Who defines social work? In defence of the global definition

The following is the response of the Re-Imagining Social Work Collective to the call for comments and suggestions by the New Zealand Social Workers Registration Board on their definition of ‘social work’ and proposed scope of practice.

Definition of social work

We begin by questioning the appropriateness of the SWRB (re)defining social work.  As a member country of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) Aotearoa New Zealand is aligned to the international definition and contributed to its creation. The IFSW definition of social work is well supported and articulates the profession’s mandate, principles, knowledge, and practice. The Joint International Definition of Social Work (JID) – approved in Melbourne in 2014 and supported by NZ delegates – allows for regional and national amplifications of that definition, but any such amplification cannot replace the internationally approved high-level definition:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. (IFSW, 2014)

This should not be re-written, only amplified if necessary to meet the unique cultural, social and political needs of Aotearoa. Any definitional extension overrides the processes that ANZASW , TWSWA, and CSWEANZ are engaged in to develop a national flax-roots amplification of the JID. The Asia-Pacific regional amplification was approved in Seoul in 2016 (after two years of consultation). In the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, the global definition of social work above, is extended to include a commitment to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, promoting tino rangatiratanga for Māori and challenging the continuing impact of colonial oppression on the wellbeing of tangata whenua. We understand that ANZASW and Tangata Whenua Social Workers Association (TWSWA) have been working constructively with kaumatua and kuia who have a relationship with social work, to determine amplification in te reo Māori (not a literal translation) that amplifies the concept of social work for tangata whenua social workers to align with the IFSW definition. This stems from a collaborative relationship with IFSW, which recognises the rights of tangata whenua.

We are deeply concerned that the SWRB consultation will appear to the international social work community as an attempt by the state to ride roughshod over these democratic and consultative processes. Furthermore, it represents an attempt to control the profession by a government that has amply demonstrated it does not understand the scope of social work, or what social workers are capable of doing, and has regularly excluded social workers from key decisions about our profession: most recently, and flagrantly, the refusal to have social workers at the table in the Rebstock review of Child, Youth and Family. We fully appreciate that a definition of social work may be required in the legislative framework, but question the need to supplant what is already an internationally accepted definition?

We have serious concerns about the proposal as it stands. We are alarmed that the draft definition of the ‘practice of social work’ fails to mention poverty and its impact on New Zealanders, nor the many other significant social determinants of wellbeing and health. Additionally, it does not mention the role of social work in advocacy: joining with communities and organisations to work for human rights and social justice.  The SWRB draft defines social work from a managerial perspective, designed to appeal to the present government’s limited understanding of the social work role. It represents an attempt by the state to control the profession, diminishing the traditional heart of social work and its social justice mission. By focusing on “well-being and psycho-social functioning” social work is positioned in a particular, individualising way that is antithetical to the IFSW definition.

The SWRB definition omits to mention social work as an academic discipline as well as a professional practice. This uncoupling of the profession from its intellectual and scholarly roots is dangerous as it implies that social work knowledge is produced by others and limits the role of social work scholarship and research in building the profession.

Scope of social work

The proposed scope of practice does not do justice to real role and tasks of contemporary social workers. A scope of practice should either outline the core business of a professional group at a fairly high level (such as the Nursing Council of New Zealand do for Registered Nurses); or delineate the precise scope of practice of social workers in specialist roles (see, for example, the scopes of practice developed by the Australian Association of Social Workers). Taking the first approach we propose the following as a more accurate scope of practice:

Social workers are tertiary qualified professionals who draw on theories of social work, social sciences, social justice, psychology, humanities and indigenous knowledge. They focus on the interface between people and their environment and recognise the impact of social, economic and cultural, natural and geographic factors on the health, wellbeing, and rights (or ‘ability to access outcomes justice’) of individuals, groups, families, whanau and communities.

