Skip to main content
Select Source:

Social Work

Social Work

Emergence of the social work profession

Demography of the social work profession

Professional training

Professional practice

Professional associations

Future directions


The objectives of social work are to help individuals, families, communities, and groups of persons who are socially disadvantaged and to contribute to the creation of conditions that will enhance social functioning and prevent breakdown. These objectives commit the social work profession both to helping persons adapt socially in keeping with their capacities and the norms and values of the society, and to modifying or reforming features of the social system. The term “social worker” refers to a special group among those employed in rendering social welfare services or conducting programs of agencies and institutions that make up the social welfare system. The professional social worker is expected, because of his specialized training and experience, to bring a high degree of skill to the process of helping, and modifying the social conditions of, individuals, groups of persons, and communities. The special competence of the professional social worker is exercised in such tasks as providing material assistance for the needy and dependent; assisting those of whatever means who have difficulties in adjusting to their economic and social environment because of poverty, illness, deprivation, conflict, or personal, family, or social disorganization; and participating in the formulation of social welfare policies and preventive programs.

Emergence of the social work profession

As a deliberate concern for helping the indigent and less privileged members of society, the roots of social work go back to religious and humanitarian impulses evident in the histories of most civilizations. As a formal organization of efforts by specialized personnel to help such persons, social work is an accompaniment of nineteenthand twentieth- century industrialization, with its associated problems of social dislocation from a more stabilized family and community system. The aspirations of positivist social science and the counterview points to social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century contributed to the conviction that rational and scientific solutions to social problems could be found through social reform and individual guidance. The trend has been from personal and religious charity, to organized philanthropy, to public acceptance of responsibility for programs of professional services. [SeeSocial Darwinism.]

As a profession, social work emerged during the twentieth century, when it became an acknowledged, full-time occupation, with established training schools, professional associations, and a high degree of self-consciousness about its status. Professionalization developed first in the United States and western Europe. Before 1910 independent schools for training social workers were founded first in the Netherlands and then in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Between World War I and World War II social work schools were widely established in Latin America and countries of the British Commonwealth. Since World War II, professional schools have opened in Asia, the Middle East, eastern Europe, and more recently in Africa. By 1950 a United Nations survey enumerated 373 schools of social work in 46 countries representing three-fifths of the 77 member nations. Since 1950 new schools have been founded in all regions, but especially in the new nations of Africa (United Nations 1950; 1965). Both national and international associations of social workers have been formed, professional journals and other publications issued, codes of ethical conduct promulgated, and official or legal recognition achieved to distinguish the professional social worker from other social welfare personnel.

Programs of social services under private and public auspices have expanded, and the number of social welfare workers has increased. The number of professionally trained social workers has also grown, but they still constitute a minority of all those engaged in social welfare work. In the United States in 1960, approximately one-fifth of the 105,000 social welfare workers had sufficient education to qualify as professional by the profession’s own standards (Salaries … 1961). The proportion of professional to nonprofessional social welfare workers appears to be smaller in other countries. The profession thus faces a persistent problem of trying to establish and maintain an independent identity.

With the growth of educational facilities, the term “social worker” has increasingly come to refer to those specifically trained for social work, but the designation does not uniformly connote professional status in various countries. It sometimes refers to any sustained individual charitable efforts, and it usually includes employees, whether specifically trained or not, of public and private organizations serving the indigent or persons with problems of health, handicap, or deficiencies that may affect their social adequacy (“The Term …”1961). There is evidence that professionalization of social work is proceeding in similar form and with similar problems in various parts of the world. This is, in part, a result of the pressing demand for trained personnel and the diffusion of patterns from the more developed countries. Leaders in social work in developing nations often have had some of their training in western Europe, Canada, or the United States (Interprofessional … 1963), or have participated in international conferences in which professionalization has been prominently discussed.

Because most social workers are salaried employees who are characteristically dependent on bureaucratic organizations (generically called agencies), the development of a professional identity apart from the organization where they are employed has presented another persistent problem. The balance of influence over training schools has shifted gradually from agency to professional control. Moreover, there is a gradual tendency for professional associations to represent collective interests transcending those of social workers in particular agencies or fields of practice. Professional identification is also encouraged by frequent meetings and conferences of social workers on local, regional, national, and international levels.

Demography of the social work profession

A number of characteristics of the personnel of social work bear on the nature of the profession. Women predominate, although the proportion of men has been increasing. In the United States in 1960, 60 per cent of all social welfare workers, but 68 per cent of the members of the professional association, were women. The proportion of female welfare workers in the United States decreased by nearly 10 per cent between 1950 and 1960, and the more balanced sex ratio of students in professional schools probably reflects the trend toward equality of the sexes in American society as a whole. In other countries, the preponderance of women is probably even greater, despite the efforts of professional and governmental bodies to recruit men into welfare work. Men tend to gravitate to supervisory and executive positions, but women nevertheless hold a considerable proportion of these jobs. This introduces sex-role conflicts within social work and between social work and other professions. As a “female profession,” social work shares the generally lower prestige of women in the occupational world; and this, in turn, contributes to the difficulty of raising salaries in comparison with professions dominated by men. Career patterns and job mobility also tend to be differendated by sex. Thus, a changing sex ratio may be expected to have a significant effect on the profession.

Although information on the social class of origin of social workers is limited, the profession appears to serve as a channel of upward mobility for both men and women (Pins 1963, chapter 3). Compared with other professions, social work has been relatively accessible to persons from minority groups and lower-class backgrounds. Social workers with professional schooling probably come from class positions that are higher than those of persons entering social work without special training but not as high as the level of persons entering professions such as medicine or law. Unlike these professions, social work clearly does not have the advantage of gaining prestige from the class background of its members. Rather, entrance into the profession often raises the class position of its members, and this probably affects both internal and interprofessional relations.

Patterns of distribution and training

The character of the profession is affected by the location of professionals within the social welfare system. Programs of income maintenance, such as support for dependent children and the aged and ancillary services to social insurance beneficiaries, employ the largest share of all welfare workers but the smallest proportion of those professionally trained. In the United States approximately one-third of all social welfare workers, but only 5 per cent of professionally educated social workers, were employed in public assistance programs in 1960 (Salaries … 1961). On the other hand, medical and psychiatric social work programs together employed 9 per cent of all social welfare workers but 29 per cent of those professionally trained. Professional social workers are also disproportionately to be found in noninstitutional child welfare programs. The consequence of such a differential distribution is to focus professional attention on a narrower range than that embraced by the social welfare system and to provide an unbalanced degree of professionalization among the various welfare programs. Only 3 per cent of public assistance workers in the United States in 1960 were professionally trained, whereas over half of the workers in medical and psychiatric programs were trained. This imbalance tends to promote viewpoints in the profession that define certain places of employment as more “professional” and others as less so. Such viewpoints underlie attitudes about suitable locations for professional practice. Similar tendencies have been noted in other countries.

The relative concentration of professionally trained social workers in private, as distinguished from governmental, agencies has also affected the conception of attractive locations for professional employment. Approximately two-thirds of all social welfare workers in the United States in 1960 were employed by federal, state, or local governments, whereas only about half of the professional social workers were so employed. In other countries, where the private sector tends to be smaller—and usually church-supported—the attraction of private agencies does not appear to have been so great, although the absence of a large private sector is sometimes cited as a limitation on professionalization.

The disproportionate location of professional social workers in private agencies and in psychiatric, medical, and child welfare fields in the United States has historical explanations. The social workers most concerned about professional identity in the early decades of the century were those associated with fields in which clinical professions having greater prestige practiced, especially medicine and psychiatry. During the 1920s these social workers found psychoanalytic theories congenial as a basis for developing a distinctive mode of practice and supporting a claim to higher status among helping professions (Lubove 1965); the schools of social work largely accepted this viewpoint. When large-scale public assistance programs were developed as part of the social security system during the depression of the 1930s, they were primarily conceived as income maintenance programs to be administered by government employees rather than as programs requiring professional services. The charitably sponsored private agencies, now relieved of their traditional responsibility for economic aid, became especially receptive to the clinical orientation of trained workers who were also attracted to the clinical services associated with public programs in health, mental hygiene, and child welfare. The location of professional workers within the social welfare system has, in turn, affected recruitment and training, encouraging further emphasis on the clinical practices within social work. Nevertheless, professional social workers have often occupied supervisory and administrative positions in public welfare, and the profession has sought to influence public welfare policies through its associations and spokesmen.

