Using Critical Reflection to Develop Poverty-aware Professionals

Professor Janis Fook
Leeds Trinity University
Professor Michal Krumer-Nevo
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Dr Anna Gupta
Royal Holloway, University of London


Aims: to address the need for better poverty-awareness in social workers and teachers. It focuses on what is a problem for many socially-oriented professions: the conceptual gap between analysis and practice. In the case of poverty the gap is between societal levels of analysis and: 1. understandings of the personal experiences of poverty and 2. Resultant strategies applied at individual levels in teaching and social work practice. The project will develop pilot projects (using critical reflection) to uncover professionals’ hidden assumptions about people in poverty, and to help them devise changed practice strategies.
Methods: The project takes an interdisciplinary approach (social work, teaching, higher education, sociology and social policy) to investigating the details of the need for poverty awareness in teachers and social workers across several national contexts (The UK, Belgium, Israel and Australia); and combines an interdisciplinary understanding in devising a pilot curriculum and further research to address the problem.
Contribution to knowledge: It will provide details of: 1. specific assumptions practitioners make about poverty and people who experience it; 2. dynamics which support this thinking; 3. how this thinking might be uncovered and changed through a process of critical reflection; and 4. how this process might develop changed practices.

Value re ISF goals: the project is conceptually and practically innovative:
• it is interdisciplinary and international in nature, supporting the capacity to yield new findings, and to delve into what are more commonly held- and therefore deeper assumptions about poverty affecting professional practice in different disciplines;
• innovative in educational approach through the use of critical reflection both as a research tool (to uncover deep hidden assumptions but also to address and help change problematic ones)
• potentially contributes to the developing body of knowledge and practice on the use of critical reflection as a research tool

The Research Idea

The project seeks to address an anomaly in the thinking and practice of social work and teaching professionals when working with people in poverty. The project’s innovation lies in its focus on the gap experienced by many helping professionals between their understanding of the impact of poverty on societal and structural levels and their understanding of people in poverty, whom they work with, which is individualistic in nature. This artificial split between individual and societal levels means that an analysis of the impact of broader structural policies is often not factored into an understanding of personal experiences, making it too easy to adopt a ‘blame the victim’ approach. The problem of addressing such biases is complicated by the fact that such ways of thinking constitute a kind of “blind spot” of taken for granted assumptions which prevent professionals from implementing poverty-aware practice. The project aims to tackle this problem in a practical way through the use of ‘critical reflection’. This has been designed as an educational strategy for uncovering, challenging and changing problematic taken for granted assumptions (Fook, 2016; Fook & Gardner 2007). This inter-disciplinary project will bring together leading scholars in social work, poverty- awareness and education to discuss how critical reflection may help professionals to deal with their “blind spots” regarding the impact of poverty at personal levels, and develop ways to factor societal explanations regarding poverty into more innovative, and potentially more effective ways for addressing poverty’s impact on children, families and individual adults.


Linking broad structural/socio-cultural analyses to the lived experiences of individuals has become increasingly important as a research and professional practice issue. The challenge involves how to work effectively with individuals without pathologising them in an increasingly neo-liberal individualistic climate (Pease, 2013). Austerity policies have increased hardship on families, and the mainstream media has demonised people in poverty and portrayed as them as “Others” (Gupta & ATD Fourth World, 2015; Lister, 2015). The social distancing of people through “othering” means that it is difficult for professionals to engage with people they assume to be “different”. It also functions to emotionally protect professionals from experiences (people) they find distressing. (Fook, 2016) It is a major obstacle in adopting a poverty-aware paradigm (combining theoretical, ethical and practical components in working with people in poverty). (Krumer-Nevo, 2015; Krumer-Nevo, Weiss-Gal & Monnickendam, 2009; Krumer-Nevo, Weiss-Gal & Levin, 2011).

The concept of “othering” has been developed in social work practice (Fook 2016), but its application with people in poverty remains underdeveloped. Little is known about the specific poverty-related assumptions professionals, the specific dynamics of the “othering” process, and the impact this has on the way they work. Critical reflection is an effective tool for tackling “blind spots” (and the emotional dynamics involved) and subsequently changing thinking and practice in transformative ways (Fook & Gardner, 2007). This project uses critical reflection to enable poverty-awareness by addressing the more hidden cognitive and emotional dynamics involved in “othering” of people in poverty, leading to new ways of working.

