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Common Sense and Stereotyping in Social Work

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Diana Valle

Social work and common sense

Stereotyping, unfortunately, is how many people access and deal with the world; for better or worse, stereotypes inform us all, even though many of them are wrong or ignorant. A common stereotype involved in social work education is that schooling is useless, and all that one needs, as the legislator stated, is common sense and a good heart. Although one does need these characteristics to be a social worker, the practice is much more complicated than superficial stereotypes would assume. "Unfortunately, this has also fueled anti-intellectualism discourses of theories not belonging to the real world of practice or being less important in practice. As found by various researchers, social workers' analysis and decision-making is more often informed by practical and procedural knowledge than research and theory" (Megele, 2011, p. 1). In fact, education is vital to social work, because much of what is done in the field has its basis in scientific methods, theoretical applications, sociology, and psychology, all of which must be learned in school, and do not simply come automatically or through intuition. Social work has a diverse knowledge base that can stand on its own, and also draws from other disciplines. This investigation works under the basic assumption that social work education has a vital role to play, and therefore seeks to provide opposition to the legislator's dismissal of the profession's status as academic.

Despite its basis in ignorance and stereotypes, the legislator's comment is worth considering, because it represents a common assumption the general public has regarding social work. Personally, however, I believe it is my duty to fight against such stereotypes and emphasize how educational resources prepare social workers to provide better services to the community, to help people more dynamically, and to invest in the future in the form of human capital more ably. Common sense, as I understand it, comes from a mixture of personal intuition and paying attention to the mores of society. For example, as children, we learn not to touch a hot pan on the stove, either by being told or through trial and error; not repeating this mistake then becomes common sense. Common sense is the opposite of educational knowledge, because it is expected to be automatically accessible through the society surrounding one and one's own intuition. Being a social worker, however, requires more than growing up in society and learning its mores. It requires training in specialized knowledge and techniques regarding how to best form the helping relationship with clients. It is a craft that is learned, not something automatic, like common sense that is simply picked up. To say that anything professional is 90% common sense is insulting. One could make this insult stick generally, as well; it is not even specific enough to social work, or demonstrated through any kind of example by the legislator. However, there are many examples of social workers using their education by being able to better assist in helping clients with recovery, advocating more effectively for social justice, and even engaging in independent research.

Social work has a vital place in society as a profession, but unfortunately, it is looked down upon by people like the legislator. "The sociologists at LSE saw themselves as the scientists of sociology and social workers as technicians. This thinking in turn influenced the amount of investment and research in social work. Though this image has improved in recent years, the difference in status and misconceived perceptions still persists today" (Megele, 2011, p. 1). Social workers need training if they are going to help clients, impact legislation, and make a better future for children and families. These are not things that people know how to do automatically, or through widely available societal cues: they must be trained to be effective. In many cases, though, people still look down on social workers, and it is often because of their own ideological perspective about the welfare state, rather than any realistic knowledge about what a social work education is actually like. Social workers are a vital part of the safety net that keeps people in our society from slipping through the cracks of an out of control system. The NASW code of ethics states that, "Social workers ethical behavior should result from their personal commitment to engage in ethical practice. The code of ethics reflects the commitment of all social workers to uphold the profession's values and to act ethically" (NASW, 2007). Social workers learn this code; it does not come to them automatically from having a good heart, or common sense.

If all it took to become a social worker was a good heart and common sense, then once a person accomplished these credentials, they would have trouble dealing with complicated client issues such as transference and confidentiality, understanding how policy is reflected in various sociological and psychological theories, or changing the system by finding ways to affect legislative policy on a grassroots level. Accomplishing these tasks requires learning how to implement change through studying prior knowledge. The knowledge base of social work is found through marking the point of delineation between theory and reality, or scientific study. An understanding of principles of research methodology also does not come naturally, as common sense and a good heart. In addition, a good heart is not always a guarantee of ethical behavior; studying the NASW code of ethics as a social work student, on the other hand, is much more likely to produce results in this regard. The process of education is integral, because "Professional ethics are at the core of social work. The profession has an obligation to articulate its basic values, ethical principles, and ethical standards. The code is relevant to all social workers and social work students, regardless of their professional functions or the populations which they serve" (NASW, 2007, p. 1).

