Critical Thinking In Social Work Practice Involves Synonyms

Eileen Gambrill, PhD, is Hutto Patterson Professor of Child and Family Studies, University of California, Berkeley.  Leonard Gibbs, Phd (1943-2008), was Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.  Together they wrote, Critical Thinking for Helping Professionals: A Skills-Based Workshop, 3rd edition, which is designed to engage readers as active participants in honing their critical thinking skills, mastering a coherent decision-making process, and integrating the evidence-based practice process into their work with clients.  In the excerpt below the authors introduce what issues require critical thinking and what questions should arise.

Consider the following scenarios. A professor tells you: “some people who have a problem with alcohol can learn to be controlled drinkers; abstinence is not required for all people.” Will you believe her simply because she says so? If not, what information will you seek and why? How will you evaluate data that you collect?

Your supervisor says “Refer the client to the Altona Family Service Agency. They know how to help these clients.” Would you take her advice? What questions will help you decide?

A case record you are reading states, “Mrs. Lynch abuses her child because she is schizophrenic. She has been diagnosed schizophrenic by two psychiatrists. Thus, there is little that can be done to improve her parenting skills.” What questions will you ask? Why?

An advertisement for a residential treatment center for youth claims, “We’ve been serving youth for over fifty years with success.” Does this convince you? If not, what kind of evidence would you seek and why?

You read an article stating that “grassroots community organization will not be effective in alienated neighborhoods.” What questions would you raise?

Finally, a social worker tells you that because Mrs. Smith recalls having being abused as a child, insight therapy will be most effective in helping her to overcome her depression and anger. Here too, what questions would you ask?

If you thought carefully about these statements, you engaged in critical thinking. Critical thinking involves the careful examination and evaluation of beliefs and actions. It requires paying attention to the process of reasoning, not just the product.

Paul (1993) lists purposes first as one of nine components of critical thinking…If our purpose is to help clients, then we must carefully consider our beliefs and actions. Critical thinking involves the use of standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, and completeness. It requires evaluating evidence, considering alternative views, and being genuinely fair-minded in accurately presenting opposing views. Critical thinkers make a genuine effort to critique fairly all views, preferred and unpreferred using identical rigorous criteria. They value accuracy over “winning” or social approval. Questions that arise when you think critically include the following:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Is it true?  How good is the evidence?
  3. Who said the claim was accurate?  What could their motives be?  How reliable are these sources?  Do they have vested interests in one point of view?
  4. Are the facts presented correct?
  5. Have any facts been omitted?
  6. Have critical tests of this claim been carried out?  Were these studies relatively free of bias?  What samples were used?  How representative were they?  What were the results?  Have the results been replicated?
  7. Are there alternative well-argued views?
  8. If correlations are presented, how strong are they?
  9. Are weak appeals used, for example, to emotion or special interests?

The following terms are commonly used within the field of social work. The list was compiled by the University of Georgia and is used with their permission.

Continue to Terms F-V

Advanced Generalist Practice

Definition: A more inclusive paradigm of social work practice, building upon the generalist approach, in which the practitioner uses a multi-system and multi-level approach, and exercises increased specification and integration of theory, research, and methods to assessment and intervention in practice situations.
References: Derezotes, D.S. (2000). Advanced generalist social work practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Gibbs, P., Locke, B.L., Lohmann, R. (1990). Paradigm for the generalist-advanced generalist continuum. Journal of Social Work Education, 26(3), 232-243. Schatz, M.S., Jenkins, L.E., & Sheafor, B.W. (1990). Milford redefined: A model of initial and advanced generalist social work. Journal of Social Work Education, 26(3), 217-231.
Identifying Terms: Focused practice; conscious use of self; practitioner engages simultaneously in theory building, practice-based research, and evaluation; refinement of generalist perspective; working seamlessly in direct and indirect practice as clients’ needs dictate.


Definition: The act of intervening on behalf of an individual, group, or community to represent, defend, and support access to resources and/or services, and to address structural obstacles or barriers that restrict civil rights and principles of social justice; a distinction is often made between case advocacy (advocacy for individual rights), and class advocacy (advocacy for rights of a group or specific segment of the population).
References: Freeman, I.C. (2005). Advocacy in aging: Notes for the next generation. Families in Society, 86(3), 419-423. McGowan, B.G. (1987). Advocacy. In A. Minahan (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work (18th ed., Vol. 1, pp.89-94). Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers. Sheafor, B.W., & Horejsi, C.R. (2006). Techniques and guidelines for social work practice (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Identifying Terms: Client/case advocacy; class advocacy; activism for fair allocation of resources and benefits; social policy reform; environmental manipulation; protection of client interests; giving voice; resources and rights to vulnerable and/or oppressed populations; barrier removal.


