Power and Powerlessness in Social Work UCLA Luskin professor and alumna receive Social Science Review’s 2017 Frank R. Breul Memorial Prize for social welfare research on professional power relations

By Stan Paul

Knowledge may be power, but professional power for those in fields such as social work can be jeopardized by organizational settings.

For their research on this topic, Luskin alumna Eve Garrow MSW ’03, Ph.D. ’08 and social welfare distinguished research professor Yeheskel “Zeke” Hasenfeld have been named winners of the 2017 Frank R. Breul Memorial Prize by Social Service Review (SSR), a publication of the University of Chicago Press.

In their 2016 case study, “When Professional Power Fails: A Power Relations Perspective,” Garrow and Hasenfeld explain how social workers, when making important decisions for chronically homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing, can find their professional expertise undermined by the interests of external stakeholders who give priority to property management over social services.

“The study exposes the powerlessness of homeless people and their social workers in the homeless services field,” said Hasenfeld, who studies homelessness, poverty and welfare as well as nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations.

In their study, Garrow, currently the homeless policy analyst and advocate for the ACLU of Southern California’s Dignity for All Project, and Hasenfeld find that conflicts arose at “critical clinical decision junctures” for residents whose housing needs involved participation of social workers and property managers.

“Decisions such as those that deny acceptance to the program, sanction clients for behavior related to their disabilities, or initiate eviction proceedings, are critical because they influence the well-being of the clients; they either provide them with or deprive them of scarce and valued organizational resources,” the researchers wrote. Yet, the interests of the property managers prevailed over the professional judgment of the social workers.

Garrow and Hasenfeld said that their findings led them to ask questions such as how property managers, who lack educational professional credentials, could overrule social workers and their professional judgment. They added that a power relations perspective was overlooked in research in human service organizations and that a power relations perspective can provide a strong explanatory model to understanding of organizational that affect the ability of social workers to exercise their ethics-bound professional expertise.

The study found that a power relations perspective:

  • Offers a valuable lens through which to understand the periodic and yet systematic disempowerment of professional social workers
  • Can be generalized when applied to human service organizations to provide a better understanding of the structural conditions that influence the distribution and exercise of power among different occupational groups within the organization and how these influence organizational practices.
  • Reveals the structural conditions that lead vulnerable groups, such as homeless persons, to become powerless clients in organizations.

The authors, who conducted their research over a two-year period, conclude that in order to exercise their professional power, social workers need to forge alliances with stakeholders who share their values and have the power to influence social policy and programs that promote the interest and well-being of vulnerable clients who are powerless within organizations.

“This is part of a larger project to provide the empirical basis for the advancement of human rights for vulnerable and marginalized populations,” Hasenfeld said.

The Frank R. Breul Memorial Prize, established by the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, honors the career of its namesake, including his service as editor of SSR. The prize, awarded annually, is for the best article published in SSR within a given year and comes with a $1,000 stipend and announcement in the March 2017 issue of SSR, according to Mark Courtney, the current editor.

1 reply
  1. Michelle SC
    Michelle SC says:

    I would argue that the field of social work itself heavily promotes disempowerment of social workers. We’re expected to empower others but yet not empower ourselves. We’re expected to work for free during our internships that are an insane amount of clinical hours, and in our line of work -we’re often expected to sacrifice ourselves for our clients at the expense of our mental and physical safety. Talk about disempowerment. Self-promotion that may allow us better access to resources for our clients and patients is frowned upon in our field because it’s not an act of selflessness. This is a real problem. Until we reconcile this within our field, social workers will forever be the band-aid distributors rather than the advocacy and change makers we aim to be.


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