What’s in a Word? Self-Determination


By Al Murdach, LCSW (Retired)

This column examines words which impact social work practice and are thus important for social workers to ponder and explore. Our word for today’s column is self -determination.

Since the early days of the profession, the concept of self-determination has occupied a central place in the value system of the profession. All social workers are encouraged to pursue this goal in their interactions with clients. Hence the entire mission of the profession becomes “helping others to help themselves.”

However, with increasing attention to the nature of values within the profession, the nature of self-determination has come under increased scrutiny. Many questions about self-determination have surfaced. What exactly is it? Is it a “right” at all? If so, what does it really mean? How much of it is enough? Are certain individuals incapable of exercising self-determination? What should be done if it should prove to be self-destructive? Finally, if self-determination is important, is it realistic if insufficient resources exist to provide for it?

Given this debate, some social work commentators have suggested that self-determination may be an ideal, but an “illusory” value for the profession to pursue. Freedburg, in an extensive historical review of the concept in a 1989 issue of Social Work, mournfully concluded that, while the idea is still considered a basic value in the profession, its exact significance remains “elusive.”

These concerns have taken on added significance because of the focus on “cultural sensitivity” that now dominates the field. Workers are increasingly being urged to take their client’s ethnic identity and cultural values into consideration in developing working relationships with individuals, groups and communities. Regarding self-determination, many clients from non-Western cultures have a skeptical reaction to interventions that view them as discrete individuals with responsibilities primarily for themselves. This is because their cultures view individual development in the context of group, familial and community relationships and not as a function of individual choice alone. One Chinese-born social worker, for example, recounts that her efforts to use individualistic models of therapy derived from her Western training were greeted with “blank stares” by her native-born Chinese clients when she returned to China.

Given the above, it is my suggestion that the profession drop its long association with the idea of self-determination since, as we have seen, the term is tenuous, vague and ill-defined. Furthermore, we now realize it is an idea that is essentially culture-bound. Because of this it is largely unsuited for general use outside cultures like ours that have historically emphasized the unique individual, the “self-made” man or woman not bound by familial and community ties who must make his or her own decisions and pursue a solitary vision. Since this is a view not shared by the cultures of many of the clients whom we now serve, I propose that in the future we instead utilize the term “self-realization” in describing the profession’s goals in serving its clients. Self-realization, or assisting others to develop their full potential, is a term describing an interactional process rather than the individualistic series of decision-making steps typically associated with assisting clients to be self-determining. I suggest this would be a more hopeful and future oriented label for the major goal of all social work interventions, which is to always leave clients in a better place than the one in which we found them. In this way their lives will be at least a little better off as a result of our social work contact.


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