Strengths-Based Social Work: Issues, Controversies, and Ethical Considerations

Strengths-Based Social Work: Issues, Controversies, and Ethical Considerations

Sana Loue (Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, USA)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3090-9.ch006


The strengths-based approach to the provision of social work services is said to rest on a respect for the worth and dignity of every individual and a concern that every individual be able to fulfill his or her potential. The strengths perspective transforms the role of the social worker role from that of an authority to that of a collaborator and seeks to facilitate client identification of internal and external strengths and resources and delineation of goals. Numerous criticisms have been raised about the approach, which has not been standardized in practice and has not been systematically evaluated through rigorous research to ascertain the effects of the approach or its acceptability to clients. As a consequence, numerous ethical issues are raised, including questions relating to client self-determination and informed consent. Additional research is needed to further evaluate the value of this perspective to client growth and development.
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The Social Work Dictionary defines the “strengths perspective” as an “orientation in social work and other professional practices that emphasizes the client’s resources, capabilities, support systems, and motivations to meet challenges and overcome adversity. This approach does not ignore the existence of social problems, individual disease, or family dysfunction; it emphasizes the client’s assets that re used to achieve and maintain individual and social well-being” (Barker, 2003, p. 420). Strengths-based social work has been said to rest “on helping to discover and embellish, explore and exploit clients’ strength and resources in the service of assisting them to achieve their goals, realize their dreams, and shed the irons of their own inhibitions and misgivings, and society’s denunciation” (Saleebey, 2006, p. 1).

As such, it is claimed by its proponents to represent a sharp departure from social work’s focus on the diagnosis of pathology, the identification of individuals’ and families’ deficiencies, and the imposition of the social worker’s interventions that may or may not be relevant in the context of clients’ lives (Rapp et al., 2005; Saleebey, 2002; Weick et al., 1989). It is said to both flow from and reflect social work’s most deeply held values (Weick et al., 1989). It has been asserted that the purpose of social work and the values upon which the practice rests is “to release human power in individuals for personal fulfillment and social good, and to release social power for the creation of the kinds of society, social institutions, and social policy which make self-realization most possible for all men [and women]. Two values which are primary in such purposes are respect for the worth and dignity of every individual and concern that he [or she] have the opportunity to realize his [or her] potential as an individually-fulfilled socially contributive person” (Smalley, 1967, p. 1).

To the best of this writer’s knowledge, there has been no published commentary on ethical issues that may arise with social work practice that is premised on a strengths perspective. This chapter first presents an overview of the strengths approach, including points of disagreement between proponents of the perspective and those who have expressed concerns regarding its use. The practice of strengths-based social work is then examined with reference to various provisions of several ethical codes that guide social work practice. The chapter concludes with strong recommendations for both the conduct of methodologically rigorous research to assess the actual effects of a strengths-based approach and the inclusion of specific disclosures to the client as part of the informed consent process.



Strengths-based social work practice comprises six specific features:

  • Goal orientation

  • Systematic assessment of strengths

  • Perceptions of the individual’s environment as resource-laden

  • Explicit methods that rely on client strengths for the attainment of goals

  • Hope-inducing relationship and

  • Provision of meaningful choices and client authority to choose (rapp et al., 2005).

Each of these features is explored in greater detail below. In the context of this discussion, the strengths-based approach as compared to what has been referred to as the traditional social work approach.

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