Practice Wisdom and the Sociological Imagination

In: Practice Wisdom
Author: Jan Fook
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Some decades ago, when I was a newly graduated social worker, I recall how the idea of “practice wisdom” was taken up enthusiastically by social work practitioners (see Carew, 1979). The concept of practice wisdom placed value on learning derived from practice experience, and in this sense, offered an alternative source of legitimate knowledge to that gained through formal knowledge or theory learned in the classroom. Now, some years later, I believe even more strongly that we need to value the learning of professionals from their own practice experience, and am convinced that learning gained through taking on knowledge from sources outside oneself (from books, formalised theoretical perspectives, etc.) must indeed be complemented by self-reflective learning. However the picture is not as simple as this sounds.

I have learned a lot more about the complex nature of knowledge creation over several decades in which I have worked extensively with practitioners, from many different countries and fields, in practising how to critically reflect. I see critical reflection as a process of deep learning from experience. (I will define this in more detail later in the chapter.) In the process of reflecting, people are able to unearth and examine some fundamental, and usually hidden, assumptions about themselves, their expected roles in relation to other people, and their place and power in their social and professional worlds. More often than not, these assumptions seem to reflect a fairly generic popular culture, made up of ideas which most of us take for granted, often partly because we assume other people around us think the same. It is always useful to uncover these taken-for-granted ideas, and to examine them for relevance and accuracy in current contexts. In most cases, these ideas are so deeply ingrained that they have never been examined systematically. Sometimes people do not change their ideas through this process of examination, but mostly they do.

What this tells me is that without deep critical reflection on experience, most practitioners would not necessarily question ideas which, after critical reflection, they would actually opt to change. If they are not reflecting deeply on their experience, it is likely that the “practice wisdom” which results, will remain within the limits of popular culture, or at least within the limits of what has come to be taken-for-granted within their profession. This means they are less likely to challenge pre-existing ideas which might frame or limit their practice; or they might simply derive reasonably superficial learning from limited contexts of practice which may be less transferable to different settings.

Early in my career I also studied the work of C. Wright Mills (1959), that famous sociologist who coined the term the sociological imagination. I became totally intrigued with this perspective, as it seemed this type of analysis was vital to the profession of social work which claimed to work with person in situation (Hamilton, 1951). But what concerned me about the sociological imagination was that it did not appear very easy to develop this consciousness which linked personal troubles and public issues. I found that many social workers had difficulty in translating structural analyses of society into how to understand personal experiences, and even harder, how to work on an individual level with these. The view which seemed to predominate was that we needed to turn to psychological theories and therapies in order to work with individual people. This struck me as very polarised and “siloed” thinking, antithetical to the vision of social work as a socially oriented profession. I examined these issues in detail, writing a major book which critiqued the “psychological deluge” of the times and proposed an approach to working with individual people based on an understanding of them within a social and structural context (Fook, 1993).

Given the possibility that “practice wisdom” might simply reflect popular and taken-for-granted and psychologically informed views about the world, then it also seems likely that thinking derived in such a way will not necessarily reflect a sociological imagination. If this is the case, there is a vast amount of important analysis which might be omitted from a professional’s thinking and ways of working. Certainly this omission is reflected in contemporary literature which, for example, decries the lack of awareness of the influence of poverty in peoples’ lives and strategies in social workers’ practice with children and families in Britain (Gupta, Blumhardt, & ATD Fourth World, 2018) and indeed in other countries as well (Krumer-Nevo, 2016).

There has been a lot more writing and thinking over the last few decades which has a bearing on our understanding of practice wisdom and the sociological imagination. I want to update our thinking in order to propose links between practice wisdom and a sociological imagination and how developing such an imagination can contribute to practice wisdom. I illustrate my points with examples of hidden assumptions which have emerged through critical reflection by participants from workshops I have conducted. I show how these assumptions, indicative of taken-for-granted professional cultures, can benefit from a more sociological imagination. I end the chapter by describing some ways in which critical reflection can enhance our sociological imagination and how practice might be improved, or transformed, accordingly. I will start by discussing the concepts of practice wisdom, the sociological imagination and critical reflection.

