April 18

How did social work start?

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For information about how social work started in Singapore, refer here.

For more information about how social work started in the U.K., refer here.

As a social worker, I’m quite used to asking families questions relating to the origins of the issue at hand. When did it start? Why? How did it begin? 

Strangely though, I’ve never asked those questions of social work. Without a clear understanding of the history of the social work, we will be ill-placed to know where we would like to be. 

As Harari, the author of Homo Deus puts it,

‘Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past. It enables us to turn our head this way and that, and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine. By observing the accidental chain of events that led us here, we realise how our very thoughts and dreams took shape – and we can begin to think and dream differently. Studying history will not tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options.’

Yuval Harari, in Homo Deus

Indeed, knowing the history of social work will not tell us where to go. But it will tell us where our predecessors have gone and how that journey has been. This article will focus on social work’s development in the UK. 

There are 3 primary strands to social work’s development – individual casework, social administration, and social action (Lymberry 2005). 

Individual casework

Social work started from the work of the Charity Organisation Society. They were the ones who started systematically determining the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. They created a system of assessments whereby the true need of the family or individual could be determined. 

Today, we see that in our own assessments determining the eligibility criteria of families and individuals. 

More importantly, the development of social work in its individual casework was advanced by the import of psychologically-based theories of understanding and intervention from the USA during the 1920s. 

Today, that has had great impact towards informing our interventions. Whether we do problem-solving approaches, motivational interviewing, or psychotherapy with our service users, the impact from the American branches of psychology is undeniable. 

Social administration 

Social workers have been criticised as street-level bureaucrats. We simply execute the wishes of the government. I think this criticism does not consider the fact that social workers must operate within a political and legal system. Completely disregarding the law of the land will do little to help service users. The alternative, that social workers would not exist to help, is unthinkable. 

Social workers as social administrators started with the institution of the Poor Law in 1601. The powers of the Law were enhanced with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This introduced the concept of ‘less eligibility’. Officers were employed to determine the eligibility of the applicants.

Today, our role as social workers involve making assessments against a set of predetermined eligibility criteria such as that of the Care Act 2014 or the Children Act 1989. Yes, our role is limited. But does that mean that we cannot do anything? 

Social action

As the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) writes,

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

IFSW definition in July 2014 (emphasis mine)

Social workers have always been involved in social change. But how did that begin in the UK?

In the 1880s, the start of the Settlement Movement by Canon Barnett was an attempt to move away from merely depending on the government to disburse aid to people in need. Instead, they set up communities whereby people of education and the disadvantaged lived together for mutual aid. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new movement known as ‘radical social work’ arrived. They sought to move away from pathologizing of the individual, towards a more collective response to the problem. 

 But today, it is fair to say that ‘radical social work’ has petered out. 

Where can we go from here? 


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