The purpose of this essay is to explore the relationship between the field of anthropology and that of social work. It discusses the roles and purpose of the social worker and offers an anthropological description of the profession. It also serves to argue that anthropology offers a critical perspective that can a pivotal tool for a social worker. What Is Social Work? To begin, you may be asking “What is social work anyway?” Most people’s minds conjure pictures of Child Protective Service workers or welfare workers that take Food Stamp applications. However, the role of a social worker can be much more varied than these two stereotypical roles and goes far beyond simple welfare assistance. Social workers have a much broader reach and a much larger goal that simply placing people into welfare systems. “Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs” while also advocating for social justice “with and on behalf of clients” (NASW).
Social workers have an obligation to provide resources to individuals seeking assistance and to empower those individuals to be self-efficient upon termination of services. It is also their responsibility to advocate for social justice and social change by promoting the responsiveness of organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals’ needs and social problems (NASW). They tend to these obligations in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation, administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation (NASW). Social workers can have positions in hospitals, nursing homes, community mental health agencies, substance misuse clinics, state and local governments (including child welfare agencies and departments of health and human services), schools, youth-serving organizations, military bases, veteran’s affairs clinics, correctional facilities, private practices, etc.
Despite the range of roles available in the field, the social work profession is tied together by its mission “to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (NASW). The mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values. These core values, embraced by social workers throughout the profession’s history, are the foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.
This constellation of core values reflects what is unique to the social work profession. Core values, and the principles that flow from them, must be balanced within the context and complexity of the human experience. (NASW) What Is Social Work Through the Eyes of An Anthropologist? Social work can be considered a cultural artifact through the anthropological lens (Teicher). “Social work is a social institution which represents the community’s organized effort to deal with some facets of human need”, often taking the form of social agencies that provide aid to people faced with some inability, usually due to environmental factors (Teicher). In these agencies, social workers serve four primary roles (Teicher). They can serve in case management, group management, community outreach, or social administration (Teicher). The role of the case manager is to assist individuals with their problems (Teicher). Clients may seek to resolve personal matters through therapy or may require a case manager to ensure that their children remain in the home. Case managers often work with their clients over an extended period of time and meet with them regularly to check-in and set goals to promote self-efficacy for that individual.
The case manager “operates as a community agent… that represents the community’s desire to meet certain specific human needs” (Teicher). A group worker’s primary function is to foster positive, effective teamwork skills. They work to help individuals find their strengths and weaknesses when working with groups and try to promote democratic decision-making processes within the group (Teicher). This enables groups to operate such that individual growth and positive social outcomes are present in group interactions, which contributes to a larger societal goal of citizenship and tolerance (Teicher). Services are administered to communities through a process called community organization (Teicher). A community organizer’s primary function is to create programs to meet the needs of the population that it serves (Teicher). “It is necessary to have…community organizers who are sensitive to new needs and who can enable the community to find ways of meeting changing needs. The state of balance between health and welfare needs and resources is constantly fluctuating.
Maintaining this state of balance is the prime concern of the community organizer” (Teicher). An example of this might be the creation of a program that would provide assistance to newly hired workers that could not afford required supplies for their position. The organizer’s role is to coordinate the implementation of this new program. “Social administration is the executive process which enables the casework, group work and community organization methods to be set in motion so that effective service is rendered to the client, the group or the community” (Teicher) Often labeled “executive director”, “executive secretary”, or “chief social worker”, the social administrator tackles agency responsibilities such as budgeting, relationships to the community through boards, personnel actions, determination of agency policy, and development of agency programs (Teicher). How Can Anthropology Be Useful in Social Work? “Anthropology can complement social work practice by informing workers” (Pham). “There is general acceptance now that broad knowledge and special skills are necessary for effective social work and that formal education for the field is essential. Social work, in its concern for the whole man, certainly should draw upon the contribution and knowledge of the entire range of social sciences” (Teicher).
It only seems logical “to turn to anthropology, with its claim to be the synthesizing social science which studies man and his works” (Teicher). “Advocating for the [disenfranchised] is the core role of social workers while providing cultural insights into their predicament lies at the heart of anthropology” (Pham). Thus, “the need to understand different peoples and their varying behavior underlies the [appropriate] attitude of the social worker toward anthropology” (Teicher). Additionally, “the anthropologist’s methodology in studying people of other societies represents one part of a tool which the social worker can use positively and helpfully”, and “the related concept of cultural relativism is useful in enabling the social worker to perceive behavior differences with greater understanding” (Teicher).
Why Is It Important? There are areas of the world in which social work is not well developed as a profession. In these areas, social work is newly budding and making small advancements towards the complex and informed nature of American social work (Pham). Due to the unseasoned nature of the profession, social workers are approaching clients without the proper awareness of their prejudices (Pham). Instead, they take ethnocentric standpoints, particularly when their clients’ opinions or mannerisms differ from theirs (Pham). This disconnect can have huge impacts on a social worker’s ability to effectively aid clients. It creates misunderstandings and reinforces stereotypes that can undermine the relationship and the client’s trust. It is increasingly apparent in research that by taking an anthropological approach to social work, service delivery, communication, and information exchange improve, and the recognition and awareness of cultural norms and the use of them in treatment results in a better social adjustment (Pham)
In conclusion, social work clearly has an abundance of knowledge and insight to gain from anthropology. Using an anthropological lens in practice can be beneficial to clients by giving the worker insight into the cultural context of their circumstances and the way that those can impact the actions of a person. This additional layer of consideration gives the worker guidance to finding a solution that will best empower the client to make the most self-effective decision.