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Culture^ cultural identity^ and cultural sensitivity in child

and family social work

Kieran O'Hagan
Department of Social Work, The Queen's University of Belfast, Belfast, UK


Kieran O'Hagan,
Reader in Social Work,
Department of Social Work,
The Queen's University of Belfast,
7 Lennoxvale,
Belfast BT9 5BY,
Keywords: child, culture, cultural sensitivity,
family, identity
Accepted for publication: December 1998

Child care legislation, policy, and procedures increasingly

emphasize the obligations of social workers to give due
consideration to the culture and cultural background of children
and their families. This paper explores the implications of those
obligations. It seeks the meaning of these terms, and critically
examines meanings attributed to them. There are many obstacles
in the way of fulfilling these specific statutory obligations in child
and family social work: there is a history of neglect, confusion, and
negativity towards culture in social work literature, and a current
attempt to subsume culture within the concept of ethnicity; racism
has often been regarded as a more significant issue than culture;
the cultural heritage of clients and their families has been
perceived as oppressive, and culture has been misinterpreted to
explain and to tolerate unacceptable behaviour. Other disciplines,
for example anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies,
perceive culture and cultural identity differently. They have much
to offer social work. The paper provides a definition of culture and
cultural identity which reflects much of what has been learnt in the
literature generally. It should contribute towards an enhancement
of cultural sensitivity, and a fulfilment of statutory obligations
relating to culture in child and family social work.


This paper originated during preparatory readings on

the origin and development of a small community of
Irish-speaking people in West Belfast. The author is
presently engaged in a research project aimed towards
exploring the responses of family and child care
agencies which service the area in which the community lives. Increasingly, it was realized that the issues
of culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity
posed major challenges for family and child care
workers globally. But what precisely is meant by
'culture'? This paper will begin with a brief look at the
origins and interpretations of 'culture' and 'identity'.
Secondly, it will provide a multidisciplinary, international perspective, suggesting that theorists in other
subject areas can contribute to family and child care
workers' understanding of the concepts. Thirdly,


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

definitions of culture and cultural identity will be

provided, reflecting the importance of the concept and
the contributions of other disciplines. Fourthly, it will
examine the requirements of the Children Act in
relation to culture, and explore perceptions of, and
emphasis on, those aspects of culture specified in the
Act, namely religion, racial origin, and linguistic and
cultural background. Fifthly, it will suggest that there
is an indifferent and/or negative attitude to culture in
the literature of three specific areas: children's rights,
family and child care, and child protection. Finally, it
will explore possible reasons for this indifference and
negativity, including the problems of definition and
the concept of cultural relativism. The principal goal
of the paper is to enhance awareness and understanding of culture, and to make sense of the statutory
obligation relating to culture. It is hoped the paper
will also contribute towards fulfilling that obligation.

1999 Blackwell Science Ltd

Culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity in child and family social work K O'Hagan


The word 'identity' is often paired with the word
'culture'. Like many words commonly used in
professional life, 'culture' and 'identity' have French
and Latin origins. 'Identity' stems from the Latin
idem meaning 'the same' and identidem meaning
'repeatedly'. This core meaning, i.e. sameness and
repetition, has actually strengthened rather than
weakened: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
defines 'identity' as 'absolute or essential sameness'
with something. That something may be a group, a
community, or a nation state; it may be a particular
race, with specific physical features; it could be a
religion, a sexual orientation, a geographical location,
or a language. Any one of these may contribute to the
development of identity. Each of them may actually
constitute an identity. An individual, therefore, may
perceive his or her identity solely or predominantly in
terms of race, or religion, or nation state, or in terms
of membership of a political party, or sexual orientation, or ideology, or a profession or occupation. More
likely, however, one's sense of identity will embrace
many of these.
'Culture' and all its related terms such as
'cultured', 'cultivate', 'cultivation', etc. derive from
the French culture and the Latin cultura. These words
simply meant the (successful) tilling of the land; the
improvement of crops and crop production by labour
and care. One's immediate reaction may be that the
words have undergone substantial change in definition, but this origin of meaning, centring on the
symbolically powerful earth itself, remains a core
component (latent or unconscious though it may be)
in the subjective meaning most of us are likely to
provide for the word today. It actually provides us
with the first real indicator of the significance in
people's perception of their own culture.
The association with the land continues to the
present time, but in the 13th and 14th centuries, the
meaning of 'culture' was expanded to include
improvement or refinement of human beings, primarily through education and training. Hobbes later
wrote: 'The education of children is called a cultivation of their minds'; Milton wrote of 'cultivating
friendship', and the OED records the meaning given
at the beginning of the 19th century: 'the training and
refinement of mind, taste, and manners'. Matthew
Arnold (Bryson 1967) extended this notion with his
famous Culture and Anarchy: an Essay in Political
and Social Criticism. He viewed culture as 'perfection
in which the character of beauty and intelligence are


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

both present, which unites the two noblest of things'.

