Professional Youth Work

Professional youth work

There has been a lot of talk over the past few decades about the need for professional youth work. I have talked about it a lot too (to see some of our thoughts click here). The issue is if you ask the average youth worker what the sector means by professionalisation they have vague answers at best. If you get someone on their game they may speak about things like qualifications, codes of ethics and pay and conditions of workers. The big issue here is we don’t really know what we mean when we say we need to professionalise!

If you do a cursory glance at the literature on professional youth work however it becomes clear very quickly what model academics and senior practitioners are talking about. It is a model that harkens back to the structural functionalists of the early 20th century. These writers such as Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons saw the need for groups of people to hold knowledge about certain issues for the good of the whole society. They saw a link between the legitimate “professions” and character traits such as self-sacrifice on the part of the individual, ethical practice framed by a code of ethics, autonomy of the profession, and monopoly over a body of knowledge. They saw the need for the strengthening of university education to confer attainment of these traits to professionals and legitimation of the professions.

Sociologist and University of California Berkley, Social Welfare Professor, Ernest Greenwood (1957), best described a profession in terms that we see in the social welfare literature today by identifying five common attributes that distinguish them from non-professional associations. His work contributed significantly to the professionalization movement in social work within the United States of America throughout the latter part of the twentieth century. Greenwood’s work has also been used throughout the social welfare sector to develop core frameworks to develop many professional associations.

Surveying the relevant literature in the mid twentieth century Greenwood identified five attributes that characterised professionals:

  1. systematic theory
  2. authority
  3. community sanction
  4. ethical codes
  5. a culture

By systematic theory Greenwood means, “a system of abstract propositions that describe in general terms the classes of phenomena comprising the profession’s focus of interest”. By authority, Greenwood believes that the knowledge of a discipline which frames its systematic theory sets a professional apart from the layman as holder of professional authority. Community sanctions are those which state who can and can’t be a member, particularly which education makes you a professional and which doesn’t. A Code of ethics sets the formal guidelines for a profession, hence, “the profession’s commitment to the social welfare becomes a matter of public record; thereby insuring for itself the continued confidence of the community”.  Finally, by culture, Greenwood means the unwritten code of conduct generated by groups within the profession, “the interaction of social roles required by these formal and informal groups generate a social configuration unique to the profession, viz., a professional culture”.

As the dominant model of professionalisation in the social welfare sector Greenwood’s Attributes Model cannot be ignored. However, it doesn’t need to be followed blindly either. Perhaps we need a new discussion in youth work. One that asks what type of professionals we want to be… Rather than how we can be like everyone else.

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