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Exploring the political diversity of social workers.

A barely audible conversation exists within social work on the diversity of political ideology among social workers. Although diversity is a rich area of study in social work, a comprehensive exploration of social workers' political ideologies remains largely absent (Rosenwald, 2004). The assumption that social workers subscribe to liberal economic, social, and moral values prevails, as evidenced in NASW policy statements (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2003), even though this assumption has rarely been explicitly and fully examined. This assumption occurs despite the NASW Code of Ethics's inclusion of respecting fellow social workers' diversity of political belief (NASW). As a result, ideologies of social workers that differ from liberal political ideology may not be represented.


Political ideology refers to individuals' support of policy positions that reflect their attitudes on society's relationship with technology, power distribution, dependency, and nationalism (Gamson, 1992). This support is commonly detailed among a multitiered ideological continuum (Brint, 1994; Knight, 1999; Lowi & Ginsberg, 1994; McKenna, 1998). At one end of the continuum is a "radical left" ideology that focuses on major systemic changes to address oppression (Wagner, 1990). "Liberal" ideology emphasizes government protection of individual rights (Lowi & Ginsberg) and the separation of church and state (Brint; McKenna). "Moderate" political ideology combines conservative and liberal views and favors rational, incremental change (McKenna). "Conservative" ideology emphasizes the for-profit and voluntary sectors' abilities to address social problems, socially traditional values, and suspicion of government control (O'Connors & Sabato, 2000). Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum is the "radical right" political ideology, which promotes policy relating to biblical literalism, the patriarchal family, and fiscal conservatism (Hyde, 1991).

The literature on political ideology provides some insight into social workers' political ideologies. Political ideology, reflected in Democratic Party membership, suggests social workers are predominantly liberal (Abbott, 1988, 1999; Epstein, 1969; Reeser & Epstein, 1990). However, when ideology was examined as political philosophy, findings were mixed; most social workers were liberal in Abbott's (1988, 1999) research but were fairly evenly liberal and moderate (Hodge, 2003) or more moderate (Varley, 1968) in other studies. Hodge also found MSWs tended to be slightly more liberal than BSWs. Social workers tended to be more liberal on general political ideology and specific policy positions than people in other professions (Abbott, 1988, Hendershot & Grimm, 1974;Jensen & Bergin, 1988; Rubinstein, 1994) and the general public (Koeske & Crouse, 1981; Hodge). Scant attention has been given to studies involving social workers who identify as radical left (but see Fisher, Weedman, Alex, & Stout, 2001; Wagner, 1990) or radical right.

Although the literature provides a good introduction, the full range of social workers' political ideology was rarely examined as the central focus of any study. No study examined multiple measures of political ideology as dependent variables. Therefore, the purpose of this exploratory study was to identify both the range and correlates of social workers' political ideologies.


The dependent variable of political ideology was principally measured by the 40-item Professional Opinion Scale (POS) (Abbott, 1988). The POS was selected as the main measure because it appeared to be the most comprehensive and reliable scale that gauged political ideology by examining policy statements linked to the social work profession. The POS was based on NASW policy statements from 1985. Since that time, the positions reflected in these policy statements have not substantially changed as compared with current NASW policy positions (personal communication with A. Abbott, professor of social work, West Chester University, West Chester, PA, March 14, 2003), although clearly not all current policy positions from Social Work Speaks (2003) are reflected in the POS. The POS is divided into four value dimension subscales: Respect for Basic Rights (BRSS), Commitment to Individual Freedom (IFSS), Sense of Social Responsibility (SRSS), and Support of Self-Determination (SDSS) (Abbott, 1988). Based on a five-point Likert scale (1 = conservative and 5 = liberal [accounting for reverse scoring]), higher scores correspond with greater liberalness (Abbott, 1988). Three new questions linked to NASW policy statements ("Faith-Based Initiatives," 2002; NASW, 2003) were added to the POS to compensate for a few contemporary issues not addressed and to compose a "POS+3" scale (see Table 1). Political ideology was measured using a seven-point scale ranging from 1 = radical left to 7 = radical right on the self-ranked political ideology (SRPI) item (Knight, 1999). In sum, the study comprises seven dependent variables: the POS, each of the four POS's subscales, the POS+3, and the SRPI item.

