Living Up to the Code’s Exhortations? Social Workers’ Political Knowledge Sources, Expectations, and Behaviors

Jan 6, 2016

The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics is the standard in defining and advancing social work values and principles. The Code is a model for social workers in the United States (as well as around the world), and promulgates the core values of social work in the areas of service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. As part of the emphasis on social justice, the Code of Ethics states that:

Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice. (NASW Code of Ethics, 2015)

As one expression of an overall ethos of advocacy for human rights and social just, political engagement is clearly part of the Code of Ethics. But do social workers actually support this admonition, and if so, to what extent do they actually engage in politics? Little research has been done to answer these questions. To begin to address this lack of research, Brandi Jean Felderhoff, MSW, LCSW, Richard Hoefer, PhD, and Larry Dan Watson, PhD, conducted survey of social workers attending a conference in Texas, and their findings have been published in the journal Social Work.

The researchers wanted to find out three things:

  • Since keeping informed about government and political news is an important basis for action, what sources of knowledge do social workers use?
  • What do social workers believe are appropriate political behaviors for other social workers and NASW?
  • What do the social workers themselves do with regard to political behaviors?

The data gathered yielded some interesting results. For instance, the surveyed social workers reported that they get most of their information on government and political news from internet-based news services and posts (including blogs), followed by public radio broadcasts. On the other hand, news-only television stations, political radio stations/shows, and comedy/late-night shows (which may be directed to one or the other ends of the political spectrum) were ranked much lower.

Respondents also appeared to expect considerable political activity on the part of other social workers, as well as NASW itself. This included advocating for national and chapter policies. Compared to their self-reports, sometimes respondents were more participatory than they expected from the Association and their colleagues, although sometimes they were less so.

The authors noted that the results of their study are not generalizable to the social work profession at large. The respondents were found through their participation in a state social work conference, which makes them atypical of all the licensed social workers in the state; they may not even have been representative of all NASW membership. However, the findings do have implications for social work organizations and schools of social work in terms of educating and increasing the engagement of social workers in the political field. More research in this area is called for. The authors conclude:

On the basis of these results, we argue that the respondents, with NASW organizational assistance, could be better prepared and more active. Most codes of ethics are aspirational. Social workers in the present study generally support the ideas for political action in the NASW Code of Ethics, but they could be more active in fulfilling its exhortations.

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