Raymond Williams (1963) thought this was a little
over the top. He blames Arnold for the 'common
English hostility to the word' manifest thereafter.
'There is surely a danger of allowing culture to become
a fetish,' he writes, but concludes: 'The idea of culture
is too important to be surrendered to this kind of
failing' (pp. 134-5). Such importance is evident in the
literature of many disciplines, in particular anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, mental health,
social theory and international relations.
'Culture' in anthropology

Culture is a core concept in anthropology. The

Victorian anthropologist E.B. Taylor (Leach 1982)
provides us with the best-known definition of culture:
'Culture or civilization is that complex whole which
includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, custom
and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man
as a member of society' (Helman 1994, p. 9). The allembracing nature of this definition is explicit in the
term 'and any other capabilities and habits acquired ...'; these must surely include language and
religion. Helman (1994) derives a helpful perspective
from Taylor's definition: 'Culture is a set of guidelines (both explicit and implicit) which individuals
inherit as members of a particular society, and which
tell them how to view the world, how to experience it
emotionally, and how to behave in it in relation to
other people, to supernatural forces or Gods, and to
the natural environment' (p. 2). Mitchell (1968) notes
two strands of thinking in the anthropological
definition of culture, one stressing hereditary customs
and actions, and the other stressing ideational aspects
in the development of all cultures, i.e. culture as a
body of 'shared understandings'. Anthropologists
agree, however, that few societies are governed and
driven on the basis of any one culture. Virtually all
societies have 'multiple and distinctive cultures'
(Korbin 1997) within their boundaries, and these
cultures emphasize social stratification, each stratum
marked by its own distinctive cultural attributes,
including linguistic characteristics, manners, accommodation, and diet.
'Culture' in cultural studies

Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary subject area,

seeking to influence all disciplines in respect of
culture. Bennett (1997) notes the tension between
two strands of thought about definition of 'culture' in

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Culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity in child and family social work K O'Hagan

cultural studies. One strand seeks to define it within

narrower parameters of politics and power; the other,
within virtually limitless boundaries of wholeness and
total way of life: the latter is in the ascendancy,
represented by Hall & Jefferson's (1976) definition:
'The culture of a group or class is the peculiar and
distinctive way of life of the group or class, the meanings,
values and ideas embodied, in institutions, in social
relations, in systems of belief, in mores and customs, in
the uses of objects and material life. Culture is the
distinctive shape in which this material and social
organization of life expresses itself. A culture includes
the "maps of meanings" which make things intelligible to
its members. ... Culture is the way the social relations of
a group are structured and shaped: but it is also the way
those shapes are experienced, understood and interpreted.' (pp. 10-11)

This is a useful definition, easily transferable (with a

few minor adjustments) to family and child care
policy and practice. 'Systems of belief needs some
elaboration, to include (or to spell out) 'religion and
faith', as it is religion and faith which are likely to be
the origin and defender of 'meanings, values and
ideas'. Another addition could include 'language' in
the 'maps of meaning', as language will surely be the
potent means by which the culture and its material
and social organization expresses itself.
Cultural studies adds another dimension to culture,
i.e. geography and space. This revives the original
association with the land. Shurmer-Smith & Hannam
(1994) write: 'if mountains, rivers and weather are not
approached culturally, there is a terrible lie uttered
every time the word "environment" is used' (p. 216).
Lee (1997) adds: 'space, when taken culturally,
represents a relatively coherent and autonomous
social domain which exercises a certain determinacy
upon both the population and the social processes
located upon its terrain' (p. 127).
'Culture' in sociology

Sociologists have borrowed from anthropology in

attempting to articulate a sociological perception of
culture. Giddens (1993) says it 'refers to the ways of
life of the members of a society, or of groups, or
within a society. It includes how they dress, their
marriage customs and family life, their patterns of
work, religious ceremonies and leisure pursuits. It
also covers the goods they create and which become
meaningful to them' (p. 31). Parsons (1952) regarded
culture as essentially symbolic and evaluative: 'Cultural objects are symbolic elements of the cultural


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

tradition, ideas or beliefs, expressive symbols or value

patterns' (quoted in Mitchell 1968, p. 48). Sociologists articulated the concepts of 'mass culture',
'popular culture', and the theory of the 'culture
industries'. But the importance of culture itself is
inescapable, often pervading page and chapter of
many standard sociology texts:
' . . . no societies could exist without culture. Without
culture, we would not be human at all, in the sense in
which we usually understand that term. We would have
no language in which to express ourselves, no sense of
self-consciousness, and our ability to think or reason
would be severely limited...' (Giddens 1993, p. 32)
'Culture' and 'identity' in social theory and
international relations

Culture and identity are highly significant concepts in

social theory and in international relations (e.g.
Bloom 1990; Mazrui 1990; Smith 1990; Herbert
1991; Fitzgerald 1993; Ferguson & Mansbach 1997;
Lapid & Kratochwil 1997). Lapid & Kratochwil write
about a palpable sense of urgency amongst international relations theorists who realize that 'the global
order seems to be transforming itself culturally even
faster than it is changing geopolitically or economically' (p. 4). Nau (1993) argues that identity is a more
powerful variable than anarchy or power in understanding international relations. Tickner (1997) believes that most current insecurities in the world are
not about disputed boundaries or power rivalries.
Rather, 'issues of identity are driving underlying
perceptions of threats and vulnerabilities' (p. 147).
Historically, social and international relations theorists have interpreted identity as national identity,
meaning that our sense of identity primarily stems
from loyalty and obligation to a nation, a state, and/or
citizenship within that state. Authorities have often
exploited this linkage. Tickner's (1997) critique
(compatible with much feminist social work writing)
exposes the limitations in this interpretation, including its hierarchical and exclusionary nature, its social
inequality, and its sexism constructed out of experiences more typical of men (who dominate the public
sphere) than women (traditionally confined to the
private sphere of home, children, and domestic
responsibility). Feminist writers in social theory and
international relations advocate an alternative concept
of identity (Tronto 1993; Tickner 1997). They
believe it must be based on the assumption that
human beings are interdependent rather than autonomous, 'sometimes giving care and sometimes receiv-

