The significance of power relations in communication in social work

Effective communication is important in all spheres of human activity, in the interplay between human nature or individual agency and society or social structure. In this regard, the informal interactions form the basis of social work and effective communication helps coordinators relate better with subjects (Koprowska, 2008). Social work refers to multi-disciplinary endeavours that seek to improve the quality of life and wellbeing of individuals, groups or communities through interventions on behalf of those afflicted with poverty, real or perceived social injustices and violations on their human rights. Interventions could be through such mechanisms as research, direct practice, education, policy and community organizing (Trevithick, 2010).
Social influence and/or control are concepts that refer to the means through which people’s feelings, thoughts, behaviour and appearance are regulated in social systems. This is achieved mainly through socialization, the effect on one’s opinions, behaviour and emotions by others through conformity, peer pressure, socialization, leadership and persuasion (Trevithick, 2010). Through this, individuals identify with the social system’s values and norms and thereby acquire stake in the maintenance of these norms and values. This ability to influence the behaviour of people is defined as power (Bar-On, 2002). Disparities in power between a social worker and the service user often result in the entrenchment of discrimination, oppression and non-involvement in practice. This paper explores the significance of power relations in communication in social work and contribution to the discrimination and oppression and ways in which this can be challenged including enhanced participation and involvement, especially through effective communication.

Power relations in social work
Social work is inherently political and is therefore all about power and, thus, it is essential that social workers understand the effects of power within the structures in which they work and the society overall (Bar-On, 2002). The term power is often used interchangeably with authority which is perceived as legitimate by the social structure, the patterned social arrangements present in society that both emerge from and determine the actions of individuals (Bar-On, 2002).
The sociological examination of power is concerned with the discovery and description of relative strengths, whether equal or unequal, stable or subject to change. Given that it is not innate, and that it can be granted to others, power can be acquired through the possession or control of a form of power currency which include: formal authority delegated to a holder of a position (legitimate power); authority derived from particular skills or expertise (expert power); capacity for the application of negative influences such as threats and punishment (coercive power); as well as the ability to offer rewards and therefore to wield power over subjects (reward power); and the ability of the power wielder to attract others and build loyalty (referent power) (Bar-On, 2002).
Lukes (1974), in developing the three-dimensional model of power, argues that power is socially and culturally located with the culturally patterned and socially structured behaviour or practices of groups or institutions significantly sustaining the bias in the system far more than the series of individual actions. Thus, there is a latent contradiction of interests between those exercising power and those affected, whose real interests are excluded. This argument challenges the views based on the idea of collective consent fronted by Arendt’s communications theory and the Webarian view of legitimate power which dispel the view that there is potential for powerlessness in social interactions. This has implications for social work including the view that social workers exercise power though in many instances are unaware of the wielded power, and that it is essential to examine the position of social workers as it may affect what they see as their role (Bar-On, 2002).
This scenario exacerbates powerlessness with a person (service user) agreeing to an action due to the social structure of power which places authority on the social position of the professional rather than on the agreement or consensus between the two parties. This is heightened in such instances as the use of coercive power inherent in the legitimate power of the social worker conferred by statutory legislation (Askheim, 2003). Experiments in psychology suggest that the more power wielded by an individual, the less they can take the perspective of others, implying that they have less empathy. It was also noted that decreased power is related to enhanced constraint and inhibition (Bar-On, 2002). Stereotypes and prejudices inherent in social structure and culture therefore remain unchallenged resulting in possible discrimination, oppression or exclusions of sections of society or individuals requiring service (Thompson, 1993; Trevithick, 2010).
The post-modernist view of power fronted by Michael Foucault (1980) gives a central role to communication and knowledge in the understanding of power within society. The guiding principle of modernity reinforces existing power structures thereby increasing the status of professionals, placing value on professional knowledge and marginalising local or subjugated knowledge. This focus is what is referred to as professional discourse (Foucault, 1980). This exclusion is a reflection of the critical power imbalance within societal structure, and the legitimization of knowledge demonstrating the link between the exclusion for professional discourse and oppression (Pease, 2002). Users of services or clients often feel that social work endeavours are, in this regard, inappropriate or insensitive to their needs.
