Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15849 Does Social Work Research Ignore Socio-Economic Class?: A Content Analysis of Recent Literature

Thursday, January 12, 2012: 2:00 PM
Independence D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Cheryl A. Hyde, PhD, Associate Professor, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
Purpose: Social work often is associated with working on behalf of economically disenfranchised populations. The profession's roots in the settlement house movement and current Code of Ethics and CSWE Educational Standards reflect a commitment to economic justice (Bloom & Farragher, 2011). Utilizing a content analysis of recent social work research, this study explores how socio-economic class is conceptualized and examined. “Class” is defined as societal economic arrangements (often stratified) and is an essential component of individual, group and communal cultural identity (Harvey, 2010; Sennett & Cobb, 1993).

Method: A content analysis is a “systematic, objective, quantitative analysis of message characteristics” (Neuendorf, 2002:1). An initial keyword search provided the foundation for the content analysis by identifying and tallying terms/concepts. This search was performed on 10,986 refereed journal articles indexed in Social Work Abstracts from 2006-2010. Class-related and comparative non class-related keywords were categorized as identity, status/stratification, social problem/policy, and interventions. For the content analysis, three flagship social work journals (Sellers, Smith, Mathiesen & Perry, 2006) were selected: Social Work (SW), Journal of Social Work Education (JSWE), and Research on Social Work Practice (RSWP). Peer reviewed, empirical articles from 2006 – 2010 were analyzed (N = 658) using CATPAC (text analysis software). Frequencies of and usage patterns between designated terms and concepts (from keyword search) were generated; this framed a cluster analysis that identified analytic themes as to how socio-economic class content was examined.

Results: Results from the article keyword search suggest scant coverage of class-related topics. The most frequently used class-related keywords were “welfare” (n=915 articles), “income” (n=468), “poor” (n=376), “employment” (n = 288) and “low income” (n=248), which fall within the social problem/policy category. In contrast, non-class related terms such as “family” (n=2458), “children” (n=2128), “treatment” (n=1390), “clinical” (n=978) and “mental health” (n=950) were much more common. The content analysis revealed that 17% (n=112) of the articles had some class-related content. Social Work had the most coverage (24% of its articles), followed by RSWP (22%) and JSWE (4%). “Welfare,” “employment” and “poverty” were the most common foci and clustered with characteristics of service clients/recipients or with policy/intervention assessments. Absent from the literature were discussions on upper or middle classes, interactions between social classes, formation of class consciousness, class-based power or privilege, and social class as either a cultural or identity construct. Instead, social class was a characteristic of “the poor” – a category of people who accessed means-based programs.

Conclusions and Implications: This study suggests weak coverage of socio-economic class issues in the social work research literature. Discussions of social class were primarily descriptive and categorical. There was evidence of labeling or objectifying people at or near poverty and little consideration for the dynamic or interactive nature of social class. Social work research is neither conceptualized in ways nor producing findings that capture socio-economic class relationships, class-based identity formation, or broader economically based power arrangements. In turn, this decontextualization of socio-economic class undermines a fully realized analysis of its importance in shaping opportunities for individuals, families and communities.