Social Work Live: Theory and Practice in Social Work Using Videos (book and DVD), by Carol Dorr, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, ISBN: 978-0-19-936893-8, 453 pages, $59.95 paperback, $43.49 e-book.
In an 1897 paper on training charity workers, Mary Richmond recommended a “course of instruction which will combine theory and practice under leaders who are skilled in both.” Speaking of settlement workers, Jane Addams noted in 1899 “the dominating interest in knowledge has become its use, the conditions under which, and ways in which it may be most effectively employed in human conduct.” Neither social work founder offered details about how to teach practitioners to apply theory. For more than a century, social workers have attempted to bridge the divide separating theory from practice, but with mixed success.
Students lose interest in lectures but respond well to media-enhanced learning opportunities. Dorr, an experienced educator and practitioner, understands these preferences. She masterfully presents a novel way to master theory—one blending five filmed interviews, process recordings, workers’ observations, and moment-by-moment analyses of theory and practice choices. Dorr provides a commentary on each session related to problem, context and policy issues, a case description, a comprehensive assessment, definitions of specialized terms, and reflection questions tying the cases to the 2008 CSWE core competencies.
The 10- to 15-minute sessions are recorded well and represent the efforts of four workers (the author appears twice), providing services to individuals with diverse problems: life threatening illness, elder poverty, the childhood management of leukemia and divorce, parenting challenges, and domestic violence. The use of a wide range of theories is illustrated, including psychodynamic theories, behavioral theory, cognitive theory, life course/narrative theory, the strengths-positive psychology approach, family systems theories, and a mindfulness approach.
What is theory? How do we apply theory? Why bother with theories? These are complex questions, and good answers are central to effective socialization for expert, knowledge-informed social work. Dorr provides good answers.
Watching the interviews in the classroom or as a self-guided educational process, the novice social worker can learn from exemplary models. These models show how theory is a practical tool for understanding and helping clients, how to translate obscure theoretical terms into a language meaningful to clients, and how effective theory application contributes to the achievement of desired outcomes.
Reading the process recordings, transcripts, and commentary, the package user can learn how experienced professionals articulate their theory use; deconstruct theory into elements guiding engagement, assessment, and intervention; and reflect repeatedly on the effectiveness of theory application actions. Adding classroom discussion or peer conversations, the practitioner committed to becoming an adept theorizer can deepen capacities for thinking critically about theory using social work values and scientific standards.
As a macro-oriented social worker, I would have liked a case focused on a larger client system and the integration of macro frameworks, such as critical theory, applied feminism, or network theory. Minor quibbles.
Dorr’s material brings theory to life for those skeptical of its relevance. I recommend this text with DVD to educators teaching a “direct practice” course, field liaisons facilitating theory-practice integration exercises, and human behavior instructors arguing for the relevance of theory. I also recommend this book to active but theory-wary practitioners open to the argument suggested by Addams and Richmond, and spelled out by Bruce Thyer, that “the integration of theory and practice is one of the hallmarks of a fully developed professional.”
Reviewed by James, A. Forte, MSW, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Social Work, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.