Practice Wisdom

The idea of practice wisdom entered common discourse in social work several decades ago. It appears to have been mostly used in the early days by social workers (Powell, 2008), not social scientists or other professionals, and over the decades it has been coupled with concepts like “felt knowledge”, “tacit knowledge”, “intuition” and “common sense” (Zeira, 2010). Each of these terms implies a kind of secondary status, as opposed to knowledge which is derived from either theory or research (Zeira, 2010). Such a definition of knowledge implies that all these ways of knowing (or, as many would now argue, types of knowledge) are difficult to pinpoint, are not empirically verifiable, and the process by which such more practice-based (rather than research or theory driven) knowledge is derived, is difficult to articulate.

It is understandable that “practice wisdom” has been characterised in this way, given that attempts to give legitimacy to the idea arose out of recognising the limits of overly positivist approaches to theorising and researching social work practice (Cheung, 2016; Chu & Tsui, 2008). The term practice wisdom can be seen as a way of valuing what is not or less empirically measurable, in an age of evidence-based practice. Some of the attempts to define “practice wisdom” reflect these debates.

For example, Klein and Bloom (1995) define practice wisdom as the “personal and value-driven system of knowledge which emerges out of the transaction between the phenomenological experience of the client situation and the use of scientific information” (p. 79). Note the implied split between “knowledge derived from experience” and “scientific information”, with practice wisdom defined as arising out of an interaction of the two. This idea is echoed in Samson’s definition (2015) which characterises practice wisdom as bridging the gap between theory and practice, or the “art” and “science” of social work. In some ways a type of split is also implicit in Dybicz’s (2004) conclusions about practice wisdom as “the application of values, over that of efficacy of interventions, is what lies at the heart of practice wisdom” (p. 197). Yet to characterise practice wisdom on the basis of such polarised ways of conceptualising professional practice is to oversimplify the nature of practice, and the nature of the types of knowledge upon which it is based, and the types of knowledge which emerge from it. Powell (2008) puts it beautifully in a framework based on narrative knowing.

Practical, or practice, wisdom that is peculiar to our profession develops through the experience of doing our craft in the context of our professional relationships and the social circumstances in which they are played out (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The foundation of wisdom, generally, is acquired by keen students of the whole of life and enhances our cognitive capacity for making sense of things – for narrative knowing … Our minds consciously and unconsciously weave stories based on the circumstances of our work and our lives. Experience, narrative knowing, and shared associations inform us, in our present and our hindsight, how circumstances shape the trajectories of lives and events. Wisdom utilizes that experience and knowledge as we seek the best paths to the best ends and weave our way into the future. (Powell, 2008, p. 95)

Practice wisdom (from a narrative perspective) involves

complex habits of mind. It is an eminently practical cognitive ability, a means of ‘seeing’ courses of action through a lens of knowledge, pattern recognition, and experience. It improves and substantiates our judgment, complements our thought and knowledge, hints at preferred courses of action, and improves the outcomes of our work. It uses conscious and unconscious mental processes or deliberation with and without attention (Dijksterhuis, 2006). (Powell, 2008, p. 95)

In the above quotes Powell emphasises the different types of cognitive activity which are involved in developing wisdom from practice experience. Practice wisdom is essentially a holistic experience which integrates our pattern recognition capabilities, interpretations (conscious and unconscious), personal predilections and judgements in a narrative format which helps make meaning of experiences. In this sense, the knowledge developed in practice wisdom may incorporate all other types of knowledge, mediated by personal and professional experience and values. It is little wonder then, that reflection is regarded as an essential capacity in developing practice wisdom (Samson, 2015; Scott, 1990). What needs attention if valuable practice wisdom is to be developed through reflection, is some scrutiny of the bases of “felt knowledge”, “tacit knowledge”, “intuition” or “common sense”, and whether these sorts of knowledge are relevant to the situations at hand. I will return to this theme in the later section on critical reflection.

