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Toward a common paradigmatic home: Social work in the 21st century

R. Ramsay
Draft of Paper
Published as:
"Toward a common paradigmatic home: Social work in the 21st century."
Indian Journal of Social Work (Special Issue: Social Work in the Next Millennium)
Vol. 60(1), 69-86, 1999.

Thomas Kuhn (1970) in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced the term “paradigm” to describe scientific activities that “define the legitimate problems and methods of research [practice] for succeeding generations of practitioners” (10). Kuhn's idea of paradigms can also be described as "conceptual structures whose premises and boundaries established limits, as well as foundations, for scientific beliefs" (Heilbroner, 1995: 76). When the limits of a dominant paradigm are reached, Kuhn claimed that a replacement paradigm would occur through a “revolutionary” process. Revolutionary, in this context, means that transformation to a new paradigm will involve resistance. Thus, when a dominant paradigm reaches its limits there is no guarantee of a smooth and orderly transition to a new one. However, proponents of a new perspective may expect the transition to occur without resistance.

 As the final year of the twentieth century nears, along with the end of a millennium marked by immense human struggle and widely disparate progress, an opportunity is provided to explore the possibilities of different paradigmatic boundaries and new worldviews to guide the conduct of scientific and professional activities.  In particular, the opportunity is presented to examine a proposed paradigmatic perspective that could provide social work with a universally common paradigm to guide the activities of a new century of practitioners and academics. Although a resistant-free transformation to a different paradigm would be welcomed by the turn of the century, social workers need to be aware of the revolutionary resistance mounted by adherents of entrenched paradigms. In fact, as forecast elsewhere, resistance to changing the dominant paradigm of science has been so effective throughout the 20th century that social work is currently at risk of becoming a full century, and at least three science paradigms, behind in examining the possibilities of a common paradigmatic home (Ramsay, 1991). On the optimistic side, transformational changes in the sciences, which first appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, have shown signs of increasing scientific and public acceptance. The emerging paradigms recognise recent (and ancient) knowledge of the nonlinear, deeply relational and qualitatively complex nature of reality. These paradigms have greatly facilitated a deeper understanding of the limits inherent in the linear, precisely predictable and quantitative view of reality that currently defines and legitimates most of modern science. The new paradigms are so similar to the intuitively determined importance of complex person-in-environment systems identified by social work pioneers that a relatively resistant-free transformation to a common paradigm may be possible early in the next century.

The quest for a common paradigm needs to recognise and integrate the diverse roots of social work. These roots are linked to ancient values and expectations of charitable behaviours in times of need. Hammurabi's Code of Justice is often cited as an example, as are the concepts of equality, charity and compassion professed by Confucius, Moses, Mohammed, Christ and other sages in human history (Barker, 1995).  Although seldom referenced, social work's contemporary identification with holistic perspectives echo the first revelations of holistic reality in ancient Eastern philosophies such as the Advaita Vedanta formulated in India 3000 years ago (Jitatmananda, 1993).  Jitatmananda also points to the similarity between the philosophy of the Vedanta and the theory of implicate order proposed by the twentieth century physicist David Bohm: “[that] all things are enfolded in a total wholeness and unity" (15).

Social work's more recent roots are linked to the dismantling of feudalism in Europe, the social exclusion and harsh inequality effects of two industrial revolutions, and the nineteenth century rise of moral authority values amongst religious puritans. These factors, in combined ways, contributed to ideologies, policies and actions that were often considerably less than charitable in meeting common human needs or establishing common human rights. Early forms of social work were both resistant to and compliant with these uncharitable responses. Contemporary social work roots are generally associated with the emergence of social reform movements, charity organisations, settlement houses, and feminist concerns for human rights, social justice and gender equality in the nineteenth century.