The study contained 15 independent variables drawn from the literature (Abbott, 1988, 1999; Brint, 1994; Fisher et al., 2001; Jensen & Bergin, 1988; Kornblum, 1997). They are personal characteristics (gender, age, race, religion/spirituality, religiosity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status), professional characteristics (degree achieved as one proxy for education, employment status, type of work setting, years of work experience, type of social work function, licensure level [created by author]), and two significant interaction effects (degree by years of [licensed] experience [r = .25, p < .01] and gender by highest social work degree [[chi square](3, N = 285) = 8.69, p = .03]).

After a pilot test (N = 10) identified no major problems, the study's sample was drawn from the 2003 membership list of the state of Maryland's social work licensing board. Proportional random sampling was conducted to ensure licensed social workers from all four licensure levels (LSWA, LGSW, LCSW, and LCSW-C) were represented. Participants received the survey, along with a cover letter, self-addressed stamped envelope, and $1 as a token of appreciation. A follow-up reminder postcard was sent to all participants a week later (Dillman, 2000). Of the approximately 11,000 licensed social workers in Maryland, a sample of 558 participants was obtained. Three hundred questionnaires were received for the data analysis, but six were removed from analysis because they had more than 20% missing data. Therefore, 294 surveys were analyzed, which corresponds with a fair response rate of 52.6% (Rubin & Babbie, 2001). Sufficient power was achieved based on the sample size. Based on an a posteriori analysis, using N = 138 as the lowest number of participants in the regression models, power of 0.80 (.7986) was achieved.


The sample was predominantly female (85.6%), white (80.1%), 45 years of age on average, Protestant (36.1%), and fairly strongly religious or spiritual (M = 1.96 with 1 = very strong and 4 = not strong at all). In addition, most participants were Democrat (78.1%) and heterosexual (93.7%) and varied on income, with 25.5% earning between $40,000 and $49,999 and 25.2% earning more than $60,000. The majority of participants worked full time (72.9%), held MSWs (83.6%), and were licensed at the LCSW-C level (59.8%). Participants tended to work in public settings (36.6%) and in nonprofit settings (35.5%). Finally, participants had an average of approximately 13 years of licensed experience and tended to work in clinical and direct social work practice (52.6%).

Range of Political Ideology

The POS (M = 158.38, SD = 13.52) points corresponded with a fairly liberal political ideology; with the addition of three items for the POS+3, the mean increased almost 10 points. Regarding the four subscales, the SDSS had the highest mean (44.41, SD = 4.00), followed by the BRSS (M = 44.07, SD = 3.08), the SRSS (M = 37.38, SD = 5.18), and the IFSS (M = 32.69, SD = 6.02) (Table 1).

The single item on SRPI (M = 3.39, SD = 0.92) corresponds with a political ideology that is between liberal and moderate. No one political ideology was held by the majority of participants. The largest self-ranking category was "liberal" (40.6%), followed by "moderate" (34.4%). Slightly more than half of participants (55.2%) ranked their political ideology from liberal to radical left, and 10.4% indicated they were right of center (from conservative to very conservative). No one reported her or his ideology as "radical right."

Correlates of Political Ideology

The significant correlates for each of the hierarchal regression models appear in Table 2. The best regression model was for SRPI, which explained 37.6% of the variance in political ideology and had four significant correlates. Two of the correlates related to political party, where participants who affiliated with the Democratic (B = -1.183, t = -5.639, p < .001) and Independent political parties (B = -.845, t = -3.120, p = .002) scored approximately one point lower on the SRPI scale than those affiliating with the Republican Party. Two other correlates in the SRPI model emerged with significant findings: (1) an "other" religious or spiritual affiliation (B = -.710, t = -3.306, p = .001), where participants scored almost one point lower than participants who were Protestant, and (2) work status (B = -.350, t = -2.035, p = .044), with participants who worked part time in social work scoring almost half a point higher on the SRPI scale than those who worked full time. Finally, race and age emerged as significant correlates in the other regression equations, with participants who were white and older tending to be more liberal than those who were not white and younger. The BRSS and SDSS were not significant in their final models.