Definition: A primary ethical concern of social research. It refers to both doing no harm to people you are studying and at the same time promoting a common good for individuals in the research community because of your study. Its origin in present day social research in America can be traced back to the Belmont Report of 1978.
References: Antle, B. J., & Regehr, C. (2003). Beyond individual rights and freedoms: Metaethics in social work research. Social Work, 48(1), 135-144. Murdach, A. D. (1996). Beneficence re-examined: Protective intervention in mental health. Social Work, 41(1), 26-32. Sasson, S. (2000). Beneficence versus respect for autonomy: An ethical dilemma in social work practice. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 33(1), 5-16. National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1978). The Belmont report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. Washington, DC: Author and Belmont Guidelines.
Identifying Terms: Expression of charity; seeking benefit for others; an attitude of parental concern toward the client/patient; altruism; generosity; benevolence; commitment to improve clients’ situations; caring; sensitivity; compassion.

Best Practice

Definition: A technique or method that has been shown through experience and research to reliably lead to a desirable result. The term implies that this technique or method is more efficient and/or effective at delivering a desired outcome than any other technique or method.
References: Ferguson, H. (2003). Outline of a critical best practice perspective on social work and social care. British Journal of Social Work, 33, 1005-1024. Ferguson, H., Jones, K., & Cooper, B. (Eds.) (2008). Best practice in social work: Critical perspectives. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. Lorenz, W. (2007). Practising history: Memory and contemporary professional practice. International Social Work, 50(5), 597-612.
Identifying Terms: Quality assurance; change process; evidence-based practice; good operating practices

Case Management

Definition: A process by which resources and services are assessed and coordinated at both the client and systems levels, involving assessment for health and social services, coordination and planning, monitoring of service delivery, and advocacy for client rights and entitlements.
References: Lillquist, P.P. (2004). Can case management be used to facilitate diagnostic testing in publicly funded breast cancer screening programs? Social Work in Health Care, 40(2), 55-71. National Association of Social Workers. (1992). NASW standards for social work case management. Retrieved March 31, 2008 from Noel, P.E. (2006). The impact of therapeutic case management on participation in adolescent substance abuse treatment. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 32, 311-327. Woodside, M. R., & McClam, T. (2005). Generalist case management: A method for human service delivery (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Identifying Terms: Social casework; work with the individual; origins in Charity Organization Societies & Mary Richmond; response to fragmented nature of service delivery; linking resources and services to client needs; applying both direct and indirect practice interventions to assist clients’ move through a seamless continuum of care

Clinical Social Work

Definition: A specialized form of direct social work practice requiring at least two years of post-graduate supervision, in which the goal of improving the bio-psycho-social functioning of clients is achieved using a person-in-environment perspective, through application of practice models and techniques informed by the practitioners’ broad knowledge base (i.e., a comprehensive understanding of multiple theories and interventions, professional values and ethics, and clinical methods).
References: Goldstein, E.G. (2007). Social work education and clinical learning: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(1), 15-23. Rullo, D. (2001). The profession of clinical social work. Research on Social Work Practice, 11(2), 210-216. Simpson, G.A., Williams, J.C., & Segall, A.B. (2007). Social work education and clinical learning. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35, 3-14.
Identifying Terms: Social case work; psychiatric social work; private practice; counseling; face to face interventions with individuals, small groups, and families.

Code of Ethics

Definition: NASW publication that directs the professional conduct of social workers. The Code identifies core values and establishes ethical principles and standards that guide social workers’ decision making and conduct when ethical dilemmas arise.
References: Dodd, S. J. (2007). Identifying the discomfort: An examination of ethical issues encountered by MSW students during field placement. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 27(1/2), 1-19. Freud, S., & Krug, S. (2002). Beyond the code of ethics, part I: Complexities of ethical decision making in social work practice. Families in Society, 83(5/6), 474-482. Lens, V. (2004). Social work and the supreme court: A clash of values; a time for action. Social Work, 49(2), 327-330. National Association of Social Workers. (1999). Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: Author. National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1978). The Belmont report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. Washington, DC: Author and Belmont Guidelines.
Identifying Terms: Core values; professional guidelines; ethical standards; ethical principles; moral code; ethical dilemmas; publication for conduct; profession’s code.

Definition: A method by which social workers assist community members in resource development and network promotion to encourage growth of the community as a source of social, economic, political, and cultural support to its people.
References: Brueggemann, W.G. (2002). The practice of macro social work (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group. Austin, C.D., Camp, E.D., Flux, D., McClelland, R.W, & Sieppert, J. (2005). Community development with older adults in their neighborhoods: The elder friendly communities program. Families in Society, 86(3), 401-409.
Identifying Terms: Community self-determinism; local control of institutions and resources; macro practice methods; community boards,; economic development; community initiatives; neighborhood re-vitalization; community empowerment; community assets/capacities; community is the “client”.


