MULTICULTURALISM in Social Work Ethics

Journal of Social Work Education

Vol. 36, No. 3 (Fall 2000)

This full-text article is provided as a member service of the Council on Social Work Education.

Multiculturalism in Social Work Ethics

Robert Walker and Michele Staton

The authors analyze the treatment of multiculturalism in the 1999 National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, arguing that it presents multiculturalism as a knowledge base and area in which social workers should demonstrate competence rather than as a guiding principle of virtuous practice. They criticize the ramifications of this application, and propose three arguments for repositioning multiculturalism in the Code as a principle of ethical practice rather than a specific knowledge area.

Social work education curricula provide course work in multiculturalism, and in other related fields, multiculturalism was one of the fastest growing new college course offerings from 1991 to 1995 (Hollis & Wantz, 1990, 1994; Ponterotto, Casas, Suzuki, & Alexander, 1995). Furthermore, from 1970 to 1991, 9.6% of the articles in four major social work journals were related to cultural diversity issues (Tully & Greene, 1995). The appearance of this literature contrasts with the 1990 Code of Ethics (NASW, 1990) wherein neither the term cultural diversity nor multiculturalism was present (NASW, 1990). Rather, it contained three statements about social worker responsibilities that approximate the issues of multiculturalism:

I.C.2. The social worker should act to prevent practices that are inhumane or discriminatory against any person or group of persons.

II.F.3. The social worker should not practice, condone, facilitate or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, marital status, political belief, mental or physical handicap, or any other preference or personal characteristic, condition or status.

III.G.3. The social worker should not engage in any action that violates or diminishes the civil or legal rights of clients. (NASW, 1990)

The latest Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 1999) currently reflects a broader trend among human services professions in applying the concept of "cultural diversity" or "multiculturalism" as a specific area of knowledge and competence (Sec. 1.05).

This article explores ramifications of the current representation of multiculturalism in social work ethics as a specific area of knowledge or clearly definable skill. While this article is critical of certain uses of the concept of multiculturalism, the goal is not to demote the importance of cultural sensitivity in social work practice. On the contrary, this article shares a concern that representing the concept as a knowledge area and simultaneously as a moral imperative undermines its fundamental importance to the profession. Conceived of as a guiding belief or value, multiculturalism can become a powerful principle that underlies all social work practice. Sensitivity to cultural diversity is a principle that should be treated like truth, honesty, and integrity in social work practice.

Ethics Theory

The 1990 NASW Code of Ethics contains three ethics statements that might be classified by ethicists as a form of rule-based ethics or "deontological" ethics, meaning that the statements contain a call for doing the right thing (Davis, 1993). This way of stating ethical principles can also include two major versions: 1) prohibiting the wrong thing and 2) prescribing the right thing. A prohibitory ethical injunction is referred to as a statement of "nonmaleficence," since it asks the person to not do the wrong thing (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). On the other hand, the more prescribed behavior is termed "beneficent" since it promotes action that may be considered a right thing. Both of these statements are deontological because they do not focus on the outcome of the act, merely the rightness or wrongness of the act. Ethical statements that focus on the outcome or consequence of the act are called consequentialist statements (Pettit, 1993). The 1990 NASW Code of Ethics uses two nonmaleficence statements and one beneficence statement. At the consequentialist level, both sets of statements, however, point toward preventing the outcome of harm rather than promoting good.

The 1999 Code of Ethics retains a deontological style of ethical thinking, but goes beyond a prescriptive rule to include a responsibility "to understand" and to "have a knowledge base" (NASW, 1999), and thus shifts to promoting beneficence rather than merely prohibiting maleficence. In dealing with multiculturalism in terms of nonmaleficence, the ethical code would prohibit social workers from ignoring clients' culture in providing social work services. A nonmaleficence approach would essentially define what not to do as opposed to what the social worker should do. The current code instead promotes beneficence—an ethical stance that is perhaps more difficult to regulate since it tends to be inclusive of possibly good actions rather than exclusive of defined bad ones. Defining multiculturalism as a competence area or as a subject that a social worker should "know" suggests the existence of specific facts about people that can be taught, learned, and tested in competency examinations. Implicit in this treatment of multiculturalism is the idea that it is more than a belief about how to relate to people or how they should be treated. This usage of the concept references an objective knowledge area rather than stands as a guiding belief or value of the profession. It also suggests that the concept's content is both generalizable and discrete enough to be discriminated from other content areas.

