Social work professor’s article ‘best conceptual article of 2009’

Gerald O'Brien, professor of social work.

The important implications for social work contained in the research of Gerald O’Brien, professor of social work, was recently recognized by the Journal of Social Work Education.

O’Brien’s article, “Metaphors and the Pejorative Framing of Marginilized Groups: Implications for Social Work Education,” describes the importance of metaphors within the political arena and the function of dehumanizing metaphors as a means of promoting a receptive environment for aversive policies.

The article was published in JSWE in 2009 and O’Brien was informed in late August that it had been chosen from among all articles published in the journal that year as the best conceptual article of 2009.

According to the letter O’Brien received from the JSWE, the criteria for choosing best conceptual article of the year include: “originality of thought, sound or innovative conceptualization of the topic, and presentation of conclusions and/or recommendations that add significantly to the professional knowledge base and to social work education.”

O’Brien, who has been teaching at SIUE for the past 12 years, has been interested in the plight of marginalized groups for much of his professional career.

“I started in that area because of my interest in disabilities and historical issues and social justice and I was heavily involved with eugenics research,” said O’Brien.

Eugenics, known by many as a “Nazi ideology,” involves the belief in “controlled breeding” or improving the qualities of the human population by limiting or discouraging reproduction by persons with genetic defects.

After reading heavily about the history of Eugenics, O’Brien became aware of metaphor themes that were utilized and the consistently negative ways of describing people with disabilities.

“As I saw those themes, I became more interested in metaphors,” said O’Brien. “How we describe various groups for the purpose of framing them certainly has contemporary relevance in terms of immigration and other social policies.”

In his qualitative study, which received the honor of best conceptual article, O’Brien argues that most people do not generally make decisions, particularly in the heat of “alarm periods,” based on critical thinking.

“Alarm periods are periods when there is an intense anxiety within the community – and you find scapegoats,” explained O’Brien.

O‘Brien attempts to determine who society’s scapegoats are and what methods are used to try to dehumanize them – including pictorial images and descriptive images.

The implications of research such as O’Brien’s are particularly important in the field of social work and the JSWE’s recognition of his article further underscores its significance.

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