The dignity circle: how to promote dignity in social work practice and policy?

Jante Schmidt, Alistair Niemeijer, Carlo Leget, M.J. Trappenburg, Evelien Tonkens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


According to the International Federation of Social Workers, social work has always been a human rights profession. However, the legalistic language of human rights is often found to be of limited use in the everyday practice of social workers. This article offers a practical and relatable translation of human rights language by operationalising the central human rights value ‘human dignity’. In the city of Utrecht, The Netherlands, empirical qualitative research was conducted in order to investigate what dignity might entail for social workers and service-users. The study reveals four different ways in which service-users experience their dignity to be violated: being seen or treated as an object, an empty space, a child or a monster. Conversely, social workers and service-users also try to maintain dignity in four ways: by treating people as a unique person, a participant, an adult or a (professional) friend. Together, these modes of dignity violation and dignity promotion form a typology termed ‘the dignity circle’. The dignity circle enables practitioners and policymakers to promote dignity in social work whilst helping them to consider the dilemmas and complexities involved. In this way, the dignity circle provides a practical tool for social work as a human rights profession.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)945–957
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Work
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Human rights
  • social work
  • human dignity
  • qualitativeresearch
  • public health


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