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Social Work

Social work has been defined as being ‘‘concerned with the interactions between people and their social environment which affect the ability of people to accomplish life tasks, alleviate distress, and realize their aspirations and values. The purpose of social work therefore is to

(1) enhance the problem-solving and coping capacities of people,

(2) link people with systems that provide them with resources, services, and opportunities,

(3) promote the effective and humane operation of these systems, and

(4) contribute to the development and improvement of social policy’’ (Pincus and Minahan 1973, p. 9).

A key difference between social work and sociology lies in the emphasis placed on intervention in social work. A social worker expects to be actively involved in the amelioration of social problems, while a sociologist typically focuses on understanding the nature and extent of social issues. Social workers establish a helping relationship with a client system (individual, family, small group, community), using their assessment skills and knowledge of helping resources to identify alternatives that may improve a situation.

Professional Roots

Professional social work is historically tied to the emergence of social welfare as a social institution. Social welfare as it has come to be known, can be traced to society’s numerous attempts to accommodate changes in economic and social relationships over time. The beginning of institutionalized social welfare is frequently ascribed to the English Poor Law of 1601. As the most critical part of modern social welfare’s foundation, the Elizabethan poor laws were characterized by the articulation and promulgation of the principle of public responsibility and obligation for the economic well-being of the people. However, ‘‘the Poor Laws in England and in American communities were not primarily concerned with poverty and how to eliminate it. Instead, they were concerned with pauperism and the potential claims on community funds, the danger that paupers might get by without working’’ (Dolgoff and Feldstein 1984, p. 80). This continuing tension between public obligation and social control is one of several dualities that characterize the context of professional social work practice. Institutionalized social welfare is the environment in which the profession of social work has developed. The history of social welfare is paralleled by and enmeshed with the increasing professionalism of those who administer social welfare programs.

Early social work was characterized by two streams of activity: social reform and direct assistance to individuals and families. The practice of friendly visiting and the development of both the Charity Organizations Societies and settlementhouses illustrate both types of effort. Representatives of Charity Organization Socities, the so-called friendly visitors, engaged in social investigation and moral susasion improve the lives of the poor. The thrust of those encounters was to place responsibility on the persons or families for their economic and social status, what is known now as ‘‘blaming the victim.’’ The work of the Charity Organization Societies formed the origins of the social work method later known as social casework.

Residents of settlement houses, Jane Adams included, were friendly visitors who came to stay. A group of middle-class or upper-class individuals moved into residence in a poor area in an effort to study neighborhood conditions firsthand and work with neighborhood residents on solving neighborhood problems. While some settlement house efforts focused on assimilation, later programs focused on improving conditions in immigrant communities. In cities across the nation, settlement houses helped acculturate vast numbers of immigrants in the early part of the twentieth century. Settlement house activities emphasized teaching English, health practices, occupational skills, and environmental changes through cooperative efforts. Settlement house staff developed social group work, community organization, social action, and environmental change efforts. Furthermore, settlement house workers were active in the legislative arena, gathering and promulgating facts in order to influence social policy and legislation.

An early and continuing cleavage in the profession has its origins in differing explanations of social dysfunction. Some early social workers espoused the theory of the social causation of social problems and sought governmental actions to meet needs as well as developing coalitions for reform and institutional change. The educational foundation came from sociology, economics, and political science. Others emphasized individual causation of social problems, promoting an individually focused therapeutic approach to helping. These social workers identified the need to draw on psychological theory but emphasized the individual interacting with a social environment. These two primary orientations would feed the development of professional social work and provide the basis for conflict within the practice community and in professional social work education .


An issue throughout the development of professional social work has been the nature of its professional status. In 1915 Abraham Flexner critiqued the professional status of social work at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. Although Flexner criticized social work as lacking a specific skill for a specific function, he also recognized its professional spirit. The ideal-type model of a profession has been the conception against which social work has measured itself through much of its history. Greenwood’s (1957) analysis examined the extent to which social work possessed five classic traits of a profession: systematic theory, authority, community sanction, an ethical code, and a professional culture. Characterizing social work as a less-developed profession, Greenwood concluded that it possessed these attributes to a moderate extent. The predominant direction of the field, however, has been to continue its professional development along all five dimensions. The recent emphasis on building the empirical base of practice coupled with more stringent licensure requirements by states are indicators of the continued progression of social work toward greater professional status. It would be incorrect to assume, however, that this direction is embraced by the profession as a whole. For those whose dominant professional identification is with the field’s social action tradition, increasing professionalization means being co-opted. Achieving the public acceptance accorded to a profession can distance social workers from their constituencies and limit confrontational strategies that are central to advocacy for the oppressed.