The Sociological Imagination

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals … The first fruit of this imagination … is the idea that the individual can understand his [sic] own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within this period … The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise. (Mills, 1959, pp. 5-6)

Perhaps the most memorable of the concepts associated with the sociological imagination are those of “personal troubles” and “public issues” (Mills, 1959, p. 8). Mills argued that it was essential to understand the distinction between the two. “Troubles” are to do with the private milieu of an individual: their inner life and areas of social life of which they are directly aware. “Issues” are concerned with matters which transcend the private milieu, but are to do with how many social milieux are organised to form a larger structure of social and historical life (ibid. p. 8). “Troubles” and “issues” both arise when either personally or socially held values are felt to be threatened. The key to a sociological imagination, for Mills, is the ability to grasp the connection between private troubles and public issues. And the key to beginning to pinpoint the major troubles and issues of our time is to appreciate what values are being supported or threatened by major social trends. This is an important point for critical reflection.

Today we have many more theories from which to analyse the connections between personal and social worlds, yet Mills’ basic concept of the sociological imagination still stands as a call to all those of us who wish to make a difference in the lives and worlds of the people we strive to help. Unfortunately, despite this clear call, the capacity to make meaningful connections between “troubles” and “issues” is actually quite difficult. I would argue that what we often see as “common sense” or unconsciously uphold as accepted ways of thinking, echoes a more polarised way of thinking; that is, we tend to favour individualised ways of understanding phenomena, or plump for more structural analyses, often finding it difficult to marry the two. This is certainly how our major disciplinary thinking is organised, into either psychological (individual) or structural (sociological) frameworks. Therefore, there is a need to spell out some of the theoretical orientations which make connections between personal and structural worlds explicit, as discussed further below.

Critical Reflection

Defining Critical Reflection

I define my approach to reflection as a process of learning from experience by unsettling deep-seated assumptions (embedded in stories of personal experiences) in order to examine them. It becomes critical if the assumptions unearthed are fundamental; have to do with power and aspects of the social or structural context; and enable transformational change. (I have discussed this in much more detail elsewhere: see Fook, 2002; Fook & Gardner, 2007, 2013.)

Learning from experience also involves the ability to make greater meaning of experience, so that if deeply held ideas, which are often initially hidden, are exposed and changed, then new frameworks for understanding are developed. These new frameworks provide guidelines for action which are usually transferable beyond the type of situation in which the original experience occurred. For example, if someone reflects on an experience of having an angry interaction with a colleague at work, they may unearth assumptions about how people should behave generally towards each other (e.g. being respectful). This may lead them to (re)formulate their beliefs about what behaviours are acceptable and in what types of settings. Thus, their original learning from a work situation might turn into learning which is applicable in a broader range of settings.

What I have found over the years though, is that many people unearth assumptions which, although firmly held by them, do not necessarily originate from their own experience. In short, they often hold assumptions which they have taken on, unquestioningly, from the broader social or cultural fabric in which they were raised, live and work. I have therefore designed my approach and model for practising critical reflection using a number of theoretical frameworks which provide different ways of understanding the connections between personal ways of thinking, and aspects of the social, cultural, historical and structural environment. In brief, there are three main theoretical perspectives which are useful here: the concept of reflexivity; the linguistic turn; and critical social theories.