The Focus

Although children and families in poverty constitute a major target group for social workers and teachers (Nutall et al, 2015), research shows that helping professionals have to overcome emotional, cognitive and institutional barriers when encountering the naked reality of poverty (Lott, 2002). At the emotional level, they may feel blame and anxiety. At the cognitive level, they might experience dissonance stemming from the understanding that people live in conditions that the “I” cannot imagine herself in. Addressing this dissonance involves reduction of the pain experienced by people in poverty and of their humanity (Lott, 2002; Rainwater, 1970). At the institutional level, social services users are object of suspicion for cheating and lying in order to be entitled to benefits (Bullock, 1999; Handler & Hasenfeld, 2007). Suspicion, distancing and Othering have been institutionalized in the current Neo-Liberal ideology and neo-managerialism (Handler & Hasenfeld, 2007). The proposed plan aims to develop 1) teaching/educational strategies based on critical reflection that will be implemented in professionals’ curricula, in order to tackle the tendency to distance themselves from people in poverty; 2) a research program to examine helping professionals’ attitudes towards and assumptions about people in poverty; 3) a research program to evaluate the teaching strategies and to promote their further development.

The fresh approach involves enabling practitioners to better appreciate the personal impact of poverty in the lives of children, families and individual adults; and to use this understanding to develop new and effective ways of work.

Theoretical Novelty

The conceptual innovation of this project lies in:

• Its interdisciplinary and international nature (this will uncover what commonly held assumptions traverse disciplines and countries to reveal what is most deeply taken-for-granted about personal experiences of poverty across these very broadly differing contexts
• Integrating the developing poverty-aware paradigm with the established theoretical background and practical method of critical reflection. This aims to provide a new way of uncovering deeply held (and perhaps formerly unrecognised) assumptions about poverty
• Integrating a societal analysis of poverty directly with an understanding of personalised impact. This has only been done in a limited way before because of the tendency to polarise sociological and personal analyses and to locate them within different disciplines.
• Integrating a broader social analysis directly with specific strategies for intervention at individual levels. This has also been limited because of the above mentioned tendency to polarise the two different sets of focuses (analysis and practice).
• Seeking to develop new methods of intervention with people in poverty based on a social justice perspective. This is innovative because of the tendency to “blame the victim” in times of austerity and increasing neo-liberalism.
• Using an innovative educational method (critical reflection) to uncover poverty related biases and assumptions which may not have been formerly challenged


This project combines social work, education and sociology/social policy disciplines within an international context. It will provide details of: assumptions practitioners make about poverty and people who experience it; dynamics which support this thinking; how this thinking is uncovered and changed through a process of critical reflection; and how this process develops changed practices. There is also potential to develop the use of critical reflection as an innovative research tool (Fook, 2011; Morley, (2014)

Different disciplinary input will interact in the following ways:
• Social work researchers/practice theorists bring specific knowledge of social work practice and the curriculum and will identify what is common across different countries.
• Social work practitioners will advise on workplace pressures influencing practitioners, and the discretion able to be exercised.
• Education academics provide: knowledge of poverty awareness issues pertinent to the teaching field; a practical knowledge of the current teaching pressures; and how poverty awareness can be integrated into classroom practice. With social work academics they will identify what are common issues in poverty awareness across teaching and social work professions.
• Critical reflection exponents bring longstanding theoretical and practical expertise in critical reflection and will advise on how this method might integrate successfully into the education/social work and continuing professional development curriculum
• Social policy / sociology researchers will help translate sociological/social policy analyses of poverty into specific personal impacts. They will maintain an overarching interdisciplinary perspective to ensure the material developed is applicable in both social work and teaching settings.

Work Plan

• 1.5 day seminar and following 1 day planning meeting of up to 10 members at the beginning of the period. Seminar topics will include: how/why the need for poverty aware social work and teaching practice arises, esp. in the current international context; what is common across different country contexts and what are gaps/differences; what poverty awareness entails; what is critical reflection and how it has been used in social work and teaching education; and how critical reflection might be used to uncover and change common misconceptions about the personal experiences of poverty; how critical reflection might enable better “poverty-aware” practice and teaching strategies to be developed.

• Output: Pilot design for a critical reflection course to be used to uncover students’s/practitioners’ hidden assumptions about poverty; and a design for small pilot study (based on findings of this initial pilot) to further investigate professionals assumptions about poverty

• Month 6 – follow up skype working session to finalise pilot questionnaire and pilot course design

• Month 9 – Early drafts of journal articles to be circulated

• Month 11 – begin draft grant submission

• Month 12 – final drafts of journal articles to be completed


2 Conference presentations:
– International Association of Schools of Social Work 2018; and
– the British Educational Research Association Conference (September 2017)

Writing of 2 journal articles: one to be submitted to Social Work Education and one to Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice

Planning submission of grant application for larger research project (possibly to Leverhulme or Joseph Rowntree Foundation). This will involve applying for funding to: implement the two pilot projects (questionnaire of assumptions about poverty and the pilot critical reflection course); to refine the questionnaire and implement with a larger population; and to further develop the pilot course to be integrated into existing social work and teaching programmes, but also to deliver as a continuing professional development workshop to current practitioners.