In the 1920s the practice of social work emerged in so-called fields of practice or settings: family and child welfare and medical, psychiatric, and school social work. Social workers defined their central problems and responsibilities as being characteristic of their particular fields. The concept of method also emerged during this period. Method developed first around casework and later in relation to both group work and community organization. Methods were based on selected theories of human behavior drawn from psychology and sociology. Setting referred to the organizational context within which services were delivered.

This combination of method and field of practice or setting fragmented professional social work, slowing the development of an integrated theoretical base for practice across methods and settings. Social casework theory and method developed to a large extent in isolation from group work and community organization. The curricula for professional social work education followed the same pattern, with separate tracks for each method. It took until the 1970s for the development of a conceptual approach based on the essential components of professional practice regardless of where a social worker was employed. Pincus and Minahan (1970) articulated a conceptual framework for generalist practice, that is, for social work service delivery across practice settings. This approach encompassed three major components: the social systems in relation to which a social worker carries out his or her role, the stages of planned change or problem-solving processes, and interactional and analytic skills for data collection, analysis, and intervention.

Values, Ethics, and Bureaucratic Context

Since social work as a profession is concerned with social change and the improvement of the conditions in which people live, its orientation cannot be value-free or purely theoretical. A defining characteristic of social work practice is a fundamental commitment to knowledge, skills, and a core set of professional values to enhance the wellbeing of people and ameliorate environmental conditions that affect people adversely. Among the values and principles that guide professional practice are respect for individual worth, dignity, the right to self-determination, and active participation in the helping process; helping clients obtain needed resources; demonstrating respect for and acceptance of the characteristics of diverse populations; a commitment to the promotion of social change to achieve social and economic justice; an understanding of the dynamics of oppression and discrimination, along with attention to populations at risk; and a holistic view of the interactions between people and the complex environment in which they live. These values are embedded in the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (1994). The code focuses on the conduct and comportment of a social worker as well as ethical responsibilities to clients, colleagues, employers, the profession, and society.

A distinguishing characteristic of social work is that the majority of its practitioners are employed by a variety of public and private social welfare agencies. Some social workers are employed by agencies that are sanctioned to function as agents of social control, while others have the authority to determine eligibility for benefits and services. The bureaucratic environment, however manifested, dramatically shapes the practice of social workers. The process of professional socialization is designed to instill a culture, a set of values and expectations, that may conflict with the work environment.

Professionals’ autonomy can be circumscribed by organizational commitments, policies, and procedures. In these circumstances, just whose agent is the professional social worker: the agency’s, the client’s, the community’s, or his or her own as an autonomous professional? In an organizational context, what form can a social worker’s social action efforts take? How far can an employed social worker go in challenging an agency’s priorities, policies, and procedures before his or her services are no longer desired? How long does ittake before a professional social worker starts to identify more as an agency employee than as an autonomous professional? Given the range of practice settings and the variety of roles of social workers, there are no easy answers to these questions. These realities can produce a conservatizing effect on social work, limiting many workers’ willingness or ability to take risks as autonomous professionals in the name of social justice and reform. In these circumstances, one can see how theories of individual causation can prevail over explanations that invoke the influence of larger social forces in the creation and amelioration of social problems. This tension, with its roots in the origins of the profession, continues, as demonstrated by the overwhelming preference of students and professionals for work with individuals and families, mostly in the psychotherapeutic model.

The Knowledge Base and Empirically Based Practice

The creation of a systematic body of theory has been under development from the early days of the profession. Richmond’s Social Diagnosis (1917) organized the contemporary theory and method of social work and formulated a data collection approach designed to serve as the foundation for diagnosis. Richmond organizedand analyzed the naturalistic observations she made while working with individuals and families. Her work is the origin of psychosocial history taking and treatment plan development and perhaps the core of social casework practice methods. Richmond’s contribution to the organization of what eventually would become social casework practice is legendary, forming the bedrock of clinical social work. Her approach, later to be known as empirically based practice, represents one of the two major streams of knowledge and theory development in social work. The other major focus has relied heavily on the application of social science (primarily sociological and psychological) theory to the explanation of social problems and the development of interventions to ameliorate those problems.

