Social Action among Social Work Practitioners: Examining the Micro–Macro Divide

Social Action among Social Work Practitioners: Examining the Micro–Macro Divide Abstract Social work is a profession that seeks to enhance the well-being of all people and promote social justice and social change through a range of activities, such as direct practice, community organizing, social and political action, and policy development. However, the current literature suggests that the profession’s focus on social justice and social action are weakening, replaced by individualism and therapeutic interventions. This article examines data derived from a survey of 188 National Association of Social Workers members from Maryland; Virginia; and Washington, DC, to explore levels of social action participation among social workers and determine whether identifying as a macro-level practitioner would predict higher levels of social action activity compared with being a micro-level practitioner. Findings indicate that social workers in this sample engage in only a moderate level of social action behavior. In addition, identifying oneself as a mezzo- or macro-level practitioner predicts increased frequency of social action behavior. Implications include emphasizing the importance of social action in schools of social work and practice settings and adequately preparing social work professionals to engage in social action. The social work profession has a long-standing history of engaging in social and political action to protect clients’ rights to basic human needs and freedoms. Social action is defined as a set of strategies used to organize and garner power, through individual or collective action, to change conditions that are injurious to vulnerable populations (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013). According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2015),Code of Ethics, social work is defined as a profession that works to enhance the well-being of all people and promote social justice and social change on behalf of client populations. To achieve social justice, social workers seek to interrupt systems of discrimination and oppression through a number of activities, such as direct practice, community organizing, social and political action, and policy development (NASW, 2015). However, the current literature suggests that the profession’s focus on social justice and social action are weakening, replaced by individualism and therapeutic interventions (O’Brien, 2010). The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2012) reported that only 8.8 percent of MSW students were enrolled in macro concentration courses in 2011. Similarly, the NASW Center for Workforce Studies found that just 14 percent of practicing social workers reported macro practice as their primary focus, and that social workers only spend 2 percent of their time in an average week dedicated to community organizing and policy-related tasks (Whitaker & Arrington, 2008). A 2015 study of recent MSW graduates revealed a similar preference toward micro practice. Among 246 respondents, 85 percent were enrolled in a clinical concentration while in their MSW program, and 83 percent were employed in direct practice positions after graduation (Choi, Urbanski, Fortune, & Rogers, 2015). These figures suggest that the social work profession is currently highly oriented toward direct practice. The person-in-environment perspective in which the social work profession is grounded requires that social workers operate at all levels of practice to not only serve the client, but take into account all of the systems by which the client is affected. As far back as 50 years ago, Daniel Thursz (1966) warned that narrowly defining individuals as the target of change may not acknowledge the change needed in broader systems. In spite of the fact that social work has its roots in both micro and macro practice, many scholars agree that the profession remains divided, with much of the support and attention devoted to micro practice (Ezell, Chernesky, & Healy, 2004; Pritzker & Applewhite, 2015; Rothman & Mizrahi, 2014). In a commentary published in the Social Work journal, Rothman and Mizrahi (2014) framed the shrinking focus on macro practice as an imbalance in the profession’s priorities. They urged a call to action to correct this imbalance and recalibrate the profession, to ensure that it works on achieving its dual missions of direct and macro practice. A number of studies over the past few decades have investigated the nature of social workers’ political action behaviors (Choi et al., 2015; Davis, Cummings, & MacMaster, 2007; Ezell, 1993; Ritter, 2007; Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010; Salcido & Seck, 1992; Wolk, 1981). Among these, few explored the relationship between level of social work practice and political action (Choi et al., 2015; Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981), and only one examined social workers’ feelings of responsibility or obligation to engage in political action (Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010). Also, none of these studies tested the multivariate relationships between level of practice and belief in responsibility, to determine their influence over social workers’ engagement in political or social action. Literature Review Since the 1960s, a number of studies have explored the nature of political and civic involvement of social workers. Arguably the first among these was a study conducted by Epstein in 1968, which surveyed NASW members regarding their levels of activism and professionalization; this study was replicated by Reeser in 1984 (see Reeser & Epstein, 1990). Epstein found that 47 percent of respondents had engaged in one or more institutionalized social actions (for example, giving public testimony) in the previous year and that 29 percent had engaged in at least one protest action in the past year (Reeser & Epstein, 1990). Reeser’s replication study found that institutionalized social action had increased to 84 percent, whereas noninstitutionalized actions (such as protests) had decreased to 17 percent in 1984, and these differences were statistically significant. Reeser and Epstein (1990) also examined whether different practice groups reported different levels of commitment to activism. They found that, across the board, practitioners engaged in community organization reported a greater commitment to social and political activism compared with those who identified as caseworkers or group workers, and this pattern remained consistent from the 1968 to the 1984 study (Reeser & Epstein, 1990). In 1981, Wolk surveyed 289 members of the Michigan chapter of NASW to determine the extent, range, and type of political activity of social workers, and how they compared with those of the general population at that time. By comparing his findings with those from Woodward and Roper’s (1950) study of political activity among the general population, Wolk found that social workers were more politically active than the general population: 66 percent of social workers identified themselves as active or very active, compared with only 27 percent of the general population. In addition, being female, older, having a higher income, and working in a macro area of practice were associated with being more politically active (Wolk, 1981). Just over a decade later, Ezell (1993) essentially replicated Wolk’s study, and compared his findings with Wolk’s to determine if the Reagan presidency had a significant impact on the political involvement of social workers. Ezell surveyed 339 social workers, most of whom were NASW members of the Washington state chapter. Ezell’s findings reflected some of Wolk’s but also differed in a few notable ways. Being African American, more educated, older, a macro practitioner, and having more years of practice experience were all positively associated with more political activity. Also, 82 percent of social workers identified themselves as active or very active, indicating a significant increase from Wolk’s study. These findings suggest that social workers’ self-reported political activity increased since the Reagan era, possibly due to a perceived need to engage in more political activities to protect the vulnerable. However, these studies drew from different samples, thus the results are not directly comparable and may speak to a more politically active Washington chapter when compared with Michigan’s NASW members. Around the same time, Salcido and Seck (1992) surveyed leaders of 52 NASW chapters around the country to explore the level of political participation of their memberships; 65 percent of chapter leaders reported that their members were active or very politically active over the prior two years, and 35 percent said their members were not active. Among the political activities listed, writing letters, calling officials, and lobbying to legislators were the most popular; attending rallies and helping with voter registration were the least popular. When asked what issues they lobbied for, the majority identified social work licensing as a reason for organizing. These findings are significant because they suggest that social workers who engage in political activity often do so in the interest of the profession. More recently, Ritter (2007) conducted an exploratory study with a nationally representative sample of 396 licensed social workers. Only 46 percent of respondents reported that they were politically active, which marks a significant decline in self-reported political activity among social workers, compared with the results of prior studies (Ezell, 1993; Salcido & Seck, 1992; Wolk, 1981). These findings also revealed that although the majority of social workers were interested in politics, nearly half of respondents felt that their BSW or MSW programs did not adequately prepare them for engagement in the political arena. Rome and Hoechstetter (2010) drew similar conclusions from their study of a national sample of 1,274 NASW members. Even though 65 percent of respondents believed that social workers have an obligation to promote policies in the interest of their clients, 42 percent said they wished they possessed more knowledge about how to influence the political process. This study also echoed the decline in political activity of social workers over the past few decades, with 53 percent of respondents reporting low political participation and the remaining 47 percent reporting high frequency of political participation. Much like previous studies demonstrating a positive relationship between macro practice and political action (Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981), Choi and colleagues (2015) found that macro practitioners were more likely than direct practitioners to engage in political action, such as lobbying. This study also revealed that among those MSW graduates who were enrolled in macro concentrations while in school, only 64 percent went on to work in macro settings, suggesting that even after macro social work students have selected a macro concentration, they may switch their career path to direct practice. To learn about the educational experiences of macro students, Ezell et al. (2004) conducted a qualitative study among macro MSW students at three schools of social work. Most students reported that they received regular discouragement from faculty, field instructors, and students to pursue a career in social work administration or management. In response to the declining focus on macro-level practice, Hunter and Ford (2010) surveyed 181 BSW field directors from social work programs across the country to explore their attitudes and practices regarding placing students in micro versus macro settings. The results of this study confirmed a bias toward micro placements, with 82 percent of field directors reporting that more than half of their sites focus on direct practice. This figure also sheds light on the predominance of availability of micro versus macro field placements, as field instructors must possess an MSW degree, and the majority of MSWs work in direct practice settings. Results of these studies demonstrate that macro practice, age, years of practice experience, race, income, and gender all have relationships with social workers’ political action activities. Findings also suggest that social workers have historically been more politically active than the general population (Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981; Woodward & Roper, 1950). However, when comparing findings across studies, rates of political participation among social workers appear to be on the decline, with 66 percent of social workers identifying themselves as active or very active in 1981 (Wolk, 1981) compared with 46 percent reporting high levels of political activity in 2007 (Ritter, 2007). This comparison could reflect differences in sample characteristics, but without longitudinal studies on the topic, trends in social workers’ political activity can only be gleaned by comparing across studies over time. This trend is surprising in light of the fact that 65 percent of social workers in one sample felt they had an obligation to promote policies in support of their clients’ interests (Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010). Despite numerous studies exploring political action behavior of social workers, a number of gaps remain in the literature, which this article will address. First, I examined social action behavior, rather than political action, to capture a broader range of advocacy and political activities than has been previously studied. Although social and political action are closely related concepts, the definition of social action provided by Weil et al. (2013) suggests that social action extends beyond political activism, and includes other types of advocacy activities as well. Therefore the term “social action” was used and a scale was developed for this study, to reflect this broader construct. Second, although several studies demonstrated relationships between macro practice and increased political action behavior (Choi et al., 2015; Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981), no studies to date have used multivariate analyses to control for other factors that may be related to social action behavior. Last, no other empirical studies have examined the relationship between belief in responsibility to engage in social action and social action behaviors using multivariate analysis. In an effort to fill these gaps in the literature, the present study will address the following research questions: (a) What is the relationship between previously tested demographic variables—age, race, income, and education—and social action behavior? (b) Does belief in responsibility to engage in social action predict social action behavior among social workers? and (c) Does level of practice—micro or macro—predict social action behavior, controlling for other factors? Method The data for this study were collected in the summer of 2015. The main purpose of this study was to