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An Education in Relationship: Developing a Professional Use of Self in Social Work Education and Implications for Psychocultural Theory


An enduring puzzle for anthropology is specifying the interaction between persons and culture. Through a person-centered, process-oriented, and historically situated ethnography of the education of students in a two-year Master's program of social work in Los Angeles, this dissertation argues persons are the primary sculptors of culture, creating and using resources to fulfill human motivations and mediate relationships through cultural developmental processes. This dissertation contributes to literature in psychological and medical anthropology through examining the education of social workers. While social workers provide the majority of mental health care in the United States, little research describes their professionalization.

This study investigated how students formed relationships with clients, how their personal selves were involved, and how they interacted with pedagogical and cultural models. Methods included participant-observation in a cohort of 88 students; longitudinal person-centered interviews with 19 students, and a final cohort-wide questionnaire. The ethnography describes the curriculum as it unfolded, and reveals the unique yet patterned experiences of three diverse students. The observed process was remarkably similar to the pedagogy developed by the functional school of social work, an approach grounded in the theories of G. H. Mead and Otto Rank that controversially differed from Freudian psychoanalysis; however, this history was never mentioned.

Students arrived with an impulse to help others, and with increasing self-awareness developed a "professional use of self" as the foundation of the social work relationship. This constitutes what I call a "relational shift", an unanticipated change in subjectivity, which differs from the adoption of any particular interpretive theory. The unpredictable use of pedagogical instruction challenges theories of the internalization of culture that cannot account for human creativity and lack a convincing theory of human motivation.

Students' development, in productive alignment with program intentions, reanimates Sapir's and Hallowell's interest in culture and human development and the necessity to understand the evolved human psyche in order to understand human culture. A model of person-culture interaction is proposed, consistent with study data and synthesizing ideas of Sapir, Hallowell, Rank, and recent theories in psychocultural anthropology, including phenomenological anthropology and cognitive anthropology.

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