Exploring and Describing the Strength/Empowerment Perspective in Social Work

Professor Dr. Pedro Rankin
School for Psychosocial Behavioral Sciences: Social Work Division,
Potchefstroom Campus of the North-West University,
Potchefstroom, South Africa
Phone: 027018-2991679


Lecture delivered for the course on Therapeutic Interventions at the Inter University Center, Dubrovnik, Croatia. 18 - 24 June 2006


  2. The purpose of this lecture is to give an overview of the emerging strengths/empowerment perspective in social work. Space would not permit an in-depth analysis of this view on social work intervention, but the most distinguishing characteristics will be touched upon.

    The focus on strengths and empowerment has gained considerable prominence over the last couple of decades (Cowger, 1994:262) and represents a major paradigm shift away from the problem-based approach that has been with social work for such a long time. Both approaches will have and keep its supporters for years to come, but the focus on strengths and empowerment has become too strong to be ignored. It constitutes a fascinating and refreshing way to look at clients and their circumstances and is characterized by its positive and optimistic view of people confronted by life's challenges.

    Cowger and Snively (2002:106) see the purpose of social work as assisting people in their relationships to one another and with social institutions. For them, practice focuses on developing more positive and promising transactions between people and their environments. They regard the empowerment perspective as central to social work practice and see client strengths as providing the fuel and energy for that empowerment. Miley et al, (2004:91) express the relationship as follows: "strengths-oriented social work practice incorporates empowerment as both a concept and a process."

    The first part of the paper will focus on the strengths perspective, while the second part will focus on empowerment as the process aspects of the strengths perspective. Its practice model components are listed below.


  4. In order to understand and appreciate the contrasts between the strengths approach and the problem-based or deficit model, some of the assumptions of the problem-based model should be considered.

    Saleebey (2001:3) makes it clear that social work and other professions have not been immune to the contagion of the disease- and disordered-based thinking. He explains that much of social work theory and practice has been developed around the supposition that clients become clients because they have deficits, problems, pathologies, and diseases; that they are in some way weak or flawed. Saleebey points out that more sophisticated terminology prevails today, and he very cynically declares that the metaphors and narratives that guide out thinking and acting which are often penpered over with more salutary language are sometimes negative constructions and fateful for those we are trying to help. Weick et al. (1989:351) agree with this by saying that attention "to people's inability to cope is a central expression of the prevailing perspectives on helping." They argue that approaches differ in the way the problem is defined, but that virtually all schools of therapeutic thought rest on the belief that people need help because they have a problem that in some way sets them aside from people who are thought not to have that problem. It is further explained (Weicks, et al. 1989: 350) that although social work has not been oblivious to the importance of recognizing individual strengths in practice encounters, "a subtle and elusive focus on individual or environmental deficits and personal or social problems remains in recent frameworks".

    Cowger (1994:262) observes that much of the social work literature on practice with families "continues to use treatment, dysfunction, and therapy metaphors and ignores work on family strengths developed in other professions." DuBois and Miley (2005:26) also drive the point home stating that the "professional literature abounds with information on functional problems, maladaptation, victimization and powerlessness." They feel that it too often happens that professionals identify deficits, incompetencies, and maladaptive functioning and yet seem unable to notice clients' strengths.

    Saleebey (2001:3) came to the conclusion that the words and terms associated with pathology expresses the following assumptions and consequences:

    • The person is the problem or pathology named: This implies that the person becomes the alcoholic or schizophrenic or whatever the label is that is attached to him or her. Other elements of a person's character, experiences, knowledge or aspirations, slowly recede into the background, replaced by the language of symptoms and syndrome. No wonder that the client actually does not get effective help from a well-meaning professional person but instead is being made aware of his weaknesses and inadequacies.
    • The language of pessimism and doubt, professional cynism: Accentuating the problems of clients creates a wave of pessimistic expectations of, and predictions about, the client, the client's environment and the client's capacity to cope with that environment. Saleebey (2001:3) explains that a focus on what is wrong often reveals an egregious doubt about the ability of individuals to cope with life's challenges or to rehabilitate themselves. DuBois and Miley (2005:208) echoe these views by saying that narrowly "focusing on clients' problems excludes from view the resources of their strengths. They warn that an emphasis on what the clients are doing wrong decreases their sense of competence and heightens their defensiveness and vulnerability. The significance of this is that the defensiveness from the client is not a characteristic of the person but a response of the client to the relationship.
    • Distance, power inequality, control, and manipulation mark the relationship between the helper and the helped: Saleebey (2001:5) expresses the view that the idea that we have empirically-grounded or theoretically-potent techniques to apply is misleading, but it may create distance between clients and helper. This, he feels, may imply a power inequality.
    • Context-stripping. Problem-based assessments often do not regard the context of the client and this deletion is not helping very much. Saleebey (2001: 5) and Weick et al. (1989:351) explain that problem-based assessments tend to be individually focused and do not give an ecological account of people's problems. Saleebey (2001: 5) notes that when we transform people into cases, we often see only them and how well they fit into a category. In doing this, important elements of the client's life - cultural, social, political, ethical, spiritual and economic - and how they contribute to, sustain, and shape a person's misery or struggles or mistakes, don't get emphasised.
    • The supposition of disease assumes a cause for the disorder and, thus a solution: The perception that the identification of the problem leads to the solution does not convince Saleebey (2001:5) He feels that the idea of a regression line between cause, disease and cure ignores the steamy morass of uncertainty and complexity that is the human condition. Sallebey believes that it also takes out of the hands of the person, family, friends and the neighbourhood - the daily life world of all involved - the capacities and resources for change. Weick et al. (1989:351) expands on this view by arguing that concern "about establishing the precise cause of the problem ensnares social workers in a strategy for dealing with the problem in those terms". If the cause of the problem is determined, the client is "taught" this view of the problem.