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ing it'. A person's sense of identity is based more

upon their 'caring and sharing' and receiving in
whatever societal context they are living, than on an
assumed prevailing consciousness of the state, and
their loyalty and autonomy within that state (Tronto
1993, quoted in Tickner 1997, p. 161).
'Culture' in medicine and health care

Culture is now recognized as an important concept in

the perception, diagnosis, and treatment of illness.
Ongoing research in many branches of medicine and
health care has revealed dominant and as yet inexplicable patterns of occurrence and vulnerability in respect
of culturally distinct groups of peoples, and a
corresponding ineffectiveness in treatment (e.g. the
prevalence of schizophrenia amongst African-Caribbean people, or the incidence of suicide amongst Irish
immigrants and North American women in Britain;
Pilgrim & Rogers 1993). This has dictated a new
agenda in training, literature, and research, giving
impetus to a comparatively new offshoot of anthropology, namely medical anthropology. Medicine and
anthropology have always been closely related, and the
former has adopted the definition and understanding
of culture provided by the latter (i.e. E.B. Taylor 1871;
see above). Helman's (1994) authoritative work Culture and Medicine demonstrates the clinical significance of cultural and social factors in illness and in
health, and in preventative medicine and health
education. It draws the new boundaries which medical
personnel must strive to understand, before treating:
health care programmes 'need to take account of the
specific needs and circumstances of different communities, their social, cultural and economic backgrounds, and what the people living in them actually
believe about their own ill-health, and how it should be
treated' (p. 11). The forcefulness of this statement may
be a response to the diversity of approach to culture
and identity within medicine and health care, ranging
from acute sensitivity and sophisticated research (e.g.
Currer 1991) to a conspicuous lack of any awareness of
the concept, clearly evident, for example, in many
psychiatry publications. Fernando (1989, 1991, 1995)
is a notable exception to the latter.
There is no standard popular definition or explanation of 'culture' and 'cultural identity' in child and


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

family social work literature. Culture is often used

synonymously and confusingly with the word 'ethnicity'. Thompson's (1993) work on anti-discriminatory
practice, for example, makes ethnicity the overarching
concept, yet in the definition he borrows from Storkey
(1991), ethnicity becomes synonymous with 'cultural
identity'. Ethnicity is, according to Storkey:
"... all the characteristics which go to make up cultural
identity: origins, physical appearance, language, family
structure, religious beliefs, politics, food, art, music,
literature, attitudes towards the body, gender roles,
clothing, education.' (pp. 109-10)
Blakemore & Boneham (1994) also confuse, when
they write that culture is the 'umbrella' term, and yet,
in the same paragraph, 'but it is preferable to use
ethnicity as the broader concept which includes
culture' (p. 7). Glazer & Moynihan (1975) note that
the word 'ethnicity' is 'still on the move' and that it
has achieved a significant and improved 'change of
status'. They are unable to say how or why this has
come about. Before attempting, therefore, to construct a social work definition of 'culture', it is
necessary to take a brief look at the origins and real
meaning of 'ethnicity'; this should demonstrate that
its present-day synonymity with 'culture' is ill judged.
Ethnicity: an inappropriate substitute for culture

'Ethnicity' derives from the Latin ethnicus, meaning

those who were not Christian or Jewish, such as
'heathens' and 'pagans' (Oxford Library of Words &
Phrases, 1986). Cornell & Hartmann (1998) write:
'Ethnic' clearly referred to others, to those who were
not "us" . . . ' (p. 16). This pejorative, discriminatory
meaning has been sustained throughout the 20th
century as many examples in scholarly texts will
testify. They are provided in A Supplement to the
Oxford English Dictionary (Burchfield 1972). Here are
just two examples:
'The Jews are an ethnic group, although one which
has little regard for spatial considerations.'
'The former ethnics, a polite term for Jews,
Italians, and other lesser breeds just inside the
law...' (The OED supplement quotes this second
example from the Times Literary Supplement, 17
November 1961)
Racist and discriminatory as these quotations are,
they are actually using the term 'ethnic' in the same
sense in which it has been used for two thousand
years: the identification of a group, not based

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primarily on some positive attribute, or feature or

quality or language of that group, but more fundamentally based on a negative(s), and the fact that the
group is not the dominant group making the differentiation in the first instance. Thompson (1993)
favours the term, but recognizes its potential for
discriminatory interpretation: 'it is inaccurate and
misleading to refer to members of ethnic minorities as
"ethnics" or "ethnic people" . . . ' (p. 58). The most
extreme form of discrimination is appropriately called
'ethnic cleansing'. This term too also has its roots in an
actual historical derivative of 'ethnic'. It is: ethnize.
And many will be aware of another derivative,
'ethnocentric', which means regarding one's own race
as supreme to that of anyone else (Reber 1985). Such
historical and etymological facts do not support
substituting 'ethnicity' for 'culture', or for saying that
the former subsumes the latter. Perhaps those who
formulated the Children Act 1989 were aware of such
facts: neither 'ethnic' nor 'ethnicity' appear in the Act,
whilst 'culture' and/or 'cultural' are frequently used.
Conditions for defining 'culture' and 'cultural

