Does Social Work Education Have an Impact on Social Policy Preferences? A Three-Cohort Study

By Weiss, Idit; Gal, John et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Does Social Work Education Have an Impact on Social Policy Preferences? A Three-Cohort Study


Weiss, Idit, Gal, John, Cnaan, Ram A., Journal of Social Work Education


DESPITE A LONG LASTING and often vigorous debate over the goals of social work (Haynes, 1998), it would appear that there is now wide concurrence that the profession in different countries has a dual focus (Healy, 2001) and is concerned with both individuals and society (Lynn, 1999; Witkin, 1999). As such, it is generally agreed that one of the central and indeed unique characteristics of social work continues to be its commitment to the furthering of social justice, construed as ensuring more equal access to economic and social resources for all members of society (Figueira-McDonough, 1993; Haynes & White, 1999; Stuart, 1999; Wakefield, 1993). Retrenchment in contemporary welfare states and the impact of globalization have only served to underscore the relevance of this goal (Reisch & Jarman-Rohde, 2000).

In order to further a social justice objective, social workers and their representative organizations are generally expected to engage in a variety of policy-related activities that seek to shape social welfare policy. These policies aim to achieve a greater degree of redistribution of social wealth and to enhance the role of the state in providing social protection to those in need and in offering an adequate economic, social, and psychological safety net of services (Jansson, 1990; Schneider & Netting, 1999; Wakefield, 1988). Indeed, social work's commitment to principles of social justice, such as redistribution and the upholding of social rights and to social and political advocacy, is unequivocally underscored in formal documents, such as the International Federation of Social Workers' recently adopted definition of the profession (International Federation of Social Workers, 2000) and the codes of ethics of social worker associations throughout the world (Banks, 2001). For example, the code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (1999) states that: "Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for change in policy and legislation to improve conditions ... and promote social justice" (Sec. 6.04). In a similar vein, the Israel Association of Social Workers' (1994) code of ethics notes: "the social worker is committed to supporting policies and legislation that seek to improve social conditions and further social justice" (chapter 2, A-6).

If social work as a profession does indeed seek to advance goals of social justice and social reform, surely it is incumbent upon social workers to avoid adhering to ostensibly "neutral," nonideological positions vis-a-vis the state and its involvement in social issues. Clearly a profession devoted to social justice must be comprised of practitioners broadly supportive of state activities intended to curb the negative excesses of a market economy and to safeguard social rights, especially those of the weakest and least protected groups in society (Abramovitz, 1993, 1998; Figueira-McDonough, 1993). Policy practice, in particular, is seen as a form of social work intervention that must be firmly grounded in this type of value system (Iatridis, 1995).

Currently, many fear that the policy practice role of the profession has been undermined in the face of a growing lurch toward individual treatment and private practice. Over the last decades, numerous calls have been made to strengthen the commitment of social work practitioners to the goal of social justice (Abramovitz, 1998) and to encourage the involvement of social workers in policy practice activities (Haynes & Mickelson, 1986; Schneider & Netting, 1999; Specht & Courtney, 1994). Much attention has been directed toward the role of the professional training system in this context (Keller, Whittaker & Burke, 2001; Rocha, 2000; Saulnier, 2000). …

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