Political Ideology and Perceptions

Political Ideology and Perceptions

Political Ideology and Perceptions of Social Justice Advocacy Among Members of the American Counseling Association

Janeé M. Steele & Gary H. Bischof & Stephen E. Craig

Published online: 17 September 2014 # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Abstract This study explored perceptions of social justice advocacy among liberal, moderate, and conservative members (N=214) of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Results showed that conservative participants had somewhat less favorable perceptions of social justice advocacy, but generally did not differ statistically from liberal and moderate partici- pants. Statistically significant differences, however, were found among extremely liberal participants. All participants generally supported the use of ACA resources for social activism. Implications and limitations are discussed.

Keywords Social Justice Advocacy. Political Ideology. American Counseling Association


Organizations in countries around the world embrace social justice advocacy as an important aspect of counselor identity. The mission of the International Association for Counselling (IAC), for example, is “To serve as an international leader and catalyst for counsellors and counselling associations by advancing culturally relevant counselling practice, research and policy to promote well being, respect, social justice and peace worldwide” (www.iac-irtac.org/ node/36). Similarly, the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association’s (CCPA) Standards of Practice require counselors to “convey respect for human dignity, principles of equity and social justice, and speak out or take other appropriate actions against practices,

Int J Adv Counselling (2014) 36:450–467 DOI 10.1007/s10447-014-9217-0

J. M. Steele (*): G. H. Bischof Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5226, USA e-mail: janee.steele@gmail.com

G. H. Bischof e-mail: gary.bischof@wmich.edu

S. E. Craig Family and Consumer Sciences, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5322, USA e-mail: stephen.craig@wmich.edu




policies, laws, and regulations that directly or indirectly bring harm to others or violate their human rights” (www.ccpa-accp.ca/en /standardsofpractice/). Social justice advocacy is considered one of five primary themes in the internationalization movement currently taking place across the counseling profession today (Ng & Noonan 2012), and is gradually becoming recognized as one of counseling’s core competencies.

Despite notable support throughout counseling’s international community, social justice advocacy has become an increasingly controversial topic in the United States, especially among some members of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Specifically, concerns have been raised over what is perceived to be: (a) the liberal political agenda of social justice advocates, (b) the marginalization of conservative counselors, and (c) the inappropriate use of ACA resources for social activism (Canfield 2007, 2008a, b; Hunsaker 2008; King 2010).

Concerns of this nature suggest that contrary to what is most often stated by social justice proponents, many counselors may question if efforts to address social and political issues are appropriate tasks for counselors in their professional roles. They further imply that opinions about social justice advocacy among counselors may be shaped by differences in liberal and conservative political ideologies.

While various opinions have been expressed about the nature and purpose of social justice advocacy in counseling (cf., Harrist & Richardson 2012;

Hunsaker 2011; Smith, Reynolds, & Rovnak 2009), there is little empirical evidence to document perceptions of social justice advocacy among counseling professionals. Claims that conservative counselors are likely to object to social justice advocacy are also largely unsubstantiated within the literature.

The purpose of this study, therefore, was to examine the relationship between perceptions of social justice advocacy in counseling and political ideology among members of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Specifically, this study examined: (a) perceptions of the attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, skills, importance, and personal practices associated with social justice advocacy, as well as differences in those perceptions among liberal, moderate, and conservative counselors; (b) support for the use of ACA resources to advocate for social issues; and (c) the relationship between perceptions of social justice advocacy and social and political characteristics, including highest degree obtained, gender, age, race, sexual orienta- tion, income, political party affiliation, and political involvement.


Social justice advocacy, defined as “professional practice, research, or scholarship intended to identify and intervene in social policies and practices that have a negative impact on the mental health of clients who are marginalized on the basis of their social status” (Steele 2008, pp. 75– 76), has been infused into nearly all aspects of counseling, including counselor training, ethics, and professional development in the United States and other parts of the world.

The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs Standards (CACREP) (2009), for example, states that all accredited counselor education programs must provide training in social justice and advocacy processes (Section II Standard G.1.i.; Standard G.2.e.). Similarly, the ACA Code of Ethics (2005) indicates that counselors have an ethical obligation to advocate for clients at individual, group, institutional, or societal levels when appropriate (A.6.a).

Attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary for advocacy at these levels are defined through ACA endorsed competencies (Lewis, Arnold, House, & Toporek 2003). Numerous books, articles, and special journal issues published within the last decade further define how counselors can work within their professional roles to eliminate societal barriers that hinder mental health and human development (e.g., Chang, Crethar, & Ratts 2010; Crethar & Winterowd 2012; Goodman 2009; Holcomb-McCoy 2007; Lee 2007).

Int J Adv Counselling (2014) 36:450–467 451




In spite of what appears to be widespread support for social justice advocacy in counseling, recent literature highlights significant concerns regarding its role in the profession, especially as it relates to its political aspects (cf., Harrist & Richardson 2012; Hunsaker 2011; Smith et al. 2009).

Special opinion pieces and letters to the editor of Counseling Today, ACA’s monthly newsletter, illustrate these concerns among practitioners, students, and even those within counseling’s leadership ranks. For example, in articles written for Counseling Today, Brian Canfield (2008a, b), a former ACA President, argued that the social justice movement in counseling is based primarily on liberal values that are not reflective of a consensus within the profession.

According to Canfield, because counselors come from both liberal and conserva- tive backgrounds, social justice activists should stop trying to utilize the resources of profes- sional organizations like ACA in order to advocate for specific social positions, as to use such resources would be unfair to members who would advocate for opposing positions. Similarly, Robert Hunsaker (2008), a practicing counselor, and students Fred Lockhard and Christopher Stack (2008) also utilized Counseling Today to speak out against what they considered a growing liberal and political agenda in counseling.

Hunsaker (2008) stated:

…it is rather nonsensical to say that social justice is “highly political,” when, in fact, it is entirely political. What else does one call activism on behalf of minority issues at the group level? …social justice can be practiced only by those on the political far-left. Consider for example how incongruent it would be for Republican, objectivist, pastoral, independent or perhaps even moderate Democrat counselors to advocate for gay marriage or a variety of other group- level minority issues (p. 21)…it makes more sense when you consider that social justice is largely the product of academics…several studies show an extreme liberal bias in universities. (p. 43)

Whereas, Lockhard and Stack (2008) wrote:

Political Ideology

Political Ideology