The breadth of social work practice (encompassing work with individuals, families, groups, and communities and including social work program administration, public policy development, and social planning) provides a rich and continually changing field for exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory empirical efforts. The early 1970s was a benchmark in the development of the profession’s knowledge base. Along with the massive investment in social programs of the 1960s came the realization that good intentions and humane values are not enough. Funders focused increasingly on outcomes. Attention was shifted to the development of empirically based justifications for programs, services, and budgets. Program evaluation became the dominant focus of much of social work research during this period, including methodology, design, outcomes, and professional accountability. This direction came to be known as the practice effectiveness movement. As articulated by Fischer, the question became, ‘‘Is Casework Effective?’’ (Fischer 1973; Fischer and Hudson 1976).

During this period, a study of the effects of adult protective services by Blenkner et al. (1971) at the Benjamin Rose Institute in Cleveland created a furor. An early social experiment, this demonstration program, which employed skilled caseworkers, was reported to be associated with more negative effects than was the control program, which employed less highly trained workers. After one year, the findings were alarming. The experimental group manifested higher death rates, higher utilization of protective services, higher rates of institutionalization, a nonsignificant increase in contentment, and a nonsignificant decrease in symptoms of emotional disturbance. The authors concluded that the ‘‘effect of more skilled social workers on the clients was to ‘overdose’ them with help. This led to more concrete assistance, including institutionalization, which in turn was responsible for the higher death rate. . . . More highly trained social workers were apparently more lethal’’ (Tobin 1978). These findings could not demonstrate the effectiveness of professional social work intervention, illustrate accountability, or be used to justify program expenditures.

This study and the controversy it generated shifted attention from program description to research design, sampling, and data analysis. Investigators (Berger and Piliavin 1976; Fischer and Hudson 1976) reanalyzed the data in an attempt to discover alternative explanations for the findings. Berger and Piliavin argued that although randomization had been used to assign clients to groups, the experimental group was older and more mentally and physically impaired than were the controls. Fischer and Hudson (1976) challenged the sample size used in Berger and Piliavin’s regression analysis and demonstrated that age, mental status, and physical status, although separate variables, produced an additive effect. The nature of the debate had shifted: Methodological issues had become the basis of discussion. Values and good intentions alone would no longer be sufficient grounds for justifying programs or demonstrating professional accountability.

The Practitioner-Reseacher

Concern with the outcomes of social work interventions led to the concept of the social worker as both practitioner and researcher. From this perspective, social workers are seen as having the opportunity and responsibility to develop methods and skills from an empirical base, from the experience provided in their own practice to develop, test, and refine practice innovations. Embedded in this movement toward practitionerbased empirical practice was the notion that evaluation and research were too critical to leave in the hands of a group of research ‘‘specialists.’’ Perhaps more fundamental is the belief that social work research is too important to leave in the hands of those who are not social workers: ‘‘It is the practicing professional who encounters and struggles with current issues and who is most sensitive to the critical knowledge gaps in the field. Thus social workers are in the best position to formulate and conduct the needed research and evaluation and they must be committed to acquiring the understanding required to direct the helping effort’’ (Grinnell 1996, p. 5).

These developments coincided with the expansion of doctoral education in social work. While past doctoral preparation often focused on the development of advanced clinical skills, contemporary training at the doctoral level is almost exclusively research-based, designed to provide students with the skills needed to contribute to the empirically anchored knowledge base of the profession. As a result, a cohort of social work researchers has been trained over the last twenty years, and this group has developed a body of theory and knowledge that has been generated directly as social work research. Social work no longer defers to sociology for the methodological sophistication to evaluate its programs and practice outcomes.

