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The Role of the Social Worker in the 21st Century - A Literature Review



4.1. In this section, we consider the value base of social work and the implications it has for practice and the professional status of social work.

Values, Ethics and Regulation

4.2. In discussions about the value or ethical base of social work, a distinction has to be drawn between two competing notions. One is of 'ethics' as relating to the value base of social work and in providing a set of principles or values on which those involved in social work base their actions - a kind of moral code (see Bisman, 2004). In this sense ethics and values can be treated synonymously. However, 'ethics' will also often refer to certain rules and regulations which govern the behaviours of professionals such as social workers. As such, they are more to do with the regulation and monitoring of professional activity. Banks (Banks, 2003) cautions:

Don't take codes of ethics too seriously - they are as much rhetorical, educational and regulatory devices as they are grounds to practice for professionals facing ethical dilemmas.

4.3. Our concern is more with the value basis of social work. The concern of some social work commentators is that there has been increasing emphasis on the notion of ethics or ethical codes in terms of the regulation of behaviours and less emphasis on the core values or principles on which social work as an activity should be based. Regulation has become more important than promotion of core values. Though the establishment of the Scottish Social Services Council for example may be seen to be a good thing, it may do more in terms of regulation than in the protection of professional identity ( Community Care, 17 June 2004).

4.4. Social work has undergone many changes in the second half of the 20th century in terms of organisational context and the nature of the social and political environment in which it operates. What is remarkable is how constant have been the key principles on which social work is seen to be based. Though the key principles have remained constant, they have of course been read and re read in different ways at particular points in time.

Code of Ethics: International Federation of Social Work

4.5. In the recent new shortened ethical document proposed by the International Federation of Social Work, key values are presented which would have been accepted by social workers from much earlier periods in the history of social work. Few social workers would disagree with them because of their rather general nature. As seen above, the definition of social work proposed by the IFSW contains reference to human rights and social justice and it is not surprising that the Code of Ethics privileges such notions. In the IFSW Code ( IFSW (International Federation of Social Workers), 2004):

Social work is based on respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and the rights that follow from this. Social workers should uphold and defend each person's physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual integrity and well-being. This means:

1. Respecting the right to self-determination - Social workers should respect and promote people's rights to make their own choices and decisions, irrespective of their values and life choices, provided this does not threaten the rights and legitimate interests of others.
2. Promoting the right to participation - Social workers should promote the full involvement and participation of people using their services in ways that enable them to be empowered in all aspects of decisions and actions affecting their lives.
3. Treating each person as a whole - Social workers should be concerned with the whole person, within the family, community and societal and natural environments, and should seek to recognise all aspects of a person's life.
4. Identifying and developing strengths - Social workers should focus on the strengths of all individuals, groups and communities and thus promote their empowerment.

4.6. Further, through their commitment to the promotion of social justice, social workers should challenge negative discrimination on whatever grounds; recognise diversity whether it be individual, family or community based; challenge unjust policies; and work in solidarity by challenging the conditions that contribute to social exclusion, stigmatisation or subjugation and work towards an inclusive society ( IFSW (International Federation of Social Workers), 2004).

4.7. The inability to operate according to such core principles may also in part account for the fact that many social workers leave the profession. For that reason what have been referred to as 'golden hellos' (Unison, 2004) - payments to encourage social workers to work in areas short of social workers; or 'golden handcuffs' (Unison, 2004) - payments to entice social workers not to leave, will not in themselves address the crisis facing social work. The issue is not one of logistics and redistribution of resources but rather about the very basis and key principles on which contemporary social work operates. What the literature does reveal is that for those who leave the profession, or indeed many who remain within it, the situation in which they practice does not allow them to fulfil their commitment to key principles.

4.8. 'Social work' is also a concept that is not readily understood by the public whose views on social work are equally influenced by its association with scandals, especially those involving children (Scottish Executive, 2005). Research using general public survey methods suggests that social work has a negative public image and is poorly understood, although there are some signs that this image is beginning to be less held (ibid.). The impact on public understanding and acceptance of social work has clearly been influenced by cases involving children. In any review of the future of social work it will be important to gauge public opinion as one element of the social context in which social work operates.

4.9. What is also particularly interesting is that, though there are key differences in what the definition of social work may be, such values as contained in the IFSW statement are also embodied in the national association code of ethics for countries such as France, Germany and the Russian Federation ( IFSW (International Federation of Social Workers), 2004). There is a universality of such key values over time and place whether it be for the 'social worker', 'educateur' or 'social pedagogue' (Kornbeck, 2002). Though there may be disagreement about the most appropriate structural or organisational context there is little disagreement about the core values of social work.

4.10. The importance of maintaining a set of core values for social work also contributes to the notion of the professionalisation of social work - that it has its own distinctive values which demarcate it from other professions. The concern of some is that it is precisely because social work may have lost contact with these values that it has also lost its professional identity. Similarly, by not promoting these core values, the boundary between what social workers and other professionals do may be somewhat eroded.

Professional Values and Ethics: Summary

4.11. What this discussion of professional values and ethics serves to highlight is that despite the many organisational and structural changes which have impacted on social work, the core values have remained relatively constant. This is significant for any review of social work because-

The maintenance of core values and principles is central to professional identity

The difficulty of implementing core values and principles in the context of current organisational and structural arrangements is problematic for social workers

Future developments in the profession of social work should be based on a commitment in practice to key values and principles.