The great social work debate – conservative or liberal?

Back in January I did read Justin Nutt’s post on Social worker doesn’t mean liberal. I felt he was balancing precariously on a rather wobbly fence.  Today, I was heartened to read Deona Hooper’s response.

Can a social worker hold conservative views? Well I suppose they can but I think the question should be can a social worker continue to do so if they are practising social work well? I don’t necessarily mean empathy with the people we see every day– essential but not the point. I mean the practising of social work. I am talking about critical reflection – real critical reflection. Fook and Gardner describe it well in their book   – it is not simply about understanding our clients’ internal struggles and the interpersonal interactions between ourselves and our clients. Critical reflection also demands attention to structural factors that affect individuals and communities and brutal self-examination. If we really practise critical reflection well, we constantly challenge our own beliefs so they don’t interfere with our work by imposing our prejudices on others. If we are honest with ourselves things change – for us and our clients. The down side is we can be uncomfortable a lot of the time.

Let’s assume for a moment that I truly believe that unemployed people don’t work because they are lazy. If they took personal responsibility and got off their butts they would get a jobin chains – a belief shared by my family and my community. Ok let’s take it a step further. Imagine I approach my unemployed clients with this belief (consciously or unconsciously). I guarantee you no change will happen and I would more than likely do harm by cementing fixed notions of privilege and disadvantage. If I acknowledge and challenge my beliefs and recognise any assumptions in those beliefs or indeed my own position in society, I might be open to hearing (and I mean hearing) about intergenerational poverty, social exclusion, marginalisation, lack of education, caring for a child with a disability or even dyslexia or depression (the list goes on)…and their interaction together. If I truly hear I would be forced to acknowledge that these stories do not quite fit with concepts of laziness as the root cause or potential cure. Recognising this mismatch could be very uncomfortable for me and perhaps challenge the core of my own socialisation and dearest held beliefs. Only then can the real work can begin – with my client and on myself.

Our practice frameworks encompass knowledge and draw on theory and research (and I don’t mean the products of think tanks). It is often difficult to distinguish between independent information and ideologically driven beliefs (see the Point of Inquiry podcast with Gabriel Sherman for an interesting example). By practising social work, we are constantly challenged to consider alternative perspectives especially when the realities of what we see and hear do not fit with current approaches, beliefs, ideologies or politics. We live with uncertainty in a world that is far from black and white. As Hooper pointed out, all people do not start out on an equal footing. Inequality and social problems are disturbing realities in the OECD countries where political environments are conservative and pay homage to the cult of individual responsibility as the sole cause and solution to all complex problems. This approach leaves a whole lot out and has little hope in alleviating the problems people face.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research shows that these approaches contribute to inequality and make things worse for everyoneMarston, McDonald and Bryson point out who really benefits from the ways welfare is delivered – or not. Interestingly it is not the people that first come to mind. When it comes to politics is there any robust research that shows a sole focus on individualism contributes positively to all people rather than simply the privileged minority at the top of the class ladder? We are constantly told it does but where is the evidence that supports the claim? Sure we have a value-based profession but so do all professions – just look at anybody’s codes of ethics. But we do not blindly accept values whether they are professional or personal. We challenge and deconstruct these too. Social work values moisten the soil so we can dig into people’s lives without doing harm and critical reflection sharply spotlights our own assumptions. Knowledge and evidence works hand in hand with values and self-knowledge to ensure we practise social work well.

Perhaps we should abandon the words conservative or liberal when it comes to social work – too many assumptions come with such categorisations. When we debate categories we end up debating what we think these words mean and we assume a shared meaning. Let’s talk about values, critical reflection and knowledge instead and free ourselves. As social workers, our mandate is to understand the tensions in our practice and most of all challenge ourselves particularly when it is about beliefs we consciously or unconsciously hold sacred…and yes it might hurt – but hey isn’t that what we do?

Listen to Jan Fook on Podsocs

Listen to Richard Wilkinson on Podsocs


13 thoughts on “The great social work debate – conservative or liberal?

