Good Practice

What do we mean by “intercultural competence” in social care work?

One starting point would be to say that it is the ability to offer as good a service to someone from a culture different from one’s own as to someone with whom one shares the same cultural background; clearly this implies overcoming barriers of communication and values and is not to say that services offered in these different circumstances should be the same.

NASW, clearly place cultural competence within the larger context of social work values and anti-oppressive practice:

“Cultural competence requires social workers to recognize the strengths that exist in all cultures. This does not imply a universal nor automatic acceptance of all practices of all cultures. For example, some cultures subjugate women, oppress persons based on sexual orientation, and value the use of corporal punishment and the death penalty. Cultural competence in social work practice must be informed by and applied within the context of NASW’s Code of Ethics and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.” (2001 p16)

There is a clear warning here regarding the risk of compromising other professional values in the quest for cultural competence and slipping into a dangerous relativism. On one model, the highest stage of “intercultural sensitivity” is “the application of ethnorelativism to one’s own identity” (Bennett 1986). Rodgers et al (1998) comment that the thrust of various approaches to teaching cultural competence “…is to move students from a state of ethnocentrism to one of pluralism whereby they accept and respect the inherent right to coexistence of all cultures (Nakanishi & Rittner, 1992).” Bennett’s (1986) stages of development of cultural competence, identify “Integration of difference: the application of ethnorelativism to one’s own identity as the most desirable outcome for training in this field. Ben-David (1998) advocates a three stage approach to teaching “cultural pluralism: becoming aware of one’s own culture, becoming aware of cultural differences and developing a “pluralistic attitude”.

NASW (2001) suggests a number of elements in cultural competence:
Firstly, “social workers should understand culture and its functions in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that exist in all cultures.” (op cit p12) Secondly, “social workers should have a knowledge base of their clients’ cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients’ cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups” While it is not clear what constitutes an adequate knowledge base, O’Hagan (2001) clearly believes that this requirement is less important than the attitude of workers:

“The workers need not be (as is often claimed) highly knowledgeable about the cultures of the people they serve, but they must approach culturally different people with openness and respect – a willingness to learn. Self-awareness is the most important component in the knowledge base of culturally competent practice.” (p. 235)

The third NASW requirement refers to understanding of diversity and oppression:

“Cultural competence requires social workers to examine their own cultural backgrounds and identities to increase awareness of personal assumptions, values, and biases. The workers’ self-awareness of their own cultural identities is
as fundamental to practice as the informed assumptions about clients’ cultural backgrounds and experiences in the United States. This awareness of personal values, beliefs, and biases inform their practice and influence relationships
with clients.” (op cit pps., 18-19)

Project Research

As part of the project, surveys of students on social work and social care programmes were administered regarding inter-cultural competence. In Wales, at UWIC the survey, which had been agreed by all the partners, was distributed to students on the BA Social Work, the HND in Health and Social Care and BSc Housing. In order to maximize returns, surveys were handed out in lectures and time was allowed for students to complete them. Since intercultural competence was not a term commonly used on programmes, it was explained this referred to the knowledge skills and values needed to work with people from a different culture than one’s own. The nature and purpose of the project was also explained briefly. One hundred and twenty nine were returned from a possible 224 respondents, a return rate of 57.6%. The team of staff and students actively involved in the project, sampled the questionnaires and developed codes for analysing responses.

One part of the survey asked respondents to respond to a brief scenario:

Aisha is 17. She has recently left school and has applied for a job as a receptionist. She comes home from an interview and feels she was not offered the job because of the fact that she wears the veil. She was told that customers might find it frightening. The manager also said he would prefer his staff to wear modern clothes.

If you were a social (care) worker in this situation:
2.1.1 What is the main issue here in your view?
2.1.2 How would you feel about the situation?
2.1.3 How would you respond to her?
2.1.4 What knowledge would help you deal with the situation?
2.1.5 Can you name an organisation which could offer advice on cultural issues to you if such a situation arose?

