Thursday, December 4, 2014

Incongruence with Social Work Values and Culture among Evangelical Students: The Mediating Role of Group-Based Dominance

Students who pursue social work and other hierarchy-attenuating disciplines (e.g., nursing) tend to support egalitarianism more so than students who choose hierarchy-enhancing disciplines (e.g., law).1 This is congruent with the social work Code of Ethics,2 which states, “social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups” (“Ethical Principle: Social Workers Challenge Social Injustice,” para. 1). However, when some social work students enter the field, they may experience dissonance between their personal beliefs and social work values. In this study, authors Walls and Seelman examine predictors of incongruence with social work values. Specifically, they concentrate on religious tradition, attitudes on social stratification (RWA and SDO), and attitudes about LGBT-identified individuals. The authors go on to examine whether social stratification and prejudicial attitudes mediate the relationship between religious tradition and cultural incongruence.


Right Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation

RWA is “…characterized by a need for clear-cut distinctions between groups and an understanding of the world that is based on group-based hierarchies and an unequal distribution of power.”3 Research finds RWA to be associated with prejudice towards marginalized groups, such as lesbian women and gay men4,5 and people of color.6,7 Individuals who score high on RWA tend to have higher levels of religiosity8-11 and are more likely to prioritize religion over science when conflict exists.12

Measures of SDO capture whether individuals prefer intergroup relations to be equal or hierarchical as well as whether the individual desires his/her group to be superior to other groups.13 For example, individuals with high SDO scores are more likely to oppose social welfare policies.14 Walls and Seelman utilize a dual construct conceptualization as presented by Kugler, Cooper, and Nosek (2010):15

Opposition to [e]quality is a system justification construct. It is negatively predicted by personality variables related to empathy and universalism and it in turn predicts resistance to changing the status quo, regardless of ingroup involvement (p. 121).


Group-[b]ased [d]ominance captures preference for one’s own group compared to those of others. It is driven by negative attitudes toward the outgroup and the belief that the world is a competitive, zero sum, place. It is associated with individual differences in prejudice toward outgroups. Rather than reflecting approval of inequality in general, GBD exclusively concerns inequalities that have implications for the ingroup and is most strongly associated with active and aggressive hierarchy promotion (p. 121). 

Hostile and Modern Heterosexism 

Religious variables, such as religiosity and religious tradition, have been found to be predictive of hostile heterosexism,16,17 conceptualized as aversive prejudicial attitudes based on moral judgments of same-sex sexuality. Modern heterosexism, on the other hand, is justification of heterosexist attitudes that does not appeal to overtly moral judgments. Examples of modern heterosexism include amnestic heterosexism (e.g., homophobia does not exist anymore) and paternalistic heterosexism (e.g., I have no problem with lesbians, but I would not want my daughter to be a lesbian because her life would be more difficult).

The Sample

Participants included 124 graduate students in a two-year MSW program.

  • Gender Identity: 93% female
  • Religious Tradition: 21.8% liberal or mainline Protestant, 21.8% secular, 18.6% conservative or evangelical Protestant, 16.9% other religion, 12.1% Catholic, 8.9% Jewish
  • Raised in: 38.7% suburban community, 26.6% small city or town, 23.4% city, 11.3% rural community

The Results

Compared to those who identify with another religion, another Christian denomination, or as unaffiliated, graduate social work students who identify as evangelical Christian:
  • Were  more likely to have high levels of cultural incongruence with social work values  and perceived culture of a social work program
  • Scored significantly higher on group-based dominance and RWA
  • Scored significantly higher on several  forms of heterosexism: hostile, aversive, amnestic, paternalistic, and positive stereotypic 
However, group-based dominance was the only construct that mediated the relationship between identification as an evangelical Christian and cultural incongruence with social work values and the perceived culture of a social work program.

