The social niche of farm dwellers : a social work strengths approach
Farm dwellers in the North West Province have been identified as an extremely vulnerable group. in terms of physical, physiological and mental health. Therefore the North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus (Focus Area 9.1) launched the FLAGH study with the broad aim of gaining reliable information on the reasons for and contributing factors to their poor health status, which could be used to design appropriate intervention programmes. The research formed part of this multidisciplinary study and focused on farm dwellers' experience of the farm as the environment in which they live and work. While a great deal is already known about the psychological strengths of people that protect them against psychological malfunctioning, far less is known about environmental elements protecting people against adversity. From a social work perspective it is a long-cherished conviction that individual outcomes are the results of a transactional process between personal and environmental influences. However, it is also a conviction that is often not reflected in social work practice. Strength-based assessment models are, for example, overwhelmingly concerned with individual human factors, while practice guidelines and specific practice knowledge about environmental factors are lagging behind. This situation consequently pointed to the need for further theoretical and empirical research. The concept of social niche was identified as a possible framework for organising strengths and risks as experienced by a specific group within a specific context (in this case people living on farms). Against this background a research need was identified to develop an approach to assess environmental strengths and risks. This was done by means of a literature study and an empirical investigation. The strengths perspective and the concept of social niche are described and evaluated as a paradigm and theoretical construct (or perspective) for developing an approach to assess environmental strengths and risks. It is concluded that, from the strengths perspective, an environment can be considered strong when it consists of human beings who are connected to their innate strengths and capacity for healing, where there is community, membership, mutuality and connection among people and the environment, and people who experience the environment as strong and contribute to creating a strong environment. From the social niche perspective, an optimal niche refers to conditions and resources that would enable people to function at the best possible level, while a realised niche refers to the more limited spectrum of conditions and resources which allows people to survive. These niche types have enabling and entrapping elements to a greater or lesser degree. It was found that the social niche concept does provide a theoretical approach to assessing the environment in terms of strengths and risks and gives better insight into the result of the transactional process between person and environment. It was also found that the niche construct does not fully reflect the assumptions of the strengths perspective in terms of mainly two points: (1) the belief in the inherent strengths and capacity for healing of people (human agency), and (2) understanding reality as it is subjectively constructed. Based on this evaluation, it was thus endeavoured to broaden both the description of social niche, based on a critical evaluation of the ecological analogy, and to reflect more fully the strengths perspective. A revised definition of social niche is proposed and each of the niche components presented in the definition are discussed, evaluated and in some instances broadened, as indicated earlier. Farm dwellers' experience of their environment is explored and described, following a qualitative approach in order to promote an understanding of their specific experience from their own viewpoint. The social niche is used, in addition, as a tentative conceptual framework to describe the main dimensions of their experience. Analysis of the farm dwellers' narratives produced six categories (each with several sub-categories), namely: employment (unhealthy working conditions for men, employment security threatened, grievance procedures unsatisfactory, limited work opportunities and underemployment of women); income and spending (inadequate income and high cost of living, debt trap, a longing for the former practice of 'mahala', and supplementing income); housing (housing security threatened, and availability and access to housing outside the neighbourhood a concern); transportation (distance, means of transport and cost involved are major considerations); community life (the importance of family and friends, lack of connection between residents, community life in the past being better, and ambivalence about the employer as support system); and people, places and services outside the immediate farm environment (importance of extended family, church as a source of strength, and health services a link with the outside world). It is concluded that numerous entrapping elements are present in the account of farm dwellers of their life on the farm, namely a lack of tangible resources, a lack of social resources and a low sense of power. The entrapping nature of farm dwellers' social niche, however, can not only be understood in terms of lack of social and tangible resources. The experiences and the meanings the farm dwellers attach to their environment provide the key to a better understanding of the living experiences of farm dwellers and the entrapment contained in their narratives. However, it also reveals their experience of a few enabling elements within this environment. Based on the critical analysis of viewing the environment from a strengths perspective, the evaluation and broadening of the concept of social niche, and findings from the fieldwork done with farm dwellers, a social niche approach for assessing environmental strengths and risks is proposed. The goal of the social niche assessment approach is to provide a framework to review people's environmental strengths and risks/stressors, based on their own experience and understanding, in collaboration with another person (social worker), so as to co-construct a description of their human environment. A diagram and description of the approach is provided. This approach has already been validated through peer evaluation.
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