In a 1998 article in the NASW-published journal Social Work, Janet Finn and Barry Checkoway argued that the field of social work had largely pathologized, victimized, and problematized young people. They argued that constructing and conceptualizing young people as needing to be cared for limits the potential for young people to bring strengths and assets to their communities and reduces or eliminates young people’s agency within community change efforts. Instead, Finn and Checkoway called for social work to engage youths as “competent citizens.” In this strengths-based conception, youths are viewed as interested in and capable of influencing decision making that affects their lives and creating sustainable community change. And yet, almost two decades later, this focus on young people as problems rather than assets remains a dominant narrative within social work in the United States. What steps can the social work profession take to move from a pathologizing to an empowering perspective on youth populations?
To look toward an answer to this question, Suzanne Pritzker, PhD, and Katie Richards-Schuster, PhD, conducted a search of relevant existing literature on the subject of youth, civic engagement, and social work in scholarly journals. By looking at what has been published, they hoped to reveal what social work can do to change perspectives and encourage youth civic engagement. Their findings have been published in the July 2016 issue of Social Work.
This article describes their preliminary exploration of the current state of the social work literature regarding child and youth civic engagement. Although many questions can be asked about social work’s contributions, this study sought to identify the current social work literature in this area, particularly within the United States, and to begin to explore the scope and breadth of this scholarship for understanding young people’s civic engagement. As a result, they focused on three questions:
- Where are studies of young people’s civic engagement published within the social work literature?
- What are the various terms that social work researchers use to describe civic engagement among children and youths?
- What do social work researchers seek to learn from their research and to contribute to this field?
To identify the scope of social work’s current contributions to this area, the authors sought to examine the population of social work articles, particularly those originating in the United States and published over the past decade (between 2004 and 2014), with a focus on civic engagement among young people. The unit of analysis for this study is a published peer-reviewed article. Thus, book chapters, books, book reviews, editorials, opinions, and reviews were excluded, although we are aware that much has been written in books and book chapters about young people’s civic engagement. The authors defined the following:
Civic engagement refers here to young people’s involvement in influencing the decisions of institutions and communities affecting their lives.
This study focuses on articles that studied children and youths under the age of 18, consistent with the United Nations’ (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In laying out the participatory rights of young people, the CRC states that “a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years” (Part 1, Article 1). They chose to focus on young people under 18 years of age because their interest is in how social work contributes to knowledge about engaging the youngest populations.
Social Work Articles
The study is focused specifically on understanding social work’s contributions to the literature. Social work articles are defined as those articles that meet at least one of the following three criteria:
- Publication in a core social work journal, defined as a journal sponsored, published, or offered as a membership benefit by one of the following leading U.S. social work organizations: NASW, Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR).
- Publication in one of three interdisciplinary journals: Children and Youth Services Review, Children & Society, or Journal of Community Practice. These journals are especially common publication outlets for youth civic engagement research conducted by U.S. social workers, and social workers are represented among these journals’ editors and editorial boards.
- Articles appearing in other journals in which at least one author received an MSW or PhD in social work or taught in a school or department of social work.
The researchers compiled their lists using these key words and synonyms; here are some of the findings:
- For the decade of their search, a total of 113 articles fit the researchers criteria.
- Among the eight core social work journals—publications associated with NASW, CSWE, or SSWR—eight published articles on topics related to child and youth civic engagement were found over the decade from 2004 through 2014.
- The preponderance of identified articles (60.18 percent) were published in the three selected interdisciplinary journals. In these journals, substantial numbers of social work scholars published articles related to young people’s civic engagement, but publication in this topic area was not limited to social workers.
- The remaining articles identified in this review were all written by social work authors and were published in 20 different journals.
To address this relative dearth of literature on youth and civic engagement, the authors note several areas for improvement, including having more social workers conducting studies and publishing findings regarding youth civic engagement, having more journal editors look for articles on youth civic engagement, and encouraging social workers to adopt a standard nomenclature for discussing youth civic engagement, so that researchers and activists can locate published findings on the topic. By promoting literature on youth as agents of civic engagement, social work researchers and journals can further this perspective in the field, and help enact positive perspectives and changes among young people in their environments.