    Several authors have documented their reservations about the problem-based approach. Weick et al. (2001:351) who coined the term strength perspective (Smith, 2006: 13) summarized their views about the focus on the problem and the process of defining it as follows:

    • The problem is invariably seen as a lack or inability in the person affected
    • The nature of the problem is defined by the professional.
    • Treatment is directed towards overcoming the deficiency at the heart of the problem.

    Saleebey (2001:103) condenses his reservations about a focus on problems as follows:

    • Focusing on problems usually creates more problems. The longer one stays with a problem-focused assessment, the more likely it is that the problem will dominate the scene.
    • Complicated diagnoses about human problems can mask the more potent areas of strength as well as the small victories the person experiences.
    • A problem orientation begins to look like an exercise to meet the needs of the professionals, rather than the needs of the people they are working with

    However, Saleebey (1996: 297) introduces a balance by pointing out that practicing from a strengths perspective does not require social workers to ignore the real troubles that dog individuals and groups. He emphasizes that problems like schizophrenia, child abuse, pancreatic cancer and violence are real. He explains that in the lexicon of strengths it is as wrong to deny the possible as it is to deny the problem. The expression of the dark cloud with the silver lining is a good comparison as is the case of the glass that is half full. He further explains by pointing out that the strength perspective does not deny the grip and thrall of addictions and how they can morally and physically sink the spirit and possibility of any individual. It does, however, deny the overwhelming reign of psychopathology as civic, moral, and medical categorical imperative. It does deny that most people are victims of abuse or of their own rampant appetites. It denies that all people who face trauma and pain in their lives inevitably are wounded or incapacitated or become less than they might. A good example of this perhaps was illustrated by the hijacking experienced by one of my university's previous vice-chancellors. When it was suggested that he gets counseling sessions, he denied that it was necessary and he never needed it. His strengths have been his strong spirituality and belief in himself, and to this day he does not suffer any consequences from the event.

    As a practice perspective (Sheafor, et al. 1996:51) the strengths approach takes a different look at the client, his problems and his environment, and it requires a different approach from social workers. This is also echoed when Miley et al. (2004:81) stress that practitioners need to reexamine their orientation to practice, their views of client systems and the issues clients represent if the strength perspective is to be applied. According to them(2004:81), the practice of the strengths perspective will prompt social workers to examine three transitions from problems to challenges, from pathology to strengths and from a preoccupation with the past to an orientation to the future.


  6. The statement was made in the introduction that the strengths approach is a major paradigm shift away from the problem-based approach. Saleebey (2001:1) makes the serious charge that authors of many textbooks, educators and practitioners all regularly acknowledge the importance of the principle of building on client's strengths but that these are "...little more than professional cant." He then states his view very clearly and forcefully:

    "The strengths perspective is a dramatic departure from conventional social work practice. Practicing from a strengths orientation means this - everything you do as a social worker will be predicated, in some way, on helping to discover and embellish, explore and exploit clients' strengths and resources in the service of assisting them to achieve their goals, realize their dreams, and shed the irons of their own inhibitions and misgivings, and society's domination."

    Saleebet (2002:1) elaborates and explains that when social workers adopt the strength approach to practice, they can expect exciting changes in the character of their work and in the tenor of their relationships with their clients. According to him, (2002:1) practice from a strengths perspective demands a different way of seeing clients, their environments, and their current situations. It is thus a practice perspective radically different from the problem-focused approach and it will take time for social work practitioners to change their mindset - moving from the known to the unknown. He (2002:2) also points out to rapidly developing literature, inquiries and practice methods in a variety of fields that bear a striking similarity to the strengths perspective - developmental resilience, healing and wellness, solution-focused therapy, asset-based community development and narrative and story to name a view. Saleebey (2002:2) explains that these elaborations are a reaction to our culture's continued obsession and fascination with psychopathology, abnormality, and moral and interpersonal aberrations.

    Saleebey (2002:xvii) in the preface of his book on this topic states that much still has to be done with respect to inquiry and the further development of concepts and principles as well as techniques.

    Miley et al. (2004:81) state that to apply the strengths perspective practitioners need to reexamine their orientation to practice, their view of client systems, and the interpretations of the issues clients represent. The same authors (2004: 81) identify what they call three key transitions social workers has to examine in practicing the strengths perspective viz problems or challenges, pathology or strengths, as well as past and future. These transitions serve as important guidelines in the paradigm shifts strengths-focused social workers have to make. Viewing problems as challenges, turning points, or opportunities for growth shifts the perspective and clients. The word 'challenge' has a different meaning than problems and creates a more positive frame of mind in both the client and the social worker. The same applies to the word 'strengths' as opposed to 'pathology' and the word 'future' as opposed to 'past.'


  8. The strengths perspective is to a large extent given its character by its principles and its language. This will be briefly discussed below.


    Saleebey (1999:16) points out that strengths-based approaches differ from pathology-based approaches in both their language and the principles that guide and direct practice. He (Saleebey: 2002:13) points out that the principles of the strengths perspective are still tentative and maturing and subject to revision and modulation. He lists the following principles:

    • Every individual, group, family and community has strengths. He admits that it is hard to invoke this principle at times but that it is important to remind oneself that the person or family in front of you and the community around you posses assets, resources, wisdom, and knowledge that, at the outset, you know nothing about.
    • Trauma and abuse, illness and struggle may be injurious but they may also be sources of challenge and opportunity. Saleebey (1999:16) admits that there are traumas that can overwhelm the coping capacities of any child or adult, that extra-ordinary measures are required to help such individuals getting back on track. He points out, however, that literature on the resilience of children and adults shows that most individuals - even children -when confronted with persistent or episodic crisis, disorganization, stress, trauma or abuse somehow are able to surmount the adversity.
    • Assume that you do not know the upper limits of the capacity to grow and change and take individual, group and community aspirations seriously. Saleebey (2001:15) suggests that instead of regarding the assessment or diagnosis of the client as an indication of the limitations of the client, the client will be better served when we make a pact with his/her promise and possibility. Saleebey (1999:16) offers the valid argument that we cannot know the limits of the client's capacities and that it cannot be assumed if it cannot be known. He (2002:15) proposes that we hold high our expectations of clients and make allegiance with their hopes, visions and values.
    • We best serve clients by collaborating with them. Saleebey (2002:16) cautions that we make a serious error when we "subjugate client's wisdom and knowledge to official views." He explains that there is something liberating, for all parties involved, in connecting to clients' stories and narratives, their hopes and fears, their wherewithal and resources rather than trying to stuff them in the narrow confines of "a diagnostic category or treatment protocol." He suggests that ultimately a collaborative stance may make us less vulnerable to the more political elements of helping: paternalism, victim blaming or victim-creating, and preemption of client views.
    • Every environment is full of resources. When viewing this principle for the first time, one's reaction is that it is a rather dumb statement to make, especially considering very deprived areas characterized by abject poverty. It, however, has to do with the lens one uses to view practice with. I often say to my students that the remarkable ability of so many very poor people to succeed in surviving amidst the most terrible conditions and deprived environments is proof of the strengths they still have and use. Saleebey (2001: 17) impresses upon his readers that in every environment, there are individuals, associations, groups, and institutions who have something to give, something others may desperately need: knowledge, succor, an actual resource or talent, or simply time and place. Saleebey (2001:17) explains that such resources usually exist outside the usual matrix of social and human service agencies, unsolicited and untapped.
    • Caring, caretaking and context. Saleebey (2001) quotes Deborah Stone as saying that people have three rights to care. First, all families must be permitted and assisted in caring for their members. Second, all paid caregivers need to be able to give the support and quality that is commensurate with the highest ideals of care without subverting their own well-being. Finally, a right to care boils down to the fact that all people needing care get it.


    The strengths perspective has some typical words associated with it, giving it its character and telling practitioners something about the meaning of its perspective. According to Saleebey, these words are essential and direct us to an appreciation of the assets of individuals, families and communities. Some of them are as follows:

    Empowerment. It has already been stated that empowerment is regarded as incorporated in the strengths approach. According to Saleebey (2002:9), empowerment "indicates the intent to, and the process of, assisting individuals, groups, families and communities to discover and expend the resources and tools within and around them." Empowerment is thus a helping process to assist people to use their strengths to overcome their challenges.

    Membership. Membership is an important experience in people's lives. Saleebey (2001:10) warns that to be without membership is to be alienated, to be at risk for marginalization and oppression. People need to be citizens, responsible and valued members of a community. The strengths orientation proceeds from the recognition that all of those whom we serve are, like ourselves, members of a species, entitled to the dignity, respect and responsibility that come with such membership. He explains that too often it happens that the people we help have either no place to be (or to be comfortable) or no sense of belonging. He elaborates by stating that the sigh of relief from those who come to be members and citizens and bask in the attendant rights, responsibilities, assurances, and securities, is the first breath of empowerment. Another meaning to membership is that people must often band together to make their voices heard, get their needs met, to redress inequities, and reach their dreams.

    Resilience. Reader's Digest Universal Dictionary (1987:1303) defines resilience as "the ability to recover quickly from illness, change or misfortune." Saleebey (2001:11) reports that there is a growing body of inquiry and practice that believes that the rule in human affairs is that people do rebound from serious trouble, that individuals and communities do surmount and overcome serious and troubling adversity. He explains that it does not mean ignoring difficulties and traumatic life experiences and neither is it a discount of life's pains. Resilience is a process - the continuing growth and articulation of capacities, knowledge, insight, and virtues derived through meeting the demands and challenges of one's world, however chastening. The process he refers to is the process of interaction between the person and his environment and it can be explained by the ecosystems approach on which the strengths perspective rests.

    Healing and Wholeness. According to Saleebey (2001:11) healing implies both wholeness as well as the inborn facility of the body and the mind to regenerate and resist when faced with disorder, disease and disruption. Healing also requires a beneficent relationship between the individual and the larger social and physical environment. The healing process thus requires a supportive relationship between the individual and his/her environment if healing must take place. Healing and self-regeneration are intrinsic life-support systems, always working, and, for most of us most of the time, on call. This implies that the body and psyche starts responding when faced with a threat or a challenge. In many cases the body and mind succeeds in restoring the balance, but often they need outside intervention.

    Dialogue and Collaboration. In the human and social sciences it is an accepted and proven fact that humans need relationships to grow and develop. For that very reason they will always seek to connect with other people. People need these relationships for healing and recovery. As Saleebey (2001:12) expresses it "humans can only come into being through a creative and emergent relationship with others." He points out that there can be no discovery and testing of one's powers, no knowledge, no heightening of one's awareness and internal strengths without outside relationships. He (2001:12) views dialogue as an instrument of confirming the importance of others and the process through which the rifts between self, others and institution are healed. Dialogue can thus be seen as facilitating the transactions between the person and his/her environment. It creates the kind of atmosphere in which the person becomes willing to try out his or her potential and strengths. It creates a horizontal relationship establishing mutual trust and confidence between the involved people.

    Saleebey (2001) differentiates dialogue from collaboration by pointing out that the latter has a more specific focus. It requires particular roles of the social worker because s/he becomes agent, consultant and stakeholder with the client in mutually-crafted projects. This also allocates a different role and status to the client, one where s/he does meaningful work to tackle his/her challenges. Miley, et al. (2004:126) stress the importance of partnership between the worker and the client if the strengths perspective is to be actualized and empowerment encouraged. This corresponds with the view of DuBois & Miley (2005:200) pointing out that empowerment "presumes active, collaborative roles for client-partners."

    Suspension of Disbelief. Being constructivistic in nature, the strengths/empowerment perspective questions the belief in a concrete and objective reality (Dubois and Miley, 2005:30). This implies that the client's representation of reality cannot be regarded as invalid or inaccurate and that the perception of the worker is the correct one. The client knows his reality the best and the worker must deal with it in the way the client describes it. This means that the social worker needs to shelve his disbelief in order to explore the client's world. Saleebey (200:81) encapsulates the above by stating that we must give credence to the way clients experience and construct their social realities if we want to recognize the strengths in people and their situations. He warns against the imposition from our own versions of the world.

