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Social work

Social work

Social work is an academic discipline and profession that concerns itself with individuals, families, groups and communities in an effort to enhance social functioning and overall well-being.[1][2] Social functioning is the way in which people perform their social roles, and the structural institutions that are provided to sustain them.[3] Social work applies social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, political science, public health, community development, law, and economics, to engage with client systems, conduct assessments, and develop interventions to solve social and personal problems; and to bring about social change. Social work practice is often divided into micro-work, which involves working directly with individuals or small groups; and macro-work, which involves working with communities, and - within social policy - fostering change on a larger scale.[4]

The social work industry[5] developed in the 19th century, with some of its roots in voluntary philanthropy and in grassroots organizing.[6] However, responses to social needs had existed long before then, primarily from private charities and from religious organizations. The effects of the Industrial Revolution and of the Great Depression of the 1930s placed pressure on social work to become a more defined discipline.[7]

Social work
NamesRegistered/licensed social worker
Activity sectors
Social welfare, social services, government, health, public health, mental health, occupational safety and health, community organization, non-profit, law
CompetenciesImproving the social environment and well-being of people by facilitating, and developing resources
Education required
Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Social Work, Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSc) or a Postgraduate Diploma in Social Work (PGDipSW) for general practice; Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MSc) for advanced practice; Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) or Professional Doctorate (ProfD or DProf) for or specialized practice. Registration and licensing differs depending on region
Fields of
Child and women protection services, non-profit organizations, government agencies, disadvantaged groups centers, hospitals, schools, churches, shelters, community agencies, social planning, think tanks, correctional services


Social work is a broad profession that intersects with several disciplines. Social work organizations offer the following definitions:

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work**engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance well-being."[8] –International Federation of Social Workers

"Social work is a profession concerned with helping individuals, families, groups and communities to enhance their individual and collective well-being. It aims to help people develop their skills and their ability to use their own resources and those of the community to resolve problems. Social work is concerned with individual and personal problems but also with broader social issues such as poverty, unemployment, and domestic violence."[9] –Canadian Association of Social Workers

Social work practice consists of the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends: helping people obtain tangible services; counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups; helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services; and participating in legislative processes. The practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behavior; of social and economic, and cultural institutions; and of the interaction of all these factors."[10] –National Association of Social Workers

"Social workers work with individuals and families to help improve outcomes in their lives. This may be helping to protect vulnerable people from harm or abuse or supporting people to live independently. Social workers support people, act as advocates and direct people to the services they may require. Social workers often work in multi-disciplinary teams alongside health and education professionals."[11] –British Association of Social Workers


A Marylebone slum in the 19th century

A Marylebone slum in the 19th century

The practice and profession of social work has a relatively modern and scientific origin,[12] and is generally considered to have developed out of three strands. The first was individual casework, a strategy pioneered by the Charity Organization Society in the mid-19th century, which was founded by Helen Bosanquet and Octavia Hill in London, England.[13] Most historians identify COS as the pioneering organization of the social theory that led to the emergence of social work as a professional occupation.[14] COS had its main focus on individual casework. The second was social administration, which included various forms of poverty relief – 'relief of paupers'. Statewide poverty relief could be said to have its roots in the English Poor Laws of the 17th century, but was first systematized through the efforts of the Charity Organization Society. The third consisted of social action – rather than engaging in the resolution of immediate individual requirements, the emphasis was placed on political action working through the community and the group to improve their social conditions and thereby alleviate poverty. This approach was developed originally by the Settlement House Movement.[14]

This was accompanied by a less easily defined movement; the development of institutions to deal with the entire range of social problems. All had their most rapid growth during the nineteenth century, and laid the foundation basis for modern social work, both in theory and in practice.[15]

Professional social work originated in 19th century England, and had its roots in the social and economic upheaval wrought by the Industrial Revolution, in particular the societal struggle to deal with the resultant mass urban-based poverty and its related problems. Because poverty was the main focus of early social work, it was intricately linked with the idea of charity work.[15]

Other important historical figures that shaped the growth of the social work profession are Jane Addams, who founded the Hull House in Chicago and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931; Mary Ellen Richmond, who wrote Social Diagnosis, one of the first social work books to incorporate law, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and history; and William Beveridge, who created the social welfare state, framing the debate on social work within the context of social welfare prevision.