In attempting to provide definitions of 'culture' and

'cultural identity', the following conditions should
apply: (i) the definitions need to be comprehensive
and comprehensible, drawing from the knowledge
and literature of disciplines (such as those above)
which have given the concept a much higher profile
than that afforded to it within social work literature;
(ii) any definition of culture should make reference to
the physical environment of birth and upbringing;
cultural geography enlightens us about the significance of that environment in the construction and
emergence of cultural identity; (iii) the definitions
should at least imply or suggest how any ignoring or
downgrading of culture is potentially harmful and
discriminatory; (iv) they should enhance the awareness of practitioners who are statutorily obliged to
'give due consideration to the cultural background' of
their clients. Here, then, is an attempt to define
'culture' and 'cultural identity', before considering
the statutory obligations pertaining to culture, within
family and child care social work.
'Culture' is the distinctive way of life of the group,
race, class, community, or nation to which the
individual belongs. It is the product of the values,
ideas, perceptions, and meanings which have evolved
over time. These values, ideas, perceptions, and


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

meanings constitute the individual's knowledge and

tinderstanding of the world in which he or she lives,
and they derive from, and are embodied in, the
physical envirotiment of birth and upbringing, in
language, institutions, family and social relationships,
child rearing, education, systems of belief, religion,
mores and customs, dress and diet, and in particular
uses of objects and material life. Culture embraces all
of these, and the individual may regard each of them,
or any number of them, as culturally significant.
'Cultural identity' is the sense of sameness and
belonging which the individual experiences in
living, sharing, and expressing a particular culture.
That sense of sameness and belonging may vary
according to the many differing expressions of
culture. For example, sharing the same language
may generate the greatest sense of cultural sameness and belonging for one individual, whilst
sharing the same child rearing practices may
generate the greatest sense of cultural sameness
and belonging for another. Individuals may regard
some or all of these expressions of culture as
significant in the formation and articulation of their
cultural identity.
Respecting culture and cultural identity

There are six main sources through which family and

child care social workers are obliged to consider and
promote cultural aspects of the lives of families with
whom they are working: (i) new legislation (e.g. the
Children Act 1989); (ii) agency policies and guidelines derived from legislation; (iii) professional and/or
ethical codes of the numerous professions involved
(e.g. health visitors, social workers, community
psychiatric nurses, etc.); (iv) training at both the
pre-qualifying and in-service phases; (v) employment
and integration of family and child care staff from
differing cultural backgrounds; (vi) pressure groups
and community consensus within areas served by the
agencies. All these contributions emphasize the need
for workers and their agencies to be 'aware of cultural
differences' and to be 'culturally sensitive' in their
work with clients. For family and child care social
workers, the most important one is the Children Act
(England & Wales) 1989 (and subsequent related
legislation in Northern Ireland and Scotland).
Many have commented favourably on the clarity and
detail of obligations spelt out in the Children Act

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Culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity in child and family social work K O'Hagan

(England & Wales) 1989 (White et al. 1991; Corby

1993; Dalrymple & Burke 1995; Seden 1995). When a
local authority is looking after children, or providing
day care, or is registering and monitoring childminders, it must ensure that those working on its
behalf 'give due consideration to the child's religious
persuasion, racial origin, and cultural and linguistic
background' (sect. 22(5)(c)). When placing a child
with foster parents, a local authority must ensure
'where possible', that the foster parent 'is of the same
religious persuasion as the child', or that the foster
parent 'gives an undertaking that the child will be
brought up in that religious persuasion' (Sch. 2,
12(e)(i & ii)). In the general duties of providing day
care and recruiting foster parents local authorities
shall 'have regard to the different racial groups to
which children within their areas who are in need
belong'(Sch. 2, ll(a)(b)).
These clarifications of duty would appear to
enhance child and family social workers' awareness
of the 'multiracial, multilingual, and multifaith
nature of society' (Central Council for the Education
and Training of Social Workers 1995), in other
words, the multicultural nature of today's British
society. Yet on closer inspection, they may not be so
compelling. Firstly, the terms 'give due consideration', 'where possible', 'have regard to' are typical
legislative loophole phrases. An authority can easily
convince a court, through a few well-prepared written
sentences, or in replies given during proceedings, that
every effort has been made to respect the culture and
cultural identity of the client(s) in question. Secondly, the absence of any definition of culture can be
problematic; if something is assumed to be important
but is not defined (and one assumes that those who
formulated the Act regard culture and cultural
identity as very important) then many self-interest
groups will attempt to define it for themselves.
Thirdly, the wording 'religious persuasion, racial
origin, cultural and linguistic background' indicate a
little confusion. It reads as though religion is quite
separate from cultural background or cultural identity. For many groups, religion is the core constituent
of their culture, and the pervasive means by which
they express that culture (Dosanjh & Ghuman 1997).
Finally, the wording also conveys the impression that
only religion and language, together with racial
origin, are important enough for workers to consider.
As we have seen from the contributions of other
disciplines, however, and from the definitions above,
culture is a much broader concept, and contains many
other constituents which may in fact be regarded by


