Theses Doctoral

Orientation of the Practitioner in Correctional Work: Continuities in the Empirical Study of Professionalism and the Conditions of Practice

Melzer, Arden Everett

This study examines the relative influence of professional education, the conditions of practice and other factors on the social worker's orientation to the welfare of his clients. The hypothesis, that professionally trained social workers are more oriented to the welfare of their clients than are their untrained co-workers, is tested. The relationship between the extent of perceived organizational constraints and the worker's orientation is assessed to determine if functional autonomy is related to practitioner orientation. The study also examines whether professional education generates commitment to the professional norms of social work. When a worker agrees with a standardized prescription for practice, does agreement imply legitimation, or the usefulness, of the prescription--or both? Inter- and intra-positional consensus, on evaluations of the legitimacy and usefulness of practice prescriptions, is examined in order to locate formal and informal organizational sources of influence on practice orientation. One thousand seventy-five respondents from twenty-three geographically distributed state probation and/or parole agency system populations answered a questionnaire which included instruments treating practitioner orientation, functional autonomy, and the legitimacy and utility
of a set of professional prescriptions for practice which were standardized on a national sample of "transmitters" of professional norms--casework teachers. As hypothesized, trained practitioners were more client welfare oriented than those who were not trained. When employing organization was held constant, this finding persevered in a majority, but not all, of the employing organizations. These findings held when status, tenure and experience were also held constant. Female practitioners with every type and at every level of education were more client welfare oriented than male practitioners. Sex, or its social concomitants, and professional education emerge as independent sources of client welfare orientation. Regardless of its sources, practitioner orientation was specified by organizational contingencies. Among these, two elements of caseload composition reduced differences between trained and untrained workers: (1) probation caseloads; (2) adult caseloads. In contrast to earlier findings, the practitioner's perception of his freedom to determine case decisions is not related to his practice orientation. Functional autonomy may be a function of the practitioner's visibility, which is related to organizational complexity. Practitioners with rural caseloads perceive themselves as having greater autonomy than those with urban caseloads.
Although professional education exerts a powerful influence on the worker's orientation to the welfare of his clients, it isn't the influence which educators are likely to want. Workers who consistently agree with professional prescriptions for practice do not consistently legitimate them when they are required to consider both their legitimacy and their usefulness. When social workers must consider more than one implication of "agreement" at a time, they do not make judgements which are uniformly consistent with professional norms. Some of the evidence suggests that practitioners tend to legitimate what they believe to be useful. There is consensus, within and among organizational positions, on evaluations of legitimacy and utility of practice prescriptions. Workers' perceptions of supervisors' evaluations are accurate. The substantial
consensus on punitive case actions includes legitimation of breaches of confidentiality, routinized forms of persecution of homosexuals, and the automatic response to initiate revocation proceedings for physically aggressive children or clients who engage in extended sexual affairs.
Although professionally trained workers are differently oriented to these matters than untrained workers, a large proportion of trained practitioners contribute to the consensus on punitive case decisions. Finally, there is a minor trend in the data indicating somewhat greater consensus among workers than between workers and supervisors. Similarly, there is a greater worker-supervisor consensus than worker-top administrator consensus. This suggests that elective relationships among organizational peers may yield more powerful influences on practice orientation than formally defined hierarchically structured organizational relationships.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Social Work
Thesis Advisors
Wiggins, Lee
Ohlin, LLoyd
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 30, 2015