Abstract: The Public Perception of Social Work: Findings from a Large Statewide Sample (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

The Public Perception of Social Work: Findings from a Large Statewide Sample

Sunday, January 20, 2019: 10:45 AM
Union Square 15 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Molly Calhoun, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Katlin Okamoto, MS, Doctoral Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Karen Goodenough, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Elizabeth Lightfoot, PhD, Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Saint Paul, MN
Background and Purpose:  While social workers have long lamented the public misperception of the field of social work, there have been surprisingly few studies on the public’s perception of social work. The last U.S. study, conducted in 2004 by LeCroy & Stinson, found moderately positive attitudes towards social work, but misunderstandings of the roles of social work practitioners. The purpose of this study was to provide an updated understanding of the public’s perception of the field of social work, with an emphasis on their perceptions of the scope of the profession and tasks of social workers.

Methods:  This study surveyed 925 adults ages 18 and over who were attending a large Midwestern state fair, and was part of a large university’s IRB approved research booth at the fair, which also included rotating studies from a variety of disciplines. The final sample was similar in race, ethnicity and geographic location to state-wide demographics, but over-represented females. Using iPads, participants completed a survey consisting of Likert scales, multiple-choice questions, and short response questions regarding their views regarding where social workers work, tasks social workers perform and impressions of social workers, among others. Descriptive and correlational analyses were conducted.

Results: Our findings show that the majority of participants were able to identify social work areas of practice, though macro practice areas, such as policy advocacy (87.0%) community organizing (84.7%) and international development (62.5%) were identified less often than other practice areas, such as child maltreatment, domestic violence, mental health, or gerontology, which were all identified by over 95% of participants as social work practice areas. Participants were also able to identify tasks of social workers, with connecting people with resources (97.5%) and advocating for people to access resources (96.0%) the most common identified. Participants did have some misperceptions about social work, with nearly three-quarters indicating that social workers conducted psychological tests (70.4%), over half (55.1%) indicating that social workers decide if parents lose parental rights, and only 57.2% indicating that social workers provide individual therapy. Participants generally chose positive characteristics to describe social workers, such as caring (98.4%), hard-working (97.8%) and trustworthy (96.5%). Yet social work as a career option landed midway among a number of professions. Less than half indicated that they would feel very positively about a family member choosing social work as a profession (44.1%), whereas medical doctor (63.1%), scientist (60.4%) and engineer (62.8%) held higher rates of approval. Those who had used social work services had significantly more favorable views of social work as a career (50.5%) than those who had no personal or professional experience with social work (34.1%)

Implications: These findings provide insight into how the general public perceives social work, which will help the field of social work both in efforts to promote the field, as well as to build higher quality services through a better understanding of the potential perspectives of new clients, community members, collaborators and funders.