Transtheoretical models

Social work is an interdisciplinary profession, meaning it draws from a number of areas, such as (but not limited to) psychology, sociology, politics, criminology, economics, ecology, education, health, law, philosophy, anthropology, and counseling, including psychotherapy. Field work is a distinctive attribution to social work pedagogy. This equips the trainee in understanding the theories and models within the field of work. Professional practitioners from multicultural aspects have their roots in this social work immersion engagements from the early 19th century in the western countries. As an example, here are some of the models and theories used within social work practice:

  • Empathy

  • Social case work

  • Social group work

  • Community organization

  • Behavioral

  • School social worker

  • Leadership and management

  • Crisis intervention

  • Mental health

  • Cognitive-behavioral

  • Critical

  • Radical

  • Social insurance

  • Ecological

  • Equity theory

  • Financial social work

  • Motivational interviewing

  • Medical social work

  • Person-centered therapy

  • Psychoanalytic[16]

  • Psychodynamic

  • Existential

  • Humanistic

  • Sociotherapy

  • Brief psychotherapy or solution-focused approach

  • Recovery approach

  • Reflexivity

  • Social exchange

  • Welfare economics

  • Anti-oppressive practice

  • Psychosocial rehabilitation

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

  • Dialectical behavior therapy

  • Systems theory

  • Strength-based practice

  • Task-centered

  • Family therapy

  • Advocacy

  • Prevention science

  • Project management

  • Program evaluation and performance measurement

  • Systems thinking

  • Community development and intervention

  • Positive psychology

  • Social actions


Abraham Flexner in a 1915 lecture, "Is Social Work a Profession?",[17] delivered at the National Conference on Charities and Corrections, examined the characteristics of a profession with reference to social work. It is not a 'single model', such as that of health, followed by medical professions such as nurses and doctors, but an integrated profession, and the likeness with medical profession is that social work requires a continued study for professional development to retain knowledge and skills that are evidence-based by practice standards. A social work professional's services lead toward the aim of providing beneficial services to individuals, dyads, families, groups, organizations and communities to achieve optimum psychosocial functioning.[18]

Its seven core functions are described by Popple and Leighninger as:

  1. Engagement — the social worker must first engage the client in early meetings to promote a collaborative relationship

  2. Assessment — data must be gathered that will guide and direct a plan of action to help the client

  3. Planning — negotiate and formulate an action plan

  4. Implementation — promote resource acquisition and enhance role performance

  5. Monitoring/Evaluation — on-going documentation through short-term goal attainment of extent to which client is following through

  6. Supportive Counseling — affirming, challenging, encouraging, informing, and exploring options

  7. Graduated Disengagement — seeking to replace the social worker with a naturally occurring resource[19]

Six other core values identified by the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW)[20] Code of Ethics are:

  1. Service — help people in need and address social problems

  2. Social Justice — challenge social injustices

  3. Dignity and worth of the person

  4. Importance of human relationships

  5. Integrity — behave in a trustworthy manner

  6. Competence — practice within the areas of one's areas of expertise and develop and enhance professional skill

A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society.[21] Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.[22] A "client" can be an individual, family, group, organization, or community.[23] In the broadening scope of the modern social worker's role, some practitioners have in recent years traveled to war-torn countries to provide psychosocial assistance to families and survivors.[24]

Newer areas of social work practice involve management science.[25] The growth of "social work administration" for transforming social policies into services and directing activities of an organization toward achievement of goals is a related field.[26] Helping clients with accessing benefits such as unemployment insurance and disability benefits, to assist individuals and families in building savings and acquiring assets to improve their financial security over the long-term, to manage large operations, etc. requires social workers to know financial management skills to help clients and organisation's to be financially self-sufficient.[27][28][29][30]Financial social work also helps clients with low-income or low to middle-income, people who are either unbanked (do not have a banking account) or underbanked (individuals who have a bank account but tend to rely on high cost non-bank providers for their financial transactions), with better mediation with financial institutions and induction of money management skills.[31][32] Another area that social workers are focusing is risk management, risk in social work is taken as Knight in 1921 defined "If you don't even know for sure what will happen, but you know the odds, that is risk and If you don't even know the odds, that is uncertainty." Risk management in social work means minimizing the risks while increasing potential benefits for clients by analyzing the risks and benefits in duty of care or in decisions.[33]

In the United States, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, professional social workers are the largest group of mental health services providers. There are more clinically trained social workers—over 200,000—than psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined. Federal law and the National Institutes of Health recognize social work as one of five core mental health professions.[34]

Examples of fields a social worker may be employed in are poverty relief, life skills education, community development, rural development, forensics and corrections, legislation, industrial relations, project management, child protection, elder protection, women's rights, human rights, systems optimization, finance, addictions rehabilitation, child development, cross-cultural mediation, occupational safety and health, disaster management, mental health, psychosocial therapy, disabilities, etc.