Sociology and Social Work

Over time the link between social work and sociology has been strong, although the two fields have grown increasingly distant. There can be little doubt, however, regarding the importance of sociological theory and research for the development of the knowledge and theoretical base of social work practice. For example, social stratification, conflict theory, deviance, organizational theory, community development and dynamics, family studies, occupational sociology, criminology, and life-span theories are only a few areas of sociological theory development and research that have informed and directly influenced both the theory and the practice of social work. Landmark social program evaluation studies were undertaken by sociologists, some of whom were members of faculties of social work, in the late 1950s and 1960s (Meyer and Borgatta 1959; Meyer et al. 1965).

Clearly, social work and sociology are related, although there are fundamental differences. Sociologists study and analyze social organizations and institutions. The emphasis has been on theory development, primarily through positivistic approaches, focusing on measurement and design issues. Although the development of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967) has been a major conceptual contribution in sociology, it has not been the dominant influence. Although there are reform-minded, ‘‘radical’’ sociologists, they are a minority. Sociologists are interested in understanding the ‘‘why’’ of human interaction. Sociology observes; it maintains a detached posture.

In contrast, social workers attempt to apply theories of social organization and interaction to improve social functioning. Social workers go beyond understanding social problems in their efforts to improve social functioning; social work intervenes. The goal is engendering progressive social change, improving social conditions, creating more humane delivery systems, and problem solving with individuals, families, groups, communities, and organizations and in public policy. Social workers develop and implement interventions in the form of programs, policies, and services in the context of public funding and demands for professional accountability. The orientation is toward outcomes, cost-effectiveness, and cost-benefit analyses.

There has been and continues to be tension in the relationship. Heraud notes that ‘‘the social worker may be able to participate actively in policy making through social science research; there is considerable need for research related to both intended and unintended consequences of social policy . . . there is considerable need in the initial stages of such research for intuition and speculation. Instead of only using the sociologist at this stage, who may be a distant figure, the social worker may have an important role to play’’ (1970, p. 287). Several years earlier, Halmos noted that social workers could function ‘‘as an intelligence agent of the sociologist and of the policy maker, and a trusty pilot of the sociological researcher’’ (1961, p. 9). Although these attitudes may be antiquated, elements of such elitism remain, particularly in sociology’s limited interest in applied social research.

Some attention has been paid to the development of so-called applied sociology. While the main body of sociological thought focuses on exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory theory; modeling; and empirical testing, ‘‘applied sociology’’ briefly emerged in response to the increasing interest in social program evaluation and the limited supply of trained methodologists who could design and execute well-formulated evaluative studies. Thus, applied sociology could provide an alternative, public-policy-oriented career path for sociologists, since the preferred, higher-status university- based employment opportunities were limited.

Over the last twenty five years, however, social work researchers have become key players in the design, implementation, and analysis of applied social research, particularly through their involvement in federally funded demonstration projects. During this period, there has been a proliferation of journals of social work, including research journals (Social Work Research and Abstracts, Research on Social Work Practice), as well as a range of specialty journals (Gerontological Social Work, Health and Social Work, Child Welfare, School Social Work), which provide publication outlets for researchers and practitioners.

At one time, social work education occurred within the social sciences, frequently attached to sociology. More recently, social work has emerged as an independent professional discipline, forming alliances with a variety of other professions, such as law, education, business, and nursing. Increasing numbers of pragmatic students have been attracted to social work because of the ability of graduates to find employment.

The undergraduate degree (BSW) offers a generalist foundation that is built on a set of social science prerequisites. The graduate degree (MSW), the terminal educational degree for the profession, is based on specialized courses that offer advanced theoretical content in fields of practice and methodological approaches. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has exercised a substantial influence in setting standards for social work education. Periodic accreditation reviews by the council assure uniformity and consistency in the required content. Particular attention has been paid to including content on minorities and oppressed populations. Accreditation by the CSWE is essential for the credibility of any social work education program in the United States.

Social work is an evolving profession, with its form and emphasis changing in response to the societal context within which social workers practice:

‘‘Most social workers feel that although there are critical problems and pressures, numerous opportunities are available for the social work profession to move ahead on a sound basis, strengthening current delivery of services and innovating services that have been practically untouched to date. . . . Once thought of as a basket-on-the arm assistance for the poor, it is now a discipline, scientific in method and artful in manner, that takes remedial action on problems in several areas of society’’ (Skidmore et al. 1997 pp. 376 to 3).

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