How Social Work Developed as Profession

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The aim of this essay is to discuss various stages of how social work developed as a profession to rendering services from giving poor relief. Close attention is going to be paid to the impact and changes brought by industrialisation as well as the response from different countries to it. This will be achieved by critically analysing the input/ link of social work responsibility during these various stages and during industrialisation. And also, different contributions of social work to the welfare of being during those times.

The roots of social work are in the attempts of society at large to deal with poverty and people not being equal within a society. Social work is linked with charity work. The charity concept goes back to the ancient times and the providing practice has roots in all major world religions. As the profession of social work life started to help the poor and disenfranchise the fast-changing social order, it is therefore still pursuing that quest. Social work is the primary means of achieving the profession’s end. It is impossible to state to overstate the importance of social work practice to the profession of social work. What is most important about the history of the profession is the history of social work practice (McNutt, 2013).

Pre-modern Antecedents

Way before the modern European state rose, the church provided social services. When the Christian church illegalised, the newly legitimised church set up burial societies, homes for the aged, shelters for the homeless and hospitals. The church developed a system of circulating consumable goods to the poor. The Christian church had vast influence on European society and charity was a responsibility and a sign on one’s piety during the Middle ages. This charity was in a form of direct relief (for example, giving money, food or other goods to meet a need)., as opposed to trying to change the root causes of poverty. As there was no effective bureaucracy below city government that was capable of large-scale charitable activities, the clergy charmed out this role until Early modern period.

Modern Development

It was not until the emergence of industrialisation and urbanisation that the informal helping systems of the church and family began to be placed by social welfare services. The practice of social work has an origin that is relatively modern and scientific`, and is considered to have developed out of three strands. The first one being Individual Casework, a strategy that was pioneered by the Charity Organisation Society (COS) in the mid- 19th century. The second one was the Social Administration, which included various forms of poverty relief.

State-wide poverty relief could be said to have its roots in the English Poor Laws of the 17th century, but was first systematised through the efforts of the COS. The third one consisted of social actions, 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 housing movement. Together with the development of institutions to deal with all the social problems. They all had a very quick growth during the 19th century, had the foundation basis for social work theory and practice.

The profession of social work originated in 19th century England. Its roots were in the social and economic upheaval brought by Industrial Revolution, particularly the social struggle in dealing with resultant mass urban-based poverty and its related problems. Since poverty was the main focus of early social work, it was intrinsically linked with the idea of charity work.

Poverty Relief

Feudalism was in decline in 16th century England, the indigent poor were seen as a threat to social order. The government moved towards the formation of an organised poverty relief system to care for them. Early legislation was concerned with grants and making the able-bodied work, especially when there was short supply of labour followed by the Black Death. The provision of the deserving poor was made in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 (Higginbothan, 2010). A system that was created and it administered parish level, paid for by levying local rates on rate payers.Relief for those who were too old/ill to work “imported poor” was in a form of items of food “perishable loaf” or clothes “ outdoor relief

Private philanthropy and social actions. With close attention to industrialisation and changes brought by it. Social work, in the United States, is largely a product of the same industrial revolution that created the welfare state and industrial society. As Garvin and Cox (2001) note, industrialization led to the factory system, with its need for large numbers of concentrated workers, and subsequently created mass immigration, urbanization, and a host of consequent problems. Social work was a response to many urban problems such as mass poverty, disease, illiteracy, starvation, and mental health challenges.

Both the Charities Organization Society and the Settlement House Movement were responses to these problems. Both movements were imported from Great Britain and supplemented the efforts of religious groups and other associations, as well local and state governments in dealing with the problems of urbanization and industrialization. The Charities Organization Society and the Settlement Houses were important forces in shaping the development of American social work practice and the professionalization of social work.

The Charities Organization Society (COS) represented the cause of scientific charity, which sought to introduce more rational methods to charity and philanthropy (Trattner, 2004). The direct services component consisted of paid investigators, who worked for the COS, and “Friendly Visitors,” who were volunteers that visited the clients. There were also Councils of Social Agencies, which coordinated the efforts of social services agencies. It can be argued that the paid investigators were probably the precursors of caseworkers while the Councils of Social Agencies gave rise to social planning in community practice.

The United Way Movement, which credits its founding to the Denver COS, was another product of this group. Richmond’s (1917) very important contribution was Social Diagnosis, which presented her observations on the nature of social casework. Perhaps the final contribution made to social work practice by the COS was the mark it made on social work 4education through its role in creation of the New York School of Philanthropy. As Austin (1986) notes, the scholar practitioner model, where faculty come from a social work practice (as opposed to a traditional academic model), is our prevailing mode of preparing social workers today.

