Social work

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


Social Workers are concerned with social problems, their causes, their solutions and their human impacts. Social workers work with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities, as members of a profession which is committed to social justice and human rights. Their approach is to consider the whole individual (including their biological, psychological, sociological, familial, cultural, and spiritual subsystems) within the context of their current situation.

Social Work is the profession committed to the pursuit of social justice, to the enhancement of the quality of life, and to the development of the full potential of each individual, group and community in society.


The concept of charity goes back to ancient times, and the practice of providing for the poor has roots in all major world religions. However, the practice and profession of social work has a relatively modern (19th century) and scientific origin [1]. Charity in Europe was considered to be a responsibility and a sign of one’s piety. This charity was, generally, in the form of direct relief (i.e. money, food, etc.). After the end of feudalism, a need arose to have an organized system to care for the poor. In England, the Poor Law served this purpose. This system of laws sorted the poor and developed different remedies for these different groups.

The 19th century ushered in the Industrial Revolution. There was a great leap in technological and scientific achievement, but there was also a great migration to urban areas. This led to many social problems, which in turn led to an increase in social activism[2]. Also with the dawn of the 19th century came a great “missionary” push from many Protestant denominations. Some of the mission efforts (urban missions), attempted to resolve the problems (poverty, prostitution, disease, etc.) inherent in large cities. These “friendly visitors”, stipended by church and other charitable bodies, worked through direct relief, prayer, and evangelism to alleviate these problems [3]. In Europe, chaplains or almoners were appointed to administrate the church’s mission to the poor.

During this time, rescue societies were initiated to find more appropriate means of self-support for women involved in prostitution. Mental asylums grew to assist in taking care of the mentally ill. A new philosophy of "scientific charity" which stated charity should be "secular, rational and empirical as opposed to sectarian, sentimental, and dogmatic." (James Leiby) [4] In the late 1880s, a new system to provide aid for social ills popped up, that would become known as the settlement movement [5]. The settlement movement focused on the causes of poverty. They did this through the three "R's" - Research, Reform, and Residence. They provided a variety of services including educational, legal, and health services. These programs also advocated changes in social policy. Workers in the settlement movement immersed themselves in the culture of those they were helping.

In America, this led to a fundamental question – is social work a profession? This debate can be traced back to the early 20th century debate between Mary Richmond's Charity Organization Society (COS) and Jane Addams's Settlement House Movement. The essence of this debate was whether the problem should be approached from COS’ traditional, scientific method focused on efficiency and prevention or the Settlement House Movement’s immersion into the problem, blurring the lines of practitioner and client [6].

Schools of social work and formalized processes began to spring up. However, the question lingered. In 1915, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Dr. Abraham Flexner spoke on the topic "Is Social Work a Profession?" He contended that it was not because it lacked specialized knowledge and specific application of theoretical and intellectual knowledge to solve human and social problems [7]. This led to the professionalization of social work, concentrating on case work and the scientific method.

Qualifications for social work

Lay practitioners, often referred to as SSA (Social Services Assistant) or Care Managers are unqualified and unregistered social workers. They are not professionally registered and often do not hold any formal social work qualification. Within the mental health sector, unqualified social workers (Social Service Assistants / Care Managers) are called Care Co-ordinators.

In a number of countries and jurisdictions where registration of people working as social workers is required there are mandated qualifications[8]. In other places, the professional association sets academic and experiential requirements for admission to membership. The success of these professional bodies' effort to establish these requirements is demonstrated in the fact that these same requirements are recognised by many employers as necessary for employment[9].

Role of the professional social worker

Professional social workers have a strong tradition of working for social justice and of refusing to recreate unequal social structures. The main tasks of professional social workers include case management (linking clients with agencies and programs that will meet their psychosocial needs), medical social work, counseling (psychotherapy), human services management, social welfare policy analysis, community organizing, advocacy, teaching (in schools of social work), and social science research. Professional social workers work in a variety of settings, including: non-profit or public social service agencies, grassroots advocacy organizations, hospitals, hospices, community health agencies, schools, faith-based organizations, and even the military. Some social workers work as psychotherapists, counselors, or mental health practitioners, normally working in coordination with psychiatrists, psychologists, or other medical professionals. Additionally, some social workers have chosen to focus their efforts on social policy or academic research into the practice or ethics of social work. The emphasis has varied among these task areas by historical era and country. Some of these areas have been the subject of controversy as to whether they are properly part of social work's mission.

A variety of settings employ social workers, including governmental departments (especially in the areas of child and family welfare, mental health, correctional services, and education departments), hospitals, non-government welfare agencies and private practice - working independently as counsellors, family therapists or researchers.

Professional social work associations

There is a International Regulatory body for professional social workers, which is called International Federation of Social Workers(IFSW) [2] and International Association of Schools of Social Work [3]

In the Country level, there are organizations regulating the profession. USA - National Association of Social Workers [4] UK - British Association of Social Workers [5] India - Professional Social Workers' Association [6] Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups (

Social work knowledge building

The history of social work is a history plagued by a fundamental question – is social work a profession? This debate can be traced back to the early 20th century debate between Mary Richmond's Charity Organization Society (COS) and Jane Addams's Settlement House Movement. The essence of this debate was whether the problem should be approached from COS’ traditional, scientific method focused on efficiency and prevention or the Settlement House Movement’s immersion into the problem, blurring the lines of practitioner and client [10]. The impetus for both movements was the glaring reality of social problems and the question over how to best attack them. This debate is arguably the earliest example of a larger debate within social work – how is knowledge acquired? This debate pits positivism against post-positivism in the pursuit of achieving respect as a profession.

The current state of social work knowledge building is characterized by two realities. There is a great deal of traditional research, both qualitative and quantitative being carried out, primarily by university-based researchers, but also in different fields, by researchers based in institutes, foundations, or social service agencies. Meanwhile, the majority of social work practitioners continue to look elsewhere for knowledge. This is a state of affairs that has persisted since the outset of the profession in the first decade of the twentieth century. One reason for the practice-research gap is that practitioners deal with situations that are unique and idiosyncratic, while research deals with regularities and aggregates. The translation between the two is often imperfect. A hopeful development for bridging this gap is the compilation in many practice fields of collections of "best practices," largely taken from research findings, but also distilled from the experience of respected practitioners.

Types of professional social work intervention

There are three levels of intervention:

  • Micro (individual & family)
  • Mezzo (agency & small groups)
  • Macro (societies, organizations & communities)

Clinical or direct practice

  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Adult therapy
  • Brief therapies
  • Case management
  • Child/adolescent therapy
  • Clinical supervision
  • Counseling
  • Crisis intervention

Community practice

Fields of professional social work practice (both direct and community levels)


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