Professional social workers need knowledge that they can only find in school; it helps if they have a good heart and common sense coming into the educational process from society, but they also need knowledge and experience-based learning that can only be accomplished through formal education. The NASW code of ethics states, "Social workers understand that relationships between and among people are an important vehicle for change. Social workers engage people as partners in the helping process. Social workers seek to strengthen relationships among people in a purposeful effort to promote the well being of individuals" (NASW, 2007, p. 1). Learning how to be an effective social worker requires study of NASW and other documents, such as sociology and psychology textbooks. "Social workers generally should adhere to commitments made to employing organizations… Social workers should be diligent stewards of the resources of their employing organizations, wisely conserving funds where appropriate and never misappropriating funds or using them for unintended purposes" (NASW, 2007, p. 1). The knowledge of social workers is not automatic and intuitive: it comes from scientific study that is based on building on the precedents of the past. These precedents can only be learned through diligent and careful study, and the acquisition of foundational social work knowledge is something that is selected, not automatic. For example, one does not intuitively understand what the ecosystems perspective to social work is; one has to study, and then see how the theory can be applied to productive reality. "The ecosystems perspective has enabled social workers to enhance the psychosocial focus through the use of a systemic lens that does not separate the person from the environment but requires that they be seen in interaction" (Meyer and Mattaini, 1998, p. 38).

Social work is also based on processes of gathering scientific evidence, and the rules and procedures for doing these tasks are also not automatic. "Evidence-based practice is a new paradigm that promotes more effective social interventions by encouraging the conscientious, judicious, and explicit use of the best available scientific evidence in professional decision making. Pedagogically, evidence-based practice involves teaching students the values and skills they need to identify, critically appraise, and apply practice-relevant scientific evidence over the course of their professional careers" (Howard et al., 2003, p. 234). If a social worker were not educated, in addition, they would arguably not be competent to practice, or at least, they would be much more likely to be incompetent without any effective training or knowledge about best practices. "Competence has been a key concept in the literature on the education of adults and is central to many theories of human behavior" (Holden et al., 2011, p. 2).

In conclusion, this report has argued against the legislator's comments that all one needs to be a social worker is common sense and a good heart. On the contrary, social work requires study. "Social work focuses on people in their cultural environments, whether these families were new immigrants in the tenements of ethnic communities or constructed families" (Lowery, 1998). Social work is a complex activity in a complex world. Professionals in the field need to understand theoretical issues like "the forces of globalization- economic, ecological and social - to connect with their international colleagues, and to represent themselves in an informed fashion in international circles. This applies whether they are delivering direct services to immigrants, refugees or those displaced and traumatized by famine, war, terrorism or natural disasters" (Hare, 407). I am not trying to say that social work is exclusive or that it can be only understood through study. "Communities of all kinds present singular opportunities for participation, democratic citizenship, and collective action for social justice. At the same time, communities can be just as exclusionary, oppressive, and conservative as any other social structure" (Kemp, 1998, p. 38). However, it is important to take any conversation further than shallow stereotypes, to the substance beneath.

References

Hare, I. (2012). Defining social work for the 21st century: The International Federation of Social

Workers' revised definition of social work. International Social Work 47(3): 407-424.

Holden, G., Meenaghan, T., Anastas, J. & Metrey, G. (2002). Outcomes of social work

education: The case for social work self-efficacy. Journal of Social Work Education, 38, 115-133.

Howard, M., C. McMillen and D. Pollio (2003). Teaching Evidence-Based Practice: Toward a

New Paradigm for Social Work Education. Research on Social Work Practice, 13(2): 234-259.

Kemp, S. (1998). Practice in communities. The Foundations of Social Work Practice. Mattaini,

Lowery, Meyer, eds. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Lowery, C. (1998). Diversity, ethnic competence, and social justice. The Foundations of Social

Work Practice. Mattaini, Lowery, Meyer, eds. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Megele, C. (2011). Social work must embrace theory if Munro ideas are to succeed: A tendency

to disregard theory could damage implementation of Professor Munro's report. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2011/09/08/social-work-must-embrace-theory-if-munro-ideas-are-to-succeed/

Meyer, C. and M. Mattaini (1998). The Ecosystems Perspective. The Foundations of Social

Work Practice. Mattaini, Lowery, Meyer, eds. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

NASW Code of Ethics (2007). https://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/default.asp


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