Social work

Social work is a professional and academic discipline that seeks to improve the quality of life and enhance wellbeing of individuals, families, couples, groups, and communities through research, policy planning, community development, direct practice, crisis intervention, ensuring social welfare and security for those affected by social disadvantages such as poverty, psychosocial care to mentally and physically disabled, and raising voices against social injustice for social reforms, including social actions against violations of civil liberties and human rights. It is a progressive profession where one can be actively engaged in helping others to help themselves. The profession is dedicated to the pursuit of social justice and the well-being of oppressed and marginalized individuals and communities, a collective action for combating racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, adultism, mentalism, ableism...etc. Social work is a broad profession that encompasses its activities in fields like Health and Mental Health, Social Service Administration, Children and Their Families, Social Work Policy Analysis, Social Justice and Diversity, Forensic and Traumatology, Gerontology, etc.

A person who practices social work is called a social worker. In the UK, the title "Social Worker" is protected by law (under s.61 Care Standards Act 2000) and only those who have undergone approved training at university either through a bachelor's or master's degree in Social Work and are registered with the appropriate professional regulatory body (the Health and Care Professions Council in England, the Scottish Social Services Council in Scotland, the Care Council for Wales, or the Northern Ireland Social Care Council) may practice social work and be called a social worker. To do so otherwise is a criminal offence. Student social workers typically undergo a systematic set of training and qualifications that are distinct from those of social care workers or care assistants, who may undertake a social work role but not necessarily have the qualifications or professional skills of a qualified social worker. Currently, there are no formal qualifications or training to practice as a social care assistant, care worker, or carer, but mostly ancillary staff are accountable to a qualified member of staff, such as a social worker.

Research and the practice of social work focuses on areas such as: mental health and addictions, assessment and diagnosis, human development, sociolegal, psychosocial, issues related to diversity, marginalization and oppression; psychotherapy, counselling, social policy, public administration, social program evaluation, social policy analysis and development, social planning, family and child welfare, and social and community development. Social workers are organized into local, national, continental, and international professional bodies. It is an interdisciplinary field that incorporates theoretical bases from economics, education, sociology, law, medicine, philosophy, ecology, politics, anthropology, and psychology.


    A Marylebone slum in the nineteenth century.

    The practice and profession of social work has a relatively modern and scientific origin, and is generally considered to have developed out of three strands. The first was individual casework, a strategy pioneered by the Charity Organisation Society in the mid-19th century. The second was social administration, which included various forms of poverty relief. 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 Organisation 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.

    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 foundational basis for modern social work, both in theory and in practice.

    Profesional 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.

    Poverty relief

    With the decline of feudalism in 16th century England, the indigent poor came to be seen as a more direct threat to the social order. The first complete code of poor relief was made in the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1597 and some provision for the "deserving poor" was eventually made in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. It created a system administered at parish level, paid for by levying local rates on rate payers. Relief for those too ill or old to work, the so-called 'impotent poor', was in the form of a payment or items of food ('the parish loaf') or clothing also known as outdoor relief.

    The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 completely overhauled the existing system in Britain and established a Poor Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system. This included the forming together of small parishes into Poor Law Unions and the building of workhouses in each union for the giving of poor relief.

    Private philanthropy

    Social work involves ameliorating social problems such as poverty and homelessness.

    The 19th century saw a great leap forward in technological and scientific achievement. There was also a great migration to urban areas throughout the Western world, which led to many social problems. This galvanised the socially active, prosperous middle and upper classes to search for ways to ameliorate the physical and spiritual conditions of the poor underclasses. A new philosophy of "scientific charity" emerged, which stated charity should be "secular, rational and empirical as opposed to sectarian, sentimental, and dogmatic."

    Most historians identify the Charity Organization Society, founded by Helen Bosanquet and Octavia Hill in London in 1869, as the pioneering organization of the social theory that led to the emergence of social work as a professional occupation. COS had its main focus on individual casework. It supported the concept of self-help and limited government intervention to deal with the effects of poverty. The organisation claimed to use "scientific principles to root out scroungers and target relief where it was most needed".

