In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Social Work in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Organizations and Resources

Social Work Political Social Work in the United States
Jenna Powers, Robert Fisher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0275


Political social work (hereafter PSW) is a specific term used to describe early-21st-century social work scholars and practitioners influencing policymaking by exercising power within electoral politics. Aimed at achieving social justice, social work is fundamentally political. The word political, however, has a complexity of meanings that enable both specificity and breadth. Political can be used as it relates specifically to policy practice, which is understood as a macro social work method of practice involved in policymaking processes. Political can also refer to politicized social work more broadly, which utilizes critical theories of power within all methods and fields of practice. While social workers have practiced political methods throughout the profession’s history, the term political social work first emerged in the United States during the 1980s with two distinct definitions—one related closely to policy practice and the other more akin to politicized social work. The contemporary conceptualization of PSW, introduced within the past decade, combines both. This current definition draws from politicized social work’s emphasis on political power and inclusion of all practice levels in order to expand policy practice. Thus, political social workers, whether generalist or specialist, engage with power dynamics across the various aspects of the policymaking process, with an emphasis on electoral politics. PSW involves social workers influencing social policy by exercising their power through policy practice (e.g., lobbying and policy advocacy) and within electoral politics (e.g., voting and voter engagement, working on political campaigns and within legislative offices, and holding elected office). Given the vast amount of social work resources on policy practice (also referred to as policy advocacy) and the relatively limited social work literature regarding electoral politics, this article focuses on PSW’s electoral-related channels that expand policy practice. PSW endorses nonpartisan political practices that are argued to be particularly applicable of social workers’ ethics and expertise related to empowering marginalized individuals and communities. PSW education and scholarship seek to infuse greater focus on social workers’ electoral-related political participation, voter engagement, and seeking elected office. PSW aims to increase the profession’s election-related participation by encouraging practitioners and students to include and improve their knowledge, experience, and perceptions of policy practice and electoral politics as part of their professional social work identities and roles.

Conceptualizing Political Social Work

The contemporary conceptualization of PSW builds on two political roots within the social work profession: policy practice and politicized social work. Each has similar yet diverging conceptualizations and histories. As a macro method, policy practice comprises social workers’ participation in policymaking processes to affect social policy. Politicized social work entails critical theory and practice within any specialization or level of intervention challenging oppressive political systems (capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.). PSW draws from politicized social work’s emphasis on political power, and it expands policy practice to include all social workers—from micro to macro—influencing power dynamics within the electoral politics of policymaking. The Roots of Political Social Work: Policy Practice and Politicized Social Work section provides a brief overview of these political roots as they relate to the conceptualization of PSW; the focus remains on PSW rather than being exhaustive of policy practice and politicized social work. Discussing the history specific to the term PSW and its conceptualization, the Seminal Works of Political Social Work section includes both references that use and define the term political social work and recommended texts that reflect the contemporary conceptualization of PSW. Infusing social work knowledge and skills into political engagements, PSW is currently defined as a nonpartisan force advancing a progressive political agenda based on the profession’s values and democratic ideals. PSW endorses political practices that many social workers misperceive as unethical, unprofessional, or irrelevant to the social work profession. In fact, political social workers argue that social workers’ engagement within policymaking and electoral politics is particularly legitimate given the applicability of the profession’s ethics and expertise related to individuals and communities who are historically oppressed. PSW is believed to have the potential to interrupt marginalization and advance empowerment.

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