Fulfilling the Ethical Obligation to Political Participation: Clinical Social Workers and Professional Socialization

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



In this exploratory study, the professional socialization of 23 clinical social workers based in New England is examined. Building on a landmark framework for understanding professional socialization, this article extends the conversation to assess professional identity among the study participants as well. Findings suggest that clinical social workers identify throughout presocialization, formal socialization, and practice after formal socialization as much or more with clinical roles in social work, especially as a psychotherapist or clinician, than as social workers invested in justice-oriented activities. Although all participants in the study associated justice with being a topic introduced in some social work courses or in evidence in some elements of clinical practice, most participants said that policy-related advocacy, organizing, and encouragement are not primary objectives of their clinical work and in many cases raise questions of the ethics of talking to clients about political participation at all. This paradoxical understanding of social work practice suggests a need for further exploration particularly of formal and postformal professional socialization so that clinical social workers will embrace social justice as part of the work that separates their profession from psychiatry, psychology, and counseling.


Accepted 27 Jan 2020, Published online: 05 Oct 2020.