A Quantum Leap for Social Work


Diana Ellergodt



Din Ladak

SOWK 333

Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary
 December 8, 1989


This paper summarizes some of the implications of quantum physics for the profession of social work. Through reference to three books written by quantum physicists, the concepts inherent in new age science are paralleled to the natural systems model of social work practice. The concepts reviewed include the new science paradigm shift, whole system framework versus fragmentation, general practice versus specialization, order versus chaos, social work as a design science, and the future affect of holistic science on social work practice. The study of new age science has provided a quantum leap in the understanding of social work as a profession.


Note: The hardcopy of this paper scanned and digitalized. Hopefully, all related errors have been corrected. Minor editing was carried out.




I. Introduction                                                                                                                1

II. Implications of Quantum Physics on the Profession of Social Work                               1

1. Paradigm Shift                                                                                                            1

2. Whole System Framework versus Fragmentation                                                         2

3. General Practice versus Specialization                                                                        3

4. Order versus Chaos                                                                                                   4

5. A Design Science                                                                                                       6

6. The Future                                                                                                                 7

III. Conclusion                                                                                                               9


I. Introduction

New age science has provided a quantum leap in the understanding of social work as a profession. Many concepts inherent in new age science have a direct parallel to the natural systems model of social work practice. The view of social work as a design science gains respectability if studied in relation to the theories of quantum physics. Ramsay, Smith, Taylor-Holton and Tyndale (1989) state that too few social workers have seriously examined the implications of quantum physics on the profession of social work and “ventured toward the emerging new science of wholeness” (p. 10).

II. Implications of Quantum Physics on the Profession of Social Work

1. Paradigm Shift
A paradigm shift is taking place in science from the mechanistic Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm to the nonlinear paradigm of new age science. Traditional science emphasized stability, order, uniformity and equilibrium, while the new age paradigm “shifts attention to those aspects of reality that characterize today’s accelerated social change: disorder, instability, diversity, disequilibrium, and nonlinear relationships [in which small inputs can trigger massive consequences]” (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. xiv). Ilya Prigogine, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1977, suggests the following view of reality:

While some parts of the universe may operate like machines, these are closed systems, and closed systems, at best, form only a small part of the physical universe. Most phenomena of interest to us are, in fact, open systems, exchanging energy or matter (or one might add, information) with their environment (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. xv).

Open systems characterize social work practice, which has emphasized the person-in -environment approach for over half a century. Today, the natural systems model provides a common conceptual framework that encompasses fully a person in environment whole system approach to social work practice.
Ramsay et al. (1989) state that “the focus of social work on interactions between people and their environments can be linked to the conclusions of new age physicists that specific entities do not have properties; the properties belong to the interactional perspectives that are attached to our interactions with others” (p. 18). The new science paradigm supports the profession of social work’s person in environment view of practice.

2. Whole System Framework versus Fragmentation

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, states that:

One of the most highly developed skills in contemporary Western civilization is dissection: the split up of problems into their smallest possible components. We are good at it. So good, we often forget to put the pieces back together again (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. xi).

This attitude of fragmentation comes from the traditional model of reality; the Newtonian mechanistic view of the world. Ramsay (1988) states, “the strategy of a synergic approach is radically different from the traditional strategies of differentiating out parts of a system to study their behaviours in isolation from the whole system” (p. 44).
With the emergence of new age science has grown the realization that a fragmentary attitude towards life does not help in understanding the essence of real problems that depend upon an infinitely wider context. Dr. David Bohm, a leading scientist who has worked alongside Oppenheimer and Einstein, states that:

Many of these problems depend on contexts so broad that they ultimately extend into the whole of nature, society, and the life of each individual. Clearly such problems can never be solved within the limited contexts in which they are normally formulated (Bohm & Peat, 1987, p. 12).

The natural systems model is a synergic approach to social work that emphasizes the interconnected components of the societal model, professional model, practitioner model, and method model. The model allows social workers to see how every element is affected by every other element, and also see the possibility of a wide range of methods and skills. This whole system framework encourages social workers to “give up their longstanding adherence to the limitations of linear two—dimensional approaches and shift to a more four-dimensional person-in-environment continuum” (Ramsay et al., 1989, p. 28).

3. General practice versus Specialization
The concepts of fragmentation and specialization are entwined. Bohm & Peat (1987) state that “we’re beginning to realize that the cost of progress is more and more specialization and fragmentation to the point where the whole activity is losing its meaning” (p. 11). They elaborate that “developments made in one area may sometimes have serious consequences for the foundations of theories and concepts in other areas” (p. 20). If social work is too specialized, inappropriate treatment may result due to a lack of information regarding new developments in adjacent fields.

For social work to function well, it must combine a generalized knowledge with the more focused and detailed knowledge of the specialist. The development of the professional model within the natural systems a model has the intent that “with a sound knowledge and understanding of a common organizing framework, every social worker, whether they choose to be a generalist or specialist, would have the ability to see dependency problems from similar systemic and systematic perspectives” (Ramsay, 1988, p.79). This unifying professional practice paradigm is divided into four subsystems: change agent, client, target and action. Each subsystem “has its own zones of relevancy (clear, possible and none) to help social workers assess the need for, and their own ability to, provide generalist-specialist, client-non client and/or direct-indirect services” (Ramsay, 1988, p. 63). Social workers must remember that:

no form of knowledge can be absolutely fixed and apply indefinitely. This means that any search for such absolute, fixed knowledge is illusory, since all knowledge arises out of shifting, changing activity of creative perception, free play, unfoldment into action, and its return as experience (Bohm & Peat, 1987, p. 56).

