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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Government Policies and Programs

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Social Work Social Work Profession
June Gary Hopps, Tony Lowe, Vanessa Robinson-Dooley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0068


Social work literature discusses how the profession’s history was organized in an effort to address problems related to poverty and individual and family problems. The problems related to swift industrial growth included, but were not limited to, poverty, individual and family problems, child welfare, immigration and emigration, and racial and gender disparities. These problems continue to challenge the country despite major policy and practice interventions. The profession’s caring or helping thrust is well covered; however, a component of social control also exists. Major national events helped shape the social welfare policies that social work professionals implement. There were internal debates relative to a working definition, professionalization, licensure, stronger evidence for best practice, and boundary maintenance. There has been growth in social welfare and its professional arm, social work, since the beginning of the 20th century. However, the United States is called a reluctant welfare state. The entry reviews social work’s first professional century, including its origins, present context, trends, and challenges for the future.

General Overviews

There are several overviews of the profession, but content is also often included in discussions relevant to social welfare since social work is its major professional arm. White 2008 presents a comprehensive overview, some twenty-two chapters covering history, advances in theory, technology, scope of practice, and international concerns. Hopps and Lowe 2008 contributes an expository statement on the status of the profession. This work updates both the eighteenth and the nineteenth editions of the encyclopedia. Austin 2000 and Morris 2000 offer more zealous critiques of the profession. Austin 2000 notes that the initial thrust of the profession was services to children and families and that this remains the case. There is advocacy for greater focus on research to inform practice that can thereby enhance the field’s potential for leadership. Morris 2000 suggests that the growth of the interpersonal practice domain has occurred at the expense of social change and social justice. Like Austin 2000, Morris 2000 also makes a case for a new focus of the profession (as he warns) if it is to move beyond production of “mid-level facilitators.” Wilensky and Lebeaux 1965 is an analytical presentation of 20th-century forces on the family, the growth of social welfare and social work, and the consequences of professionalism. Hopps and Morris 2000 examines the successes and limitations of social work in the 20th century. The University of Minnesota has an archive dedicated to the history of social work. All of the entries are useful for students, educators, and practitioners at any part in the social work education continuum.

  • Austin, David M. 2000. Greeting the second century: A forward look from a historical perspective. In Social work at the millennium: Critical reflections on the future of the profession. Edited by June Gary Hopps and Robert Morris, 18–41. New York: Free Press.

    Examines social work in the 20th century and concludes that children and families were the focus of service, which remains the most distinctive practice domain. Approaches grew largely out of a paradigm that started in the 1900s. Research that can provide policy-relevant information for professional leadership must become a primary agenda.

  • Hopps, June Gary, and Tony B. Lowe. 2008. Social work profession overview. In The Encyclopedia of social work. 20th ed. Vol. 4. Edited by Terry Mitzrahi and Larry E. Davis, 144–156. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Covers much of that presented in the nineteenth edition but focuses more on the boundary conundrum, national and international employment trends, supply, demand and areas of practice, workplace violence, diversity, and recommendations from the 2005 Social Work Congress. Up-to-date references are presented.

  • Hopps, June Gary, and Robert Morris, eds. 2000. Social work at the millennium: Critical reflections on the future of the profession. New York: Free Press.

    Several leading professionals make clear what the future path ought to be if a wide spectrum of concerns challenging the profession is addressed so that social work’s historical mission can be achieved.

  • Morris, Robert. 2000. Social work’s century of evolution as a profession: Choices made, opportunities lost; From the individual and society to the individual. In Social work at the millennium: Critical reflections on the future of the profession. Edited by June Gary Hopps and Robert Morris, 42–72. New York: Free Press.

    A critical overview of the profession’s first century that explicates how the growth and dominance of the interpersonal domain occurred at the expense of social change or social justice. It is predicted that, given its current direction, the profession will be represented in institutions but in a limited role as “mid-level facilitators” in light of its generic education focus and not as leaders.

  • University of Minnesota School of Social Work. Social Work History Archives.

    A unique resource for studying the history of social services in the United States at a national level. Its collections are available to all interested researchers at the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

  • White, Barbara W., ed. 2008. The profession of social work. Vol. 1 of Comprehensive handbook of social work and social welfare. Edited by Karen M. Sowers and Catherine N. Dulmus. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Presentations on comprehensive content covering the development of social work, including the scope of social work practice, advances in theory, and research technology as practiced today. Specific topics include history, education, credentials and professional regulation, evidence-based practice, and international practice. Entries on major fields of practice are explicated. This is a four-volume series.

  • Wilensky, Harold L., and Charles N. Lebeaux. 1965. Industrial society and social welfare. New York: Free Press.

    A contribution analyzing the impact of industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, specialization, technology, and stratification and the resulting social problems as well as how private and public social welfare, social work, developed and grew. Residual and institutional conceptions of social welfare were noteworthy.

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