The training and distribution of professional social workers in the United States are being further shaped by new demands on social work in the 1960s. The 1962 amendments to the Social Security Act explicitly emphasized social services to recipients as an objective of public welfare, giving impetus to the upgrading of educational requirements for welfare workers. New programs involving broadly conceived community approaches to delinquency, poverty, mental health, and other social problems have encouraged recognition of functions for social workers other than direct services to clients; and the increasing integration of private agencies into such government-supported programs has reduced the distinction between private and public auspices. A greater proportion of students at social work schools has been attracted to group work and community organization. The literature on professional practice has reflected greater interest in the social sciences. Moreover, the problem of professional manpower has received increasing attention from the profession’s leaders and government officials. In other countries, where the undersupply is even more acute and trained social workers have gravitated toward clinical locations, some comparable trends are evident. Especially in less developed countries, the practice of community development—proposing a comprehensive attempt to affect the complex of institutions of a total rural or urban community—has attracted professional social workers and has been emphasized in their training. [SeeCommunity, article onCommunity Development.]

The shortage of trained social workers is the manpower condition that underlies the patterns of distribution in developed as well as underdeveloped countries (Conference … 1965). It has given rise to active recruitment programs in most countries; and it has stimulated attempts to distinguish levels among professional responsibilities requiring varying amounts of training, as in Great Britain (Great Britain … 1959). In the United States the shortage has generated interest in the education of subprofessionals and in various patterns for their use in social agencies along with more highly trained workers, thus requiring new conceptions of the practice roles of professional social workers. There has been wide recognition that social workers cannot be trained in large enough numbers under present conceptions of professional education to fill all social welfare positions, even when many positions are excluded as not requiring professional training. The manpower shortage also complicates the efforts of the profession to maintain or raise its entrance standards. Such standards are under pressure to broaden the definition of professional membership, acknowledge the alternatives to professional training for entrance to the profession, and adapt to such demands or face submergence within the large mass of non-professional workers. The response of the profession to these pressures will determine the character of recruitment, training, and utilization of professional social workers (National … 1966).

Professional training

Who is a professional social worker and how one enters the profession are variously, and sometimes ambiguously, defined by different countries. Personal commitment and activity in professional affairs may serve to distinguish “professional” from other social welfare employees in some countries. Elsewhere (France, for instance), a state license designates the professional social worker. In general, however, formal professional education is increasingly the primary channel of entrance.

Schools of social work

Schools of social work throughout the world may be roughly compared on the basis of their number and distribution, their sponsorship and location within the educational system, and the diversity of their financial support. Western Europe and North America have a great number of both private and public schools of social work; private schools typically receive subsidies from public funds through various governmental budgets. The location of social work training varies: in Great Britain it is usually part of the curriculum of social studies departments in universities and colleges; on the Continent there are separate technical institutes; and in the United States and Canada there are postgraduate divisions for social work education. In Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa schools of social work, though still few in number, have increased markedly since 1950; and private or church-sponsored schools are becoming integrated with those established within public educational systems. The Soviet Union is reported not to have specialized schools or an established profession of social work (Madison 1962), although correctional workers are specially trained educators.

The relationships between professional schools and their sources of support may affect the type and character of training. Standards are set by law or government in a few countries, such as France and Brazil. In the United States, the agencies of government that furnish subsidies for many students and some faculty salaries are usually interested in obtaining personnel for the established programs they administer and, hence, tend to favor training for direct, clinical services. In countries where there are associations of schools of social work, these generally seek a large voice in the determination of their own standards. Schools may find it feasible to expand their capacities in those fields of practice already most professionalized, thus giving less emphasis to newer fields and broader social approaches. The problem of achieving balance has been recognized by both educators and governmental officials (Blackey 1964; Wittman 1965).

Completion of secondary schooling is generally the minimum requirement for admission to social work schools. In the United States and Canada, and in some schools of several other countries, the student must hold a baccalaureate degree in order to be admitted. Age limits, both lower and upper, are sometimes specified. Restriction to female students was at one time common, particularly in Latin American schools, but sex limitations are disappearing. Professed humanitarian values and commitment to service are personal qualities usually sought in applicants, and previous academic performance is always taken into account.

Throughout the world, most schools have relatively small enrollments, usually under one hundred. However, schools are expanding. In the United States in 1964 the largest school reported 409 full-time students, and 38 of the 59 schools reported full-time enrollments of one hundred or more, constituting approximately three-fifths of the 7,366 full-time students in all schools (Statistics … 1964, table 4). Social work schools also provide instruction, sometimes in separate courses, for many part-time students, only some of whom are enrolled for the professional degree; precise data are available only for the United States and Canada, where part-time students constituted approximately one-quarter of all students enrolled in the professional curriculum in 1964 (Statistics … 1964, table 2).

Students at most schools fall into two groups: those entering as an immediate continuation of their schooling and those entering after some period of employment in social welfare. In the United States the latter are a decreasing proportion, but increased public funds for training employed personnel may retard this decrease. Such students are generally older; thus their proportion in American schools may be estimated from the fact that in 1964 students 31 years of age or older constituted 30 per cent of all full-time students working for the professional degree (Statistics … 1964, table 9). Prior work experience is accorded decreasing importance relative to recency of academic study, but the accommodation of students with different backgrounds presents a characteristic problem in curriculum planning. The content of academic prerequisites tends to be general—usually specifying only that courses in a number of social sciences be presented—and the academic backgrounds of students vary widely.

Characteristics of training

Social work education includes both theoretical and practical training. Practical training may be provided (as in Great Britain and countries it has influenced) by full-time field placements of students intermittent with classroom lectures or after completion of theoretical courses; or it may be provided concurrently with classroom work (as in the United States and countries influenced by it). Laboratory agencies for practical training under control of the professional schools are provided for a small proportion of students, but most are trained in selected, available agencies in the community. Practical field work generally requires “supervision”—that is, instructional direction by a trained social worker in an agency setting. A continuing difficulty in accommodating larger enrollments is the finding of suitable “field placements” for additional students. This system sometimes limits the range of agencies within which training may be given, particularly in new fields of practice, where few professionally trained social workers are employed.

The content of social work training tends to be organized around methods of social work practice, and field instruction is usually identified with one (but sometimes several) of the methods. The more theoretical portions of the curriculum provide knowledge of human behavior and social life deemed useful for competent practice. Courses on social welfare policies and the structure of welfare services of the country are usually required, and often some courses in social work research. Most students are trained in the casework method; in the United States in 1964 three-fourths of the full-time students were so identified. Casework method stresses interpersonal skills (usually the casework interview) to help individual clients or families solve problems of personal or social stress. The development of casework method has drawn heavily on psychoanalytic theory and dynamic psychology; and their perspectives pervade this training, although there is a marked trend toward the inclusion of a wider range of knowledge from the behavioral sciences. Training in a second method, called social group work, seeks to develop skills in using interaction processes of specially constituted or selected groups to help clients. A third method, called community organization, involves training to work with groups and organizations within the community in the solution of social problems. Finally, a few students are given special training in social welfare administration or in social work research. Schools in developing countries have emphasized training in community development to a greater extent than have those in Europe and North America. However, community organization is currently being conceived more broadly in the United States, and it represents the most rapidly expanding part of the curriculum.