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

individuals and families to be as culturally significant

to them as is their language or religion. Overall, the
wording in the Act pertaining to culture, and the lack
of definition and explanation, have the potential for
maintaining limited, unbalanced, even negative perceptions of culture (particularly the culture of others).
Such perceptions were very evident in the early history
of child care. The next section reviews some of that
history and more recent child care literature, within
the obligatory frameworks of differing aspects of race
and culture specified in the Children Act, i.e. religion,
language, racial origin, and cultural background.
Religion (more specifically, Christianity) is one aspect
of Western culture which dominated early social work
and social work literature. It was fundamental in the
thinking of pioneers and legislators throughout the
early history of the profession (Forsythe 1995). Pre1970, Christianity and its institutions were promoted
in social work law, policy, and practice, particularly
in relation to family and child care, and many
individuals devoted their lives to children and
families principally because of their Christian beliefs.
Their personal sacrifices and their achievements
cannot be overestimated. This prominence of 'religion', however, was distinctly lacking cultural
sensitivity (Brewer 1991). Rather, it was an inevitable
consequence of (i) the origins of social work itself, i.e.
Christian-inspired charitable enterprises, in which
saving souls was always a powerful, though not
always explicit, motivating factor; and (ii) the fusion
of Christianity and nationalism in the perceptions of
British politicians responsible for influencing or
approving family and child care legislation. The
British Empire was rooted in Christianity, and most
politicians felt an obligation to promote the advancement of both. So too did many religious leaders and
institutions. We now know that Christian charities in
Britain, such as Barnardo's, the Church of England
Children's Society and various Orders in the Catholic
church, all played their part in promoting colonialism
and Christianity (Forsythe 1995) and in so doing,
were responsible for a widespread obliteration of
culture and identity. Bean & Melville (1989) explore
the origins and execution of this plan, the compulsory
shipping of tens of thousands of children to the
colonies, particularly Australia and Canada. It has

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been commonly believed that all these children were

parentless; but as Bean & Melville and Goddard &
Carew (1993) make clear, the majority were not. Like
many children in similar circumstances today, they
had been 'temporarily' placed in the care of religious
organizations, with the hope that some day they could
return to the family, location, culture and identity to
which they belonged. The swift severance from those
origins, the enforced transportation to the other side of
the globe, and (for many) the placement with
untrained, unfit and abusive foster parents whose first
objective was to give the child a new name, was not
only cruel in the extreme, but also constituted a
massive attack upon the children's sense of culture and
identity. Goddard & Carew (1993, p. 23) comment:
'the past was a door to be closed rather than a rich seam
of culture and identity to be treasured'. They draw
parallels with the experiences described by Goffman
(1961, p. 19); 'the ultimate purpose being to deprive
the new inmate of the links of the past, and destroy his
or her personal identity'. In Australia itself, a more
deliberate form of attack against Aboriginal culture
and identity was already well under way, with
thousands of Aboriginal children dispersed throughout the continent, their parents losing all contact and
influence over them. Morris (1989) describes the
process as 'cultural genocide'.
The influence of Christianity on social work has
very much waned. Seden (1995) cautions, however,
that the secularism which has replaced it may be no
more culturally aware nor culturally sensitive. She
stresses that the Children Act links religious persuasion to heritage and identity, as it does with racial
origin and cultural and linguistic background. Seden
does not differentiate between religion and culture:
'there is no simple split,' she writes; yet the definition
she provides clearly suggests that culture is the
overarching concept; culture is 'the total sum of
inherited ideas, beliefs and values which underpin
social customs and practices' (p. 10). Seden highlights the reason why child and family social workers
must give due consideration to the religion of and
religious influences upon their clients: 'This setting
of religious persuasion, alongside racial origin,
cultural and linguistic background, contextualizes
religious persuasion in an arena which is highly
significant in terms of the child's identity' (p. 15).
Dosanjh & Ghuman (1997) go further in respect of
the Punjabi community: 'For most Punjabi families,
religion is the key element upon which their personal
identities are nurtured and formed' (p. 300). Seden
implies that such realities are not recognized in child


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

and family social work: countless case conferences,

reviews, and care proceedings have regarded the
religion of clients no more important than 'a nominal
tick on a form'. Similarly, a spokesperson for
Muslims in MuUan's (1997) research laments family
and child care workers' ignorance of the Islam faith of
the community they serve. Thakur (1998) believes
the responsibility lies in training: 'social work has
become totally secular in concept. Increasingly shorn
of religious overtones, two year training and detailed
guidelines concentrate on enhancing professionalism
while excluding religion' (p. 42).

Carter & Aitchison (1986, p. 1) state: 'The character

and vitality of a culture is to a large extent language
dependent'. Family and child care services in Britain
have responded with varying degrees of effectiveness
to communication difficulties experienced by clients.
But more needs to be done to enhance workers'
understanding and respect for the cultural centrality
and meaning of a client's own language (Giddens
1993). Such understanding and respect are well
demonstrated by Blakemore & Boneham (1994) and
Currer (1991). Currer spent five years as a psychiatric
social worker working with Pathan women and
children in Pakistan. She learnt to speak their principal
language, Pukhtu. She returned to Britain, and
researched the views of Pathan young mothers about
child care services. Her work is seminal in its exposure,
exploration, and analysis of unintended discriminatory
practice. Central to this discrimination is the power
imbalance created by the mother's inability to communicate in English, a fact also graphically described
by the anonymous writer in Patel et al. (Anon. 1998).
This is not, however, a suggestion that health and
social care professionals must learn to speak the
language of their clients; but rather, that the worker's
attitude to the client's language will be an important
variable in determining the quality of interaction
between them. That attitude should consist, at least
in part, of some humility, sensitivity, a willingness to
learn, an explicit recognition and acknowledgement
that it is not merely an unfamiliar language the worker
is hearing, nor is it simply a means of communicating;
but that it is also likely to be the principal manifestation and expression of a whole culture, and of the sense
of cultural identity derived from that culture. At the
very least, workers should realize that language is 'a
means of creating social relationships and realizing the
self involved in those relationships' (Rees 1991).

