Summary and Discussion
In Figure 5.1, I have collected some of the starting points discussed in the international texts on political action and social work education. The figure highlights the importance of considering the interplay between different aspects of the subject in social work education. The themes related to politics should not be covered in social work education as their own separated entity but these should be connected to the other parts of the education. This arrangement emphasizes the connectedness of politics to everything, also to the life situations of individual service users. That connection also questions the strict division between micro and macro practice.
In politically oriented social work, theoretical knowledge is needed of law-making processes, the different fields of policy as well as the alternative models related to these. On the other hand, especially significant is the skill to apply that knowledge in practice: to analyze the current situations and affect society. In analytical work, the historical formation of the situations and the political solutions is important to take into consideration. In today's world, the connectedness of global and local is a central aspect: How do different kinds of global trends affect issues locally? What kinds of global effects can the apparently local solutions have? As an especially significant starting point for teaching politically oriented social work, teaching methods that challenge students to think, do and experiment actively are often emphasized. This premise is well in line with the current constructivist and socio constructivist theories of learning in which learners actively construct knowledge instead of being just passive recipients of new information (e.g. Biggs 1996; Hickey 1997).
All political practice should be framed by the awareness of the ethical commitments of social work: what are the starting points the political action is
Figure 5.1 Dimensions of the teaching of politically oriented social work surrounded by the ethical principles of social work
based on and through which different political solutions are evaluated? At the same time, sensitivity to the ethical challenges of the teaching of political issues is needed. One of the most difficult of these challenges seems to be the question of the relationship between freedom of thought and the ethical commitments of social work. How should one act in situations where the political perceptions of social work students seem to collide with the principles of social work? How carefully should party politics be avoided in social work education? Should it be forbidden, for instance, to imply some parties better represent the ethical starting points of social work and some collide with them? Who decides such issues?
When reflecting on the ethical commitments, one can see there is something lacking in many of the texts cited in this chapter: the participation of service users is not highlighted very much. In political action, social workers (current and future) are constructed as being in a central role, but not so the service users or cooperation with them (see also Gibbons and Gray 2005; Morrow 2011). This is a theme that would need further consideration (for more on developing user involvement in social work education in general, see e.g. Robinson and Webber 2013). Whose issues are social workers actually advocating? How could the experiences of service users be emphasized? Should social work students actually be challenged more to support service users' own political action? In Finland, for instance, there has been growing interest in developing activities in which service users and social workers, as well as for example social work students, together
develop social work practices and highlight actual issues in different public arenas, including universities (e.g. Palsanen 2012).
Another theme, which has not been covered that much deals with the relationship between political action and research knowledge. Actually, that could possibly offer one solution to the ethical problem of promoting some particular ideology in social work education. Instead of teachers emphasizing the simple division between good and bad political ideologies, maybe they should underline the significance of empirical research knowledge – including knowledge of the experiences of service users, too. In practice, this would mean supporting social work students in conducting research as well as in acquiring, critically evaluating and using research knowledge in political work and in evaluating on how certain political decisions have supported or broken the ethical commitments of social work. Research knowledge is also needed in order to understand the different – micro and macro – aspects that affect people's lives as well as the interconnectedness of them.
In general, it is clear that the theme of social workers' political action requires significant attention in the future. A critical question concern if the newly graduated social workers are able to use their political skills when they arrive at work places. At worst, there is a vicious circle in which the lack of time and encouragement prevent social workers from affecting the issues they face in their work, which in turn allows the same problems to continue. At best, social workers – as well as service users – can feel they are not only passive recipients of current social conditions but that they are active agents able to affect their environment.