As Dinerman (2003) observed, the profession has "grown sloppy in assuming that the prevailing beliefs of our environment are, indeed, held by all" (p. 251). To this end, it was important to examine the political diversity of social workers, which uncovered a range of their political ideologies. Most striking from the data is that social workers' political ideology is not a liberal monolith.

With respect to self-ranked political ideology, a slim majority reported they were liberal or very liberal (approximately 53% total), which counters the stereotype of a profession dominated by liberal political ideology. Indeed, almost as many participants reported they were moderate to very conservative in ideological thought. Having more than a third of the sample identifying as moderate suggests that the liberal versus conservative dialogue is too simple and perhaps based on stereotypes. Those with a radical left perspective were a small percentage of the sample. The absence of the radical right suggests that either there are no social workers who consider themselves as radical right, at least in this sample, or the term may be unpopular for self-ranking and used more as a label by others.

The means of the POS-related items suggest an overall liberal tendency among members, although the BRSS and SDSS subscales had higher liberal scores than the IFSS and SRSS subscales. Upon further review, the findings confirm Brint's (1994) conclusion that social workers tend to be more liberal on social issues than economic issues, as the top six liberal items (means between 4.5 and 5) related to social welfare and four of the six most moderate to conservative items related to economic welfare (all means under 3) (Table 1). Detailing economic welfare, for example, social workers tended to be more liberal when welfare was needed to help with an unexpected crisis (that is, disaster, disability) and more moderate to conservative when advocating for clients on welfare to have fewer children and to record those who "commit fraud." Finally, five correlates from the regression models (political party affiliation, age, race, religious or spiritual affiliation, and work status) support their importance in the literature (for example, Abbott, 1988, 1999) and suggest variables to examine in future studies.

This study's limitations require a cautious interpretation of the findings. Conceptually, using the POS (developed to measure social workers' values) may have limited validity when applied to measuring social workers' political ideology, because some POS items might have more significance to political ideology than others. More conceptual development and psychometric testing of a social work political ideology scale completely based on social work policy statements (NASW, 2003) would be useful, in addition to reconciling Abbott's (1988) POS subscales with Brint's (1994) typology of political ideology. Although the POS and POS+3 had good reliability ([alpha] = 0.85 and [alpha] = 0.86, respectively), the four subscales had fair reliabilities ranging from 0.65 to 0.78. The study's response rate, approximately 53%, is a fair response rate for a mailed questionnaire (Dillman, 2000; Rubin & Babbie, 2001), yet it does not reflect almost half of the sample; participants who responded may be different from those who did not respond. More attention to increasing the response rate would be helpful (Dillman). Finally, because the sampling frame was licensed social workers in Maryland, the results of the study cannot be generalized to nonlicensed social workers in Maryland or to any other social workers beyond that state. National studies would be useful.

This exploratory study's central focus on political ideology raises the volume of the barely audible conversation of political ideology in social work. Considering its range and correlates showcases the richness of this diversity variable. The intent of this study is to help establish political diversity as a legitimate diversity variable worthy of serious study and to add to the literature on social work and diversity.


Abbott, A. A. (1988). Professional choices: Values at work. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers.

Abbott, A.A. (1999). Measuring social work values: A cross-cultural challenge for global practice. International Social Work, 42, 455-470.

Brint, S. (1994). In an age of experts: The changing role of professionals in politics and public life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dillman, D.A. (2000). Mail and Internet surveys: The tailored design method (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Dinerman, M. (2003). Fundamentalism and social work. Affilia, 18, 249-253.