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Culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity in child and family social work K O'Hagan

The reason may be that the special status given to

racist discrimination within ARADP is no longer
In the 1970s race began to emerge as a central
universally accepted, and the neglect of other forms
concern in social work literature. The Race Relations
of discrimination is seen as offensive. Macey &
Act of 1976, and the increasing disaffection of
Moxon (1996) believe ARADP literature is 'theoreeconomically and politically oppressed black comtically inadequate, being informed by neither sociomunities, culminating in widespread civil disturlogical political nor economic theory or research'.
bance, concentrated the minds of social work
ARADP has largely been replaced by the terms 'antiwriters and researchers. The proliferation of pubdiscriminatory practice' and 'anti-oppressive praclications on race issues within social work began in
tice' (Thompson 1993; Dalrymple & Burke 1995;
the late 1970s, and reached its peak in 1991 with
Millan 1996). Significant as this shift in emphasis
CCETSW's One Small Step towards Racial Justice:
may be, anti-discriminatory and/or anti-oppressive
the Teaching of Anti-racism in Diploma in Social Work
practice still concentrates upon the destructive force
Programmes (CCETSW 1991). Racism and antiof racism, and how to combat it. This is underracism were the dominant themes in a broadly aimed
standable and admirable, but it is not wholly what the
concept called 'anti-racist and anti-discriminatory
obligation to 'racial origin' is about. It is much more
practice' (ARADP) (Devore & Schlesinger 1981;
about workers being able to see 'racial origin' as a
Whitehouse 1983; Ahmed 1987, 1994; Editorial
potent and enduring source of pride and identity, and
1988; Dutt & Ahmad 1990; Naik 1991). The concept
working with clients in such a way that reinforces that
of ARADP used to be a subject of much debate and
pride and identity.
argument: why the need for 'anti-racist'? Did not
'anti-discriminatory practice' include 'anti-racism'?
The response was that racism meant discrimination
Cultural background
and persecution of black people: 'blackness refers to
Despite the obligation in the Children Act to 'give
status in a minority group disadvantaged by racial
due consideration to the cultural background' of
discrimination, that is, discrimination prompted by
children and their families, the downgrading of
physical differences such as skin colour' (Blakemore
'culture', referred to earlier, continues. Thompson's
& Boneham 1994, p. 5). It was believed by many that
definition of 'culture' - 'shared ways of seeing,
this form of racism, provoked and driven by differing
and doing' (p. 139) - is much too brief. His
physical characteristics, primarily colour, was the
highlight culture's dangerousness.
worst and the most common form of discrimination.
'white' culture; racist, sexist, and
Discrimination other than racism, on a greater scale
and oppressive culture base
(e.g. against women in general and single parents and
through individual thought
their children in particular), or discrimination perpeand
writers, Ahmed (1987)
trated in certain locations with a far greater intensity
p. 167):
and leading to more terrible results (e.g. the sectarian
murders in Northern Ireland) was largely forgotten
'An emphasis on culture, however well intentioned, may
about in social work's anti-racist, anti-discriminatory
lead to a racist approach in practice. ... The promotion of
crusade. Discrimination perpetrated because of difcultural sensitivity without challenging racism may result
ferences in gender, sexual orientation, age, language
in the reinforcement of racism by masking it and thereby
and religion, etc. received little attention in this
inducing complacency.'
earlier period, whilst the broader concept of culture
Similar negative attitudes to culture are discernible in
itself became increasingly downgraded:
Racial origin

'The important point is that for black clients, the

centrality of racism needs to be more explicitly acknowledged in the assessment process and cultural explanations
need to be considered in the context of racism.' (Ahmed
1987, p. 6)

Since 1991, two features of social work literature in

respect of racial origin and related issues are
discernible. Firstly, the term called 'anti-racist and
anti-discriminatory practice' is seldom used now.


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

three areas of child and family social work literature,

i.e. children's rights, child care, and child protection.
Culture in children's rights literature

In the rapidly burgeoning children's rights literature,

cultural background is either ignored or perceived as
an obstacle to children's rights (Dalrymple & Hough
1995; Franklin 1995; Fox Harding 1996; John 1996a,b,
1997; Flekkoy & Kaufman 1997; Marshall 1997;

I 1999 Blackwell Science Ltd

Culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity in child and family social work K O'Hagan

Thompson 1997; Waller 1998). Take Franklin's

(1995) The Handbook of Children's Rights,


Dalrymple & Hough's Having A Voice, for example.

Both are impressive compilations of material exposing a multitude of denials of rights perpetrated
against children by governments, policies, laws, and
societies worldwide. There is much about adultism
and the need to develop a 'culture of advocacy' to
combat it. But there is little about the rights of
children pertaining to the positive aspects of the
cultural heritage to which they belong, nor to those
positive aspects of identity which may have in large
measure derived from that culture. Children's rights
authors are increasingly drawn into the complex
world of cultural confiict between parents and
children (Patel et al. 1998). A common and potent
form of this confiict is when adolescent children,
assimilated within the culture of the society and
nation in which they have spent their formative years,
attempt to resist many aspects of the culture of their
parents (e.g. language, religion, customs, etc.). The
children are often portrayed as the victims in this
confiict (e.g. BBCl 1998), facing insurmountable
hurdles in the way of liberation, while the parents
(and, indeed, professionals sharing the same culture
as the parents) are projected as dictatorial and cruel
(Anon. 1998). Such cruelties and denial of rights are a
reality for many children, and few family and child
care social workers would oppose the establishment
of a genuine children's rights charter. But there is a
danger apparent in the literature, of the children's
rights movement becoming increasingly culturally
insensitive in the process.
Culture in family and child care literature

