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Jim Poulter Author of Books on Aboriginal Culture and Child Protection
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Integrating Theory and Practice

– A new heuristic paradigm for social work practice

Journal article published in Australian Social Work, Vol. 58, No. 2, June 2005, pp199-212.


Eclecticism in social work has been criticised because interventions may be based on theories that have incompatible basic assumptions. The author offers a structural analysis of theories informing social work practice, according to each theory’s basic assumptions about the nature of human society as either conflict or consensus and human behaviour as a product of either free will or determinism. Four basic paradigms of practice in social work are created as quadrants within a circle and labelled respectively as the Functionalist, Existentialist, Humanist, and Structuralist paradigms. The structure is then modified to establish a fifth ‘Heuristic Paradigm’ as an inner circle. The author suggests that Heuristic Paradigm theories are those that best accommodate the paradoxical coexistence of free will and determinism, and also conflict and consensus. Heuristic practice is therefore not seen simply as intuitive eclecticism, but an active and reflective use of various theories as ‘heuristic tools’ to shape practice interventions and thereby build practice wisdom.


This article is in effect a synopsis of my text ‘An Integrated Theory of Practice in Social Work’ as readers will see from the table of contents of the text, a review of the eclectic theory base of social work forms chapter one on its own. Chapter two is devoted to a comprehensive paradigm analysis and identifies four traditional paradigms of theory and practice. Chapters three to six then in turn analyse the theory base to each of these four traditional paradigms. Chapter seven provides a summary and analysis of how all these diverse theories are able to be utilised harmoniously in practice and the social work value base is identified as metatheory guiding the application of these theories. Readers will however need to be aware that my thinking has evolved considerably since the production of this journal article in 2005. Whilst the basic concepts and frameworks have remained consistent over time, there have been many developments. A number of changes in nomenclature have therefore been made to properly reflect these developments and in this sense the 2005 article is now redundant.

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