gain an understanding of social workers’ beliefs and behaviors regarding social action. A cross-sectional survey was mailed with a postage-paid, pre-addressed envelope to 750 NASW members in Maryland; Washington, DC; and Virginia. Excluding eight surveys that were returned to sender, 188 completed surveys were returned, yielding a 25 percent response rate. The anonymous survey primarily consisted of closed-ended questions assessing respondents’ beliefs, attitudes, and self-reported behaviors about engaging in social action on behalf of client populations, and also demographic questions. The University of Maryland, Baltimore’s institutional review board approved this study. Sample A 2002 survey of NASW members revealed that 79 percent of regular NASW members were female, and 87 percent identified themselves as white (NASW, 2003). In an effort to ensure adequate representation from underrepresented groups in the social work profession (such as men and racial minorities), stratified sampling methods were used. Within each state (n = 250 per state), the sample was stratified in two stages: (1) male respondents were oversampled to represent 40 percent of the total study sample, and (2) within the prior strata, racial minorities were oversampled such that 30 percent of respondents were African American, 10 percent were other races, and the remaining 60 percent were white. Because stratification was disproportionate, all analyses use sampling weights to restore proportionality to the sample (Engel & Schutt, 2013). Data for each subgroup were weighted based on their sample size within their respective states’ NASW member population. Two respondents were missing all social action (the outcome variable) data, thus they were excluded from analysis, resulting in a total sample size of N = 186. Respondents’ mean age was 54 years, and the majority of respondents were female (66.5 percent), white (65.2 percent), and high-income earners, with 46.1 percent of respondents having an annual household income of $110,000 or more. For a comparison of weighted and unweighted frequencies of demographic characteristics, see Table 1. Table 1: Unweighted and Weighted Descriptive Characteristics of Study Sample (n = 186) Characteristic  n Unweighted  % Unweighted  % Weighted  Gender   Female  123  66.5  88.3   Male  62  33.5  11.7  Race         White  120  65.2  61.9   Other  64  34.8  38.1  Income ($)         0–70,000  47  26.1  19.9   70,000–110,000  50  27.8  32.0   110,000 and above  83  46.1  48.1  Highest degree completed   Bachelor’s  8  4.3  3.4   Master’s  160  86.0  83.8   Doctorate  18  9.7  12.7  Responsibility   Strongly agree/agree  162  87.1  89.1   Strongly disagree/disagree  21  11.3  10.9  Level of practice   Micro  139  75.5  84.2   Mezzo/macro  45  24.5  15.8  Characteristic  n Unweighted  % Unweighted  % Weighted  Gender   Female  123  66.5  88.3   Male  62  33.5  11.7  Race         White  120  65.2  61.9   Other  64  34.8  38.1  Income ($)         0–70,000  47  26.1  19.9   70,000–110,000  50  27.8  32.0   110,000 and above  83  46.1  48.1  Highest degree completed   Bachelor’s  8  4.3  3.4   Master’s  160  86.0  83.8   Doctorate  18  9.7  12.7  Responsibility   Strongly agree/agree  162  87.1  89.1   Strongly disagree/disagree  21  11.3  10.9  Level of practice   Micro  139  75.5  84.2   Mezzo/macro  45  24.5  15.8  Notes: All weighted estimates are representative of the National Association of Social Workers membership. Sample size totals for some characteristics are <186 due to small amounts of missing data. Measures The independent variables for this analysis include demographic variables previously found to be associated with social action among social workers (age, gender, race, and income), as well as two other key independent variables—belief in responsibility to engage in social action and level of social work practice. Age is a continuous variable, and race (0 = not white, 1 = white), gender (0 = female, 1 = male), and income ($0–$70,000; $70,001–$110,000; and $110,001 and above) are categorical. Belief in responsibility to engage in social action was a single-item measure developed by the research team. The question asked respondents to indicate their level of agreement with the statement, “Engaging in social action is my responsibility as a social worker.” Response options included 1 = strongly agree, 2 = agree, 3 = disagree, and 4 = strongly disagree. Because very few respondents (n = 21) selected strongly disagree or disagree, categories were collapsed and the variable was dichotomized (0 = agree, 1 = disagree). Level of practice was originally a three-category variable that asked respondents to select which level of practice they most strongly identified with. The response options included “Micro—direct practice with individuals, families, and/or small groups”; “Mezzo—practice with organization, teams, and/or other formal groups”; and “Macro—community organizing, policy, and/or administration.” These categories were derived from the foundational social work textbook Generalist Social Work Practice: An Empowering Approach (Miley, O’Melia, & DuBois, 2013). Because of the small number of “mezzo” responses (n = 19), and because it was of most interest to compare micro practitioners with all other social workers, this variable was dichotomized (0 = mezzo or macro, 1 = micro). Social action is the outcome variable for this study. The research team constructed a seven-item social action scale (SAS) to assess respondents’ frequency of engagement in various social action activities (see Table 2). In the process of developing this scale, the team reviewed the literature and decided to adapt a number of questions from Rome and Hoechstetter’s (2010) study of political participation among social workers. However, the team was interested in measuring not only frequency of political activities, but other types of social advocacy activities as well, which were not captured in Rome and Hoechstetter’s study; thus several questions from the Social Issues Advocacy Scale were included in the scale (Nilsson, Marszalek, Linnemeyer, Bahner, & Misialek, 2011). For example, Rome and Hoechstetter’s scale asks respondents if they made telephone calls to policymakers, volunteered for political causes, and met with elected officials. Although these behaviors were of interest in this study, the research team also wanted to assess the frequency of other advocacy behaviors, such as whether respondents expressed opinions and stayed up to date on issues that were important to them (Nilsson et al., 2011). Questions 3, 5, 6, and 7 were adapted from the validated Social Issues Advocacy Scale (Nilsson et al., 2011), and questions 1, 2, and 4 were adapted from Rome and Hoechstetter’s study (2010). Wording of items adapted from each source was slightly modified to match the context of this study. The following is an example of a question from this scale: “I make telephone calls to policymakers to voice my opinion about social issues that are important to me.” Response options were on a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 = always to 5 = never, and responses were reverse-coded so that higher scores indicate higher frequency of social action behaviors. Social action scores were calculated as a mean, with scores ranging from 1 to 5 (M = 2.64; Cronbach’s α = .806). Table 2: Social Action Scale Question  M (SD)  Please indicate how often you engage in the following social action activities:   1. I stay up to date on news about social issues that are important to me.  4.08 (0.78)   2. I express an opinion about social issues that are important to me.  3.91 (0.81)   3. I make telephone calls to policymakers to voice my opinion about social issues that are important to me.  2 (0.99)   4. I use social media platforms to engage with others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.29 (1.21)   5. I volunteer for political causes and candidates supportive of social issues that are important to me.  2.08 (1.08)   6. I meet with elected officials to advocate for social issues that are important to me.  1.82 (0.96)   7. I write letters or e-mails to influence others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.32 (1.11)  Total scale score  2.64 (0.68)  Question  M (SD)  Please indicate how often you engage in the following social action activities:   1. I stay up to date on news about social issues that are important to me.  4.08 (0.78)   2. I express an opinion about social issues that are important to me.  3.91 (0.81)   3. I make telephone calls to policymakers to voice my opinion about social issues that are important to me.  2 (0.99)   4. I use social media platforms to engage with others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.29 (1.21)   5. I volunteer for political causes and candidates supportive of social issues that are important to me.  2.08 (1.08)   6. I meet with elected officials to advocate for social issues that are important to me.  1.82 (0.96)   7. I write letters or e-mails to influence others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.32 (1.11)  Total scale score  2.64 (0.68)  Notes: Likert-type scale with responses 1 = always, 2 = often, 3 = sometimes, 4 = seldom, and 5 = never; responses were reverse-coded, with higher scores indicating greater frequency of engagement in social action activities. Data Analysis The purpose of this analysis was to determine whether level of practice, belief in responsibility to engage in social action, and key demographic variables predicted social action behavior with this sample of NASW members. Ordinary least squares regression was used to answer the research questions. Only two respondents were missing data on any of the items on the SAS, thus they were deleted from the sample. Listwise deletion was used to remove those from the sample who were missing data on other variables of interest, resulting in a final sample size of 174. Results Univariate Findings The mean social action score for this sample was 2.64, on a scale from 1 to 5, indicating a moderate level of social action behavior. After applying weights to the data, 89 percent of respondents agreed that engaging in social action is their responsibility as a social worker. The proportion of macro to micro social workers in this sample (16 percent and 84 percent, respectively) is consistent with findings from prior studies (Choi et al., 2015; CSWE, 2012; Whitaker & Arrington, 2008), indicating that this sample of social workers is representative of the broader population, in regard to level of practice. Mulitvariate Findings The regression model was statistically significant [Wald F(158) = 7.346, p < .001], suggesting the presence of explanatory variables in the model that significantly predicted frequency of social action behavior with this sample (see Table 3). Age, responsibility, and level of practice were the only significant predictors of social action behavior. Age positively predicted frequency of social action behaviors; for every year increase in age, there was a .011 increase in respondents’ social action scores (p < .01). Similarly, belief in responsibility to engage in social action behavior was associated with a .613 increase in frequency of social action behavior compared with those who did not feel it was their responsibility (p < .001). The most important finding was that level of practice was a significant predictor such that identifying oneself as a macro- or mezzo-level practitioner was associated with a .406 increase in frequency of social action behavior compared with those identifying as a micro-level practitioner. The R2 for the final model indicated that 21.3 percent of the variance in social action behavior was explained by all of the predictors combined. Table 3: Multiple Regression Model Predicting Social Action Behavior among Social Workers Predictor  B  SE  95% CI  Gender (Female)  –.029  .127  [–.280, .222]  Race (Non-White)  –.218  .130  [–.474, .038]  Age  .011**  .004  [.004, .019]  Low Income  –.076  .149  [–.370, .217]  Middle Income  –.018  .137  [–.290, .253]  Responsibility (Strongly Agree/Agree)  .613***  .130  [.356, .870]  Level of Practice (Mezzo/Macro)  .406**  .155  [.100, .711]  R2      .213  Wald F      7.346***  Predictor  B  SE  95% CI  Gender (Female)  –.029  .127  [–.280, .222]  Race (Non-White)  –.218  .130  [–.474, .038]  Age  .011**  .004  [.004, .019]  Low Income  –.076  .149  [–.370, .217]  Middle Income  –.018  .137  [–.290, .253]  Responsibility (Strongly Agree/Agree)  .613***  .130  [.356, .870]  Level of Practice (Mezzo/Macro)  .406**  .155  [.100, .711]  R2      .213  Wald F      7.346***  Notes: SE = standard error; CI = confidence interval. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001. Discussion Findings from descriptive statistics indicate that social workers in this sample engage in a moderate amount of social action activity (M = 2.64). Although the measures and samples are not identical and therefore not directly comparable, findings from Ezell’s (1993) study of self-reported political action activity among social workers revealed that 82 percent of the sample considered themselves either active or very active. Comparing the mean social action score for this sample with Ezell’s findings might indicate a lower level of political participation since Ezell’s, 1993 study; however, more research with a national sample of workers is needed to support this downward trend in social and political action among social workers. The results of the regression model support findings from other studies that demonstrated positive relationships between age and macro-level practice with social action behavior (Ezell, 1993; Reeser & Epstein, 1990; Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010; Wolk, 1981). These findings indicate that being older and identifying oneself as a mezzo- or macro-level practitioner predicts more frequent engagement in social action behavior compared with being younger and identifying oneself as a micro-level practitioner. Although no studies to date have used bivariate or multivariate analyses to test the relationship between responsibility and social action, a few studies have reported univariate findings suggesting that the majority of social workers feel an obligation or responsibility to engage in political or social action (Davis et al., 2007; Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010). This study reflected those findings, as 89 percent of respondents reported a belief in responsibility to engage in social action behavior. In addition, the results of the regression model contribute to the literature by revealing that, as one might expect, social workers’ belief in responsibility to engage in social action positively predicts greater frequency of social action behaviors. Gender, race, and income were included in the regression model based on the significant associations previously found between these key demographic variables and political action (Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981). However, contrary to expectations, this regression model