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The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.
Social work in its various forms addresses the multiple, complex transactions between people and their environments. Its mission is to enable all people to develop their full potential, enrich their lives, and prevent dysfunction. Professional social work is focused on problem solving and change. As such, social workers are change agents in society and in the lives of the individuals, families and communities they serve. Social work is an interrelated system of values, theory and practice.
Social work grew out of humanitarian and democratic ideals, and its values are based on respect for the equality, worth, and dignity of all people. Since its beginnings over a century ago, social work practice has focused on meeting human needs and developing human potential. Human rights and social justice serve as the motivation and justification for social work action. In solidarity with those who are dis-advantaged, the profession strives to alleviate poverty and to liberate vulnerable and oppressed people in order to promote social inclusion. Social work values are embodied in the profession’s national and international codes of ethics.
Social work bases its methodology on a systematic body of evidence-based knowledge derived from research and practice evaluation, including local and indigenous knowledge specific to its context. It recognises the complexity of interactions between human beings and their environment, and the capacity of people both to be affected by and to alter the multiple influences upon them including bio-psychosocial factors. The social work profession draws on theories of human development and behaviour and social systems to analyse complex situations and to facilitate individual, organisational, social and cultural changes.
Social work addresses the barriers, inequities and injustices that exist in society. It responds to crises and emergencies as well as to everyday personal and social problems. Social work utilises a variety of skills, techniques, and activities consistent with its holistic focus on persons and their environments. Social work interventions range from primarily person-focused psychosocial processes to involvement in social policy, planning and development. These include counselling, clinical social work, group work, social pedagogical work, and family treatment and therapy as well as efforts to help people obtain services and resources in the community. Interventions also include agency administration, community organisation and engaging in social and political action to impact social policy and economic development. The holistic focus of social work is universal, but the priorities of social work practice will vary from country to country and from time to time depending on cultural, historical, and socio-economic conditions.
- This international definition of the social work profession replaces the IFSW definition adopted in 1982. It is understood that social work in the 21st century is dynamic and evolving, and therefore no definition should be regarded as exhaustive.
Adopted by the IFSW General Meeting in Montréal, Canada, July 2000
The Nature of Social Work: A Critical Overview
as well as social work values, ethics, and skills of social work practice. In addition, the role of a social worker in society will also be examined, and an understanding of social work will be critically evaluated.
Knowledge, skills and values are three different things and should be treated as so. You can learn all the knowledge you need from a book, but this does not mean that you will have the skills to put that knowledge into practice. Once you acquire the skill and knowledge, if you have no value of them and they mean nothing to you, are then in danger of misusing that skill and knowledge.
Values of social work have to be put into two categories: social work values, and social workers values. Clark (2004) puts this into classification of “Institutional and Individual”.The British Association of Social Work (BASW) code of ethics states that social work is committed to five basic values: Human dignity and worth, social justice, service to humanity, integrity and competence. “Social work practice should both promote respect for human dignity and pursue social justice through integrity and competence” (BASW 2002). These values are requirements that social workers are expected to adhere to. They promote the rights to privacy, confidentiality, and protection, the right of choice, to help against discrimination and meet the diversity of service users. Social work has been descried as being “value based” (Clark 2004). conflicts of values cannot be ruled out.
Putting the values of social work into practice can sometimes cause a conflict of values. As well as looking after people who are vulnerable, social workers also deal with people who are seen as a threat to society. When dealing with a service user with mental health problems the social worker will be working with the interest of the service user in mind, making sure that their human dignity and worth are respected, that social justice is seen to be up held, and to do their job with integrity and competence. All these values, and at the same time, apply to people living within the community. If the service user was deemed to be a danger to the public then the social worker must see that social justice is done to protect the community, the service user may disagree with this and feel that their value of social justice has been compromised, and as their freedom has been taken away, and they have lost their human dignity and worth. Clark (2004 p44) concludes that “It is tempting to say that there is no such thing as social work values.” And that “The values of social work remain a powerful rallying cry”. Whereas Beckett (2007 p189) states “Almost all of the important decisions that are made by social workers have a value component.”
Having knowledge of a subject does not mean that someone as the skills or values that may accompany that knowledge. You can read all the books and have the knowledge on how to fly a plane, and know all the components, but to make it fly you need the skill to make all the parts work together. In most occupations what separates the professional from non- professionals is a specialised knowledge beyond the commonplace knowledge of ordinary members of the public. In social work this is not always the case, since much of the knowledge of social workers is common place, an example would be that it is common knowledge that bringing up children can be demanding, but social workers interact with parents whose understanding of this knowledge is so poor, that they are in danger of harming their children. This is not to say that all knowledge of social work is common knowledge, sometimes professional specialised knowledge is called upon. If a service user has mental health issues, then they may need to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. This would need the knowledge of a professional Approved Social Worker. This may include the intervention of a social worker to place a child into foster care, requiring specialised knowledge. Social work expertise is regulated by government and law, and therefore requires an understanding and a good knowledge of the relevant areas of law and of government policies and acts.