    Critical factors and community. Saleebey also lists (1996:300) critical factors and community as part of the lexicon of strengths. By critical factors he refers to the variables that will affect how an individual or group will respond to a series of traumatic, even catastrophic situations. Critical factors include "risk factors" which enhance the likelihood of adaptive struggles and poorer developmental outcomes and "protective factors" - conditions that enhance the likelihood of rebound from trauma and stress. He adds what he calls "generative factors" which are remarkable and revelatory experiences that, taken together, dramatically increase learning, resource acquisition, and development, accentuating resilience and hardiness.

    By community Saleebey means community in a positive sense - a community with qualities supporting its members, creating opportunities, having an abundance of support systems, having clear expectations for its members and providing the tools for meeting such expectations.


  10. Just about anything assisting you in dealing with challenges in your life can be regarded as strengths, and this will vary from person to person. Because of this it will be difficult to draw up an exhaustive list of strengths but Saleebey (2001:84) observes that "some capacities, resources, and assets do commonly appear in any roster of strengths." He lists the following strengths which are mostly the results of human developmental processes:

    What people have learned about themselves: This refers to life experiences through which people learn a lot during their efforts to cope and survive which is a need in all of us. People learn from their successes as well as their failures. Their behavior is strengthened by their successes and their failures prompt them to look for alternatives.

    Personal qualities, traits and virtues that people possess. These may be anything - a sense of humor, caring, creativity, loyalty, insight, independence, spirituality, moral imagination, and patience. Saleebey points out that these qualities are sometimes forged in the fires of trauma and catastrophe, or they may be the products of living, the gifts of temperament, and the fruits of experience. Whatever the qualities might be, they will be the effects of developmental processes in the life of the person.

    What people know about the world around them. People get to know about the world around them in different ways and the more they know, the better they will understand and the better informed they will be. So many sources of learning exist in the modern world, of which formal education and informal learning are two of the most important sources. Saleebey (2001:85) mentions the possibility that a person may have developed a skill at spotting incipient interpersonal conflict or at soothing others who are suffering. Perhaps life has given an individual the ability to care and tend for young children or elders, or it could be that a person could use an artistic medium to teach others about themselves.

    The talents that people have can surprise us sometimes (as well as surprising the individual as some talents have laid dormant over the years.). At some stage in their lives, people may discover talents they thought they'd never have. Many whites in South Africa lost their jobs as the result of the application of the affirmative action policy and had to look elsewhere for something that would keep bread on the table. Many of them discovered that they were good businessmen and started very successful businesses.

    Cultural personal stories and lore. Saleebey (2002: 86) points out that these are often profound sources of strengths, guidance, stability, comfort or transformation and are often overlooked, minimized, or distorted. He describes how the stories of women have been shrouded through domination, but when recounted and celebrated, how these stories are sources of profound strength and wisdom. The South African history books will recount the stories of the very important role women played after the second Anglo Boer War in the upliftment of the so-called Boerevolk when people were poor and demoralized. The first welfare organizations in South Africa were started by women groups. I think many countries' histories bear witness to the strengths that women manifested in times of trouble and hardships. Cultural stories, narratives and myths, accounts of origins, migrations, trauma and survival may provide sources of meaning and inspiration in times of difficulty or confusion. Modern South African history will give accounts of the courage and perseverance of black women in their struggle for political freedom.

    The pride of people as a strength cannot be overlooked. It is however buried under an accumulation of blame, shame and labeling, but it is often there to be uncovered.

  12. Cowger & Snively (2001:106) identify strengths-based assessments as a problem area in the strengths perspective. According to them a review of the social work literature on human behavior and the social environment reveals that the typical textbook now makes reference to the strengths perspective, although there is little theoretical or empirical content on this topic, yet to be found in the areas of social work assessment, practice and evaluation. Hepworth, et al., (2002:190) point out that changes in practice have lagged far behind the change in terms from diagnosis to assessment, for social workers persistence in formulating assessments that emphasize the pathology and dysfunction of clients - despite the time-honored social work platitude that social workers work with strengths and not with weaknesses. The authors (2002:190) then proceed by identifying the following three ramifications of the tendency of practitioners to focus on pathology:

    • To tap client strengths effectively, practitioners must be sensitive to them and skillful in utilizing them in the service of accomplishing case goals.
    • Selectively attending to pathology impairs a social worker's ability to discern clients' potential for growth. Although social workers fervently espouse the belief that human beings have the right and opportunity to develop their potentialities, the tendency to focus on pathology undermines that very value commitment.
    • A large proportion of clients need help in enhancing their self-esteem as a result of excessive attendance to pathology. Troubled by self-doubts, feelings of inadequacy, and even feelings of worthlessness, their lack of self-confidence and self respect underlies so many dysfunctional, cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns, including a fear of failure, depression, social withdrawal, alcoholism, and hypersensitivity to criticism, to name just a few.

    A strengths-based assessment will be different from a problem-based assessment due to the nature of the approach. It will be an ecosystemic assessment to consider the context in which the client finds himself or herself. Saleebey (2001:108) draws attention to the growing body of social work practice literature that applies their strengths perspective to individual, family and community assessment.

    Saleebey (2001:115-117) views the assessment process as unfolding in two stages or phases: a first component whereby the worker and client define the problem situation or clarify why the client has sought assistance, and the second component, which involves evaluating and giving meaning to those factors that impinge on the problem situation. The first component is a brief summary of the identified problem situation or challenge the client faces while the second component involves analyzing, evaluating and giving meaning to those factors that influence the problem situation. Saleebey (2001:113) stresses the multidimensionality of assessment by distinguishing between the internal and external strengths of the client. The internal strengths come from the client's interpersonal skills, motivation, emotional strengths, and ability to think clearly. The client's external strengths come from family networks, significant others, voluntary organizations, community groups, and public institutions all of which support and provide opportunities for clients to act on their own behalf and institutional services that have the potential to provide resources. Cowger and Snively (2001:118) also propose the use of the following diagram of Cowger as an assessment tool.

