Social Work and Divergent Viewpoints

Dec 13, 2011

From the October 2011 NASW News:

By Maren Dale, Special to the News

Nearly every social worker subscribes to the broad principles outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics: a commitment to service; social justice; the dignity and worth of a person; the importance of human relationships; integrity and competence. However, one’s background and unique sets of beliefs can influence how these principles are interpreted and put into practice, and sometimes opinions vary.

Divergent viewpoints

The existence of viewpoints that differ from NASW’s Code of Ethics and other takes on social work conduct is not a new phenomenon, but a dramatic change in recent years has been the increasing number of platforms where viewpoints, ranging from popular to incendiary, can be disseminated widely and easily — particularly through social media formats, such as blogging and Facebook.

While voicing different opinions is often productive to overall understanding, it can be counterproductive when it focuses on problems instead of solutions. How can social work leaders promote the positive aspects of conflicting viewpoints while being more open to those who hold differing opinions?

Journey Begins in the Classroom. David R. Hodge is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University who teaches respect for cultural diversity. In the classroom, he has employed a number of strategies to get students thinking about ethics and social work, but says that in his experience, bringing up highly controversial subjects in the classroom is not always a productive approach.

“We are all at different points on our personal journey. Some of us are at a place where we can look at things objectively and others are still moving toward that goal,” Hodge says. “What I try to do is help students on this journey, so they can get to a place where, ultimately, they don’t feel threatened when discussing beliefs that differ from their own.”

Hodge says he has found benefit in setting ground rules for discussions, such as not using modifiers like “extremist” to describe another group and being willing to disagree when divergent opinions are expressed.

For those who work with social work students, Hodge also believes it is important to know something about the students’ backgrounds in order to help balance differing opinions.

“If I sense a power imbalance during a discussion, or if some students are silenced, I make it a point to support those who may have a different opinion,” he says. “Doing this requires some preparation, but it is worth the effort and leads to more productive dialogue. … [This] is one way social work leaders can help promote more open dialogue.”

Intergroup Dialogue as a Bridge. Intergroup Dialogue is a method of communication that relies on specific tools and resources, and is used by some social work leaders to help foster understanding among groups with divergent opinions. Through this work, participants gather in small meetings that can include a variety of activities and readings to gain a deeper understanding of diversity and social justice issues. Goals include not only intergroup understanding but relationship building and action to address institutional and structural power imbalances in society.

Social worker Adrienne Dessel has 20 years’ experience providing multicultural and conflict resolution services to diverse populations and teaches Intergroup Dialogue courses as co-associate director of the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan.

Previously, Dessel served as a co-facilitator for an Intergroup Dialogue gathering of Israelis, American Jews and Arab Americans who were both Christian and Muslim living in a predominantly Southern Baptist culture in the Southeast U.S. This community group began meeting bimonthly, in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and Dessel says there were significant challenges to overcome, but ultimately the Intergroup Dialogue process benefitted these participants.

“The dialogues were guided by the Public Conversations Project community dialogue guide,” explains Dessel. “Using this resource, the group developed communication agreements and guidelines designed to create a safe space for expressing views, and used exercises and question prompts specifically designed by the PCP staff.”

There were a number of significant and positive outcomes that resulted from these encounters: a children’s peace project; an Arab/Jewish women’s storytelling performance; and two educational exchanges between students and teachers of a synagogue and a mosque. Relationships developed among members from these communities that have sustained over time.

“Social work leaders can utilize Intergroup Dialogue to implement and develop both clinical/micro and community organization/macro skills. In this way, Intergroup Dialogue offers an invaluable social work tool and also builds bridges across professional as well as social divides,” says Dessel.

Focusing on Similarities. Rick Chamiec-Case serves as executive director for the Botsford, Conn.-based North American Association of Christians in Social Work, a group that aims to help its members ethically integrate their faith and social work practice.

Chamiec-Case says he believes the best place to begin fostering positive dialogue among groups with divergent opinions is to focus on the groups’ commonalities, not just the differences.

“Between various faith traditions — including Christianity — and social work, I think 90 to 95 percent of what we do and believe syncs up. We need to focus primarily on that,” he says. “We also need to recognize that our diversity is much broader than simply seeing social workers as people of faith versus those who are not. For instance, even within Christianity, there are divergent opinions on certain issues.”

In an effort to focus primarily on similarities, Chamiec-Case says it is important to recognize that not only people who subscribe to religious beliefs face ethical dilemmas.

Every social worker deals with these challenges — for instance, when a client confides that he or she is contemplating committing a crime and the social worker must choose between keeping that information confidential or divulging it.

One method NACSW uses to promote greater openness is to invite representatives from NASW to come to their conferences to discuss current topics so the groups can exchange thoughts and learn from each other. Similarly, Chamiec-Case says NACSW encourages its membership to work with social workers who have different backgrounds on projects where they espouse common goals, instead of trying to collaborate on projects that involve divisive issues.

“Working together, we learn from each other. Then, if and when the time comes to grapple with more complex issues where there may be divergent opinions, we are able to be more productive and have more of a context in which to discuss them,” he says.

Appreciating Differences. Dessel stresses the value of integrating different social work approaches.

“I have come to appreciate and deeply believe in the skills of both micro (clinical) and macro (community organization) social workers. Intergroup Dialogue utilizes the skills of both, and both groups should work together — neither can succeed without the other,” she says. “In general, macro-level social workers are better versed in issues of identity and justice and the oppressive institutional forces at work in their clients’ lives, and micro-level social workers are generally better at understanding intrapsychic processes and trauma that influence communication and relationships.”

Chamiec-Case points out that social workers are not alone in this challenge and can benefit from reaching across professional lines.

“Other disciplines, such as nursing, must wrestle with these same issues. Talking to our peers in other disciplines and asking how they are dealing with issues can be valuable,” says Chamiec-Case.

NASW’s practice standards on cultural competence address many of the ways social workers use their skills to bridge divides. The standards publication defines cultural competence as “the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.”

Divergent attitudes will continue to mount as diversity fluorishes, Hodge points out.

“Our nation is rapidly becoming more diverse,” Hodge says. “While diversity should be celebrated, as social workers we need to be aware that, historically, very diverse groups don’t do well together — nations have not been as stable during times of increasing diversity. I hope we as social workers step up and both work to become more open ourselves as well as promote the benefits of diversity whenever we are able.”

NASW’s “Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice” publication is available at

From October 2011 NASW News. © 2011 National Association of Social Workers. All Rights Reserved. NASW News articles may be copied for personal use, but proper notice of copyright and credit to the NASW News must appear on all copies made. This permission does not apply to reproduction for advertising, promotion, resale, or other commercial purposes.