There is thus a philosophical problem with the concept in this application. Multiculturalism is properly conceived of as a belief (albeit a justifiable one) about how people should be understood, rather than a class of objective facts. The ethical principle of multiculturalism is not a clearly defined set of facts or content. In fact, conceiving of it in this way contributes to a slippery slope of unintended stereotyping. Cultural diversity and multiculturalism are, in themselves, terms that suggests almost the antithesis of easy definition since they are in fact about diversity or complexity. As we will argue, it is also difficult, if not impossible, to assess multicultural knowledge and practice know-how objectively in competency testing.

Defining Multiculturalism

It important to note that the terms "diversity," "cultural diversity," and "multiculturalism" tend to be used interchangeably and without clear distinction. For example, workshops promote training on cultural diversity, not the more precise term "multiculturalism" which suggests competence. For purposes of this analysis, the term "multiculturalism" is used as the more precise way of representing the social worker's competence with cultural diversity.

The literature presents various definitions of multiculturalism (Jenkins, 1988). At one level, it refers to the promotion of minority intellectual contributions as a counter to the dominant, majority culture; at another, it is cross-cultural interaction between people. Some people tend to see multiculturalism as an expression of empowerment, since it promotes better understanding and responsiveness to minorities and the disenfranchised (Faulkner, Roberts-DeGennaro, & Weil, 1994; Lewis & Ford, 1990; Pinderhughes, 1997; Weinrach & Thomas, 1996). These broad definitions do not yield clear content or direction for competence assessments. Some authors, however, contend that cultural knowledge and skills devel opment are essential components of counselor training (Green, 1995; Parker, 1988). This article raises the question as to whether multiculturalism is an ethical principle that should guide and inform all professional conduct, or whether it is a specific content area that one can "know" or possess as a measurable skill.

Judging by contemporary graduate course syllabi, Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) educational policy and accreditation standards, the NASW Code of Ethics, and by the content outlines of social work licensure examinations, multiculturalism appears to be a domain of specific content knowledge rather than a posture or stance taken with clients. If it is a topic area that can be mastered, then it follows that a social worker should be able to demonstrate competence in it. To represent it as a definable content area is to equate it with other social work content areas such as family systems theories, domestic violence, or the clinical features of drug addiction, which can be taught, understood, tested, and practiced by the competent social worker.

The 1999 NASW Code of Ethics defines multiculturalism as actual knowledge content, not as a practice perspective or belief. It divides cultural competence into three elements, each of which is stated as content knowledge that can be attained:

1.5 Cultural Competence and Social Diversity

  1. Social workers should understand culture and its function in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that exist in all cultures.
  2. (b) Social workers should have a knowledge base of their clients' cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients' cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups.
  3. (c) Social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability. (NASW, 1999, emphases added)

All three of these items predicate content areas and competencies that can be taught, learned, and assessed in competency testing of social workers. Section (b) is most definitive about the content knowledge that the social worker must attain. This standard is also reflected in the CSWE Policy Statement, sec. M6.6, that calls for master's programs to require content about population groups distinguished by race, ethnicity, culture, class, etc. (CSWE, 1994). Reamer (1998) reiterates the ethical importance of cultural knowledge particularly as a sensitivity to oppression, but he does not draw a clear distinction between a general awareness of cultural differences and specific knowledge of cultures.

It is questionable whether multiculturalism can be defined reliably across different practice settings and in different institutions. Given the range of applications and definitions of the concept, it is further questionable whether multicultural sensitivity has sufficiently distinct content for it to be testable in the way that other social work content areas are. This article suggests that multiculturalism is best framed not as a content area, but as an ethical principle that orients and directs all social work knowledge and practice. In other words, the representation of multiculturalism in social work ethics is best conceived of as a value that is diffused throughout all practice areas rather than an area of discrete knowledge.

