Ethical Challenges

The field of political action may not be easy, but there can also be found many kinds of difficult ethical questions related to it. As Sundet and Kelly (2002, 59) explain, 'policy analysis and action require that social workers enter a world of competing values in which the right course of action often is not taken'. 'To understand how to be effective in the political arena', they continue, 'social workers must learn to think through the difficult issues, competing value positions and the practical constraints of money and politics'. In relation to social work education, also the loyalty contradictions have been highlighted. It has been doubted social work teachers' interest in political activity may not be that strong if they 'are employed by state funded universities, seeking federally funded grants, or collaborating with federally funded agencies' (Davis, Cummings and MacMaster 2007, 497). On the
other hand, Davis et al. (2007), in their study of the reaction to the war in Iraq on college campuses, state that most of the American social work educators taking part in the survey felt they had faced neither restriction nor encouragement from their institutions about expressing their personal views on this sensitive topic.

In general, the question of what the relationship between politics and social work education should be like is, of course, far from self-evident. Should professional activity and politics be clearly separated or should political orientation be seen as an essential aspect in realizing the values and goals of social work (see Weiss, Gal and Katan 2006, 791–3)? There have, for instance, been worries that students are used to promote their professors' political agendas, a result which may not be seen as appropriate (see Sundet and Kelly 2002, 52–3). A question related to this practice is whether social work studies should provide neutral knowledge on political systems and policies or should they be based on more ideological starting points derived from the idea of social justice (Weiss, Gal and Katan 2006, 792). In the study by Davis, Cummings and MacMaster (2007, 499), social work educators in the US were observed to be disagreeing if or how the war in Iraq, as an example, should be discussed in class room teaching: should social work educators offer a clear opinion on that kind of current political issues or just cover, if needed, them in a general way?

This type of discussion can also be linked to the question of what kinds of theories the teaching should be based on and who chooses the theories used. Most of the texts discussing the teaching of political issues seem not to be relying on any special theory. Instead they emphasize a more general approach in which different kinds of perspectives are covered. In practice, the theoretical possibilities are various. For example, the results of Fisher et al. (2002, 54–5) study show how a study programme in political social work did not lead the students to rely on one single theoretical starting point but the starting points varied depending on the student: social justice, feminist, liberal as well as Marxist and socialist ideas had all been used.

A descriptive example of the practical implications of ideological commitments in social work education is offered by the small-scale case study done by Fram and Miller-Cribbs (2008) in which they studied the experiences of both a liberally oriented social work student and a conservatively oriented one on their social work education. Whereas the liberal social work student characterized the study environment as 'open' and 'refreshing', the conservatively oriented student described the same environment as 'liberally biased, alienating and intolerant of her beliefs and culture' (Fram and Miller-Cribbs 2008, 892). The experiences highlight the challenge of handling different kinds of worldviews in social work classrooms. In social work education, students should not, Fram and Miller-Cribbs (2008, 893–5) note, be silenced but there should be a door for dialogue in which students have a possibility to encounter different perspectives and where liberal ideas should also be challenged without, however, compromising the values and ethics of social work. The same theme is also discussed by Reisch and Staller (2011, 132) who note how policy conflicts in social work are often assumed to happen between social workers and external opponents, whereas in reality there have been many debates on different issues also inside the community of social workers. On the other hand, according to Reisch and Staller (2011, 133–4, 143), social work students often see conflicts as something that should be avoided and they may not be willing to challenge their own basic beliefs. To change the situation, Reisch and Staller (2011, 134) propose that social welfare history and social welfare policy should be taught from a conflict perspective that, among other benefits, broadens the scope of discussion, creates a safe space for divergent viewpoints and replaces the idea of correct answers with the 'idea that positions are either more or less persuasively supported by evidence and argument'.

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