revealed that gender, race, and income were not significant predictors of social action behavior with this sample. This study contributes to the literature by demonstrating that, even after controlling for demographic variables and belief in a responsibility to engage in social action, being a macro-level practitioner remains a significant predictor of social action behavior. It is plausible that some macro-level practitioners engage in more social action behavior than direct practitioners because it is a requirement of the job. Nevertheless, this consistent pattern of macro-level social workers being more politically and socially active than direct service workers has important implications for the profession. Implications This study’s findings provide a number of implications for social work practitioners, educators, and researchers. The moderate level of social action participation observed with this sample suggests a downward trend in social workers’ social and political action behaviors over the last few decades when compared with findings of previous studies (Ezell, 1993). This sample also supports a biased orientation in the field toward micro practice, which is reflected in numerous other studies (Choi et al., 2015; CSWE, 2012; Whitaker & Arrington, 2008). One possible explanation for this is the prevalence of direct practice jobs versus macro positions available to social workers. Thus it is recommended that qualitative studies explore potential causes of these trends, such as examining whether schools of social work adequately support the pursuit of macro social work careers for their students. The hypothesis that mezzo- and macro-level practitioners are more likely to engage in social action than direct practitioners was confirmed, even after controlling for belief in responsibility to engage in social action. These findings are unsurprising, given that macro practitioners are often engaged in social action behaviors as part of their job responsibilities. However, this fact is concerning as the majority of social workers practice at the micro level (Whitaker & Arrington, 2008) and most social work students preparing to enter the profession are primarily enrolled in micro concentration courses (CSWE, 2012). These results suggest that if the profession’s orientation toward clinical practice continues, then a parallel decline in social and political action among social workers should be expected as well (Ezell, 1993; Ritter, 2007; Wolk, 1981). However, because this is a cross-sectional study, we are unable to explain causality. Further study is needed to determine the causal relationship between macro-level practice and social action behavior. It would also be beneficial for researchers to delve deeper into the reasons why some social workers engage in social action and others do not, regardless of a dominant belief in responsibility to do so. With the recent election of President Trump, the alarming increase in mass shootings, the killing of unarmed black men in acts of police brutality, the increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Jews, and efforts to reduce access to reproductive health services and affordable health care, the need for social workers to engage in social action to protect the vulnerable is arguably as important as it has ever been. Because this study was conducted before the 2016 presidential election, replicating this study during the Trump presidency could be informative. As Ezell (1993) intended to determine after Reagan’s presidency, findings from a replication study could reveal whether social workers’ social action behaviors had increased in an effort to protect the vulnerable from harmful policy decisions. Numerous recent demonstrations such as the Women’s March and the March for Science likely included many social workers, suggesting that social action behaviors may be increasing in response to President Trump’s policy decisions. Implications for social work educators include encouraging more social work students to consider a macro-level concentration and placing more emphasis on social action in schools of social work regardless of concentration (Belcher & Tice, 2013). Because social action organizing requires a different skill set from the models of collaboration and problem solving taught in direct practice courses, social work students and professionals need to be specifically trained in how to engage in social action (Hardina & Obel-Jorgensen, 2009). In addition, as most social workers today practice in micro-level settings, increasing continuing education opportunities that promote involvement in social action activities may lead to a more unified social work workforce that is committed to comprehensively uphold the dual missions of direct and macro social work practice (Belcher & Tice, 2013). The fact that older social workers are more likely to engage in social action poses a challenge for the future of the profession, as older social workers reach retirement age and leave the workforce. Social worker practitioners and educators alike would benefit the profession by promoting the importance of engaging in social action among younger social workers and those newly entering the profession. Strategies could include specifically promoting social action activities that are more common among younger generations. With technology and social media rapidly advancing, new opportunities for engaging in social action are always being developed. As younger social workers are newer to the field, they likely face limited autonomy in setting their own schedules, which results in fewer opportunities to attend legislative hearings, rallies, and other social action activities that take place during the workday. To address this, social services agencies could promote social action days and allow their direct service workers to participate in social action activities during the workday on occasion. The large majority (89 percent) of study participants agreed that social workers have a responsibility to engage in social action behavior, and consistent with expectations, belief in responsibility to engage in social action predicted more frequent social action behavior. This finding is promising as it suggests that most respondents believe that social workers should engage in social action, and this belief is linked to increased social action behavior. However, it is surprising to find that 11 percent of the social workers in this sample did not feel that it was their responsibility to engage in social action, which might warrant further exploration. Future studies might explore more in depth whether these respondents differ from other social workers in some critical way, or why they feel that social workers do not have a responsibility to engage in social action. Because no other study examined the relationship between responsibility and social action behavior, it would be beneficial to replicate this study to determine whether these findings are consistent across other samples of NASW members or social worker professionals in general. Some strengths of this study relate to the use of our sampling strategy and the novel findings that age, level of practice, and belief in responsibility to engage in social action significantly predict social action behavior among social workers. The use of stratified sampling methods and the fact that our oversampling strategy succeeded suggest that nonresponse was not biased by race or gender, increasing the probability that our sample is representative of the larger NASW membership (Engel & Schutt, 2013). Despite the strengths of this study, there are several limitations, which may affect the generalizability of these findings. The study sample exclusively consists of NASW members who live and work in Maryland; Virginia; and Washington, DC. As the DC, metropolitan area is a major hub for social and political action, social workers living in such close proximity to the nation’s capital may be more likely to engage in social action than the broader NASW membership. Similarly, it is possible that those who were willing to respond to a survey about social action behavior may be more likely to engage in social action than those who did not respond. Both of these issues may result in higher scores on the SAS than would be found in the typical NASW membership base. In addition, a number of methodological limitations may affect the validity of this study’s findings. The SAS assessed respondents’ frequency of social action behaviors, with responses ranging from never to always. The fact that no one can always engage in such behaviors lowers the possibility of a higher mean score. Also, to maximize statistical power, mezzo- and macro-level practitioners were combined into one category to enable comparison with micro practitioners. However, combining mezzo and macro practice into one category could have skewed the results, as mezzo-level practitioners may be working as supervisors or managers in clinical settings, rather than engaging in advocacy and organizing, which are the common macro social work roles. Although there is extensive literature examining political participation among social workers, there was a dearth of studies that addressed social action behaviors. As a result, this study is not directly comparable with other studies reviewed in the literature. Last, the predictors included in this analysis explained only 21 percent of the variance in social action behavior, leaving 79 percent unexplained. This suggests that important variables, which would contribute to explaining social action behavior, were not included in this model. Conclusion This study’s findings indicate that being a mezzo- or macro-level practitioner predicts more frequent social action engagement, suggesting that micro-level practitioners are less involved in advocacy activities on their clients’ behalf. The social work profession as a whole would do well to place more of an emphasis on social action in schools of social work, in continuing education programs, and in practice settings, to ensure that all social workers, regardless of practice level, are committed to social action to serve the disenfranchised. Replicating this study with other samples of NASW members and social work professionals is recommended, to determine whether these findings will hold true in other regions of the country and in a different social and political climate. The more we understand about trends in social action behaviors across different samples, the more targeted our strategies can be to promote and prepare social workers to engage in social action. References Belcher, J. R., & Tice, C. ( 2013). Power and social work: A change in direction. Journal of Progressive Human Services,  24, 81– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Choi, M. J., Urbanski, P., Fortune, A. E., & Rogers, C. ( 2015). Early career patterns for social work graduates. Journal of Social Work Education,  51, 475– 493. Council on Social Work Education. ( 2012). 2011 statistics on social work education in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.cswe.org/CMSPages/GetFile.aspx?guid=c6f26483-3d3f-4a54-be1b-a780fe09f82e Davis, C., Cummings, S., & MacMaster, S. ( 2007). Undergraduate social work faculty in the USA react to the war with Iraq. Social Work Education,  26, 496– 503. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Engel, R. J., & Schutt, R. K. ( 2013). The practice of research in social work  ( 3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Ezell, M. ( 1993). The political activity of social workers: A post-Reagan update. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare,  20( 4), 81– 97. Ezell, M., Chernesky, R., & Healy, L. M. ( 2004). The learning climate for administration students. Administration in Social Work,  28( 1), 57– 76. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Hardina, D., & Obel-Jorgensen, R. ( 2009). Increasing social action competency: A framework for supervision. Journal of Policy Practice,  8, 89– 109. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Hunter, C. A., & Ford, K. A. ( 2010). Discomfort with a false dichotomy: The field director’s dilemma with micro–macro placements. Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work,  15( 1), 15– 29. Miley, K. K., O’Melia, M. W., & DuBois, B. L. ( 2013). Generalist social work practice: An empowering approach  ( 7th ed.). Boston: Pearson. National Association of Social Workers. ( 2003). Demographics, PRN 2:2. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/naswprn/surveyTwo/Datagram2.pdf National Association of Social Workers. ( 2015). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp Nilsson, J. E., Marszalek, J. M., Linnemeyer, R. M., Bahner, A. D., & Misialek, L. H. ( 2011). Development and assessment of the Social Issues Advocacy Scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement,  71( 1), 258– 275. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   O’Brien, M. ( 2010). Social justice: Alive and well (partly) in social work practice? International Social Work,  54( 2), 174– 190. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Pritzker, S., & Applewhite, S. R. ( 2015). Going “macro”: Exploring the careers of macro practitioners. Social Work,  60, 191– 199. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Reeser, L. C., & Epstein, I. ( 1990). Professionalization and activism in social work: The sixties, the eighties, and the future . New York: Columbia University Press. Ritter, J. ( 2007). Evaluating the political participation of licensed social workers in the new millennium. Journal of Policy Practice,  6( 4), 61– 78. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Rome, S. H., & Hoechstetter, S. ( 2010). Social work and civic engagement: The political participation of professional social workers. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare,  38( 3), 107– 129. Rothman, J., & Mizrahi, T. ( 2014). Balancing micro and macro practice: A challenge for social work [Commentary]. Social Work,  59, 91– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Salcido, R. M., & Seck, E. T. ( 1992). Political participation among social work chapters [Comments on Currents]. Social Work,  37, 563– 564. Thursz, D. ( 1966). Social action as a professional responsibility. Social Work,  11( 3), 12– 21. Weil, M., Reisch, M., & Ohmer, M. L. (Eds.). ( 2013). The handbook of community practice  ( 2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Whitaker, T., & Arrington, P. ( 2008). Social workers at work: NASW Membership Workforce Study . Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http://workforce.socialworkers.org/studies/SWatWork.pdf Wolk, J. L. ( 1981). Are social workers politically active? Social Work,  26, 283– 288. Woodward, J., & Roper, E. ( 1950). Political activity of American citizens. American Political Science Review,  44, 872– 885. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   © 2017 National Association of Social Workers http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Social Work Oxford University Press

