Impariality vs. Neutrality

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    In the Spring 2018 Edition of Dispatches volume 23(1), (p. 7) for the organization, Doctors without Borders, Carol Devine differentiates between the concepts of ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality.’ According to her, impartiality means only considering a person’s humanitarian needs and not discriminating on the basis of any of the isms, such as race or religion or gender. Neutrality on the other hand is not taking sides. I wonder if these distinctions might be useful in looking at ethical issues in the helping professions? For instance, do we not need to work with abusers despite what we might perceive as their unethical behaviour? Like my mother used to say, abhor the action but not the person (or in religious households, love the sinner but not the sin). Would being impartial about an abuser’s needs but not neutral about their behaviour be a helpful way to conceptualize the differences? Devine goes further and suggests that after witnessing atrocities, the workers in Doctors without Borders at times are compelled to indeed take sides, in other words, to move beyond a stance of neutrality. Again, I’m wondering if the same applies for those of us in the helping fields who are aware of injustices or structural factors that marginalize, requiring us to get involved at macro or political levels as part of our responsibilities for ethical action? Given the example of abuse, even while we treat the abuser, should we extend our practice to support victims of domestic violence by fighting against problematic policing practices that tend to deny the legitimacy of complainants, for instance, rather than using neutrality as a rationale not to act?


    Thank you for starting this discussion on impartiality vs. neutrality, Dr. Weinberg. I like the differentiation Devine makes between the two concepts. I think impartiality by Devine’s definition could potentially cause harm in social work practice. If a social worker acted impartially, they could be overlooking isms of oppression (e.g., racism, ableism, sexism, classism, ageism, etc.) that affect people differently and in deeply disproportionate ways compared to people who do not face these challenges. I believe it is important for practitioners to recognize intersectionality and empathize with service user experiences of oppression. Perhaps neutrality is more useful for social work purposes? In my opinion, neutrality is closely associated with the principle of non-judgment. If a social worker is neutral in practice, they are not making assumptions or judgments about service users’ experiences, behaviours, histories, etc. Practitioners can use critical reflective practice to check and challenge any personal biases, assumptions, values and knowledge that may influence their work. Critical reflection helps ensure that practitioners are engaged in quality ethical service delivery.

    I definitely think there are times when social workers must stray from a neutral stance. For example, social workers cannot not remain neutral when engaged in policy advocacy for social justice and social change. In the example you mentioned, social workers have a clear position and purpose to support victims of domestic violence by challenging policing practices.

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