  1. Please correct me if I am incorrect. In my effort to stew this posting down to the core ingredient…It seems that you posit that Social Workers have to “evolve” into a conservative in order to be effective professionally. It would seem that you suggest that Social Workers with any sort of belief that does not align with liberal ideology are not capable of learning and professionally employing the tools of the profession, yet liberals are. It would seem that you are suggesting those that subscribe to what you (and those in the profession that are like you) consider to be a conservative ideology, are not capable of “true” self reflection or personal bias recognition. You seem to suggest that those not like you are dangerous to the profession and to the client base they serve. I suppose I am struggling to understand how your political and ideological leanings are the only solution for the countless clients that Social Workers serve across the nation. I do not promote nor advocate for any political belief. Social Workers are supposed to check that mess at the door, correct? Why do conservatives have to do that yet you do not? Who deemed that you and those like you get a free pass? I want to understand what you were thinking when you wrote this post. If I am wrong, and you can correct my thinking with something scientific, factual and rational then I am all ears. Otherwise, I am rather certain I will have to chalk this up as another attempt to promote and proliferate a liberal political ideology and that is no solution to anything. Political ideologies are the problem. Basic and essential respect for fellow humans is the bedrock of civil society. It is also the one thing that either of the two major political parties in America cannot afford to have make a comeback. They BOTH exist and thrive in the tension that division and discord generate and for the last several decades business has been good for Democrats AND Republicans. All of the energy of the single licensing entity for Social Workers in America (I find that problematic in and of itself) is to promote “unity” of mission among those seeking to work in the field. That unity has to look like they want it to look and sound like they want it to sound. I guess that embracing diversity must stop at the point where someone believes differently than you do. How does that line of thought impact the ability of a liberal Social Worker to check their biases at the door? I guess “conservative” clients are going to have to do without because they do not fit the mold. I digress. Please correct me if I am missing something in my assessment of what the message exactly is here. It just seems that it has to be all one way. That does not fit my understanding of Diversity in any way. The insinuation that liberalism is the higher road that a Social Worker will have to travel in order to be a good one, smacks of bias in my ears all day long. Please…Help me understand where you think you are coming from and why I should even want to consider your vantage in light of your bias towards liberalism.

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  3. First I would like to say that I am glad to find people discussing this, it gives me hope. I believe this is currently one of the critical issues to consider in professional social work, but moreover, it is critical to helping the American People gain what we as a profession want for them to have — self determination, dignity, self worth, social justice; moral values that are not separate from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Additionally, we as social workers are not separate from We, the American People.

    It used to be that social workers were encouraged to experience therapy as a client. The benefit of this experience is easy to understand, as there is no better way to learn about the client experience than being a client yourself. But it’s not so easy to step into the shoes of a liberal or a conservative or a socialist or an anarchist or a mutualist or any of the multitude of other political ideologies people hold. Before you could even do that, you would need to decide what a liberal or a conservative is. In doing so, you would have to ask yourself if these are only terms we use to talk about falsely dichotomous political institutions, or if it would benefit us to understand them philosophically instead. Then, if we are to consider them philosophically, we may find that political parties do not so much adhere to a political philosophy so much as they create their own.

    We create our own political ideologies as well. We process political information through our own individual systems to develop individual understandings of all the things that fall under the political umbrella, and as it turns out, they are all things we have deeply seated sensibilities about. It concerns management of resources, how we interact, the meaning of a human life, the role of authority… All of the most critical questions we must ask ourselves to function in the modern world.

    So when we talk about whether we are liberals or conservatives, in the context of American politics, we are inadvertently talking about whether we prefer Republican or Democrat policies in a polarized left/right political spectrum. We have grown up, developed our politics, and managed our livelihood in a society that is managed by two dominant and polarized political parties. It makes perfect sense that we should feel like we have to choose one or the other in a political environment that is characterized by dichotomy. In a way, it’s a matter of conformity and social acceptance that we not only support one side but fear and criticize the other, like with all those people who like certain candidates in the primaries but will end up voting for a political party anyway, because it MUST be better than the other party.

    Much of what we hear politically is empty, emotional rhetoric. The division that is thrust upon us encourages us to make decisions based on how we feel rather than think, because the mainstream national political discourse consists of oversimplified arguments that not only elicit the strong feelings behind our politics, but allow us to accept equally simple refutations. Being critical of the welfare state becomes synonymous with hating poor people on the left, while expansion of the welfare state becomes synonymous with encouraging laziness on the right. In the meantime, we can’t discuss these things rationally because we’re too busy talking past each other and deciding that someone of a particular ideology holds political sentiments that are fundamentally misanthropic.

    But as social workers, we know that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, that there is no such thing as an invalid person, and that the best way to develop a rapport with someone is to validate their feelings, not to challenge or attack them. Nonetheless, change is difficult, and we have grown up in a system that encourages us to think in terms of ‘us or them’, either/or, black and white, 99% and 1%.

    As for myself, I was essentially a democrat but now decry both parties as iatrogenic. In 2012 a friend of mine (who sounds very much like a ‘conservative’) and I fought relentlessly over politics on social media. I had a bitter distaste for his political sensibilities, but I never stopped trying to understand. Then, eventually, I came across a book (in a strangely fateful way actually) concerning motivational science that put a lot of his basic ideas in perspective, and I started to get it. We still have some different ideas, but I believe the acrimony we are all caught in is something that we may overcome.