The Modern Science Paradigm

The focus of this article is on paradigms of science, the shifts that have been made since the seventeenth century, and their potential in providing social work with a universally common paradigm.  I begin with the assumption that social work is still strongly influenced by the defenders of the paradigm initiated by Rene Descartes (1596-1650). His worldview, acknowledged to be one of the “pillars” of modern science, describes reality as natural event entities existing independently in space and time that "can be controlled and exploited because they behave predictably according to laws that hold for all space and time" (Kellert, 1993: 154).

Descartes, a French Catholic mathematician, initiated the mechanistic "truth" of mind-body separation. He authored the view of a universal split between the "determined material reality of nature" (i.e. environment) and "the free-thinking reality of people and God" (Sagan, Margulis, & Guerrero, 1997: 171). The environment, conceptualised as the universe or nature, was deemed to be a vast machine-like system. The positive side of his view was the expansion of scientific investigation and the beginning of a scientific paradigm that has dominated the world for close to four centuries. The negative side of this ontological view, which assumed human consciousness and the objective environment to be separate entities, set the stage for everything (including the prejudicial removal of human subjects from the human condition) to be experimented on with impunity. This was the Cartesian license "to investigate virtually everything in an effort to discover the mechanism by which God had 'built' the phenomenal world" (172). Everything apparently existed in three-dimensional space, objectively separated from the scientific observer, and all was to be measured, compared, controlled and ultimately understood by mathematical laws.

Descartes' philosophy had its roots in Galileo's failed (and recanted) effort to study the world "written in a great book which is always open before our eyes" (Jacob, 1973, cited in Sagan, Margulis and Guerrero, 1997: 172). Because the Church condemned Galileo's discovery that Earth was not the centre of the universe, Descartes abandoned his thesis of a heliocentric world. In doing so, he "gave great impetus to the modern practice of investigation by doubting everything but the existence of his own doubting mind" (173); humans were exempt from the determined laws of nature. His philosophy therefore appears to have been carefully crafted to side step the defenders of the prevailing paradigm by defining a mechanical universe created according to the laws of God. Descartes' suppression of his heliocentric thesis closed Galileo's "great book" approach to scientific exploration, but opened the door for objective science to flourish free from creationist (i.e. man/humankind made in the image of God) condemnation. This legacy of separating the observer from the observed is still prevalent in most areas of science education despite challenging twentieth century discoveries. Newton provided scientific support to explain life based on the Cartesian philosophy with evidence that material entities manufactured by God "predictably respond to forces and obey natural laws" (179).

Those who write about the history of social work seldom link the roots of social reform and other activist pursuits with the freedom to challenge the status quo sparked by the Cartesian license. Despite the sacredness of a creative God in Descartes' philosophy and the notion of divine powers vested in Kings and other authorities, resistance to this kind of imposed authority surfaced and contributed to dismantling the feudal system. Eventually the separateness of free-thinking people was also challenged, opening the way for applying the machine metaphor to all people.

Between the application of the machine metaphor to humans and the evolutionary discoveries of Darwin, Thomas Malthus concluded that the Earth's population growth was outstripping the capacity of life-support resources to sufficiently care for all of humankind. Malthus in 1805 was director of the newly formed East Indian College in the early days of the British Empire. He reported that "populations increase geometrically while life support resources - the ability to feed, clothe and house itself - expand arithmetically at best," thus creating the concept of "fundamental scarcity" (Edmundson, 1992 : 268) that strongly influenced the operation of social and economic institutions. Malthus reinforced the human penchant for dichotomous categories such as dividing people into groups of "worthy and unworthy", "haves and have nots", "privileged and unprivileged", "deserving and undeserving", and so on. Those negatively defined were often justifiably refused fundamental life support resources and were even deemed expendable. Darwin's evolutionary theory did not challenge the Cartesian paradigm nor did it challenge Malthus’ theory of fundamental scarcity. Darwin concluded that humans, like all other entities, had evolved via natural selection and its “survival of the fittest” corollary. As the nineteenth century closed modern (Western) science, rooted to the Cartesian paradigm and its mechanistic metaphor, was firmly embedded as the exemplar for discovering truth, and truth (often described as reality) was equated only with the observable and measurable. Western science had assumed a God-like supremacy, which was to endure throughout most of the twentieth century. Further more, adherents of the world's two great ideological camps - capitalism and socialism (also known as Marxism) - accepted Malthus' conclusions as absolute truth and proceeded through warring and superior weaponry motivated science to establish convincing arguments and shows of force that only their respective followers were fit to survive. The machine metaphor of modern science was not only used to separate the worthy from the unworthy, it was co-opted by ideological powers to advance the machinery of war and human destruction.