The Concept of Reflexivity

Reflexivity involves personal awareness of our social place, and how it has formed who we are, and continues to inform our awareness and how we relate in the world. Being reflexive means that we are aware of who we are as whole people: through personal biography; physical entity; the historical and cultural period in which we were raised and are now influenced; our psychological and emotional makeup; our social identity (e.g. gender, age, ethnicity); and our structural and material conditions (e.g. class, influence of social policies and institutions) (Fook, 1999). Being reflexive therefore involves an ability to identify how our own assumptions and interpretations can be influenced by who we are, socially and personally; and, therefore, how we create the knowledge we believe to be important. Indeed, being reflexive makes us aware of what knowledge we do not even notice, or factor in as important, because of the peculiar lenses we create for ourselves from the amalgam of who we are as an individual person. Reflexivity is useful in critical reflection as it draws attention to how we are involved in making choices about what we notice and privilege, and therefore what we believe to be relevant and important knowledge. Armed with this understanding of how we have a role in constructing what we see, it becomes easier to question and change some assumptions which we may not have actively considered or evaluated before.

The Linguistic Turn

The linguistic turn in social theorising draws further attention to the way we create knowledge through our language use, and what this has to do with power. The concept of discourse is now regularly used. This refers to how ways of talking about phenomena, the actual phrases and terms used, and indeed what terms are not used, frames how a phenomenon is understood or valued. This leads us to understand how power is created through our use of language. Usually it is argued that the major discourses which are accepted are the discourses of people in power, and that the way less powerful people see things is often not recognised, or indeed is missing from public discussions. The concept of discourse is eminently useful in analysing why some ways of thinking become unconsciously embedded or taken-for-granted. This is a very useful concept for helping to pinpoint what is “common sense”, or culturally accepted ways of thinking and doing things in particular environments. In this way, understanding how knowledge, and indeed some realities, are constructed through our social fabric, is vital to critical reflection. Not only does language articulate the connection between knowledge and power, it also helps us to become aware of the language we use, where it comes from, and what it values and excludes. Such understanding allows us to make more informed choices about our interpretations of the social world and our engagement with it.

Critical Social Theories

The term “critical social theories” refers to a broader category of theorising which principally posits connections between personal and social worlds, and how these connections create and maintain power through these connections. Such connections essentially support the idea that knowledge is created through personal experience, as well as through other means (e.g. research), and that often socially created ideas are internalised by individual people (who may believe that these ideas are their own). In this way, individual people are “socialised” to conform to the main social ideas, which may be generated by more powerful groups, and therefore in turn, may not necessarily work to the advantage of the person who holds the belief. For example, if I am a person from a working-class background, I may believe that going to university is just about avoiding going to find a “real” job. This idea, of holding beliefs which function as self-defeating is sometimes referred to as “false consciousness”.

Critical reflection can be aided by this concept, because we can become aware of how the beliefs we hold, about ourselves and other people, can be self-defeating, may work against other ideas we hold, or may not in fact even be our own ideas. For example, if I believe my managers are all-powerful (this is a common belief which comes out in critical reflection sessions) then I tend to believe that I (as a front-line practitioner) am not powerful, and therefore I will not attempt to work in the way I think best if it contravenes the way I believe I am being told to work.

Another common idea is a self-belief that if I am powerless, there is not any point in trying to change things. A related assumption is that managers, being “all-powerful” are not “human beings” trying to live lives like the rest of us. Everything they do therefore, is inflicted on “us” intentionally because of their power (rather than the fact that they might have made a mistake, had a misunderstanding, not communicated very well, been misinterpreted, had a bad day, etc.). Critical social theories are crucial to reflection and transformative learning. In particular, an analysis of how and what social beliefs are internalised and unquestioned, can lead to pinpointing different ways of interpreting and seeing the social world and our place in it. Social theories can enlighten us as to what assumptions we have unconsciously assumed, and alert us to possible different interpretations.

Some Practice Wisdoms which Emerge through Critical Reflection

One of the things I find particularly intriguing about critically reflecting with many practitioners, is the learning which they have derived from their experiences before they critically reflect on them using the above approach. This gives me some insight into what we sometimes assume about the “taken-for-granted”, “common sense” or the tacit knowledge we believe that everyone in the profession believes. This insight is part of the model of critical reflection I have devised (see Figure 9.1).