    I don’t claim to know how to fix this problem, but I have some ideas, and I think it imperative that we find ways to address it, because as I said, it’s not just a social work problem, it’s a problem for the People. It is a social problem that we as social workers are capable of addressing if we are up to the task.

    If you’re interested, visit my blog. I’ve never blogged before, and it doesn’t have any content as of yet, but it will soon, and I feel like it’s something I need to do. I will go only by a pseudonym at this time, but maybe it will change in the future. Right now though, I would love to hear thoughts and feedback.

    Thanks for taking the time to read all of this, it means a lot! 🙂

    -The Social Work Centrist

  4. I am a social worker. I am effective in my work. I believe in social justice. Social Justice for everyone. I am also a conservative. I resent being told that to be a social worker and be effective I must be liberal. Really? What if I don’t believe throwing money at a problem without a well thought out and informed plan is ill advised? What if I believe creating debt without a plan to repay it, is not wise? What if I believe our future as a people and our ability to provide for our future is just as important as our ability to provide for today?
    You said, “By practising social work, we are constantly challenged to consider alternative perspectives especially when the realities of what we see and hear do not fit with current approaches, beliefs, ideologies or politics.” –

    If you truly believe this then you should consider perspectives that challenge your values and beliefs. I am not conservative because I believe people who are unemployed are lazy. I am not conservative because I don’t believe the majority has privilege that the minority doesn’t . I am not conservative because I believe racism doesn’t exist. I am not conservative because I don’t believe in generational poverty. I actually do believe the majority has privilege, I believe that racism does exist, I believe that there is generational poverty. I disagree with liberal solutions to these problems. Our interventions are NOT working. Throwing money at the problem is not solving it. When people are unemployed giving them money until they find a new job without training them for the skilled labor that is in demand is not solving the problem. Expecting them to find a job while receiving more money from the government than they can actually get in an available position does not promote independence, self determination, and self sufficiency. Dependency on the government does not promote positive self esteem. All of these things are social work values.

    Majority privilege is not a negative thing. What is negative is the lack of privilege for minorities. We need to address the inequity by bringing the standard of privilege up for the minorities not by bringing the standard of privilege down for the majority. Asking people to feel guilty for being born with light skin, something they have no control over, is just as ignorant as judging someone for being born with darker skin. It’s racist. Have you thought that judging white people for being white might be racist?

    Generational poverty exists, providing only financial assistance and not requiring any type of self sufficiency in response is ineffective at best. It is insidious in that it tends to keep the poor poor. I believe that we perpetuate a culture of poverty by providing minimal assistance with income and asset limits that prohibit improvement in life circumstances. If someone makes too much money or improves their situation they are no longer eligible for assistance. Essentially this places them in poorer circumstances than when they were making less money. How about a tapered program? What about a job training program? What about mandating drug treatment if you test positive for substances whilst on assistance? Let’s look at solutions to the problem. Generational poverty also exists because of lack of education, a lack of value on education, and a perception of a void of opportunity. How to do we promote value on education in impoverished communities? It is statistically significant that in these communities truancy is higher than in more affluent communities. There is more spending per student in impoverished areas than in affluent areas. How do we address the problem of attendance? We can not provide an education if the student is not in the classroom. More spending in the classroom is not going to help a student who is not present.

    I do hold some more central views. One such view is that I don’t believe abortion should be illegal. I don’t think we should eliminate abortion. I do believe that as a social worker I have to consider the rights of the child. I believe that once a child can exist without it’s mother it has the right to life. It is one of our most basic rights. Therefore, I do not believe it is consistent with social work values to eliminate a child when they are more than 24 weeks in gestation. Children are able to live outside of the womb at that age. A person’s right to life supersedes a person’s right to choose. The right to life is a social work value.

    I do not think that limiting the ability of homosexuals to marry and have the same privileges is just. All people should enjoy these privileges. I also don’t believe the government should dictate to religious or private organizations who they must marry. There is a separation of church and state. The rights of the people to follow their faith are protected. I would not ask a Mosque to marry me, a Christian, in their facility. I understand that this would be an affront to their faith.

    It is a social work value to promote economic independence and success. We promote this concept in our clients. We work with them on making choices that will improve their lives. Should we not expect the same of our government? A balanced budget is a social work value.

    Promoting accountability and self esteem is a central component to most of the evidence based interventions we use as social workers. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Choice Theory, Systems Theory, are all evidence based. They all promote taking responsibility for your thoughts, choices, and effects on others. They all exert the idea that your choices lead to your consequences. Expecting that people should except the consequences for their choices knowing the system they are operating in, is a social work value.