Influence of Modern Science

The machine metaphor, associated with the notion of a clockwork universe, became so embedded in cultures around the world that even today almost everything has some kind of machinery connotation: "machinery of capitalism", "mechanics of globalisation", "defense mechanisms of psychology", "mechanics of helping processes", and so on. The concept of "planned change", a process common to most helping professions, is also a mechanical process tied to positivist science and the uncompromising belief in "the power to manipulate objects in such a way that certain predicted events [treatment outcomes] will happen" (Kellert, 1993: 155). The scientific method, based on controlled experiments and objective measurement, was deemed to be superior to all other methods of truth seeking. Separating the observer from the observed was fundamental to the "mechanics" of the scientific method and to the planned change processes in helping professions such as social work. The mechanistic notion that the one doing the thinking is "at least in principle completely separate from and independent of the reality that he thinks about" is still predominate in the West (Bohm, 1983: x). Although generally denied, verbally and philosophically, Bohm claims that the machine metaphor also permeates most of life and daily practice in the East. He was convinced that modern science became preoccupied with developing an ever increasing ability to mechanically predict and control the nature of reality; prediction and control (i.e. subordination) became synonymous with the main objective of modern science.

The modern science paradigm has been present in the West for more than 2000 years, given its link to the atomic theory of Democritus. The theory, however, was gradually transformed from an insight of how the Universe operates to "an absolute truth that the whole of reality is actually constituted of nothing but ‘atomic building blocks’, all working together more or less mechanically" (Bohm, 1983: 8). The atomic theory was particularly conducive to the idea that the human being in his/her societal environment could, in principle, be understood in terms of aggregates of separately existing atoms. From this came the basic assumption that a whole could be analysed and understood as the additive sum of its separate parts, scientifically known as reductionism. According to Bohm, "the whole weight of science was eventually put behind this analytical and fragmentary approach to reality" (9).

The fragmentary approach of modern science fostered what is now the widespread practice of dividing the arts, sciences, professions, and most other forms of human work into specialties, each considered separate and different from the others. Fragmentation reflected the way society in general had developed by being  "broken up into separate nations and different religious, political, economic, racial groups" (Bohm, 1983: 1). The fragmentary approach also reflected the way individuals were divided into separate parts based on different aims, ambitions, loyalties, and so on. These often-conflicting divisions made it easy for different groups of people to actively exploit each other. The legacy of this approach is still prevalent, witnessed by widespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession, and so on) which often precludes members of these groups from working together for the common good of all people.

The Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm, rooted in atomic theory, worked well for several centuries. According to Bohm, if we supposed that “theories gave true knowledge, corresponding to ‘reality as it is’, then we would have to conclude that Newtonian theory was true until around 1900, after which it suddenly became false while relativity and quantum theories suddenly became truth” (4). Although this is a good guideline to note the transition from modern to postmodern (i.e. post Newtonian) science, it perpetuates the notion that the purpose of a theory is to establish true knowledge (i.e. fixed truths). Theory development must be recognised as a major part of the thinking that goes on in scientific research. However as Bohm points out, the Greek meaning of theory is connected to ‘theatre’ meaning ‘to view’ or ‘to make a spectacle’. In this sense, theory is an informed understanding of how something works, not a claim about absolute truth. Bohm would prefer that Newtonian theory be seen as limited in the domain that it has application, not as a theory that is no longer true. This would lead us to regard theories as ways of giving us new views of the world or different insights about existing views rather than as purveyors of absolute truth. It would be helpful if everyone were made aware of the modern science tendency to promote fragmentary thought and then be encouraged to consciously work at limiting the domination of this view. Dividing is convenient and useful in practical, technical and functional activities. It is problematic only when it becomes the dominant worldview, making reality appear to consist of separately existent fragments.

