In Social Work Practice, Social Justice is the Rock Learning About Social Justice During Field Education

Doctoral Studies Completed Theses – 2014 Archive

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Marie O'Sullivan

DSW thesis, conferred 2014

Social justice is a core principle of social work and a social justice framework underpins the knowledge and teaching in social work education programs in Australia. Field education offers students the opportunity to discover the complexities of social work practice. While field education is an integral component of social work education, there is insufficient research on the inclusion of social justice principles within field education.

This under-researched area is the focus of the dissertation. Students’ understandings of social justice and observations of learning about social justice during field education were explored. This qualitative study involved in-depth interviews of 32 social work students, new graduates, field educators, managers and academics with an interest in social justice on placement. Using a critical theory perspective, these interviews were thematically analysed. Field education was viewed as central to students developing practice with a social justice focus. Students and new graduates understood social justice to include concepts of equality and fairness and, for some the structural factors that maintain injustice. Significant influences were experiences of injustice, ideas from their families and inspirational educators. Students and new graduates learnt about social justice from those using the service and linking these reflections to campus learning. Students struggled to apply theory to practice and in particular concepts of social justice. Field educators, managers and academics described how they assisted students to link their experiences to theoretical models. They expected students to be ready to take a social justice focus within the practice context but noted the significant impact an organisation’s stance on social justice in social work practice had on student learning.

This study affirms the central importance of field education for learning about social justice and exposes tensions between field education and campus learning.

Keywords: social work field education, social justice, social work education, social work, social justice education.

Supervisor: Emeritus Professor Jude Irwin