Culture talk is a discursive practice that tends to naturalize power differentials in a neo-colonial era called globalization. This blog is to share my work that interrogate the notion of culture and the politics of cultural diversity.
The international community needs to foster mutual exchanges of experiences and information between social workers in different societies. More opportunities for the representation of Third World social workers at international gatherings are needed, and publication sources should provide a forum for disseminating Third World experiences … It is time to challenge the one way international flow of ideas and practices and to learn from the Third World (Midgley, 1990, p. 300)
The modern notion of culture thus becomes problematic. Problematizing culture, critiquing essentialist ideas about culture, focusing on the diversity and subordination of the Other under the conditions of late capitalism, all contribute to debate on the production and reproduction of welfare discourses and practices (Leonard, 1997, p. 61)
In the new era of economic globalization, the success and sustainability of the coexistence of humankind hinges on how much we respect and learn from one another within and across cultural, geographical and political boundaries. In the field of international social work, practitioners and scholars in the North passionately call for learning from the South (Hartman, 1990a; Midgley, 1990). Their previously silent or silenced Southern counterparts were eager to bring their perspectives into international intellectual debates. As Dei, Hall and Rosenberg (2000) observed, more and more people have come to realize the urgency of “promoting multiple and collective readings of the world, and (of) exploring multiple and alternative knowledge forms” (p. 70). The major challenge is to find ways in which these theories and practices are transferable across contexts (Gray & Fook, 2004) while avoiding the imperialistic imposition of western notions of social work (Gray, 2005; Midgley, 1981). At the core of these debates and dialogues is the question of how to identify, understand and respect cultural difference within and between national and regional borders (Gray, 2005). An examination of the literature on cultural difference, particularly in relation to the so called ‘indigenization’ of social work theories and practices within the International Social Work (ISW) journal between 1986 and 2006 revealed that ‘culture’ is used as a ‘relational demarcator’ (Park, 2005) inscribing differential positions and hierarchical identities. The limits of universality and the need for adaptation rest on how we deal with ‘difference’ between the west, where social work originated, and the rest.
However, as noted in Chapter 1, culture is a fussy term. In his much celebrated book Orientalism, Said (1978) warned that knowledge of cultural difference can be deceptive. Culture is not a pre-existing thing to be known, but a product of the knowing process that involves an uneven relationship of power between the dominant knower and his or her culturally different ‘Other’. The uncritical use of the term ‘culture’ might pose a danger, weakening issues of ‘hierarchy’ and ‘power’ in the imagination and articulation of difference (Bilik, 2002). Also, it runs the risk of obfuscating contextual factors that require political and intellectual intervention, as in the case of Indigenous Peoples, reifying Otherness and making excuses for neglect or domination, as the case may be, in local and international social welfare discourse (Razack, 1998).
Based on observations in the field of crosscultural psychology, Kim (2000) identified several common problems when ‘adaptation to local cultural contexts’ was called for: (i) often the texts cited in justification were developed several thousand years ago mostly within philosophical or religious school of thoughts, like Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism in East Asia, where their nature and use were very different from the empirical orientation of western social theories; (ii) within a particular culture, only a small percentage of the population had direct knowledge of the texts from which their cultural practices derived; (iii) while people were cautious about crosscultural impositions, there was a tendency to neglect social pressures towards conformity ‘within-cultures’; and (iv) despite the consequent cultural unity thus engendered, systemic analysis of the texts from which cultural practices originated revealed numerous contradictions, inconsistencies and conceptual leaps of faith. The essential point is that there is diversity even within cultures but unity becomes a political force of resistance when a culture is threatened from without.
The poststructuralist scholar, Avtar Brah (1996), says that to fully understand the meaning of culture in particular contexts, it is important to ask how the notion of difference is used to designate the culturally different ‘other’ and what the consequences of this are. Clearly, the presumed norms which mark a population as different depends on who is defining difference and on the way in which boundaries are drawn or constituted, maintained or challenged. More important for our purposes, however, is whether or not this ‘Othering’ discourse is helpful in intercultural exchanges.
