Assumptions about culture make social workers skid

Written by Rob on april 1, 2019

One sometimes reads statements like: ‘In Kurdish culture a girl has no say in deciding with whom she will marry’ and ‘in Islam women are subordinated to men’. But also ‘in western culture men and women are equal’. What is wrong with these statements?

Not just ordinary citizens, but also researchers, social workers, youth protectors, police officers and public prosecutors make these and similar statements about individual citizens’ culture and religion. In official reports too they are presented as general and undisputed facts.

But are these and similar statements applicable to every Kurdish woman, each westerner and every muslim? And: are they based on scientific insights? Can they be used in a risk-assessment for the X family?

A scientific base is important because police officers, social workers and child protectors, much like medical doctors and psychiatrists make risk assessments. Their goal is to determine why certain individuals showed dangerous behaviour in the past and whether they might do this again in the future. This is an important, yet a difficult job.

Professionals have a very strong impact on the life of ordinary citizens. They decide to arrest people, advise or maintain area or contact restrictions, impose treatments or surveillance, or take children away from their parents. They are no scholars or scientists themselves, yet their assessments are required to be based on scientific theories and insights, clear criteria and tested methods.

The term ‘culture’ is a problem

All professionals therefore use definitions. Police officers and lawyers are familiar with terms like ‘manslaughter’ and ‘involuntary homicide’, family consultants use a term like ‘system’, with which they mean a network of family members and friends, and a medical term is ‘heart attack’.

To each definition belong criteria with which one can determine whether it is applicable. A physician will therefore not use the word infarct when he means a heart attack.

If we look along these professional lines to the above statements, immediately a problem pops up: the term ‘culture’.

What is ‘culture’? About this question volumes have been filled. According to some culture is so comprehensive that it is impossible to give a definition. Notwithstanding, the word culture is often used in popular speech.

Where it goes wrong

In a professional setting things must be different. It seems logical to me that when a social worker gives a statement about this or that culture, they know exactly what culture means and what it does not.

The professional is required to give professional judgments on concrete problems and it follows that they have to be able to elucidate the terms used and explain their analysis, also to the people involved. This is also true for lawyers, attorneys, public prosecutors and judges who often copy these words and conclusions in their own reports and judgments.

Let us examine a bit closer the statement about ‘western culture’. Equality in our societies is something positive which is also stimulated by our governments.

Yet immediately a western counterexample comes to mind: Mr Donald Trump. Mr Trump is a westerner, from New York. Yet during his term so far all of us have witnessed how he continually stresses unequality between the races and the sexes.

So, what does the statement regarding ‘western culture’ tell us about Mr Trump? Frankly, nothing at all. Or perhaps that not all, but most westerners regard equality as a positive ideal. Thus, equality is for men and women in the West more an ideal than a fixed ‘cultural’ fact for everyone.

Some people might reckon it a bit silly to refer to Mr Trump. For everybody can see the tendencies among westerners, right? Yes, sure, we can determine and measure these tendencies. Let us therefore assume that 82.5% of western populations support the ideal of gender equality. Yet, even this elevated figure does not make this tendency a fact in all western individuals and families.

Therefore, statements about ‘western’ culture therefore have no value on individual level at all, even if we knew what culture means. Professionals know this, and for that reason they carry out thorough research when they make risk assessments in western families, despite the general tendencies in western culture.

But perhaps, then, those other, rather negative statements about Kurds and the Islam are correct? As a professional I surely can for convenience’s sake assume that the Kurdish Mrs X in my case load has nothing to say?

No, you cannot.

A professional needs to assess individuals

Not even if you have the impression, based upon years of experience, that Kurdish women have no say. And not even if scholarly research pointed out that this hold for, say, half of all Kurdish women. As a professional you need to argue per individual or per family where a problem resides and where it doesn’t. You can never project assumptions, stereotypes and tendencies on individual citizens.

There is more. Because ‘culture’ is such a vague notion, and some people have only a superficial knowledge of islam, it is convenient to relate it to other complex problems.

Such as honour related violence – for many just as complex as culture. In a Dutch article on Moroccan teenage girls I read this sentence: “social workers mainly enquire after a family’s religion in order to determine their social position and assess the risk of honour related violence.”

Yes, you read this correctly. It says that social workers based upon information on their clients’ religion, more in particular islam, assess a risk on violence. As a reader, then, I tend to think: the more religious, the higher the risk.

This would be fine íf there were a correlation between honour related violence on the one hand and religion on the other, or between honour and religion. Although I am curious regarding the argumentation of these social workers, such a correlation has never, in no study, been established.

Two problems

In practice therefore there are two problems: first, a vague notion like culture is used as a explicative and predictive factor, but only in cases of migrants. To be sure: for westerners culture is never used in this manner. Second, culture and religion of migrants are easily and on opaque grounds related to other complex notions, such as honour related violence.

Because of this shaky cultural perspective social workers enter with the best of intentions but also with a dose of mistrust an islamic home when there are problems. This attitude is not only damageing to their clients, but to all of us.


The original Dutch text appeared on: Sociale Vraagstukken (https://www.socialevraagstukken.nl/aannamen-over-cultuur-zetten-hulpverleners-op-het-verkeerde-been/) and Sargasso (http://sargasso.nl/aannamen-over-cultuur-zetten-hulpverleners-op-het-verkeerde-been/).

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