The multicultural issue becomes more confused by the tendency of some proponents to apply multiculturalism in rigid and judgmental ways. The Stanford de bates, for example, aired policies that deliberately excluded traditional Western literature in favor of a "counter canon" of contemporary and minority culture literature–substituting one rigid cultural view for another–all in the name of multiculturalism (Gould, 1995). In response to this rigidity, Gould (1995) proposed a concept of "transcultural" or cross cultural thinking that promoted openness and understanding rather than entrenched positions. Multiculturalism, which ostensibly is about tolerance and diversity of views and beliefs, can become a politically correct pledge of allegiance instead of a value message that promotes openness and tolerance (Hartman, 1991; Paglia, 1992). While Jackson (1995) announced that "multiculturalism is here to stay" there is still much to be learned about the concept and its application in social work ethics as a knowledge area.

Multiculturalism's lack of clarity is further exemplified by a recent article addressing specific approaches for intervention with clients whose cultural background differed from that of the social worker. The guidelines included, "Be willing to chat with the client to further develop trust and build rapport"; "Be clear about confidentiality—clarify what information has to be shared and which information the client wants to share with others"; and "Accept the client's comfort level in talking about feelings" (Tolliver, Pares-Avila, Montano-Lopez, & Carballeira, 1998). While these are important issues to address with particular client populations, they should not be considered "specific interventions" relating to clients who are culturally different from the social worker. These considerations apply to all clients regardless of their cultural background.

Earlier social work literature on ethnic competence reads like an introduction to basic social work interview methods, with an emphasis on listening carefully to the client, suspending judgment, and sorting out what is in the client's control and what is not (Devore & Schlesinger, 1981). The unique competencies associated with an ethnically sensitive practice or a culturally diverse practice are seemingly inseparable from sound clinical and traditional client-centered social work practice. If cultural competence cannot be differentiated from general social work practice, then it cannot be represented as a distinct knowledge area. Likewise, it will prove very difficult to assess in competency testing of social workers if it is diffused throughout every aspect of social work practice.

Thus, multiculturalism is best framed as a perspective toward others with a particular sensitivity to the full context of the client's identity, emotions, thoughts, and history. The following section proposes three primary arguments to support this approach.

Redefining Cultural Competence

First, multiculturalism is an intensely held belief. Beliefs are important as ethical principles but they can be problematic when expressed as "truths" or facts. For example, "integrity" is an important principle in social work practice and its absence in social work interventions would suggest malpractice. However, it should not be defined as something that a social worker should "know." Integrity is an ethical virtue (MacIntyre, 1984) and it represents a belief about how practice should be conducted. The 1999 NASW Code of Ethics correctly represents integrity as a value that permeates all aspects of practice. Integrity, for all its importance, cannot be demonstrated as testable knowledge. It is believed to be important, but it cannot be represented as fact.

Scientifically developed ideas rise and fall based upon their ability to withstand independent criticism, continuing research, and application. Beliefs, on the other hand, owe much of their genesis and sustained value to feeling and emotion (Zagzebski, 1996). The ideological quality that often surrounds multiculturalism suggests that it is more allied with belief than science. Likewise, the emotional intensity that is often associated with the idea should indicate its centrality to social work values rather than to objective knowledge or identifiable skills. Plato made the distinction between beliefs and knowledge in the dialogue Theaetetus by defining knowledge as being able to give accounts through technical information, while beliefs may or may not reach this threshold of facts (Plato, 1961). For example, psychoanalytic views of the etiology and treatment of schizophrenia were once widely endorsed but have since been found to be not only wrong and unhelpful, but potentially even harmful (Torrey, 1995). Beliefs about double-bind communication and the "schizophrenic" mother (Arieti, 1974) have not been validated by research on schizophrenia (Torrey, 1995). As these examples suggest, the difference between factually supported knowledge and beliefs can be obscured when the beliefs are widely endorsed. The level of endorsement, however, does not make them more true or accurate accounts of reality.

Belief in the importance of cultural influence should guide all social work practice and educational areas—clinical, administrative, research, and community organization. This is why multiculturalism is a guiding value about how to approach and work with people rather than a specific knowledge area. However, the ethical effectiveness of the principle might be diminished by representing it as a knowledge area that can be tested for competence. Reification of beliefs is germinal to dogmatism and the conversion of a value or guiding principle into an "objective" content area runs the same risk. A belief, when defined as a fact, is beyond critical challenge. By trying to make multiculturalism an uncontested knowledge area, its potency as a value statement might be compromised by the dogmatism attached to the idea. Ironically, the treatment of multiculturalism as an imperative construct brings it close to what some have called moral fundamentalism, a concept typically opposed by multiculturalists (Baker, 1998). When social workers dispute the factuality or specificity of multiculturalism, they risk diluting the importance of the idea as a guiding ethical premise for all social work practices. Furthermore, an idea that lacks intellectual integrity but has a high degree of dogmatic endorsement can create dissonance for practitioners.