Epstein, I. (1969). Professionalization and social work activism. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York.

Faith-based initiatives discussed. (2002, November). NASW News, pp. 1, 10.

Fisher, R., Weedman, A., Alex, G., & Stout, K. D. (2001). Graduate education for social change: A study of political social workers. Journal of Community Practice, 9, 43-64.

Gamson, W. A. (1992). Talking politics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Hendershot, G. E., & Grimm, J.W. (1974). Abortion attitudes among nurses and social workers. American Journal of Public Health, 64, 438-441.

Hodge, D. R. (2003). Value differences between social workers and members of the working and middle classes. Social Work, 48, 107-119.

Hyde, C.A. (1991). Did the New Right radicalize the women's movement? A study of change in feminist social movement organizations, 1977 to 1987. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Jensen, J. P., & Bergin, A. E. (1988). Mental health values of professional therapists: A national interdisciplinary survey. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 19, 290-297.

Knight, K. (1999). Liberalism and conservatism. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S.Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of political attitudes (Vol. 2, pp. 59-158). San Diego: Academic Press.

Koeske, G. F., & Crouse, M.A. (1981). Liberalism--conservatism in samples of social work students and professionals. Social Service Review, 55, 193-205.

Kornblum, W. (1997). Sociology in a changing world (4th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Lowi, T.J., & Ginsberg, B. (1994). American government: Freedom and power (3rd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.

McKenna, G. (1998). The drama of democracy: American government and politics (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

National Association of Social Workers. (2003). Social work speaks: Policy statements of the National Association of Social Workers, 2003-2006 (6th ed.).Washington, DC: NASW Press.

O'Connors, K., & Sabato, L.J. (2000). American government: Continuity and change. New York: Longman.

Reeser, L. C., & Epstein, I. (1990). Professionalization and activism in social work: The sixties, the eighties, and the future. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rosenwald, M. (2004, March). Is there room for one more? Exploring political ideologies of licensed social workers. Paper presented at Council on Social Work Education's Annual Conference, Anaheim, CA.

Rubin, A., & Babble, E. (2001). Research methods for social work (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Rubinstein, G. (1994). Political attitudes and religiosity levels of Israeli psychotherapy practitioners and students. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 48, 441-454.

Varley, B. K. (1968). Social work values: Changes in value commitments of students from admission to MSW graduation. Journal of Education for Social Work, 4, 67-85.

Wagner, D. (1990). The quest for a radical profession: Social service careers and political ideology. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Original manuscript received September 28, 2004

Final revision received September 29. 2005

Accepted October 28, 2005

Mitchell Rosenwald, PhD, is assistant professor of social work, Binghamton University, P. O. Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902; e-mail:
Table 1: Means and Standard Deviations of Professional
opinion Scale + Three Items for Social Workers

