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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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Social work values

Service users’ expectations of social workers include the values of respect for service users’ own expertise, empowerment in decision making, confidentiality, honesty about power and the social work role and the ability to challenge discrimination and put users and carers first.

One might say that these values are not restricted to social workers but are relevant to anyone who is dealing with people, such as shop assistants, bank officials, the clergy and police officers. Yet there is a long tradition in social work that emphasises the importance of ‘respect for persons’ – an idea, drawn from moral philosophy that goes beyond being respectful or disrespectful. In social work it derives from the casework tradition, and was most famously expounded by Felix Biestek, a Jesuit priest and social work teacher at Loyola Catholic University, Chicago, in his book The Casework Relationship, which appeared in 1961. Biestek (1961) listed seven principles of casework, which included the five values listed below. (The two remaining principles, purposeful expression of feelings and controlled emotional involvement, are less to do with values and more concerned with ‘how to do social work’.)

  • acceptance
  • self-determination
  • confidentiality
  • individualisation (seeing each individual as unique)
  • a non-judgemental attitude.

These are usually grouped together under the umbrella of ‘respect for persons’. Biestek’s emphasis was very much on creating a relationship between the social worker and the service user that brought about beneficial change for the service user. Put in these terms, ‘respect for persons’ goes far beyond what one would expect from shop assistants, bank officials and police officers!

Biestek’s approach may be criticised, however, for being too limited because it sees service users separately from the social context in which they live. It runs the risk, therefore, of ignoring or underestimating the extent to which the environment in which a services user lives affects their life and their ability to change it. Thus, it could be argued, the finest relationship in the world with the most highly skilled social worker would be of little use to a service user whose major problem is extreme poverty. The point is that social work values need to go beyond personalised moral principles if they are to address the social disadvantages that adversely affect so many service users.

Similarly, it is also too easy in any discussion of values to ignore the occupational context in which social workers practise and its influences. This issue will be addressed in the next section.