The second argument against the representation of multiculturalism as a specific content area focuses on the dangers of stereotyping. Human cultures are extremely varied and extraordinarily complex (Sue, Zane, & Young, 1994). Furthermore, the intersection of cultures with economic factors, political environments, religious variation and individual and family differences make any generalizations about them prone to unintended stereotyping. This risk may be compounded by the ethics standard that makes knowledge of clients' culture an imperative. The unfortunate result of the ethic might be the very opposite of what is ethical: stereotyping due to misgeneralization or over generalization. Even when well intentioned, statements of "knowledge" about another person's culture carry an inherent risk of misrepresentation or even stereotyping.

Ethnicity, which is often incorporated in the literature on cultural diversity and multiculturalism, is equally difficult, if not impossible to objectively measure, and it actually cannot be "tested" empirically (Kato, 1996). Ethnicity, like culture, intersects with many other factors, including class, social roles, region, and the current and historical political context. Cultures are not static, nor is cultural identification a constant, since people change their identifications along with other changes in circumstance or condition (Trimble, 1996). Also, people act upon their cultures–it is not just a one way street (Modell, 1996). Some have tried to describe approaches with different cultural groups based on generalizations about them (McGoldrick, Pearce, & Giordano, 1982). It is unclear, however, whether this literature has captured all the salient subcultures in the United States, or whether these cultures, described over a decade ago, still conform to the patterns defined at that time. While some point out that ethnic consciousness can span generations (McGoldrick, Preto, Hines, & Lee, 1991), culturalism is "knowledge" that can spoil with time and can suffer substantial distortion from one neighboring region to another—even among people in the "same" culture (Hermans & Kempen, 1998). Consider a Bostonian social worker describing "Appalachian" culture, when those who live in Appalachia sense dramatic differences from county to county and even within the area of a county. Aponte (1995) inadvertently demonstrates the potential for stereotyping by lumping "rural" peoples with Appalachians and stating that Appalachians are easy for whites to identify with because they are white. Appalachian culture, however, has been marginalized by "white America," and even the use of the term "Appalachian" borders on stereotyping, as it assumes a homogeneity throughout the region (Billings, Pudup, & Waller, 1995).

Arguing for multiculturalism as a measurable body of knowledge leads to the problem of testing the social worker for cultural competence. The complexity of culture creates a virtual Scylla and Charybdis for testing of cultural competence in the licensing process. On the one side, the sheer complexity and diversity of cultures makes it difficult to create meaningful test content. On the other hand, stepping back from complexity and specificity leads directly to stereotyping by overgeneralization and simplification. It is almost impossible to avoid stereotyping in constructing basic written test items pertaining to culture.

Virtually every article on multiculturalism makes some concession to the problem of stereotyping by addressing the need to identify both the differences and the similarities of various cultures (Glugoski, Reisch, & Rivera, 1994) but this is a difficult problem to resolve solely by cautionary advice. Cultural competence has been measured as "a set of academic and interpersonal skills that allow individuals to increase their understanding and appreciation of cultural differences and similarities within, among, and between groups" (Woll, 1996). However, reminders to be sensitive to the balance between difference and similarity does not prevent stereotyping.

Virtually any generalization about any cultural group is by definition a stereotype. A social worker faces a dilemma in responding to a multiple choice question on "Native Americans." First, the social worker may be confused by the term "Native American" because that is not universally endorsed as a term for the people who populated the Americas before the Europeans arrived. Second, the social worker must assume that the item tests knowledge that applies to all the tribes and nations of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Chile, to mention a few American countries. Furthermore, it must be assumed that the item captures a trait or reality that would apply to an elderly Inuit widow and to a young Cherokee businessman. If the item becomes highly specific about a small Native American tribe, it is unlikely to be very relevant to the majority of practitioners. In addition, it is difficult for tests to address the realistic human complexity that usually attends social work interviewing situations. For example, a social worker might be interviewing an African American male who is gay and who was born and raised in a small Appalachian community. Here, the question arises as to how the client's culture could be defined by anyone other than the client. It is unclear how competency testing can evaluate a social worker's ability to handle precisely this kind of complex and sensitive culture issue.