Figure 9.1
Figure 9.1A model of critical reflection.

In my model participants typically critically reflect in a small group and in two stages. They begin by identifying an example of their practice experience which they believe is significant to their learning in some way. Mostly they choose experiences which they find puzzling or unsettling, and often at the heart of these is some perceived threat to the values they hold dear. For example, a common incident identified is one in which a practitioner has felt, and sometimes expressed, anger towards a client. They feel they have contravened their own personal and professional ethical code in doing this. Each member of the group is helped, through dialogue, to uncover what they believe to be some of their fundamental assumptions embedded in their story of their experience. (Stage 1). In Stage 2, the focus is on assisting the person to rebuild the meaning of their experience and to devise a new way of understanding it and practising on this basis, going forward.

In this section I want to focus on some of the practice wisdoms which emerge in Stage 1, in order to illustrate how these might benefit from the application of a more sociological imagination. First is the example I alluded to above, in relation to the way front-line practitioners often characterise their managers or sometimes supervisors. There is a tendency to see managers as quite omnipotent, as beings who should be able to be fully competent, and able to control their environments and so be focused fully on the welfare of the staff they manage or supervise. I am aware this sounds like a gross exaggeration, but I have also encountered this assumption from managers themselves.

An example I am thinking of here is of a very experienced manager in a local authority in London. This person (let’s call him Ken – not his real name) managed about 20 people, and he presented to the group an experience in which he felt he had failed his staff, because he had failed to prevent a particular case, over which there was concern, from proceeding to a formal inquiry. In critically reflecting on this experience, Ken unearthed an assumption that managers should be able to protect staff, no matter what. When he said this out loud, he laughingly characterised himself as “wearing a cape” (i.e. thinking of himself as a superhero). His practice wisdom, developed over his years of experience, led him to believe that he should be omnipotent. When he unearthed this idea, he saw, of course, that what he was thinking was impossible for any manager. It did not take much examination for him to want to change this belief, yet it was a belief which had been built up over many years of managing staff, and it was, until then, a very firmly held belief. Fortunately, Ken decided to reframe his “superhero” idea, but he would not have done this if it weren’t for his experience in reflecting deeply enough to unearth very influential ideas which had remained hidden. His practice wisdom in this case had not helped him in coping with the expectations of his job, as he had constructed them. It was only when Ken considered the context of his work, and the construction of his role as a team manager, with all its policy, resourcing and organisational constraints, that he realised what he was setting himself up for was unrealistic. Once he understood his experience within the social and structural contexts of his job, he was able to reframe his expectations of himself in relation to this. Seeing the connections between “private troubles” and “public issues” helped him gain a more balanced sense of what he could reasonably expect of himself in a manager’s role.

There are also, of course, issues about power embedded here, about how individual practitioners see their own power, especially in relation to those they think have more or less power than themselves. Assumptions about power play a significant role in practice wisdom. For instance, it can often be the case that practitioners, if they feel powerless, will construct power as something which is static, and which can only be gained through a formal job position (Fook, 2011). These common assumptions can very much function to ensure that individual practitioners do not step outside the power they believe is conferred by their position. However, if practitioners can begin to appreciate, through critical reflection, that these assumptions about power can function to keep them powerless, they may begin to build the foundations for changing these beliefs. Again, developing a more sociological way of understanding power and its operation, using a critical social theory analysis, can assist in helping practitioners to feel empowered to practise in ways which they believe are more congruent with their values.

A second example is provided by Jane, who was working as a manger in a local authority in London (Fook, Royes, & White, 2017). Jane’s experience involved an aging client who died in a house fire. Although Jane was only the supervisor of the social worker whose client it was, she still felt perturbed and distressed by the incident, and could not put these feelings to rest, despite repeated attempts to discuss the experience with the worker and other colleagues. Colleagues simply assured her that she had done nothing wrong, but this did not make Jane feel any better. When she critically reflected on the incident, Jane realised that much of her continued distress was based on an assumption that she should have prevented the incident. A more fundamental assumption was that in fact she believed that managers were able to control events by simply filling in the right forms!

