Author:Witkin, Stanley L.
Position:Factors affecting social workers' questions - Editorial

Questions are the stock-in-trade of social workers. Every day we ask questions of our clients, colleagues, and ourselves. Without questions, we could not do social work. Yet little is known, or at least written, about questions relative to many other aspects of social work. Where do questions come from? What are their uses? How can we use questions to improve our work? These are some of the questions that I will consider in this editorial.

The Social Context of Questions

Questions do not exist in a vacuum. Like other forms of expression, questions constitute, emerge from, and influence social contexts. What questions we ask in a particular situation will be influenced by factors such as the setting, professional standards, our relationship with respondents, our knowledge and conceptual frames, our values, our aims, and the nature of the interaction.

All social settings prescribe, invite, prohibit, or discourage certain ways of acting. Accordingly, the "rules" of question asking will vary according to the setting. For example, abuse investigations, eligibility determinations, and psychosocial assessments encourage and constrain different types of questions. Within these settings, canons of professional conduct will influence what questions are appropriate and how they should be expressed. Beyond these relatively stable influences, the particular relationship between questioners and respondents - their history, knowledge of one another, mutual liking - will inform the choice and expression of questions.

Questions are about something - what I ask expresses my knowledge and understanding of the salient topic or issue. For example, when interviewing an unemployed, single parent about her situation, I ask questions that draw on my knowledge of issues that people in these circumstances experience and on the perspectives that inform this knowledge. Thus, if I were operating from the strengths perspective (Saleebey, 1997), I might ask a "survival question," such as "How have you managed to survive (or thrive) thus far, given all the challenges you have had to contend with?" (p. 53) or an "esteem question," such as "What is it about your life, yourself, and your accomplishments that give you real pride?" (p. 54). In contrast, if my frame of reference were the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), my questions might be aimed at assessing the presence or absence of characteristics consistent with particular diagnostic categories.

These examples suggest that the kinds of questions we ask influence the information we receive which, in turn, forms the basis for our actions or recommendations. They also imply that questions elicit information not only about the other, but also about the questioner. Listen to the questions people ask and you get a fairly good idea of what they believe, what they value, and what they hope to accomplish. For example, my views about welfare reform and my values about government entitlements may lead me to ask a client how she has coped with the problems brought about by welfare reform, or alternatively, how her life has improved since welfare reform.

The Coconstruction of Questions

According to Turnbull and Slugoski (1988), "[E]very question sets restrictions...

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