Negotiating difference in social work practice: Role of cultural competence


  • Yayoi Ide The University of Auckland
  • Michael O'Brien
  • Liz Beddoe


cultural competence, Cross-cultural practice, reflection, reflexivity


Cultural competence has been a popular approach to developing practitioners’ ability through acquiring three main components – awareness, knowledge, and skills for effective cross-cultural practice. This conceptual model is often used to measure students’ ability to work with difference in preparation for practice. However, despite significant attention on competency-based education, cultural competence is perceived as inadequate in teaching, learning, and practice. This qualitative study investigates cultural competence development via semi-structured interviews with 10 students and 18 practitioners. The study explored their learning of awareness, knowledge, and skills for cultural competence over three developmental stages: the Educational (classroom learning), the Transitional (after completion of the first practicum) and the Career (after entering the profession) in Aotearoa New Zealand. The research findings revealed that knowledge acquisition gained via the approach of learning “about” culture evolves into learning “from” clients about their cultures in professional practice. Also, three types of self-awareness: Cultural self-identity (T1), Cultural self-awareness (T2), and Critical self-awareness (T3), are defined in this research that is employed for building cross-cultural practice relationships. The research indicates that cultural competence means “enhancing the capability of a practitioner to negotiate differences in practice”, which departs from the original implication of knowledge-based skills underpinning cultural competence.


ANZASW. (2019). Code of ethics.

Azzopardi, C., & McNeill, T. (2016). From cultural competence to cultural consciousness: Transitioning to a critical approach to

working across differences in social work. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 25(4), 282–299.


Beddoe, L. (2018). Social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand: Building a profession. Practice, 30(4), 305–320.


Ben-Ari, A., & Strier, R. (2010). Rethinking cultural competence: What can we learn from Levinas? British Journal of Social Work,

(7), 2155–2167.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Sage.

Denso, R. (2017). Cultural competence and cultural humility: A critical reflection on key cultural diversity concepts. Journal of Social

Work, 18(4), 410–430.

Dewane, C. J. (2006). Use of self: A premier revisited. Clinical Social Work Journal, 34(4), 543–558.


Eketone, A., & Walker, S. (2015). Bicultural practice: Beyond more tokenism. In K. Van Heugten & A. Gibbs (Eds.), Social work for

sociologists: Theory and practice (pp. 113–109). Palgrave McMillan.

Fisher-Borne, M., Cain, J., & Martin, S. (2014). From mastery to accountability: Cultural humility as an alternative to cultural

competence. Social Work Education, 34(2), 165–181.

Greene-Moton, E. (2020). Cultural competence or cultural humility? Moving beyond the debate. Health Promotion Practice, 21(1),


Gottlieb, M. (2021). The case of a cultural humility framework in social work practice. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity

in Social Work, 30(6), 463–481.

Harrison, G., & Turner, R. (2011). Being a “culturally competent” social worker: Making sense of a murky concept in practice.

British Journal of Social Work, 41, 333–350.

Hennink, M., Hutter, I., & Bailey, A. (2011). Qualitative research methods. Sage.

Ide, Y. (2021). A bottom-up approach to cultural competence. [Doctoral thesis, The University of Auckland]. The University

of Auckland Research Repository.

International Federation of Social Work. (2021). Global standards for social work education and training.


Jani, J., Osteen, P., & Shipe, S. (2016). Cultural competence and social work education: Moving toward assessment of practice

behaviours. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(3), 311–324.

Johnson, Y. M., & Munch, S. (2009). Fundamental contradictions in cultural competence. Social Work, 54(3), 220–231.

Kondrat, M. E. (1999). Who is the “self ” in self-aware: Professional self-awareness from a critical theory perspective. Social Service

Review, 73(4), 451–477.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning as the source of learning and development. Prentice Hall.

Kumas-Tan, Z., Beagan, B., Loppie, C., MacLeod, A., & Frank, C. (2007). Measures of cultural competence: Examining hidden

assumptions. Academic Medicine, 82(6), 548–558.

Kwong, M. H. (2009). Applying cultural competency in clinical practice: Findings from multicultural experts’ experience. Journal

of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 18(1–2), 146–165.

Lekas, H., Pahl, K., & Lewis, C. F. (2020). Rethinking cultural competence: Shifting to cultural humility. Health Services Insights, 13,

–4. 1178632929070580

Lum, D. (2011). Culturally competent practice: A framework for understanding diverse groups and justice issues (4th ed). Brooks/

Cole-Thomson Learning.

Melendres, M. (2020). Cultural competence in social work practice: Exploring the challenges of newly employed social work

professionals. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 31(2), 108–112.

Nadan, Y. (2014). Rethinking “cultural competence” in international social work. International Social Work, 60(1), 74–83.

Nguyen, P. V., Naleppa, M., & Lopez, Y. (2021). Cultural competence and cultural humility: A complete practice. Journal of Ethnic

and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 30(3), 273–281.

Padgett, D. (2017). Qualitative methods in social work research. Sage.

Ruwhiu, L. A. (2017). Making sense of indigenous issues in Aotearoa New Zealand. In M. Connolly, L. Harms, & J. Maidment

(Eds.), Social work: Contexts and practice (4th ed., pp. 95–108). Oxford.

Social Workers Registration Board. (2016). Core competence standards: The SWRB ten core competence standards. https://swrb.govt.


Stubbe, D. E. (2020). Practicing cultural competence and cultural humility in the care of diverse patients. Focus, 18(1), 49–51.

Sue, D. W., Bernier, J., Durran, A., Feinburg, L., Pedersen, P., Smith, E. J., & Vazquez- Nutall, E. (1981). Professional forum: Position

paper: Cross-cultural counseling competencies. The Counseling Psychologist, 10(2), 45–52.

Sue, D. W., Arredondo, P., & McDavis, R. J. (1992). Multicultural counseling competencies and standards: A call to the profession.

Journal of Counseling and Development, 70(4), 477–486.

Tomm, K. (1993). A courage to protest: A commentary on Michael White’s work. In S. Gilligan & R. Price (Eds.), Therapeutic

conversations (pp. 62–80). Norton.

Williams, C. C. (2006). The epistemology of cultural competence. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 87,


Yan, M. C., & Wong, Y. R. (2005). Rethinking self-awareness in cultural competence: Toward a dialogic self in cross-cultural social

work. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 86(2), 181–188.