Is Social Work Political? Should It Be?


More and more these days, the term “social justice” can be seen in proximity to discussions of social work. The term implies political activism — fighting for societal change at the policy level to address disadvantaged populations within the United States (and around the world). It begs the question: Should social workers be political activists? Have they been, and are they already?

Grant Shreve, in JSTOR Daily, sites the six ethical principles listed in the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. “In its extended form,” he writes of the code, “it enjoins social workers to ‘pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people.’ Although such a commitment may seem obvious, this notoriously amorphous profession has, since its origins, struggled to reconcile professionalization with activism and the concern for individual welfare with the desire to upend oppressive social structures.”

Shreve goes on to describe the origins of social work in the 19th century. He identifies the historic alliance between social work and progressive social and political reform, which launched ‘a series of movements aimed at improving the quality of urban life on various fronts.’” While social work took a more conservative turn after the first world war, focusing on individual psychological wellbeing, social work again turned to widespread social reform with the rise of progressive political movements a few decades later.

“Social work, as scholar and social worker Allison D. Murdach writes, has never been part of a clear ‘progressive tradition,’ but its ‘fluctuating but ongoing association with progressivism and progressive thinking’ has nevertheless lent it a ‘culture of progressivism,’” Shreve concludes. “How social work embodies its commitment to social justice has always been fluid, but its history demonstrates that even in the profession’s most conservative periods, there is an undercurrent of intense and compassionate concern not only to the welfare of individuals but to the shape of society as a whole.”Shreve’s analysis is both compassionate and accurate… but where does that leave the profession? Social workers must always balance their desire to serve populations most in need — improving quality of life and addressing undergirding societal problems in the process — while fending off accusations of inappropriately injecting their personal political views in their work. There are no simple solutions to this balancing act. It comes down to the individual social worker’s devotion to professionalism and his or her passion for the roots of social work itself.

How do you balance these sensibilities? Where do you stand on the notion of social work versus social justice? We welcome your input on this often thorny issue.

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