Many mainstream child care and family and child

care texts make little reference to culture. Hill &
Aldgate's (1996) text is excellent in many respects,
and actually originated with the Children Act. Yet the
only significant reference to culture is a warning that
'a stance of cultural pluralism may oversimplify
complex issues' (p. 115). This is surprising, given
the common consent that child care and child rearing
are largely determined by the customs, habits, and
rituals of the culture into which the child is born. No
one will dispute Bretherton's (1992) view that
'attachment behaviour is never purely instinctive,
but is heavily overlain with cultural prescriptions' (p.
150), or that the cultural context is crucial in the
emotional development of the child (Harris 1989), or
that the principal reason for the Chinese govern-


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

ment's difiiculties in implementing the one-childonly family policy is because the Chinese nation is
steeped in a culture of familism and descent (Bakken
1993). The neglect of culture in child care literature
contrasts sharply with its prominence in literature on
related areas, for example mental health and education, which have since the Children Act produced
whole texts devoted entirely to issues of culture and
race (e.g. Fernando 1991, 1995; Kincheloe & Steinberg 1997).
Culture in child protection literature

One of the most important publications in child

protection in recent years is Child Protection:
Messages from Research (Dartington Social Research
Unit 1995). This summarizes the findings of 20 major
pieces of research into differing aspects of child abuse
work. None of these explore whether or not child
protection workers were aware of (or whether or not
they fulfilled) the statutory obligation of giving 'due
consideration to religious persuasion, racial origins,
and linguistic and cultural background'. Parton's
(1996) critique of the research includes the following:
'Child abuse ... can only be understood in the
cultural and organizational contexts in which it is not
simply constructed but constituted' (p. 7).
It would be wrong, however, to say that child
protection literature has entirely ignored culture.
Some child abuse inquiry reports, for example those
into Jasmine Beckford (Blom-Cooper 1985) and Tyra
Henry (Lambeth 1987), concluded that 'culture' and
aspects of culture had impinged upon events leading
to the deaths of children. These conclusions have
been the subject of much study (Channer & Parton
1991; Corby 1993; Dingwall et al. 1995). 'Cultural
relativism' and the 'rule of optimism' are two
concepts to have emerged from these studies. It was
suggested that the social workers involved were far
too optimistic in their assessments of carers at the
centre of these inquiries, and that abusive behaviours
were interpreted as aspects of culture, which those
from other cultures (i.e. white, middle class social
workers) had no right to criticize. Hoksbergen (1997)
writes: 'those assessing parents may have given
culture and ethnicity an unjustifiably decisive infiuence and failed to make a balanced overall judgement
of the parents' suitability' (p. 77). Corby (1993)
speaks of 'the extraordinary degree of tolerance
shown by social workers' towards other cultures'
(p. 40). One can well imagine what the tabloid press
made of these criticisms, and how they infiuenced the

1999 Blackweil Science Ltd

Culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity in child and family social work K O'Hagan

public's perception of some cultures. The erroneous

message was that these cultures condoned, even
encouraged, abusive behaviour, and that professional
social workers stood by regarding such behaviours as
immune from criticism. Experienced family and child
care workers will recall similar attitudes in their own
professional past, i.e. encountering what they perceived at the time as challenging or unacceptable
behaviour of families or individuals, only to be
reassured by colleagues back at the office: 'that's
their culture!' Pilgrim & Rogers (1993) identify a
similar attitude in mental health: 'identifying the
problem as being situated in the person's own
culture, viewing it as pathological' (p. 51). 'Cultural
relativism' has done little to enhance one's understanding of culture; it merely provides an explanation
for incompetence in child protection work. Instead of
an exposure of the behaviours which have been
wrongfully interpreted as culture, and the ineffectual
response to such behaviours, cultural relativism
speaks of those interpretations as if they are fact.
The interpretations are then used as a framework
upon which to construct a theory (cultural relativism). Most of the inquiry reports lack any real
understanding or appreciation of the culture and
identity of the families and victims in question (Reder
et al. 1993), though Olive Stevenson's minority
report in the Maria Colwell inquiry (Department of
Health and Social Security 1974) demonstrated a
unique awareness of some crucial cultural factors in
the early life of Frank Kepple, the man convicted of
killing her. Korbin's (1981) anthropological study of
cross-cultural perspectives on child abuse (unrelated
to child abuse inquiry reports) remains the most
informative text on this subject. In a more recent
work (Korbin 1997) she cautions us to 'avoid
misidentifying culture as abuse or abuse as
culture' (p. 31).
Two factors emerge from this (by no means
comprehensive) review of relevant literature published since the enactment of the Children Act: first,
the authors on the whole do not regard 'culture' and
'cultural identity' as significant as do theorists in
related and other disciplines. Secondly, much family
and child care literature seems to neglect the statutory
requirement of 'giving due consideration to the
religious, cultural and linguistic background' of
children and their families. Additional observations
can be made as follows:
culture is very often ignored;
culture is misunderstood and/or misinterpreted;