    Octavia Hill is regarded by many as the founder of modern social work. She believed in self-reliance, and made it a key part of her housing system that she and her assistants knew their tenants personally and encouraged them to better themselves. She was opposed to municipal provision of housing, believing it to be bureaucratic and impersonal. Under her guidance, the Charity Organisation Society organised charitable grants and pioneered a home-visiting service that formed the basis for modern social work.

    Social action

    Toynbee Hall settlement house, Whitechapel was founded in 1884 as part of the Settlement movement. Pictured here in 1902.

    A stress on social action that developed in the 1880s, was pioneered by the Settlement house movement. This Movement (creating integrated mixed communities of rich and poor) grew directly out of Octavia Hill's work. Her colleagues Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, founded Toynbee Hall, Oxford House in 1884 in Bethnal Green as the first university-sponsored settlement. Another early organization was Mansfield House Settlement, also in east London. In America, the settlement movement was established by Jane Addams, a young medical student, and Ellen Gates Starr after Addams visited Toynbee Hall and was impressed by the system. She founded Chicago's Hull House in 1889, which focused on providing education and recreational facilities for European immigrant women and children. By 1913, there were 413 settlements in 32 states.

    The concept of the Settlement house movement was to bring upper and middle class students into lower-class neighbourhoods, not only to provide education and social aid, but to actually live and work together with their inhabitants. This soon inspired a worldwide movement of university settlements. The idea was to help members of the future elite understand the problems of wider society; this was especially important at a time when class divisions were much stronger, social mobility was minimal, and the living conditions of the poor were completely unknown to many members of the upper class.

    Further development

    By the beginning of the 20th century, these different organizations with their diverse intellectual underpinnings were beginning to coalesce into modern social work. Foundations were established to examine the root causes of social problems such as poverty, and social workers became more professional and scientific in their methodology. The Quaker philanthropist and chocolate manufacturer Joseph Rowntree believed that social evils could be tackled by systematic research, and to that end founded the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1904. Rowntree wanted to tackle the root causes of social problems, rather than treating their symptoms. His Memorandum of 1904 stated: "I feel that much of the current philanthropic effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness or evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes … [seek] to search out the under-lying causes of weakness or evil in the community, rather than … remedying their more superficial manifestations."

    The differing approaches to social work often led to heated debates. In the early 20th century, Mary Richmond of the Charity Organization Society (COS) and Jane Addams of the Settlement House Movement engaged in a public dispute over the optimal approach; whether the problem should be tackled with COS' traditional, scientific method that focused on efficiency and prevention, or whether the Settlement House Movement's immersion into the problem, blurring the lines of practitioner and client, was superior.

    State Welfare

    William Beveridge's Beveridge Report of 1942 laid the foundations for the welfare state.

    As the problem of poverty moved up the public agenda, it became increasingly clear that laissez-faire economic policies were not working and that governments had to take proactive measures to reduce poverty, rather than leave the task to privately run organizations. The principles of classical liberalism were being increasingly challenged by downturns in economic growth, a growing perception of the evils of poverty, unemployment and relative deprivation present within modern industrial cities, and the agitation of organized labour. In the early 1900s, the British Liberals under H.H. Asquith introduced various reforms, including health insurance, unemployment insurance, and pensions for elderly workers, thereby laying the groundwork for the future British welfare state.

    William Beveridge, often called the 'architect of the welfare state', was pivotal in framing the debate about social work in the context of state welfare provision. His 1942 report on Social Insurance and Allied Services, known commonly as the Beveridge Report, identified five "Giant Evils" in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease, and went on to propose widespread reform to the system of social welfare to mitigate these problems. The report proved very popular with a war-weary public, and went on to form the basis to the post-war expansion of the Welfare State and the creation of the National Health Service, a free at the point of delivery healthcare provider.


    Currently, social work is known for its critical and holistic approach to understanding and intervening in social problems. This has led, for example, to the recognition of poverty as having a social and economic basis rooted in social policies rather than representing a personal moral defect. This trend also points to another historical development in the evolution of social work: once a profession engages in social control, it is directed at social and personal empowerment.


    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, also known as psychotherapy. It is not a 'single model', such as that of health, followed by medical professional such as nurses and doctors, but like nurses and doctors, social work requires study and continued professional development to retain knowledge and skills in practice. Family therapy as a distinct professional practice within Western cultures can be argued to have had its origins in the social work movements of the 19th century in the United Kingdom and the United States. As an example, here are some of the social work models (or theories) used within practice:

    Contemporary professional development

    Social Work education begins in a structured manner at higher educational institutions (universities and colleges), coupled with or followed by practical internships, but it is also an ongoing process that occurs through research and in the workplace.

