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Why is Social Work important?
In today’s world, most of the population lives in complex rather than simple societies. As social complexity increases, inequality escalates as well, along with a widening gap between the poorest and the most wealthy members of society. Modern inequality is mainly attributed to neo-liberalism and globalisation, which are seen to be to the advantage of a professional elite, but to involve most people, not only from an economic and political point of view, but also from a social and cultural perspective.
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In this fast-moving and uncertain world, where the gaps between the haves and the have nots continue to widen, marginalization and social exclusion are rising phenomena, in addition to social injustice, and discrimination. As a result, an increasing number of people need help and support to cope with their lives, hence social work practice still plays a crucial role in modern society.
As illustrated by Sarah Banks, social work is the type of occupation that is always in a state of change, as it is linked to social welfare systems that shift with global economic trends and in response to government social and economic policies (Banks, 2012). In many countries with traditionally strong state welfare systems, the role of the state as a direct provider of services is declining, resources for welfare are being reduced and new styles of management and accountability are being introduced. These changes have ethical implications for social work practitioners, as their role in allocating scarce resources becomes more challenging and demands for cost-effectiveness and measurable outcomes for service users and society are increasing.
Social work is an important occupation which is very difficult to encapsulate. There are two main aspects of social work practice that distinguish social work from most of other professions. The first is that social workers, by and large, do not provide a universal service but they specialise in working with people who are in some way disadvantaged or excluded relative to society as a whole, for which reason it is appropriate that social work professional ethics place a particular emphasis on social justice. The second manner in which social work differs from many other professions is that many of its service users are not service users by choice. Indeed, social work services are often imposed on individuals who do not wish to receive them. (Beckett, et al., 2017). The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Code of Ethics aknowledges this when requires social workers to ‘use the authority of their role in a responsible, accountable and respectful manner. They should exercise authority appropriately to safeguard people with whom they work and to ensure that people have as much control on their lives as is consistent with the rights of others.’ (BASW, 2014).
The greater importance of social work practice and profession is thus mainly related to the multifaceted role played by its practitioners and their multiple responsibilties and tasks.
One of the most recent attempts to describe these responsibilities and tasks has been by The College of Social Work (TCSW), which has issued an Advice Note to provide clarity about what social workers do. This document highlights that social workers use a distinctive range of legal and social work knowledge and skills to help people to make changes in their lives and obtain the outcomes desired; they are uniquely skilled in accessing a wide range of practical and emotional support and services to meet individuals’ needs; they are a collaborative profession, working alongside other professionals but taking the lead in helping individuals improve and gain control of their lives; as such, they play a lead role in safeguarding people who may be socially excluded, at risk of abuse or neglect, or who become vulnerable (TCSW, 2014).
To clarify the major role of social work, two approaches have been particulary useful in recent years; those of Malcom Payne and Lena Dominelli. Both represent social work activities as three parts of a triangle connecting with each other. While the ‘transformational’/’emancipatory’ approaches are more associated with collective or community based responses, the remainder are more about work with individuals and their families. Therefore, it is clear that ‘social workers are ‘change agents’ whereby they focus on problem solving, initiating and fostering change, and enabling all people to reach their full potentials’, which is why ‘social wokers must have the knowledge, skills and values necessary to work and intervene with individuals, families, groups and communities’ (Teater, 2014).
Social work has changed a great deal in recent years. Neverthless, one fundamental feature remains the same, namely that it involves working with some of the most complex problems, and multifaceted areas of human experience and condition. As highlighted in the definition of social work agreed by the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW):
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‘Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.’ (IASSW/IFSW, 2014)
This definition summarises the great importance of social work practice. The term ‘profession’ instantly gives the occupation a status and implied unity. Furthermore, the statement focusses on the purposes of social work, referring to ‘social change’, ’empowerment’ and ‘liberation’. These terms indicate that ‘social work is about more that just helping people to adapt to their environments. It is about enabling them to take action for themselves.’ (Banks, 2012).
Therefore, social work puts people and human development at the heart of its theory and practice. It focusses on solving problems through enhancing social functioning. It emphasizes human values and the intrinsic worth of all individuals. It forges solutions that help people reach their full potential and improve their lives. Likewise, it plays a prominent role in promoting human growth, social justice, and equity.
- Banks, S. (2012), Ethics and Values in Social Work, 4th Edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Beckett, C., Maynard, A. and Jordan, P. (2017), Values and Ethics in Social Work, 3rd Edn. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
- British Association of Social Workers (2014), The Code of Ethics for Social Work, Birmingham: BASW.
- International Association of Schools of Social Work (2014), Global Definition of Social Work.
- Teater, B. (2014), Contemporary Social Work Practice: A Handbook for Students, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- The College of Social Work (2014), Roles and Functions of Social Workers in England – Advice Note, The College of Social Work.
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