Social Work MOOC Module 1: What Is Social Work?

This is the first post in a series of reflections on the University of Michigan edX course “Social Work Practice: Advocating Social Justice and Change.”

I was struck very early on in this module by the International Federation of Social Work’s global definition of social work:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

What caught my attention was that first sentence: social work is equal parts practice and academic discipline. I’ve been feeling like this is a fundamental gap in the way we do librarianship as compared to other social sciences: our profession as practiced on a day-to-day basis is pretty distant from what most information science researchers are studying, especially in public librarianship. I’m not sure which came first, the disregard by public librarians for academic findings or the academic disinterest in studying practicalities of public service, but the distance only seems to be widening over time.

Regardless of that particular criticism of librarianship, though, I continue to believe and hope we can adopt the practice of applying theories and learning from multiple disciplines and cultures to librarianship. One of the people interviewed in the MOOC called social work “an applied practice where we take lessons learned from other disciplines and apply them to real world problems.” I would really like to see us define librarianship similarly. If you look at the backgrounds of faculty members in iSchools, particularly at the flagship Illinois, you can see that information science is already willing to draw from other specializations with greater interdisciplinary than most academic departments. At the moment, much of that interplay happens with computer science, or sometimes humanities in the case of archives and education in the case of youth services. I hope we can encourage more influence from sociology and social work as we continue to raise the value of knowledge of human behavior as part of our library practice.

I was also curious, based on this concise and helpful definition, whether our own International Federation of Library Associations has a similar definition of librarianship. I wasn’t able to find one but didn’t dig very deep, so I’m interested if anyone else comes across such a thing.

Another item of importance in understanding social work that we’ve touched on previously on this blog is the NASW Social Work Code of Ethics, which is far more extensive than the ALA Code of Ethics. For more analysis and comparison, I refer you to Paul’s posts here and here. Based on my own current experience and priorities, there were a few things that stood out to me in the MOOC’s explanation of social work ethics:

  • SW core value “Importance of Human Relationships”: I’ve recently taken to saying “It’s all about relationships.” This is something I used to hear a lot when I was working with early childhood researchers (including Mary Nienow, my awesome social worker collaborator), and at first I considered it to be overly broad and therefore not terribly meaningful. But over time, as I’ve worked more and more at community engagement and outreach, I’ve come to realize just how fundamental human relationships really are to successful work in that arena. The social worker (professor?) who explained the core values said “relationships are the vehicle for making change and helping people,” and I couldn’t agree more. While the changes and help librarians and social workers want to make differ from each other in significant ways, the methods of initial connection are very similar. This is one of the reasons I believe it’s so important for the success of librarianship going forward that we educate our students as fully on human behavior as we do on, say, Dublin Core.
  • SW core value of “Competence”: What I liked about the explanation of this value was the way it motivates professional development and builds it into the very essence of social work. This relates back somewhat to my earlier support of the definition of social work as both a practice-based profession and an academic discipline. I wish this were as grounded a core value in all types of librarianship.
  • SW core value of “Social Justice”: I almost feel this is a given when coming from me, but I’ll say it anyway. Social justice is already a core value of librarianship. We need to acknowledge and embrace it as such in order to realize our full potential as a profession.
  • Empowerment: The professor in the second core values video talked about empowerment, which isn’t explicitly one of the six named values but is a significant concept. He talked about empowerment through reducing systematic barriers, which is something that progressive librarians already give a lot of thought to. What I appreciate about the social work approach is that it is research-based and situates an understanding of social systems at the core of working with and for other people.

One concept that was new to me in this MOOC was the idea of “mezzo” practice. I’ve written before about micro and macro practice, and I always like to mention them when I’m introducing Whole Person Librarianship to a new audience because I think they’re concepts with immediate applicability to library work. Mezzo practice is, unsurprisingly, situated somewhere between the extremes of micro and macro practice. While in general I believe in the value of de-binarying concepts (a term I just made up!), I’m not sure I find it entirely helpful in this case. One of the attractions of the macro/micro divide is the very simplicity of it, at least at first glance. What I did appreciate was the way the mezzo concept seemed to facilitate discussion of community organizing as a unique practice, and the techniques of community organizing can also be applied to much of the community engagement work done by librarians.

I also heard many of the social workers in the “skills” section talk about the importance of listening closely and carefully. Several of the social workers mentioned listening as a top skill and just as important whether you’re listening to an individual or community. One thing I’ve been cautious about recently is glorifying listening for its own sake. I don’t think social workers are in danger of falling into that trap because they are so motivated by problem-solving, but I do sometimes witness librarians “listening” as though that were inclusion enough on its own. Listening is relatively meaningless unless it’s in service of action, and I think the social workers would agree. A particularly good example is the woman who talked about intentional listening for the purpose of determining a person’s self-interest, then using that self-interest to motivate them as part of community organizing. Responsiveness is key but doesn’t have to happen on a grand scale.