Since crosscultural social work and the global application or transfer of social work have been major themes in International Social Work over the last twenty years, it seemed an appropriate place to start in examining social work’s construction of the notion of ‘Chineseness’. Being a Canadian social work researcher of Chinese descent, my ethnic background provides me with an entry point to look at the construction of ‘Chineseness’, to explore its complexity as a marker of cultural and political identity and to open a discursive space for critical thinkers to interrogate social relations, cultural identities and individual subjectivities in their ongoing struggle for global social justice and the recognition of human rights across diverse sociopolitical and cultural contexts. However, Chineseness in this context is also a metaphor for ‘indigenous’ and the discussion which follows raises issues that are paralleled in the experiences of Indigenous Peoples everywhere. Who constructs indigenous identities and who determines what Indigenous people need? Who is interpreting indigenous culture and deciding on the nature of indigenous social work? While this chapter examines these questions through the lens of ‘Chineseness’, the lessons and observations have a much wider import and relevance.
As a result of a keyword search to identify articles which dealt with issues relating directly to Chinese populations, communities and cultures, ninety eight articles were downloaded and reviewed to determine the following: (i) the way in which ‘Chineseness’ was constructed; (ii) the way in which the ‘West’ was imagined and projected as the backdrop against which ‘Chineseness’ was juxtaposed; and (iii) the ‘nativity’ evoked and performed to provide writers with ‘discursive authority’. As in the case of Indigenous Peoples, questions were raised as to who had the authority to speak on this subject: Chinese people living in
Culture as a site of domination and resistance
In his most influential work Orientalism, Edward Said (1978) provided a convincing argument relating to the way in which “European culture gained … strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (p. 3). However, he emphasized that:
This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on any occasion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question (p. 3).
In and through a web of power relations, people in the West discussed the Orient and developed a set of discourses on Orientalism to establish an allegedly superior ‘Western Self’ in relation to an inferior ‘non-Western Other’. Philosophically speaking, Orientalism begins with the assumption that there is a radical distinction between the East and West, and then proceeds to treat everything as evidence in support of this ‘two worlds’ division. One of the major criticisms levelled against Said’s work is that he characterized colonial discourse as a homogenous group of texts which bore a monolithic message about the colonial ‘Other’ (Mills, 2004). Bhabha (1994) criticized his suggestion that colonial power and discourse was possessed and constructed entirely by the ‘colonizer’ as this was a historical and theoretical oversimplification. Said implied that Orientalist knowledge was all powerful and his notion of the homogeneity of culture has been challenged (Spivak, 1988).
Fifteen years later in Culture and Imperialism (1993), Said’s sequel to Orientalism, he introduced the idea of ‘contrapuntal reading’ as an analytical method to examine the perspectives of both the colonizer and the colonized so as to accommodate both accounts of history by addressing “imperialism and the resistance to it … by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded” (p. 66-67). In short, Said recognized that what was not said might be as important as what was said. Thus he claimed that textual analysis required the deconstruction of the structural and historical components of texts and the reconstruction of their internal logic from the perspective of the present.
Edward Said’s Orientalism revolutionized western understanding of nonwestern cultures by showing how western projected images shaped the occidental view of the Orient. However, Carrier’s (1995) and Chen’s (1992, 1995) work pushed the theoretical edge further and led people to reflect this understanding back onto western societies, that is, onto what they called Occidentalism. Carrier (1995) saw Occidentalism as “styled images of the West” (p. 1). It showed the way in which images of the West shaped people’s conceptions of themselves and others, and how these images were, in turn, shaped by members of western and nonwestern societies alike. It led people to examine the dualism of essentialized images of the Orient as well as of the West.
Chen (1995) saw Occidentalism as a product of western imperialism. She forced people to see beyond the imperial West and subjugated ‘Other’ and to recognize that forces of domination and resistance also came from within the East and West respectively. In her book Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China, Chen (1995) demonstrated that Chinese Occidentalism was not simply imposed from afar, but was constantly and creatively changed by Chinese concerns with adapting constructions of—Orientalism and—Occidentalism to their own political purposes. What interested her most was how Occidentalism as a discursive construct was imported into
… primarily a discourse that has been evoked by various and competing groups within Chinese society for a variety of different ends, largely, though not exclusively, within domestic Chinese politics. As such, it has been both a discourse of oppression and … of liberation (p. 688).
