The Social Work Perspective of Social Justice

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.[1]

As the above statement illustrates, social justice is one of the social work profession’s core principles, which also include: service, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.

As such, social work and social justice cannot be separated.

“The primary mission of the profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”[1] Importantly, and contrary to popular assumptions about the profession, this mission cannot be realised strictly through charity and direct support to individuals, commonly referred to as ‘down-stream’ work. Social workers are also obliged to go ‘upstream’, to engage in collective advocacy at the systemic and structural levels of society to address the forces that both cause and sustain inequality and injustice.

This idea is perhaps best captured in the phrase: The job is not to rescue the caged bird; the job is to break the cage. This phrase embodies the notion that the way help is delivered matters and that help, which fastens the recipient to perpetual dependence on the helping system, can become another form of oppression in itself.

Social workers are therefore expected to work—not just out of the goodness of their hearts, but from a theoretical and practical evidence base.[2] Social workers are trained in a strengths—rather than deficits—based approach, to factor in a person’s unique circumstances, help them identify their own solutions and provide tools so they may realise those solutions for themselves. Social workers are also called to agitate for change at a systemic level to address structural and cultural violence that are so often the root causes of personal disadvantage and suffering.[3]

A set of professional standards, or Codes of Ethics, provide the roadmap for social work practice, to ensure all social workers and social work students act in ethically accountable ways in the pursuit of the profession’s aims.[4] They are meant to guide social work practitioners to always remain cognisant of the inherent power dynamics in service relationships and of the potential for personal motivation, privilege and unconscious bias to undermine practice. What does this mean?

It means that social workers:

  • maintain clear and appropriate professional boundaries for the protection of service users
  • are accountable for their actions and act in accordance with the law
  • work within their professional areas of competence
  • support considered and reflective self-awareness in making and justifying decision making;
  • inform their practice from a recognised and contemporary social work knowledge base
  • promote and facilitate lifelong learning, education, training and supervision to maintain professional competence and commitment to integrity.[5]

Perhaps most importantly, social workers must ensure the wellbeing and interest of service users is given priority and has precedence; and seek input and feedback from service users in the development, implementation and evaluation of service provision.

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) holds that social justice is a core principle that its members are obliged to promote and uphold for society in general and for the people with whom they work. The social work profession:

  • promotes policies, practices and social conditions that uphold human rights and that seek to ensure access, equity, participation and legal protection for all
  • promotes justice and social fairness, by acting to reduce barriers and to expand choice and potential for all persons, with special regard for those who are disadvantaged, vulnerable, oppressed or have exceptional needs
  • advocates change to social systems and structures that preserve inequalities and injustice
  • opposes and works to eliminate all violations of human rights and affirms that civil and political rights will be accompanied by economic, social and cultural rights
  • promotes the protection of the natural environment as inherent to social wellbeing
  • promotes community participation, including service.

Catherine Booth’s famous quote, “If we are to better the future, we must disturb the present, is particularly relevant to the social work profession. Not only did she identify the need for social reform; her words also imply that imperfection and struggle are natural components of growth and that if we deny today’s problems, we only bind ourselves to the past.

Social Justice Champion:

Shirley Colleen Smith (1924-1998), better known as Mum Shirl, was a prominent Wiradjuri woman, social worker and humanitarian. Her remarkable work included helping to set up services like the Aboriginal Legal Service, Medical Service, Housing Company, the Tent Embassy and the Aboriginal Children’s Service. These services still contribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander welfare in New South Wales and have inspired similar ones around the country.

Heather Moore is a Policy & Advocacy Advisor and Lead on Modern Slavery & Migration for The Salvation Army Australia

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Salvation Army


[1] National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics, Preamble. https://www.socialworkers.org/about/ethics/code-of-ethics/code-of-ethics-english.

[2] Payne, M 2014a, ‘Critical Practice’, Modern Social Work Theory, 4th edn, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 319-347.

[3] Dutta, K 2020, Violence Triangle of Johan Galtung in Context of Conflict Theory, Asian Institute for Human Rights. https://www.aihrhre.org/understanding-violence-triangle-johan-galtung-conflict-theory/1.

[4] Australian Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics, p5. https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/1201.

[5] Australian Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics. General ethical responsibilities, pp 12-14.


[1] International Federation of Social Workers, Definition of Social Work. http://ifsw.org/get-involved/global-definition-of-social-work/.

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