Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work and the Convergence of Politics and Science

Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work and the Convergence of Politics and Science

Article excerpt

In recent years, social work has developed an affinity for scientific inquiry. Yet social work is more than a science, because the profession is value oriented. Not only is it value oriented, but it is also influenced by the political context in which it operates. Forces in the larger society such as political and fiscal conservatism have pushed for a monitoring of social work. Concomitantly, forces within the profession itself have pushed for a testing of interventions and theories. Both sets of forces have resulted in the convergence of scientific inquiry and professionalism. With such a convergence of forces, critical questions and goals have been lost sight of. This article focuses on the social work profession and its possible association with scientific inquiry, technology, and values; the political and cultural context and the use of inquiry; and the relationship between inquiry and professional development.

Social Work, Scientific Inquiry, Technology, and Values

Most professions, including the human services professions, relate to and are affected by scientific inquiry, technology, and values. Whereas disciplines are directed to understanding aspects of nature and environment, the professions are normatively obligated to engage the world, to understand selective aspects of it, and to attempt to do something about some features or facets of that world. Whereas disciplines are primarily concerned with knowledge, the professions are primarily concerned with doing something to promote some activity or change (Powers, Meenaghan, & Toomey, 1985).

Central to many of the disciplines is the distinctive role of scientific inquiry. Through the analytic rules of scientific inquiry many of the disciplines pursue their primary goals of seeking knowledge and understanding the world. Similarly, the professions also depend on scientific inquiry. Either the professions adapt and borrow insights from relevant disciplines as the professions attempt to act on and modify the environment, or they attempt to develop and then apply their own emerging body of knowledge. In either instance, the profession is using scientific knowledge for some particular reason. In short, the profession is normatively oriented to some chosen goal being achieved or some expectation being met, and within that context, scientific inquiry is helpful.

In their use of science to extend understanding and knowledge of the world, the disciplines are not focused on practical implications. Rather, the relevant norms are accuracy and what Merton (1957) called "organized skepticism." More specifically, the values attached to the scientific process affirm attitudes of objectivity, impersonality, disinterestedness, and political neutrality.

Somewhat distinct from science and the disciplines is technology. Technology is the selective application of science. That is, technology in a sense is the purposeful attempt to apply science to shape and, at times, manage the environment, or at least specific components of it. Technology is inherently driven by the norm of utilitarianism (Gingerich, 1990).

In some respects professions are quite similar to the norm of technology. Like technology, professions are primarily directed to the application of knowledge. In this context, the skills of the professional are central as he or she attempts to interact with and shape the environment. More specifically, human services professionals are beginning to see that technology can be used in the context of working with people and communities. For example, use of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) - the fruit of scientific inquiry concerning the personalities of human beings - can be positively applied in working with individual clients. Similarly, the technology of large-scale surveys can now be used by large agencies and funders in selecting priorities for funding.

Although the professions are becoming increasingly aware of the relevance of technology, one should not jump to the conclusion that technology and the professions are totally alike. …

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