The third argument challenging the categorization of multiculturalism as a knowledge area involves the degree to which it can be assessed in competency testing of social workers. It is unclear whether competence means a knowledge of a particular culture or a more general cultural competence in social work practice. Sue (1998) questions whether multicultural competence means ability to relate to one cultural group particularly well or all of them. The difficulty in testing cultural competence as a discrete knowledge or competency area can be clearly illustrated by looking at standardized licensure testing.

Now that the NASW Code of Ethics has classified cultural sensitivity as a knowledge competence, the various levels of national social work licensing examinations will inevitably bring this content into the test material. The Association of Social Work Boards (formerly American Association of State Social Work Boards, AASSWB) develops and maintains responsibility for the testing protocols and content areas for state social work licensing examinations.

In 1995–96 the AASSWB began a job analysis for the purpose of developing new content for the examinations. They surveyed 20,000 licensed social workers at varying levels of practice (AASSWB, 1996). The results of the analysis included not only the new areas of content that professionals believed were critical to the competent practice of social work, but also the approximate distribution of items proportionate to the degree of importance in practice. AASSWB lists diversity first among the "significant changes" in content (AASSWB, 1996). One of the effects of the analysis involved increasing the volume of items pertaining to multiculturalism. As the new NASW Code of Ethics is assimilated into social work practice and education, it is likely that the profession will develop an even greater emphasis on this content area. The difficulty arises in how one should test whether a social worker actually possesses this knowledge, which, as has already been demonstrated, is not really knowledge at all. Another important question is whether all social work curricula teach what a social worker must know in order to correctly answer items pertaining to multiculturalism.

Social work is not alone in its struggle with this difficulty. Pope-Davis and Dings (1995) review methods for assessing multicultural competencies among professional counselors, and make some effort to discern a behavioral element in some of the testing items. They recommend the use of two instruments, the Multicultural Counseling Inventory (MCI) and the Multicultural Counseling Awareness Scale—Form B (MCAS-B), both of which feature items that are heavily dependent upon self-awareness and awareness of one's own culture and its capacity to influence counseling perceptions and behaviors (Pope-Davis & Dings, 1995). None of the items in the instruments are validated as typical competency items in licensed practice examinations in the same way that diagnosis or treatment content are. They are characterized as belief statements that can be affirmed or denied. However, affirmations of beliefs do not equate with knowledge or actual competence.

Additionally, it is difficult to measure the extent to which a standardized test or survey on cultural competence is an accurate assessment of a practitioner's actual competence in working with clients. Byington, Fischer, Walker, and Freedman (1997) indicate that pre- and post-test measures indicate that training workshops in multicultural assessment and ethics improved rehabilitation counselors' abilities to provide services to clients of different cultures. The assumption that improvements in cultural awareness on a standardized test will necessarily predict a counselor's ability to effectively work with a client seems questionable. Allison, Echemendia, Crawford, and Robinson (1996) found that the best predictor of self-reported cultural competence among a group of psychologists was simply exposure to a culturally diverse group of clients during professional training. Learning cultural competence generally means gaining direct experience with those who are different from us (Green, 1995). Sue (1998) states that cultural competence is the belief that professionals should not only appreciate and recognize differences among groups different than their own, but also work effectively with them. In other words, the valid assessment of cultural competence would have to exist in the specific practice environment.

Typically, in testing for cultural competence among social workers, items present scenarios that posit discrete options that test the knowledge and judgment of the examinee. To defend the validity or reliability of the item, the correct answer must be clearly defensible against alternative answers. With multiculturalism, it is virtually impossible to separate the correct variable from alternative answers. For illustrative purposes, consider a purely hypothetical but representative item that looks much like what an examinee might face on a multiple choice examination:

A social worker is interviewing a polysubstance-abusing client from a culture different from the social worker's. The client appears uneasy and guarded in the interview. The client is MOST likely to begin disclosing his problems if the social worker:

  1. Has thorough knowledge of chemical dependency and substance abuse.
  2. Has an awareness and appreciation of other cultures.
  3. Has had extensive training in group and individual treatments.
  4. Does not use an overly confrontive style.