Item M SD

 1. All direct-income benefits to welfare recipients
 should be in the form of cash. 2.19 .90
 2. When they are old enough, children should have the
 right to choose their religion, including the option
 to choose none. 4.19 .98
 3. The employed should have more government assistance
 than the unemployed. 3.63 .91
 4. Sterilization is an acceptable method of reducing
 the welfare load. 4.20 1.05
 5. Counseling should be available to women who ask for
 abortions. 4.49 .80
 6. There should be a guaranteed minimum income for
 everyone. 3.59 1.27
 7. Couples should decide for themselves whether they
 want to become parents. 4.62 .58
 8. The federal government has invested too much money
 in the poor. 4.18 .88
 9. The government should not redistribute the wealth. 3.58 1.08
10. Retirement at age 65 should be mandatory. 4.37 .75
11. Women should have the right to use abortion
 services. 4.34 1.05
12. The dying have a right to be informed of their
 prognoses. 4.80 .50
13. The FBI (government) should keep files on
 individuals with minority political affiliation. 4.22 .99
14. Abduction by parents who do not have custody should
 be viewed as a family, not a legal, matter. 4.34 .82
15. The government should not subsidize family-planning
 programs. 4.14 .89
16. The mandatory retirement age protects society from
 the incompetency of the elderly. 4.44 .67
17. Welfare mothers should be discouraged from having
 more children. 2.63 1.07
18. Family planning should be available to all
 adolescents. 4.23 .94
19. Capital punishment should not be abolished. 3.09 1.34
20. The government should provide a comprehensive system
 of insurance protecting against loss of income
 because of disability. 4.07 .80
21. Mandatory retirement based on age should be
 eliminated. 4.11 .84
22. The death penalty is an important means for
 discouraging criminal activity. 3.68 1.20
23. Local governments should be monitored on the
 enforcement of civil rights statutes. 4.04 .78
24. The aged require only minimum mental health
 services. 4.49 .67
25. Welfare workers should keep files on those clients
 suspected of fraud. 2.23 .89
26. Only medical personnel should be involved in life
 and death treatment decisions. 4.44 .70
27. Pregnant adolescents should be excluded from school. 4.51 .66
28. Students should be denied government funds if they
 participate in protest demonstrations. 4.57 .60
29. Juveniles do not need to be provided with legal
 counsel in juvenile courts. 4.60 .64
30. Corporal punishment is an important means of
 discipline for aggressive, acting-out adolescents. 4.31 .92
31. Unemployment benefits should be extended, especially
 in areas hit by economic disaster. 4.10 .77
32. It would be better to give welfare recipients
 vouchers or goods rather than cash. 2.56 1.04
33. The gap between poverty and affluence should be
 reduced through measures directed at redistribution
 of income. 3.17 1.10
34. The government should have primary responsibility
 for helping the community accept a returning
 offender. 2.81 .92
35. Efforts should be made to increase voting among
 minorities. 4.20 .79
36. "No-knock" entry, which allows the police entrance
 without a search warrant, encourages police to
 violate the rights of individuals. 3.75 1.00
37. Family planning services should be available to
 individuals regardless of income. 4.60 .58
38. Older persons should be sustained to the extent
 possible in their own environments. 4.43 .82
39. The child in adoption proceedings should be the
 primary client. 4.34 .83
40. A family may be defined as two or more individuals
 who consider themselves a family and who assume
 protective, caring obligations to one another. 4.19 .95
41. Faith-based delivery of social services is an
 effective method of helping people in need. 2.47 1.02
42. Special laws for the protection of lesbians' and
 gay men's equal rights are not necessary. 3.87 1.05
43. Social services should be provided to illegal
 immigrants. 3.28 1.18

Table 2: Significant Variables in Multiple Regression Models
Correlated with Social Workers' Political Ideology

Variable B [beta] t p

Professional Opinion Scale (N = 139)
 Age .416 .366 2.816 .006
 Independent (a) 11.884 .249 2.047 .043

Professional Opinion Scale +3
(N = 138)
 Age .445 .353 2.809 .006
 Independent 14.363 .273 2.308 .023

Individual Freedom Subscale
(N = 161)
 Race -2.965 -.185 -2.036 .044
 Age .208 .394 3.348 .001
 Democrat (a) 5.453 .371 3.003 .003
 Independent 6.816 .295 2.952 .004

Social Responsibility Subscale
(N = 163)
 Race 2.731 .213 2.321 .022
 Age .160 .378 3.152 .002
 Democrat 4.639 .384 3.134 .002
 Independent 5.293 .281 2.806 .006

Self-Ranked Political Ideology
(N = 180)
 Other religious or spiritual -.710 -.238 -3.306 .001
 affiliation (b)
 Democrat -1.183 -.550 -5.639 .000
 Independent -.845 -.247 -3.120 .002
 Work status -.350 -.154 -2.035 .044

Note: All missing variable cases were excluded listwise.

(a) Democrat and Independent are attributes of the political
affiliation variable.

(b) Other religious/spiritual affiliation is an attribute of the
religious or spiritual affiliation variable.
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Author:Rosenwald, Mitchell
Publication:Social Work Research
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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