One final thing I wanted to note is the social work emphasis on understanding policy. I think very few people outside of high-level library administration take the time to learn about and make an impact on laws and policies governing librarianship. That’s been changing–I would refer anyone who is interested in getting more involved to check out EveryLibrary.

Overall, the whole time I worked through this module, I kept thinking about how I always make sure to tell librarians that we don’t need to be social workers (and that there are many important skills librarians have that aren’t part of social work). My perspective on that hasn’t changed, but I am developing an ability to parse it out with more subtlety. I expect to talk more about that in future posts.

5 Comments on “Social Work MOOC Module 1: What Is Social Work?”

  1. Mary Nienow says:

    Sara, as always, your insights are astute and deeply reflective. A couple of things that struck me. . .I’m not sure social work does a much better job that libraries in connecting its practitioners and researchers. We absolutely include research as part of our academic programs, but it is typically viewed as an onerous requirement rather than one in which our students and practitioners openly embrace as integral to their practice. Personally, I think this is because we rely too much on the traditions of other disciplines, ones that require objectivity, evidence-based practice and “boundaries” between researchers and “their” subjects. Those involved in social work research tend to want to appear “hard-headed”, like “real scientists”, and while qualitative research has gained a foothold in social work, it is still regarded as the lesser child in the research world. This rubs practitioners the wrong way and doesn’t reflect their experiences or knowledge.

    The sentence in your course description that made me the happiest was the line indicating that social work is underpinned by indigenous knowledge. While, like research, I don’t think this is universally true, I think this is where social work could do the most good and have the greatest impact. In preparation for a job application at a School of Social Work on the West Coast I am planning to do some extensive reading on “decolonized social work”. I think this is an area of social work that allows us to authentically live and practice the values we espouse.

    Finally, I agree with you that mezzo practice is amorphous. Typically this refers to group work (think support groups, boys and girls clubs, youth work, etc. .) and has its own tradition and history within the professional development of social work. Much less is written and talked about mezzo practice, and for my own dissertation I left it by the way side, but I love the idea that it is de-binary.

    Finally, finally, the core value that most corresponds to empowerment is “the importance and worth of the person”. I’ve had amazing conversations in classes about the word “person” vs. “individual”.

    Excited to continue to read about your class and what you learn about the amazing field of social work!

    • Sara Z says:

      You know that as soon as I saw the part about indigenous knowledge, I thought of how much you’d appreciate that! But I also agree it’s incredibly important that it was not just included but put on par with all the other areas or disciplines social work draws from. That’s truly an example of embedding social justice in the foundation of the profession. It’s daring and hopefully precedent-setting for an international organization to adopt that as a guiding principle.

      “Those involved in social work research tend to want to appear ‘hard-headed’, like ‘real scientists’…” Wow, does that ever sound familiar! I feel like this is part of what has driven (library and) information science research towards the information science piece at the expense of the human interaction piece. I’m sorry to hear that’s also the case in social work, but I’m not entirely surprised. It’s a fairly global problem with traditionally “feminine” professions: there’s a deeply embedded perception that in order to be “legitimate” in the academy, we need to shed the “touchy-feely” aspects of our work. This motivates me to defend the importance of qualitative research on the “softer” outcomes–doing so is feminist activism! But there’s also a basic human discomfort with ambiguity at play, which can make it easier for folks to accept hard data as more legitimate, so I think awareness of that needs to be an ongoing part of education. Regardless of whatever struggles and splits there may be between academia and practice in social work, I still think it’s worthwhile for the profession to state it is both. I like the idea of being able to point back to that as a grounding value.

  2. melissaicd says:

    One of the things that struck me about this first module was the upfront nature of social work as being a field of practice and of academic inquiry that is all about creating social change for the well-being of individuals in particular and society as a whole. As someone who grounds her intellectual foundations on ethnic studies, which also makes no qualms about its interdisciplinary nature and its perspective that scholarly, theoretical work must somehow become praxis, I found this perspective to be very alluring.

    I’d already thought that social work (praxis) : sociology (theory), but wondered how such an analog translated to LIS.

    I’ve had more random thoughts that I’m still working to connect in some coherent manner. Reading Mary’s and Sara’s wonderful reflections has helped me tremendously.

    • Sara Z says:

      Thanks for bringing this up, and I hope we can talk more about it! “Theoretical work must somehow become praxis”–I’ve been thinking a lot about this as well. Where is our theoretical work in librarianship? How do we draw a line from it to the way we run our libraries day-to-day? I know I’m very strongly influenced by the fact that I worked for many years in a research center whose purpose was to make that connection in education, and I would like to see as clear a connection in librarianship. Maybe my future is to build such a research center… hmm…

  3. […] thing I realized when I wrote up my reflections on the first module of this edX/University of Michigan Social Work MOOC is that one blog post per […]

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