    Source: Saleebey, 2001

    The analysis by Hepworth, et al., (2002:193) of the above framework of Cowger made them come to the conclusion that it alerts us to the fact that a useful assessment is not limited to either deficits or strengths, and that the environmental dimension is important as well as the personal.

    According to Miley, et al. (2004:242) social workers and clients assess resource systems to discover gold, not causes or reasons. They point out that resources are relative, identifiable only in context. This is a significant viewpoint which refers to the unique person-environment configuration of the particular client. Miley et al. (2004:243) with the unique realities of clients in mind draw attention to the fact that the actual ways in which clients interact with their social and physical environments determine what functions as resources to the clients. To complete an empowering assessment, the partners explore broadly for resources that may be present in the environment, in the interaction of clients with others, and even in other challenges that clients are facing. DuBois & Miley (2005) refers to competence clarification as part of assessment which means that the social worker should explore what the client is capable of doing. They (2005:209) quote Mallucio's guidelines for competence clarification that includes (1) clarifying the competence of the client system, including capabilities, strengths, resiliency , and resources; (2) clarifying the environment, including the availability of resources and supports, and the presence of barriers, risks and obstacles; and (3) clarifying the goodness-of-fit or balance between the requirements for and the actual availability of resources.

    Hepworth et al. (2002:194) identified in the following list a number of strengths often manifested by clients in the first sessions.

    • Facing problems and seeking help rather than denying or otherwise avoiding confronting them
    • Risking by sharing problems with the social worker, a stranger
    • Perseverence in attempting to keep a family together under difficult circumstances
    • Expressing feelings and views openly rather than being guarded
    • Exercising resourcefulness and creativity in making the most out of limited resources or managing and surviving on a meager income
    • Making sacrifices on behalf of children and others
    • Seeking to further knowledge, education and skills
    • Expressing loving and caring feelings to family members
    • Asserting one's rights rather than submitting to injustice
    • Attempting to meet one's debts and obligations despite financial adversity
    • Seeking to be independent
    • Seeking to understand the needs and feelings of others
    • Demonstrating the capacity to be introspective and to shift thinking or realign perceptions when presented with new information or alternative views of situations
    • Owning responsibility for one's own actions and showing interest in making changes in self rather than focusing extensively on the changes one thinks others should make
    • Demonstrating the capacity for self-control
    • Demonstrating the ability to make individual value judgments
    • Manifesting the emotional capacity to function effectively in stressful situations
    • Demonstrating the ability to think abstractly and to make connections between causes and effects
    • Demonstrating the ability to form close relationships
    • Demonstrating the ability to consider alternative courses of actions and the needs of others when solving problems

    Miley et al. (2004:250 - 258) list the following components arising from an ecosystems perspective on assessment:

    • Assessing structures: The two most important elements to be assessed are power and closeness. Questions to be asked in this regard are who has the power, what connections are working, and what connections are missing?
    • Assessing interactions: An assessment of interactions examines how people and their environments relate and evolve.
    • Assessing thinking and feeling: An assessment of thinking and feeling is necessary to understand the cognitive and effective factors influencing human behavior.
    • Assessing cultural influences: An assessment of cultural influences is necessary because cultural identities of a system influence the way it interacts with other systems.
    • Assessing spiritual dimensions: The importance of the use of spirituality in social work has of late become very prominent and in light of this, more attention will be given to this under a separate heading.
    • Assessing physical environments: This is an assessment of the influence of the physical environment on client functioning.

    Cowger & Snively (2001) propose the following guidelines for a strength assessment

    • Preeminence should be given to the client's understanding of the facts
    • The client should be believed
    • It should be discovered what the client wants
    • The assessment should be moved towards client and environmental strengths
    • An assessment of strengths should be multidimensional
    • The assessment should be used to discover uniqueness
    • The client's words should be used
    • Assessment should be made a joint activity between the worker and client
    • A mutual agreement on assessment should be reached
    • Blame and blaming should be avoided
    • Cause-and-effect thinking should be avoided
    • An assessment and not a diagnosis should be made.

    Many of these guidelines apply to any assessment, but some are specifically related to a strengths assessment. What is significant is that several of these guidelines emphasize a focus on the reality of the client, and the view that there should be a dialogue and partnership between the client and the social worker.


  14. I would now like to come back to focus on spirituality as a strength mainly as the result of neglect of this aspect by social workers and the underestimation of its value in supporting the functioning of client systems.

    Articles on spirituality in social work journals have become a significant trend over the last two decades after being neglected for quite a long time. Canda (quoted in Saleebey, 2002:63) concurs by pointing out that recognition of spirituality as a source of strength for people facing serious life challenges is growing rapidly amongst social workers. Moore ( 2003: 558) observes that the absence of a discourse on the matter of spirituality is conspicuous and baffling, when it is considered how often social workers confront such issues on a practical basis, and even more so when we remember social work's historical roots in spiritually informed communities. Miley et al. (2004:256) quotes Gotterer as stating that although practitioners historically included spirituality as an important dimension of assessment, it was often considered superfluous to the secular domain of practice. It was however discovered that many clients' innermost thoughts and feelings are rooted in spiritual beliefs which, rather than being a separate issue, serve as the foundation for the seemingly mundane activities of everyday life. Canda (1988:238) also points out that despite "repeated calls for professionals to focus on spiritual issues in practice, researchers agree that this area has been neglected".

    Zapf (2005:634) offers a laudable explanation for what he perceives as the reason for ignoring, neglecting and even discouraging spirituality by the mainstream professions. He suggests that as a profession seeking to improve its status as an evidence-based scientific discipline, social work may have avoided spiritual issues that could be perceived as unscientific or difficult to categorize and use in practice. He explains further and pointing out that in the Western helping professions, religious and spiritual factors have often been linked more to pathology and impediments rather than seen as strengths or resources in a client's situation. The very scope of spiritual practice and understanding can be threatening for practitioners seeking to demonstrate professional competence with intervention techniques that are under their control. To this the author wants to add that social workers who are not religious themselves may find it difficult to bring spirituality into their practice, especially if spirituality is confused with a particular religious belief system. Zapf (2005:634) then makes the observation that "in spite of these patterns from the history of social work, there is strong evidence in the recent literature of a renewed interest in spirituality and social work".