Limiting the domain of a centuries old worldview will not be easy. There are many who would still argue that the fragmentary base of modern science is real. The division of the world into nation-states, cities, religions, political systems, and the naturalness of conflict in wars and violence toward others are considered proof of natural fragmentation. Wholeness, and undivided interconnectivity, as its counterpart is only an ideal toward which humankind should strive.

Rise of Social Work

By the late nineteenth century, the modern science paradigm was firmly embedded in Western civilisation. About the same time, social work was emerging as a contemporary twentieth century profession, largely out of its charitable and social reform roots. The 1998 centennial anniversary of social work in the United States celebrates the "organisation of a summer school of philanthropic work in New York in 1898, which in 1904 became the New York School of Philanthropy" (Kendall, 1998: 28). The first full-scale school of social work was opened in Amsterdam in 1898 and by 1910 professional education programs were firmly established in several European and North American countries (Kendall, 1998).

When Abraham Flexner gave an invited address to the U.S. National Conference on Charities and Corrections in 1915 entitled, "Is Social Work a Profession?", his conclusion was based almost entirely on a strong allegiance to the tenets of modern science. He was one of North America's most influential experts on professional education, having authored the 1910 Flexner Report which triggered the transformation of medical education to the machine metaphor foundations of modern science. Three of his major reasons for the young profession of social work not to qualify as a profession were: 1) its primary (and unique) focus on relationships instead of material entities; 2) its lack of independent specialisations; and 3) its lack of scientific objectivity (Austin, 1983). Although he was an isolated commentator on the professional merits of social work, his message reflected the times. Without compliance to the modern science paradigm, social work had little chance of gaining credibility as a profession dedicated to the betterment of human relationships and the eradication of the harsh inequalities fostered by the industrial revolutions and continued assumptions of fundamental scarcity of life-support resources.

The dualistic foundations of modern science facilitated the evolution of social work as a dual purpose profession, divided into person-centered and environment-centered camps. The primacy of an interactional focus on the multitude of interdependent relationships in a complex person-in-environment system receded into the background. Each area of the profession concentrated on the development of specialised approaches to social environment improvements or therapeutic interventions to improve individual social welfare. Kendall's (1998) review of social work's Euro-American foundations described European approaches to be more environment-focused, with North American approaches tending to be more person-focused, emphasising methods of therapeutic change. Even with these trends, the primacy of the interactional focus was not totally lost. Bertha Reynolds, one of America's exemplary social work pioneers, never gave up on her view of human behaviour as a "functional adaptive response to the complex system within which the individual and the social environment interacted" (Hartman, 1986, cited in Reisch, 1998: 174).

 In spite of the influence of Reynolds and others, social work in many parts of the world became a fragmented collection of competing specialisations, often warring over the alleged supremacy of their respective methods to scientifically manipulate human behaviour in the direction of predictable outcomes. With the eventual introduction of general systems and ecological perspectives to social work, mid-century critics of the increasing fragmentation were able to reintroduce a more holistic, interactional focused conception of the profession.

Bartlett (1970) was one of the first to succinctly reintegrate the "lnteractional" connection within the dualistic person and environment purpose of social work. This led to a renewed Person-Interaction-Environment (PIE) construction of social work's conceptual domain and ultimately to the widely accepted person-in-environment representation of social work's domain of practice. The primary focus of social work practice was directed to the dynamically complex interactions between person and environment. Bartlett's work significantly reasserted social work's identity as a relationship-centered discipline. However, without an appropriate science paradigm to support a relationship-centered identity, social workers continued to be largely entity-centered and modern science based in their approaches. Clinical social workers, tied to earlier efforts to develop scientific, technique-based methods of social casework, endorsed client and/or family-centered specialisations. Macro social workers, similarly linked to community organisation methods of scientific explanation and prediction, endorsed environment-centered approaches. Even today, the effort in developmental social work to shift away from material-centered development has been put forward as people-centered development (Cox, 1998). This laudable effort to change a problematic approach to developmental social work underscores the challenge of shifting to a relationship-centered conception of the profession. In spite of many declarations made by the profession that the primary focus of social work is on the interactions between person and environment, the perception of an entity-centered, dual purpose, modern science based profession remains intact.

