Predictors of Political Activism among Social Work Students

By Swank, Eric W. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Predictors of Political Activism among Social Work Students


Swank, Eric W., Journal of Social Work Education


WHEN CONTESTING CULTURAL prejudices and structural inequalities, much of social work practice has a political nature. Social workers can try to change institutional causes of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, sexual violence, heterosexism, and other social ills by entering the political process that creates and implements detrimental policies. As such, professional organizations urge political participation for social workers. The preamble for the 2008 National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics reads: "Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on the behalf of clients." Several practices accomplish this, including "direct practice, community organizing, social and political activism" (NASW, 2008). To prepare future professionals, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in their accreditation standards insists that social work programs should foster a commitment to political action by including content on "social or political action" (CSWE, 2001, B4.1.3, M4.1.3). Other organizations also base their entire missions around politically mobilizing social workers (e.g., Social Welfare Action Alliance, Influencing State Policy).

Although political activism has always been a part of social work practice, scholars believe that the extent of social worker activism has ebbed and flowed throughout history (Mullalay, 1993). Since the beginning of the Reagan administration, commentators have warned that the social work profession has become too micro oriented and has neglected its activist mission (Abramowitz, 1998; Fisher, 1995; Specht & Courtney, 1993).

Such debates flourish in discussions of social work students as well. One study contends that a "desire to create social change" is a major motive for students choosing social work (Hanson & McCullagh, 1995, p. 35), whereas two other studies suggest that social work students are not enamored with political activism and prefer a career in micro practice (Aviram & Katan, 1991; Butler, 1990). On top of contradictory descriptive findings, only a few multivariate studies try to explain why social work students would be politically active. The current study extends this literature by examining the political actions of students in bachelor's of social work (BSW) programs. In doing so, this article tries to identify the factors that differentiate the politically active from the politically lethargic. With a focus on factors that may inspire and hinder activism, this work integrates insights from many academic disciplines. The much-cited resource model of political science guides this study's theoretical conceptualizations (Brady, Verba, & Scholzman, 1995) as do the sociological theories of "mobilization structures" (McAdam & Paulsen, 1993; McCarthy, 1996; Passy, 2001) and "collective action frames" (Gamson, 1992; Klandermans, 1997; Snow & Benford, 1992). This work also taps the nascent literature on activism among social work students (Aviram & Katan, 1991; Butler, 1990; Rocha, 2000; Swank & Fahs, 2011; Weiss, 2003) and employed social workers (e.g., Dudziak & Coates, 2004; Ezell, 1993; Hamilton & Fauri, 2001; Parker & Sherraden, 1992; Reeser, 1992; Ritter, 2008; Wolk, 1981).

When addressing these debates and gaps within the empirical literature, this study asks two research questions: First, how politically active are undergraduate social worker students? Second, what factors foster greater political activism among undergraduate social work students?

Literature Review

Variable selection in this study is partially guided by the "resource model" of political participation (Brady et al., 1995). Offering a succinct answer as to why people refrain from politics, the resource model asserts: "because they can't, because they don't want to, or because nobody asked" (Brady et al., 1995, p. 271). "They can't" suggests a dearth of necessary resources to be political. …

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