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Patricia D. McClendon, MSSW candidate

Human Behavior & The Social Environment - S.W. 601

Professor David S. Gochman - Fall 1991

This is an imagined dialogue between a social worker who views communities largely as structural / functional systems and a social worker who views communities largely as arenas of conflict. To see the specific assignment from Professor Gochman, click here or see below.)

Pat: Did you read that article on Smoketown in the Neighborhoods section of the Courier-Journal? (This article is attached at the end of this paper.) Note: I don't have permission to post this article on the WWW. 

Phyl: Yes, wasn't that interesting. Back in the 1950's it was a blue-collar neighborhood with decent homes. 

Pat: I thought it was fascinating that it was settled by blacks back in 1866 after the Civil war. 

Phyl: The article said there were several theories about how Smoketown got its name - smoke from the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. and the Ballard Flour Mills factories. I can't help but think it was because it was the first black community in Louisville. I just don't think anyone wants to admit that racism exists.  

Pat: Well, that's probably why Mayor Abramson is wanting to change the name "Smoketown" to "Jackson" to attract white people's money for redevelopment. 

Phyl: It's sad to see a proud neighborhood go downhill like that. 

Pat: My curiosity got the best of me after reading the article, so I drove there yesterday. The community lies between Kentucky Street on the south boundary and Broadway on the north and Floyd Street on the west and CSX RR on the east. It was mostly dilapidated houses, a lot of boarded up houses, businesses, and a housing project. Then, every now and then, you see a well-taken care of older home. 

Phyl: The crime rate is really high there. A lot of drugs are sold there. 

Pat: I did notice there were a lot of liquor stores and bars. 

Phyl: I wonder how it got in such a mess without the government doing something to help that community. 

Pat: Let's analyze that from a systems point of view. "The systems approach to human behavior ... makes two general substantive assumptions:

1. The state or condition of a system, at any one point in time, is a function of the interaction between it and the environment in which it operates.

2. Change and conflict are always evident in a system. Individuals both influence their environment and are influenced by them. Processes of mutual influence generate change and development." (Longres, 1990, p.19) 

Phyl: A community can be thought of as a " holon ... each level in a system faces both ways, towards the smaller system of which it is composed and toward the larger system of which it is a part." (Compton and Galaway, 1989,p.126) 

Pat: Higher levels can control lower levels. In this case, the government imposed stricter environmental control standards on the community's factories. Rather than comply, the companies moved out of Smoketown ... so there went its economic base. 

Phyl: The community apparently never adjusted effectively to this disruption of its homeostasis. 

Pat: I don't think the government used its power effectively. It had the power "to limit the behavior" of these industries but didn't offer opportunities to the community to help make the necessary adjustments ... the community was powerless. (Compton and Galaway, 1989, p.126) 

Phyl: Yes, social workers "need to be aware of how power blocks within the larger social system may deprive the smaller system of adequate and effective social solutions to problems of growth and development and thus may act to decrease" in the case of the community, the community's "power to select appropriate alternative solutions of social functioning." (Compton and Galaway, 1989, p. 127) 

Pat: True, if we're not aware of how larger systems can affect smaller systems we end up blaming the victim - the community and by implications the individuals that make up that community. 

Phyl: Most people think poor people are lazy or crazy. The inner cities are struggling to get just a few of the social services that they rightly deserve. I can see how the cycle of poverty can get started and continue. Because of the government's failure, the community has had demands upon it that are excessive and exceeding the capacity of the community to cope effectively. (Bartlett, 1970, p. 106) 

Pat: I don't think it was all because of the industries moving out, though. The residents were also moving out of the community for better housing opportunities elsewhere. 

Phyl: Yes, and with no new residents taking their place, the population decreased and that caused businesses to close or move to other higher socio-economic communities. 

Pat: Smoketown's inability to make the adjustments to the imbalance of the system has caused it to almost be a closed system. It has little interaction with other parts of the system. 

Phyl: "What this means is that closed systems over time tend towards less differentiation of their elements (all elements begin to be alike) and thus a loss of organization and effective function." A system needs to be open (interacting) with other systems to grow and develop. (Compton and Galaway, 1989, p. 125) 

Pat: I think we need to define community at this point. "Communities are types of social systems which are distinguished by the personal or affective nature of the ties that hold their members together. They are groups of people who sense a common identity and bond with one another and who are attached to one another through regular interaction." (Longres, 1990, p.57) 

Phyl: Smoketown could be identified as a locational community because it has boundaries inside which its members interact. 