The education of social workers begins with a bachelor's degree (BA, BSc, BSSW, BSW, etc.) or diploma in social work or a Bachelor of Social Services. Some countries offer postgraduate degrees in social work, such as a master's degree (MSW, MSSW, MSS, MSSA, MA, MSc, MRes, MPhil.) or doctoral studies (PhD and DSW (Doctor of Social Work)). Increasingly, graduates of social work programs pursue post-masters and post-doctoral study, including training in psychotherapy.

In the United States, social work undergraduate and master's programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. A CSWE-accredited degree is required for one to become a state-licensed social worker.[35][36] The CSWE even accredits online master's in social work programs in traditional and advanced standing options.[37] In 1898, the New York Charity Organization Society, which was the Columbia University School of Social Work's earliest entity, began offering formal "social philanthropy" courses, marking both the beginning date for social work education in the United States, as well as the launching of professional social work.[38]

A number of countries and jurisdictions require registration or licensure of people working as social workers, and there are mandated qualifications.[39] In other places, a professional association sets academic requirements for admission to the profession. The success of these professional bodies' efforts is demonstrated in that these same requirements are recognized by employers as necessary for employment.[40]

Professional associations

Social workers have a number of professional associations that provide ethical guidance and other forms of support for their members and for social work in general. These associations may be international, continental, semi-continental, national, or regional. The main international associations are the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW).

The largest professional social work association in the United States is the National Association of Social Workers. There also exist organizations that represent clinical social workers such as The American Association of Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work. AAPCSW is a national organization representing social workers who practice psychoanalytic social work and psychonalysis. There are also a number of states with Clinical Social Work Societies which represent all social workers who conduct psychotherapy from a variety of theoretical frameworks with families, groups and individuals. The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA)[41] is a professional organization for social workers who practice within the community organizing, policy, and political spheres.

In the UK, the professional association is the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) with just over 18,000 members (as of August 2015).

The Code of Ethics of the US-based National Association of Social Workers provides a code for daily conduct and a set of principles rooted in 6 core values:[42] service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.[43]

Trade unions representing social workers

In the United Kingdom, just over half of social workers are employed by local authorities,[44] and many of these are represented by UNISON, the public sector employee union. Smaller numbers are members of the Unite the Union and the GMB (trade union). The British Union of Social Work Employees (BUSWE) has been a section of the Community (trade union) since 2008.

While at that stage not a union, the British Association of Social Workers operated a professional advice and representation service from the early 1990s. Social Work qualified staff who are also experienced in employment law and industrial relations provide the kind of representation you would expect from a trade union in the event of grievance, discipline or conduct matters specifically in respect of professional conduct or practice. However, this service depended on the good will of employers to allow the representatives to be present at these meetings, as only trade unions have the legal right and entitlement of representation in the workplace.

By 2011 several councils had realized that they did not have to permit BASW access, and those that were challenged by skilled professional representation of their staff were withdrawing permission. For this reason BASW once again took up trade union status by forming its arms length trade union section, SWU (Social Workers Union). This gives legal right to represent its members whether the employer or Trades Union Congress (TUC) recognizes SWU or not. At 2015 the TUC was still resisting SWU application for admission to congress membership and while most employers are not making formal statements of recognition until such a time as the TUC may change its policy, they are all legally required to permit SWU (BASW) representation at internal discipline hearings etc.

Use of information technology in social work

Information technology is vital in social work, it transforms the documentation part of the work into electronic media. This makes the process transparent, accessible, and provides data for analytics. Observation is a tool used in social work for developing solutions. Anabel Quan-Haase in Technology and Society defines the term surveillance as “watching over” (Quan-Haase. 2016. P 213), she continues to explain that the observation of others socially and behaviorally is natural, but it becomes more like surveillance when the purpose of the observation is to keep guard over someone (Quan-Haase. 2016. P 213). Often, at the surface level the use of surveillance and surveillance technologies within the social work profession is seemingly an unethical invasion of privacy. When engaging with the social work code of ethics a little more deeply, it becomes obvious that the line between ethical and unethical becomes blurred. Within the social work code of ethics, there are multiple mentions of the use of technology within social work practice. The one that seems the most applicable to surveillance or artificial intelligence is 5.02 article f, “When using electronic technology to facilitate evaluation or research” and it goes on to explain that clients should be informed when technology is being used within practice (Workers. 2008. Article 5.02).

