Academic journal article Social Work

The Public's Perception of Social Work: Is It What We Think It Is?

Academic journal article Social Work

The Public's Perception of Social Work: Is It What We Think It Is?

Article excerpt

Social work is still a relatively young profession. In the years since the founding of Hull House and the work done by social work s earliest pioneers, things have changed in this society. Although the current problems of today's disenfranchised people continue to have much in common with the problems of early immigrants settling in large urban areas where modern social work began, much else is different. Today, the areas of practice encompassed by social work are broader. It is possible to find social workers in all segments of the private and public sectors.

Only a few decades ago, it would have been the exception to find a social worker in private practice of working in industry; now these are frequent phenomena. Also, other factors have changed the environment in which this practice is carried out. Managed care and sweeping changes to the welfare system have introduced elements into social work that could not have been imagined 20 years ago. Moreover, modern representations of social work and social workers in the popular media often do not compliment or support the profession.

A critical consequence of these changes over the past several decades is that they have influenced how the public perceives and understands social work as a profession. Why is this influence critical, and why is it so important to know what the public thinks of social work? Social workers have shown concern for their public image since the very beginnings of professionalism (Lubov, 1965) and have had good reason for doing so. Historically, social workers have been guardians of the vulnerable and disenfranchised members of society. Social work has exemplified the value of caring for those less fortunate. Thus, if the general public is confused, uninformed, or even hostile toward social work, the profession is less able to fulfill its mission of helping those in need.

According to Vogt (1994), people are motivated to make changes on a group's behalf only if they like and approve of the group. Mere tolerance is not enough to motivate people toward change; rather, change demands public approval. Adding to this notion, it has been pointed out that as long as stigmatized groups (like social workers and their clients) are viewed negatively in this society, people will not attempt to change discriminatory practices or oppressive policies that are detrimental to these groups (Allport, 1935; Linton, 1945).

When the public's approval of social work wanes, recruitment into the profession suffers, as does the professional credibility of social workers in both the public eye and in the eyes of other professionals. Finally, given that the public is the primary consumer of services that social workers offer, how it views social work is vital to its acceptance of social work services, as well as the policy positions supported by social workers.

For all of these reasons, it is important to examine what the public thinks of social work today so that we might influence social work's image and the public's opinion tomorrow.

In 1978 a survey was conducted that examined how the public viewed social work (Condie, Hanson, Lang, Moss, & Kane, 1978). The researchers pointed out that earlier studies of public opinion conducted in the 1950s had concluded that the public was unclear about what social workers did (Weinberger, 1967). Thus, the researchers endeavored to find out if public opinion had changed since that time. Four U.S. communities were surveyed to determine the level of public knowledge about social work, including whether the public was aware of newer as well as traditional social work roles and if certain demographic and other variables were associated with a specific response pattern.

Results indicated that in the 1970s the public had a greater awareness of social work roles than it did in the 1950s, with more respondents being aware that social workers function in a variety of roles. However, given that the percentage identifying erroneous roles (such as legal advisor) did not differ significantly from the percentage identifying correct roles (such as group therapist) and because the stereotyped image of the social worker as "child protector" continued to predominate, the researchers concluded that the public was only marginally able to accurately identify social work roles. …

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