Social work

Social Work

A military social worker counselling a soldier
Names social worker
Activity sectors
social services, government, health, mental health, non-profit, law
Competencies improving the social environment and well-being of people by facilitating, and developing resources
Education required
Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) for general practice; Master of Social Work (MSW) for advanced or specialized practice; Registration and licencing differs depending on region
Fields of
child and women protection services, non-profit organizations, government, hospital, schools, shelters, community agencies, social planning, think tanks, correctional services

Social Work is both an academic discipline and profession that concerns itself with helping individuals, families, groups and communities enhance their social functioning and overall well-being.[1][2] Social functioning refers to the way in which people perform their social roles, and the structural institutions that are provided to sustain them.[3] Social work is underpinned by theories of social science and humanitites and guided by principles of social justice, rights, collective responsibility, and respect for diversity, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges, socioeconomic development, social cohesion and enhance well-being.[4] Their engagement with client systems create changes and with communities they may 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 communities, and within social policy, to create change on a larger scale.

Social work as such began in the 20th century, with roots in voluntary philanthropy and grassroots organizing, but the practice of responding to social needs existed long before then, as evidenced primarily by a long history of private charities and religious organizations. The effects of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression developed and clarified popular understanding of social work into a conception of the field that mostly resembles the one that prevails today.[5]


Social work is a broad profession that intersects with several disciplines. However, although social work practice varies both through its various specialties and countries, these 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 knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing." - [6] 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." - [7] 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."- [8] 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." [9] - British Association of Social Workers


Victorian photograph of the exterior of a London slum property
A Marylebone slum in the 19th century.

The practice and profession of social work has a relatively modern and scientific origin,[10] 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.[11] Most historians identify COS as the pioneering organization of the social theory that led to the emergence of social work as a professional occupation.[12] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[13]

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. In Abraham Flexner's 1915 lecture, "Is Social Work a Profession?",[14] delivered at the National Conference on Charities and Corrections, he examined the characteristics of a profession with reference to social work.


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. 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. 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:

A social work professional's main tasks 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 interpersonal and societal problems or 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 socio-political research. Every work leads with the aim of providing beneficial services to individuals, dyads, families, groups, organizations and communities to achieve optimum psychosocial functioning.[16]

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.[17] Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.[18] The term "client" is used to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, or communities.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21][22][23] That said, there is a need for additional training vis a vis social workers in the financial household management arena.[21][22] 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.[24] 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).[25] 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.[26]

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.[27]

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, psychotherapy, disabilities, etc.

Contemporary professional development

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[28]

Six other core values identified by the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW)[29] 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
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 a mentor-men-tee relationship in workplace.


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, 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 require registration or licensure of people working as social workers, and there are mandated qualifications.[30] 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.[31]

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)[32] 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).

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 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.

Social workers in literature

In 2011, a critic stated that "novels about social work are rare,"[33] and as recently as 2004, another critic claimed to have difficulty finding novels featuring a main character holding a Master of Social Work degree.[34]

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

Fictional social workers in media

Name Portrayed by Title Year
Neil Brock George C. Scott East Side/West Side 1963
Edith Keeler Joan Collins Star Trek: The Original Series - The City on the Edge of Forever 1967
Germain Cazeneuve Jean Gabin Two Men in Town 1973
Ann Gentry Anjanette Comer The Baby 1973
Mary Bell Angelina Jolie Pushing Tin 1999
Raquel Leonor Watling Raquel busca su sitio 2000
Cobra Bubbles Ving Rhames "Lilo and Stitch" 2002
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
Ms. Weiss Mariah Carey Precious 2009
Meera Bhama Janapriyan 2011
Sam Healy Michael Harney Orange Is the New Black 2013
Paul Spector Jamie Dornan The Fall (TV series) 2013
David Mailer Patrick Gilmore Travelers 2016