    Hodge (2001: 204) states that spirituality and religion often are used interchangeably, but they are distinct, although overlapping concepts. He explains that religion flows from spirituality and expresses an internal, subjective reality, corporately, in particular institutionalized forms, rituals, beliefs and practices. Spirituality is defined by him as a relationship with God, or with whatever is held to be the Ultimate that fosters a sense of meaning, purpose and mission in life. In turn, this relationship produces fruit (such as altruism, love, or forgiveness) that has a discernable effect on an individual's relationship to self, nature, others, and the Ultimate.

    Miley, et al. (2004:235) entertain the following views on spirituality: "Although specific beliefs and practices vary considerably, religious affiliation and spirituality have resources to offer. Affiliating with a community of faith provides a network of personal relationships and concrete support in times of need. Specifically, spiritual beliefs and practices strengthen the ability to withstand and transcend adversity and are virtual wellsprings for healing and resilience. Common beliefs, stories of the faith, holy days and ritual celebrations forge a sense of communal identity and purpose. Compassion, love and forgiveness - themes in most religions - contribute to personal and interpersonal healing. Commitment to a faith can initiate a sense of meaning, renewal and hope for the future. Religious commitment may encourage concerns for the welfare of others and, for some, foster a zeal for addressing injustices".

    Hodge (2001:204) mentions that the most widely used spiritual assessment tools are quantitative measures but he points out that those quantitative measures have been criticized as being incongruent with social work values. The reason for this is that the "subjective, often intangible nature of human existence is not captured" (Hodges, 2001:204). He proposes the use of qualitative approaches in assessing spirituality because they "tend to be holistic, open-ended, individualistic, ideographic, and process oriented". He feels that as such they offer particular strengths in assessing clients' spirituality, where riches of information can be of particular importance. He offers an assessment framework consisting of an Initial Narrative Framework and an Interpretive Anthropological Framework, which is reproduced in full below.

    Initial Narrative Framework

    1. Describe the religious/spiritual tradition you grew up in. How did your family express its spiritual beliefs? How important was spirituality to your family? Extended family?
    2. What sort of personal experiences (practices) stand out to you during your years at home? What made these experiences special? How have they informed your later life?
    3. How have you changed or matured from those experiences? How would you describe your current spiritual or religious orientation? Is your spirituality a personal strength? If so, how?

    Interpretive Anthropological Framework

    1. Affect: What aspects of your spiritual life give you pleasure? What role does your spirituality play in handling life's sorrows? Enhancing life's joys? Coping with life's pain? How does your spirituality give you hope for the future? What do you wish to accomplish in the future?
    2. Behavior: Are there particular spiritual rituals or practices that help you deal with life's obstacles? What is your level of involvement in faith-based communities? How are they supportive? Are there spiritually encouraging individuals that you maintain contact with?
    3. Cognition: What are your current religious/spiritual beliefs? What are they based upon? What beliefs do you find particularly meaningful? What does your faith say about personal trials? How does this belief help you overcome obstacles? How do your beliefs affect your health practices?
    4. Communion: Describe your relationship to the Ultimate. What has been your experience of the Ultimate? How does the Ultimate communicate with you? How have these experiences encouraged you? Have there been times of deep spiritual intimacy? How does your relationship help you face life challenges? How would the Ultimate describe you?
    5. Conscience: How do you determine right and wrong? What are your key values? How does your spirituality help you deal with guilt (sin)? What role does forgiveness play in your life?
    6. Intuition: To what extent do you experience intuitive hunches (flashes of creative insight, premonitions, spiritual insights)? Have these insights been a strength in your life? If so, how?

    Source: Hodge, D. 2001.

    As Hodge (2001:207) describes and as can be seen from the framework, the first section provides for three categories of questions incorporating increasing levels of personal revelation and allowing time for the therapist to establish trust and rapport before more intimate information is shared.

    The Interpretive Anthropological Framework is a multidimensional framework for understanding the personal subjective reality of spirituality in client's lives. The questions are not sequential but are intended as guides to alert practitioners to the various components of each domain and to create an awareness of the potentiality of clients' spirituality (Hodge, 2001:208). According to Hodge (2001:209), the Interpretive Anthropological Framework is designed to evoke the following empirically-based strengths:

    • An individual's relationship with the Ultimate is a key strength which facilitates coping, defeating loneliness, promoting a sense of mission and purpose, instilling a sense of personal worth and value, and providing hope for the future.
    • Rituals, inherent in every spiritual tradition, have been widely associated with positive outcomes and can serve to ease anxiety and dread, alleviate isolation, promote a sense of security and establish a sense of being loved and appreciated. Typical rituals workers are likely to encounter include scripture reading, prayer, meditation, Holy Communion, ceremonial rites, bar mitzvahs, rites of passage, baptisms and confession of sins.
    • Participation in faith-based communities is also a significant strength which has been associated with increased empowerment, realization of personal strengths, coping ability, self-confidence, lovability and a sense of belonging.
    • Other spiritual strengths Hodge claims the Interpretive Framework is designed to elicit are intuition and methods of alleviating guilt.

    As far as assessment of spirituality is concerned, Hodge (2005:316) discusses five spirituality assessment methods viz spiritual histories, spiritual life maps, spiritual genograms, spiritual ecomaps and spiritual ecograms. Amongst these, only the first one is based verbally, while the others are all pictorial. representations. A spiritual history is analogous to conducting a family history. In the spiritual history approach two question sets from the framework above are used to guide the conversation. The Initial Narrative Framework is used to provide practitioners with some tools to help clients tell their stories, moving from childhood to the present. The Interpretive Anthropological Framework is designed to elicit spiritual information as clients relate their stories.