Along with more academic and technical training, social work schools usually give deliberate attention to the socialization of the student into the profession. The professional practitioner is presented as a model in most classes, but especially in field placements. Faculty advice and supervision by field work instructors tend to be close and fairly continuous through the years of study, and frequent evaluations of progress in acquiring professional norms, values, and orientations are often shared with the student. Strong professional identifications seem to lead students to prefer subsequent employment in positions where other professional social workers are practicing. Some observers of social work education in the United States have expressed concern with the academic level of graduate study and the focus of training on therapeutic rather than preventive content (Kadushin 1965). However, there is evidence that the social work curriculum is changing in terms of greater emphasis on social science materials and broader conceptions of the roles for which social workers are to be trained.

The number of years required for completion of social work training is related in part to the educational level attained by the students prior to enrollment in professional schools. If students are admitted directly from secondary schools, the length of study is usually three or four years. This generally corresponds in duration to the training given other technical professionals, such as teachers and nurses. The most significant exception to this widespread pattern is found in the United States and Canada, where the length of training is two years, but completion of four years of college is a prerequisite for admission.

Faculty members for social work schools are recruited primarily from practitioners in social agencies. Academic work beyond the professional degree has not generally been considered necessary. In recent years, as social work schools have become more integrated with universities, faculty members with advanced degrees have been sought; in the United States, professionals with doctorates in social work or in a social science are increasingly employed. Fifteen schools of social work offered doctorates for advanced study of social work in 1964. Faculty members with graduate degrees in other academic disciplines—especially sociology and psychology—are often used, as are part-time instructors from other professional schools, especially from psychiatry, medicine, and law. While staffing patterns differ among countries, and a pattern of collaboration between practitioners and social scientists is fairly general, the point of view of the professional is usually dominant. There is widespread recognition of an acute shortage of personnel suitable for faculty membership.

Professional practice

As previously noted, the profession of social work is almost exclusively practiced within agencies. Private practice, particularly of casework, has grown in the United States (Levenstein 1964), but it is not common. Social agencies range from those in which social workers constitute the exclusive or predominant professional personnel—such as family and children’s service agencies, some community centers, and some social welfare planning councils—to institutions in which social workers occupy positions complementary or secondary to other professionals—such as hospitals, clinics, and public schools. Interaction between organizational and professional interests constitutes the continuing context for social work practice (Vinter 1959; 1963; Billingsley 1964).

The type of client and the kind of service offered are initially fixed by the purpose of the agency. A characteristic part of social work practice is “intake”—that is, determination of whether the client and the problem he presents can be properly accepted or should be referred to a different agency and, then, whether the client can be helped by the available professional treatment. In those instances in which clients are residents of correctional or medical institutions, pupils of schools, or cases before the courts, selection is further limited. The agency may also, by organizational decision as well as by the selective employment of social workers, determine the method of practice to be utilized. The introduction of different methods may be as much a decision of agency boards and executives as of professional practitioners. Although the executives are often social workers, practitioners are subject to evaluation in terms of agency criteria, such as productivity and conformity to routines, and these may not always be consonant with professional criteria of optimum service to clients.

There is always at least latent strain between the requirements of professional autonomy and the constraints of the organization. Such strain is less evident where professional social workers occupy all levels in an agency. Where they are in a minority or subject to authority of other professions, the differentiation of a distinctive function for the professional social worker may become blurred, and its determination may become a matter of concern. Where untrained workers constitute a large proportion—as in most public welfare agencies—professional social workers often occupy supervisory or administrative positions. In agencies that provide mental health services—such as child guidance clinics, clinical and outpatient services of mental hospitals, and some community health agencies—social caseworkers (and sometimes social group workers) are often parts of clinical teams consisting of psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, and social worker. Problems of establishing appropriate roles and working out interprofessional relations have been observed, particularly those centering on the higher status often accorded to, or assumed by, the psychiatrist (Michigan … 1957).

The institution of “supervision” is characteristic of the organization of much social work practice. More experienced or more highly trained practitioners serve as “supervisors,” not only in the administrative sense but as colleagues with whom practitioners are expected to discuss specific cases and problems of practice. This is viewed as a continuation of professional education for the social worker (usually on an individual, tutorial basis) and as a safeguard for standards of practice. Even trained social workers are supervised. This has been said to retard the achievement of professional independence, and it has recently come in for criticism and experimental modification (Burns 1965). No detailed empirical study of supervision in its organizational and professional context has yet been published, although it appears to be a common pattern for the organization of practice in most countries, it is often associated with the use of consultation about particular cases with other professionals, such as psychiatrists or other physicians, psychologists, and lawyers.

Social workers tend to identify themselves along lines of practice methods as caseworkers, group workers, or community organization workers, and their agencies are often similarly identified. There is experimentation, in both training and practice, with multiple uses of these methods and with their modification in order to find the most appropriate patterns of service. Particularly noteworthy are efforts to devise new approaches to interpersonal helping processes, to the structuring of service and treatment organizations, and to the utilization of social action and other methods of community work. In the more clinical practices, such professional developments are strongest in the United States and western Europe, but new techniques in community organization are appearing most rapidly in other countries, where community development work in rural and urban areas is prominent.

Professional-client relationships

The major part of social work practice takes the form of face-to-face interviews with individuals, families, or groups of clients at the agency. Compared with other helping professions, however, social work conceives its practice as involving more contact with clients in their homes and elsewhere in the community. For example, work “in the streets” with gangs of delinquents is carried on by a number of agencies, and extensive work with neighborhood groups, settlement houses, and voluntary associations in the community is characteristic of some community organization practice. In addition, community organization practiced in welfare planning or fund-raising agencies calls for other relationships. The clientele of social workers thus consists of a wide range of persons, groups, and community organizations. Clients of public agencies are usually from lower socioeconomic levels as compared with the clients of private agencies (Cloward 1963). The latter may charge fees to clients who can afford them, but the services of social workers are usually provided without cost to the clients. Among the helping professions, social work also tends to adopt a more comprehensive conception of the social context of the client’s problem. Hence, professional service often entails contacts with family members, employers, associates, and agencies that affect the client. Even so, critics both outside and within the profession frequently urge a wider social perspective, and such criticism is partly responsible for recent programs dealing with problems of delinquency, dependency, and illness in terms of the social environment.

The relationship between the professional social worker and his client is governed by strong norms of confidentiality and responsibility; it is seen as a privileged relationship delimited in function and content, calling for objective, emotionally neutral interest and impartiality in the rendering of service (Wilensky & Lebeaux 1958, pp. 298-303). Such norms are more explicitly recognized where professionalization is most advanced, but they are widely asserted in international literature as proper for the professional social worker. Recognition of the professional nature of social workers by their clients is not always equally evident. This appears to encourage self-consciousness as well as conscientiousness on the part of trained social workers, who seem seriously concerned about their professional image. The social worker views his practice as the use of his professional self to establish and maintain a helping relationship with his client, whether individual, family, or community group. The continuance of the relationship is often taken as an indication that help is being given, and clients who continue often express satisfaction with the help they receive. However, in the United States less than half of the clients of private family service agencies continue to a second interview or beyond; moreover, clients often discontinue contact on their own initiative, with the extent of benefit uncertain (Beck 1962).

Evaluation of social work

Evaluation of social work practice has long been recognized by the profession as a counterpart of its claim to professional competence. However, objective evaluation of the effectiveness of social work has faced problems similar to those of other helping and therapeutic professions (Hyman et al. 1962). Some of the special difficulties of evaluating social work have been noted with respect to its clinical approaches by Blenkner (1950; 1962) and with respect to large-scale intervention programs by Freeman and Sherwood (1965).

Systematic research utilizing judgments of practitioners to assess client changes during casework has been cumulative (Hunt & Kogan 1950; Ripple 1964), but there is growing recognition of the limitations of evaluation in this manner (National … 1959). Evaluation research with control-group designs is not yet common but is becoming more acceptable to the profession (Shyne 1963). Examples of such research are found in studies of agency services to convalescent mental patients (Meyer & Borgatta 1959), of alternative services provided for aged clients (Blenkner et al. 1964), of casework and group counseling for potentially deviant high school girls (Meyer et al. 1965), of a group work approach to malperforming high school boys (Vinter & Sarri 1965), and of several modes of casework service to clients with marital problems (Shyne 1965). Experimental studies have also been conducted to assess the effects of social work training on the selection of adoptive parents (Brieland 1959) and on the performance of public welfare workers (Thomas & McLeod 1960). In general, these studies have been able to demon-strate only modest effectiveness of the therapeutically oriented approaches utilized. Such findings encourage social workers to examine the theoretical bases for their methods and have contributed to a growing emphasis on manipulation of the social and community context in which the problems of clients arise.

