Social Work Education and Political Action

Maria Tapola-Haapala

When the current societal conditions for social work are described, the story is often grim. It contains, among others, the harsh sides of neoliberalism (see e.g. Lorenz 2005; Satka et al. 2007; Garrett 2009; Wallace and Pease 2011), economic crises (e.g. Garrett 2011) and the collapse of public responsibility (e.g. Clarke 2005; Barker and Lamble 2009; Grabham and Smith 2010). If these are the starting points, then the role of social workers must be considered: What kinds of possibilities, if any, do they have to affect societal issues? How should this be done? What kinds of knowledge and skills are needed?

In this chapter, I discuss these questions in the context of social work education. My aim is to analyze the issues related to political activity that have been considered as important to teach to social work students and to look at the teaching methods for these issues. I am also interested in the challenges and difficult questions the theme raises. As a researcher and social work teacher, I have noticed a need to reflect on these issues. When social workers have shared their professional experiences in different studies in Finland, they often mention the challenging working conditions. This has led to the idea that social workers should try more to affect the structural problems they face in their work (e.g. Mutka 1998; KarvinenNiinikoski et al. 2005; Tapola-Haapala 2011). During their education, social work students should, thus, be offered methods to affect such structural changes. Although social scientific starting points are frequently emphasized in academic social work discussions in Finland, Finnish social workers mainly concentrate on work with individual service users and families without a clear connection to a larger society (e.g. Kivipelto 2004; Karvinen-Niinikoski et al. 2005; Sipilä 2011). There seems to be a lack of concrete tools for doing societally oriented social work. A key question asks – how that kind of work could be realized in practice, at hectic work places.

In English-speaking countries, social work that goes beyond work with individual service users and/or is interested in also the social and cultural aspects of the issues faced in practice with individuals and families, has been developed under many labels. It has been called radical (e.g. Brake and Bailey 1980; Langan and Lee 1989; Fook 1993; Lavalette 2011), critical (e.g. Fook 2002; Allan et al. 2003), structural (e.g. Mullaly 2007) as well as macro social work (e.g. Netting et al. 2011; Brueggemann 2013). In this chapter, I make a rather loose outline by concentrating on social work actions related to the concepts of politics and policy. These concepts, however, are far from self-evident (Palonen 2006). In Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, politics is defined as 'the art or science of government', 'the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy' or 'the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government' whereas the concept policy refers to 'prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs', 'management or procedure based primarily on material interest', 'a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions' or 'a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body'1 (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary 2013).

By choosing the concepts of policy and politics as my starting points my aim has been to cover discussions concerning social workers taking part in and affecting decision making processes at local, national and possibly even global level. What such an approach actually means, however, is determined by the individual writers, who discuss many kinds of issues and practices. Hamilton and Fauri (2001, 322), for example, define general political participation as including 'electoral activities such as voting, campaigning for a candidate, or contributing money to a candidate, political action committee, or party' as well as 'legislative activities such as meeting with a government official, presenting oral testimony, and contacting an official by phone, letter, fax, or email'. In social work, the concept of policy practice has also been used, defined, for example, to be both a direct social work practice model providing 'policy-informed services to those in need of them' and a practice that 'advocates for and participates in policy implementation and change' (Wyers 1991).

The texts I have read for this chapter have been collected by doing searches in social scientific databases and using different search terms.2 The aim of the search was to reach texts that in different ways discuss the teaching of political issues in social work education. There are texts in which the key concept is policy practice but also, for example, political social work, political practice, policy advocacy, policy instructional approach or social work policy pedagogy. The articles also discuss, among other topics, political content in social work education and teaching about social policy for social work students. Most of the writers are social work educators and academics. The context of the articles is primarily United States, but there are texts also from other countries, such as Australia and Israel.

1 For instance, Heidenheimer (1986) has analyzed the concepts of politics and policy by concentrating especially on the question of why that division is lacking in most Continental languages. In this article, when I refer to my theme on a general level, I will use the concept of political action regardless of what concept has been used in the original texts.

2 The data bases used were Social Services Abstracts, Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts ASSIA and AgeLine. The search terms were [politic? and 'social work' and teach?], [politic? and 'social work' and educ?], [policy and 'social work' and teach?] and [policy and 'social work' and educ?]. The articles read were from the 1990´s and the twenty-first century. I have read the texts paying special attention to the described challenges linked to the teaching of political issues and to the contents of the teaching as well as the methods. My target has not been to find all the texts covering this many-sided issue, but to get different kinds of approaches on the issue as well as to identify the themes that are emphasized. Similarly, the idea of this final report is not to offer a systematic review on all the articles but to collect some approaches and discuss them.

I start by dealing with the commitments and challenges linked to the teaching of political issues in social work education. After that, I consider the contents of the education and some of the teaching methods proposed. At the end of the chapter, I summarize some key issues and reflect on the texts from the point of view of the Finnish social work tradition. I close my chapter by discussing briefly some future challenges related to the teaching of social work.

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