    The International Federation of Social Workers says of social work today that

    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 wellbeing.

    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

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

    1. Service- help people in need and address social problems
    2. Social Justice- challenge social injustices
    3. Respect the dignity and worth of the person
    4. Give importance to 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 skills


    The education of social workers begins with a bachelor's degree (BA, BSc, BSSW, BSW, etc.) or diploma in Social Work. Some countries offer Postgraduate degrees in Social Work, such as a master's degree (MSW, 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.

    A number of countries and jurisdictions requires registration or licensure of people working as social workers, and there are mandated qualifications. 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.

    Professional associations

    Social workers have a number of professional associations, which 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) 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 ( August 2015)

    Trade unions representing social workers

    In the United Kingdom, just over half of social workers are employed by local authorities,[] 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 Trade 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.

    Role of the professional

    The main tasks of professional social workers may include a number of services such as case management (linking clients with agencies and programs that will meet their psychosocial needs – common in the US and the UK), counseling and psychotherapy, assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, child protection/welfare, human services management, social welfare policy analysis, policy and practice development, community organizing, international, social and community development, advocacy, teaching (in schools of social work), and social and political research.

    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. Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. The term "client" is used to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, or communities. 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.

    Furthermore, as a result of social workers' training in counseling and their experience in helping their clients with accessing benefits such as unemployment insurance and disability benefits, they are particularly well-suited to help individuals and families learn how to become financially self-sufficient. That said, there is a need for additional training vis a vis social workers in the financial household management arena. Under some conditions, a raise may trigger reductions in several benefits; therefore, it would be beneficial for social workers to study a financial education curriculum tailored for social workers such as to fully understand and explain the possible ramifications to clients. In addition, social workers often work 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). Social workers who have an understanding of financial institutions would be able to guide individuals and families to use mainstream financial institutions and thereby hold onto more of their income and spend less on high cost non-bank financial services.

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), professional social workers are the nation's 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.

    Social workers in literature

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

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

    • Bohjalian, Chris (2007). The double bind: a novel (1st ed.). New York: Shaye Areheart Books. ISBN 978-1-4000-4746-8. 
    • Cooper, Philip (2013). Social work man. Leicester: Matador. ISBN 978-1-78088-508-7. 
    • Barrington, Freya (2015). Known to Social Services (1st ed.). USA: FARAXA Publishing. ISBN 9789995782870. 
    • Desai, Kishwar (2010). Witness the night. London: Beautiful Books. ISBN 978-1-905636-85-3. 
    • Delshad, Farshid (2010). Interaction of Religion, Morality and Social Work. Munich: AVM (Adademischer Verlag München). ISBN 978-3-89975-448-3. 
    • 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. 
    • Henderson, Smith (2014). Fourth of July Creek: A Novel. ISBN 978-0-06-228644-4. 
    • Johnson, Greg (2011). A very famous social worker. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse Inc. ISBN 978-1-4502-8548-3. 
    • Johnson, Kristin (2012). Unprotected: a novel. St. Butt, MN: North Star Press. ISBN 978-0-87839-589-7. 
    • Kalpakian, Laura (1992). Graced land (1st ed.). New York: Grove Weidenfeld. ISBN 0-8021-1474-1. 
    • Lewis, Sinclair (1933). Ann Vickers (First ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company. OCLC 288770.  |access-date= requires |url= (help)
    • Mengestu, Dinaw (2014). All our names (First ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-385-34998-7. 
    • Sapphire (1996). Push: a novel (1st ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Random House. ISBN 0-679-44626-5.  The basis of the movie Precious.
    • 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. 
    • Weinbren, Martin (2010). King Welfare. Bakewell: Peakpublish. ISBN 978-1-907219-18-4. 

