Abstract: Social Work Student Perceptions of Social Action (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Social Work Student Perceptions of Social Action

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Mint, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Amy Krings, MSW, PhD, Assistant Professor, Loyola University of Chicago School of Social Work, Chicago, IL
Michael Dentato, PhD, Associate Professor, Loyola University, Chicago
Susan Grossman, PhD, Professor, Loyola University, Chicago
Background/Purpose: Social action in service of social justice is understood to be a function of social workers’ societal role as codified in the profession’s Code of Ethics (NASW, 2015). Yet, some argue that social work education and practice do not incorporate a sufficient focus on social action (Abramovitz & Sherraden, 2016; Lane & Pritzker, 2018; Reisch, 2016; Rothman & Mizrahi, 2014; Specht & Courtenay, 1994). Mizrahi and Holmes (2018) point out that limited attention to social and political action matters; social workers and the people they serve have the potential to be a force for social change. Without engagement in social action, there are missed opportunities to collectively advance social justice.  How, though, do social workers in training perceive social action?

Methodology: The data are from a national survey of United States social work students (n=199) conducted between May 2016 and April 2017. We examined student attitudes about the importance of social action or their confidence as social change agents and compared the attitudes of students who practice at a micro level with those who practice at the macro level. We also determined if and how attitudes vary according to social identities (race, gender, sexual orientation, and age) and whether these attitudes changed following the 2016 United States presidential election.

Findings: Nearly all of the students in our sample, regardless of practice orientation, found social action behaviors to be important or very important and they typically felt very confident or confident engaging in them. Both micro and macro respondents perceived all practice behaviors as important, but gave greater importance to and felt more confident engaging in interpersonal level behaviors as compared with community or structural level actions. The only difference between students’ practice levels was that macro-oriented students perceive “joining an organization that takes action for justice” to be more important than micro practitioners.

We also examined if students vary in their perceptions of social action according to their social identities (race, gender, sexual orientation, and age). For example, we predicted that there would be a distinction between students who are White in comparison with students of color due to White students’ privileged status. Interestingly, we did not find a difference when it came to perceptions of importance. However, students of color are significantly more confident in their ability to engage in social action. This pattern held in both bivariate and multivariate analyses, accounting for practice orientation.

Implications: This study’s findings suggest that the divide between macro- and micro-oriented social work students as it relates to attitudes about social action is not much of a divide at all. It offers hope for those seeking to recalibrate the micro-macro balance of the profession: students are indeed open to social change. However, it also suggests that, to realize the profession’s historical commitment to social action, institutional and organizational reforms that focus on re-broadening the field are necessary.