Social work perceptions and identity: How social workers perceive public and professional attitudes towards their vocation and discipline


  • Elizabeth Kathryn Hobbs University of Canterbury
  • Nikki Evans University of Canterbury



Statutory Social Work, Identity, Registration, Multi-disciplinary Teams, Public Perceptions


INTRODUCTION: A century after Abraham Flexner’s (1915/2001) infamous speech conveyed his “dismissive attitude toward social work’s professionalism,” Gelman and González (2016) reflected that social work is again at a critical juncture. The fight for recognition of social work’s professional status has been influenced by multiple factors including negative public perceptions of the occupation. In Aotearoa New Zealand, professionalisation campaigns have been far from unifying, with diverse ideas about practice standards and accountability polarising opinions. At a time that the country is grappling with mandatory registration of social workers, this research considers the ways in which social workers perceive themselves, and the profession that they identify with.

METHODS: Semi-structured interviews with 83 social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand were conducted. Participants were required to be eligible for social work registration. Interview transcripts were thematically analysed.

FINDINGS: Several identity themes emerged during the analysis of the 83 interviews. The first theme relates to the ways in which statutory child protection social work has impacted on identity. The second, and perhaps predictable theme, is that many social workers in this study experienced significant professional marginalisation from their colleagues. The third theme emerged from participants’ views about the likelihood of mandatory registration of social workers impacting on their identity and the professional standing of social work.

CONCLUSION:  Most participants in the current study believed that mandatory social worker registration may positively influence the public’s view of social workers, other professionals, and also social workers themselves. However, many participants seemed to experience levels of self-stigma – and potentially believe they are viewed more negatively by the public than they actually are. Social workers’ perceptions of their role and profession is an area that warrants further investigation.



Author Biographies

Elizabeth Kathryn Hobbs, University of Canterbury

Registered Social Worker, MAPPSW.

Nikki Evans, University of Canterbury

Registered Social Worker, Lecturer and Co-ordinator, Bachelor of Social Work Degree.


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How to Cite

Hobbs, E. K., & Evans, N. (2017). Social work perceptions and identity: How social workers perceive public and professional attitudes towards their vocation and discipline. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(4), 19–31.



Original Articles