    Fictional Social Workers in Media

    Name Portrayed by Title Year
    Neil Brock George C. Scott East Side/West Side 1963
    Mary Bell Angelina Jolie Pushing Tin 1999
    Clare Barker Sally Phillips Clare in the Community 2004
    Toby Flenderson Paul Lieberstein The Office 2005
    Pankaj Pankaj Kumar Singh Smile Pinki 2008
    Emily Jenkins Renée Zellweger Case 39 2009
    Meera Bhama Janapriyan 2011
    Sam Healy Michael Harney Orange Is the New Black 2013

    See also


    Further reading

    • Agnew, Elizabeth N. (2004). From Charity to Social Work: Mary E. Richmond and the Creation of an American Profession. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02875-9. OCLC 51848398. 
    • Axinn, June and Mark J. Stern (2008). Social Welfare: A History of the American Response to Need (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 978-0-205-52215-6. OCLC 86038254. 
    • Balgopal, Pallassana R. (2000). Social Work Practice with Immigrants and Refugees. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10856-7. OCLC 43323656. 
    • Barker, Richard (2009). Making Sense of Every Child Matters – multi professional practice guidance (1st ed.). Bristol, UK: Policy Press. ISBN 1-84742-011-7. 
    • Barker, Robert L. (2003). Social Work Dictionary (5th ed.). Silver Spring, MD: NASW Press. ISBN 0-87101-355-X. OCLC 52341511. 
    • Butler, Ian and Gwenda Roberts (2004). Social Work with Children and Families: Getting into Practice (2nd ed.). London, England; New York, NY: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 1-4175-0103-0. OCLC 54768636. 
    • Davies, Martin (2002). The Blackwell Companion of Social Work (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22391-6. OCLC 49044512. 
    • Fischer, Joel and Kevin J. Corcoran (2007). Measures for Clinical Practice and Research: A Sourcebook (4th ed.). Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518190-6. OCLC 68980742. 
    • Greene, Roberta R. (2008). Social Work with the Aged and their Families (3rd ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0-202-36182-6. OCLC 182573540. 
    • Grinnell, Richard M. and Yvonne A Unrau (2008). Social Work Research and Evaluation: Foundations of Evidence-Based Practice (8th ed.). Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-530152-6. OCLC 82772632. 
    • Grobman, Linda M. (2012). Days in the Lives of Social Workers: 58 Professionals Tell Real-Life Stories From Social Work Practice (4th ed.). Harrisburg, PA: White Hat Communications. ISBN 978-1-929109-30-2. OCLC 745766042. 
    • Mizrahi, Terry and Larry E. Davis (2008). Encyclopedia of Social Work (20th ed.). Washington, DC; Oxford, UK; New York, NY: NASW Press and Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-530661-3. OCLC 156816850. 
    • Popple, Philip R. and Leslie Leighninger (2008). The Policy-Based Profession: An Introduction to Social Welfare Policy Analysis for Social Workers (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-48592-8. OCLC 70708056. 
    • Reamer, Frederic G. (2006). Ethical Standards in Social Work: A Review of the NASW Code of Ethics (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: NASW Press. ISBN 978-0-87101-371-2. OCLC 63187493. 
    • Richardson, Virginia E. and Amanda Smith Barusch (2006). Gerontological Practice for the Twenty-First Century: A Social Work Perspective. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10748-X. OCLC 60373501. 
    • Sowers, Karen M. and Catherine N. Dulmus.; et al. (2008). Comprehensive Handbook of Social Work and Social Welfare. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-75222-3. OCLC 155755265.  CS1 maint: Explicit use of et al. (link)
    • Specht, Harry; Courtney, Mark E. (1994). Unfaithful angels : how social work has abandoned its mission. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-930355-9. 
    • Statham, Daphne (2004). Managing Front Line Practice in Social Work. New York, NY: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 1-4175-0127-8. OCLC 54768593. 
    • Thyer, Bruce A. and John S. Wodarski (2007). Social Work in Mental Health: An Evidence-Based Approach. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley. ISBN 0-471-69304-9. OCLC 65197928. 
    • Turner, Francis J. (2005). Canadian Encyclopedia of Social Work. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 0-88920-436-5. OCLC 57354998. 
    • Webb, Stephen (2006). Social Work in a Risk Society. London, UK: Palgrave, Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-21442-2. OCLC 49959266. 
    • Zastrow, Charles (2014). Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare: Empowering People. Belmount: Cengage Learning. ISBN 9781285176406.