Is social work a human rights profession?
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Social case work (Ethical aspects)
Human rights (Social aspects)
Author: Murdach, Allison D.
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Social Work Publisher: National Association of Social Workers Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Social Workers ISSN: 0037-8046
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 56 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs Advertising Code: 91 Ethics
Product: Product Code: 9103550 Human Rights NAICS Code: 92812 International Affairs
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 262582578
Full Text: Social work has a long history of concern with human rights (Healy, 2008). Nevertheless, some have expressed doubt that, as presently constituted, social work can truly qualify as a "human rights" profession (Solas, 2008). This commentary examines this issue and reviews some current concerns about this difficult question.


The notion of human "rights" has deep roots in the history of the Western world and can be found in such classic documents as the United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens (1789) (Melden, 1970). In general, the idea of human rights stands for the principle that rights are ascribed to people because of "the mere fact that they are human beings" (Melden, 1970, p. 1). Based on this broad assumption, the catalog of human rights has exploded over the past half century. Beginning in the 20th century, the guarantee of freedom for all in a wide variety of areas, from gender to religion, was further elaborated by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued in 1948, and has been considerably expanded since that time (Driscoll, 1979). Indeed, some have even compared the expansion of human rights claims in our times to the arms race and suggested that today the growth of such claims is "out of control" (Sumner, 1984).


Various attempts have been made to place the concept of human rights squarely within the professional culture and identity of social work. For example, Healy (2008) asserted that social workers constitute "front-line human rights workers" and that this is proved by their implementation of recent professional policy statements emphasizing the centrality of human rights to the mission of the profession. Nevertheless, it appears this emphasis is sometimes blunted by the profession's long-standing tradition of focusing primarily on human needs rather than human rights. This emphasis often leads social workers to address immediate needs, as determined by professionals and their clients, as opposed to defending intrinsic human rights and liberties. However, a wide variety of social work authors also assert that present-day social work has sufficient self-monitoring to overcome these tendencies, and, hence, the profession can now unabashedly claim its mantle as a protector of human rights (Healy, 2008).

Some authors have observed that the profession's proclamations of devotion to human rights are belied by everyday practice in social work, which demonstrates a reliance on expediency rather than principles. As an example, it is often noted that professionals rely on a utilitarian framework to guide their practical decision making (Reamer, 2006; Solas, 2008). Utilitarianism emphasizes trade-offs and minimalist solutions in seeking the greater good for all and has historically been opposed, in principle, to the idea of human rights because of that doctrine's reliance on abstract principles and notions of individualism and egalitarianism (Sumner, 1984). To correct this utilitarian emphasis, authors such as Solas (2008) have suggested that social work rely more strongly on a purely individualistic, rights-based approach to practice.

Solas (2008) has examined in some detail what a serious attempt by the profession to institutionalize a rights-based approach would involve. He stated that grounding the activities of the profession in human rights would require social work to demand that society make social justice its primary goal, and thus guarantee all people fair treatment, plus make all social resources and opportunities equally accessible to all. Solas has admitted that this goal of total egalitarianism is bound to be financially costly. However, he observed that no sacrifice is too great to pursue the "inviolable" goal of equality to ensure the ultimate sovereignty of the individual. According to Solas, the achievement of this goal would eliminate the oppressiveness of the present social order and radically improve the social conditions that characterize the current status quo.

Another side of this issue has been discussed by Van Ewijk (2009), who wrote about notions of human rights and social work within the context of a "citizenship" ideal. According to this author, a citizenship perspective implies that individuals have not only rights, but also duties and responsibilities. These include responsibilities for their behavior as well as duties toward others and the community to serve as informed and concerned citizens. Van Ewijk, along with stressing the importance of individual rights to such things as "social protection," also emphasized the necessity of civic obligation, not just of society toward the individual but of the individual toward society. Failure to honor such obligations, he stated, would mean that individuals would forfeit their rights. He suggests that this more balanced approach could provide a sound basis for what he called "citizen-based" social work, a necessary counterpart to more narrowly focused professional models such as evidence-based practice. This change in the official orientation of social work would mean that the field would place less value on increasing its professional credentials and status and more emphasis on involvement in such areas as human rights; social integration; combating social injustice; and helping individuals, groups, and communities to develop social responsibility (Van Ewijk, 2009).