Whilst she realised that this sounded ridiculous, she began to appreciate that this type of thinking was encouraged by the culture in her organisation, where following correct bureaucratic procedure was highly valued. Again, in this instance, Jane’s “practice wisdom” before critical reflection, involved feelings of self-blame. When she reflected, and became aware of how these ideas were endemic to the bureaucratic culture of where she worked, she was able to make this connection between her own private trouble (i.e. personal experience) of self-blame, and the public issue of the broader workplace culture. Jane went on to reflect how this realisation led her to understand much better the experiences of colleagues in feeling defensive within this workplace culture, and how this helped her become a better supervisor.

There are many other examples of potentially erroneous or damaging assumptions which can arise from uncritical practice “wisdom” of practitioners. Cosier (2008) analysed her assumptions about the objectivity of the medical role; Kicuroski (2008) discussed his realisation that assumptions about professional boundaries played into the stigma directed at people labelled with borderline personality disorder; and Rubensohn (2008) discussed her disempowering assumptions of social work as “the saviour” and clients and communities as “the saved” (p. 80). These examples all illustrate how our everyday practice may in fact be embedded with what seem like “common sense” ideas which can be believed to be good practice wisdom. In the following section I discuss briefly how, by being aware of a sociological imagination, we can guard against our practice “wisdoms” unwittingly preserving some taken-for-granted ideas which are not necessarily desirable, and may work against the interests of ourselves and our clients.

Conclusion: Practice Wisdom and The Sociological Imagination

The examples outlined above illustrate how deep reflection may be needed in order to turn “practice wisdom” ideas and assumptions into more helpful learning. A possible problem with practice wisdom, especially if the process for deriving it is unclear, is that the learning derived may simply mirror taken-for-granted ideas which are embedded in already established cultures. Rather than allowing for new perspectives, “practice wisdoms” might simply perpetuate existing ways of thinking or practising. This can of course be a problem in our current workplaces, where much is characterised by change and uncertainty.

I have argued in this chapter that coupling a sociological imagination with wisdoms derived from practice experience, can provide more holistic and nuanced ways for practitioners to understand themselves, their work roles and their capacities for influencing change within these contexts. Unfortunately, a sociological imagination, or the ability to appreciate individual experience within a broader social context, does not necessarily occur naturally. Our broader societal context often tends to polarise psychological or sociological perspectives, rather than encouraging a more complex and nuanced way of appreciating personal experience and its interaction with social contexts.

Mills (1959) offers some very helpful intellectual exercises to stimulate the sociological imagination. For example, he suggests trying to re-classify the “files” in your own head; looking for comparative examples; having an attitude of playfulness towards the terms or ideas you use or hold; and considering the extreme opposite of what you are inclined to think. These strategies can indeed be helpful in making us aware of the socially conditioned way in which we think, and invite us to consider perspectives we may not even have been aware of before. I would argue that a process of deep critical reflection also assists us to do something similar. By actively attempting to consider and re-examine the assumptions inherent in many examples of practice wisdom, we might enhance them by through connecting them with social influences, and thereby improve our professional practice. A clear and intentional process of critically reflecting on our experience, which is based on theoretical frameworks which allow us to make direct connections between individual lives and social conditions, can enliven our sociological imaginations. In doing this, we can also reconnect with the values which we may perceive as being threatened by current social conditions (which Mills alerted us to above), as being one of the fundamental ingredients of “private troubles” and “public issues”. In this way, deep reflection on our experiences might allow us to develop an “ethical and compassionate engagement with the word and its dilemmas” (Socrates, as cited by Nussbaum, 1997).


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Jan Fook PhD

Department of Social Work

University of Vermont, United States of America

Practice Wisdom

Values and Interpretations