The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

MSW Student Attitudes Towards Religious Diversity

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 5:30 PM
Marriott Riverwalk, River Terrace, Upper Parking Level, Elevator Level P2 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Abell, PhD, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Jennifer Manuel, PhD, Assistant Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Andrew Schoeneman, MS, Graduate Research Assistant, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Sahar Al Khalaf, MSW, Student, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Background and Purpose: In 2010 there were an estimated 2.6 million Muslim adherents, a number that has nearly doubled since 2001.  In spite of this increase, the religion of Islam and the culture of its Muslim adherents remain largely misunderstood. In the minds of many Americans, the religion of Islam is closely tied to images of violence, terrorism, and the subjugation of women.  Consequently, oppression of this minority group is based upon ideas that are more often cultural and political rather than religious. Nevertheless, spirituality is an integral part of the biopsychosocialspiritual model embraced by the social work profession.  With these negative images in mind, can social work practitioners examine spirituality of diverse groups, specifically Muslim clients, in a way that fosters understanding and facilitates a therapeutic relationship?  We hypothesize that race and religion will influence a practitioner’s capacity to work with individuals from different religious backgrounds, specifically Muslim clients.

Methods: We present the findings of an electronic survey conducted at an urban mid-Atlantic university using a sample of MSW students [N=126]. The survey instrument was adapted from work by Young, Cashwell, Wiggins-Frame, and Belaire, [2002] and was comprised of three sections. Sections I and II used a 4 point Likert scale to assess student perceptions of religion and spirituality in social work practice [9 items] and perceptions of working with particular religious/spiritual groups such as Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims [10 items].  The third section collected demographic information.

Results: The average age of respondents was 29, 81 percent identified as White, 52.8 percent identified as Christian. Independent samples t-tests were used to compare participant responses; Christians and non-Christians, Whites and non-Whites. The findings suggest that non-Whites feel more confident than Whites in their ability to work with Muslim clients [p<.05]. Non-Christians feel more confident than Christians in assessing the relevance of spirituality in clients’ therapeutic concerns [p<.02 ]and feel  better prepared to work with Muslim clients [p<.057].  Non-Christians believe more strongly than Christians in the importance of respecting religious diversity [.019] and are more likely to believe it is inappropriate to share personal spiritual beliefs with clients [p<.016].

Conclusions and Implications: A model of multicultural social work practice prescribes reflection upon personal values and biases, as well as knowledge of cultural barriers that may interfere with the healing process. Racial/cultural identity theory suggests that minorities may find empathy with other minority groups. The findings from this study suggest that, in fact, minority groups in the US, non-Whites and non-Christians, may be better able to understand other oppressed groups than their majority counterparts.  This is particularly relevant to the treatment of Muslim clients whose religion is often misrepresented and misunderstood.  White and Christian social work practitioners are challenged to demonstrate even greater introspection for this particular group, often vilified in the mainstream media, in order to advance social change. Future studies should examine the extent to which social work education includes content on religious and spiritual diversity and whether such training yields more culturally specific and competent social work practice.