Transformation to Postmodern science

Perhaps it is only in hindsight, but in the early years of the twentieth century there was beginning evidence of paradigmatic shifts underway. Had these shifts come into public view at the time, social work might have been identified as a leading-edge profession and encouraged to develop as a relationship-centered discipline, supported by the tenets of postmodern science paradigms.

Before describing these shifts and their relevance to social work's quest for a common paradigmatic home, I want to acknowledge the beginnings of an important integration of ancient Vedic principles and postmodern science. I speak of the work of Vivekanada, recognised as one of India's stalwart thinkers along with Ramakrishna, Tagore, Aurobindo, Gandhi and Radhakrishnan (Patel, 1987), and his two lecture tours of America. Nearly a century ago (1899) Vivekanada prophetically foresaw that the conclusions of science will be the very conclusions of the holistic philosophy of the Vedanta formulated in India nearly three thousand years ago. Vivekanada was clear in his mind that "science and religion will meet and shake hands" (Rolland, 1993: 260). A great theme of the Vedanta was the "oneness of everything" (Jitatmananda, 1993: 65), and the belief that separation was the root of all misery. More recently, Jitatmananda, in the spirit of Vikekanada, shows how postmodern science paradigms are "pointing more and more to a holistic universe where matter, energy and consciousness are connected together in one inseparable background" (ix).

I also want to mention the French mathematician Henri Poincare´, who discovered a major flaw in the linear cause and effect laws of Newtonian mathematics near the end of the last century (Kellert, 1993). Although not widely published at the time, and even doubted by Poincare´himself, the results of his work laid the foundation for chaos theory and the complex systems paradigm to emerge in the twentieth century. An important chaos theory feature of all complex systems is known as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". This feature removes the capacity of precise predictability "because even the smallest degree of vagueness in specifying the initial state of the system will grow to confront the researcher [practitioner] with enormous errors in calculations of the system's future state" (Kellert: x-xi).

The context for a major paradigm shift was underway early in the century. The first notable signs appeared with Einstein’s theories of relativity (1905 and 1915). His discovery that matter is a form of energy changed our understanding of knowledge. All scientific knowledge was relative, not absolute. Further evidence that the mechanistic science paradigm had reached its limits was found in quantum theory, the second major shift away from the mechanistic paradigm. Amongst its many breakthroughs, quantum physics (also known as quantum mechanics) "eliminated the Newtonian dream of a controllable measurement process" (Ford, 1989: 354). The quantum science paradigm set the stage for systems perspectives and the development of general systems theory (Capra, 1996). Instead of a mechanical 'building block" view of the world, the quantum paradigm described nature to be more like a web of "dancing relationships" between constituent elements of a unified whole. By 1927 when Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle indicated that things might happen without cause, the limits of mechanistic science were clearly established but its dominance remained extensively embedded in the professions and sciences.

