What is the History of the Social Work Profession?

history-of-social-work-professionFor those who are interested in pursuing a career that enables them to enhance human capacity to solve complex social problems and create a more socially just society, it is essential that you are aware of the history of social work to fully understand the profession's missions.

While Americans today enjoy many privileges, most take for granted these benefits that came about because of early social workers dedicating their career to taking action against injustices for equality regardless of gender, faith, race, or sexual orientation. The following is a brief timeline on the history of social work in order to increase your awareness of the great strides made in the profession and inspire you to carry on their legacy with a social work career.

Early Beginnings of Social Work

As a profession, social work officially originated in the 19th century as a movement primarily experienced within the United States and United Kingdom. After the demise of feudalism, those in poverty were seen as a direct threat to the social order, so the government formed the Poor Law and created an organized system to provide care to them. While the Industrial Revolution sparked great leaps in technological and scientific advancements, the great migrations to urban areas throughout the Western world led to increased social problems and in turn social activism. During this time, rescue societies were initiated to provide support to resolve the problems of poverty, disease, prostitution, mental illness, and other afflictions.

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In the late 1800s, a new system emerged as a method for providing aid for social ills. As one of the most influential early professionals in social work, Jane Addams was a founder of the U.S. Settlement House Movement to establish settlement houses in poor urban areas for volunteer middle-class social workers to alleviate the poverty of their low-income neighbors. Focused on the causes of poverty through research, reform, and residence, early social workers in the movement provided the poor with educational, legal, and health services. By 1913, there were 413 settlements spread across 32 states in the nation to improve the lives of the poor.

Modern Social Work History in America

While the movements for social reform continued to escalate in the early 20th century and many schools of social work were established, the question of whether social work was a profession lingered. In 1915, Dr. Abraham Flexner famously contended that social work was not a profession because it lacked specific application of theoretical knowledge to solving human issues. As a result, the professionalization of social work began by concentrating on casework and the scientific method, and the American Association of Hospital Social Workers was established in 1918 to boost formal education opportunities in social work.

Despite facing competition with the rising popularity of psychiatry and psychology, there were ten university programs in social work by 1929 to add a more scientific basis to dealing with patients and challenging behaviors from mental dysfunction. As World War II came to a close, social work saw another great rise in the number of social workers to serve the needs of military veterans returning home from battle. By 1955, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) was formed to promote professional development, advance social policies, enhance educational opportunities in the field, and maintain professional standards of practice.

Today, social workers continue to lead the way towards social justice by developing private and charitable organizations to serve individuals and communities in need. Now as one of the most diverse healthcare fields, opportunities in social work continue to grow much faster than the average for all other occupations.

Resource: What do Social Workers Do?

Therefore, if you are interested in serving vulnerable populations, it is an excellent time to follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth Fry, Mary Ellen Richmond, Saul Alinsky, and other professional pioneers to make your own mark on the history of social work.