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

culture is intentionally downgraded, and any

preoccupation with culture is criticized;
there is insufficient recognition of the importance
of culture in identity construction.
How has this situation come about? Perhaps the
answer is elusive, but there is no shortage of
possibilities. The first that comes to mind is the
multiple uses (or misuses) of the word 'culture', to
provide us with an endless stream of appendages
thoroughly negative in their meaning and effect. Here
are some of them: 'cultural racism', 'cultural blindness', 'cultural monism' (i.e. the belief that minority
cultures should be assimilated into the dominant
culture); 'culture shock', 'cultural oppression', 'cultural snobbery', and 'cultural dependency' (the last
very commonly used today as the object of the
Labour government's reforms of the welfare state).
One of the most commonly used derivatives of
'culture' is 'subculture'. The prefix 'sub' means
under, or less than. Often the word 'subculture' is
appended to something problematic or undesirable,
for example drugs, gangs, prostitution, corruption
(political or organizational), or alienated youth. Often
it is used in a sense potentially racist, seemingly
without authors releasing it: Giddens (1993) refers to
the 'many subcultural communities. ... West Indian,
Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Italians, Greeks
and Chinese' (p. 38). For the word 'culture', which
originated meaning something good, necessary and
desirable, and which maintained that meaning for
nearly two thousand years, these changes represent
something more than a mere abuse of language. But
they are here to stay, and it is important that family
and child care workers realize and resist the impact
that such change in meaning (that has no literary
justification other than convenience) may have upon
their perceptions of the original word. More importantly, they should be aware of how it infiuences
attitude and approach towards fulfilling the statutory
obligation of considering the culture of families, and
respecting their cultural identities.
The second possibility for ignoring or downgrading culture may be the realization that throughout the
world, individuals (women and children in the main)
and animals endure barbaric behaviours attributed to
'culture', for example female circumcision, infanticide (of baby girls), sexual slavery, ritual slaughter,
sectarian murders, blood sports, and blood vengeance
(i.e. killing in retribution for the death of one's family
member; Al-Krenawi & Graham 1997). Most of these
repel social workers, and may provoke a 'culture be

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Culture, cultural identity, and cultural sensitivity in child and family social work K O'Hagan

damned' attitude (merely a variation on the theme of

blaming culture for anything!). It is tempting to argue
that such barbaric practices have nothing to do with
culture. They certainly had no accommodation in the
original meaning of the word, and even less in the
meaning attributed to it by the two great students of
culture, Matthew Arnold and Raymond Williams.
But that may justifiably provoke the response that one
is defining culture out of convenience, avoiding the
reality that some cultures still tolerate what other
cultures may regard as unacceptable behaviour and
discriminatory practices (Edgerton 1992). Professionals need to be alert to the possibility that such
reality may adversely infiuence their attitudes and
response to culture generally.
A third possibility is that the definition problems
associated with culture may have discouraged child
and family social workers (already grappling with
definitions of such complexities as emotional abuse,
significant harm, or failure-to-thrive, etc.) from
giving 'due consideration' to the concept. The
definition problem, or perhaps more accurately the
lack of definition, would partially explain why the
concept has generated much inconsistency, contradiction, and avoidance in the literature, and not a
great deal of confidence in practice.
This paper has explored the concept of 'culture' and
'identity' within the contexts of numerous disciplines.
It has looked at the origins of these terms, and
examined child and family social workers' statutory
obligation to 'give due consideration to the religious
persuasion, racial origin, and linguistic and cultural
background of children and their families'. There are
strong indications that these obligations are not being
fulfilled. The perception of culture and the responses
to cultural issues within the subject areas of children's rights, child care, and child protection have
been explored. At best, there is neglect of culture;
more seriously, there is a manifest negativity towards
it. There are three possible reasons for this: (i) the
word 'culture' has become so debased in both
professional and common usage that the original
meaning has been lost; (ii) many perceive culture as
predatory, assimilating or destroying minority cultures, or as nothing more than a heritage protective of
barbaric practices perpetrated against the most
vulnerable groups; (iii) the concept has never been
adequately defined in social work literature generally,
nor in family and child care literature in particular.


Child and Family Social Work 1999, 4, pp 269-281

The definition of 'culture' provided in this paper

may not be universally acceptable within child and
family social work, but it does at least convey the
importance and the multifaceted nature of the
concept, and it supports the convictions underpinning the obligations pertaining to culture clearly
stated in the Children Act 1989. It is culture in the
widest sense of that definition, and the cultural
sensitivity emanating from it, which may help family
and child care workers to fulfil those obligations.
Cultural sensitivity can help us avoid hurting
children and their families, by moderating, for
example, a secular social work cynicism towards
matters religious; or by tuning us in more effectively
to the power of their language, and to the disempowerment of those whose only language may have been
an inconvenience to us; or by enhancing our understanding of the pride and sense of identity children
and parents can derive from their racial origins. It is
cultural sensitivity which compels us to take the
utmost care in preparing a Hindu mother for the
paediatric examination of her allegedly sexually
abused child; which enlightens us as to why those
from one nation or race may fulfil family responsibilities (e.g. caring for their elderly frail parents)
more willingly than those from another (Heraud
1970); which makes us aware of the sacrifices that
minority populations will endure to sustain the faith
and the languages central to their culture; which
encourages us to learn of the histories of peoples, and
the origins of their ideas, their perceptions and their
convictions. 'Culture', 'cultural identity', and 'cultural sensitivity' are complex, all-embracing concepts; in
an increasingly multicultural world, they present
major challenges to child and family social workers,
and they will continue to do so in the future.

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