Discovering the limits of modern science was advanced by other events in 1927, generally unknown to social workers. Buckminster Fuller, later to be recognised as one of world's most innovative thinkers, inventors and philosophers, turned away from a planned suicide and dedicated his life to a comprehensive reexamination of the conceptual underpinnings of Western thought. His discovery of synergetic principles was supported with measurable evidence that the whole is more than the sum its parts. In Fuller's words "synergy means the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the behaviour of their parts taken separately" (Edmundson, 1992: 33). Fuller was able to produce geometric artifacts of the quantum discovery; there are no solids or "basic building blocks", only energy events and relationships. All energy events regardless of physical embodiment or entity identification are held together by sets of interconnective relationships. For humanity to solve its complex problems Fuller was convinced that the emphasis had to be on relationships. In the1940s, with the help of a student and later well-known sculptor, Kenneth Snelson, Fuller was able to construct tensegrity structures. He used them to physically demonstrate that the structural shape of any system is guaranteed by the continuous relationship (tensional) behaviour of the system, not by the behaviours of the entity elements on their own (Edmundson, 1992). In other words, the strength of a system is largely determined by its tensile (relationship) strength not by its compressed (entity) strength.

Fuller brought the discovery in quantum physics that the observer cannot be separated from the observed to a practical level. Modern science has assumed a three dimensional reality based on the three coordinates XYZ - height, length, and width of conventional cubical measurement (Applewhite, 1977). In other words, we have been socialised to use this cubical way of describing the observed space we experience as a three dimensional environment. Since we now know that what is observed cannot be independent of the observer, the observer always represents an additional dimension making our observed reality minimally four-dimensional. In social work, for example, I have used this understanding of holistic dimensionality to conceptually represent person-in-environment as a person interconnected (each part connected to every other part) with a minimum of three environment elements. Fuller discovered that the parallels and right angles of cubical systems cannot model the holistic interconnections of a four dimensional network, only the angular structure of triangles can model this kind of network interconnectivity. Using a four dimensional system, Fuller was able to show how the minimum complexity of interrelationship patterns between self (person) and otherness (environment) could be modeled. The relationship between self and otherness was a critical part of Fuller's understanding of wholeness. In fact, he described the entire universe as a "scenario of otherness and self" (Fuller quoted in Applewhite, 1977: 19). His intention in presenting a minimum four-dimensional, deeply relational model of reality was to open new ways of improving the human predicament. In this regard Fuller's work is considered by many to be the first organised opposition to reductionism and the mechanistic metaphor of modern science.

Toward a New Paradigmatic Home

Where modern science is firmly rooted in the notion of mechanical reality, the stream of knowledge flowing out of the twentieth century is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; a holistic, ecological reality characterised by deep interconnectivity and inseparable networks of events. Virtually all positivist assumptions have been placed in a smaller domain of influence with the emergence of postmodern science discoveries: theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Fuller's synergetics, chaos theory and complex systems.

 Ralph Abraham (1996), a world renowned chaos theorist, states that three major shifts in the sciences finally came into public view in the 1970s. He describes them as the Chaos Revolution, Gaia Hypothesis and Erodynamics. Chaos science is a new branch of mathematics that recognises the presence of many "intrinsically irregular natural processes" (3). Gaia science which comes from the biological sciences "affirms the intelligence of the whole life system of our planet in creating and regulating the physical conditions optimal for the emergence and maintenance of life" (5). Erodynamic science which comes from the social sciences as part of applied chaos theory "provides the basis for understanding the symbiosis of human populations and the biosphere, and explores models for the world economy and the global environment in tightly coupled interaction" (5).

Out of these different discipline based shifts, we are seeing the emergence of a complex systems paradigm, the third major shift away from the Cartesian paradigm of modern science. This paradigm "has become recognised in recent years as a new scientific discipline, the ultimate of interdisciplinary fields" (Bar-Yam, 1997: 1). The word "complexity" from a dictionary perspective underscores the importance of interconnectivity and interwoven parts in complex systems networks. In this paradigm, complex systems include collections of human beings, ranging from families to entire civilisations. According to Bar-Yam, the inclusion of collective human systems broadens the interdisciplinary field to take into account "social psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and economics, and to the borders of public policy, social work and social welfare" (783). Transitions to this paradigm are creating shifts in the Cartesian motivated goals and objectives of individuals, as well as entire professions (and, eventually we hope in corporations and societies of people). Traditional objectives of achieving positions of power and control as descriptors of accomplishment and fulfillment are giving way to descriptions of "team players, networks of interacting individuals, and other more cooperative models of behaviour" (818) that are not used to achieve conformity to a single norm .

