view has had the

effect in the field of family therapy of discounting the effects of power


and of discouraging the identification and so response to exploitation
within families (Flaskas and Humphreys, 1993).
In affirming fragmentation and offering no clear direction for action,
the relativist positions may create a potential vacuum in which it is
possible that powerful interests can further entrench their position with
out strong opposition. If there are broader forces at work in our society
which lead to the oppression of people, then it will require a meta- or
macro-type analysis effectively to resist. It has been noted by many
feminists that the abandonment
of attempts at grand theorizing may
well paralyse attempts to understand male domination as a general phe
nomenon (Featherstone and Fawcett, 1994/5). It has been of great con
cern

writers

to several

that,

just

when

marginalized

or

devalued

groups

(such as women) seem to be developing some solidarity and voice, the


poststructural approach begins to question the very essentialist theories
upon which their struggles were based and gives emphasis to the differ
ences between people (Di Stefano, 1990).
It does

not

matter

how

much

variety

and

difference

one

can

include

in a paradigmatic position, this will not ensure dogma is avoided. The


seed of dogma is just as evident in the poststructural paradigm as it is
in any other paradigm. What is really required to avoid dogma is not
contained in a position's content or propositions but rather in the way
that it deals or communicates with opposing positions. We need a genu
ine openness
to the arguments of the other and a willingness to

reformulate one's own position in the light of persuasive arguments or


perspectives (rather than simply adding different views to one's collec
tion, or tolerating opposing approaches in an uncritical way).
To what level relativism has developed in social work is difficult to
quantify, but it is clear that social work has moved in a relativist direc
tion. Coinciding with this movement are all the potential dangers for

social work as outlined above. Child abuse, again, can be used as an


example to highlight one aspect of these dangers. Relativism leads to

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THE

RISE

OF

RELATIVISM

355

an uncertainty about how to understand an abusive situation and so to


confusion about what action to take. In working with a family, 'relativist
practice' may well be useful in challenging the fixed and dominating
views

of particular

family

members.

Such

practice

may

even

encourage

an increased tolerance of different viewpoints within the family, but


relativism offers little guidance as to which direction to take from this
point. It does not encourage the development of common understand
ings which could underpin agreements for change. Relativist practice
could actually encourage
further fragmentation in the family and
decrease any sense of purpose and hope.
Educationally, relativism appears to offer a healthy openness of prac
tice orientations available for social workers. However, such unde
cidedness by the profession may be internalized by individual workers,
leading to inaction, disunity and a sense of pointlessness. Differences
should be valued, but the lack of debate (or even a reason for debate)
between different positions decreases the potential for the ongoing
reformulation of positions. A decreased
commitment to particular
causes is likely, as ultimately nothing can be considered more worthy
than anything else. In a context where the value of social work is con
tinually being questioned by governments, a move in the direction of
relativism may well play into the hands of those who would like to limit

its influence.
We are confident that the move to relativism in social work will con
tinue to increase for some time to come, so the concerns raised in this
paper will become increasingly important. Further exploration of this
likelihood and of the dangers involved is thus very important if social
work is to make a more autonomous, conscious decision about its own
direction, rather than getting swept along with the growing relativist
trend in the social sciences. However, it is also important to recognize
that relativism has played a valuable role in undermining dominant
dogmatic paradigms. Rather than rejecting relativism out of hand, it
may be useful to see if we can hold on to its positive qualities.

RELATIVISM

OF

RELATIVISM

We want to retain the relativist orientation in critique, and particularly


in self-critique, but then to see this as only one moment or one phase
In this sense, we wish to relativize
in the inquiry/practice sequence.
relativism to see it as one orientation which should be incorporated

with others. We will offer a brief sketch of the direction in which this
thinking has taken us.

