The relationship between social work and action for social reforms has often been described as ambivalent (e.g. Wolk et al. 1996; Weiss 2003; Davis, Cummings and MacMaster 2007). The history of the reformist orientation is long in social work; including such important figures as Jane Addams (e.g. Greif et al. 2010). Social workers are obligated to social action also in the current Statement of Ethical Principles by the International Federation of Social Workers. According to the statement, 'social workers have a duty to bring to the attention of their employers, policy makers, politicians and the general public situations where resources are inadequate or where distribution of resources, policies and practices are oppressive, unfair or harmful' (The International Federation of Social Workers, Statement of Ethical Principles 2012).
On the other hand, despite these traditions and obligations, the handling of political issues has often been described to be inadequate in social work education (e.g. Gal and Weiss 2000, 493; Saulnier 2000, 122). Also in other countries than Finland, social workers as well as social work students have been claimed to be more interested in work with individual service users than work with macro societal issues (for more on the debate, see Weawer and Nackerud 2005). The phenomenon has been linked to the growing role of therapeutic orientation and private practice in social work (on the discussion see Weiss 2003, 134; Weiss, Gal and Cnaan 2005, 30). An often-cited book is Specht and Courtney's (1995) Unfaithful Angles in which they criticize social workers for focusing too much on solvent middle class therapy clients and for abandoning the original mission of social work to serve the poor and the underprivileged. The current time in general has been described to be especially challenging – contrary to periods such as the 1960s – for politically oriented social work, since in 'conservative eras' it is 'difficult to be a politicized student or professional interested in progressive social change' (Fisher et al. 2002, 44; for more on the issue, see also Lane 2011, 65). An important question becomes what happens to politicized social work students when they arrive at work places in which the aims of social work are understood more narrowly (see e.g. Fisher et al. 2002, 56–7; Weiss 2003, 140).
The role of political activity is, of course, also linked to the basic question of how, in general, the scope of social work should be defined. Is political action seen to be a part of social work at all? Do those educated in social work but engaged in policy work still identify themselves as social workers? (see Zubrzycki and McArthur 2004, 453). For instance, Weiss (2003) ponders the employment opportunities and how social work students may not consider poverty eradication as an integral part of social work practice or may not feel competent for that kind of activity even if they recognized the need for structural changes. Social work education seems to have an important role in defining the ingredient of social work practice as well as in offering students possibilities to develop their skills in politically oriented practice. Although there are factors that affect social workers' political participation which the educators can have no effect on, they can, at least, develop students' efficacy in political participation and assist them with the skills needed in that area (Hamilton and Fauri 2001, 328).
Another central question related to the theme is if all social work students should study political activities, or should that be a task of only the students specializing themselves in macro practice (Weiss et al. 2006, 792–3). There has been lot of criticism directed at the strict division between macro and micro practice. It t has been proposed that political action should be a part of the social worker's role and that such engagement should be taught to all students (e.g. Abramovitz 1993; Saulnier 2000, 122; Weiss, Gal and Katan 2006; Heidemann et al. 2011, 39). For instance, Fisher et al. (2002, 49) describe a curriculum in which students develop an understanding of the 'integration of social work interventions at multiple levels', and also other researchers (e.g. Gibbons and Gray 2005, 60) have suggested that policy teaching should be an integral part of all the practice learning, and not consist of only a few separate policy courses.