Evaluation of the impact of community action programs presents complex problems that have only recently received systematic attention (see Freeman & Sherwood 1965). An attempt to affect delinquency rates by the use of street-gang workers has been evaluated by Miller (1962), who found that such workers had little effect. Comprehensive theories of delinquency control (e.g., Cloward & Ohlin 1960) or of community organization to enhance the position of the poor (e.g., Hagstrom 1964) generate programs of such complexity that their rigorous evaluation is unlikely to be achieved until the modes of intervention are made more explicit and the concepts and methods of evaluation are adapted to their scope. Some of the issues involved and some of the promising lines of approach to evaluating social action and social policy have been discussed by Wilkins (1964). [See alsoEvaluation Research.]

Career patterns

Although precise data are lacking, it can be observed that professional social workers engage in considerable mobility between agencies. In the tight labor market for trained social workers, this appears to be more a part of career choice than of necessity. Although there is a normal process of rising to higher positions of supervision and administration, horizontal mobility seems to be more characteristic. This is also encouraged by the fact that some female social workers return to the profession after having interrupted their careers for marriage and family life, and some find jobs when they accompany their husbands to new locations. Movement to new jobs normally results in higher salaries, but within a relatively narrow range, for practitioners. There are salary differentials between men and women professional social workers, which are partly a function of the disproportionate number of men in higher positions and in fields of practice, such as community organization, where salaries are higher (see Baker 1965, p. 537).

There is no clear prestige hierarchy of positions or agencies through which an individual moves in his professional career. However, observers have noted that casework in psychiatric and medical agencies carries relatively high prestige, and private agencies are sometimes preferred to public ones. Employment in public assistance agencies, except in administrative positions, appears to carry the lowest prestige.

Professional associations

Many organizations to which social workers belong are formed by those in particular fields or with special areas of interest, such as public welfare, corrections, race relations, or mental health. Two types of strictly professional associations have emerged. One type organizes individual social workers in a membership association concerned with qualifications for admission to the profession, standards of professional practice, conditions of employment, professional ethics, and the status of social work among the professions. The other type is the association of schools of social work concerned with setting and enforcing educational requirements and standards, support for professional training, and expansion of educational facilities. The interests and activities of these two types of associations intersect, and they often share the same leadership cadre. Nevertheless, issues arise between them with respect to relative emphases in professional development on such matters as specialization, innovations in practice, and criteria of acceptable training. It appears that in countries where social work has developed more recently, associations of schools may give the chief stimulus to professionalization (United Nations 1965). In countries where professional membership associations are older and well established, the associations of schools play smaller but still significant roles. In the United States, both types of organizations emerged in their present forms at approximately the same time and maintain both formal and informal collaborative relations.

National associations with inclusive professional membership were formed early in the history of social work in a number of countries. However, organizations along professional specializations, such as the medical or psychiatric social workers, appear to have emerged with more vigor. These special associations have subsequently sought to consolidate into single national organizations. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which was organized in 1955, presently constitutes the only national professional association for all social workers in the United States, with specializations recognized in nine councils. NASW requires graduation from a school of social work accredited by the Council on Social Work Education as a condition for membership. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), established in 1952, accepts for accreditation only those schools which grant the master’s degree after two years of graduate study; it also maintains a division for undergraduate departments that give social work instruction regarded as “preprofessional.”

The International Federation of Social Workers, founded in 1932 and reactivated in 1950 after the interruption of World War II, is composed of national associations of social workers. The International Association of Schools of Social Work has also been established. These organizations carry on informational and educational activities, meeting biennially along with the International Conference of Social Work, an organization with broad social welfare interests.

Membership in NASW accords recognition of professional status in the United States and Canada. A degree from an accredited graduate school is an eligibility requirement for certain civil service positions of state and federal governments. NASW has sponsored legal certification restricting the use of the title “social worker” to those having specified qualifications, and in 1965 four states had laws protecting the title. In France and Puerto Rico, social workers are licensed, and several countries have established legal requirements for schools of social work. In 1960, NASW founded the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) to designate social workers who are members of NASW and have two years of successful social work experience under the supervision of a member of the academy. The effect of ACWS will be, after a transitional period, to establish a differential within the profession that is based on practice experience rather than education. Proposals to broaden the base of the profession by admitting social workers with college degrees and a certain number of years of experience to some form of membership in NASW were unsuccessful up to 1965. In the continuing debate over the issue, some members argue that present membership restrictions may generate competitive professional organizations with other qualifications for membership; a majority support the principle of a “professional” rather than an “occupational” association. The issue may be expected to persist, especially in the face of the shortage of trained social workers and the entrance of persons with qualifications other than social work schooling into occupations in social welfare under large public programs in such areas as mental health, poverty, delinquency, and community action.

Associations of professional social workers in a number of countries have adopted or proposed codes of ethics, and in the United States NASW promulgated such a code in 1960. It pledges members to a series of obligations, including primary responsibility to the client, confidentiality, recognition of the limits of professional knowledge and competence, appropriate respect for colleagues, priority of professional over personal interests, and other standards of professional conduct. There has also been discussion of an international code of ethics by the International Federation of Social Workers.

Future directions

The character of the profession is being affected by several lines of development within social work. One of these is the increased emphasis on institutional and community change, in which the client is encouraged to participate. A number of governmental programs have adopted this approach, making the environment rather than the individual the major target of intervention. Social workers involved in these programs are turning to broader theories of social science in their training and practice and are enlarging the scope of community organization.

Social workers who help the client to function better in his individual situation are also experimenting with additional techniques. There is renewed consideration of the whole family, and treatment methods more commonly include the use of group approaches. Moreover, social workers are increasingly turning to behavioral psychology as a guide for practice rather than to the psychoanalytic doctrines upon which the therapeutic methods of social work have largely depended.

Manpower pressures are stimulating experimentation with new forms of practice and with the differentiation of tasks for which varied training is required. The increasing responsibility of social workers in the implementation of large public programs and greater security about their competence are encouraging both basic and evaluative research. Finally, achievement of more secure status and recognition is increasing the social work profession’s ability to define the role it will play in the changing society.

Henry J. Meyer

[Directly related are the entriesPlanning, social, article onWelfare planning; Welfare state. Other relevant material may be found inPhilanthropy; Poverty.]


The absence of extensive empirical studies limits analysis of the social work profession. Useful descriptive materials on social work education and other aspects of the profession can be found in the four United Nations surveys published under the title Training for Social Work in 1950, 1955, 1958, and 1965. Current developments in various countries are reported in International Social Work, published bimonthly by the International Conference of Social Work. See Great Britain … 1959 for an extensive study of social work in Great Britain, focusing on manpower and training; Timras 1964 provides a history of British social work in mental health; and Rodgers & Dixon 1960 presents an intensive study of social workers in a British community. For the United States, the Encyclopedia of Social Work contains a wide range of information; it was published in 1965 by the National Association of Social Workers, replacing an earlier series, the Social Work Year-book. Salaries and Working Conditions … 1961 includes some data on trends in the United States since 1950. The emergence of the profession in the United States is analyzed historically in Lubove 1965. The most complete sociological analysis of the profession is a perceptive study of social welfare, Wilensky & Lebeaux 1958; other general analyses of the profession include Pollack 1952; Greenwood 1957; Cohen 1958; Meyer 1959. For studies of the characteristics of social work students, see Pins 1963 and Berengarten 1964. Manpower issues are reviewed in National … 1966. The Council on Social Work Education’s publications include the Journal of Education for Social Work, regular informational bulletins, and an annual series entitled Statistics on Social Work Education. The National Association of Social Workers also has a publications program that includes two quarterly journals, Social Work and Abstracts for Social Workers, as well as regular bulletins on personnel information and professional developments. Professional journals, especially Social Service Review, Social Casework, and Child Welfare, frequently include discussions of problems of professionalization. Developments in public welfare bearing on the profession may be found in the journal Public Welfare and in other publications of the American Public Welfare Association, as well as in occasional publications of the Welfare Administration, U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In addition, more technical papers about social work knowledge and practice often supply insights into trends in the profession.

