During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in the U.S., particularly in urban areas, growing attention was paid to the problems of poverty, child maltreatment, and delinquency, along with the poor working conditions of immigrants, former slaves and people of color, women, and children.  The inhumane conditions in poor houses, mental hospitals or asylums, and jails and prisons also came to the public’s attention because of such activists as Dorothea Dix.  Social movements to improve the lives of oppressed groups gained momentum after the turn of the century during what came to be known as the Progressive Era.  Charitable organizations and settlement houses formed in order to address human needs.  People that worked for these organizations were not trained social workers and acted according to their own beliefs when dealing with people who needed help.  Anecdotes about charity workers judging and acting insensitively toward clients began to trouble agency administrators who turned to the educational system for help with teaching workers “scientific principles.”

From the beginning, charity organization training and then social work curricula covered the purpose and objectives of social work that were based on the values of respect, uniqueness and worth of individuals, self-determination, autonomy, equality, and social justice.  Social work curriculum policies dictated the teaching of core professional values and in 1947 a formal code of ethics was adopted by the Delegate Conference of the American Association of Social Workers.  This latest version of the social work profession’s code of ethics was revised in 1999 by the NASW Delegate Assembly.  Many authors have written about value and ethical dilemmas in social work.   Cultural diversity, the complexity of problems, risk and liability issues, and the growing use of technology have all contributed to making professional ethics an important contemporary topic.

Additional Notes:

The evolution of social work values and ethics reflects changes in societal perspectives, professional standards, and the understanding of human rights and social justice. Over time, social work values and ethics have developed to address emerging issues, promote inclusivity, and guide practitioners in their interactions with clients and communities. Here is an overview of the evolution of social work values and ethics:

Early Foundations:

1.      Charity and Altruism:

  • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the roots of social work were often grounded in charitable activities and altruistic motives. The focus was on providing assistance to individuals in need, driven by a sense of compassion and moral duty.

Emergence of Professional Social Work:

2.      Social Justice and Advocacy:

  • As social work evolved into a recognized profession, a shift occurred towards a stronger emphasis on social justice and advocacy. Social workers began to address the root causes of social issues and advocate for systemic changes to eliminate injustice and inequality.

Mid-20th Century:

3.      Person-in-Environment Perspective:

  • The mid-20th century saw the development of the person-in-environment perspective, highlighting the importance of understanding individuals within the context of their social environment. This perspective influenced social work values by recognizing the impact of social systems on individuals and vice versa.

4.      Professionalization and Code of Ethics:

  • Professional social work organizations, recognizing the need for ethical guidelines, established codes of ethics to guide practitioners. These codes emphasized principles such as confidentiality, respect for client autonomy, and the promotion of social justice.

Late 20th Century:

5.      Cultural Competence:

  • Social work values evolved to incorporate cultural competence, recognizing the diversity of clients and the importance of understanding and respecting different cultural backgrounds. This shift aimed to ensure that social workers could effectively engage with diverse populations.

6.      Empowerment and Strengths-Based Approach:

  • The late 20th century saw the adoption of an empowerment and strengths-based approach, focusing on helping clients build on their strengths and resources to overcome challenges. This marked a departure from a deficit-oriented perspective.

21st Century:

7.      Technology and Ethical Considerations:

  • With the increasing use of technology in social work practice, ethical considerations related to privacy, confidentiality, and the use of electronic communication have become prominent. Ethical guidelines were adapted to address these emerging issues.

8.      Intersectionality:

  • The concept of intersectionality gained prominence, emphasizing the interconnectedness of various social identities such as race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. Social work values evolved to recognize and address the unique challenges faced by individuals at the intersections of multiple identities.

9.      Globalization and Human Rights:

  • Social work values expanded to include a global perspective, with an emphasis on human rights. Practitioners became increasingly involved in international social work, addressing global issues and advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations worldwide.

10.  Trauma-Informed Practice:

  • In response to a growing understanding of the impact of trauma on individuals and communities, social work values incorporated a trauma-informed approach. This approach emphasizes creating a safe and supportive environment for clients who have experienced trauma.

11.  Environmental Justice:

  • As awareness of environmental issues increased, social work values expanded to include considerations of environmental justice. Social workers began addressing the impact of environmental factors on marginalized communities and advocating for sustainable and just policies.

The evolution of social work values and ethics reflects ongoing efforts to adapt to changing societal dynamics, address emerging challenges, and uphold the core principles of social work, including social justice, human dignity, and the well-being of individuals and communities. Professional organizations regularly review and update codes of ethics to ensure their relevance and effectiveness in contemporary practice.

Source: Egyankosh



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