The Settlement House Movement aimed at the inner-city and created houses as community centres in urban area. This was a completely different approach from that used by the COS. The settlement house workers used social group work to help socialize new immigrants to the city. They offered adult education for their urban neighbours and provided help and advice. They worked on community problems together with the other residents of poor urban neighbourhoods. The Settlement House Movement is often most thought of for its social action efforts (Trattner, 2004).

Working in conjunction with organized labour and other community activists, the settlement house workers were instrumental in the creation of the juvenile court, mother’s pensions, child labour laws, and workplace protections. This is often seen as the touchstone of social work’s involvement in social action and policy practice. Jane Addams was well known in this regard. Because many of the Settlement house workers were social scientists who worked in conjunction with university-based academic social scientists, they began important research into urban problems.

Between these two movements lies the foundation of much of the practice we see today, accounting for casework, social group work, community development, social planning, and social action. The beginning of research supporting social policy is also here.The development of fields of practice began to occur with the emergence of psychiatric social work and medical social work (Dolgoff & Feldstein, 1980; Lubove, 1969). These new specialties allowed the creation of practice methodology refined for certain populations and many other practices specialties emerged.

All of this occurred during the process of professionalization described by( Lubove ,1969). This included the creation of professional organizations, a code of ethics, professional agencies, and the creation of professional schools and a knowledge base.In 1915 Abraham Flexner questioned whether social work was a profession because of what he saw as the lack of a scientific knowledge base. This created an underlying theme in the profession that has occasionally led to unfortunate results (Austin, 1983; Eherenreich, 1985). Social workers, in response to this criticism, worked to find a knowledge base that would satisfy Flexner’s critique. This quest continues to this day.

As the profession developed and changed, so did society. As America became more conservative, social action activities decreased. This was especially true during the first three decades of the 20th century. (Eherenreich, 1985) observes that the rediscovery of poverty and the changing national mood toward social programs created a crisis for the profession. It did not, on balance, lead to much in the way of changes in social work practice.

Freud and psychoanalysis became very influential in social work from the early part of the 20th century until the sixties. This period, often called the Psychoanalytical Deluge, saw social workers eagerly adopting psychoanalysis to solve several of the profession’s needs. While social work created its own variants that brought more social factors into the mix (ego psychology and psychosocial treatment), psychodynamic treatment became fashionable. Psychoanalysis was popular with psychiatrists, which facilitated the creation of strong bonds with the medical profession and the emerging mental health movement (see Eherenreich, 1985). Although, it is not completely clear whether the profession as a whole endorsed Freud or just its leadership (see Alexander, 1972).

The impact of psychoanalysis cannot be discounted. The individually centered nature of psychodynamic theory also served to push the profession further from social action. Although one can debate whether psychoanalysis was the cause or consequence of a disengagement from social action and the poor, this extraordinarily individualistic practice method closed off many avenues of engagement. Casework was the dominant practice method, a trend that can be seen throughout the history of the professional, and this was, perhaps, its most individualistic form.The Milford Conference (1923–1929) came to an agreement on the importance of casework to the profession (Eherenreich, 1985). The Lane Report in 1939 argued that community organizers deserved equal status to caseworkers and social groupworkers (Dolgoff & Feldstein, 1980).

There were also social workers who bucked both the more conservative national mood and the conservative orientation of the social work profession and engaged in social action. Perhaps the best known were Bertha Capen Reynolds and Mary Van Kleek who led a group called the Rank and File Movement during the Depression years. They advocated more progressive politics and a movement away from casework (Eherenreich, 1985). The response of the profession was less than positive and the conservative mood that characterized social work reflected a conservative political mood.

Social Work Currently

Social work is currently known for its critical and holistic approach to understanding and intervening in social problems. This had led to the recognition of, for example, Unemployment as having social and economic rooted in social policies rather than be presented as a personal moral effect. This trend is related to another historical development that states that once a profession is involved directed to social control it is then directed to social and personal empowerment. This does not mean that modern social workers do not engage in social control and many would agree that there is conflict within the profession between those forces. For instance, See the structural vs the humanist social work debate (Payne, 2011).


In conclusion, this essay has shown how social work developed as profession through various stages of development. Through intervening in social problems and coming up with ides to taking part is societal change, Social workers has been able to broaden their profession from only providing poor relief to taking social actions. All this has developed Social work and made it a more widen profession and a very critical practice.


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How Social Work Developed as Profession. (2020, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-social-work-developed-as-profession/

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