Abstracts for Social Workers. → Published since 1965.

Baker, Mary R. 1965 Personnel in Social Work. Pages 532-540 in Encyclopedia of Social Work. New York: National Association of Social Workers.

Beck, Dorothy F. 1962 Patterns in Use of Family Agency Service. New York: Family Service Association of America.

Berengarten, Sidney 1964 Admissions Prediction and Student Performance in Social Work Education. New York: Council on Social Work Education.

Billingsley, Andrew 1964 Bureaucratic and Professional Orientation Patterns in Social Casework. Social Service Review 38, no. 4:400-407.

Blackey, Eileen 1964 Issues in Social Work Education: New and Changing Demands Made of the Profession. Pages 75-89 in Council on Social Work Education, Twelfth Annual Program Meeting, Proceedings. New York: The Council.

Blenkner, Margaret 1950 Obstacles to Evaluative Research in Casework. Social Casework 31:54-60, 97-105.

Blenkner, Margaret 1962 Control Groups and the “Placebo Effect” in Evaluative Research. Social Work 7, no. 1:52-58.

Blenkner, Margaret; jahn, Julius; and wasser, EDNA 1964 Serving the Aging: An Experiment in Social Work and Public Health Nursing. New York: Community Service Society.

Brieland, Donald 1959 An Experimental Study of the Selection of Adoptive Parents at Intake. New York: Child Welfare League of America.

Burns, Mary E. 1965 Supervision in Social Work. Pages 785-791 in Encyclopedia of Social Work. New York: National Association of Social Workers.

Child Welfare. → Published since 1922.

Cloward, Richard A. 1963 Social Class and Private Social Agencies. Pages 123-137 in Council on Social Work Education, Eleventh Annual Program Meeting, Proceedings. New York: The Council.

Cloward, Richard A.; and Ohlin, Lloyd E. (1960) 1961 Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs. New York: Free Press.

Cohen, Nathan E. 1958 Social Work in the American Tradition: Field, Body of Knowledge, Process, Method and Point of View. New York: Dryden.

Conference on International Social Welfare Manpower, Washington, D.C., DEC. 13-14, 1964 1965 Proceedings. Washington: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Welfare Administration.

Encyclopedia of Social Work. Edited by Harry L. Lurie. 1965 New York: National Association of Social Workers.

Freeman, Howard E.; and Sherwood, Clarence C. 1965 Research in Large-scale Intervention Programs. Journal of Social Issues 21, no. 1:11-28.

Great britain, WorkinG Party ON Social Workers in the Local Authority Health and Welfare Services 1959 Report. London: H.M. Stationery Office.

Greenwood, Ernest 1957 Attributes of a Profession. Social Work 2, no. 3:45-55.

Hagstrom, Warren O. 1964 The Power of the Poor. Pages 205-223 in Frank Riessman et al. (editors), The Mental Health of the Poor. New York: Free Press.

Hunt, Joseph Mcv.; and Kogan, Leonard S. 1950 Measuring Results in Social Casework: A Manual on Judging Movement. New York: Family Service Association of America.

Hyman, Herbert H.; Wright, Charles R.; and Hopkins, Terence K. 1962 Applications of Methods of Evaluation: Four Studies of the Encampment for Citizenship. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

International Social Work. → Published quarterly by the International Conference of Social Work.

Interprofessional Conference on Professional Training in North America for Students From other Countries, Osgood Hill Conference Center, 1961 1963 The Professional Education of Students From Other Lands. Prepared by Irwin T. Sanders. New York: Council on Social Work Education.

Journal of Education for Social Work. → Published since 1965.

Kadushin, Alfred 1965 Two Problems of the Graduate Program: Level and Content. Journal of Education for Social Work 1, no. 1:33-46.

Levenstein, Sidney 1964 Private Practice in Social Casework: A Profession’s Changing Pattern. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Lubove, Roy 1965 The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career, 1880-1930. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Madison, Berenice 1962 Welfare Personnel in the Soviet Union. Social Work 7, no. 3:57-68.

Meyer, Henry J. 1959 Professionalization and Social Work. Pages 319-340 in Alfred J. Kahn (editor), Issues in American Social Work. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Meyer, Henry J.; and Borgatta, Edgar F. 1959 An Experiment in Mental Patient Rehabilitation: Evaluating a Social Agency Program. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Meyer, Henry J.; Borgatta, Edgar F.; and Jones, Wyatt C. 1965 Girls at Vocational High: An Experiment in Social Work Intervention. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Michigan, University of, Research Center for Group Dynamics 1957 Role Relations in the Mental Health Professions, by Alvin Zander, Arthur R. Cohen, and Ezra Stotland. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, Institute of Social Research.

Miller, Walter B. 1962 The Impact of a “Total-community” Delinquency Control Project. Social Problems 10:168-191.

National Association of Social Workers, Research Section 1959 Use of Judgments as Data in Social Work Research. Edited by Ann W. Shyne. New York: The Association.

National Association of Social Workers, Research Section 1966 Manpower in Social Welfare: Research Perspectives. Edited by Edward E. Schwartz. New York: The Association.

Pins, Arnulf M. 1963 Who Chooses Social Work, When and Why? An Exploratory Study of Factors Influencing Career Choices in Social Work. New York: Council on Social Work Education.

Pollack, Otto 1952 The Culture of Psychiatric Social Work. Journal of Psychiatric Social Work 21:160-165.

Public Welfare. → Published since 1943.

Ripple, Lillian1964 Motivation, Capacity and Opportunity: Studies in Casework Theory and Practice. Univ. of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration.

Rodgers, Barbara N.; and Dixon, Julia 1960 Portrait of Social Work: A Study of Social Services in a Northern Town. Oxford Univ. Press.

Salaries and Working Conditions of Social Welfare Manpower in 1960. 1961 New York: National Social Welfare Assembly.

Shyne, Ann W. 1963 Evaluation of Results in Social Work. Social Work 8, no. 4:26-33.

Shyne, Ann W. 1965 An Experimental Study of Casework Methods. Social Casework 46:535-541.

Social Casework. → Published since 1920.

Social Service Review. → Published since 1927.

Social Work. → Published since 1956.

Social Work Yearbook. → Published from 1929 to 1960.

Statistics on Social Work Education. → Published since 1952.

The Term “Social Work” as Used Throughout the World. 1961 International Social Work 4, no. 1:5-9; no. 3:29-32; no. 4:9-11.

Thomas, Edwin J.; and Mcleod, Donna L. 1960 In-service Training and Reduced Workloads: Experiments in a State Department of Welfare. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Timms, NOEL 1964 Psychiatric Social Work in Great Britain: 1939-1962. London: Routledge; New York: Humanities.

United NationsTraining for Social Work. → Four international surveys published in 1950, 1955, 1958, and 1965.

Vinter, Robert D. 1959 The Social Structure of Service. Pages 242-269 in Alfred J. Kahn (editor), Issuesin American Social Work. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Vinter, Robert D. 1963 Analysis of Treatment Organizations. Social Work 8, no. 3:3-15.

Vinter, Robert D.; and Sarri, Rosemary C. 1965 Malperformance in the Public School: A Group Work Approach. Social Work 10, no. 1:3-13.