See also


  1. "What is Social Work? | Canadian Association of Social Workers". Retrieved 2017-07-17.
  2. "Global Definition of Social Work | International Federation of Social Workers". Retrieved 2017-07-17.
  3. "CASW Social Work Scope of Practice | Canadian Association of Social Workers". Retrieved 2017-07-17.
  4. "What is social work?". Australian Association of Social Workers. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
  5. Social Work Profession. Encyclopedia of Social Work. 20. Summer 2017.
  6. "Global Definition of Social Work | International Federation of Social Workers". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  7. "What is Social Work? | Canadian Association of Social Workers". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  8. "Practice - NASW". Retrieved 2017-07-19.
  9. "What Is Social Work?".
  10. Huff, Dan. "Chapter I. Scientific Philanthropy (1860–1900)". The Social Work History Station. Boise State University. Retrieved 2008-02-20.
  11. "1800s". Family Action: About Us. Retrieved 17 November 2010.
  12. 1 2 Lymbery. "The History and Development of Social Work" (PDF).
  13. 1 2 Popple, Philip R. and Leighninger, Leslie. Social Work, Social Welfare, American Society. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2011. Print.
  16. "Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers: The Centre for Education & Training" (PDF). 2011. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  17. Crisp, B.R.; Beddoe, L. (December 2012). Promoting Health and Well-being in Social Work Education. Routledge.
  18. 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.
  19. NASW, Code of Ethics
  20. Keough, Mary Ellen; Samuels, Margaret F. (October 2004). "The Kosovo Family Support Project:Offering Psychosocial Support for Families with Missing Persons". Social Work. 49 (4): 587–594. doi:10.1093/sw/49.4.587.
  21. 1 2 Birkenmaier, J. & Curley, J. (2009). "Financial credit: Social work's role in empowering low-income families". Journal of Community Practice. 17 (3): 251–268. doi:10.1080/10705420903117973.
  22. 1 2 Despard, M. & Chowa, G. A. N. (2010). "Social workers' interest in building individuals' financial capabilities". Journal of Financial Therapy. 1 (1): 23–41. doi:10.4148/jft.v1i1.257.
  23. Sherraden, M.; Laux, S. & Kaufman, C. (2007). "Financial education for social workers". Journal of Community Practice. 15 (3): 9–36. doi:10.1300/J125v15n03_02.
  24. Romich, J. L.; Simmelink, J.; Holt, S. D. (2007). "When working harder does not pay: Low-income working families, tax liabilities, and benefit reductions" (PDF). Families in Society. 88 (3): 418–426. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.3651.
  25. Barr, M. S. (2004). Banking the poor: Policies to bring low-income Americans into the financial mainstream. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
  26. Birkenmaier, J. (2012). "Promoting bank accounts to low-income households: Implications for social work practice". Journal of Community Practice. 20 (4): 414–431. doi:10.1080/10705422.2012.732004.
  27. "National Association of Social Workers". NASW. Retrieved September 6, 2013.
  28. Popple & Leighninger, 2011
  29. "Code of Ethics (English and Spanish) – National Association of Social Workers".
  30. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2005). NASW Fact Sheet. Retrieved November 15, 2006 from
  31. "Catholic Social Workers National Association".
  32. "The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration". Retrieved 2015-10-30.
  33. 1 2 Bounds, Joy (January 4, 2011). "Book review: King Welfare". Community Care. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  34. 1 2 Marek, Kirsten (April 4, 2004). "Social Workers in Fiction". Blogcritics. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  35. "THE DOUBLE BIND by Chris Bohjalian". Kirkus Reviews. February 1, 2007. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  36. Greenwell, Faye (February 16, 2014). "BOOK REVIEW: Social Work Man". The Westmorland Gazette. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  37. "Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai". Goodreads. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  38. "The Case Worker by George Konrád". Goodreads. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  39. "'Fourth of July Creek,' by Smith Henderson". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  40. "A Very Famous Social Worker by Greg Johnson". Goodreads. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  41. "Unprotected by Kristin Lee Johnson". Goodreads. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  42. Kakutani, Michiko (March 3, 2014). "Out of Uganda, In the Midwest: Dinaw Mengestu's 'All Our Names' Describes Unexpected Love". New York Times. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  43. "Exclusive: Interview with Author Sapphire". Social Workers Speak. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
  44. "Reviews". The Social Worker, a novel, by Michael Ungar. Retrieved June 5, 2014.

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. 
  • Bodenheimer, Danna (2015). Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way (1st ed.). Harrisburg, PA: The New Social Worker Press. ISBN 978-1-929109-50-0. 
  • 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. 
  • Mary Carmel Ruffolo; Brian E Perron; Elizabeth H Voshel (2015). Direct Social Work Practice: Theories and Skills for Becoming an Evidence-Based Practitioner (1st ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-483-37924-1. 
  • 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. 
  • Ragg, D. Mark (2011). Developing Practice Competencies: A Foundation for Generalist Practice (1st ed.). Hoboken, N.J: Wiley. ISBN 978-0-470-55170-7. OCLC 757394287. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • Webb, Stephen (2017). Professional Identity and Social Work. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9781138234437. OCLC 49959266. 
  • Zastrow, Charles (2014). Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare: Empowering People. Belmount: Cengage Learning. ISBN 9781285176406. 
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