Paper Review: Human Rights : Its Meaning and Practice in Social Work Field Settings

This post refers to the following paper :

Julie A. Steen, Mary Mann, Nichole Restivo, Shellene Mazany, Reshawna Chapple, Human Rights: Its Meaning and Practice in Social Work Field Settings, Social Work, Volume 62, Issue 1, 1 January 2017, Pages 9–17, https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/sww075

Introduction

As I have covered Australian and British social work papers, I thought I’d turn to the United States with this one and while I have read and learned about human rights in the context of English mental health and mental capacity legislation, the ability to see where the global human rights debate is, was appealing. It has been useful to look at where research is focused in the US where the role of social work has some distinct differences and the cultural context may not be as similar as we sometimes assume.

Context

The research study which was carried out involved interviews with social work students and and ‘field supervisors’ who are experienced social workers as might be obvious, who are supervising students in their initial training placements.

The paper starts with a literature review which covers social work and the role of human rights in social work settings. This has the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as the starting point but diverges by looking at some of the additional principles to cover, what they describe as ‘population-specific’ conventions including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Principles for the Older Person which grew up subsequently. There is also reference to some of the work which has linked human rights with social work in a broader context and where human rights practice crosses with social work. This includes the role of advocacy in social work and an interesting distinction between case-based advocacy and cause-based advocacy. There is also reflection on the role of community based social work as human rights in practice.

It was interesting reading through a UK lens where obviously the European Convention of Human Rights doesn’t figure but also where the UK-based literature on human rights and social work would not have been as relevant to the article. This is very much my ‘little England’ view and a literature review is never going to be comprehensive. However, it also introduced me to a broader understanding of human rights, encouraging me to read further and put my focus on UK human rights into a better global perspective.

Methodology

One thing I noticed in this study which was helpful (to me, as a novice researcher) was that the authors explicitly stated their research questions which were

“What means do social work students and their field supervisors attribute to the concept of human rights as it relates to their work in field settings?” and “How do social work students and their field supervisors describe human rights practice in their own agency meetings?”

Having the research questions clearly established helps with appraising the research which takes place and helps understand decisions made regarding research design.

In this case, the authors took a phenomenological approach. These terms can sound like a different language intended to detach academic world but it only means that it is looking at the experiences of people who have them from their viewpoint. It is not an ‘objective’ study but that would not have been unsuitable for the research questions which are asking about how the participants experience and understand human rights in their practice and so phenomenology fits well.

The study was carried out through online questionnaires. Online surveys were sent out to students and supervisors and they were open for responses for two months. There were, in the end, 35 student participants and 48 supervisors. There was a mix of students on different programmes (Batchelors and Masters) and mix of gender and race which was established in the results. The average age of students was 20 and the average age of supervisors was 45. I noted this only because I can’t imagine the average age of UK students would be so low. So another notable difference.

The survey contained a mix of open-ended and structured questions.

Results

The researchers divide the outcomes into seven themes in terms of identification of human rights issues relevant to practice and five themes under which they described their own practice or observation of practice.

In terms of the human rights overlap with social work, the most common theme identified was poverty, in addition to this was discrimination, participation, self-determination, autonomy, violence (right to live free from violence where violence is expanded to mean abuse), dignity, respect, privacy (including confidentiality) and ‘freedom and liberty’.

Poverty identified reflected the resources that link to access to housing and healthcare. This obviously has a different context where healthcare is mostly on an insurance basis but presented another layer of the economic and social human rights which occupy the social justice element of social work and embed social work as a human rights profession.

The interesting point the researchers made about discrimination was that students primarily focussed on discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ groups whereas the supervisors more often referred to cultural competencies and gender based discrimination.

The themes of participation, self-determination and autonomy emphasised the right to have the means to determine ones’ own destiny, including refusing or discounting professional advice.

The group of supervisors who referred to ‘freedom and liberty’ were non-descriptive. It is an interesting expression of a more abstract concept as a right.

In terms of practice and how they saw human rights expressed within the agency there were five themes determined. These were advocacy, service provision, assessment and relationships.

Advocacy was reflected in both individual practice with clients and in terms of challenges within organisations. The researchers distinguish themes of case advocacy versus cause advocacy. Cause advocacy was more heavily emphasised by students. Service provision included areas like psychoeduction and providing direct support to groups of people that had specific needs. I’m not sure of case management as human rights but that might be about my prejudices and understanding of the term rather than the way it is meant by the participants.

Assessment was seen as a human rights engaged activity as a process in order for ‘needs and wishes’ to be met. I think this may be a bit tenuous at best because I prefer ‘conversations about needs’ to ‘assessments’ but that might be my issue with the language. Sometimes, assessments need to be assessments. Do they always lead to resources that are necessary? Perhaps not.

The relationship was interesting as it was presented as being key to human rights in practice including the honesty and transparency of the connection. For the purposes of the paper, treating people with dignity, care and in a way that is free from discrimination were part of the relationship.

Key learning for practice

There were a couple of interesting elements that I took from this paper. It was fascinating to read about human rights from a non-European perspective. It made me itch for more exposure to international research. Struggling to match human rights in principle to work that social workers apply on a day to day level can be a challenge and this research addresses this by asking about both conceptual and practical visions of human rights.

The language of human rights was measured in the research and it can make us think about the language we use in practice. Do we talk about assessments meeting wants and needs or about assessments as processes to be completed? Do we distinguish and action both case and cause advocacy? We might not be able to to both but do we recognise it when we do it.

One of the things I thought I could do as a result of this, was self-audit some of the small actions and conversations I have and records I write in each week, meetings I attend and consider how human rights legislation and principles are enacted in practice.

Reflections and gaps

I enjoyed reading this paper and enjoyed particularly seeing the process of a research project including research questions being described. Of course, the study was based on students and practice supervisors. It would have been interesting to see the outcomes if it had been practitioners at various stages of their careers. The different areas of practice were not also clearly differentiated so it wasn’t clear how many worked with adults or children and in what settings, for example. This might have produced further interesting results. It was a relatively large sample (I thought) and the survey was an interesting way of collecting data, particularly large tracts of data but I wondered about how useful (or different) interviews might have been.

Conclusion

One of the things that struck me (and possibly the authors as well) was the lack of reference to race and discrimination on the basis of race and culture particularly by the students who were interviewed. This was something I wondered about in terms of teaching within social work settings as well. The authors speculate that this might align with gaps in the teaching curriculum although discrimination in the LGBTQI+ community was more heavily referenced by students.

Poverty came up as a strong theme in discussion but in practice it wasn’t always clear how this was challenged and addressed. This is more about where some of the cause advocacy might focus, perhaps.

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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