Wilensky, Harold L.; and Lebeaux, Charles N. 1958 Industrial Society and Social Welfare: The Impact of Industrialization on the Supply and Organization of Social Welfare Services in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

Wilkins, Leslie T. (1964) 1965 Social Deviance: Social Policy, Action, and Research. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Wittman, Milton 1965 Information on Personnel Needs and Social Work Students: Implications for Manpower Planning and Research and for Programs of Recruitment and Education. Pages 15-25 in Ellen Winston et al., Social Work Education and Social Welfare Manpower: Present Realities and Future Imperatives. New York: Council on Social Work Education.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Work." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Social Work." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Social Work." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Social Work

Social Work





Social work is a both an academic discipline and a profession. The discipline of social work teaches theory, methods, and practice of the profession. Like many other disciplines within the social sciences, social work studies human behavior in a social environment. Social work is also a practice where individuals can work with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, domestic violence shelters, senior centers, elected offices, private practice, advocacy organizations, and a host of other public and private agencies. The ultimate goal of social work is to enhance the well-being and level of functioning for all people and to create positive social change by improving social conditions and creating more humane practices and policies for vulnerable populations.

Despite the overlap among social work, sociology, and psychology, there remain distinct differences between the disciplines. Social work seeks to intervene between people and their environments. Further, social work addresses social and economic conditions that affect individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities and highlights the importance of a multicultural understanding of both people and communities. Sociology is an academic disciplinenot a professional activitythat studies social groups, organizations, institutions, and societies. Psychology studies and treats individual behavior and mental processes.

Social work is driven by various ideological perspectives. The three most prevalent ideologies are conservative, liberal, and radical. The conservative ideology within social work focuses on a microlevel analysis of the individual, and the primary goal is to assist an individual and perhaps a family with their individual difficulties. This view holds the individual and family responsible and embraces private over public solutions. A liberal orientation in social work holds that social and institutional arrangements affect individual and societal well-being. A liberal view holds that government intervention is crucial and that a private response is insufficient: Government should provide a safety net, according to liberal ideology. This focus is typically considered a mezzo-level analysis. Lastly, the radical tradition of social work adopts a macro focus that confirms the need to restructure social, political, and economic institutions so they may provide a more equitable, universal, and democratic system. This radical view can be critical of the profession, most often targeting the conservative view as reproducing societal inequities and abandoning the historical roots of social work. Further, the radical tradition within the profession has been critical of social work practice as being tied to the state apparatus, which ultimately perpetuates poverty and inequality.

Ideological tension within the profession has historical roots, and there continues to be conflict today about the relevance and effectiveness of micro versus macro practice, although contemporary social workers have begun to recognize that what makes social work unique is the ability to locate social problems within the complex interconnectedness of individuals, families, communities, and societies. This multiple perspective of understanding social problems is one of the professions assets.

Another view of the social work profession offers poignant criticism. Many authors have addressed the unique quandary that social workers face given the complexities of the U.S. social welfare system and its relationship to capitalist ideology and institutions. In Frances Fox Piven and Richard Clowards seminal work Regulating the Poor (1971), they highlight that social welfare does not curb capitalist institutions; instead, it supports and enhances them. Moreover, the social worker is often the vehicle to ensure capitalisms survival. The profession must deal with this contradiction spelled out by Piven and Cloward, along with others, whereby social workers work in and are committed to the very institutions and agencies that perpetuate inequality, yet social workers rely on these same agencies for their livelihood.

As the various ideological perspectives of the profession reveal, there are numerous and varying accounts of the social work profession. In sum, many believe the profession to be driven by altruistic and humanistic motives, whereas others focus on the historys middle-class do-gooder who seeks professionalization. Still others describe social work as a profession that exerts social control over the poor, further legitimizing capitalism. In fact, social works historical development embodies each of these realities.


The profession of social work dates back to the mid-1800s, when state charities began and institutions were established to deal with dependent populations such as the mentally ill, poor children, and people with disabilities. Prior to state intervention, mostly local churches and philanthropic organizations attempted to tackle social problems. But by the end of the nineteenth century these state-run institutions were failing and no longer providing quality care. Simultaneously, two movements emerged offering new ways of dealing with the poor and vulnerable in society: Charity Organization Societies and the Settlement House Movement. Each of these movements, both of which had roots in England, had approaches of dealing with social problems that embraced an ideological stance. The former adopted a conservative view that held that eradicating poverty meant that individual behavior had to be changed. The latter embraced a radical ideology that confirmed the need for fundamental social change.

Abraham Flexner (18661959), an educator who was considered an expert in evaluating professional standards and advocated for radical change in the way that medical schools trained doctors in the United States and Canada, said in 1915 that social work had not yet achieved profession status due to its lack of professional standards. Flexner was the author of the famous Flexner Report (1910), which had argued for increased standards in medical schools. He concluded that in order to be considered a profession, social work, like medicine, must have its own set of skills and specialized education that is based on scientific knowledge. Social work used this conclusion as an impetus to create and expand the types of setting for social work practice and paid attention to developing a knowledge base that was unique to social work. As a result of new practices, partly driven by the expansion of social welfare provisions in the 1930s, social work became acknowledged as a legitimate profession.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s the field witnessed an expansion in both the number of social workers and the type of work they did. Social work played a crucial role in helping shape and develop the United Statess first institutional welfare program. In fact, a notable social worker, Harry Hopkins (18901946), headed Franklin Delano Roosevelts emergency relief program, and another social worker, Jane Hoey (18921968), was the head of the Federal Bureau of Public Assistance. Since the 1930s social workers have been central in organizing and running governmental programs that aid the poor and needy.

After the New Deal and Social Security Act were passed, public perception about the profession of social work became more positive, and social work practice expanded greatly. Professional standards increased as well as academic requirements. Given the proliferation of services available to the public, the numbers in the profession increased greatly during these years. Social workers had a renewed sense that social reform was fundamental to their mission. From the 1940s to the 1970s social work was a growing field, expanding into many new arenas and continuing its professionalization project. The 1980s and 1990s were difficult for the social work profession, with massive government cuts to social spending and social welfare services. New social problems emerged that posed new challenges to social workers, such as high rates of incarceration, HIV/AIDS, and the crack epidemic. Some social problems that had been around for centurieshomelessness and domestic violenceincreasingly became more politicized and addressed. The 1990s brought decentralization, whereby the federal government assumed less responsibility for the poor and needy, and states were required to do more to respond to vulnerable populations. This historical shift had implications for the social work profession, such as less federal funding and less support, and, as a result, social workers have had to continue developing creative alternatives to remedy social problems.


Social workers can be trained on a bachelors (BA or BSW), masters (MSW), or doctoral level (PhD or DSW) of education. Each level produces a specialty of knowledge and depth of skill. Bachelor-level social workers are typically referred to as frontline workers who adopt a generalist orientation to social problems and who work in fields ranging from child welfare to domestic violence to services for the aging. Masters-level social workers are also educationally trained as generalist practitioners, but they receive additional training in a particular field such as clinical practice; children, youth, and families; gerontology; substance abuse; public policy; and not-for-profit management. Doctoral-level education in social work provides students with all of these, as well as training to assume leadership positions in agency work or to become faculty members at colleges and universities. In 1952 the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) was established to oversee curricula within schools of social work. The council is the accrediting body of schools of social work on both the bachelors and masters levels.


Today there are approximately 600,000 people who hold social work degrees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is one of the fastest-growing careers in the United States. Given this rise, the profession has received increased public attention, both positive and negative. Public perception of the profession is often misinformed. According to the 2000 census, 845,000 individuals self-identified as social workers. Many individuals who work in the field of human services identify themselves as social workers, yet they do not have any formal social work education. This contributes to the misinformation about the profession, its scope of work, and the educational training required by schools of social work. Many states have passed legislation to protect the title social worker, restricting it to those who have completed a social work degree from an accredited institution of higher learning.

In 1955 the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) was formed. NASW is the largest membership organization representing professional social workers. It works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies (National Association of Social Workers 2006).

Social work is a complicated profession. Like sociology and psychology, there are competing views and traditions, ranging from conservative to liberal to radical, each of which embraces a different ideology and set of practices. Social work has a long and rich history, becoming institutionalized in state programs and during the New Deal in federal programs. Today, there are nearly one million social work professionals in the United States practicing in nearly every setting. Social works growth is likely to continue, producing positive outcomes in the lives of individuals as well as institutions.

