Lost in culture: Language discordance and culturalization in social work with migrants
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Social work carried out without a shared language, can be referred to as language discordant social work. In this article we discuss links between language discordance and culturalization in social work, based on data from participant observation of meetings between social workers and service users who lack a shared language. We discuss how social workers tend to attribute the preferences and actions of service users to collective group identities categorized as ‘culture’. This can be termed culturalization, a process by which situations, problems, or differences are explained based on generalized cultural interpretations. We show how culturalization occurred when social workers attributed utterances or actions of service users to ‘cultural differences’, rather than to language discordance, problems of communication, or problems related to interpreting. We argue that there is an intrinsic interrelatedness between communicative difficulties and culturalization, in the sense that communication problems can be misdiagnosed as an issue of ‘cultural difference’. This inhibits social workers’ abilities to effectively identify issues and reduces their ability to see their clients’ problems, resources and capacities accurately.