Using social work theories: A Family In Crisis Essay

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The aim of this discussion paper is to examine the situation of a family living in a small rural town. As the current condition of the family is a result of long term social, economical and political development in the society, this paper will apply the structural approach to understand what circumstances have had major influence in precipitating the family into the crisis it is now. The focus is on Joe, who is long term unemployed and while his wife is dying of cancer, he is waiting for trial because of stealing to support his drug habit. The house that he is living in with his five years old daughter is in appalling sanitary condition.

Joe’s situation

The main aspect of the scenario that this paper will focus on is the socio-economic situation of the family, particularly Joe’s unemployment, drug addiction and weak parental skills which are influenced by a number of factors:

· Living in a small rural town : limited work opportunities, isolation, difficulties in accessing services and not enough support

· Long term unemployment: stereotyped, economic and social disadvantage

· Patriarchal ideology: clearly defined gender roles

· Drug habit: labelled, economic hardship

Structural social work theory

Structural social work which is underpinned by the socialist ideology, views social problems as arising from a specific societal context – liberal/neo-conservative capitalism, rather than from the failings of individuals. (Mullaly, 1997 p. 133) It focuses on oppression as the major source of social problems. As stated in Mullaly, oppression is determined by harm happening to a particular person due to membership in a particular group by means of exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. Capitalist society has established self-perpetuating systems such as the family to reproduce the unequal relationships. (Payne, 1997 p.223)

Living in a rural town

One of the factors having impact on Joe’s life and his present situation is that he is living in a small rural town. The immense restructuring of agriculture, giving way to multinational companies operating with modern technologies, causes the unemployment problem in the rural areas. Also, compared to the urban areas, rural Australia is disadvantaged when considering the number and diversity of services and organisations for people and their needs, as well as the cost involved in accessing them. Thus, to access drug services or better medical help for his wife, Joe probably has to travel to a bigger city, which in turn costs money that he does not have. Considering all this, obviously the broader socio-economic structures are at fault for not providing an environment which enables personal survival or social fulfilment. (Mullaly, 1997)


One of the form of oppression – marginalisation, does apply to Joe’s situation. Joe has a right to work, but because of the shortage of work in rural areas, he cannot exercise this right and is confined to the margins of society because the labour market cannot provide him a job. He is unemployed and excluded from useful participation in society, leading to material deprivation. (Mullaly, 1997) The family is living for a long time in poverty because of unemployment.

All the traits related to the culture of poverty such as feelings of inferiority, apathy (Joe not trying to change the situation), fatalism (drug addiction), and dependence (social security payments) all are recognisable in Joe’s behaviour and they are passed on subsequent generations through the process of socialisation. (Mullaly, 1997) Consequently, children growing in such an environment are not prepared to take advantages from the opportunities (in form of education, relocation) available to them.

Unemployed people are often stereotyped as lazy and unworthy because they do not take advantage of the existing opportunities. This can lead to the internalisation of these stereotypes and can cause people to act in ways that affirm the dominant’s group view of them as inferior. (Mullaly, 1997) Joe is blaming himself for his circumstances and may be thinking that what is happening to him is deserved because he is such a bad and lazy person. Thus, Joe may have some rights and opportunities but he is unable to exercise them because of particular social constraints such as unemployment which are based on class, geographical region and many other factors.

Patriarchal ideology

Different power inequalities within the family are resulting from social beliefs about different roles within the family which are the consequence of the broader cultural or class norm. (Dominelli and Mc Leod, 1989) Since the society we are living in is still based on patriarchal ideology (more in rural than in urban areas) with clearly defined roles, Joe does not have the skills to manage simple tasks related to the household.

His mother probably cared for the household, and when he married these tasks were the responsibility of his wife.

Drug habit-labelling

The dominant group of society is applying its experiences and culture and uses them as norms while measuring all other groups according to these norms. (Mullaly, p.149)

Who is not conforming to the norms is deviant and labelled as such. According to Moreau and Leonard, oppressed people often contribute to their oppression by socially withdrawing or engaging in other self-destructive behaviour, which in turn causes them to be rejected by others. This is observable on Joe’s label as a drug addict, which resulted in stealing clothing from charity bins intended for poor people, making him feel even more unworthy and rejected by his community. Consequently, by society labelling deviants as belonging to a separate class and thereby expecting and eliciting the requisite behaviour from them, the deviance is maintained. (Fook,1993 p.11)


According to Mullaly, the lack of control that oppressed people experience over their life situation and destiny robs them of their essential human dignity, for without any real control life becomes meaningless. Joe does not have control about the financial means, unemployment, his drug addiction, his wife’s terminal illness, the house, the impending trial, the future of his daughter and the dog, and he is behaving according to the meaninglessness of life that he is feeling – taking drugs, stealing, not caring about his frightened and lonely child and the most important in this situation – not caring about the peaceful dying of his wife.

To conclude, Joe’s present situation is a result of broad socio-economical and political structures of the society. Due to his being part of a class that is excluded from opportunities and full participation in society, Joe does not have the resources and coping mechanisms needed to face all the disadvantages and challenges that the society is creating for the oppressed people. He had and still has limited choices about most aspects of his life, he lacks control about his life and his environment and is driven by forces that he is unaware of. Joe’s growing powerlessness is precipitating him into deeper troubles.


Dominelli, L. & McLeod, E. (1989) Feminist Social Work, Macmillan, London

Fook, J. (1993) Radical Casework: A Theory of Practice, Allen & Unwin, Sydney

Mullaly, B. (1997) Structural Social Work: Ideology, Theory and Practice, Oxford University Press, Canada

Payne, M. (1997) Modern Social Work Theory, Macmillan, London

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