Social Action among Social Work Practitioners: Examining the Micro–Macro Divide

Loading next page...
 
/lp/ou_press/social-action-among-social-work-practitioners-examining-the-micro-vbqDKBl3R1
Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© 2017 National Association of Social Workers
ISSN
0037-8046
eISSN
1545-6846
D.O.I.
10.1093/sw/swx057
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Abstract Social work is a profession that seeks to enhance the well-being of all people and promote social justice and social change through a range of activities, such as direct practice, community organizing, social and political action, and policy development. However, the current literature suggests that the profession’s focus on social justice and social action are weakening, replaced by individualism and therapeutic interventions. This article examines data derived from a survey of 188 National Association of Social Workers members from Maryland; Virginia; and Washington, DC, to explore levels of social action participation among social workers and determine whether identifying as a macro-level practitioner would predict higher levels of social action activity compared with being a micro-level practitioner. Findings indicate that social workers in this sample engage in only a moderate level of social action behavior. In addition, identifying oneself as a mezzo- or macro-level practitioner predicts increased frequency of social action behavior. Implications include emphasizing the importance of social action in schools of social work and practice settings and adequately preparing social work professionals to engage in social action. The social work profession has a long-standing history of engaging in social and political action to protect clients’ rights to basic human needs and freedoms. Social action is defined as a set of strategies used to organize and garner power, through individual or collective action, to change conditions that are injurious to vulnerable populations (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013). According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2015),Code of Ethics, social work is defined as a profession that works to enhance the well-being of all people and promote social justice and social change on behalf of client populations. To achieve social justice, social workers seek to interrupt systems of discrimination and oppression through a number of activities, such as direct practice, community organizing, social and political action, and policy development (NASW, 2015). However, the current literature suggests that the profession’s focus on social justice and social action are weakening, replaced by individualism and therapeutic interventions (O’Brien, 2010). The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2012) reported that only 8.8 percent of MSW students were enrolled in macro concentration courses in 2011. Similarly, the NASW Center for Workforce Studies found that just 14 percent of practicing social workers reported macro practice as their primary focus, and that social workers only spend 2 percent of their time in an average week dedicated to community organizing and policy-related tasks (Whitaker & Arrington, 2008). A 2015 study of recent MSW graduates revealed a similar preference toward micro practice. Among 246 respondents, 85 percent were enrolled in a clinical concentration while in their MSW program, and 83 percent were employed in direct practice positions after graduation (Choi, Urbanski, Fortune, & Rogers, 2015). These figures suggest that the social work profession is currently highly oriented toward direct practice. The person-in-environment perspective in which the social work profession is grounded requires that social workers operate at all levels of practice to not only serve the client, but take into account all of the systems by which the client is affected. As far back as 50 years ago, Daniel Thursz (1966) warned that narrowly defining individuals as the target of change may not acknowledge the change needed in broader systems. In spite of the fact that social work has its roots in both micro and macro practice, many scholars agree that the profession remains divided, with much of the support and attention devoted to micro practice (Ezell, Chernesky, & Healy, 2004; Pritzker & Applewhite, 2015; Rothman & Mizrahi, 2014). In a commentary published in the Social Work journal, Rothman and Mizrahi (2014) framed the shrinking focus on macro practice as an imbalance in the profession’s priorities. They urged a call to action to correct this imbalance and recalibrate the profession, to ensure that it works on achieving its dual missions of direct and macro practice. A number of studies over the past few decades have investigated the nature of social workers’ political action behaviors (Choi et al., 2015; Davis, Cummings, & MacMaster, 2007; Ezell, 1993; Ritter, 2007; Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010; Salcido & Seck, 1992; Wolk, 1981). Among these, few explored the relationship between level of social work practice and political action (Choi et al., 2015; Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981), and only one examined social workers’ feelings of responsibility or obligation to engage in political action (Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010). Also, none of these studies tested the multivariate relationships between level of practice and belief in responsibility, to determine their influence over social workers’ engagement in political or social action. Literature Review Since the 1960s, a number of studies have explored the nature of political and civic involvement of social workers. Arguably the first among these was a study conducted by Epstein in 1968, which surveyed NASW members regarding their levels of activism and professionalization; this study was replicated by Reeser in 1984 (see Reeser & Epstein, 1990). Epstein found that 47 percent of respondents had engaged in one or more institutionalized social actions (for example, giving public testimony) in the previous year and that 29 percent had engaged in at least one protest action in the past year (Reeser & Epstein, 1990). Reeser’s replication study found that institutionalized social action had increased to 84 percent, whereas noninstitutionalized actions (such as protests) had decreased to 17 percent in 1984, and these differences were statistically significant. Reeser and Epstein (1990) also examined whether different practice groups reported different levels of commitment to activism. They found that, across the board, practitioners engaged in community organization reported a greater commitment to social and political activism compared with those who identified as caseworkers or group workers, and this pattern remained consistent from the 1968 to the 1984 study (Reeser & Epstein, 1990). In 1981, Wolk surveyed 289 members of the Michigan chapter of NASW to determine the extent, range, and type of political activity of social workers, and how they compared with those of the general population at that time. By comparing his findings with those from Woodward and Roper’s (1950) study of political activity among the general population, Wolk found that social workers were more politically active than the general population: 66 percent of social workers identified themselves as active or very active, compared with only 27 percent of the general population. In addition, being female, older, having a higher income, and working in a macro area of practice were associated with being more politically active (Wolk, 1981). Just over a decade later, Ezell (1993) essentially replicated Wolk’s study, and compared his findings with Wolk’s to determine if the Reagan presidency had a significant impact on the political involvement of social workers. Ezell surveyed 339 social workers, most of whom were NASW members of the Washington state chapter. Ezell’s findings reflected some of Wolk’s but also differed in a few notable ways. Being African American, more educated, older, a macro practitioner, and having more years of practice experience were all positively associated with more political activity. Also, 82 percent of social workers identified themselves as active or very active, indicating a significant increase from Wolk’s study. These findings suggest that social workers’ self-reported political activity increased since the Reagan era, possibly due to a perceived need to engage in more political activities to protect the vulnerable. However, these studies drew from different samples, thus the results are not directly comparable and may speak to a more politically active Washington chapter when compared with Michigan’s NASW members. Around the same time, Salcido and Seck (1992) surveyed leaders of 52 NASW chapters around the country to explore the level of political participation of their memberships; 65 percent of chapter leaders reported that their members were active or very politically active over the prior two years, and 35 percent said their members were not active. Among the political activities listed, writing letters, calling officials, and lobbying to legislators were the most popular; attending rallies and helping with voter registration were the least popular. When asked what issues they lobbied for, the majority identified social work licensing as a reason for organizing. These findings are significant because they suggest that social workers who engage in political activity often do so in the interest of the profession. More recently, Ritter (2007) conducted an exploratory study with a nationally representative sample of 396 licensed social workers. Only 46 percent of respondents reported that they were politically active, which marks a significant decline in self-reported political activity among social workers, compared with the results of prior studies (Ezell, 1993; Salcido & Seck, 1992; Wolk, 1981). These findings also revealed that although the majority of social workers were interested in politics, nearly half of respondents felt that their BSW or MSW programs did not adequately prepare them for engagement in the political arena. Rome and Hoechstetter (2010) drew similar conclusions from their study of a national sample of 1,274 NASW members. Even though 65 percent of respondents believed that social workers have an obligation to promote policies in the interest of their clients, 42 percent said they wished they possessed more knowledge about how to influence the political process. This study also echoed the decline in political activity of social workers over the past few decades, with 53 percent of respondents reporting low political participation and the remaining 47 percent reporting high frequency of political participation. Much like previous studies demonstrating a positive relationship between macro practice and political action (Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981), Choi and colleagues (2015) found that macro practitioners were more likely than direct practitioners to engage in political action, such as lobbying. This study also revealed that among those MSW graduates who were enrolled in macro concentrations while in school, only 64 percent went on to work in macro settings, suggesting that even after macro social work students have selected a macro concentration, they