The Implications 

Given that none of the attitudinal scales intended to measure prejudice toward same-sex oriented individuals mediated the relationship between having an evangelical Christian identity and cultural incongruence, the authors agree with Thaller’s (2011)18 findings that Christian-identified social workers have multifaceted worldviews. However, keeping in mind the finding that group-based dominance acts a mediator between evangelical Christian identity and cultural incongruence with social work values, Walls and Seelman offer several ways social work educators can intervene in their classrooms:
  1. Directly address issues of Christian privilege
  2. Help students deconstruct perceived threats to their evangelical Christian identities
  3. Incorporate reflections of Christian-identified social workers who balance their personal beliefs with social work values (see, for example, Levy, 2011) into the course
  4. Discuss how struggles occur on the “liberal” side (i.e., how a politically liberal social worker works with conservative clients)
  5. Encourage intergroup dialogue

For More Information 

If you’re interested in reading more details of the study, it is included as a book chapter in the new book Conservative Christianity and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights.

To read more about Dr. Walls and his research, check out his University of Denver portfolio here.

To read more about Dr. Seelman and her research, check out her Georgia State University Faculty Page, Research Gate profile, or LinkedIn profile.


Walls, N. E., & Seelman, K.  (2014). Incongruence with social work culture among evangelical students: The mediating role of social dominance orientation. In A. Dessel and B. Bolen (Eds.), Conservative Christianity and sexual orientation in social work: Privilege, oppression, and the pursuit of human rights. Washington, DC: Council on Social Work Education Press.


1 Sidanius, J., Liu, J., Pratto, F., & Shaw, J. (1994). Social dominance orientation, hierarchy-attenuators and hierarchy-enhancers: Social dominance theory and the criminal justice system. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 338-366.

2 National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from code.asp

3 Seelman, K. L., & Walls, N. E. (2010). Person-organization incongruence as a predictor of right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and heterosexism. Journal of Social Work Education, 46, 103-121.

4 Stones, C. R. (2006). Antigay prejudice among heterosexual males: Right-wing authoritarianism as a stronger predictor than social-dominance orientation and heterosexual identity. Social Behavior and Personality, 34, 1138.

5 Whitley, B. E., & Lee, S. E. (2000). The relationship of authoritarianism and related constructs to attitudes toward homosexuality. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 144-170.

6 Altemeyer, R. A. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

7 Laythe, B., Finkel, D. G., & Kirkpatrick, L. A. (2001). Predicting prejudice from religious fundamentalism and right-wing authoritarianism: A multiple regression approach. Journal for the Scientific Study of Spirituality, 40, 1-10.

8 Altemeyer, R. A. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press.

9 Altemeyer, R. A. (1988). Enemies of freedom: Understanding right-wing authoritarianism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

10 Altemeyer, B., & Hunsberger, B. (1992). Authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, quest, and prejudice. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 2, 113-133.

11 de Regt, S. (2012). Religiosity as a moderator of the relationship between authoritarianism and social dominance orientation: A cross-cultural comparison. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22, 31-41. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2012.635045

12 Westman, A. S., Willink, J., & McHoskey, J. W. (2000). On perceived conflicts between religion and science: The role of fundamentalism and right-wing authoritarianism. Psychological Reports, 86, 379-385.

13 Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., Stallworth, L. M., & Malle, B. F. (1994). Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 741–763.

14 Pratto, F, Stallworth, L. M., & Conway-Lanz, S. (1998). Social dominance orientation and the legitimization of policy. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28, 1853-1875.

15 Kugler, M. B., Cooper, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2010). Group-based dominance and opposition to equality correspond to different psychological motives.  Social Justice Research, 23, 117-155. doi: 10.1007/s11211-010-0112-5

16 Jayakumar, U. M. (2009). The invisible rainbow in diversity: Factors influencing sexual prejudice among college students. Journal of Homosexuality, 56, 675-700.

17 Whitley, B. E. (2009). Religiosity and attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: A meta-analysis International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19, 21-38  doi: 10.1080/10508610802471104

18 Thaller, J. (2011). Resilience and resistance in professional identity making: Gleanings from the classroom experiences of devout Christian social workers. Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work, 30, 144-163.

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