How Theoretical Debates in Cross Cultural Social Work Miss the Point

Understanding how social work theories are applied is more critical than debating their superiority.


Amidst debates about which framework is superior in cross-cultural social work practice (CCSWP), a new publication in the British Journal of Social Work suggests a significant pivot. The author, Eunjung Lee, proposes that instead of championing one framework over another, the focus should be on understanding how these constructs are applied in daily social work practice.

The article argues that the focus in cross-cultural social work practice (CCSWP) should shift from debating the superiority of different theoretical frameworks to understanding how these frameworks can be effectively applied in daily practice. Lee contends that a clear definition of constructs, acknowledgment of individual philosophical stances, demonstration of what these theories look like in practice, and ongoing critique and evaluation of these theories and their application, will lead to significant, meaningful change in CCSWP. In essence, the focus should be on the practical embodiment of these theories, not the theories themselves.

“Using the language of social justice, anti-oppressive and anti-racist approaches, and invoking the concepts of culturally competent and humble practice does not necessarily translate into their implementation in real life,” Lee writes. “A gap or conflict between language/discourse and action/praxis then produces a reality where the ideal (e.g., social justice) is impossible to understand, or a social phenomenon (e.g., mainstreaming social justice) becomes unexplainable, consequently rendering it (e.g., social justice, cultural competence) meaningless.”

The concept of cultural competence first emerged in the 1970s alongside other social justice movements for equal rights for race, gender, and sexuality. Cultural competence was meant to be “a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enable that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations’. Despite this, the concept faced critique for lack of analytic rigor, over-generalization, and poor clarity.

In response, scholars proposed alternatives like cultural humility, a concept urging cross-cultural exchanges with open-minded curiosity and humble admission of one’s cultural knowledge limitations. Still, this framework, too, faced critique for its blurred distinction from cultural competence and its potential misuse that may inadvertently uphold oppressive groups, given its call to treat “dominant and marginalized identities with equal curiosity.”

Lee, however, redirects the discourse, indicating that this conversation may be missing the point.

Firstly, the interpretation of any framework, such as “cultural competence,” varies based on an individual’s philosophical stance. As Lee notes:

“Social workers who assume post-positivism as their epistemic stance may embody cultural competence from an expert position… However, social workers who assume a critical theoretical stance may embody cultural competence while contextualizing historical, structural, and systemic oppressions, conducting power analysis, and advocating for and empowering social changes.”

With inconsistent definitions and distinctions between different frameworks, let alone the same framework, it doesn’t seem very meaningful to attempt to conclude a victor amongst the frameworks. Further, constructs of cultural competence, cultural humility, and structural competence are not necessarily mutually exclusive but can be rather complementary.

Given the complexity of CCSWP, Lee actually views the ongoing debates involving multiple frameworks as a potentially good sign that prevents its oversimplification or overgeneralization.

“Acknowledging the tentativeness of CCSWP […] and embracing digressions (such as multiple constructs) are signs of vitalizing CCSWP. […] It is asking too much for one construct (i.e., cultural competence) to address all levels of oppression, and we do need multiple frameworks to invigorate and comprehensively understand CCSWP. “

However, Lee warns that a fixation on the supremacy of one construct over another may inadvertently undermine the purpose of cross-cultural practice.

“By habitually reiterating social justice values or claiming conceptual hierarchies…we may forget and, ironically, even perpetuate precisely what we have been trying to avoid,” Lee states.

Secondly, perhaps most crucially, Lee underscores that theoretical knowledge doesn’t equate to real-world application. As Lee explains, “A gap or conflict between language/discourse and action/praxis then produces a reality where the ideal is impossible to understand.”

Therefore, the actual value lies not in determining which framework is superior but in how these frameworks can be meaningfully applied in practice.

To this end, Lee encourages social workers to clearly define their constructs, acknowledge and express their philosophical stance on CCSWP and how it influences their practice, illuminate what these theories look like in practice, and continually critique and evaluate both the discourses and their real-world applications.

With this paradigm shift in approach, Lee argues that significant, meaningful change can be achieved in cross-cultural social work practice.



Lee, E. (2023). Unsettling discourses of cross-cultural social work practice: Moving from theoretical debates to interrogating and transforming praxis. The British Journal of Social Work (Link)