4. Themes, case examples, and questions for reflexivity

4.3. Normative value orientations

The third theme refers to the need to reflexively articulate and reflect upon professionals’ normative value orientations and social positions, that inform the public mandate of social work and underpin (participatory) practice, education, and research. Social justice and human rights are internationally recognized as normative principles and overarching value orientations of social work, including health and social care (IFSW, 2014; Vandekinderen et al., 2019; Feryn et al., 2021). The concept of social justice acknowledges the systemic inequalities and power relationships in our society (such as class, gender, race, age and disability), which can result in an unfair distribution of resources and power. However, social justice cannot be understood purely in redistributive terms (Dewanckel et al., 2021), but also examines how social structures and actors recognize some people and oppress others (Kam, 2014).

Health and social care workers are thus never value-neutral or free of engagement, but instead they rely on a social justice orientation as a reference point of their thinking and acting. Being socially marked by a historical, biographical and structural location makes it impossible to structure their work away from their professional power and discretion (Roose, Roets & Bouverne-De Bie, 2013). The vital question is thus how we can enable current and future health and social care workers to reflexively deal with their own underlying values and position (for example, related to class, gender, ethnicity, disability,...), and work through the motions of their own stereotypes and judgments.


The recent study of McCartan et al. (2022) involves a comparative survey across six universities in Ireland delivering social work education both North and South. It provides insights into the demographics, motivations, beliefs, and aspirations of the social work student cohort and highlights some areas for the provision of support and learning for current and future students. If social work educators can better understand students’ demographic characteristics, experiences, and motivating factors then the design and delivery of programs can be improved and tailored to: meet the learning needs of students; address pastoral issues; more effectively prepare students for practice; and so provide more effective interventions for service users (Christie & Kruk, 1998; McCartan et al., 2022). An ongoing issue for the profession is the demographic representativeness of the cohort as they enter the workforce. Social work remains a mostly white, female, middle-class occupation, this continues to challenge the academic institutions and the profession. These findings suggest that institutions, programmes, and the wider social work community needs to further challenge such demographic imbalances. Positively, students across all the institutions are motivated by social justice principles and the prospect of influencing social change and justice. It is important that this commitment continues to be a fundamental part of social work education.  It is thus crucial that social work educators understand the personal and family lives of students and the belief systems that have motivated them to become professionals and continue to support the aspirations of those wishing to become social workers and providing them with the skills, experiences, and opportunities to fight oppression and help others. 


The recent survey study by Kallio, Blomberg & Kroll (2021) involves students at all six universities delivering social work education in Finland. It provides insights into Finnish social work students’ career choice motives that may be of importance for understanding students’ expectations of their social work studies and their professional development. Three value-orientations behind students’ career choices were found: 1) ideological and internal motives, such as a desire to help people in disadvantaged situations and conditions and contributing to solving societal problems and grievances 2) external motives, such as career prospects and 3) personal experiences of social problems. From an educational and professional perspective, all of these orientations are needed: students who embrace the above internal motives are needed in order to influence social change and justice, while students who (also) consider career prospects as an important motive may be particularly keen on influencing social workers’ working conditions and position in society. Social workers that, in turn, have personal experiences of social problems might provide insights as experience experts, at least in a broad sense, both during and after education. The study also brings to the fore the importance of considering who is admitted into to social work education at universities, a factor heavily affected by general national educational policies: the increasing priority that has been given to applicants’ grades in upper secondary school leaving certificates, seems to result in a less diversified composition of (social work) students, when it comes to factors related to (social) background, various types of earlier life experiences etc. This development and its various potential consequences, e.g., for the motives behind becoming a social worker, is something to be acknowledged and discussed by various involved institutional levels. Considering that while (also) most Finnish social work students embrace internal/ideological career motives, they tend to do so especially at the beginning of their studies, while more senior  students, often already working in the field, do not emphasize motives related to social justice to the same degree, which seems to be due to ‘social work realities’ and working conditions. Thus, social work educators face a challenge in preparing students for practice in a way that upholds the commitment to value orientations central to social work.

Critical questions for reflexivity

  • In which way can educational institutions play a structural role in immersing social work students in social realities that stretch their comfort zone? How can you create structural and sustainable relations with the social vicinity of your educational institution as part of educating students’ reflexive skills? How can this relationship be participative/reciprocal?