The problem for the examinee is how to sort the cultural diversity issue from other distracting answers. The item has a construct validity problem. It would be very difficult to make a defensible argument that knowledge of chemical dependency is less important than cultural diversity awareness. These actually are not either/or conditions, and yet the defensible testing of discrete skill or knowledge areas depends on the ability to discriminate among possible choices of knowledge or skill areas. Since cultural sensitivity permeates all spheres of practice, it is difficult to separate this from other content areas as a discrete variable of competence.

Alternatively, when one tests knowledge of cultural diversity without placing it amidst competing variables in an intervention, it then becomes a patently obvious answer. The hypothetical item might read much like this:

A social worker begins working in a community that has a culture very different from the social worker's. The social worker is trying to establish meaningful rapport with members of this community. The social worker should FIRST:

  1. Have extensive experience in group work.
  2. Obtain data on the economic life of the community.
  3. Have ability to relate to persons from different cultures.
  4. Establish liaison relationships with government officials.

This question begs its answer. Questions featuring correct responses with the words that are typically associated with diversity issues such as "culture" are obvious choices that offer little challenge to the examinee. Examination items that offer language frequently associated with diversity such as "be sensitive to…," "appreciate the client's…," or "be open to the client's…," similarly offer little challenge to the examinee's knowledge base. This selection of language is virtually impossible to avoid with multiculturalism since it typically captures the salient issues. Testing runs the risk of being a way of assuring the profession that examinees affirm accepted beliefs or that they are well acculturated to the language of diversity from the educational curricula. It is questionable whether social work education can teach a multiculturalism that goes beyond the level of a catechism.

The problem of how to teach and test multicultural competence is exacerbated by the ubiquity of culture: quite literally, culture is everything. Clearly, no social work practice can function in the absence of the cultural context within which it must exist. But, given its pervasive quality, the cultural factor is difficult to discriminate from all other factors. The questions about the issue bear a resemblance to the question: which is more important to human functioning—(a) breathing, (b) eating, or (c) drinking? Culture is the "air" of human behavior, thought and emotion; extrication of it from other facets of human existence is directly counter to the principles inherent in multiculturalist views.

Multiculturalism as Virtuous Practice

This article has presented three primary arguments for the redistribution of multiculturalism from a content area to an ethical principle. This change preserves the salient concerns of most of the relevant literature. The teaching of cultural sensitivity almost always features awareness of several key points: (1) the acknowledgment of cultural differences, (2) self-awareness, (3) knowledge of other cultures, (4) identification of value differences in different cultures, (5) identification of stereotypes, (6) empathy with others, and (7) understanding of the oppression and power inequities (Dungee-Anderson & Beckett, 1995; Glugoski et al., 1994; Lee, 1996; McGoldrick et al., 1991; Plionis & Lewis, 1995). Some contemporary teaching approaches actually propose placing students in the culture within which they will eventually practice (Glugoski et al., 1994). The authors of such a model seem to realize that the essential learning about a culture must be experiential and contextual. This is not a content that can be learned from the wide-angle lens of generalities in the classroom. The core of it lies in empathic, experiential learning from the client and community within which the client lives (Green, 1995). Sue (1998) finds cultural competence in scientific open mindedness, the capacity to move appropriately between generalizations and individualizations, and experiential knowledge of the culture with which the professional is working. None of these three skills or competence areas is particularly easy to test for in licensing examinations. All three suggest substantial complexity and individual practice-based learning. In addition, current ethnographic study of human development suggests that development is reproductive rather than linear, meaning that the individual/culture interaction is truly reciprocal and exponentially interactive (Corsaro, 1996). This degree of complexity defies any reductionistic claims to know a person's culture apart from understanding the complexities of the individual participation in multiple levels of culture.

The basic structure of the NASW Code of Ethics is deontological in that it sets forth rules of conduct that follow from six broad values or principles "to which all social workers should aspire" (NASW, 1999, p. 5). Each principle is elaborated into more specific language and two of the elaborations contain reference to cultural and ethnic diversity. As referenced earlier in this article, the Code also sets forth ethical standards that include multiculturalism as a knowledge and competency area. Given the problems with defining multiculturalism, its uncertain classification as a belief or knowledge area, its susceptibility to stereotyping, and its problems in competency testing, it would appear more constructive to keep the ethical burden at the principle level. As a guiding principle, it can influence every dimension of social work practice. This is also a principle that could lead to a more virtue-based ethical system as opposed to a rule-based deontological one (MacIntyre, 1984; Pellegrino & Thomasma, 1993). An ethical expectation of correct practice would include the expectation of a social worker's virtuous relations with clients, where the client's well-being is the sole goal and that would depend heavily upon sensitivity to the client's culture. The habitual disposition to act well, as Aristotle would have it, might benefit from supportive principles, but it is unlikely to be instilled by demands for knowledge and competence in something that is difficult to even define or assess (Pellegrino & Thomasma, 1993).

