Question fiona Social Sciences

The Concept of Power in a Social Work Setting

How important is the sociological understanding of the concept of power when working as a social worker?

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Answer Expert #26411

The concept of power is important in social work because it enables social workers to better manage power relations with service users who are central in contemporary client centred social work (Tepper et al, 2006). Max Weber and Michel Foucault examine power and domination from different sociological perspectives.

Weber defines ‘power’ as the capacity to get someone to do something that he or she would not have otherwise done (Keltner et al, 2003). He argues that power originates from bureaucratic instruments on one hand and that government institutions maintain the status quo (Gee, 2011). Foucault’s understanding of power relations is more democratic and encourages social workers to understand that service users should have authority to participate in decision making that concerns them (de Moll, 2010). He suggests that power is everywhere in society (Keltner et al, 2003).

Social workers are called upon to develop voluntary, reciprocal, mutual and trusting relationships with clients and this makes it necessary for them to understand the concept of power, so as to better manage clients (Barker, 2009). Contemporary social work practice urges practitioners to work in collaboration with service users when assessing their needs (Greene, 2008). Hence social workers need to adopt this approach when managing relations with service users given that it allows them to share power with clients rather than imposing their views on them.


Barker, R. (2009). Making Sense of Every Child Matters – multi professional practice guidance (1st ed.). Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

de Moll, K. E. (2010) Everyday Experiences of Power (Ph.D. dissertation). Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee

Gee, T. (2011) Counter power: making change happen. Oxford: World Changing.

Greene, R. R. (2008). Social Work with the Aged and their Families (3rd ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H, & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265-284.

Tepper, B. J., Uhl-Bien, M., Kohut, G. F., Rogelberg, S. G., Lockhart, D. E., Ensley, M. D. (2006) Subordinates' resistance and managers' evaluations of subordinates' performance. Journal of Management. 32 (2): 185–209.