Definition: An ethical standard that guides social work. Confidentiality refers to the protection of clients’ private information unless the client has given valid, informed consent for disclosure of said information. The expectation that information will be kept confidential does not apply when professional disclosure is necessary to prevent foreseeable, immediate, and serious harm to the client or to another identifiable individual.
References: National Association of Social Workers. (1999). Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: Author. Saxon, C., Jacinto, G. A., & Dziegielewski, S. F. (2006). Self-determination and confidentiality: The ambiguous nature of decision-making in social work practice. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 13(4), 55-72.
Identifying Terms: Protection of information; ethical principle in social work practice; a professional obligation; the state of keeping secret information; not identifying individuals.

Core Foundation Courses

Definition: Accredited courses providing essential knowledge and skills needed for beginning and advanced study in the social work field, minimally including: values and ethics, diversity, populations-at-risk and social and economic justice, human behavior and the social environment, social welfare policy and services, social work practice, research, and field education.
References: Council on Social Work Education. (2004). Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from Kolomer, S.R., Lewinson, T., Kropf, N.P., & Wilks, S.E. (2006). Increasing aging content in social work curriculum: Perceptions of key constituents. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 48(1/2), 97-111. The University of Georgia. (2005-2006). M.S.W. Program Student Handbook.
Identifying Terms: Core practice courses for licensure and certification; CSWE required core foundation courses.

Core Social Work Values

Definition: The framework for the social work profession, consisting of: a commitment to service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, self- determination, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.
References: Kirst-Ashman, K.K., & Hull, G.H. (2002). Understanding generalist practice (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Thomson Learning. Reamer, F.G. (2006). Social work values and ethics (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Sheafor, B.W., & Horejsi, C.R. (2006). Techniques and guidelines for social work practice (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.
Identifying Terms: Mission of social work; foundation of social work practice; ethical principles; promotion of self-determination; NASW code of ethics; definition of social work practice; a client-centered validity check of our practice.


Definition: Curriculum consisting of advanced courses and practicum, designed to provide the social work student with more in- depth knowledge and skills in specific areas of professional concern.
References: Barker, R.L. (1999). The social work dictionary (4th ed.) Washington, DC: NASW Press. Council on Social Work Education. (2004). Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from The University of Georgia. (2005-2006). M.S.W. Program Student Handbook.
Identifying Terms: Advanced social work knowledge; macro vs. micro track; family centered social work practice vs. community empowerment and program development.

Critical Thinking

Definition: Assessing, analyzing, appraising, and evaluating a situation, issue, or idea, by challenging underlying assumptions, considering multiple perspectives, and applying reason, judgment, and knowledge, to make an informed decision about it; process requires objectivity, intelligent skepticism, open-mindedness, persistence, and decisiveness.
References: Coleman, H., Rogers, G., & King, J. (2002). Using portfolios to stimulate critical thinking in social work education. Social Work Education, 21(5), 583-595. Gambrill, E. (1997). Social work practice: A critical thinker’s guide. New York: Oxford University Press. Gibbons, J., & Gray, M. (2004). Critical thinking as integral to social work practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 24(1/2), 19-38. Holosko, M. J. (2005). Primer for critiquing social research: A student guide. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Identifying Terms: Working knowledge base; link between theory and practice; evaluation of process and content; synthesis, comparison, and evaluation of ideas; appraising content in different/new ways; accreditation requirement.

Cultural Competence

Definition: One of social work’s core ethical responsibilities to clients. It refers to a social worker’s responsibilities in understanding the relationship between culture and personal identity, recognizing the uniqueness and strengths within varying cultures, and experiencing and studying cultural and ethnic diversity.
References: Allen-Meares, P. (2007). Cultural competence: An ethical requirement. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity, 16(3/4), 83-92. Guy-Walls, P. (2007). Exploring cultural competence practice in undergraduate social work education. Education, 127(4), 569-580. National Association of Social Workers. (1999). Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: Author. Simmons, C., Diaz, L., Jackson, V., & Takahashi, R. (2008). NASW cultural competence indicators: A new tool for the social work profession. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 17(1), 4-20.
Identifying Terms: Competence; cultural sensitivity; sensitivity to diversity; lifelong cultural assessment; cultural advocacy as a part of competence; expansion of an individual’s cultural knowledge base.

Direct Practice

Definition: A domain of social work, in which practitioners interact personally with clients, typically face-to face using a range of professional skills and methods, to help them achieve their desired goals.
References: Franklin, C. (2001). Coming to terms with the business of direct practice social work. Research on Social Work Practice, 11(2), 235-244. Feit, M.D. (2003). Toward a definition of social work practice: Re-framing the dichotomy. Research on Social Work Practice, 13(3), 357-365.
Identifying Terms: Micro social work practice; therapy with individuals; marriage and family therapy; face to face interventions with individuals, small groups and families; counseling; clinical practice.