Social workers recognise that contemporary and historical processes­–operating at micro, meso and macro levels –act to disempower and oppress people and to produce inequality, injustice and discrimination. Social workers therefore maintain a dual focus in both improving human wellbeing and identifying and addressing systemic or structural issues that diminish the wellbeing, self-determination and rights of individuals and collectives.

Social workers use helping skills, organisational skills, professional judgement, ethical understandings, research informed knowledge(s) and reflective practice to engage, assess, plan, intervene and evaluate their practice in complex human situations. They provide services that require substantial knowledge, skills and professional judgement: including (but not limited to) professional report writing, psychosocial assessment, risk assessment and management, advocacy, care management, counselling, family work, groupwork, community work, residential work, change management, consultancy, and advice and information giving.

Social workers may also be involved in managing situations of risk and using statutory powers to protect individuals or communities. In these situations, they use critical reflection, ethical decision-making skills and professional supervision to manage ethical dilemmas and balance the tensions between care and control. Evaluating risk is considered as one aspect of a wider ecological, social justice and strengths informed assessment process. At its heart, social work is a relational practise and­–whether working with voluntary or involuntary service users­–social workers seek to establish a positive working relationship that is responsive to a service user’s identity, culture and worldview and maximises their self-determination.

Social workers practise in a range of fields of practice including (but not limited to): child protection, health, corrections, older people, mental health, disability, schools, refugees and asylum seekers, and leadership and management. In each of these fields they work in partnership with individuals, families, whanau, iwi, communities and other professionals. They also use their expertise to manage, teach, evaluate and research social work practice and to analyse and develop policy. Social workers are accountable for ensuring the services they provide are consistent with their education and assessed competence, meet legislative requirements and align with relevant codes of ethics and conduct.


The global definition of social work was ratified in 2014 and in its commentary IFSW states that “social workers have a responsibility to

 defend, enrich and realize the values and principles reflected in the values and principles of this definition.” A motion was passed stating: “As the definition of social work is the key element for establishing the identity of an occupational group, a future revision of this definition has to be initiated only after precise evaluation of the implementation process and the need for change (IFSW, 2014).

It is our position that in attempting to redefine social work, the SWRB has not applied this level of precision. We defend the current definition, its mandate, principles, knowledge and practice as already determined by IFSW, and support the existing consultation process as described above to enrich it.

We urge Aotearoa New Zealand social workers to send in a submission to the SWRB at  by  5pm Friday May 19.

  • Neil Ballantyne, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.
  • Liz Beddoe, Associate Professor in Social Work, University of Auckland.
  • Ian Hyslop, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Auckland.
  • Emily Keddell, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Otago.
  • Simon Lowe, Senior Tutor in Social Work, University of Waikato.
  • Deb Stanfield, Senior Social Work Academic, Wintec.

8 replies on “Who defines social work? In defence of the global definition”

Thank you for a well articulated position statement on the definition of social work. I fully endorse this statement being presented to the SWRB requiring them to adopt the current international definition of social work.

Thank you, I’m looking forward to reading this is detail. A quick question, the SWRB website says submissions are due on the 19th of May, whereas this article says 19th of June. Has the timeframe been extended? (That would be great!) Or is the date a typo? Thanks.

Thanks Liz. I’m disappointed that we don’t have the extra month, that would have been so much more reasonable! I’m unlikely to have the time to write a submission to meet the deadline, which concerns me as the question of who defines our profession deserves a whole lot of action, energy, and response. Do you know whether there are any collective responses, alongside this piece, that social workers can add our names to? Or plans for further engagement with this, beyond the submission deadline? Thanks to all who have done work on this.

Hi Tanya- I know of submissions being sent in by groups of social work academics, groups of students and I am sure that ANZASW, TWSA will be submitting responses. The PSA has done a great submission also. And many individuals have said they plan to write. Submissions don’t have to be long. Send a email with a list of bullet points based on the key concerns.

Thanks Liz. I’m relieved to hear that several submissions are happening, and will do my best to send an individual one in tomorrow. Thanks!

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