Borders: An International Comparative Analysis of Social Work's Response

Sook Hyun Kim, Mary Collins, Joe Duffy

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Background: Borders play a profound role in human life. Although there has been extensive attention to issues of globalization, immigration, and human rights in the social work literature, our analysis of borders is related to, but different from, these issues. Our presentation uses a macro lens to analyze the range of issues that borders raise in both domestic and international social work practice. We address the question: How does social work engage in issues related to international borders?
Methods: To address the research question we conducted a comparative case analysis of three borders: (1) U.S.-Mexico; (2) Northern Ireland (U.K.)-Republic of Ireland; and, (3) South Korea-North Korea. These cases were selected because each of them has critical, but different, border-focused issues that are relevant to social work practice. Data sources included the research literature and information from the professional social work organizations. In each case we provide background analysis of the border issue (history, politics, current status of the border). We then compared the cases on the following criteria: (1) forms of social work practice on each side of the border; (2) the border issues relevant to social work; (3) the role of social work organizations in directly or indirectly addressing the border issues. Inductive thematic analysis was used to identify describe elements in each case.

Findings: Comparison of these cases identified that borders become challenging when: (a) there is unresolved history (i.e., the border is contested), (b) there are economic disparities between the countries, (c) there is ongoing militarized activity. In the U.S./Mexico case, the social work profession’s focus on human rights requires efforts to advocate for migrants and recognizes ethical challenges for social work practitioners working for agencies in the border region. In the UK/Ireland case, social work is very similar on both sides of the border, but the challenges posed by Brexit are only partially acknowledged in the social work community. In the case of North and South Korea, social work is firmly established in the South but does not exist in the North. In addition to identifying the unique circumstances of each of these cases, cross-case analysis identified more general themes including impacts on domestic social work practice and education, lessons for international social work, and additional consideration relevant to a broader range of border circumstances.

Conclusion and Implications: Increased globalization has led to major reconceptualization in our understanding of borders. The COVID-19 epidemic demonstrates the limited relevance of borders in some circumstances (spreading of the virus) but the heightened relevance of borders in other circumstances (actions such as quarantine, travel restrictions, and immigration crackdown). This duality is reflected in the three cases that we examined and their implications for additional cases. Social work practitioners, particularly when engaged in policy practice have a role to play in framing the understanding of borders and the resulting policies.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jan 2021
EventSociety for Social Work and Research: Social Work Science for Social Change Virtual Conference Jan 19-22 2021 - , United States
Duration: 19 Jan 202122 Jan 2021


ConferenceSociety for Social Work and Research
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Internet address


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