Pat: Well, it is also an identificational community because the community members have a lot in common, most importantly, low social class and race. 

Phyl: Communities are mostly segregated based on race and ethnicity. The residents' income/wealth determine the boundaries of most neighborhoods. (Longres, 1990, p.60) 

Pat: I think a good part of Smoketown's decline has to do with their low social class. 

Phyl: The majority of people in Smoketown are single mothers who receive welfare or have menial jobs. Their average annual income is approximately $3,500. 

Pat: Let's analyze the situation from a structural/functional perspective. 

Phyl: "In structural functional theory, social systems are said to exist in a relatively continuous state of harmony ... Social systems are held together through a consensus of shared norms and values; everyone agrees on the goals and purposes of the system and works hard to achieve them ... conflict and change are looked upon as dysfunctional, a threat to the survival of the system and conformity is championed as necessary." (Longres, 1990, p. 39) Social order and stability are paramount for the social system to function properly. 

Pat: I see it from the conflict point of view. A case of the haves versus the have nots. It is competition for resources. "Those that gain control of these resources are ... able to protect their own interests at other people's expense ... Social order is maintained by force or implied threat." (Robertson, 1981, p. 19) A man in the newspaper article said "Everybody can tell you about someone that spoke out and lost their place or had their lights shut off. When you live in poverty, you live in fear." (Courier-Journal Neighborhood section, Sept. 25, 1991, p. 6) 

Phyl: From the structural/functional viewpoint, it's simply an imbalance in the system. Industry was providing jobs on one hand and pollution on the other. The jobs were functional for society but pollution was dysfunctional for the environment. So, the government tried to correct the dysfunctional and didn't consider the impact on the community. Had they done a better job of meeting the needs of the community after the industries moved, Smoketown wouldn't be in this lousy condition. 

Pat: "Conflict theorists would not see environmental pollution as a 'latent dysfunction' of industrialism. Instead, they would point to the fact that powerful corporate interests make their profits from manufacturing processes that pollute the environment." (Robertson, 1981, p. 19) 

Phyl: The government should have tried to get the industries to stay through incentive programs or at least offered incentives to new industries to have gotten them to replace the polluting companies. The government failed to understand the impact on the community.

They definitely should have had a housing rehabilitation program ready to implement at the first sign of decline in the condition of the community. They should have beefed up their welfare programs, as well. 

Pat: I suppose you see welfare as functional. Conflict theorists say,"Welfare isn't functional but it exists because some people have been able to achieve political and economic power and have managed to pass on these advantages to their descendants." (Robertson, 1981, P. 19) It's just a method to placate the poor in order to protect their wealth. 

Phyl: The structural/functionalists believe welfare is functional in that it meets the needs of the people for food, shelter, etc., and as a latent function, it prevents riots. 

Pat: I think the structural/functionalists focus too much on the present moment and are too conservative about the role of conflict and change. Conflict is not always negative, it can be positive "... it binds groups together as they pursue their own interests, and the conflict among competing groups focuses attention on social problems and leads to beneficial changes that might not have occurred." (Robertson, 1981, p. 19) Welfare is functional in that it provides a cheap labor force for the rich corporations and plenty of people for the so-called volunteer army. When you are poor your choices are limited. 

Phyl: The problem really is one in which the community is isolated ... a closed system. The government simply needs to get in there and do their job. 

Pat: The system would be an open system if conflict and its implications could have been tolerated. "Social change is influenced by shifting relationships and interests of groups competing for their own advantage." (Robertson, 1981, p. 19) I don't think the structural/functional point of view takes the competition factor into consideration. 

Phyl: The conflict point of view ignores to a large extent, the importance of stability in the social system. Without stability, there would be chaos. 

Pat: I see your point of view, somewhat. But, what can we do as social workers to help alleviate the suffering in Smoketown? What is our profession's responsibility? 

Phyl: Social work is "(1) a helping profession and (2) is concerned with the social functioning of people ... it is a profession that brings services to people, with the aim of modifying situations to improve the welfare of individuals and society. Thus, it is change oriented. Since change involves doing something about a situation, the professional worker is a participant in the change process." (Bartlett, 1970, p. 86-87) 

Pat: So social workers are interested in social functioning and utilization of resources to maintain homeostasis. Change at a snail's pace? 