may switch their career path to direct practice. To learn about the educational experiences of macro students, Ezell et al. (2004) conducted a qualitative study among macro MSW students at three schools of social work. Most students reported that they received regular discouragement from faculty, field instructors, and students to pursue a career in social work administration or management. In response to the declining focus on macro-level practice, Hunter and Ford (2010) surveyed 181 BSW field directors from social work programs across the country to explore their attitudes and practices regarding placing students in micro versus macro settings. The results of this study confirmed a bias toward micro placements, with 82 percent of field directors reporting that more than half of their sites focus on direct practice. This figure also sheds light on the predominance of availability of micro versus macro field placements, as field instructors must possess an MSW degree, and the majority of MSWs work in direct practice settings. Results of these studies demonstrate that macro practice, age, years of practice experience, race, income, and gender all have relationships with social workers’ political action activities. Findings also suggest that social workers have historically been more politically active than the general population (Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981; Woodward & Roper, 1950). However, when comparing findings across studies, rates of political participation among social workers appear to be on the decline, with 66 percent of social workers identifying themselves as active or very active in 1981 (Wolk, 1981) compared with 46 percent reporting high levels of political activity in 2007 (Ritter, 2007). This comparison could reflect differences in sample characteristics, but without longitudinal studies on the topic, trends in social workers’ political activity can only be gleaned by comparing across studies over time. This trend is surprising in light of the fact that 65 percent of social workers in one sample felt they had an obligation to promote policies in support of their clients’ interests (Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010). Despite numerous studies exploring political action behavior of social workers, a number of gaps remain in the literature, which this article will address. First, I examined social action behavior, rather than political action, to capture a broader range of advocacy and political activities than has been previously studied. Although social and political action are closely related concepts, the definition of social action provided by Weil et al. (2013) suggests that social action extends beyond political activism, and includes other types of advocacy activities as well. Therefore the term “social action” was used and a scale was developed for this study, to reflect this broader construct. Second, although several studies demonstrated relationships between macro practice and increased political action behavior (Choi et al., 2015; Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981), no studies to date have used multivariate analyses to control for other factors that may be related to social action behavior. Last, no other empirical studies have examined the relationship between belief in responsibility to engage in social action and social action behaviors using multivariate analysis. In an effort to fill these gaps in the literature, the present study will address the following research questions: (a) What is the relationship between previously tested demographic variables—age, race, income, and education—and social action behavior? (b) Does belief in responsibility to engage in social action predict social action behavior among social workers? and (c) Does level of practice—micro or macro—predict social action behavior, controlling for other factors? Method The data for this study were collected in the summer of 2015. The main purpose of this study was to gain an understanding of social workers’ beliefs and behaviors regarding social action. A cross-sectional survey was mailed with a postage-paid, pre-addressed envelope to 750 NASW members in Maryland; Washington, DC; and Virginia. Excluding eight surveys that were returned to sender, 188 completed surveys were returned, yielding a 25 percent response rate. The anonymous survey primarily consisted of closed-ended questions assessing respondents’ beliefs, attitudes, and self-reported behaviors about engaging in social action on behalf of client populations, and also demographic questions. The University of Maryland, Baltimore’s institutional review board approved this study. Sample A 2002 survey of NASW members revealed that 79 percent of regular NASW members were female, and 87 percent identified themselves as white (NASW, 2003). In an effort to ensure adequate representation from underrepresented groups in the social work profession (such as men and racial minorities), stratified sampling methods were used. Within each state (n = 250 per state), the sample was stratified in two stages: (1) male respondents were oversampled to represent 40 percent of the total study sample, and (2) within the prior strata, racial minorities were oversampled such that 30 percent of respondents were African American, 10 percent were other races, and the remaining 60 percent were white. Because stratification was disproportionate, all analyses use sampling weights to restore proportionality to the sample (Engel & Schutt, 2013). Data for each subgroup were weighted based on their sample size within their respective states’ NASW member population. Two respondents were missing all social action (the outcome variable) data, thus they were excluded from analysis, resulting in a total sample size of N = 186. Respondents’ mean age was 54 years, and the majority of respondents were female (66.5 percent), white (65.2 percent), and high-income earners, with 46.1 percent of respondents having an annual household income of $110,000 or more. For a comparison of weighted and unweighted frequencies of demographic characteristics, see Table 1. Table 1: Unweighted and Weighted Descriptive Characteristics of Study Sample (n = 186) Characteristic  n Unweighted  % Unweighted  % Weighted  Gender   Female  123  66.5  88.3   Male  62  33.5  11.7  Race         White  120  65.2  61.9   Other  64  34.8  38.1  Income ($)         0–70,000  47  26.1  19.9   70,000–110,000  50  27.8  32.0   110,000 and above  83  46.1  48.1  Highest degree completed   Bachelor’s  8  4.3  3.4   Master’s  160  86.0  83.8   Doctorate  18  9.7  12.7  Responsibility   Strongly agree/agree  162  87.1  89.1   Strongly disagree/disagree  21  11.3  10.9  Level of practice   Micro  139  75.5  84.2   Mezzo/macro  45  24.5  15.8  Characteristic  n Unweighted  % Unweighted  % Weighted  Gender   Female  123  66.5  88.3   Male  62  33.5  11.7  Race         White  120  65.2  61.9   Other  64  34.8  38.1  Income ($)         0–70,000  47  26.1  19.9   70,000–110,000  50  27.8  32.0   110,000 and above  83  46.1  48.1  Highest degree completed   Bachelor’s  8  4.3  3.4   Master’s  160  86.0  83.8   Doctorate  18  9.7  12.7  Responsibility   Strongly agree/agree  162  87.1  89.1   Strongly disagree/disagree  21  11.3  10.9  Level of practice   Micro  139  75.5  84.2   Mezzo/macro  45  24.5  15.8  Notes: All weighted estimates are representative of the National Association of Social Workers membership. Sample size totals for some characteristics are <186 due to small amounts of missing data. Measures The independent variables for this analysis include demographic variables previously found to be associated with social action among social workers (age, gender, race, and income), as well as two other key independent variables—belief in responsibility to engage in social action and level of social work practice. Age is a continuous variable, and race (0 = not white, 1 = white), gender (0 = female, 1 = male), and income ($0–$70,000; $70,001–$110,000; and $110,001 and above) are categorical. Belief in responsibility to engage in social action was a single-item measure developed by the research team. The question asked respondents to indicate their level of agreement with the statement, “Engaging in social action is my responsibility as a social worker.” Response options included 1 = strongly agree, 2 = agree, 3 = disagree, and 4 = strongly disagree. Because very few respondents (n = 21) selected strongly disagree or disagree, categories were collapsed and the variable was dichotomized (0 = agree, 1 = disagree). Level of practice was originally a three-category variable that asked respondents to select which level of practice they most strongly identified with. The response options included “Micro—direct practice with individuals, families, and/or small groups”; “Mezzo—practice with organization, teams, and/or other formal groups”; and “Macro—community organizing, policy, and/or administration.” These categories were derived from the foundational social work textbook Generalist Social Work Practice: An Empowering Approach (Miley, O’Melia, & DuBois, 2013). Because of the small number of “mezzo” responses (n = 19), and because it was of most interest to compare micro practitioners with all other social workers, this variable was dichotomized (0 = mezzo or macro, 1 = micro). Social action is the outcome variable for this study. The research team constructed a seven-item social action scale (SAS) to assess respondents’ frequency of engagement in various social action activities (see Table 2). In the process of developing this scale, the team reviewed the literature and decided to adapt a number of questions from Rome and Hoechstetter’s (2010) study of political participation among social workers. However, the team was interested in measuring not only frequency of political activities, but other types of social advocacy activities as well, which were not captured in Rome and Hoechstetter’s study; thus several questions from the Social Issues Advocacy Scale were included in the scale (Nilsson, Marszalek, Linnemeyer, Bahner, & Misialek, 2011). For example, Rome and Hoechstetter’s scale asks respondents if they made telephone calls to policymakers, volunteered for political causes, and met with elected officials. Although these behaviors were of interest in this study, the research team also wanted to assess the frequency of other advocacy behaviors, such as whether respondents expressed opinions and stayed up to date on issues that were important to them (Nilsson et al., 2011). Questions 3, 5, 6, and 7 were adapted from the validated Social Issues Advocacy Scale (Nilsson et al., 2011), and questions 1, 2, and 4 were adapted from Rome and Hoechstetter’s study (2010). Wording of items adapted from each source was slightly modified to match the context of this study. The following is an example of a question from this scale: “I make telephone calls to policymakers to voice my opinion about social issues that are important to me.” Response options were on a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 = always to 5 = never, and responses were reverse-coded so that higher scores indicate higher frequency of social action behaviors. Social action scores were calculated as a mean, with scores ranging from 1 to 5 (M = 2.64; Cronbach’s α = .806). Table 2: Social Action Scale Question  M (SD)  Please indicate how often you engage in the following social action activities:   1. I stay up to date on news about social issues that are important to me.  4.08 (0.78)   2. I express an opinion about social issues that are important to me.  3.91 (0.81)   3. I make telephone calls to policymakers to voice my opinion about social issues that are important to me.  2 (0.99)   4. I use social media platforms to engage with others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.29 (1.21)   5. I volunteer for political causes and candidates supportive of social issues that are important to me.  2.08 (1.08)   6. I meet with elected officials to advocate for social issues that are important to me.  1.82 (0.96)   7. I write letters or e-mails to influence others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.32 (1.11)  Total scale score  2.64 (0.68)  Question  M (SD)  Please indicate how often you engage in the following social action activities:   1. I stay up to date on news about social issues that are important to me.  4.08 (0.78)   2. I express an opinion about social issues that are important to me.  3.91 (0.81)   3. I make telephone calls to policymakers to voice my opinion about social issues that are important to me.  2 (0.99)   4. I use social media platforms to engage with others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.29 (1.21)   5. I volunteer for political causes and candidates supportive of social issues that are important to me.  2.08 (1.08)   6. I meet with elected officials to advocate for social issues that are important to me.  1.82 (0.96)   7. I write letters or e-mails to influence others regarding social issues that are important to me.  2.32 (1.11)  Total scale score  2.64 (0.68)  Notes: Likert-type scale with responses 1 = always, 2 = often, 3 = sometimes, 4 = seldom, and 5 = never; responses were reverse-coded, with higher scores indicating greater frequency of engagement in social action activities. Data Analysis The purpose of this analysis was to determine whether level of practice, belief in responsibility to engage in social action, and key demographic variables predicted social action behavior with this sample of NASW members. Ordinary least squares regression was used to answer the research questions. Only two respondents were missing data on any of the items on the SAS, thus they were deleted from the sample. Listwise deletion was used to remove those from the sample who were missing data on other variables of interest, resulting in a final sample size of 174. Results Univariate Findings The mean social action score for this sample was 2.64, on a scale from 1 to 5, indicating a moderate level of social action behavior. After applying weights to the data, 89 percent of respondents agreed that engaging in social action is their responsibility as a social worker. The proportion of macro to micro social workers in this sample (16 percent and 84 percent, respectively) is consistent with findings from prior studies (Choi et al., 2015; CSWE, 2012; Whitaker & Arrington, 2008), indicating that this sample of social workers is representative of the broader population, in regard to level of practice. Mulitvariate Findings The regression model was statistically significant [Wald F(158) = 7.346, p < .001], suggesting the presence of explanatory variables in the model that significantly predicted frequency of social action behavior with this sample (see Table 3). Age, responsibility, and level of practice were the only significant predictors of social action behavior. Age positively predicted frequency of social action behaviors; for every year increase in age, there was a .011 increase in respondents’ social action scores (p < .01). Similarly, belief in responsibility to engage in social action behavior was associated with a .613 increase in frequency of social action behavior compared with those who did not feel it was their responsibility (p < .001). The most important finding was that level of practice was a significant predictor such that identifying oneself as a macro- or mezzo-level practitioner was associated with a .406 increase in frequency of social action behavior compared with those identifying as a micro-level practitioner. The R2 for the final model indicated that 21.3 percent of the variance in social action behavior was explained by all of the predictors combined. Table 3: Multiple Regression Model Predicting Social Action Behavior among Social Workers Predictor  B  SE  95% CI  Gender (Female)  –.029  .127  [–.280, .222]  Race (Non-White)  –.218  .130  [–.474, .038]  Age  .011**  .004  [.004, .019]  Low Income  –.076  .149  [–.370, .217]  Middle Income  –.018  .137  [–.290, .253]  Responsibility (Strongly Agree/Agree)  .613***  .130  [.356, .870]  Level of Practice (Mezzo/Macro)  .406**  .155  [.100, .711]  R2      .213  Wald F      7.346***  Predictor  B  SE  95% CI  Gender (Female)  –.029  .127  [–.280, .222]  Race (Non-White)  –.218  .130  [–.474, .038]  Age  .011**  .004  [.004, .019]  Low Income  –.076  .149  [–.370, .217]  Middle Income  –.018  .137  [–.290, .253]  Responsibility (Strongly Agree/Agree)  .613***  .130  [.356, .870]  Level of Practice (Mezzo/Macro)  .406**  .155  [.100, .711]  R2      .213  Wald F      7.346***  Notes: SE = standard error; CI = confidence interval. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001. Discussion Findings from descriptive statistics indicate that social workers in this sample engage in a moderate amount of social action activity (M = 2.64). Although the measures and samples are not identical and therefore not directly comparable, findings from Ezell’s (1993) study of self-reported political action activity among social workers revealed that 82 percent of the sample considered themselves either active or very active. Comparing the mean social action score for this sample with Ezell’s findings might indicate a lower level of political participation since Ezell’s, 1993 study; however, more research with a national sample of workers is needed to support this downward trend in social and political action among social workers. The results of the regression model support findings from other studies that demonstrated positive relationships between age and macro-level practice with social action behavior (Ezell, 1993; Reeser & Epstein, 1990; Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010; Wolk, 1981). These findings indicate that being older and identifying oneself as a mezzo- or macro-level practitioner predicts more frequent engagement in social action behavior compared with being younger and identifying oneself as a micro-level practitioner. Although no studies to date have used bivariate or multivariate analyses to test the relationship between responsibility and social action, a few studies have reported univariate findings suggesting that the majority of social workers feel an obligation or responsibility to engage in political or social action (Davis et al., 2007; Rome & Hoechstetter, 2010). This study reflected those findings, as 89 percent of respondents reported a belief in responsibility to engage in social action behavior. In addition, the results of the regression model contribute to the literature by revealing that, as one might expect, social workers’ belief in responsibility to engage in social action positively predicts greater frequency of social action behaviors. Gender, race, and income were included in the regression model based on the significant associations previously found between these key demographic variables and political action (Ezell, 1993; Wolk, 1981). However, contrary to expectations, this regression model revealed that gender, race, and income were not significant predictors of social action behavior with this sample. This study contributes to the literature by demonstrating that, even after controlling for demographic variables and belief in a responsibility to engage in social action, being a macro-level practitioner remains a significant predictor of social action behavior. It is plausible that some macro-level practitioners engage in more social action behavior than direct practitioners because it is a requirement of the job. Nevertheless, this consistent pattern of macro-level social workers being more politically and socially active than direct service workers has important implications for the profession. Implications This study’s findings provide a number of implications for social work practitioners, educators, and researchers. The moderate level of social action participation observed with this sample suggests a downward trend in social workers’ social and political action behaviors over the last few decades when compared with findings of previous studies (Ezell, 1993). This sample also supports a biased orientation in the field toward micro practice, which is reflected in numerous other studies (Choi et al., 2015; CSWE, 2012; Whitaker & Arrington, 2008). One possible explanation for this is the prevalence of direct practice jobs versus macro positions available to social workers. Thus it is recommended that qualitative studies explore potential causes of these trends, such as examining whether schools of social work adequately support the pursuit of macro social work careers for their students. The hypothesis that mezzo- and macro-level practitioners are more likely to engage in social action than direct practitioners was confirmed, even after controlling for belief in responsibility to engage in social action. These findings are unsurprising, given that macro practitioners are often engaged in social action behaviors as part of their job responsibilities. However, this fact is concerning as the majority of social workers practice at the micro level (Whitaker & Arrington, 2008) and most social work students preparing to enter the profession are primarily enrolled in micro concentration courses (CSWE, 2012). These results suggest that if the profession’s orientation toward clinical practice continues, then a parallel decline in social and political action among social workers should be expected as well (Ezell, 1993; Ritter, 2007; Wolk, 1981). However, because this is a cross-sectional study, we are unable to explain causality. Further study is needed to determine the causal relationship between macro-level practice and social action behavior. It would also be beneficial for researchers to delve deeper into the reasons why some social workers engage in social action and others do not, regardless of a dominant belief in responsibility to do so. With the recent election of President Trump, the alarming increase in mass shootings, the killing of unarmed black men in acts of police brutality, the increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Jews, and efforts to reduce access to reproductive health services and affordable health care, the need for social workers to engage in social action to protect the vulnerable is arguably as important as it has ever been. Because this study was conducted before the 2016 presidential election, replicating this study during the Trump presidency could be informative. As Ezell (1993) intended to determine after Reagan’s presidency, findings from a replication study could reveal whether social workers’ social action behaviors had increased in an effort to protect the