Much of the literature cited in this article stresses that cultural sensitivity is closely associated with enhanced empathy. Greater emphasis in social work education on the ethical responsibility for empathy can further the goals of multiculturalism. When seen as another dimension of empathy, multiculturalism can help in shaping social workers' ability to step outside their own cultural frames of reference. McGoldrick and colleagues (1991) emphasize the importance of understanding the relativity of one's own ethnic biases and point out that this understanding is perhaps the best insurance against rigidity and judgmental postures. Furthermore, the client's culture is not just a set of distal background variables (Modell, 1996). An empathic approach with a client would call for an evolving awareness of the client's culture, the social worker's culture, and all the possible interactions of the two individuals and cultures.

There are ways for social work education to help students develop greater capacity for understanding the lives of others. For example, the study of other lives through literature and languages is certainly a powerful technique that inspires appreciation of others' experiences (Nussbaum, 1995, 1997), though it is rarely seen as relevant to social work practice. Is the capacity to empathize related to the capacity to imagine? If so, teaching a smorgasbord of generalizations about differing cultures would seem an unlikely path to this goal. Some see the value of language study and internships in other cultures as a means to achieve the true multiculturalist perspectives (Odell, Shelling, Young, Hewitt, & L'Abate, 1994). Saleebey (1994), in an effort to bring a richer complexity to this issue, stresses the importance of appreciating not only the client's culture, but also the personal narrative, the way in which each client makes a unique meaning out of experience. All individual narratives arise from within the person's culture just as all individuals live within them. To fully understand a person is to understand and appreciate this nexus of person and culture. Trying to make the focus on multiculturalism more "scientific" and objective, with its embrace of cultural sensitivity as a specific content area, social work may have created a pseudo-science. The newness of this science might also be questioned. Even Hippocrates, born in 460 BCE, understood the central importance of assessing patients in the context of social and geographic factors that we now call "cultural" (Temkin, 1991).

Social work education might best advocate for multiculturalism by blending its perspective into every social work class rather than singling it out as a separate content area. The full ethical power of the idea should lead to its integration into every social work subject as a fundamental precept for understanding any problem addressed by the profession. In this sense, the ethical principle would guide education about research, policy, community organization, clinical practice, advocacy, and all other social work domains.


The current representation of multiculturalism as a knowledge area and type of social worker competence is inaccurate, and subject to promoting unintended stereotyping. Further, it's unclear whether or not licensing boards can accurately measure skill in this area. It has become more of a creed to which social workers feel compelled to adhere than a body of knowledge that informs practice. The logical positioning of the idea is as an ethical principle regarding virtuous social work practice. The principle embraces understanding a client's behavior, thinking, and feeling in the full context of the sociocultural, religious, ethnic, and economic life within which all of these arise (Comas-Diaz, 1996; Green, 1995). Empathy, respect, and appreciation for the client are the ultimate expressions of whatever might be intended by the notion of multiculturalism. Traditional biomedical ethics perhaps captures the concept of cultural sensitivity more generally, but more effectively, in the principle of respect for autonomy (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). By this account, respect for autonomy means respectful actions, not just an attitude of acceptance. As a quality of empathy, cultural sensitivity is not testable as content, but it can be an expectation of practice in the same sense that integrity or justice can be. The desirable posture for the social worker is one of cultural agnosticism—not trusting in any particular cultural mold (the social worker's or the client's) to determine what is right, wrong, or ultimately meaningful (Sue, 1998).


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Accepted: 4/00.

Robert Walker is assistant professor, College of Social Work and College of Medicine, University of Kentucky, and Michele Staton is Drug and Alcohol Project Director, Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, University of Kentucky.
Address correspondence to: Robert Walker, Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, University of Kentucky, 643 Maxwelton Court, Lexington, KY 40506; e-mail:

© Copyright 2000. Council on Social Work Education, Inc. All rights reserved.


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