Phyl: No, but not at a revolution's pace, either. Social workers need to help the community learn to cope with all the changes brought on by the government's neglect. 

Pat: Due to the conflict of the haves and have nots? 

Phyl: At this point I don't think it is helpful to split hairs over the causes. What's important now is that the community is barely coping. Coping is an important concept "because it emphasizes a concern and respect for people's striving towards attainment of their own potential, in line with social work's basic values. It underlines the importance of people's being active and sharing in the planning of their own future." (Bartlett, 1970, p. 98) 

Pat: Well, according to the article in the paper, Abramson wants to "acquire the land through foreclosure and sell it to developers ... creating a new neighborhood." (The C.J. Neighborhood section, Sept. 25, 1991, p. 6) After they redevelop that area, I don't think the displaced residents will get to move back in. Those homes would go to people in a higher socio-economic status, not to poor single mothers. 

Phyl: Well, the community needs to have a say in what goes on. They have formed the Smoketown Priority Board to help improve housing and attract developers. I think social workers and the community-at-large needs to support their efforts, as well as, other organizations within the community that are trying to exercise self-determination in solving their problems.  

Pat: "Identificational communities are important to social service workers for at least three reasons. First, many of the attitudes and values of individuals derive from their everyday experiences in communities. Second, many of the social and psychological troubles experienced by individuals and families have their origin in the public issues connected to the communities in which they live. Third, communities support their members, and thus they build strengths and resources to help individuals and families cope and adapt." (Longres, 1990, p. 86-87) 

Phyl: Social workers need to see the interaction of person - situation - environment in order to help individuals. They also need to think in terms of "holons" for the interrelatedness of systems as a whole.


Bartlett, H. M. (1970). The Common Base of Social Work Practice. Washington: NASW

Compton, Beulah R., and Burt Galaway. (1989). Social Work Processes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company

Courier-Journal, The. The Neighborhood Section, p. 6. "Smoketown: a forgotten neighborhood". September 25, 1991.

Longres, John F. (1990). Human Behavior in the Social Environment. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Robertson, Ian. (1981). Sociology. New York: Worth Publishers

Kent School of Social Work - University of Louisville
SW601, Human Behavior and the Social Environment
David S. Gochman, Ph.D., Professor
Fall, 1991

Imagine a conversation between a social worker who views communities largely as structural / functional systems (you might decide to use Harriet Bartlett) and a social worker who views communities largely as arenas of conflict. Select one "community" either from among those discussed in the readings, or any other that interests you, if you can show that it qualifies as a community (even if it isn't a locational community and construct a dialogue between the two social workers that demonstrates the following:

  1. Some clear understanding of some of the major points covered in the chapters assigned (and the lecture material, if it is helpful). You shouldn't try to show your understanding of everything. Try to show that you understand at least three concepts / points / issues and that the reader knows what these three concepts / points / issues are;
  2. Some appropriate comparisons and contrasts in the views of the two social workers in relation to that community;
  3. Some clear understanding of the values of social work.

Your paper should be typed, double­spaced, as are all Kent papers, with margins of no more than 1 1/2 inches, and should between 5 and 7 pages. If you spend 3 pages describing the setting (fern bar, national meeting, stuck elevator, etc.) you will not have enough space to deal with the substantive issues. I will be happy to read more than 7 pages, but anything more than 10 is likely to be excessive and / or repetitious.

You are not dealing with the assigned task if you find yourself writing either a political or ideological diatribe, or primarily about intervention programs and services.

This assignment should not involve any additional reading, but it does involve a good deal of thinking. Spend at least a half an hour thinking and organizing your paper, before you even begin to write. N.B. Remember that a dialogue is different from two monologues. Furthermore, keep in mind that there are many different ways to do this satisfactorily. There are no preconceived points that must be addressed, but the points that you do address must be discussed clearly and thoughtfully. Moreover, there are no preconceived correct positions, but the positions described must show your understanding of what you've read.

If you refer to specific written material, then you should acknowledge it with an appropriate citation (e.g., Longres, 1990, p. 100) as well as with any necessary quotation marks if the material is cited verbatim. Do not get hung up on format. You can use any format that is easy for you, as long as you identify who is saying what.

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This photo was taken just days shy of my 49th birthday. Copyright © 1995 - 2015 by "Pat," Patricia D. McClendon, MSSW

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