A Critical Assessment of ‘Distortion of Face to Face: Communicative Reason and Social Work Practice’ by Ricardo Blaug
The Frankfurt school, an institute that began before the Second World War, was composed of academics influenced by the philosophy of G.W.F Hegel and Karl Marx. Director, Max Horkheimer, claimed that critical theory was to take a new theoretical approach, with four main characteristics: it was to be interdisciplinary, reflective, dialectical and most importantly, it was to be critical. It was not to be only diagnostic but also to be remedial, to be theoretical but also practical. Therefore, the goal was not just to elucidate what was wrong with contemporary society, but also to highlight progressive features, to encourage change and transformation (Finlayson, 2005). After the events of the Second World War, first generation critical theorists, Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, became increasingly pessimistic about the potential for change. This is reflected in their work, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which they argue rationality is closely intertwined with domination and mastery (Finlayson, 2005).
Habermas sought to move away from this pessimism that he saw as counterproductive to the aims of critical theory (Finlayson, 2005). In his earlier work, Habermas offers an alternative history of the enlightenment and ends on an optimistic note through the ideal of the public sphere (Finlayson, 2005). In his later work ‘The Theory of Communicative Action’ (1984, 1987) he develops a dualistic notion of society that allowed him to move further from the pessimism of the early Frankfurt School by highlighting that the type of rationality to which they referred is only one type of rationality, instrumental rationality, which has a specific place. Communicative rationality was another option, and had the potential to change society and therefore regains critical theory’s ability to become both practical and applicable to social problems (Habermas, 1987).
Blaug’s (1995) article, ‘Distortion of Face to Face: Communicative Reason and Social Work Practice’, uses Habermas’s later work to explore the current problems faced by social work practice. He argues that ‘communicative methods provide insights, criticisms and practical suggestions for social work, as well as theoretical support for certain practice initiatives’ (Blaug 1995:423). In order to assess this application, first I will clarify the Habermasian concepts used in the application. Secondly, I will illustrate how Blaug (1995) has applied Habermas’s theory. Whilst assessing, it is clear that the application reveals the damaging effects of bureaucratisation on social work and contextualises this within a wider pattern in society. Also through his application, Blaug (1995) has highlighted the importance of including those affected (in the decision-making process through discourse) in order for it to be justifiable. Finally, through his thorough use of practical examples, Blaug’s (1995) application illustrates the practical ability of critical theory.
However, Blaug’s (1995) application is severely limited. First, it fails to use a relevant part of Habermas’s theory on the Welfare State and juridification. Second, Blaug (1995) does not acknowledge the need to address economic problems and an unsympathetic government in order to create a space for discourse to exist. Third, the issue of communication when it comes to the relationship between patient and professional highlights further weaknesses.