Social Work: The generic term applied to the various applied methods for promoting human welfare through the prevention and relief of suffering. In the late nineteenth century, social work was largely voluntary (notably as a charitable activity on the part of middle-class women), and aimed primarily at the alleviation o fmaterial poverty. In the period since the Second World War, social work practice has become increasingly professionalized, and now has a much wider remit embracing emotional and mental as well as economic well-being.
Contemporary social work tends to suffer from a lack of differentiation from the various other social services which comprise the modern welfare state. In Britain, for example, social workers have no legal obligation (and no practical resources) to deal with issues of unemployment, housing, and poverty—all of which are responsibility of other social services. What they are expected to deal with are the wide range of problems which diminish the ‘quality of inner life’; for example, problems and crises associated with adoption, fostering of the young and old, marital reconciliation, sexual and physical abuse, and people’s relationships with one another generally.
There are several models of social work practice. The ‘problem-solving’ approach involves the social worker in reinforcing the client’s emotional and organizational resources to deal with his or her difficulties. The various ‘psycho-social therapies’ stress the need for prior psycho-social diagnosis as a prerequisite for psycho-social treatment. Partly as a reaction against the deterministic and mechanical view of action implied in these approaches, ‘functionalists’ have emphasized the role of the social worker in helping (rather than treating) the client, by sustaining an appropriate supporting relationship with him or her. Other models are oriented towards behavior-modification, crisis-intervention, and short-term task-centeredness. In reality, practice tends to be characterized by eclectic pragmatism, rather than adherence to a specific method. Strong recent influences include feminist theory and anti-oppressive practice. Good recent overviews are Malcolm Payne, Modern Social Work Theory (1991) for Britain, and J. Heffernan et al., Social Work and Social Welfare (2nd edn., 1992) for the United States.
Not surprisingly, many outside observers have expressed concern at the periodic psychotherapeutic takeover of social work; similarly, given its inherently moral character, social work practice has been subject to repeated controversy involving those who view it as primarily a political tool—either for promoting or hindering social justice.
Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.