What Is Cultural Competence?

Social workers move through many different communities and offer assistance to many people from other cultures, which is why cultural competence is essential. Additionally, because those in the field often act as gatekeepers for vital resources and information, such awareness is crucial to the ethical enforcement of discipline-wide standards. The article below provides more a more detailed exploration of the concept and how it dovetails with other aspects of the profession.

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Culture, Privilege, and Power

While the lay community might consider culture as the sole domain of sociologists or anthropologists, understanding the enormous variation in cultures that exists is vital for individuals engaged in social work. One of the primary tenets instilled during ethics education is that the putative workers recognize their own culture, with all its values and blind spots. They must also understand that, when interacting with individuals seeking assistance, they carry enormous power. Their position is quite simply a mark of privilege.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides educational resources and helpful articles explaining the guiding principals of the field via a network of local chapter organizations. As stated on the NASW website, every social worker should understand the culture concept, recognize the different elaborations of culture in which they work daily, and respect the variations. Only then can they be sure they are fulfilling their mission of assistance and care.

NASW provides these guidelines to assist those who work with social resources in furthering their practical understanding of how culture may apply to more than ethnicity or socioeconomic demography. Cultures can include LGBTQ individuals, age-specific groups such as the elderly or very young, veterans, survivors of intimate abuse, and many other nested variants. Perhaps within the consideration of culture, it is essential to recognize how the power dynamic impacts individuals differently, and the impacts of subjugation or disempowerment.

Why It's Important

Social workers often engage with members of communities that are marginalized, demoralized, and in some cases intentionally dehumanized or vilified. This fact alone renders the need for specialized application of skills and a more tailored approach to serving such an array of different needs. In simple terms, if one does not understand the culture from which a client comes, one cannot identify either needs or problems. In many cases, the individual may not be able to articulate what they need, and it is up to the social worker to determine what avenues for relief and assistance will be best suited to an individual case.

The NASW Illinois Chapter asserts that large part of attaining or enhancing cultural competence requires every individual engaged in social work to examine their own beliefs and values, their cultural position, and to explore reasons why some interactions may cause them discomfort. This exercise digs into features of culture that are naturalized—such as ideas about what constitutes cleanliness or virtue, the best way to perform many foundational acts of daily life, and even attitudes about poverty, sexuality, and ethnicity of which an individual may be unaware.

While there are many ways to assist those in need—from providing them with life needs to offering informational resources or support services—ignoring cultural variation can prove wasteful and, in some cases, damaging. Rigorous education in both ethics and cultural competence can help to allocate resources where they are most useful, reduce the risk of alienating individuals in need of assistance, and increase acceptance of or normalize cultural differences.