University of Tasmania
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A relational encounter: The lived experience of direct social work practice with people of refugee background

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posted on 2023-05-27, 15:23 authored by Baltra-Ulloa, AJ
While there is significant research and theoretical literature both within Australia and internationally that relates to social work with people of refugee background, there is a lack of empirical research about how direct social work practice is understood and experienced by both people of refugee background and social workers. Using a qualitative phenomenological approach informed by critical and anti-oppressive theories, I aimed to address this significant gap in empirical knowledge by capturing the lived experience of social work practice with people of refugee background. My research questioned: how direct social work practice with people of refugee background is understood and experienced. Thirty-one participants within Tasmania were recruited through volunteer and snowball sampling and were interviewed using a semi-structured interview. The participants were people of refugee background, social workers who worked with people of refugee background, and, social workers of refugee background. The interviews were thematically analysed. The interview data with people of refugee background revealed both negative and positive experiences of social work practice. Experiencing help and change characterised positive encounters in which social workers were encountered as friends and partners who worked with the strengths of people of refugee background. Negative experiences were characterised by the absence of help, change, friendship and a sense of partnership with the practitioner. Social workers commonly described positive practice as being with people through their personal relationships with clients. Negative practice involved being to people. Such negative practice was unreflective, emphasised professional boundaries and involved regarding people of refugee background as powerless. Finally, for social workers of refugee background, the cultural exchange experience was the focus of what, for them, comprised positive practice. Cultural exchange was characterised by reciprocity and mutual learning between practitioner and client. Additionally, the professionalisation of social work was described as an obstacle to cultural exchange. The study‚ÄövÑvºs findings highlight the significance for participants of a relational standpoint in direct social work practice with people of refugee background, requiring dialogical practices that were derived from and framed by friendships and partnerships between practitioners and clients. While it is acknowledged that qualitative findings do not easily lend themselves to generalisation, possible implications for practice are that social work needs to contend with how relationships with clients are understood as friendships and developed through reciprocity, dialogue and mutual learning. Further research is warranted to explore how to integrate these findings into the learning and practice of social work with people of refugee background.


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