vulnerable from harmful policy decisions. Numerous recent demonstrations such as the Women’s March and the March for Science likely included many social workers, suggesting that social action behaviors may be increasing in response to President Trump’s policy decisions. Implications for social work educators include encouraging more social work students to consider a macro-level concentration and placing more emphasis on social action in schools of social work regardless of concentration (Belcher & Tice, 2013). Because social action organizing requires a different skill set from the models of collaboration and problem solving taught in direct practice courses, social work students and professionals need to be specifically trained in how to engage in social action (Hardina & Obel-Jorgensen, 2009). In addition, as most social workers today practice in micro-level settings, increasing continuing education opportunities that promote involvement in social action activities may lead to a more unified social work workforce that is committed to comprehensively uphold the dual missions of direct and macro social work practice (Belcher & Tice, 2013). The fact that older social workers are more likely to engage in social action poses a challenge for the future of the profession, as older social workers reach retirement age and leave the workforce. Social worker practitioners and educators alike would benefit the profession by promoting the importance of engaging in social action among younger social workers and those newly entering the profession. Strategies could include specifically promoting social action activities that are more common among younger generations. With technology and social media rapidly advancing, new opportunities for engaging in social action are always being developed. As younger social workers are newer to the field, they likely face limited autonomy in setting their own schedules, which results in fewer opportunities to attend legislative hearings, rallies, and other social action activities that take place during the workday. To address this, social services agencies could promote social action days and allow their direct service workers to participate in social action activities during the workday on occasion. The large majority (89 percent) of study participants agreed that social workers have a responsibility to engage in social action behavior, and consistent with expectations, belief in responsibility to engage in social action predicted more frequent social action behavior. This finding is promising as it suggests that most respondents believe that social workers should engage in social action, and this belief is linked to increased social action behavior. However, it is surprising to find that 11 percent of the social workers in this sample did not feel that it was their responsibility to engage in social action, which might warrant further exploration. Future studies might explore more in depth whether these respondents differ from other social workers in some critical way, or why they feel that social workers do not have a responsibility to engage in social action. Because no other study examined the relationship between responsibility and social action behavior, it would be beneficial to replicate this study to determine whether these findings are consistent across other samples of NASW members or social worker professionals in general. Some strengths of this study relate to the use of our sampling strategy and the novel findings that age, level of practice, and belief in responsibility to engage in social action significantly predict social action behavior among social workers. The use of stratified sampling methods and the fact that our oversampling strategy succeeded suggest that nonresponse was not biased by race or gender, increasing the probability that our sample is representative of the larger NASW membership (Engel & Schutt, 2013). Despite the strengths of this study, there are several limitations, which may affect the generalizability of these findings. The study sample exclusively consists of NASW members who live and work in Maryland; Virginia; and Washington, DC. As the DC, metropolitan area is a major hub for social and political action, social workers living in such close proximity to the nation’s capital may be more likely to engage in social action than the broader NASW membership. Similarly, it is possible that those who were willing to respond to a survey about social action behavior may be more likely to engage in social action than those who did not respond. Both of these issues may result in higher scores on the SAS than would be found in the typical NASW membership base. In addition, a number of methodological limitations may affect the validity of this study’s findings. The SAS assessed respondents’ frequency of social action behaviors, with responses ranging from never to always. The fact that no one can always engage in such behaviors lowers the possibility of a higher mean score. Also, to maximize statistical power, mezzo- and macro-level practitioners were combined into one category to enable comparison with micro practitioners. However, combining mezzo and macro practice into one category could have skewed the results, as mezzo-level practitioners may be working as supervisors or managers in clinical settings, rather than engaging in advocacy and organizing, which are the common macro social work roles. Although there is extensive literature examining political participation among social workers, there was a dearth of studies that addressed social action behaviors. As a result, this study is not directly comparable with other studies reviewed in the literature. Last, the predictors included in this analysis explained only 21 percent of the variance in social action behavior, leaving 79 percent unexplained. This suggests that important variables, which would contribute to explaining social action behavior, were not included in this model. Conclusion This study’s findings indicate that being a mezzo- or macro-level practitioner predicts more frequent social action engagement, suggesting that micro-level practitioners are less involved in advocacy activities on their clients’ behalf. The social work profession as a whole would do well to place more of an emphasis on social action in schools of social work, in continuing education programs, and in practice settings, to ensure that all social workers, regardless of practice level, are committed to social action to serve the disenfranchised. Replicating this study with other samples of NASW members and social work professionals is recommended, to determine whether these findings will hold true in other regions of the country and in a different social and political climate. The more we understand about trends in social action behaviors across different samples, the more targeted our strategies can be to promote and prepare social workers to engage in social action. References Belcher, J. R., & Tice, C. ( 2013). Power and social work: A change in direction. Journal of Progressive Human Services,  24, 81– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Choi, M. J., Urbanski, P., Fortune, A. E., & Rogers, C. ( 2015). Early career patterns for social work graduates. Journal of Social Work Education,  51, 475– 493. Council on Social Work Education. ( 2012). 2011 statistics on social work education in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.cswe.org/CMSPages/GetFile.aspx?guid=c6f26483-3d3f-4a54-be1b-a780fe09f82e Davis, C., Cummings, S., & MacMaster, S. ( 2007). Undergraduate social work faculty in the USA react to the war with Iraq. Social Work Education,  26, 496– 503. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Engel, R. J., & Schutt, R. K. ( 2013). The practice of research in social work  ( 3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Ezell, M. ( 1993). The political activity of social workers: A post-Reagan update. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare,  20( 4), 81– 97. Ezell, M., Chernesky, R., & Healy, L. M. ( 2004). The learning climate for administration students. Administration in Social Work,  28( 1), 57– 76. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Hardina, D., & Obel-Jorgensen, R. ( 2009). Increasing social action competency: A framework for supervision. Journal of Policy Practice,  8, 89– 109. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Hunter, C. A., & Ford, K. A. ( 2010). Discomfort with a false dichotomy: The field director’s dilemma with micro–macro placements. Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work,  15( 1), 15– 29. Miley, K. K., O’Melia, M. W., & DuBois, B. L. ( 2013). Generalist social work practice: An empowering approach  ( 7th ed.). Boston: Pearson. National Association of Social Workers. ( 2003). Demographics, PRN 2:2. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/naswprn/surveyTwo/Datagram2.pdf National Association of Social Workers. ( 2015). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp Nilsson, J. E., Marszalek, J. M., Linnemeyer, R. M., Bahner, A. D., & Misialek, L. H. ( 2011). Development and assessment of the Social Issues Advocacy Scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement,  71( 1), 258– 275. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   O’Brien, M. ( 2010). Social justice: Alive and well (partly) in social work practice? International Social Work,  54( 2), 174– 190. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Pritzker, S., & Applewhite, S. R. ( 2015). Going “macro”: Exploring the careers of macro practitioners. Social Work,  60, 191– 199. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Reeser, L. C., & Epstein, I. ( 1990). Professionalization and activism in social work: The sixties, the eighties, and the future . New York: Columbia University Press. Ritter, J. ( 2007). Evaluating the political participation of licensed social workers in the new millennium. Journal of Policy Practice,  6( 4), 61– 78. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Rome, S. H., & Hoechstetter, S. ( 2010). Social work and civic engagement: The political participation of professional social workers. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare,  38( 3), 107– 129. Rothman, J., & Mizrahi, T. ( 2014). Balancing micro and macro practice: A challenge for social work [Commentary]. Social Work,  59, 91– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Salcido, R. M., & Seck, E. T. ( 1992). Political participation among social work chapters [Comments on Currents]. Social Work,  37, 563– 564. Thursz, D. ( 1966). Social action as a professional responsibility. Social Work,  11( 3), 12– 21. Weil, M., Reisch, M., & Ohmer, M. L. (Eds.). ( 2013). The handbook of community practice  ( 2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Whitaker, T., & Arrington, P. ( 2008). Social workers at work: NASW Membership Workforce Study . Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http://workforce.socialworkers.org/studies/SWatWork.pdf Wolk, J. L. ( 1981). Are social workers politically active? Social Work,  26, 283– 288. Woodward, J., & Roper, E. ( 1950). Political activity of American citizens. American Political Science Review,  44, 872– 885. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   © 2017 National Association of Social Workers

