The relationship between social work and politics has been a topic of conversation on campuses across the county following the 2016 election. While social work students generally care about making a difference, it is not clear that they see politics as a method for making a difference. The value an individual gives to elected office as a method for making a difference, relative to alternative methods of making a difference, is a characteristic I call political primacy. This study employs a measure of political primacy, and compares the values of social work students to the values of a comparison group of MTurk respondents, as well as to the values of a smaller sample of law students. The study also makes use of a survey experiment to test whether framing elected office as a method for making a difference increases the interest of social work students to run for a hypothetical open seat on city council versus two alternative frames. I hypothesize that if social work students identify elected office as a method for making a difference, they will have greater interest in pursuing it.
Data were from three samples for the purposes of comparison. An email invitation was sent to Master of Social Work students at four universities across the state of Michigan. This produced a sample of 612 responses. A sample of 624 individuals was also recruited from Amazon.com’s MTurk platform. Finally, an email invitation was sent to Juris Doctor students at one university in the state of Michigan that produced a sample of 64 responses.
Each of these samples answered the same survey, with slight modifications. For example, MSW students were asked questions related to their educational experience, as were JD students, which were not asked of MTurk respondents.
The average age of the MSW sample was 28.6, while for the MTurk sample it was 36.6, and the JD sample it was 25.9. In terms of political primacy, 24.4% of MSW respondents ranked serving in local government as the best method of contributing to the community, while the percentages for the MTurk and JD samples were 17.5% and 40.8%, respectively.
Ordered logistic regression was used on respondent’s interest in running for an open seat on city council. Contrary to expectations, framing elected office as a method for making a difference did not increase interest in running for city council among MSW students. This is in contrast to JD students, for whom framing elected office as a method of making a difference did significantly increase interest in running. Across all samples, political primacy significantly predicts a respondent’s interest in running.
Translating MSW students’ interest in running into actual candidacies may depend less on framing elected office as a method for making a difference, than on providing them with opportunities to work with elected officials or interest groups. Field placements in such settings should be a point of emphasis in conversations about the relationship between social work and politics going forward.