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Social work

Social Worker
Names Social Worker (SW),
State Registered Social Worker,
Registered Social Worker (RSW),
Qualified Social Worker,
Qualified Care Manager,
Forensic Social Worker,
Psychiatric Social Worker,
Licensed Social Worker,
Clinical Social Worker,
Mental Health Social Worker,
Childrens Social Workers,
Adults Social Worker,
Learning Disabilities Social Worker,
Drugs and Alcohol Social Worker,
Social Work Practitioner,
Medical Social Worker,
Military Social Work Officer,
Social Policy and Planning Social Worker,
Community Development Social Worker,
Social Advocacy Social Worker,
Discharge Planner Social Worker,
Radical Social Worker,
Anti-Oppression Social Worker,
Post-modern Social Worker,
Human Rights Social Worker,
Critical Social Worker,
Structural Social Worker,
International Social Worker
Activity sectors
Pursuit of promoting well-being, civil liberties, human rights, social welfare and social change through economics, education, ecology, sociology, law, medicine, philosophy, politics, anthropology, psychotherapy, psychology and counselling
Competencies Degree level or above, Sub-Degree Level (Diploma/Higher Diploma/Associate Degree) Depend on regional
Related jobs
Education Officer, Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Counselor, Occupational Therapist, Social Policy and Planning, Community Developer, Human Rights Advocate, Social Justice Worker

Social work is a professional and academic discipline that seeks to improve the quality of life and enhance wellbeing[1] 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.[2] 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 professional bodies. It is an interdisciplinary field that incorporates theoretical bases from economics, education, sociology, law, medicine, philosophy, ecology, politics, anthropology, and psychology.


  • History 1
    • Poverty relief 1.1
    • Private philanthropy 1.2
    • Social action 1.3
    • Further development 1.4
    • State Welfare 1.5
    • Today 1.6
  • Practice 2
  • Contemporary professional development 3
  • Qualifications 4
    • Professional associations 4.1
    • Trade unions representing social workers 4.2
  • Role of the professional 5
  • Social workers in literature 6
    • Fictional Social Workers in Media 6.1
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9


Victorian photograph of the exterior of a London slum property
A Marylebone slum in the nineteenth century.

The practice and profession of social work has a relatively modern and scientific origin,[3] and is generally considered to have developed out of three strands. The first was individual casework, a strategy pioneered by the alleviate poverty. This approach was developed originally by the settlement house movement.[4]

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.[5]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] It created a system administered at parish level,[8] paid for by levying local rates on rate payers.[9] 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.[10]

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 completely overhauled the existing system in Britain[11] and established a Poor Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system.[12] This included the forming together of small parishes into Poor Law Unions[13] and the building of workhouses in each union for the giving of poor relief.[14]

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.[15] A new philosophy of "scientific charity" emerged, which stated charity should be "secular, rational and empirical as opposed to sectarian, sentimental, and dogmatic.[16]"

Most historians identify the [18]

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 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.[20] By 1913, there were 413 settlements in 32 states.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23] 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."[24]

The differing approaches to social work often led to heated debates. In the early 20th century, 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.[25]

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 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,[26] 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.[27] 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.[28]


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.[30]

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[31]

Six other core values identified by the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW)[32] 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.[33] 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.[34]

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

Further reading

  1. ^
  2. ^ Jane Addams, Definition of Social Work
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ a b Popple, Philip R. and Leighninger, Leslie. Socail Work, Social Welfare, American Society.Boston:Allyn&Bacon,2011.Print
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Rees, Rosemary (2001). Poverty and Public Health 1815–1949. London: Heinemann.
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^ Husock, H. (1993). "Bringing back the settlement house". Public Welfare, 51(4).
  22. ^ Alfred Marshall, "On Arnold Toynbee", ed. John K. Whitaker, Marshall Studies Bulletin 6 (1996): 45–48.
  23. ^ History of JRF on official website
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Brian Abel‐Smith, "The Beveridge report: Its origins and outcomes." International Social Security Review (1992) 45#1‐2 pp 5-16.
  28. ^ Payne, M. (2011). Humanistic Social Work: Core Principles in Practice. Chicago: Lyceum, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ Popple & Leighninger, 2011
  32. ^
  33. ^ The National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2005). NASW Fact Sheet. Retrieved November 15, 2006 from
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ Crisp, B.R., Beddoe, L. (December 2012). Promoting Health and Well-being in Social Work Education. Routledge, Retrieved April 16, 2015.
  37. ^ Stefaroi, Petru. (December 2014). Humane & Spiritual Qualities of the Professional in Humanistic Social Work: Humanistic Social Work – The Third Way in Theory and Practice, Charleston: Createspace, Retrieved April 16, 2015.
  38. ^ NASW, Code of Ethics
  39. ^
  40. ^ a b Birkenmaier, J. & Curley, J. (2009). Financial credit: Social work's role in empowering low-income families. Journal of Community Practice, 17(3), 251-268.
  41. ^ a b Despard, M., & Chowa, G. A. N. (2010). Social workers' interest in building individuals' financial capabilities. Journal of Financial Therapy, 1(1), 23–41.
  42. ^ Sherraden, M., Laux, S., & Kaufman, C. (2007). Financial education for social workers. Journal of Community Practice, 15(3), 9–36.
  43. ^ Romich, J. L., Simmelink, J., & Holt, S. D. (2007). When working harder does not pay: Low-income working families, tax liabilities, and benefit reductions. Families in Society, 88(3), 418–426.
  44. ^ Barr, M. S. (2004). Banking the poor: Policies to bring low-income Americans into the financial mainstream. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
  45. ^ Birkenmaier, J. (2012). Promoting bank accounts to low-income households: Implications for social work practice. Journal of Community Practice. 20:4, 414-431.
  46. ^
  47. ^ a b
  48. ^ a b
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^
  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^
  57. ^
  58. ^


See also

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

Fictional Social Workers in Media

  • [49]
  • [50]
  • [51]

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

In 2011, a critic stated that "novels about social work are rare," [47] and as recently as 2004, another critic claimed to have difficulty finding novels featuring a main character holding a Master of Social Work degree.[48]

Social workers in literature

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.[46]

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.[40][41][42] That said, there is a need for additional training vis a vis social workers in the financial household management arena.[40][41] 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 Financial Social Work to fully understand and explain the possible ramifications to clients.[43] 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).[44] 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.[45]

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.[36] Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.[37] The term "client" is used to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, or communities.[38] 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.[39]

The main tasks of professional social workers may include a number of services such as community organizing, international, social and community development, advocacy, teaching (in schools of social work), and social and political research.

Role of the professional

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.

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.

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.

Trade unions representing social workers

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

is a professional organization for social workers who practice within the community organizing, policy, and political spheres. [35]

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