SEE ALSO Interventions, Social Skills


Axinn, June, and Mark J. Stern. 2001. Social Welfare: A History of the American Response to Need. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bailey, Roy, and Mike Brake. 1976. Radical Social Work. London: Edward Arnold Publishers.

Cloward, Richard A., and Frances Fox Piven. 1977. The Acquiescence of Social Work. Society 14 (2): 5563.

Jansson, Bruce. 2001. The Reluctant Welfare State. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Katz, Michael. 1986. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare America. New York: Basic Books.

Leiby, James. 1979. A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lubove, Roy. 1965. The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career, 18901930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

National Association of Social Workers. 2006.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard A. Cloward. 1971. Regulating the Poor. New York: Pantheon Books.

Reisch, Michael, and Janice L. Andrews. 2001. The Road Not Taken: A History of Radical Social Work in the United States. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge.

Trattner, Walter. 1979. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. New York: Free Press.

Susanna Jones

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Work." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Social Work." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Social Work." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Social Work


While many medical and social advances have resulted in longer lives, older adults often find themselves coping with multiple health problems that affect their quality of life. It is in this context that the role of the social worker becomes paramount. The main focus of a gerontological social worker is to maintain and enhance the quality of life of older adults and their families. Gerontological social workers often find themselves members of an interdisciplinary team composed of several health care professionals who must collaborate and communicate with each other in order to achieve the best possible outcome for the older adult (Linderman and Mellor).

Role of social work

Though the role of the social worker can vary from one team to another, several key tasks are essential for the gerontological social worker who is a member of an interdisciplinary team. The first is that of diagnosis and assessment. Here the social worker determines how the older adult and his or her family are functioning in physical, psychological, social, cultural, environmental, and spiritual areas. This will provide a holistic view of the persons involved. The second task is individual and group counseling, a very broad and diverse domain, the main focus of which is to help the older adult and his or her family adjust to major stressors and changes in their lives as a result of illness or various losses. The third task is advocacy. Older adults often find themselves having to deal with a variety of overwhelming systems. The social worker can help by acting on their behalf or teaching them ways to navigate these systems. The fourth task is acting as a liaison. This is vital when there is an interdisciplinary team involved. It can become confusing for the older adult and his or her family when several professionals are trying to obtain information. Having the social worker as a liaison with the various professionals is vital.

The fifth task is to serve as a community resource expert. The knowledge of community resources and how to access them is one of the most valuable skills of any social worker, but even more so for those who work with older adults. When there are multiple problems, there generally are multiple systems to deal with. Therefore having an individual who is familiar with these systems is indeed an asset. The final task is the coordination of care, which is both particularly important and very time-consuming. Many aspects of care are being communicated by various team members, and many agencies have actual or potential roles in the provision of care. Thus things can become very confusing unless someone takes on the role of coordinator.

The caregiver

Families often play an essential role in providing care to older adults. It is estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of the help received by older adults in the community is provided by family members (Cox et al.). This figure undermines the myth of family abandonment that arises from stories of families who leave an elderly member at the emergency department and then refuse to take that person home. With the financial restraints that the U.S. health care system is facing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the number of older adults requiring families to provide their care is expected to grow. Social workers are concerned not only with the older adult but also with the family or caregiver, because it is essential that the family be included in all aspects of care planning.

Support for the caregiver

As with most roles in life, there are both positive and negative aspects to being a caregiver to an older adult. Caregivers struggle to balance the personal, physical, and emotional aspects of caregiving, as well as their other roles and responsibilities. It is not surprising that many feel overwhelmed and stressed. This phenomenon is generally referred to as caregiver burden. Social workers play a key role in monitoring for signs of caregiver burden and helping families learn to cope with and prevent increased stress levels. It is important for social workers to maintain regular contact with the caregiver in order to assess for increased stress levels. Administrating surveys or questionnaires that are designed to measure caregiver burden can be helpful in this regard. Though assessment skills are clearly important, another necessary skill is being a good listener. Being able to discuss concerns with someone who is genuinely concerned and willing to listen can be therapeutic in and of itself. Caregivers report that talking to others who are going through similar experiences can also be helpful. Therefore, social workers often connect caregivers with support groups. Work with caregivers and review of the literature on caregiving, make it evident that one of the most important ways to support caregivers is to ensure that they have adequate time away from their caregiving roles. This supplemental care is often referred to as respite care. Social workers work with the caregivers to ensure that adequate respite care is in place through either formal or informal systems.

Dorothy Wambolt

See also Assessment; Caregiving, Informal; Case Management; Frailty; Functional Ability; Home Care and Home Services; Multidisciplinary Team; Social Services.


Cox, E.; Parsons, R.; and Kimboko, P. Social Services and Intergenerational Caregivers: Issues for Social Work. Social Work (SeptemberOctober 1988).

Linderman, D., and Mellor, J. The Distinctive Role of Gerontological Social Work. Continuum 19, no. 1 (1999): 13.

McCallion, P.; Toseland, R.; and Diehi, M. Social Work Practice with Caregivers of Frail Older Adults. Research on Social Work Practice 4, no. 1 (1994): 6488.

Walker, A.; Martin, S.; and Jones, L. The Benefits and Costs of Caregiving and Care Receiving for Daughters and Mothers. Journal of Gerontology 47, no. 3 (1992): S130S139.

Work Interest Group of the Hartford Geriatric Interdisciplinary Team Training Program. The Role of the Social Worker in Interdisciplinary Geriatric Teams. Continuum 19, no. 1 (1999): 46

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Work." Encyclopedia of Aging. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Social Work." Encyclopedia of Aging. . (December 15, 2017).

"Social Work." Encyclopedia of Aging. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Social Work


SOCIAL WORK. The profession of social work emerged in the early twentieth century as charitable organizations began employing trained workers rather than relying on volunteers. Pioneers developed two competing approaches for addressing social problems. Mary Richmond, author of Social Diagnosis (1917), is celebrated as a leader of the charity organization movement, while the social settlement movement was epitomized by the work of Jane Addams at Hull-House in Chicago. The profession considers its founding date to be 1898, the year the first social work course was established at the New York School of Philanthropy (now the Columbia University School of Social Work). In 1915, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Abraham Flexner, an educator and expert on professional standards, pronounced that social workers were not professionals, rather they served as mediators between clients and other professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Early social workers took that as a challenge and mobilized workers to produce professional literature, organizations, and a code of ethics.

As June Hopps and Pauline Collins (1995) have noted, the profession of social work responds to wider historical changes, shifting its focus from environmental reform to individual change, as the nation's social climate fluctuates. For example, social workers aimed to radically change institutions and rejected the traditional establishment during the Progressive Era of the 1900s, the depression of the 1930s, and the social unrest of the 1960s. However, in more conservative times, such as the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, the profession attended to direct service and individual change.

While white Protestant women composed the majority of early social workers, Catholic, Jewish, and African American men and women often formed their own agencies. Segregation laws barred African Americans from white schools of social work, leading African Americans to create Atlanta University School of Social Work. Pioneers like Lawrence Oxley drew from nineteenth-century philosophies of mutual aid and race pride, and the journal Southern Workman provided a forum of discussion for African American social reformers of the early twentieth century.

In the 1920s, social workers debated whether the profession would include caseworkers across a broad range of fields or limit membership to a professional elite with high educational standards. The latter position won, and social workers were required to complete masters-level training. Depression-era social workers demanded a federal response to widespread unemployment and poverty. A new political activism was ignited within the profession and the social workers Harry Hopkins and Jane Hoey served in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, influencing new emergency relief and social security programs.

In 1952, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) emerged to accredit graduate schools, and by the 1970s, baccalaureate programs were accredited to prepare entry-level professionals. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) was established in 1955, adopting a code of ethics, and merging seven previously scattered organizations for psychiatric, medical, and group workers. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, organizations such as the National Association of Black Social Workers (1968), Latino Social Workers Organization (1992), and North American Association of Christians in Social Work (1954) evolved to address concerns of various groups.