With the emergence of the complex systems paradigm, the work of Margulis and Sagan (1997) is showing that "no scientist should be deceived by the pretense of objectivity, and no information can be garnered on delicate issues by single researchers acting alone. All science is a highly social, self-correcting, interactive exercise" (xxi).  The thrust of their book, Slanted Truths, is to address the extent of connectedness of the elements of the living world. They identify that the unity of life and its environment on Earth's surface has implications which humanity has barely begun to understand. From this, it is not hard to conclude that the early twentieth century relationship-centered character of social work, which Flexner rejected as a requisite condition to be a profession, is now supported by a scientific worldview that was emerging at the same time.  Unfortunately, it did not start to come into acceptable public view for another sixty years. The recognition by social work pioneers of complex person-in-environment systems, and their intuitive sense of a holistic, deep ecological worldview shows them to be conceptual thinkers well  ahead of their time. The value of their early insights has had to wait for an acknowledged science paradigm to emerge and receive public acceptance.

The complex systems paradigm is also captured by the following key words in the view of Margulis and Sagan (1997): Gaia, symbiosis, and evolution. These words set the stage for social workers to significantly reduce the influence of the Cartesian paradigm and machine metaphor in their professional work and increase their acceptance of the complex systems paradigm and Gaia metaphor. The Gaia metaphor "put simply, views Earth's atmosphere (the place where life exists) as a single, self-regulating entity: the Earth is alive" (xxi). Gaia is not a mystical based philosophy. Used as a living systems metaphor, it describes the healthy nature of far-from-equilibrium systems discussed by chaos scientists in contrast to the mechanistic view that equilibrium is the hallmark of a healthy state. The Earth's atmosphere, for example, exists in an extremely far from equilibrium state, but without it we would not have a living Earth. Far from equilibrium health, with characteristic evidence of robustness, diversity, flexibility, and cooperative behaviours is the sought for dynamic in a complex systems paradigm.

Symbiosis refers to the physical connection between organisms of different species (xxi). Symbiosis deals with relationship partners, some permanent and tight, some flexible and loose, that lead to new composites. Symbiotic evidence from research science provides scientific support that "all life is directly and indirectly connected with all other life" (xxii). Symbiosis challenges our modern science notion of individuality. From a symbiotic perspective, individuality as a separate entity in space and time does not exist. Individuality, defined by Margulis and Sagan, is actually a complex symbiosis of many formerly free-living component organisations that entails constant adjustment and reintegration. Evolution as the third term is also deeply interconnective. Simply defined as change through time, "evolution connects all life on Earth through time" (xxiii).

Margulis and Sagan take us back to quantum theory as the point in the twentieth century where the "Newtonian worldview [came] to a functional end, although the momentum of scientific discourse has prevented it from reckoning with the consequences of this theoretical shipwreck" (1997:64). The domination of the Cartesian paradigm and modern science has prevailed for most of the twentieth century, preventing the narrowed limits of this worldview from being fully communicated and explained to others. The power of this dominating paradigm continues to hold social work from resurfacing its original alignment with relationship-centered practice and aligning itself to the scientific paradigms of postmodern science. More specifically, it precludes acceptance of the Gaia metaphor that represents the deep symbiotic interconnectivity between all life forms as a necessary condition for the well being of all people. And, it has slowed the momentum toward global achievement of social justice actions and sufficient regenerative life-support resources to benefit all of humankind.