    Spiritual life maps represent a diagrammatic alternative to spoken spiritual histories (Hodge, 2005:316). It is a pictorial delineation of a client's spiritual journey. Spiritual life maps are illustrated accounts of clients' relationship with God (or transcendence) over time - a map of their spiritual life. They tell us where the clients have come from, where they are now and where they are going.

    Spiritual genograms provide social workers with a tangible graphic representation of spirituality across at least three generations (Hodge, 2005:319). They are blueprints of complex intergenerational spiritual interactions.

    Spiritual ecomaps focus on clients' current spiritual relationships. They focus on the portion of clients' spiritual story that exists in present space (Hodge, 2005:320)

    Spiritual ecograms are a combination of the assessment strengths of spiritual ecomaps and spiritual genograms. Ecograms tap information that exists in present space, much like a traditional spiritual ecomap, and they also access information that exists across time like a spiritual genogram (Hodge, 2005:321). These tools are exactly the same as the various diagrams picturing the different aspects of family life, but these are with a spiritual overlay and can be helpful in making the client aware of his spiritual world.


  16. Although dealt with differently conceptually, strengths and empowerment cannot be separated in practice. The one without the other is impossible. Empowerment is the practice approach embedded in the strengths perspective and consists of a variety of techniques used by the social worker to stimulate strengths within the client and in his environment. Adams (2003: 8) defines empowerment as "the means by which individuals, groups and/or communities become able to take control of their circumstances and achieve their own goals , thereby being able to work towards helping themselves and others to maximize the quality of their lives."

    Lee (1994: 13) uses the following definition of empowerment in his exposition of the concept:

    "Empowerment is a process whereby the social worker engages in a set of activities with the client...that aim to reduce the powerlessness that has been created by negative evaluations based on membership of a stigmatized group. It involves identification of the power blocks that contribute to the problem as well as the development and implementation of specific strategies aimed at either the reduction of the effects from indirect power blocks or the reduction of the operation of direct power blocks."

    Hepworth & Larsen (2002:438) define empowerment as "enabling groups or communities to gain or regain the capacity to interact with the environment in ways that enhance resources to meet their needs, contribute to their well-being and potential, give their life satisfaction, and provide control over their lives to the extent possible."

    Of the three above definitions, the two latter ones seem to refer to groups and communities while the first one does not rule out the individual. Empowerment should include the individual because eventually it is the individual that is disempowered.

    Miley et al. (2004:91) point out that oppression, discrimination, injustice, and experiences of powerlessness are the very circumstances that call for the application of empowerment-based social work practice. To address these issues of oppression, injustice, and powerlessness, strengths-oriented social work practice incorporates empowerment as both a concept and a process. According to Miley et al. (2004: 91) a pursuit of the goal of empowerment significantly affects the way social workers practice. It is first characterized by the application of an ecosystems perspective and a strengths orientation in practice. The fact that social workers apply the ecosystems perspective means that they consider client situations in context, search for client strengths and environmental resources, and describe needs in terms of transitionary challenges rather than fixed problems. It secondly means that social workers as generalists draw on skills for resolving many issues at many social system level, and respond to the connections between personal troubles and public issues.

    Miley et al. (2004: 85) distinguishes between personal, interpersonal and socio-political dimensions of empowerment. Personal empowerment embodies a person's sense of competence, mastery, strength and ability to affect change while interpersonal empowerment refers to person's ability to influence others. According to Miley at al. interpersonal power comes from two sources. The first source of power is based on social status - for example power based on race, gender and class. The second is power achieved through learning new skills and securing new positions, which are key features of empowerment. The socio-political (structural) dimensions of empowerment involve person's relationships to social and political structures.

    Empowerment is a political concept because it deals with power relationships but Adams (2003:8) explains that the political dimensions of the concept is not party political because "its activist tone transcends party politics" Cowger and Snively. Saleebey (2001:108) stresses that practice that recognizes issues of social and economic justice requires methods that explicitly deal with power and power relationships. This implies that empowerment strategies should be used to intervene in power relationships and should be effective in changing power positions.

    Adams (2003:28) states that there is "no one agreed set of concepts and approaches to empowerment. The diversity of theories and models of empowerment reflects the lack of a single definition of the concept."

    Lee (1994:300) regards the central processes of empowerment as developing a critical consciousness in the context of relationship through consciousness-raising and praxis: strengthening individual capacities, potentialities, and problem-solving skills; building group, collectivity and community; and taking action to change oppressive conditions. Basic helping processes and skills are divided into the following categories by Lee (1994:31):

    • Processes and skills to promote coping and adaptation/social change
    • Empowering skills to bolster motivation
    • Empowering skills to maintain psychic comfort and self-esteem
    • Empowering skills to enhance problem-solving and promote self-direction
    • Particular skills needed to problem solve in an empowerment approach. These include:
      • Consciousness-raising, praxis and critical education
      • Maintaining equality in the problem-solving process
      • Working with feeling
      • Gently sharing information
      • Cognitive restructuring
      • Guiding skills in the process of praxis
      • Critical education skills
    • Skills to promote social change.

    Lee (1994) distinguishes between empowerment of individuals, groups, and communities. Lee (1994) and Miley et al. (2004:86) distinguish further between the personal, interpersonal and political layers of empowerment which will cut across the lives of individuals, groups and communities. For Miley et al. (2004:85) empowerment on the personal level refers to a subjective state of mind, feeling competent and experiencing a sense of control. They explain that people who experience personal power perceive themselves as competent. Competence is regarded as the ability of any human system to fulfill its function of taking care of itself, drawing resources from effective interaction with others, and contributing to the resource pool of the social and physical environment.

    On the interpersonal level (Miley, et al., 2004:87) it refers to person's ability to influence others. Successful interventions with others and the regard others hold for us contribute to our sense of interpersonal empowerment. The social power of position, roles, communication skills, knowledge and appearance contribute to a person's feelings of interpersonal empowerment. Interpersonal power comes firstly from social status like race, gender and class, and secondly from learning new skills and securing new positions which are regarded as key features of empowerment.

