What’s In a Word: Authority

By Al Murdach MSW (retired)

This column examines words which impact social work practice and are thus important for practitioners to ponder and explore. Our word for this column is: authority.

Authority is a word most social workers prefer to avoid when describing their relationships with clients. Other words such as nurture, care, support, encourage, explore, express and relieve are more highly preferred in social work discourse about work with clients. Such words convey an image of helpfulness and kindness, a kind of mothering vision.  Authority, on the other hand, seems to convey an image of a stern and controlling person, an image most social workers would prefer to avoid. Nevertheless, there are many aspects of social work practice where authority is needed, is important, and may even be legally required, as we will see below.

Perhaps the chief difficulty in these contrasting views of worker-client interaction can be summed up by briefly examining the notion of “control”—a concept closely allied to the idea of authority. Most practitioners are inculcated with the idea that control over clients is a bad thing because the goal of the helping relationship is to nurture and free the client’s capacity for self-determination and self-help.  Therefore, with this in mind, the worker should eschew any attempt to direct the client’s decision-making. The clients should be completely free from any attempt by the worker to influence or circumscribe choices so that the client can exercise complete freedom in all respects. The client can be given information, alternatives, ideas, options, etc. but no attempt should be made to “guide” or “persuade” the client to take any particular course of action.

Of course, many studies have long since shown this characterization of practitioner-client interaction to be highly inaccurate and, at worst, a complete fabrication.  All participants in every type of social interaction attempt to control each other in various ways throughout the interaction.  An old social work adage recognized this fact by advising fledging workers to “take control of the interview”.

In other words, all interviews were to be viewed, not as open-ended, but as purpose-driven, with purpose firmly in the worker’s control. For a classic exposition of this view, see The Interview as Arena by John P. Davis, Stanford U. Press, 1971, and The Psychiatric Interview by Harry Stack Sullivan, Norton, 1970).

In what follows we will try briefly to show how such built-in control can be useful in exercising needed authority in work with clients, despite social work’s seeming reluctance to acknowledge its own authoritative capacity.

First, the field possesses professional authority by virtue of its expertise, training and proven effectiveness. This authority should always be used for the client’s benefit.

Second, workers often possess occupational authority due to their positions in such fields as child welfare, corrections, adult rehabilitation, health care and mental health in which they are expected to render judgments about a client’s mental capacity, fitness for transfer, eligibility for benefits or mental health status. 

Third, the more experienced practitioners may exercise experiential authority based on their accumulated “practice wisdom,” a now neglected but valuable term once used to describe the wise use of past practice experience to formulate and carry out the most beneficial and appropriate treatment for each client. Of course, such wisdom should never replace but is valuable in supplementing tested “best practice” treatment formulas widely used today.

Finally, workers today may often be girded by legal authority when dealing with situations that involve child abuse, elder abuse, financial abuse, spousal abuse, etc.  In such circumstances, the worker by law is designated as a “mandated reporter” and must as soon as possible report all such incidents to the designated authorities.

Thus, it is obvious that an acknowledgement and study of authority and its wise uses is essential for social work to both refine and use effectively all the components of authority that it possesses.

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