Social workers’ construction of cultural competence in polarized cities

Hisham M. Abu-Rayya, Roni Strier, Tamar Shwartz-Ziv

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Summary: Mixed cities are defined as ethnically diverse cities located within turbulent contexts of intensive, ongoing intergroup political conflict. As such, they may pose serious challenges to social workers’ efforts to develop culturally competent practices, especially in the public service sector. This article examined social workers’ constructions of cultural competence in the social public services delivered to Arab and Jewish clients in Israeli mixed cities. Based on extensive qualitative data gathered from 80 public social workers in Haifa, Acre, and Jerusalem, this study discusses the strengths and limitations of the cultural competence approach, especially when applied in the context of varying degrees of political conflict. Findings: Findings illustrated three approaches to the provision of social welfare services: (1) the “universal” construction, which corresponds to universal and egalitarian value-based approach, by which social work professionalism is claimed sufficient to ensure equal treatment for Israeli Arab and Jewish clients; (2) the “indispensable” cultural approach, which indicates that cultural competence is vital and unavoidable in addressing the ethno-diversity needs of Israeli Arab and Jewish clients in mixed cities; and (3) the “critical” construction, which critiques the cultural competence and universal approaches as lacking the complexity to address the problematic ethno-political nature of mixed city settings. Applications: The study proposes to adopt an integrated cultural competence approach that combines vital elements of each discrete construction to guide social workers’ practices in mixed cities. Context-informed priorities may occasionally emphasize some elements and minimize others. Institutional support and training is necessary for the proposition to work.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1278-1298
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.


  • Social work
  • cultural competency
  • ethnicity
  • multi-cultural perspectives
  • public sector

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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