Continued research and professional development are required by social workers, who belong to a dynamic profession that encompasses a unique blending of generalist and specialist knowledge.

4. Order versus Chaos
Chaos has been defined as a state of utter confusion (Webster, 1981) and is often the reason an individual seeks out the professional services of a social worker. True chaos or crisis “exists when a person who has usually functioned and coped relatively well is rather suddenly in a state of disequilibrium and disorganization” (Johnson, 1987, p. 146). A social worker helps to restore the individual to a steady state or order. Ramsay et al. (1989) point out that social workers “can’t predict how two people will get along until they start interacting with each other; that even if every conceivable part of a person in his/her environment is known, you cannot be absolutely sure about the whole system” (p. 17). In other words, unpredictability exists as to whether the client system will continue in chaos or find order as a result of treatment.
These concepts of chaos and order, which are everyday occurrences within social work practice, are paralleled within new age science:

In Prigoginian terms, all systems contain subsystems, which are continually ‘fluctuating’. At times, a single fluctuation or combination of them may become so powerful, as a result of positive feedback, that it shatters the preexisting organization. At this revolutionary moment it is inherently impossible to determine in advance which direction change will take: whether the system will disintegrate into ‘chaos’ or leap to a new, more differentiated, higher level of ‘order’ (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. xv).

Quantum physics studies this scientific process of order out of chaos, while social work practice attempts to restore order out of chaos in client systems. A direct parallel exists between the science of physics and the science of social work. Toffler summarizes the similarities as follows:

When one combines the new insights gained from studying far-from-equilibrium states and nonlinear processes, along with these complicated feedback systems, a whole new approach is opened that makes it possible to relate the so-called hard sciences to the softer sciences of life - and perhaps even to social processes as well (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. xvii).

New age science reveals that states of chaos and order are both necessary in life and cannot be judged as either healthy or unhealthy. The emergence of systems into chaos or order cannot be predicted and depends upon sensitivity to initial conditions (i.e. the uniqueness of each individual client).

Ramsay et al. (1987) explains, “the study of chaos and order is being seen as the science of the global nature of systems” (p.5). The natural systems model is inspired by the concept that there are no fixed characteristics in any relationship, and that chaos can grow into order. Change and stability always co-exist in client situations and a common systems framework, such as the natural systems model, aids the social worker in seeing that there is still some wholeness even if the system is changing.

5. A Design Science
 The concept of social work as a “design science” can be explained by analyzing the term “design” and the term “science”.

“Design” refers to the fact that social work is a profession based upon values and metaphysical beliefs. For example, the metaphysical concept of intuition is utilized as a practice tool by social workers. This tool is “a legitimate intuitive approach to the solving of scientific or social problems; an approach that Watson and others used in the 1950’s to ‘crack’ the DNA-RNA secrets” (Ramsay et a1, 1989, p. 10). Per Ramsay (1988), “design science sees the environment and the human condition as being ever improvable” (p. 46) and includes the concept of looking at the whole and not just focusing on the parts of a client situation.
“Science” is a term that can be applied to the profession of social work if our view of science is expanded beyond the traditional Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm. Fritjof Capra (1982), a Viennese born physicist, explains the domination of Newtonian mechanics on Western thought as follows:

The triumph of Newtonian mechanics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries established physics as the prototype of a “hard” science against which all other sciences were measured. The closer scientists could come to emulating the methods of physics, and the more of its concepts they were able to use, the higher the standing of their discipline in the scientific community. In our century, this tendency to model scientific concepts and theories after those of Newtonian physics has become a severe handicap in many fields, but more than anywhere else, in the social sciences. These have been traditionally regarded as the ‘softest’ among the sciences, and social scientists have tried very hard to gain respectability by adopting the Cartesian paradigm and the methods of Newtonian physics. However, the Cartesian framework is often quite inappropriate for the phenomenon they are describing (p. 188).

Capra (1982) defines the term “science” as follows:

Science, in my view, need not be restricted to measurements and quantitative analyses. I am prepared to call any approach to knowledge scientific that satisfies two conditions: all knowledge must be based on systematic observation, and it must be expressed in terms of self—consistent but limited and approximate models. These requirements - the empirical basis and the process of model making - represent to me the two essential elements of the scientific method (p. 375).

Social workers can take professional pride in the fact that the combination of research practice and the natural systems model represent the two essential elements of the scientific method that qualify social work practice as a design science.

6. The Future
In social work practice, “the social worker must address the needs of both the individual and the larger systems that are a part of contemporary society” (Johnson, 1989, p. 6). Johnson (1989) elaborates, “a social systems approach calls for a kind of thinking that considers parts, wholes, and environments and the relationships that exist among them” (p. 10).
Capra (1982) draws the parallel that “to be healthy an organism has to preserve its individual autonomy but at the same time it has to be able to integrate itself harmoniously into larger systems” (p. 323). Capra, offers the following view of the future:

Health care will consist of restoring and maintaining the dynamic balance of individuals, families, and other social groups. It will mean people taking care of their own health individually, as a society, and with the help of therapists. This kind of health care cannot be “provided”, or “delivered” - it has to be practised. Furthermore, it will be important to consider the interdependence of our individual health and that of the social and ecological systems in which we are embedded” (p. 332).

Emphasis by the profession of social work on social reform, in conjunction with the natural systems model approach to general practice, fits the vision of the future offered by this new age physicist.

III. Conclusion

Many additional parallels exist between the concepts inherent in new age science and the profession of social work. By studying these concepts, social workers will see the professional value of the paradigm shift-taking place in the scientific community. The quantum physics paradigm legitimates social work as a design science, which uses the natural systems model as the tool of general practice. This new understanding is definitely a quantum leap for the profession of social work.


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