In Praise of Service

It doesn’t come up much here, but I am a social worker. Both of my degrees are in social work, I’ve taught social work for the last 17 years, I’ve served on NASW’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Section, as well as NASW-Michigan’s Legislative and Social Policy Committee and Ethics Committee. This blog focuses on my work and thinking as an addiction professional, but social work is an important part of my professional life and identity.

I recently became aware of efforts to reduce NASW’s Code of Ethics’ emphasis on the value of service.

Here’s the relevant portion of the NASW Code of Ethics:

Value: Service

Ethical Principle: Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems

Social workers elevate service to others above self-interest. Social workers draw on their knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to address social problems. Social workers are encouraged to volunteer some portion of their professional skills with no expectation of significant financial return (pro bono service).

NASW Code of Ethics

The criticism of the value is as follows:

I had a strong reflexive reaction to this argument. I’ve always believed that the centrality this value is something that sets social work apart from other helping professions. (I could be wrong about that, but I checked the APA and ACA codes of ethics and couldn’t find any similar statement.)

As I reflected on this and asked myself why service is an important value that should be defended, I had a difficult time coming up with logical arguments. My reaction was more emotional than rational, but also still deeply held. (DBT has taught me not to dismiss my emotional mind, rather to seek synthesis with my rational mind to find wise mind.)

I vaguely recalled something entitled “In Praise of Service” but couldn’t find it. I did a little research and wasn’t finding anything that hit the spot, so I asked for help. It turns out “In Praise of Service” was a speech by Bill White in 1993.

In this speech he maps out the threats he sees facing the field — “rapid and turbulent change, competition and isolation, obsession with profit and regulatory compliance, technology over-extension”. The final threat he identifies is the profession’s pathologization of service as a value.

The final building block in this crisis of values within our field involves changing judgements about the role of service within the field. This has involved two related processes: narcissistic inversion and the pathologization of commitment to service.

The narcissistic inversion he refers to is a tendency among clinicians to make themselves and their peers a primary object of their therapeutic attention by analyzing themselves and each other.

The pathologization he refers to is a tendency to frame commitment to service as “codependent.”

Though I don’t sense that those particular manifestations of narcissism and pathologization accurately describe the contemporary threats to social work, but I believe narcissism and pathologization are threats nonetheless.

Bill sees a rekindling of service and sacrifice as an essential remedy:

If there is a challenge for our culture and our field in the 1990s, it is the rediscovery of the nobility of service to others. It is the rekindling of the kind of service and sacrifice that springs not from masochism or self-hatred but from the recognition of our connectedness to each other and from the recognition that the self is enriched through acts of service.

While Bill is focused on addiction professionals, this helped illuminate what makes social work special–that we are a profession that explicitly centers the people and communities we serve. We do not center ourselves, our methods, or even other elements of the Code of Ethics. “Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems. Social workers elevate service to others above self-interest.” The word “primary” communicates this and it’s made more explicit with, “social workers elevate service to others above self-interest.”

This is a feature, not a bug.


Bill was troubled by the changing attitudes toward service among addiction professionals and issued a warning and a call for self-inventory:

Many social commentators have suggested that individuals and countries should choose their enemies carefully because they are destined to become like them. Professional disciplines reflect this same process.

Social workers are underpaid and it’s probably true that we’ve been poor advocates for ourselves. It’s common for people to blame capitalism or neoliberalism for the poor pay and working conditions that are common in the profession. Even defenders of capitalism will often cede that there are sectors where capitalism is not the solution.

If one accepts that the poor pay for social workers is a failure (or feature) of capitalism, it seems strange to attempt to solve that by abandoning or weakening our commitment service as a value. That would appear to be the adoption of the very features of capitalism we reject.

What we need is more effective advocacy, and service can be a central part of that argument. The truth is that it’s hard to serve well if we can’t attract and retain experienced and competent staff because of low wages and poor working conditions.

Effective advocacy requires that we select our targets wisely. The problem is worst in small to medium sized nonprofits. In most cases, these organizations exist in a state of organizational poverty. For workers to target these agencies and their leadership amounts to something akin to lateral violence. In most cases, they are not the problem. The real problem is upstream with funding and reimbursement systems that don’t place appropriate value on the people we serve and the services we provide. Those systems seem to be a more appropriate target for advocacy efforts. Successful advocacy on wages for those smaller agencies without successful advocacy upstream would result in significant erosion of services or closure, leaving government and more corporate agencies as the employers and service providers.

Bill closes with this reflection on the crisis he observed and what he believed was important:

I have tried to define what I consider to be a spiritual crisis spawned by many forces which have worked to divert us from our primary task. Our ability to confront such diversions and get refocused on our primary service mission is crucial for the renewal of the field. In the lexicon of the civil rights movement, we must keep our eyes on the prize. When you strip away all the buildings and budgets, the policies and procedures, and the administrative and supervisory supports, the impact of the whole field comes down to the point of interaction between front line workers and our service consumers-whether they be citizens or clients. It is the transforming power of that point of contact that must be our perpetual focus. That’s where the action’s at. Everything else is secondary.

About the author: Staff rai
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This post was originally posted here.

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