Chen (1992) argued that Chinese Occidentalism constituted two related yet separate appropriations of the same discourse for strikingly different political ends. The first was ‘official Occidentalism’ in which the Chinese government used “the essentialization of the West as a means for supporting a nationalism that effect(ed) the internal suppression of its own people” (p. 688) such that anything opposed to the dominant Maoist political discourse could be labelled ‘western’, bourgeois or pro-capitalism and thus be subject to strict censure and prosecution. For example, intellectuals who studied things ‘western’ were accused of promoting the notion that “that the Western Other was … superior to (the) Chinese Self” (p. 691). Either by virtue of their cultural status or their perceived political sympathies to the West, alongside the official Occidentalism there arose an “anti-official Occidentalism” that was contingently and strategically employed by the Chinese intelligentsia to articulate what was otherwise “politically impossible” and “ideologically inconceivable” (p. 692). To her, excessively positive evaluation of western civilization by some Chinese scholars could be seen as a “potent anti-official discourse” in contrary to the anti-western official Occidentalism (1995, p. 28). Thus she stressed that all discourse was local and contingent and, therefore, must be judged not just in terms of its content but also by its political effects or consequences. The First Nations discourse might be seen in the same light (see Chapter 7).
In a nutshell, Orientalism and Occidentalism must be seen as theories or signifying practices without essential content. To Chen (1992), it was the use to which they were put by those who articulated them, and by those who heard and received them, that determined “their social – and literary – effects” (p. 710).
Clearly then culture is a site of domination and resistance. The construction of culture, in this case Chineseness, and cultural difference rests on the operation of power relations in ‘discursive spaces’ whether writers are silencing or making ‘marginalized voices’ heard. In the international arena that is dominated by English language, writers can only but write from their privileged position—educated and westernized. Their proficiency in English equips them to engage in the study of western ideas and theories and their proficiency in Chinese enables them to serve as intercultural interlocutors. How does one assess the ‘accuracy’ of such translations of cultural meaning and (re)configurations of Chineseness? Until Chinese texts are translated into English―rather than the other way around―we have no empirical or concrete grounds on which to engage in mutual intercultural dialogue. At the rate with which western social work is being introduced into
(Re)configuring ‘Chineseness’: Who and what is Chinese?
Smith (2003) optimistically noted that having “had a unique past, the Chinese will have their own unique future” (p. 403). To be sure,
Without exception, the writers believed that social work in
Writing from an in between space as Chinese Canadians, Tsang and Yan (2001) in their paper entitled ‘Chinese corpus and western application’ challenge their Chinese colleagues to recognize the immense diversities within their country along inter alia ethnic, rural-urban, gender, and class lines. Nevertheless, as they observed, the discourse on the development of social work in China assumed that there was an essentially ‘Chinese corpus’―a body of knowledge and structure of social institutions, cultural traditions and Chinese values—grounded in Confucianism (see also Becerra & Chi, 1992; Chan, 1992; Chan, 2006; Cheung & Liu, 2004; Kilpatrick & Zhang, 1993; Yan, 1998; Yao, 1995; Yip, 2005a). In this social work discourse, Confucianism is used to explain the importance of family to individual identity (Cheung & Liu, 2004), the centrality of harmony and integration (Chow, 1987; Kilpatrick & Zhang, 1993), students’ lack of creativity (Chan & Chan, 2005), children’s submission to hierarchy and authority (Kwok & Tam, 2005), and the primacy of benevolence over rights in Chinese society (
Among these texts, Chow’s (1987) paper on ‘Western and Chinese ideas of social welfare’ was repeatedly cited by other writers to articulate their notions of Chinese culture, or to support their view of the differences between western and Chinese welfare systems. Interestingly, Chow (1987) cautioned that ideas about social welfare were “no more than shadows of prototypes which can at best show how people think, but cannot account for how they behave” and “it is almost impossible … to treat each belief system as a separate entity developed autonomously and unaffected by others” (p. 32). Likewise, Nai-Ming Tsang (1997) warned that it was a “mistake to assume homogeneity among people within the same culture” saying that both “intercultural and intracultural heterogeneity” (p. 141) must be carefully examined. Still, it is not uncommon to see writers turning these philosophical ‘ideas’ about ‘ideal or prototypical states’ into explanatory tools for empirical inquiry into Chinese help seeking and caring behaviour. Consider the following examples from academics in
Generally speaking, traditional Confucian concepts of mental health still have a very strong influence on the thinking and behavior of Chinese. For those Chinese coming from or in Mainland
Under the guidance of li, they are conscious of their performance and judgements by others. Doing things in a right and proper way is important, and they will feel a loss of face if they fail. The culture discourages experimentation. Chinese students tend to avoid taking risks by trying new ideas. Too much consciousness of performance and others’ judgements discourages people from being creative and adventurous in their knowledge building (Chan & Chan, 2005, p. 385).