Social workers occupy a unique position in society working for both the service user and the good of society overall. This often results in tensions between loyalties to service users and to service agencies or public authorities. Often, social workers acknowledge feeling powerless in their dealings with service providers, though their statutory powers make them believe they are overly powerful. Herein, an interesting paradox arises in the dichotomy of power in which social workers are often considered as either ineffective or extremely forceful (Pease, 2002).
The dichotomous view of power is often exacerbated within social work as a result of the opposing structure between the worker and the client which forces the worker into the powerful position, controlling and directing the course of action often in a one-dimensional framework, while the client is forced into the position of powerlessness (Askheim, 2003). This is evident in the fact that despite the decade-long adoption of the anti-oppressive practice theme to guide teaching and practice of social work, recipients of such practice (clients) have not been significantly involved in discussions regarding the development of such anti-oppressive practice (Pease, 2002).
Paradigm shift for greater effectiveness
There is need for social workers to understand their position within the prevailing power structures, as well as to understand why they feel powerless in their work (Pease, 2002). This would enable the challenging of structures that perpetuate oppression and the development of solutions that aid the combat of negative effects of power differentials on the users of service (Askheim, 2003). Differences in power have to be taken into account and new procedures introduced so as to improve communication and, therefore, relations which can then foster the effective conduct of social work within communities.
The key to taking account of the power by social workers in their work and relations with service users is empowerment. This entails the redistribution of knowledge and the uprising of other forms of knowledge which have been disregarded and subjugated as opposed to focus on professional knowledge as the only legitimate form (Pease, 2002). This would require the shift from such modernist focus towards a more critical approach to challenge the dominant discourse and to question the connection between knowledge and power enabling the enhancement of influence through social work approaches that aim to foster social transformation and change. Through this, the inclusion of service users in social processes, professional discourse and development of practice is legitimized (Askheim, 2003).
This offers a more realistic approach to the challenge of prevailing power structures that tend to perpetuate and enhance discrimination or oppression of service users incorporating various dimensions including the oppressed, as well as the social workers. In order for social work to learn from its relations with service users and organizations (service providers), it is essential for their greater involvement to ensure true empowerment, balancing between gains from expertise and the empowerment of individuals involved in various aspects of social work (Askheim, 2003; Pease, 2002).
Empowerment would reduce the inequalities in power relations in social work as well as challenging consequent oppression and discrimination. It would also enable the formation of meaningful professional partnerships with community organizations allowing for learning from both experiences and expertise. For significant change towards empowerment, there is need for focus and emphasis on social processes which encourage social workers to listen to the stories of service users, externalizing them and thereby enabling service users to retain greater control of the management and overcoming of the problems (Pease, 2002; Thompson, 1993). Focus is on the service user and the objective is their enablement to identify their own needs and solutions within the wider social context, rather than seeking to fit a pre-formed and set social model with its embedded ills (Askheim, 2003; Trevithick, 2010).
Effective communication
Emphasis on social process and the stories and experiences of service users requires the employment of effective communication to foster social work relations and essential partnerships. Communication is undoubtedly vital, an important part of human existence and is at the heart of all social work, in dealing with people and their problems (Thompson, 2011). Its skilful use by social workers can be hugely beneficial in empowering service users as it has the power to ensure the promotion of their well-being and equality. The basis of social work is informal interactions enabling better relations with service users, with the requirement for their trust and comfort essential to success of endeavour (Koprowska, 2008). This is only possible through effective communication.
Effective communication skill does not just refer to verbal skills but also includes proficiency in non-verbal communication skills, especially in instances where service users may have difficulty communicating their problem verbally (Koprowska, 2008). There is need for such skill in communication which can enable the service user to build up confidence, incorporate friendship and good relations (reliability and compassion), as well as enabling them to feel that their problems are addressed in sincerity enabling them to open up in discussions which enhances overall understanding and formulation of solutions to problems (Thompson, 2011).