Margulis and Sagan argue that an autopoietic Gaia will replace the neo Darwinian mechanistic life science worldview. Autopoiesis, a term invented by Maturana and Varala, "refers to the self-making and self-maintaining properties of living systems" (1980: 98). In this respect living systems do not simply "adapt" to a passive environment as most mechanically minded neo-Darwinians assume; instead a living system actively produces and modifies its surroundings. A physical Universe run by mechanical laws does not determine human functioning and relationship connections to others. Instead there is emerging evidence that their autopoietic are governed by the tensegrity principles discovered by Fuller and Snelson (Ingber, 1998). The Gaia metaphor that is associated with the complex systems paradigmincludes "all organisms as part of a single continuous bounded autopoietic system that has never been breached since the origin of life . . . While portions of the system (individuals, populations, species) are always losing autopoietic properties, the entire system persists" (Margulis and Sagan, 1997:104).

The Gaia metaphor will shift the focus of science on extra terrestrial frontiers to a focus on the Earth and the interaccomodative relationships of its living organisms as a frontier for research and professional practice activities. The Gaia metaphor will also set the stage for the development of interdisciplinary, symbiotic partnerships between disparate disciplines. The current practice of dividing disciplines into separate divisions often impedes science. Margulis and Sagan (1997) identify "academic apartheid", which is still pervasive in almost all higher education institutions, as an enormous impediment. A Gaian worldview will foster interdisciplinary research on Earth systems, including human communities and other social systems of interest to social work, precluded until now by obstacles of academic apartheid and the slowly diminishing momentum of modern science's Cartesian paradigm.


The ruling Cartesian paradigm evolved to its neo-Darwinian form, true to Kuhn's description of the resistance to alternative paradigms, will probably not give way easily to the new paradigm, but there is growing evidence of its inevitability. I would like to think that this will occur early in the twenty-first century. At the same time, I think it is fair to accept that social work's Western world founders were not aware of Vivekananda's interpretation of an eventual science-religion integration, when the established the higher education and public recognition foundations of the profession. Nor were they likely aware of the roots of holism in the ancient Advaita Vendata, Poincare´'s discovery of the limitations of precise predictability or the rejection of observer objectivity by pioneer quantum physicists. The rising and continued dominance of the modern science paradigm in higher education curricula throughout the twentieth century, in spite of compelling evidence to limit this dominance, makes it easy to understand how social work's intuitive relationship-centered beginnings would give way to the dualism and entity-centeredness of a Cartesian paradigm. Even if social work's pioneers were aware of and supported the emerging paradigmatic alternatives, their position would have been denigrated and likely dismissed. However, with the advantage of almost one hundred years of accumulating scientific evidence to support the intuitive wisdom of our founding members, the profession may be ready for a significant transformational shift to a common paradigmatic home. I also expect social workers around the world to have the individual and collective fortitude to publicly honour the intuitive understanding of the complex systems paradigm that was evident for so many of our pioneer founders. Once this is achieved, social workers may globally align with a Gaian metaphor and a common paradigmatic home that will have a universal conceptual fit, academically and professionally.

If social work's adherents don't consciously move in the direction of being guided by the emerging paradigm shifts in the twentieth century, the dominance of the machine metaphor will remain embedded in the education and practice of social work around the world. The profession will continue to let itself be informed by a science paradigm that relies on the "logic of domination" and the associated values of subordination and social exclusion. The profession will be left several paradigm transitions behind and inadvertently it will continue to be guided by a paradigm that is clearly not common to social work. As Kellert (1993) warns, continued support, explicitly or implicitly, for the machine metaphor view of reality will preclude the kind of revolutionary shift needed to embrace the chaotic, robustness and diversity of complex systems. Our economic, political and social systems will be allowed to continue presuming that men are more rational than women, thereby allowing the subordination of women to continue. Those in power and other positions of influence will continue to presume that people are purposive while natural processes (environment) are not, thus allowing the subordination and destruction of our natural environment to occur without regard for the deep ecological interconnectivenesss between all living organisms. The relationship-centeredness of social work will continue to be rhetoric based instead of practice based for yet another century. Instead of ranking as a leading-edge profession of the twenty-first century, social work will become increasingly irrelevant and outdated as a contributor toward non-discriminatory human well-being, peaceful co-existence among people and nations, and the pursuit of social justice for all in the new millennium.


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