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Have We Resolved Social Work's Identity Crisis?

We may not do the same jobs, but we share a professional identity after all.

Key points

  • Social Work jobs fall under a giant umbrella, so big that it's hard to see what there is in common.
  • The core values of social work: Service, Social Justice, Dignity, Integrity, Competence, Importance of Relationships
  • If social workers moved into leadership roles outside of human services, they could have a profound effect on society.

In my last post, I discussed the irony of encountering social work’s identity crisis after experiencing my own professional identity crisis. When I say ironic, I really do mean it. I also feel it’s just not true.

Sure, social work is a very large umbrella, a huge one covering many job titles, and if my macro professor has her way, social workers will fill many additional jobs beyond human services and therapy. (Macro social work takes the larger system view, by the way.) My professor thinks social workers should be CEOs and politicians and serve in management; I agree. What would the world be like if people with the social worker identity filled these very public roles? Despite the large umbrella, I think this professional identity crisis is overblown.

Paul Brennan, used with permission
A Bigger Umbrella Than This One
Source: Paul Brennan, used with permission

After one year of social work school, I have a sense of what it means to be a social worker. It means your job description may run the gamut from a therapist in her office wearing lithe clothing to child welfare worker to policy writer at a think tank, but if you’re a social worker, you are working to promote the social welfare of our society. That means you do your job with an eye towards social justice and human rights, as well as examining what is happening with the client (or maybe service user) right in front of you.

But don’t take my word for it. I didn’t make it up. In 2017 in Paris, there was a workshop convened by the European Association of Schools of Social Work to explore professional identity. The attendance was not a huge sample for a qualitative study, but it was a somewhat heterogeneous sample (Wiles & Vicary, 2019). People came from several European countries to do interesting exercises that involved markers and large swaths of paper. Their findings were that overall, social work professional identity comprises several common elements, despite the disparate job descriptions social workers embody. Having now spent one academic year in training, these things make perfect sense to me.

Social worker identity involves the following pieces:

Imperfect fit

The multiple roles of your basic social worker contrast with each other in sometimes frustrating ways (Wiles & Vicary, 2019). For example, in class, we talk about social workers working for social justice. We also talk about how our social system is structurally racist and oppressive to most non-white people. This means that when a social worker is providing services to a service user from within a system that is probably oppressive to the service user, the social worker is reinforcing the oppressive system. How to move towards social justice when you are an element, a cog, a gear in an unjust system makes for an imperfect fit. Is the social worker employed by the system to empower the service user? Or is the social worker part of a system of social control, maintaining the status quo by “helping” the service user adapt to the system? This tension can play out as burn-out or cognitive dissonance in the social worker.

Less philosophically, this conflict plays out when the social worker is told to provide a particular type of care, a.k.a an “intervention,” such as Evidence-Based-Practice interventions like Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, when the social worker might think that a different style of therapy would better benefit the service user. I am talking to you, insurance companies; I was informed during an interview for my field placement for the next academic year that when writing notes for insurance companies about interactions with clients we would be making sure to stress the elements of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) used because insurance covers that. Other types of psychotherapy don't lend themselves to a step-by-step process and thus to evidence-based research studies.

Over the horizon

There is a sense that professional social work identity is focused around a clear goal of social justice; however, attaining that goal is never fully achieved (Wiles & Vicary, 2019). This may seem frustrating, the goal always out of reach, but my personal research has taught me that having an ideal and a purpose is one of the fundamentals of life satisfaction.

Tensions within social work role

Most social workers feel there is tension at the “interface" of how they, the providers, see their clients and how clients experience the providers (Wiles & Vicary, 2019). For example, in child welfare, the child and family might see providers as people who separate families, while the providers are trying to ensure the child’s safety. Broadly speaking, this tension is about power. The social worker is perceived as having it, the service user as lacking it, traditionally. Tension about that imbalance needs addressing at each level of relationship since social work is predicated on identifying and building up the service user's strengths to foster independence and to promote equality.

Passion

Most social workers experience this work as a calling, or as something felt deeply (Wiles & Vicary, 2019). This is true of me, as I seek to look outward to others and help them. Returning once again to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, I think that many people drawn to social work are motivated by the drive to self-actualization and self-transcendence that Maslow identified. Working at intrinsically motivating work can make up for a fair amount of low pay, low prestige, and difficult clients.

Collective identity around values

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) identify social justice and human rights as overarching values. The core values of the NASW Code of Ethics (2017) are:

Service

Justice

Dignity and worth of the person

Importance of human relationships

Competence

Integrity

Our job as social workers is to orient our work to these overarching values. They are all elements of the successful service user-provider relationship. Come to think of it, they are great values by which anyone can live.

Identity work

Wiles and Vicary (2019) conclude that another common element of social work professional identity is that it requires “identity work” on the part of the social worker (Wiles & Vicary, 2019). You need to know who you are, as well as what intersections of power, privilege, and oppression affect you; you also need to be aware of how your position affects the clients with whom you interact, and how the system privileges or oppresses them.

In other words, this is a job for navel-gazers. It’s perfect for me. Know thyself, social worker.

Honestly, why didn’t I find my way to social work before now? Oh, sure, I was trying out other things, like writing. Unfortunately, I learned waaaaayyyy too late in life that for writers, usually, it’s best to have something else to do to earn money and provide, well, fodder. Just sitting down and writing a novel works for some people, but judging from their biographies, usually, they have a lot of stuff going on aside from writing that informs their writing, even if writing is where they earn their income. Stuff like multiple affairs or second wives or an addiction. Narcissism. You know what I mean. For the rest of us, especially those of us who are fairly well-balanced, having another source of income and stories is essential.

Not that I am viewing my future private practice as potential fodder. I really don’t mean that. I mean just that I relate to social work’s ideals and I have a few midlife what-ifs. As I mentioned in my previous post, I also relate to social work’s identity crisis and to its patch-work resolution. What would the world be like, I ask again, if people with the identity characteristics outlined here filled spots on boards of directors, held legislative office, worked on major policies, and led large companies? Lots of possibilities, most of them humane.

References

Wiles, F., & Vicary, S. (2019). Picturing social work, puzzles and passion: exploring and developing transnational professional identities. Social Work Education, 38(1), 47–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2018.1553236

https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English#:~:text=The%20Code%20summarizes%20broad%20ethical,to%20guide%20social%20work%20practice.&text=The%20Code%20provides%20ethical%20standards,the%20social%20work%20profession%20accountable.

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