A collection of different skills is required for social workers to do their job with competence. These include being able to develop trusting relationships with service users and carers, without becoming emotionally involved; communication skills, including listening, speaking and writing; to be resilient and able to handle pressure from service users who feel vulnerable and may not understand what is going on; being aware of people’s different needs and respect diversity; have patience and maturity, and be able to negotiate for their clients. There is also the need to develop office based skills, as well as skills needed for personal interaction. These will include, being able to work well in a team with colleagues and professionals from other agencies; the ability to manage a complex workload, sometimes working over caseweight; being computer literate with good keyboard, database and word processing skills; and have good management, time keeping and organisational skills. Most of these skills cannot be learnt from a text book and will take time and life experience to develop, mistakes can happen and inevitability will, but by being able to reflect, process and learn from our mistakes, then these skills can improve and get stronger.
They are sometimes called upon to enforce sensitive aspects of the law, for example in obtaining court orders to remove children from their current families, or in detaining people under the Mental Health Act. All duties performed and carried out by social workers, are done so in the best interests of those involved. Social work also promotes social justice, giving fair access to public services and benefits, equal treatment and protection under the law and to help meet basic human needs. Social work helps people to meet their personal needs and to reach their potential and to contribute to the creation of a fairer society. ‘The difficult position of social work is not only due to the perhaps depressing character of the problems it deals with. Crucially, social work sits directly on top of the fault lines of controversy of social values’ (Clark 2000 p2). The communities that we live in and the world around us is in perpetual change, which makes social work even more challenging. The ethics, values, cultures, diversities, and minorities that contribute in making up societies differ greatly from one to the other, whether in the suburbs, rural areas, or the close proximity of life in the city, changes in all the above can be noticeable within different communities. Looking at generalised views of what society should be would differ vastly if we took a cross-cultural view of what society values are to that community in question. The values that our society holds are changing; many men now stay at home whilst the woman goes out to work. The Civil Partnership Act 2004(General Register office 2005) came into effect on 5 December 2005 allowing same sex marriages, and many people now live alone, without stigma, some by choice and some from necessity, this change within society covers such a large range of values that universal agreement is a near impossibility. This means that social work is not an exact science and never will be. There will always be an opinion that differs, personal values and ethics that don’t fit the norm, which is why when people access social services, they will not always be fully satisfied with the outcome, as there are always variables.
Beckett (2006) suggests that the role of a social worker can be put into three groups: Advocacy, Direct Change Agent and Executive. The advocacy role can be either direct or indirect. Direct change agent being counsellor or therapist, mediator, educator and catalyst, with executive role as almoner, care manager, responsibility holder, co-ordinator and service developer (Beckett 2006 p8).
The aims of social workers are to identify social pressures and needs in the community, to employ existing resources or to establish those that might be lacking. Communities may, for example, be in need of housing, improvement and development of the environment, day care for preschool children, after school clubs, facilities for disabled people, anti social problems and rehabilitation centres, amongst other needs.
As with all professions, social workers are involved in research and administration. This is to help identify the problems and needs of the service user and to explore the most effective way of preventing and resolving whatever problems there may be, and to address that need. In addition to interviewing service users at the social workers place of work or their homes, and contacting other significant persons in their social environments, social workers are also responsible for a large amount of office work. This includes the preparation of reports involving the service user for internal or external agencies, which could include court reports.
The nature of social work within this essay has been critically discussed in depth. The role of social work and of social workers in society is a demanding one, the pressure and stress of dealing with so many aspects of society and differentiating cultures means that the challenges social workers face, on a day to day basis, will be hard but also very rewarding. With the correct training and education, social work skills, values and knowledge can help to improve people’s lives. The role of the social worker is one that will always be ever changing, how these changes happen is a matter for debate. Some changes in social work are welcomed and some are not. Hilary Searing (2000-08) states that “social workers are now little more than ‘care managers’ who simply mediate between the client and organisation”. Others would argue that this is not the case, and that social workers do more than just mediate. Whatever the future holds for social work and social workers, one thing is certain, with the huge diversity in social work and the ever changing roles social workers play in society, there will always be a place for social workers ensuring that social justice is delivered ethically and without prejudice.
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