[T]he Chinese sayings ‘do not give what one dislikes to others’, or ‘restrain oneself and respect the rule of propriety’ became guiding mottoes of the Chinese in their human interactions. It is only that one could gradually work towards the ideal of being ren, that is being virtuous. With such an understanding, it would not be difficult to understand why the Chinese tended to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony as far as possible (Yuen-Tsang, 1999, p. 368).
These writers try to apply normative schema to interpret, explain and justify what Chinese people do or do not do. Since social work as it is known in the west is completely foreign to
Arif Dirlik (1987) referred to this as ‘culturalism’―an “ideology which not only reduces everything to questions of culture, but has a reductionist conception of the latter as well” (p. 14). While she acknowledges the centrality of culture in international discourse and the importance of people’s worldviews, she believes that ‘culturalist’ assertions of the autonomy of culture as exemplified in the international social work literature needs to be critically examined. This literature reduces the ‘whole of experience’ to questions of culture through an artificial intellectual exercise whereby those constructing the discourse are not those engaged in confronting everyday problems in China. Real ‘cultural engagement’, as Bhabha (1994) points out, whether antagonistic or affiliative, is produced performatively through cultural practices; intercultural dialogue or discursive interaction constructs interpretations of practice or normative schema of what practice requires. In the international social work discourse, Chinese perspectives can only be introduced through a western lens because they must be articulated in English to reach a western audience. Thus, as Bhabha (1994) notes,
The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition ... The ‘right’ to signify from the periphery of authorized power and privilege is resourced by the power of tradition to be inscribed through the conditions of contingency and contradictoriness that attend upon the lives of those who are ‘in the minority’ (Bhabha, 1992, p. 2).
The minority here might be educated Chinese writers involved in introducing social work to
However, culturalist discourse could never gain full legitimacy if it were at odds with the official storyline of the Chinese authorities. The question is whether this discourse of traditional values could also serve the interests of the ruling regime. As some writers argue, the reawakening of the Confucian tradition comes right in time to fill the ideological void resulting from the erosion of socialist ideals over the past two decades (Chan, 1992; Karl, 2005).
The Chinese government would seem to be at a crossroads. After decades of economic reform, the socialist system has been replaced gradually with a market economy. State enterprises started to vanish, as did the public welfare functions tied with these production units. The need for welfare and the dilemma of providing social care without over-burdening the profit making potential of the newly emerging capitalist market presents the government with a dilemma. And the ideological basis of contemporary welfare philosophy being promoted in
Under communism, all aspects of life in Mainland
Bringing a “new rationality to old values” (Chau & Yu, 1998, p. 17), the communist leaders have downplayed revolutionist solidarity and class struggles and attempted to make traditional Chinese culture, socialist ideology and the market economy work together. As Chau and Yu (1998) observe, “traditional values such as family and self-care, interdependence, and emphasis on informal care still form part of the backbone of the new welfare system. Current reforms demonstrate the resurgence of these values” (p. 17).
The fantasy of an authentically ‘culturalist
Indeed, certain ‘culturalist’ analyses could easily be adopted by political elites to justify denial of the government’s caring responsibilities. For instance, in her study on mental health services in China, Pearson (1989) pondered whether Chinese people indeed favoured family care over hospital care or whether this was merely a cover for the lack of medical services. Through interviews and field observation, she maintained that Chinese people had no choice but develop alternative ways of looking after the mentally ill because the government failed to provide the formal hospital care they would otherwise have liked. In fact, there are frequent reports of demands to provide more inpatient facilities (Pearson, 1989, p. 60).
Ngan and Hui (1996) suggested that social workers should be more vocal in advocating for progressive social change and enhanced social justice and they should expand social work’s role in policy development. In a haze of nostalgia, they recalled that social workers in
Reconstructing the West: Where and what is the West?