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PEILE

COLIN

356
The

actions

which

follow

AND

from

MAL

relativism

MCCOUAT
tend,

at one

to be

extreme,

purposeless as no goal can be seen to be any more worthy than any


other. At the other end of the spectrum, the action is more reactive
and dedicated to undermining dogmatic and totalizing forces. This
second type of action is always wedded to the dominant paradigm, as
such, defined by it and, in this way, reliant on its continuation. If relativ
ism were successful in some small domain, what action could then be
taken in an imaginary state where domination did not exist?
To act outside the dominant paradigm requires holding to some view
of how things currently are, but, more importantly, being able to ima

gine possibilities beyond the current order. The way is then open to try
to move from what is to what is desired. This involves constructing
proposals and then testing and modifying them through action. This
requires a certain confidence and conviction in our interactions with
others: to be able to decide on a given course of action; and to make
clear distinctions and evaluations of different action possibilities (and
the paradigms which underlie them). If left unchecked, however, this
confidence and interest in reshaping one's social world can lead to the
domination of others. Both positivism and critical theory could be seen
as examples of this over-confidence. This is where relativism comes in.
Relativism, as part of the creative process, provides a check to
constructive

attempted

action.

It alerts

the

actor

to

value

and

consider

alternative positions and so opens the actor's own actions to self


critique. This critical reflection, however, occurs in combination with
the process of confident imagination.
Our argument here, though,
should not be interpreted as simply wanting to have a mixture of both
relativism and confident action. Rather, relativism, as part of the
sequence of inquiry and action, is transformed in a new way where both
processes occur together synthetically, rather than one following the
other

as

in

mixture.

Both

processes,

when

held

together,

lead

to

distinctive style of action. Actors become


relatively confident, as
to
and
confident,
opposed
absolutely
confidently relative as opposed to
purposelessly passive.
Returning to the child abuse example, such a synthesis encourages
workers to examine what they are doing in relation to a wide range of
alternative possibilities. At the same time, it leads to a confidence in

imagining both improved family arrangements and ways of working


towards them. The strong critical sensitivity to domination
leads
workers to act decisively to stop violence. Action, however, is always
concerned to open up possibilities and so has an explicitly non-violent
creative flavour, rather than being controlling and constraining. Shared
collaborative
assessments and imaginative
from
the proposed synthesis.
logically

joint action

seem

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to flow

THE

RISE

OF

RELATIVISM

357

students would be encouraged, not simply to accept


Educationally,
differences from their clients, but, rather, to engage with differences in
order to explore the potential for the reformulation of their own posi
tion in the light of the views of the other, and to experiment with such
new ideas in collaborative joint action with clients. Educators would be
encouraged to adopt a similar orientation in their own relationships

with students.
What we are suggesting here is that, by themselves, both relativism
and a confident imagination can lead to dogma and domination but
that, taken together as a synthesis, they can provide a constructive and
creative way forward for social work. When they are held together in
this way, we get a style of practice which, we believe, is actually consist
ent with what most social workers do. We are thus, perhaps, not propos
ing anything new; rather, we are seeking to preserve and highlight what
social workers already know and find valuable but which is threatened
when either relativist thinking or a confident imagination occurs in
isolation.

CONCLUSIONS
This article has
exists in social
relativism. We
tried to rescue

explored some of the paradigmatic variety that currently


trend towards
work, highlighting a meta-paradigmatic
have outlined our concerns about this trend, and then
the positive, critical quality of relativism to suggest a
particular way forward for social work.
Throughout history, the critique of the dominant paradigm has often
taken a relativist orientation before a new direction is arrived at. It
could well be that the social sciences and social work are at such a point
at present. The relativist turn, we think, will intensify for some time.
Hopefully, this will allow some space to explore a variety of new direc
tions. Caution is required, however, to ensure that we do not simply
become stuck in relativism so that it becomes the new dogma. Similarly,
we do not want to reject relativism and give ourselves over to a non
relativist orientation. Rather, we need to get on with the collective job
of exploring a creative way forward which allows and preserves social
work's capacity, on the one hand, to understand a variety of voices and
to critique dominating voices (relativism), and, on the other hand, to
be able to respond in a clear, enthusiastic, imaginative way to unlock
the potential of the people with whom social workers work, particularly
those who have been the most constrained and limited.
Accepted:

November

1995

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358

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