The Oxford Biblical Studies Online and Oxford Islamic Studies Online have retired. Content you previously purchased on Oxford Biblical Studies Online or Oxford Islamic Studies Online has now moved to Oxford Reference, Oxford Handbooks Online, Oxford Scholarship Online, or What Everyone Needs to Know®. For information on how to continue to view articles visit the subscriber services page.
Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE (www.oxfordreference.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 26 March 2023


A Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care

John Harris,

Vicky White


Principles or ideals that shape people’s attitudes and behaviour. In the context of social work, such principles are included in the General Social Care Council’s Codes of Practice. The Code of Practice for Social Care Workers is a list of statements that describe the standards of professional conduct and practice required of social care workers:

  • Protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers.

  • Strive to establish and maintain the trust and confidence of service users and carers.

  • Promote the independence of service users while protecting them as far as possible from danger or harm.

  • Respect the rights of service users while seeking to ensure that their behaviour does not harm themselves or other people.

  • Uphold public trust and confidence in social care services.

  • Be accountable for the quality of their work and take responsibility for maintaining and improving their knowledge and skills.

The values that underpin these standards of conduct and practice are contained within the detailed elaboration of each of them. For example, under the first statement, ‘as a social care worker, you must protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers’, workers are told that this includes: treating each person as an individual; respecting the individual views and wishes of service users and carers; respecting the dignity and privacy of service users; and respecting diversity and different cultures and values. The intermingling of values with more detailed information about standards of conduct and practice under each of the statements means that there is no stand-alone assertion about the values social workers are expected to hold. Previous formulations of social work values, for example, that produced by the now-defunct Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, were rooted in anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles. Such formulations saw social work values as embodying a commitment to social justice in addition to a set of principles to guide individual professional conduct.

Statements of values often do not reflect the complex and contested nature of social work. For example, there can be an awkward fit between values exhorting social workers to empower people, while they are required to implement policies that maintain forms of social injustice and restrict the use of resources to improve people’s lives. Value conflicts also arise from the requirement on social workers to be person-centred, focusing on the interests of the child or adult, when, at the same time, they have to take account of the potentially competing interests and conflicting needs of other family members, the goals of other professionals and agencies, and the interests of their employing organizations. These two examples illustrate the value conflicts social workers can experience as different responsibilities and concerns come into play.

In addition, there may be competition between different social work values themselves, for example, service user self-determination and protecting service users from harm. Value conflict may also arise when the rights and freedom of one individual are in opposition to the ‘the wider society’, for example, an older person may choose to live with very low standards of cleanliness within her/his home but this may have environmental health consequences for those living nearby. Furthermore, there may be conflict between personal values and professional social work values, for example, a particular social worker might have a personal value that adult children should look after their older parents, but social work values include being non-judgemental and respecting the wishes and values of others. Or, a value conflict may entail a clash between personal and/or professional values and organizational values and practices, for example, personal and professional values may support the position that society should promote the well-being of people with disabilities, but this may be undermined by policies and practices related to the application of stringent eligibility criteria.

Social workers constantly have to negotiate and manage such value conflicts. Despite the conflicts and constraints that are an inevitable and intrinsic part of social work, there is much that social workers can do to seek to ensure that their practice upholds social work values. Often this will be achieved in day-to-day encounters with service users but social work’s role is also to question and challenge policies and practices that compromise social work values. This has been pointed up in recent years by the dominance of the neo-liberal agenda in social work as it has often commodified and depersonalized services. In the face of neo-liberal challenges to social work values, it has been argued that the elements of its agenda that appear to have a surface resemblance to social work values and appear to be in sympathy with them, such as its promotion of choice and empowerment, need to be carefully interrogated and placed within the market context of consumerism from which they emerge. See also Code Of Ethics.