Interview with Norma Lang, author of Group Work Practice to Advance Social Competence

Norma LangThe following is an interview with Norma Lang, author of Group Work Practice to Advance Social Competence: A Specialized Methodology for Social Work.

Q: To what readership is the book addressed?

Norma Lang.: The book is intended for use by social work practitioners, educators, field instructors, and students. It will be used as a textbook on social work practice with groups serving socially unskilled populations, defining a methodology particularly oriented to persons who lack social competence, and whose group life is likely to be chaotic or nonexistent unless professionally assisted. Many practitioners have been awaiting such a practice text for a very long time.

Practitioners in adjacent human service professions will find the book a useful addition—in particular, those working in the fields of education, psychology, psychiatry, medicine, nursing, speech pathology, and practitioners who work with particular populations whose prevailing condition puts them at risk for social competence. The book lends itself to professional development and to use with study groups.

The text can be expected to stimulate new writing by practitioners who have been looking for such a special methodology, and who, by using it, will add their own experiential refinements to knowledge for practice with particular socially disabled populations.

Q: The book presents a special methodology for practice with social work groups composed of socially unskilled persons. Is there a need for a specialized methodology of social work with groups in addition to the mainstream methodology which has been central to this practice throughout the history of group work?

NL: Yes. The mainstream practice methodology does not serve populations lacking sufficient social competence to form groups. The special methodology of this book fills a gap in practice theory and extends the usefulness of social work with groups across a continuum from socially disabled to socially able functioning. It provides guidelines for working with socially disabled persons in groups and highlights the nature of the entity that can be achieved with socially unskilled persons. For populations that are unable to access the benefits of group belonging and who are therefore deprived of the ongoing socializations characteristic of successive small group belongings, the special methodology provides an avenue for entry into group experience, and an opportunity to achieve social competence in group life.

Q: Is group work practice with socially unskilled persons more prominent in current practice than it has been in the past?

NL: Yes. Our mainstream methodology was developed and has evolved in community agencies with relatively socially competent group members. The mainstream methodology presumes social skill sufficient to form and use group.

Current group work practice in social work is usually handled in agencies serving a wide range of populations, some of which lack social competence sufficient for achieving group forming and functioning. Social work practice with groups has shifted to more needy populations, who may require more help to achieve groupness. In addition, some features of the general population seem to reflect less social competence than previously, such that populations once regarded as functioning normatively, including school populations, are now viewed as containing greater social deficits and more limited social competence. A more recent subset has also been identified as persons whose use of technical communication systems may put them at risk for adequate face-to-face social engagement and relationship.

Q: What are the central features of the special methodology?

NL: The specialized methodology addresses social dysfunction directly, focusing on resolving, as they arise, interactions that interfere with normal group processes of building relationships and forming group, and that reflect where socially disabled persons are arrested in their social functioning.

The methodology provides help in achieving effective interaction in moments that require assistance. The methodology is unobtrusive, providing guidance in interpersonal response as needed. It is focused on enabling interactions to proceed, so that the group experience can progress with minimal disruption. When the focus is on the group experience in process, small mediations that enable its progression become instrumental to the adequate playing out of the group experience. The special methodology provides the means to surmount interactional dysfunction. It is a modality of social-emotional learning in situ, offering the means to achieve a functional group experience. Notably, the special methodology provides socially unskilled persons with incremental directions in moments of interactional difficulty so that social learning can take place at moments when it is most needed.

The focus of the members on the group experience makes the small contributions of the social worker in teachable moments, those moments of heightened need for interactional assistance, able to move the group members forward gradually, imperceptibly to more skilled social functioning.

The special methodology also provides opportunities to experience a sense of effectiveness, a dynamic that modifies low self-esteem and opens the possibility of achieving a new persona, a better sense of self and one’s capabilities.

It also has the capability of creating group experience with persons unable to generate it unaided. The nature of the entity that socially unskilled persons are able to achieve with assistance may not achieve many of the features of a normative, developed group but will be serviceable for the purpose of advancing the social competence of the participants. The methodology assists individuals to move beyond personal dysfunction, to become more able to engage with others. A number of theoretical supports for this practice are included in the text.

Q: What is the contribution of this book to the field?

NL: The book makes a number of contributions to the social work profession, as well as several foundational and applied behavioral sciences, including small group theory, social development lifespan psychology, and several social science disciplines concerned with the conceptualization of social competence and its related descriptors.

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