Most students (72.87%) identified discrimination as one of the main factors, but fewer (13.95%) identified racism or “racial discrimination”. In social work training in the UK, understanding of racism is no longer an explicit requirement as it was when governed by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social work; the evidence here suggests that there is a need for it to be given higher priority than is currently the case. Most students on the social work programme (61.11% but only 51.16% overall) reported that they would respond to Aisha by informing her of her rights or helping her complain; the situation was recognized as problematic, but some students were very directive in this regard, which might suggest the need for more emphasis on a partnership approach and the service users’ rights to self-determination. Most students (59.69%) identified legislation, policy or procedures as the area of knowledge that would help them deal with this situation, but there was not a high degree of accuracy in naming relevant legislation. The legal issues in the case study are not straightforward in the UK. While the rights of Sikhs to wear the turban is protected by the Race Relations Act 1976, the right to wear the veil is not, as it is seen as a religious requirement not a racial one. The relevant law is the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, which no students identified. This does suggest the need for more specific law teaching and learning in this area.

When asked in general terms what knowledge, skills and values would increase competence, nearly half (48.84%) identified the need to know more about other cultures and religions, while less than a quarter (23.26%) identified this area as significant in relation to the case scenario. This may suggest that many students feel that they need to know more about other cultures, but are less clear about how the knowledge would help them in concrete situation; it is not as high on their agendas when in problem solving mode. While the disparity may have arisen from the particularities of the case study used, it is an issue that warrants further investigation, given the difficulties of providing adequate knowledge of a range of cultures and religions in a multi-cultural context and the dangers of encouraging stereotyping if limited information is provided.


From the literature the main components of intercultural competence commonly identified are:

1. Understanding the importance in human development of:

a) Language

b) Ethnicity

c) Religion

2. Understanding one’s own culture and the organizational culture within which one may be working and accepting it as one possible perspective among many.

3. Understanding the importance of anti-oppressive practice

a) Embracing a practice based on professional social work values. (IFSW, UNCHR)

b) Knowledge of relevant law and social policy

c) Understanding of the social context e.g., racism and cultural disrespect

4. Gaining knowledge of other cultures

5. Learning specific skills such as those involved in choosing and working through an interpreter.

The mix of these elements needs to vary according to the local and national context in terms of the degree of diversity of the population and the dominant cultural attitudes towards other groups. O’Hagan (2001) argues that in a UK context, cultural sensitivity is the key ingredient and depends primarily on knowledge, skills and values most of which are basic to social care training:

One distinct contrast in approaches is between those contexts where key social issues are located in a dichotomy between a dominant culture and a single perceived marginalized culture, (Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, Jewish and Arab in Israel, Anglo-Saxon and Maori in New Zealand etc.) and those contexts where there are multiple subordinate cultures and rapidly changing patterns of migration. Kyambi (2005) uses the term “hyper-diversity” to describe the situation in large cities such as London, where the flow of people globally creates a flux of multilingual and multicultural contexts. Roberts (2009) argues that whereas “culture” is often taken to be “ethnicised culture of difference and strangeness”, organisational cultures are seen as universal and normative, “…it is the taken for granted way of doing things, and those who cannot read between the lines are evaluated negatively n terms of poor skills or personality” (p29) She concludes that:

“Becoming intercultural in the work place requires…a realization that organisational culture is as much an ethnic phenomenon as the ‘diversity’ culture ascribed to those who are not part of the white majority group.” (ibid.)

On this reading the priority for inter-cultural competence becomes self awareness, reflection and allowing others to express themselves in their own way, rather than learning about other cultures. Developing cultural self awareness is not, however an easy process, particularly if, within the term culture we include the more historical and political elements that are likely to shape our interactions with people from other cultures. Gollan and O’Leary (2009) advocate black and white teaching partnerships that focus on exploring “whiteness” in an Australian context.
They observe that:

“This means supporting white students to sit with the anxiety, discomfort and defensiveness that is evoked by naming whiteness, as this moves the attention from the margins of ‘otherness’ to the centre of the white world that is obscured and ‘taken for granted’ through being part of the dominant culture” (p. 711)

In this way, understanding of racism and xenophobia can be combined with the development of self awareness and placed at the centre of more academic learning about relevant legislation and anti-oppressive practice. While the issues are more complex in multi-cultural settings than bi-cultural ones, some black and white issues need to be addressed carefully and caution needs to be exercised in presenting superficial information about other cultures as exotic stereotypes. To some degree, Wales is both bi-cultural and multi-cultural, but the bi-cultural issues are about language rather than colour. Drawing on Gollan and O’Leary (2009) this suggests a focus on what it is to have English, as opposed to Welsh as a first language. However the elements are mixed to reflect the local context, it is crucial that they are integrated. There was agreement by all the partners that intercultural competence should not be a stand alone option, but an integrated part of all social care learning and teaching.


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