Is Cultural Sensitivity Always a Good Thing? Arguments for a Universalist Social Work
The requirement for social workers to be sensitive to cultural difference has now become accepted as an essential component of best practice – indeed, social workers failing to display sensitivity to cultural differences would most likely be seen to be in contravention of most professional ethics frameworks. However, closer scrutiny as to exactly how and to what degree one should display cultural sensitivity in practice reveals a complex set of ethical and philosophical dilemmas for social workers; and this is the main focus of this chapter. Specifically, we argue that the largely uncritical acceptance of the concept of ‘celebrating diversity’ as an inherently ‘good thing’, has undermined Universalist approaches to ethics within social work. That is not to say that assertions of the function of social work are not based on universal principles; the problem lies in the way that these are often proffered alongside intimations to cultural relativism. A good illustration can be found in the definition of social work offered by the International Federation of Social Workers which argues that whilst ‘The holistic focus of social work is universal, the priorities of social work practice will vary from country to country and from time to time depending on cultural, historical, and socio-economic conditions’ (IFSW, 2000, Para 5). Whilst the IFSW is perhaps not as guilty as some, it is precisely this kind of dualistic thinking that seeks to cover all possibilities that we argue has led to confusion amongst practitioners, particularly when working with service users from different cultural, religious or ethnic backgrounds.