Motivations, Values, and Conflict Resolution: Students' Integration of Personal and Professional Identities

By Osteen, Philip J. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Motivations, Values, and Conflict Resolution: Students' Integration of Personal and Professional Identities


Osteen, Philip J., Journal of Social Work Education


THE FIELD OF SOCIAL WORK is based on a distinct set of value premises that set it apart from other professional disciplines (Abbott, 2003; Compton, Galloway, & Cournoyer, 2004; D'Aprix, Dunlap, Abel, & Edwards, 2004; Reamer, 2006). This difference between social work and other helping professions is evident in the educational emphasis on multiculturalism, specifically in regards to issues of privilege and oppression, the application of person-in-environment and constructionist theories of the human experiences, and the importance of social justice as a defining value of the profession. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics (2008) explicitly delineates six core values of the profession: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. These core values reflect what is "unique to the profession" (Preamble, para. 4) and are presented as fundamental guidelines of the profession.

Kelly, Alexander, and Cullinane (1986) posited that in order for an occupation to be a profession, "the members must identify with it and its mission" (p. 6). The development of a professional social work identity arises out of growing "self-awareness" and a growing identification with the roles, values, and ethics of the profession (Carpenter & Platt, 1997). Although not intended as a prescription of global professional social work behavior, the NASW Code of Ethics is nonetheless meant to establish values, principles, and standards to guide social workers' decision making and conduct (Purpose, para. 3). Even more specific are the Council on Social Work Education's (CSWE) 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS), establishing in Section 2.1.1 the educational outcome: "Identify as a professional social worker and conduct oneself accordingly" (p. 3).

The discourse on the role of value systems in the field of social work is becoming more intense and contentious as ill-conceived notions of liberalism and conservatism straddle the socio-political fence (Fram & Miller-Cribbs, 2008). Some researchers have suggested the social work education selection process be reformed in order to admit suitable students with "desired characteristics'" (Gibbons, Bore, Monroe, & Powis, 2007, p. 211). Based on a review of the literature, Gibbons and colleagues (2007) found that although most admission processes focused on academic suitability, educators also felt that personal qualities and values played a role in students' eventual success as a social work practitioner. Among those qualities deemed "undesirable" were intolerance and judgmental and opinionated attitudes (Miller & Koerin, 1998). Given the resources involved "both in class and in the field to deal appropriately with the few students who are academically able but exhibit unsuitable personal qualities or inappropriate behavior" (Gibbons et al., 2007, p. 210), and the potential for negative impacts on other students, faculty, field instructors, agencies, and clients (Gibbons et al., 2007; Gray & Gibbons, 2002), the recommendation was made to focus more on the "screening in" process of selecting appropriate students instead of the "screening out" process for inappropriate students.

Bisman (2004) has suggested that the emphasis of the social work profession is on the knowledge base of the profession, supplanting a focus on the values and mission of the profession. One example is the current debate in the field over the degree of congruence between MSW students' personal values and those of the profession, with evidence supporting claims that the personal value bases of MSW students over the past 15 years are both divergent and convergent in relationship to the values of the profession (Abell & McDonell, 1990; Allen-Meares, 2000; D'Aprix et al., 2004). Some research findings suggest that MSW students are more interested in pursuing careers in private clinical practice than in careers focusing on oppressed and impoverished populations, and that there is disparity between the values of contemporary students and those of the profession (D'Aprix et al. …

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