Social work

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Social Work according to the (U.S.) National Association of Social Workers is: "The professional activity of helping individuals, groups or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favorable to this goal." Professional social work is divided into graduate (MSW), undergraduate (BSW) and associate-level activities, with a modest representation of doctoral (DSW) level practice. (Doctoral level social workers tend to be primarily faculty in social work education and researchers.) There are around 600 social work education programs in the U.S.

The International Federation of Social Workers notes:

"social work bases its methodology on a systematic body of evidence-based knowledge derived from research and practice evaluation, including local and indigenous knowledge specific to its context. It recognizes the complexity of interactions between human beings and their environment, and the capacity of people both to be affected by and to alter the multiple influences upon them including bio-psychosocial factors. The social work profession draws on theories of human development and behaviour and social systems to analyse complex situations and to facilitate individual, organizational, social and cultural changes."[1]

The emphasis on individuals, groups and communities noted in the NASW definition above tends to be associated with a triparte distinction of social work into: casework, groupwork and community practice. A wide variety of other terms for different forms of social work are in use (see Related Articles subpage).

The Roads Not Taken

In the early years of the 20th century, and to a lesser extent throughout its history, social work has included a wide variety of proposals and suggestions for alternative development pathways. For example, Simon Patten, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania who coined the term spelled out a socio-economic vision of social work as activity of cultural and spiritual uplift facilitating the transition from an economy of scarcity and pain to one of surplus and pleasure, which he saw as the "New Basis of Civilization".[2] Also, at the time, Jane Addams, leader of the national Settlement House movement, articulated a largely civil, nonprofessional vision built around neighborhoods, integration of immigrants into American life and civic engagement.

Professional social service

Instead of any of these alternatives, much of social work in the U.S. has consistently followed the path laid out by Mary Richmond with understandings of human behavior and the social environment derived from the theories of Sigmund Freud and the model of a social profession, dedicated to "retail reform" using a "medical model" to "treat" individual "cases" in quasi-medical terms (e.g., diagnosis and treatment) and extensive labeling of "client" conditions as a pre-cursor of action. Although minority voices reminiscent of Patten, Addams, and others have always been present in social work and new ones periodically surface, most of social work activity in the U.S. follows closely the "psycho-social" model first articulated by Richmond.


  1. "Definition of Social Work". IFSW General Meeting in Montreal, Canada, July 2000. International Federation of Social Workers. 04/10/2005. Retrieved on 2009-06-11.
  2. Patten, Simon N. 1968. The new basis of civilization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (First published in 1907)