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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 discipline—not a professional activity—that 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 profession’s 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 Cloward’s 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 capitalism’s 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 history’s 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 work’s historical development embodies each of these realities.
History Of The Profession
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 (1866-1959), 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 States’s first institutional welfare program. In fact, a notable social worker, Harry Hopkins (1890-1946), headed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s emergency relief program, and another social worker, Jane Hoey (1892-1968), 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 centuries—homeless-ness and domestic violence—increasingly 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 Work Education
Social workers can be trained on a bachelor’s (BA or BSW), master’s (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 gener-alist 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.
Social Work’s Public Image
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 work’s growth is likely to continue, producing positive outcomes in the lives of individuals as well as institutions.
- 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): 55–63.
- 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, 1890–1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- National Association of Social Workers. 2006. http://www.naswdc.org.
- 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.
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