Journal Article

Being a ‘Culturally Competent’ Social Worker: Making Sense of a Murky Concept in Practice

Gai Harrison and Rachel Turner

in The British Journal of Social Work

Volume 41, issue 2, pages 333-350
Published in print March 2011 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online September 2010 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
Being a ‘Culturally Competent’ Social Worker: Making Sense of a Murky Concept in Practice

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The idea of cultural competence has been afforded significant importance in the caring professions while also being the subject of considerable debate. It is a prominent discourse in both the health and social work literature as well as being enshrined in organisational policy and human resources training. However, it is a somewhat murky concept in that culture can evoke a multitude of meanings while understandings of competence are context-dependent. Moreover, it is unclear what sense practitioners actually make of such an abstract concept in practice. This article describes an exploratory study conducted with a group of social workers that canvassed their understandings of cultural competence. These practitioners endorsed the idea of cultural competence while also critically engaging with its limitations and ambiguities. In addition, they highlighted organisational and system constraints that thwart their ability to practise in a culturally responsive manner. Although the literature commonly laments the ‘cultural incompetence’ of social workers, the findings from this study suggest that such an individualised focus detracts attention from the broader system and organisational responses needed to respond appropriately to the needs of clients from diverse backgrounds.

Keywords: Cultural competence; social work; practice

Journal Article.  6853 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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