Thursday, June 25, 2009

Professional Ethics and Ideological Coercion in Social Work

Scratch a secular liberal--or so it seems--and you will find an authoritarian who seeks to use the powers of the state and licensing bodies, along with professional associations and their ethical codes, to enforce conformity and squelch dissent.

In 2007, the National Association of Scholars released a report about the enforcement of the profession's code of ethics in schools of social work. It was called The Scandal of Social Work Education and the scandal alleged was one of ideological coercion on a wide scale, discouragement of open discussion, and suppression of dissenting views. The study cites several cases where students were allegedly coerced into advocating to their state legislatures for causes they opposed. There are several notorious cases of outlandish behavior by instructors and schools, but the NAS survey of leading schools of social work suggested that the problem is endemic and that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics was being used to legitimate a particular and narrow political uniformity. As George Will (2007) saw it, NASW "adopted a surreptitious political agenda in the form of a new code of ethics."

As if to reinforce Will's point, a recent article in the online Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics by two Kansas professors, Spano and Koenig, argued for using the NASW Code of Ethics as a sort of ideological screen standing above "personal worldviews" and against which social workers would assess their positions on a range of contentious social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. The Code is actually silent on these issues, and not nearly as prescriptive as its critics suggest, but the authors argued for interpreting the code in such a way as to prescribe particular positions. It seems that many schools of social work and their faculties do the same. The article was a sustained attack on evangelical Christians, although in principle their arguments could be used to mute other minority voices (e.g., Marxists') within the profession.

I wrote a critique of their article, which appeared in a subsequent issue of the journal accompanied by their response. I responded to their response to me, again followed immediately by their second response. This final S&K salvo muddied the waters even more, since I do not hold any of the positions the authors attributed to me but actually agree with much of what they say. So I wrote a letter in response (my last word in the exchange!) which is forthcoming. The original article and subsequent exchanges can be found in the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, free online, at:

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