The “idea of ‘the West’ … (which) was essential to the … formation of (Western) … society” (Hall, 1996, p. 187) seems to pervade western social work knowledge and practice where it is seen as a monolithic and homogenous entity (Tsang & Yan, 2001). In much the same way, the idea of a unique stable ‘Chinese corpus’ seems to characterize the international literature on social work in
Science is an aspect of western culture which some Chinese scholars seek to emulate. Thus ‘western scientific approaches to social work’ are valued highly even though aspects of Chinese culture are seen to be incompatible with scientific enquiry (Chan & Chan, 2005):
The hierarchy of teacher and student is defined by li (rites). For a student the two golden rules are to respect the teacher and to honor truth. A teacher’s role is highly respected, as he or she owns knowledge and truth. Challenging a teacher’s ideas is deemed to be impolite. The stereotype of the Chinese student is that he or she displays an almost unquestioning acceptance of the knowledge of the teacher or lecturer (p. 383).
In Western teaching the main focus is on the development of creativity. The Chinese method focuses on memorization and students are expected to memorize the classics. In ancient
In Western society the main purpose of obtaining knowledge is to control, manipulate and change the natural and the social worlds. Positivism is the dominant paradigm that guides research themes and methodologies. In contrast, the Chinese hold a harmonious attitude towards nature (p. 385-386).
To make scientific enquiry work, Chan and Chan (2005) believe that some of those cultural elements that are incompatible with scientific enquiry should be eliminated. On the other hand, they also consider that the strengths of Chinese culture must be retained if Mainland
Although the discussion in this article is in the context of the Chinese community in
This notion of ontological sameness and global knowledge transfer overshadows the ‘intersecting diversity’ within and between Chinese societies (Tsang & Yan, 2001). Thus Tsang and Yan (2001) challenge social work scholars in the west to “resist the temptation of prescribing a single, comprehensive approach to our Chinese colleagues” (p. 448).
Interestingly, none of the writers ask “Where is the West?” In the discourse,
Relocating the tellers of the tales: Who are the speakers and who is missing?
The tales tell more about the tellers than the story told (Hall, 2000). So who are the tellers of the Chinese tales? The majority of the authors of the selected texts were scholars of Chinese descent living and teaching in
The established authority of Hong Kong scholars is evident as most of the articles published in English language journals, including those submitted to ISW, come from authors in Hong Kong rather than Mainland China or Macau. Indeed, Hong Kong is a major player in the development of social work education and practice in
Having been a colony of the United Kingdom until 1997, the colonial influence which characterized social work education and practice in Hong Kong inter alia the English language as the medium of instruction and communication of research findings, was extended to China by social work academics, as is evidenced in the international discourse already discussed (Chi, 2005). One might question whether Hong Kong scholars are ‘qualified’ to represent the interests of people in Mainland
In anthropology, nativization―or indigenization―is complex and political (Bilik, 2002):
As Bilik (2002) illustrates, particularism in
Despite the extreme diversity of the Chinese population, the international literature conveys the idea that there is a single ‘Chinese corpus’ which operates in the same way as the idea of the monolithic West. Those constructing the international discourse on social work in Mainland
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大专毕业后，为了进一步扩阔社会理论的视域和探讨实践的方法，我经常与几位志同道合的社工朋友，组织研习小组阅读和讨论当代西方的社会主义思想和实践经验，尤其是战后西方的国家、资本和社会福利三者之间的共生关系 (symbiotic relations)。我特别关注的是在这三者互动下所建构的文化霸权，如何透过社会服务和社会工作者把社会问题个人化，以及制度性问题的受害者病态化。
可是，不少移民朋友向我表示，他们根本不期望自己会被全然接纳，因为既然自己选择离乡背井，所以早就有了受寄人离下之苦的心理准备。他们只期望自己在加拿大土生土长的子女可以免受二等公民的待遇。到底新生代的青少年又是否更能享受平等和融合呢？杰弗里·赖茨（Jeffrey Reitz）的调查揭开了叫人无奈的现象，调查显示，居然有42%的新生代少数族裔青少年表示也曾遇种族歧视，只有10%的白人青年有类似经历。为进一步了解新生代青年对国家的归属感，统计局于2006年进行了一项名为“多元族裔调查”(Ethnic Diversity Survey) 的研究。结果发现只有40%的少数族裔的新生代表示对加国有归属感，这数字竟然比他们的父母还要低！