    Promoting change in the system where there are inequities in opportunity is a social work value. All people should have the ability to make choices freely. This does not mean that we should fight inequity in outcomes. I chose to be a social worker, my husband chose to be an engineer. He new when he made that choice what his salary expectations would be, as did I. I do not expect to have the same salary potential as he does. I do not expect equity in outcomes. Do I feel that what I provide to society is of great value? Yes. Do I know that society can not afford to reward me financially for that service as well as they do him? Yes. I do believe that our professional organization should spend more time lobbying for better pay and recognition for our profession than they do lobbying for political candidates. After all, it’s obvious we as a group of professionals don’t always agree on politics.

    I am a conservative social worker and I am effective as a social worker. These things are not mutually exclusive. If you would like to assert that they are, then I would like to ask, doesn’t being liberal and promoting dependence over individuality, and government regulation over personal choice limit your effectiveness as a social worker?

    • Thanks for your comments they are appreciated. The article did not say you should not be conservative so I am sorry you took that from it. But I must say you have expressed some very non-conservative views as well as some I find concerning like majority privilege not a bad thing?. Conservative politicians do play the blame game and do believe the focus is on entirely on individuals and their individual efforts and do not acknowledge structural factors that contribute to a person’s circumstances – that is conservative rhetoric heard around the world. As social workers we know both macro and micro factors are important and we can’t ignore either. As social workers how do we separate our personal views from our professional values and knowledge? Do we? SHould we? I suppose the point is to practise critical reflection and question our own assumptions and beliefs e.g. do liberals really think throwing money at people is a solution? I would question that and ask is that political ideological rhetoric at work? How true is that statement? Thank you for opening the conversation.

    • Excellent response Ashlea! The overall problem in the field of social work (and mental health) is that it is fraught with PC thinking. There is no accountability, for service providers or clients. This has led to an overwhelming amount of ineffective services and treatments. Unfortunately, if you truly care about serving people and become critical of these issues in attempt to make improvements, you are viewed as lacking compassion. How dare you question our mission or bring up our failures! Too often I use to hear, “well if we helped just one person then it has all been worth it”. They think that is success, when it is really just a lame excuse preventing them from achieving greater things. If you are only truly helping 1 person out of 30, then your service isn’t effective. I think people who are conservative get a bad rep because they are quick to hold people accountable. Where as many of the liberals in the field, want to make excuses for why things aren’t better. We always hear that the biggest problem is funding, when many of the times it is their approach and philosophy that is not working. Unfortunately, taking a different approach or having a different perspective is looked down upon in the field of social work… or at least from what I have seen personally in the different levels of the system.

    • This was extremely well written and if I could plug in loud clapping, I would. You stated very eloquently almost exactly what I would wish to state when I am confronted with others who state “you can’t be a social worker if you aren’t a Democrat”! Would a social worker ever tell a client the same? You can’t be a ____ because you aren’t or are a _____. Thank you.

      • Belinda, Thank you for your comments. It is nice to know that others think and feel that their political position does not limit their ability to help others. In fact, I believe it is my perspective on self determination and personal responsibility that makes me extremely effective. It is my belief that everyone matters and can determine for themselves how to live and how to succeed. That they are responsible for themselves and who they are.

  5. Pingback: The great social work debate – conservative or liberal? • SJS

  6. This is exactly the kind of polarizing lecture that has put divisiveness between “liberals” and “conservatives.” What would I expect from a lecturer from University of California? Nothing or no one is all good or all bad. I resent being considered wrong for having some conservative points of view. I also have some liberal points of view. We need more finding common ground rather than taking a black and white approach to all issues.
    And, family values is something I have found sorely lacking in this time in history and it is the lack of family values that is causing societal decay.

  7. Knowledge, Critical Reflection, and Values, do lead to only one side of the cultural divide.

    If one person’s decision creates the reality for many, who should be accountable; the one making the decisions (and able to change them) or the many that can only follow the rules or drop out of the system. Does a position of power demand that the decider be the agent of all, or is power the licence to benefit personally, at the expense of all others.

    Is a policy better that opens possibilities for many, and hold accountable those who place barriers to advancement? Or one that forces folk to obey contracts they had no part in deciding?

    Should decisions be made based on Empathy,(a full understanding of the position others find themselves in) or Pity (easing the effects of some damage in return for being properly grateful)

    Is it better to have Faith and believe that there is magic that will improve things, or better to see the reality and find real mechanisms for improvement.

    Those are the clash of Values of Liberal and Conservative, which is which should be obvious, and the resulting debate one sided.

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