Definition: Respecting and safeguarding the individuality of all people resulting from differences in factors such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic level, age, gender, disability, among others.
References: Kohli, H.K., & Faul, A.C. (2005). Cross-cultural differences towards diversity issues in attitudes of graduating social work students in India and the United States. International Social Work, 48(6), 809-822. Maidment, J., & Cooper, L. (2002). Acknowledgement of client diversity and oppression in social work student supervision. Social Work Education, 21(4), 399-407.
Identifying Terms: Heterogeneity; difference; diverseness; dissimilarity; promoting, tolerating and celebrating difference.


Definition: The ability to identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, situation, or attitude of another individual.
References: Freedberg, S. (2007). Re-examining empathy: A rational-feminist point of view. Social Work, 52(3), 251-259. Lu, Y. E., Dane, B., & Gellman, A. (2005). An experiential model: Teaching empathy and cultural sensitivity. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 25 (3/4), 89-103. Tempel, L. R. (2007). Pathways to the clinician’s experience of empathy in engaging single mothers at risk for physical abuse of their children. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(4), 257-265.
Identifying Terms: Compassion, cultural sensitivity, empathic communication; sincere responsiveness; warmth; ‘being with the client’; perspective taking; interpersonal sensitivity; altruism; caring; congruence; therapeutic alliance.


Definition: An increase in perceived self-efficacy, resulting from a belief in the ability to positively influence ones’ environment and improve personal circumstances.
References: Holosko, M., Leslie, D., & Cassano, D.R. (2001). How service users become empowered in human service organizations: The Empowerment model. International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, 14(2), 126-132. Lee, J. A. B. (2001). The empowerment approach to social work practice. (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. Sparks, A, Peterson, N.A., & Tangenberg, K. (2005). Belief in personal control among low-income African American, Puerto Rican, and European American single mothers. Affilia: Journal of Women & Social Work, 20(4), 401-415. Van Voorhis, R.M., & Hostetter, C. (2006). The impact of MSW education on social worker empowerment and commitment to client empowerment through social justice advocacy. Journal of Social Work Education, 42(1), 105-121.
Identifying Terms: Self-efficacy; internal locus of control; self-determination; disempowerment; process of doing for one’s self; overcoming barriers to negotiate systems for one’s self; self-actualization; making better decisions in one’s life; re-claiming social power; having a “right to say”; and “to be hear”.

Empowerment-Oriented Practice

Definition: A paradigm of social work practice that addresses power inequities on organizational, political, and personal levels by emphasizing client strengths, increasing self-efficacy, encouraging advocacy, safeguarding self- determinism and delivering education in the form of a collaborative and egalitarian helping relationship.
References: Chapin, R., & Cox, E. O. (2001). Changing the paradigm: Strengths-based and empowerment-oriented social work with frail elders. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 36(3/4), 165-178. Gutierrez, L. (2003). Empowerment in social work practice: A sourcebook. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Rose, S. M. (2000). Reflections on empowerment-based practice. Social Work, 45(5), 403-412.
Identifying Terms: Strengths perspective; social justice principles; client liberation; social change model; value-based practice; disempowerment; fostering self-determinism.

Ethical Practice Dilemmas

Definition: Situations in social work practice requiring that decisions be made under circumstances where core values of the profession are in conflict.
References: Kadushin, G., & Egan, M. (2001). Ethical dilemmas in home health care: A social work perspective. Health and Social Work, 26(3), 136-149. Kirst-Ashman, K.K., & Hull, G.H. (2002). Understanding generalist practice (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Thomson Learning. Reamer, F.G. (2006). Social work values and ethics (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Identifying Terms: Clash of core values; hierarchy of values; contradictory ethical principles; complex ethical decision-making.

Evidence-Based Practice

Definition: The systematic use of available empirical evidence to better inform and direct interventions and treatment methods to ensure their effectiveness.
References: Gambrill, E. (2006). Evidence-based practice and policy: Choices ahead. Research on Social Work Practice, 16(3), 338-357. Gibbs, L., & Gambrill, E. (2002). Evidence-based practice: Counterargument to objections. Research on Social Work Practice, 12(3), 452-476. Pollio, D.E. (2006). The art of evidence-based practice. Research on Social Work Practice, 16(2), 224-232. Rosen, A. (2003). Evidence-based social work practice: challenges and promise. Social Work Research, 27(4), 197-208. Webb, S.A. (2001). Some considerations on the validity of evidence-based practice in social work. British Journal of Social Work, 31, 57-79.
Identifying Terms: Empirically supported treatment; best evidence practice; research and evaluation based; best practices; empirical practice; judicious use of empirical practice; ethical practice requirement; practitioner-researcher model; teaching/learning to ask better informed questions.

Continue to Terms F-V

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