    The sociopolitical dimensions of empowerment (Miley, et al., 2004:88) refer to structural elements and involve person's relationships to social and political structures. It has to do with the fact that all human systems require an ongoing, expansive set of resource options to keep pace with constantly changing conditions. The more options, the more likely systems can manage their challenges. The fewer the options, the greater the vulnerability of systems.

    Miley et al. (2004:311) provide one of the most comprehensive classifications of empowering strategies. They divide empowerment strategies into three categories viz the activation of resources, the creation of alliances and the expansion of opportunities. In each of these categories are a variety of techniques that could be used to achieve the goals of empowerment. Space does not allow the discussion of these strategies in detail, and only a summary of these strategies will be provided.

    8.1   The activation of resources

    Generalist Skills for Activating Resources

    Maintaining Progress

    • Implementing Action Plans: facilitating a productive, goal-seeking process; reviewing and updating plans as necessary
    • Enhancing Interactions: encouraging participation; responding to clarify situations, refine goals, and locate resources; building alliances among participants
    • Sustaining Motivation: validating clients' views and feelings; providing nurturance; expressing optimism

    Developing Power

    • Promoting Leadership: asserting client privileges in the relationship; acknowledging leadership abilities
    • Recognizing Choices: enhancing agency by recognizing existing options; locating areas of clients' control
    • Locating Genuine Options: expanding resource networks; overcoming oppressive conditions
    • Magnifying Strengths: responding to highlight strengths; recognizing incremental steps

    Changing Perspectives

    • Offering Feedback: reflecting client actions; examining behavior with respect to goals
    • Creating New Concepts: reframing; offering metaphors
    • Reconstructing Narratives: externalizing; co-constructing; generating multiple interpretations
    • Changing Behaviors: considering new ways to do things; experimenting with behavior change

    Managing Resources

    • Linking Clients with Resources: locating resources; maximizing client administration of resource network
    • Case Advocacy: developing power within the service network; using professional influence on clients' behalves
    • Maximizing Clients' Rights: implementing a social justice agenda; ensuring clients' due process rights


    • Teaching: modeling; role-playing; structuring educational experiences
    • Sharing Information: sharing professional expertise; self-disclosing

    Source: Miley, et al., 2004

    8.2   The creation of alliances

    Miley et al. (2004:343) emphasize the importance of social workers in creating and facilitating alliances for clients and themselves for the generation of resources for service delivery and the construction of supportive environments for practice. The strength of alliances is to be found in the establishing and improving of relationships and in mutual understandings between role-players in order to form a network of relationships which will empower the client systems. The following types of alliances are distinguished by them:

    Client group alliances

    Natural support alliances

    Client-services alliances through case management

    Organizational alliances

    Professional support networks

    The various alliances are presented by means of the diagram below.

    Source: Miley, et al., 2004

    Miley et al. (2004:344) stress that social work groups are vehicles for personal growth, skill development, and environmental change. Through group work, members may acquire new perspectives, be a support for one another, and also join forces for collective action.

    Natural support alliances (Miley, et al. 2004:351) consist of relationship networks with family members, friends, colleagues and their associations with churches, schools or clubs. Miley et al. distinguish between informal systems such as spouses, partners, children, parents etc., and membership systems like churches and synagogues, informal social clubs and civic organizations, for example. The last category includes professional people like social workers, educators, clergy, lawyers and the like.

    The next type of alliance described by Miley et al. (2004:354) is client service alliances. Case management consists of actions by the social worker to see to it that clients get the services they need and are entitled to. It is used when clients need access to a variety of services.

    Organizational alliances (Miley, et al. 2004:367) are created when social workers connect with other service organizations to increase the effectiveness of services to the clients. Ways of connecting include building interagency coalitions, developing effective working relationships with other professionals, working on teams and leading meetings.

    The last type of alliance, described by Miley et al. (2004: 371) is professional support networks found within organizations and built by affiliations with professional associations.

    8.3   Expanding opportunities

    The last category of empowering strategies discussed by Miley et al., (2004:377) is expanding opportunities and are strategies focused on environmental change. It thus means that some aspect or other, of the environment should be changed to make room for expanding opportunities. Strategies of expanding opportunities are comprised of resource expansion, community change, policy development, social activism and social advocacy and legislative advocacy. Many of these strategies are focused on structural change in the macro environment in order to open opportunities for people to become empowered. Miley et al. (2004:379) sums it up by explaining that expanding opportunities means creating new resources for client systems in their social and physical environments. They point out that responsive environments enrich social functioning with access to health care, adequate education, technical training, child care, civil rights, jobs, transportation and comprehensive community-based services. The opposite of environmental opportunities are environmental risks like shortages and barriers in resource provision and social inequities which create problems and pose environmental risks.

    Resource expansion occurs when needed resources are not there. Strategies of resource expansion (Miley, et al., (2004:385) are firstly to identify shortages, then to mobilize resources, educate the public, and write grants.

    Community change becomes a need when the community does not support its members. Community change strategies involve community organizing and community development. (Miley, et al., 2004:386)

    Policy development involves policy analysis and change with Miley et al., (2004:391) stressing the importance of involving consumers in the process.

    The last two groups of strategies to expand opportunities are social activism, social advocacy and legislative advocacy. According to Miley et al., (2004:393) social activism and social advocacy is a strategy to redress the inequities that result from different social status, resource distribution and power. Legislative advocacy occurs when social workers and consumers negotiate positions that will empower them to provide input into the legislative process. That includes actions like legislative analysis, lobbying and legislative testimony.

    From the above it is clear that the action strategies described by Miley et al., (2004) are wide ranging and focused on the total ecological configuration. It provides for individual, interact ional and environmental change to improve the adaptive relationship between the person and his environment. This brings this lecture to a close with the hope that it contributed to an understanding of the strengths perspective in social work and its related practice model of empowerment. This overview has been generic and not specifically focused on only the therapeutic process.


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