Journal

Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

There are no references for this article.

You’re reading a free preview. Subscribe to read the entire article.


DeepDyve is your
personal research library

It’s your single place to instantly
discover and read the research
that matters to you.

Enjoy affordable access to
over 12 million articles from more than
10,000 peer-reviewed journals.

All for just $49/month

Explore the DeepDyve Library

Unlimited reading

Read as many articles as you need. Full articles with original layout, charts and figures. Read online, from anywhere.

Stay up to date

Keep up with your field with Personalized Recommendations and Follow Journals to get automatic updates.

Organize your research

It’s easy to organize your research with our built-in tools.

Your journals are on DeepDyve

Read from thousands of the leading scholarly journals from SpringerNature, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford University Press and more.

All the latest content is available, no embargo periods.

See the journals in your area

Monthly Plan

  • Read unlimited articles
  • Personalized recommendations
  • No expiration
  • Print 20 pages per month
  • 20% off on PDF purchases
  • Organize your research
  • Get updates on your journals and topic searches

$49/month

Start Free Trial

14-day Free Trial

Best Deal — 39% off

Annual Plan

  • All the features of the Professional Plan, but for 39% off!
  • Billed annually
  • No expiration
  • For the normal price of 10 articles elsewhere, you get one full year of unlimited access to articles.

$588

$360/year

billed annually
Start Free Trial

14-day Free Trial