Entry-level social workers are trained as generalists and are expected to provide service to a broad range of clients, maintain a wide scope of knowledge, and practice a great diversity of skills. Advanced practitioners with graduate-level training may specialize in areas such as clinical, medical, or school social work, as well as planning and development, aging, mental health, or corrections. In the late 1960s and 1970s, states began establishing licensing requirements to legally regulate practice. While all states require some form of licensure, current trends are moving toward "declassification": downgrading requirements for social work in order to employ persons with neither a license nor a degree to do case management and other functions traditionally reserved for social workers.


Carlton-LaNey, Iris. "African American Social Work Pioneers' Response to Need." Social Work 44, no. 4 (July 1999): 311– 321.

Hopps, June, and Pauline Collins. "Social Work Profession Overview." In Encyclopedia of Social Work. 19th ed. Edited by Richard Edwards and June Hopps. Washington, D.C.: NASW Press, 1995.

Popple, Phillip, and Leslie Leighninger. Social Work, Social Welfare, and American Society. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.

T. LaineScales

See alsoCharity Organization Movement ; Poverty ; Settlement House Movement ; Welfare System .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Work." Dictionary of American History. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Social Work." Dictionary of American History. . (December 15, 2017).

"Social Work." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

social work

social work, organized effort to help individuals and families to adjust themselves to the community, as well as to adapt the community to the needs of such persons and families.

Modern Social Work

Modern social work employs three methods of assistance: case work, group work, and community organization. Case work is the method by which individual persons and families are assisted. The person in need of case work may be physically, mentally, or socially handicapped. Among those regarded as socially handicapped are: the unemployed, the homeless, members of broken families, alcoholics, drug addicts, and neglected or problem children. To determine the cause of maladjustment, the social worker must understand individual psychology as well as the sociology of the community. Physicians, psychiatrists, and other specialists may be required to help diagnose the difficulty.

Social group work is exemplified by the social settlement, the supervised playground and gymnasium, and the classroom, where handicrafts may be learned. The community may be called upon to provide the buildings and grounds for such activities; often the services of volunteers and of public groups are utilized; in recent years people living in poverty areas have been employed to work in and direct poverty projects in their own communities.

Through community organization the welfare work of single agencies as well as of whole communities is directed, cooperation between public and private agencies is secured, and funds are raised and administered. The funds required by private agencies are often pooled in a community chest, from which each agency receives a share. Community welfare councils are organized to map programs of rehabilitation, to eliminate duplication of services, and to discover and meet overlooked needs.

The Development of Social Work

Social work emerged as a profession out of the early efforts of churches and philanthropic groups to relieve the effects of poverty, to bring the comforts of religion to the poor, to promote temperance and encourage thrift, to care for children, the sick, and the aged, and to correct the delinquent. Orphanages and homes for the elderly were typical results of these activities. The word charity best describes the early activities, which were aimed at the piecemeal alleviation of particular maladjustments. In such charitable work the principal criterion in determining aid to families was worthiness, while the emphasis in later social work was on restoring individuals to normal life both for their own sake and for the sake of the community.

The first attempts to solve the problem of poverty in a modern scientific way was made by P. G. F. Le Play, who in the 1850s made a detailed study of the budgets of hundreds of French workers' families. Forty years later Charles Booth investigated wages and prices, working conditions, housing and health, standards of living, and leisure activities among the poor of London and revealed the extreme poverty of a third of the population. Booth's social survey became a method for determining the extent of social maladjustment, and through surveys in other cities in Europe and the United States a vast number of facts were accumulated, and methods were developed that provided the basis for modern social work.

In 1874 the National Conference of Charities and Correction (now called the National Conference on Social Welfare) was organized in the United States. Public relief and private philanthropic effort remained largely matters of local and state concern until after 1930, when the federal government entered the field of social work on a large scale to cope with the effects of the Great Depression. Resources were made available, the number of social workers was greatly increased, and it became necessary to coordinate public and private activities. Social work has been steadily professionalized, and special graduate schools as well as departments in universities have been established to train social workers. By 1999 there were 377 accredited undergraduate schools of social work in the United States.


See I. A. Spergel, Community Problem Solving (1969); R. E. Smith and D. Zietz, American Social Welfare Institutions (1970); W. C. Richan and A. R. Mendelsohn, Social Work (1973).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"social work." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"social work." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 15, 2017).

"social work." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

social work

social work The generic term applied to the various organized methods for promoting human welfare through the prevention and relief of suffering. In the late nineteenth century, social work was largely voluntary (notably as a charitable activity on the part of middle-class women), and aimed primarily at the alleviation of material poverty. In the period since the Second World War, social work practice has become increasingly professionalized, and now has a much wider remit embracing emotional and mental as well as economic well-being.

Contemporary social work tends to suffer from a lack of differentiation from the various other social services which comprise the modern welfare state. In Britain, for example, social workers have no legal obligation (and no practical resources) to deal with issues of unemployment, housing, and poverty–all of which are the responsibility of other social services. What they are expected to deal with are the wide range of problems which diminish the ‘quality of inner life’: for example, problems and crises associated with adoption, fostering of the young and old, marital reconciliation, sexual and physical abuse, and people's relationships with one another generally.

There are several models of social work practice. The ‘problem-solving’ approach involves the social worker in reinforcing the client's emotional and organizational resources to deal with his or her difficulties. The various ‘psycho-social therapies’ stress the need for prior psycho-social diagnosis as a prerequisite to psycho-social treatment. Partly as a reaction against the deterministic and mechanical view of action implied in these approaches, ‘functionalists’ have emphasized the role of the social worker in helping (rather than treating) the client, by sustaining an appropriate supporting relationship with him or her. Other models are oriented towards behaviour-modification, crisis-intervention, and short-term task-centredness. In reality, practice tends to be characterized by eclectic pragmatism, rather than adherence to a specific method. Strong recent influences include feminist theory and anti-oppressive practice. Good recent overviews are Malcolm Payne , Modern Social Work Theory (1991)
, for Britain, and J. Heffernan et al. , Social Work and Social Welfare (2nd edn., 1992)
, for the United States.

Not surprisingly, many outside observers have expressed concern at the periodic psychotherapeutic takeover of social work; similarly, given its inherently moral character, social work practice has been subject to repeated controversy involving those who view it as primarily a political tool–either for promoting or hindering social justice.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"social work." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"social work." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (December 15, 2017).

"social work." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

Social Work


In the public health arena, social workers are a valuable resource for the development of treatment plans for patients, for locating supportive resources, and in facilitating referrals. Under the auspices of government and non-government public health organizations and institutions, social workers often provide behavioral and social assessments along with mental health assessment, treatment, and short-term or ongoing case management. Social workers may also work in the community as planners or community organizers capable of engaging groups of people, neighborhoods, or entire communities to address social problems such as drug abuse or teen pregnancy. Social work is a distinct profession, requiring college training, and a masters degree is often a necessity. Many states license social workers, and in those states only those holding such licenses may legally provide social work services The possibilities of employment vary widely and include federal, state, and local government agencies; hospitals; and public health and not-for-profit organizations.

Robert P. Labbe

(see also: Assessment of Health Status; Community Health; Mental Health; Social Determinants; Social Health )

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Work." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Social Work." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . (December 15, 2017).

"Social Work." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

social work

social work Community assistance and/or care. Social workers monitor the well-being of families known to have problems and sometimes have the power to remove children from parents deemed to be dangerously violent or abusive. They may be asked to assist the police in dealing with juvenile suspects. They also help various handicapped, homeless, or unemployed people.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"social work." World Encyclopedia. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"social work." World Encyclopedia. . (December 15, 2017).

"social work." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from

social work

so·cial work • n. work carried out by trained personnel with the aim of alleviating the conditions of those in need of help or welfare. DERIVATIVES: so·cial work·er n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"social work." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"social work." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 15, 2017).

"social work." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from