The impact of ethical agency

“These meetings were very useful and due to the meetings, I am more able to deal with the moral dimension of my work.” (Participant of a community of practice on ethics)

Since 2008, the Research Centre of Social Innovation of Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU), the Netherlands studies the (impact of) ‘ethics works’ performed  by social workers (a term coined by Sarah Banks [1]).

To understand and explain what ethics work is about, the research group “Innovation of Social Work” developed a model of Ethical Agency, which consists of six dimensions:

  • Ethical competence
  • Ethical motivation
  • Ethical frames of reference
  • Ethical sensibility
  • Ethical identity
  • Context

The framework is inspired by various (ethical) theories, as our research group also consists of researchers with various backgrounds such as sociologists, qualitative empirical researchers and ethicists. However, elements of virtue ethics and ethics of care, are prominently present in our work. Our model can be viewed as a tool to contribute to self-realization of social workers in their professional role, and core elements of the model are also present in the work of care ethicists such as Tronto [2] and Walker [3].

The model of Ethical Agency proved to be a useful analytical tool for our research group, in studying the ethics work of professionals, but also proved to be very useful for social workers. They engaged in lectures, workshops and communities of practice about the model of ethical agency, and noticed that the model was very helpful to reflect on the ethics work they perform and to develop themselves as ethical agents. As a research group, we were very interested in these experiences. How can workshops and training help social workers to become more aware of their ethical agency? How does it contribute to their ethics work? How does it impact their daily practices as a social worker? Is this impact noticeable and how do social service users appreciate this impact?

One of the major research projects of our research group, is addressing these issues. We are trying to find out whether an ethical training, based on our model of ethical agency, has impact on professional social work practice. To study this, we use the Most Significant Change (MSC) approach by Davies and Dart [4]: a participative and dialogical approach which – in our opinion –  is suited for empirical ethics research. In our project, we offer a training for social workers from three social work organizations in the Netherlands. During and after the training, the participants write a narrative about the changes they experienced in their professional thinking and acting. In the next step, these ‘stories of change’ are presented to stakeholders who select the most significant of these changes in light of the social service which is provided by the participating organization. Consequently, they decide which impact ‘matters’. In our research, we chose to involve managers (which is usual in MSC) but also clients and colleagues of participating professionals in this phase of the research, as we consider their opinion very important with regard to valuing the results of the ethical training.

The project started in September 2016, and we hope and expect that it will be useful to discern the impact of ethical training on the delivery of ‘good care’ and to learn more about suitable research strategies, such as the Most Significant Change approach, to study these issues.

Do you want to find out more about our research group and the model of ethical agency? Please send an email to Sabrina Keinemans if you are interested in cooperation, or visit Ethiekwerk (in Dutch) for more information about ethical agency or visit our research group Further, a publication about ethical agency is freely available.

[1] Banks, S. (2013). Negotiating personal engagement and professional accountability: professional wisdom and ethics work. European Journal of Social Work, 16(5), 587-604. DOI:10.1080/13691457.2012. Published online: 25 Oct 2012.
[2] Tronto, J. C. (1993). Moral Boundaries. A Political Argument for and Ethic of Care. New York. London: Routledge.
[3] Walker, M.U. (2007). Moral understandings. A feminist study in ethics. New York/London: Routledge.
[4] Davies, R., & Dart., J. (2005). The ‘Most Significant Change’ (MSC) Technique. A Guide to Its Use. Retrieved from:

About the author: Sabrina Keinemans

Sabrina Keinemans

Sabrina Keinemans (PhD) is sr. research fellow in the Innovation of Social Work research group and lecturer on Social Work at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, with a specific interest in professional and empirical ethics and philosophy of science. Sabrina is also a member of the editorial board of Journal of Social Intervention (