Who We Are, Where We Come from, and Some of Our Perceptions: Comparison of Social Workers and the General Population

Article excerpt

As Gibelman and Schervish (1997) noted in their overview of the social work profession: "We still know very little about the larger population of social workers in the United States" (p. 15). Although a certain amount of information is known about individuals who are members of NASW, this 151,000-member organization only constitutes roughly 32 percent of the of the 484,000 individuals classified as social workers by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 1994. Apart from the limited statistics collected by BLS, essentially nothing is known about the 68 percent of social workers who are unaffiliated with NASW (Gibelman & Schervish).

In addition, dissimilarity in degree status suggests that important differences may exist between the NASW membership and the total social work labor force. Although more than 85 percent of NASW membership consists of individuals whose highest degree is the master's, most social workers hold bachelor's degrees. According to the BLS study of the total social work labor force, 289,000 people held bachelor's degrees, whereas 175,000 held master's degrees (Gibelman & Schervish, 1997). Because most social workers hold bachelor's degrees and most NASW members hold master's degrees, significant differences may exist between the two groups.

In short, almost nothing is known about the national population of social workers. No studies have used a nationally representative sample of the total social work population to identify the demographic characteristics of social workers. The dearth of knowledge is particularly acute with bachelor's-level social workers, who are the greatest portion of the total population of social workers.

The purposes of this article are twofold: first, to increase our understanding of who we are and where we come from by providing basic demographic information on professional social workers and, second, to enhance our understanding of social workers by comparing their demographics and a number of additional perceptions with those of the general public.


I used the General Social Surveys (GSS) 1972-98 cumulative file, a nationally representative database that includes professional social workers, to identify the characteristics of social workers and compare these characteristics with those of the general public. Although the GSS does not contain the type of multi-item psychosocial instruments that are typical of smaller, more targeted surveys, it does include a number of single-item measures that are of interest to a broad cross-section of researchers.

The GSS offers a number of additional advantages. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, the GSS is widely considered to represent the state of the art in national survey research. It is representative of the entire noninstitutionalized English-speaking adult household population in the contiguous United States (Davis, Smith, & Marsden, 1998). As a result, the responses of the social workers contained in this data set can be generalized to the total social work population in the continental United States (Stephenson, 1978).

The study was patterned after a methodological approach pioneered by Schwartz-Barcott and Schwartz (1988, 1990) and Matthews and Weaver (1989). These researchers used the GSS cumulative data file to compare, respectively, the perceptions of nurses with the general public and college professors with other professionals. I used a similar method to compare the responses of self-identified bachelor's--and master's-level social workers with the general population.

Although only a few social workers are surveyed every year, exact question wording is retained on each survey so that responses can be pooled across years. A core set of questions is asked every year and a second set of questions is either rotated, appearing in two of every three years until 1987, or appears in two-thirds of cases in subsequent years (Davis et al. …