How undergraduate students on a qualifying social work programme make sense of ethics: a phenomenological inquiry
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AbstractEthics and values have long been central to social work and to social work education, with principles of rights and social justice underpinning social work practice and accordingly, the social work ethics curriculum. In addition, and in more recent decades, ethics has undergone a period of heightened interest across the social professions. In social work, this is reflected in the burgeoning range of theoretical approaches brought to bear and the growing number and scope of professional ethical codes. However, empirical evidence suggests that despite this emphasis, ethical social work practice may be constrained in current welfare contexts, typically shaped by neoliberalism and austerity. The existing literature finds social workers responding to the challenges these characteristics present in different ways. Some appear to be compliant, or to circumvent stress by recourse to agency protocols rather than ethical reasoning. Others demonstrate resistance, while practitioners’ experiences also include stress or isolation. However, there is little research evidence about what ethics means to social work students, and less still based in the UK, meaning that the evidence-base for UK ethics education is limited. In response to this, this thesis presents a qualitative, pedagogical study that investigated how sixteen undergraduate students in England made sense of ethics. Its methodology, interpretative phenomenological analysis, is based on phenomenological, interpretative principles alongside an attention to the particular, and facilitates close attention to individual meaning and sense-making. First, second and final year students were amongst the participants and the analysis of data gleaned in individual, semi-structured interviews provided a rich picture of their ethical concerns and understandings. The results of the study indicate that for these participants, ethics can be conceptualised in three domains, each with a respective focus on identity, relationships with service users, and ways of responding to organisational demands. Emphases within and between the three domains vary across and within year group samples, with the third especially significant for participants who had undertaken practice learning in statutory settings. There, patterns of both compliance and resistance are identified, and in this regard the study’s results echo those more typical in the literature of those with qualified workers as their participants. The findings of the study contribute to the knowledge base underpinning qualifying social work education in the UK at a time when course delivery patterns are changing and social work practice and education subject to continuing external critique. They point to ways in which educators might engage meaningfully with students in order to facilitate their development into ethically aware and resilient practitioners, able to maintain value-based practice in challenging and constrained contexts. It is essential that that they do this if students, who will become the qualified practitioners of the future, are to take forward the values and ethical commitment that have long been the hallmark of the social work profession.
CitationCornish, S. (2018) ‘How undergraduate students on a qualifying social work programme make sense of ethics: a phenomenological inquiry’. PhD thesis. University of Bedfordshire.
PublisherUniversity of Bedfordshire
TypeThesis or dissertation
DescriptionA thesis submitted to the University of Bedfordshire, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of PhD
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