In This Article Human Needs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Social Work Practice
  • Social Policy

Social Work Human Needs
Michael A. Dover
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0067


As a profession, social work has long been concerned with understanding and meeting human needs. The preamble of the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (see National Association of Social Workers 1999 in General Overviews) states: “The primary mission of the social work profession is 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.” Nevertheless there is a scarcity of literature coming from within the profession of social work that addresses human needs explicitly. However, a growing body of human needs–related literature from other disciplines and professions contributes to the liberal arts foundation of social work. Accordingly this bibliography will explore the history and evolution of the body of human needs theory and research on which social work has drawn historically. In doing so it first draws upon the early history of the use of needs concepts during two key periods of social work history (the Progressive Era and the first fifteen years following World War II) as well as the rise of the early psychological theories of needs that have influenced social work in the decades since. The entry then focuses on the variety of theoretical approaches to human needs that have influenced social work, including Marxian, neo-Marxian, and feminist approaches and recent contributions from economics, philosophy, nursing, and religious thought. The entry then focuses on sections that briefly discuss and annotate contributions to practice, policy, and research that draw upon human needs concepts. The entry ends by clarifying the relationship of human needs concepts to other key concepts for social work, including human rights, social justice, cultural diversity, and oppression. As will be apparent, a number of key debates have arisen regarding needs, including whether they are universal or specific to particular cultures, whether human needs or human rights are more central for social work, and whether social work should focus on people's needs or their capabilities.

General Overviews

There has long been an unresolved theoretical tension in social work between meeting the human needs of people and communities as social workers may conceive those needs and empowering people to draw upon their own capabilities in order to meet their needs as they define them. In addition the very concept of human needs has long been ideologically suspect within American political discourse due to the legacy of anticommunism. One consequence has been a long-standing neglect of human needs concepts within the profession's knowledge, values, and skills. For instance, the Encyclopedia of Social Work did not contain an entry on human needs until the 20th edition (Dover and Joseph 2008). Also not until the current version did the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers utilize the concept of human needs (National Association of Social Workers 1999). The inclusion of ethics content on human needs was proposed by a committee chaired by Frederic G. Reamer, who contended elsewhere that human needs concepts reinforced social work's long-standing practice commitment to meeting basic needs (Reamer 1998). One reason for this neglect has been the lack of consensus about the nature of human needs within social work. For some, human needs have been viewed as normative and subjective rather than being universal and objective (Ife 2002), with human rights–based discourse often counterpoised to a needs-based approach (Ife 2001). For others, human needs are universal, and universal human rights and human needs concepts are compatible (Gil 1992). David Gil has pointed out that the essence of social justice is the existence of natural and social-cultural environments that enable people to meet their intrinsic needs. This requires a clarification of the nature of human needs (Gil 2004).

  • Dover, Michael A., and Barbara Hunter Randall Joseph. 2008. Human needs: Overview. In Encyclopedia of social work, 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrahi and Larry E. Davis, 398–406. New York: Oxford Univ. Press and National Association of Social Workers.

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    The authors provide an overview of needs concepts in social work. They cover theories of human needs that have been used in social work education, practice, and research and in social welfare policy. They discuss the relevance of human needs for social work values and ethics and for social and political action.

  • Gil, David. 1992. Foreword. In Human rights and social policy in the 21st century. By Joseph Wronka. New York: Univ. Press of America.

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    Explains that universal human needs are products of biology but also of affect and are affected by cultural and social evolution, ensuring change over time in their nature. Human rights have evolved in response to needs. Human rights are socially constructed and vary among human groups.

  • Gil, David G. 2004. Perspectives on social justice. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping 10 (Fall): 32–39.

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    Presents a summary of Gil's views on human needs theory and argues that conceptions of social justice must contain a theorization of human need.

  • Ife, Jim. 2001. Human rights and human needs. In Human rights and social work: Towards rights-based practice. By Jim Ife, 76–88. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Argues that social work needs to progress beyond needs-based approaches and instead adopt rights-based outlooks, although the author sees value in a discourse on the relationship of needs to rights.

  • Ife, Jim. 2002. Community development: Community-based alternatives in an age of globalization. 2d ed. Frenchs Forest, Australia: Pearson Education Australia.

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    Needs are not objective and universal but rather a product of normative and technical needs statements, such as population-defined needs, consumer-defined needs, caretaker-defined needs, and inferred needs (needs as deduced by researchers or other observers).

  • National Association of Social Workers. 1999. Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

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    The primary mission of social work as a profession is to “enhance human well-being” and also to “help meet the basic human needs of all people.”

  • Reamer, Frederic G. 1998. The evolution of social work ethics. Social Work 43.6: 488–500.

    E-mail Citation »

    Identifies common human needs as a well-established concept that reinforces social work's historical commitments to meeting basic needs and enhancing well-being.

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