In contrast to the optimism and confidence expressed by the preceding authors about social work's abilities to completely adopt a human rights agenda, others have offered dissenting and even sharply critical views regarding this question. Beginning in the 1960s, various works questioned social work's sincerity as a self-proclaimed champion of human rights. Possibly the most forthright of these efforts were the works of Piven and Cloward (1993), which exposed what the authors regard as the actual social control functions of social work involvement in public and child welfare programs. Other critiques were summarized by Day (1981) in a path-breaking book titled Social Work and Social Control. Though not addressing the topic of human rights directly, he argued that social work has never been able to assume the adversarial position required by a strict adherence to the defense and advancement of social justice issues like human rights because the field is by nature a consensus-seeking endeavor, an approach that embodies trade-offs, negotiation, and a struggle to find common ground with both allies and adversaries. Therefore, claims such as human rights will at times necessarily be compromised, minimized, or ignored. Thus the profession, though it may honor the importance of rights, can never be hostage to their defense if it is to perform its legitimate function in society (Day, 1981).

A variety of critics, including the philosopher Michel Foucault, have pounced on such assertions to condemn the profession as a lapdog of the state, an actual enemy of human rights. In this perspective, the field is a sham that proclaims kind intentions but ultimately seeks to regiment, oppress, and keep the marginalized and poor at bay to maintain the comfort of the oppressing classes (Margolin, 1997). Others have charged that the profession has abandoned its original mission of promoting and advancing human rights by fleeing into the financial and professional security of private practice and scientific respectability (Specht & Courtney, 1994). Feminist critics of the profession have also joined the fray by examining the profession's history and charging that it and its supporters have created policies that ultimately deny the human rights of women by enforcing patriarchal ideals and a narrowly defined family ethic that excludes the rights of nontraditional human groupings and couples (Abramovitz, 1999). Not to be outdone, other historically minded students of social work have reviewed the profession's actual performance in a variety of human rights areas, such as child-saving campaigns (Platt, 2009), temperance (Murdach, 2009), eugenics (LaPlan & Platt, 2005), and Japanese relocation during World War II (Park, 2008). These and similar studies have discovered the profession's past willing and even enthusiastic compliance in programs and policies that ignored and ultimately suppressed important human rights.


Past or present derelictions of professed social work principles do not, of course, prove that the profession is by nature hypocritical or insincere regarding its commitment to human rights principles. Such incidents do reveal, however, that the profession is continually conflicted about the ultimately unanswerable question posed in the title of this article. These struggles often erupt in debates about contentious issues, such as the current concern about the individual's right to privacy versus the professional's duty to protect others (Reamer, 2006). Such conflicts can be viewed as built into the nature of the profession itself, which attempts to serve two masters: the good of the individual and the welfare of the community. This dual emphasis is even enshrined in the preamble to the profession's code of ethics, which states that social work's focus is "on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society" [italics added] (NASW, 2000, p. 1). Inevitably, this mission statement places the profession insecurely between two stools and ensures a constant struggle between the ideals of individual liberty and social stability. It also emphasizes the relevance of Day's (1981) observation, noted earlier, that the profession's identity is essentially bound up with the twin ideals of social consensus and individual benefit. This position means that, with even the best of intentions, in some instances individual human rights claims may be overridden. It may then be true that, despite some negative outcomes, the historic utilitarian search for the "greatest good" for the "greatest number" will always be social work's search as well.


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Allison D. Murdach, LCSW, is a retired psychiatric social worker. Address correspondence to the author at 2942 Hardeman Street, Hayward, CA 94541; e-mail: allisonandjo@

Original manuscript received May 26, 2009 Accepted June 3, 2009
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