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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Community Development
  • Nonprofit Organizations
  • Ethics and Dual Relationships
  • Rural Poverty
  • Impact of Welfare Reform
  • Mental Health
  • Health in Rural Areas
  • Substance Abuse
  • Domestic Violence
  • Education

Social Work Rural Social Work Practice
Nancy Lohmann, Roger Lohmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0119


Rural social work may be defined as the practice of social work in any setting identified by those present in the area as rural. This may include farming, mining, fishing, logging, or ranching communities and small towns and villages of many types. There is ongoing debate over how to definitively categorize rural areas, but generally such debate is mostly restricted to those who believe themselves to be, or have an interest in, rural areas, however defined. The most widely used definitions involve uses of census data for population and area. In addition to the traditional rural-urban distinction (less than twenty-five hundred people) and the more recent nonmetropolitan areas distinction, in 2000 the U.S. census introduced an entirely new category of “micropolitan” areas. In all three cases rural is the residual category of those areas that are not urban. Rural social workers tend to utilize the full range of professional knowledge and skills and to share social work values. It is primarily the distinctive characteristics of rural settings that set rural practice apart.

General Overviews

These sources provide a general overview of topics related to rural social work practice, and several may be appropriate for adoption as a textbook. Only sources published since the 2000 census data were collected are included, since older volumes may not accurately reflect the current status of rural populations and rural practice. Ginsberg 2005, Lohmann and Lohmann 2005, and Scales and Streeter 2004 are all edited volumes with contributions by multiple authors. While all are used as primary or secondary texts in courses with content on rural practice, only Scales and Streeter 2004 is specifically designed as a text with suggested discussion questions and classroom activities. Ginsburg 2005 and Lohmann and Lohmann 2005 may be used as textbooks or as books of readings on the topic. The Davenport and Davenport 2008 encyclopedia entry provides the most concise overview of the field of rural social work practice. Stuart 2004 provides a historical context for changes in rural areas and the nature of current practice.

  • Davenport, Judith A., and Joseph Davenport III. 2008. Rural practice. In Encyclopedia of social work. 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrahi and Larry E. Davis. New York and Oxford: National Association of Social Workers and Oxford Univ. Press.

    This is likely the best brief introduction to the nature of rural social work practice. The entry defines rural social work practice, identifies relevant concepts and theories, and describes the nature of practice, the challenges and dilemmas, and trends in practice.

  • Ginsberg, Leon H., ed. 2005. Social work in rural communities. 4th ed. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

    Topics covered include rural community issues, ethics and values, the nature of practice, special populations, and education for practice,

  • Henderson, Jason, and Stephan Weiler. 2004. Defining “rural” America. Main Street Economist 4:1–2.

    The paradox that the rural population dropped 4.2 percent between 1990 and 2000 while the nonmetropolitan population rose by 9 percent is explained by offering a new schema in which urban (“metropolitan” and “micropolitan”) areas are contrasted with “town counties” (the 1,378 counties with towns smaller than ten thousand people and classified as nonmetropolitan and noncore).

  • Lohmann, Nancy, and Roger A. Lohmann, eds. 2005. Rural social work practice. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Topics covered include the context of practice, interventions, client populations, fields of practice, and education for practice.

  • Scales, T. Laine, and Calvin L. Streeter, eds. 2004. Rural social work: Building and sustaining community assets. Belmont, CA: Brooks Cole Thompson Learning.

    Provides an introduction to practice and covers traditional areas of social work curricula: human behavior and social environment, practice issues, policy, and research.

  • Stuart, Paul H. 2004. Social welfare and rural people: From the colonial era to the present. In Rural social work: Building and sustaining community assets. By Paul H. Stuart, edited by T. Laine Scales and Calvin L. Streeter, 21–33. Belmont, CA: Brooks Cole Thompson Learning.

    Reviews the history of social welfare in rural areas by examining five periods: colonial, early national, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and the world wars and the cycles of prosperity-depression. The chapter also discusses recent developments, such as the devolution of social welfare services to states.

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