Elevate Difference

Transnational Social Work Practice

Transnational Social Work Practice is definitely not a book intended for a popular audience. That it is a textbook was clear to me before I even laid eyes on the book, when I noted that the list price on Amazon.com—for this slim 241-page volume—was $50. The articles, too, are written with the assumption that readers are familiar with a number of complex social work and development concepts, such as sustainability, cultural competence, and professional accreditation, among others. Nevertheless, I read the anthology as a lay person, and I found it an engaging, accessible read that opened my mind to new questions about global development and social change.

The book is divided loosely into two sections. It begins with an introduction to the concept of transnationality—the state of individuals and communities who are living life with a sustained investment in two or more nations (as contrasted with an “older” immigration pattern of gradually transferring one's presence and investment out of one country and into another).

Following this introduction is a collection of four articles (entitled “The Context of Transmigration”) that further illuminate issues that affect transnational populations, including environmental change and degradation, economic networks that cross national borders (including networks of remittance), and globalization. The second section of the book (“Services to Transmigrants”) focuses on the application of social work practice to transnational populations. The nine articles in this section explore the role of social workers in responding to processes including cross-border human trafficking, refugee resettlement, and violence against migrant workers. One article, “Using Internet Technology for Transnational Social Work Practice and Education,” reflects upon the growing availability of translation software, useful both for bridging client/provider language gaps and for facilitating resource-sharing among an increasingly international professional community. Another article, “Incorporating Transnational Social Work into the Curriculum,” considers the need to prepare social work students for an increasingly international and transnational field—for example, by developing a service-learning class designed to be held at the Texas-Mexico border, as the article's authors did.

As a lay reader, one of my favorite aspects of the book was the discussion of the macro, mezzo, and micro levels at which social work practice can function. Cynthia A. Hunter, Susannah Lepley, and Samuel Nickels lay out this distinction most clearly in the last article in the book, “New Practice Frontiers: Current and Future Social Work with Transmigrants.” Micro practice refers to the one-on-one work between provider and client, which can be focused on individual coping and meaning-making, or on case management (connecting clients with welfare services for which they are eligible). Macro practice refers to advocacy and policy-making—changing institutions and systems at national and international levels.

What Hunter, Lepley, and Nickels consider mezzo-level social work (and authors Brij Mohan and Julia E. Clark describe as macro-level social work in their article “Macro Social Work Practice with Transmigrants”) can be described as a sort of “back door” to political organizing, in which providers are able to connect clients with information about their situation, and with other clients in similar situations, in a way that empowers them to organize themselves to change their circumstances. I appreciated the authors' acknowledgment of the complexity of the power relations surrounding this practice, especially if the providers in question are outsiders who have, on one hand, little local understanding, and, on the other, access to resources that their clients do not have. I also appreciated the push to consider how outsider social workers can transfer that access to clients in strategic ways.

In the end, this is the major question that the book raised for me: Can international social work be solidarity work? If the global North must be engaged in the “development” of the global South, might it be possible for “providers” to take advantage of that “welfare infrastructure” to transfer information and resources to “clients” from developing countries in a way that empowers them to demand that development take place on their own terms?

Written by: Ri J. Turner, March 13th 2011