Academic journal article Social Development Issues

Social Work as a Democratic Experiment in the United States: The Dilemma of Professionalizing across Borders

Academic journal article Social Development Issues

Social Work as a Democratic Experiment in the United States: The Dilemma of Professionalizing across Borders

Article excerpt

The democratic experiment of the United States, like the French Revolution, sought to address not only political equality through the concept of citizen instead of subject but also economic opportunity and social equality in securing the benefits of liberty for all and the broadest participation of the governed. Although this experiment continues to be contested for its many failings, there have been, over the decades, many efforts to help it become a reality for all citizens. Many outstanding figures of philanthropy and social reform, often calling themselves social workers, were among those who struggled to keep the experiment alive.

This article addresses the trajectory of social work from its original egalitarian commitments to social justice to its becoming a professional group that secured a legally recognized status, prestige within universities, and recognition by other professions. After World War II, but most particularly in the past three decades, social work has sought to expand its professional hegemony beyond the borders of the United States by joining globalizing currents. Today's social workers seem to believe that standardized practices and sophisticated professional principles-rather than locally developed ways of assistance- are appropriate throughout the world. Critically, Lorenz (1999) remarked, "The case work model . . . [was] regarded as exportable to every country of the world. This model espoused a liberal notion of formal equality and democracy in the public realm which relegated all questions of cultural differences to the sphere of the private" (p. 36). Standardized practices, purportedly based on science, became confused with egalitarianism. Whether because of the ascendancy of casework or the lodging of social work in bureaucracies, efforts at professionalization often rendered technocratic solutions that did not enhance democratic efforts. While this article does not propose the eradication of professional efforts for such things as the recognition of universal human rights, scientific developments, or the application of ethical codes governing service providers, it does suggest that the tenets of professionalization must be cautiously applied to avoid the devaluing of good judgment or culturally rooted wisdom. Globalizing efforts in social work have often led to alien practices that have disregarded locally unique demands, thus causing the de-skilling of many populations and becoming dangerously undemocratic (Midgley, 1981).

Definitions

Classic definitions of the democratic orientation include political autonomy, citizen empowerment, and respect for universal human rights. In discussing universal human rights, we refer to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations. Sidoti (2001 ) has suggested that there were numerous antecedents to the promotion and encouragement of human rights, from the ancient Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Muslim, and other religious principles governing the treatment of persons by governments and by one another to important tenets embedded in documents of particular nations (e.g., England, France, the United States). However, the 1948 UN Declaration represents "an international consensus, across the social, economic political, cultural, religious and historical differences that divide humanity, about what the fundamental entitlements of each human being are" (Sidoti, 2001, p. 8). Our current international system in law has been built on this declaration, on the UN Charter, and on numerous treaties and agreements among the more than 180 nations that reaffirmed the declaration in Vienna in 1993 as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations" (Sidoti, 2001, p. 8). It is important to recognize, as Sidoti (2001) does, that the enforcement of standards of achievement varies among nations according to context and resources. When we speak about human rights, we are necessarily talking about "universalizing" a value frame. …

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