Social workers in literature

In 2011, a critic stated that "novels about social work are rare,"[45] and as recently as 2004, another critic claimed to have difficulty finding novels featuring a main character holding a Master of Social Work degree.[46]

However, social workers have been the subject of many novels, including:

  • Bohjalian, Chris (2007). The double bind: a novel [86] (1st ed.). New York: Shaye Areheart Books. ISBN 978-1-4000-4746-8.[47]

  • Cooper, Philip (2013). Social work man. Leicester: Matador. ISBN 978-1-78088-508-7.[48]

  • Barrington, Freya (2015). Known to Social Services [87] (1st ed.). USA: FARAXA Publishing. ISBN 9789995782870.

  • Desai, Kishwar (2010). Witness the night [88] . London: Beautiful Books. ISBN 978-1-905636-85-3.[49]

  • Fadiman, Anne (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-37453-340-3.

  • Irish, Lola (1993). Streets of dust: a novel based on the life of Caroline Chisholm. Kirribilli, N.S.W: Eldorado. ISBN 1-86412-001-0.

  • Greenlee, Sam (1990) [1969]. The spook who sat by the door: a novel. African American life. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-2246-8.

  • Konrád, György (1987). The case worker. Writers from the other Europe. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-009946-8.[50]

  • Henderson, Smith (2014). Fourth of July Creek: A Novel. ISBN 978-0-06-228644-4.[51]

  • Johnson, Greg (2011). A very famous social worker. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse Inc. ISBN 978-1-4502-8548-3.[52]

  • Johnson, Kristin (2012). Unprotected: a novel [89] . St. Butt, MN: North Star Press. ISBN 978-0-87839-589-7.[53]

  • Kalpakian, Laura (1992). Graced land (1st ed.). New York: Grove Weidenfeld. ISBN 0-8021-1474-1.[46]

  • Lewis, Sinclair (1933). Ann Vickers (First ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company. OCLC 288770 [90] .

  • Mengestu, Dinaw (2014). All our names (First ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-385-34998-7.[54]

  • Sapphire (1996). Push: a novel [91] (1st ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Random House. ISBN 0-679-44626-5. The basis of the movie Precious.[55]

  • Smith, Ali (2011) There But For The, Hamish Hamilton, Pantheon.

  • Ungar, Michael (2011). The social worker: a novel. Lawrencetown, N.S: Pottersfield Press. ISBN 978-1-897426-26-5.[56]

  • Weinbren, Martin (2010). King Welfare. Bakewell: Peakpublish. ISBN 978-1-907219-18-4.[45]

Fictional social workers in media

NamePortrayed byTitleYear
Ann VickersIrene DunneAnn Vickers1933
Ray FremickEdward PlattRebel Without a Cause1955
Neil BrockGeorge C. ScottEast Side/West Side1963
Edith KeelerJoan CollinsStar Trek: The Original Series - The City on the Edge of Forever1967
Germain CazeneuveJean GabinTwo Men in Town1973
Ann GentryAnjanette ComerThe Baby1973
Dwight MercerMykelti WilliamsonFree Willy1993
Mrs. SellnerAnne HaneyMrs. Doubtfire1993
Mary BellAngelina JoliePushing Tin1999
Margaret LewinJessica LangeLosing Isaiah1995
Dr. Sonia WickVanessa RedgraveGirl, Interrupted1999
RaquelLeonor WatlingRaquel busca su sitio2000
Cobra BubblesVing RhamesLilo & Stitch2002
Clare BarkerSally PhillipsClare in the Community2004
Toby FlendersonPaul LiebersteinThe Office2005
PankajPankaj Kumar SinghSmile Pinki2008
Emily JenkinsRenée ZellwegerCase 392009
Bernie WilkinsDon CheadleHotel for Dogs2009
Ms. WeissMariah CareyPrecious2009
Mark LillyMatt Oberg (Voice)Ugly Americans (TV series)2010-2012
Sam HealyMichael HarneyOrange Is the New Black2013
David MailerPatrick GilmoreTravelers2016

See also

  • Addiction medicine

  • Approved mental health professional

  • Child welfare

  • Community development

  • Critical social work

  • Development studies

  • Education in social work

  • Forensic social work

  • Gerontology

  • Humanistic social work

  • Human resource management

  • International Social Work

  • Jocelyn Hyslop

  • Mental health professional

  • Recreational therapy

  • Right to an adequate standard of living

  • Social development

  • Social planning

  • Social psychology

  • Social research

  • Social Scientist

  • Social work with groups

  • Urban development

  • Welfare


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