Hindrances to effective communication
With a number of complicating factors challenging communication, it is no justification to avoid making an effort to engage in social interaction. This would amount to the perpetration of discrimination and hindrance to the effectiveness of social work (Koprowska, 2008). There are various ways in which difficulties in communication tend to arise. First and most obvious is anxiety, the feeling of discomfort attendant to the lack of awareness of what is expected in a particular situation. This can lead to lower concentration and increased tension which hinders effective communication. The assumption of similarity is another hindrance and occurs often unintentionally, based on a lack of knowledge or awareness, when operations follow norms and rules of culture which are not universal and which may not be appropriate in other contexts (Thompson, 2011).
Another hindrance to effective communication and similar to the assumption of similarity is ethnocentrism. This is based on distorted cultural assumptions and the belief that one’s culture supersedes all others. The power dynamic in this case is significant hindering relations and interactions. Stereotyping and prejudice is also a significant hindrance to effective communication with rigidly held views and prejudgment hindering interaction and connection (Thompson, 2011). Other impediments include variations in language, misinterpretation of non-verbal communication often due to variations in cultures, as well as disabilities which among other difficulties hinder effectiveness of communication and interaction. To tackle these challenges and impediments, it is essential that root causes are identified early and dealt with before they significantly affect social interactions and outcomes of social work endeavours (Koprowska, 2008).
Knowledge and skill in communication are closely interrelated with skill dependent and drawing upon knowledge, while knowledge is broadened and deepened through practice, ideally the application of skills. Building of skills ought to be premised upon the building up of knowledge (Thompson, 2011; Trevithick, 2010). Among essential skills for effective communication is the ability to tune in to various communication situations in varied contexts; as well as, sensitivity to potential difficulties and hindrances so as to enhance capacity for response and their prevention. There is also need for a balance between anxiety and complacency, being able to recognize potential difficulties but also making sure that anxiety is checked (Trevithick, 2010; Thompson, 2011).
Herein, the complexity of power has been demonstrated especially in light of social relations inherent and essential in the conduct of social work. For social workers to take issues of power into account, it is essential that three factors be considered: They must be aware of their power both within the social service structure and with regard to the power balance between them and the service user. This benefits them in enhancing their empowerment and approaches to practice. Secondly, empowerment is essential with the service user central to the process of change, and social workers facilitating, not directing the change.
Reasons for feelings and powerlessness need to be addressed rather than being overridden through legitimate power in authority or expert power in ‘knowing what’s best.’ Third, there is need for social workers to take responsibility for their power acknowledging and valuing power differentials rather than viewing them as barriers to empowerment. These need to be incorporated in practice so as to enhance and encourage inclusivity in the social service structure, allowing for continuous critique and analysis.
The development of effective communication skills for employment in effective social work requires the development of appropriate skills but also necessitates knowledge of issues involved that can enable a social worker to deal with challenges attendant to interactions essential in social work. Knowledge, unlike the other sources of power which can be used positively and negatively, can, however, also be used in a transformative way.

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Askheim, O., 2003. “Empowerment as guidance for professional social work: an act of balancing on a slack rope.” In: European Journal of Social Work, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 229-240
Bar-On, A., 2002. “Restoring Power to Social Work Practice.” In: British Journal of Social Work, Vol. 32, pp. 997-1014
Foucault, M., 1980. Power / Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings:’ 1972-1977.’ London: Harvester Press
Koprowska, J., 2008. Communication and interpersonal skills in social work (3rd ed.) University of York. Exeter: Learning Matters.
Lukes, S., 1974. Power: a radical view. London: Macmillan
Pease, B., 2002. “Rethinking Empowerment: A Postmodern Reappraisal for Emancipatory Practice.” In: British Journal of Social Work, Vol. 32, pp. 135-147
Thompson, N., 1993. Anti-Discriminatory Practice. The Macmillan Press Ltd.: London
Thompson, N., 2011. Effective Communication: A guide for the people professions, p. 83. Palgrave: Hampshire
Trevithick, P., 2010. Social work skills a practice handbook. Open University Press: Berkshire

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