In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Direct Practice in Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Texts
  • Handbooks and Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Advanced Generalist Practice
  • Group Social Work
  • Family
  • Assessment
  • Interviewing Skills

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Social Work Direct Practice in Social Work
Jacqueline Corcoran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0004


Direct practice in social work constitutes one-on-one contact with people at the micro level and is usually identified as working with people directly at the individual, group, or family level. Rather than specifying a particular theory, direct practice is seen as an eclectic process structured by the problem-solving process with the guiding underlying principles of sensitivity to social diversity and promotion of social and economic justice. At the micro level, this most often involves bringing services to and improving the quality of life of people who are vulnerable and oppressed. However, direct practitioners must also be able to assess different systems levels beyond the individual and determine the appropriate intervention and its appropriate level (micro, meso, and macro), and to know when and how to implement various theories. This complex undertaking is not taught in a systematic way but rather is guided by the development of personal awareness, knowledge of social work values and ethics, sensitivity to social diversity, and promotion of social justice.

Introductory Texts

At the bachelor’s and master’s foundational levels, the Council on Social Work Education requires that bachelor’s programs and the first year of master’s programs teach generalist practice. Generalist practice encompasses a wide array of theories and approaches but contains the following common elements (Compton, et al. 2005). First, it involves the problem-solving process, which was originally devised by Helen Perlman (see Theories for Direct Practice). Defined in slightly different ways by various writers, problem solving basically involves the phases of the helping process: engagement, assessment, goal setting and intervention planning, implementation of the plan, and evaluation and termination. Social work practitioners are encouraged to use an eclectic theory basis in this process. Second, generalist practice involves the general ability to work across systems (individuals, families, groups, agencies, and communities) using the problem-solving process. Third, generalist practice involves assessment of the person in the environment (also called “person-in-situation”) within a systems or ecological framework (biopsychosocial assessment) and the requirement that the practitioner have awareness of and the ability to integrate into his or her work with clients a personal self-awareness, the values and ethics of the profession, and sensitivity in working with diversity and culture to bring about social justice. The textbooks listed here—Hepworth, et al. 2017; Compton, et al. 2005; and Shulman 2016—offer generalist content at both the bachelor’s level and the Master of Social Work foundational level. These influential textbooks, which have had a long-term presence in student learning (more than thirty years each), gave rise to an early-21st-century spate of “generalist” textbooks for direct practice. The latter will not be covered here as they do not depart significantly from the textbooks listed. Beyond individuals, families, and groups, Shulman 2016 has an additional emphasis on communities. Gambrill 2013 is also noted here because it too is used as a foundation-level, direct-practice text. It is different from the others in that its major focus is on evidence-based practice.

  • Compton, Beulah, Burt Galaway, and Barry Cournoyer. 2005. Social work processes. 7th ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks Cole.

    First published in 1974, this practice text is based on a generalist model that uses problem solving as its basis within an ecosystem (person-in-environment) perspective. States that a more contemporary addition to the helping process in social work is a solution or strengths-finding phase as part of assessment. Both US and Canadian perspectives are provided.

  • Gambrill, Eileen. 2013. Social work practice: A critical thinker’s guide. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Although the problem-solving process is a major organizing framework, the major emphasis is on the use of evidence-based practice to select client interventions. The text also emphasizes behavioral theory as an approach for working with clients because of its evidence basis. Less of an emphasis is placed on basic interviewing skills and multicultural social work.

  • Hepworth, Dean H., Ronald H. Rooney, Glenda D. Rooney, and Kimberly Strom-Gottfried. 2017. Direct social work practice: Theory and skills. 10th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning.

    This is the most widely used textbook for the foundational direct practice class at the Master of Social Work level, perhaps because of its clear and basic writing style.

  • Shulman, Lawrence. 2016. The skills of helping individuals, families, groups, and communities. 8th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning.

    Has more of an explicit community focus than some of the others.

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