In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Work and Social Welfare in Europe

  • Introduction
  • History of Social Work in Europe
  • Social Work in Europe: Overview and Comparative Studies
  • European Union Policy and Legislation
  • Council of Europe
  • European Social Model
  • European Higher Education Area and Social Work
  • Journals about Social Work in Europe
  • European Social Work Organizations

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

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Social Work Social Work and Social Welfare in Europe
David N. Jones, Ana Lima
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0270


This article sets social work in Europe in its historical, political, and social context and presents insights into the development of the education, training, practice, and organization of the profession in twenty European countries. The practice of social work has evolved differently in each country but shares common characteristics; in some countries there has been a parallel development of social pedagogy, with close links to social work theory and practice. The development of social work in the Soviet Union effectively ended after the revolution, and the same applied across the Soviet bloc after 1945. Following the political changes in the 1990s, social work was reestablished across central and eastern Europe; developments in those countries are reflected in some of the national publications. The delivery of social work across the Continent has been affected by the implementation of New Public Management approaches and the impact of the service user movement (sometimes called “consumerism”) and more recently by economic austerity policies following the 2008 financial crash. The main political and social structures of Europe—the Council of Europe and the European Union (EU)—have a significant influence on the development of national social policies through EU Directives (laws), the human rights principles of the Council of Europe, and convergent visions. The key instruments that impact social work policy and practice are identified. Literature from the twenty countries was recommended by the social work associations/unions in those countries and is largely in local languages; this is possibly the first attempt to recognize the diversity of social work literature across Europe and to challenge the over-reliance on literature and ideas expressed in English.

History of Social Work in Europe

There are several comparative studies of the development of social policy across Europe but few that explore the specific history of social work, which is closely linked to the varying social, political, and economic contexts. The standard textbook, Thane 1996, for example, presents an overview of the history of the UK welfare state, set in its wider economic, political, and social context, including detailed comparisons with major developments in other European countries. Webb 2007 explores the emergence of social work in late Victorian England. Steyaert and Vicary give access to networks of people interested in social work history; websites documenting the history have been created, illustrating the growing awareness of the significance of historical developments for current preoccupations and practices, not only within countries but also across Europe and globally. Lorenz 2006 and Lorenz 2008 are written by probably the leading exponent of European social work studies; Lorenz argues that while the development of social work in Europe has always been closely linked to nation-state policies, the social work professions in Europe have always tried to internationalize and universalize their discourses. He argues that historical and political reflections have renewed relevance as societies in western and eastern Europe face the challenges of a complete re-working of public and private arrangements of social solidarity. The significant role of women in the creation of the social work profession is examined in Hering and Waaldijk 2003, including the rediscovery by Kruse 2003 of Alice Salomon’s first international comparison of social work training from 1937. Harrikari, et al. 2014 provides an overview of current discussions within the European social work research community in their historical context. Satka and Skehill 2011 identifies resources on the European history of child welfare and child protection with specific reference to its variety during the past hundred years.

  • Bulletin of the Social Work History Network.

    The Social Work History Network reviews social work history to help inform the future. It is based in the United Kingdom but has international participants. It held its first meeting on 14 October 2000 and asked: “What does history tell us about who should control social work education?” The bulletin was launched in 2014, is published online twice a year, and includes some articles with European content. Edited by Sarah Vicary.

  • Harrikari, Timo, Pirkko-Liisa Rauhala, and Elina Virokannas, eds. 2014. Social change and social work: The changing societal conditions of social work in time and place. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Topics covered include the changing social work mandate throughout history, social work paradigms and theoretical considerations, phenomenological social work, practice research, and gender and generational research.

  • Hering, Sabine, and Berteke Waaldijk, eds. 2003. History of social work in Europe (1900–1960): Female pioneers and their influence on the development of international social organizations. Opladen: Leske and Budrich.

    Twenty-three authors from eleven countries introduce female pioneers of social work through their biographies and show their influence on the development of organizations and structures of social work and social welfare.

  • History of Social Work.

    A Belgium-based site, with links to historical figures and developments in social work from Europe and elsewhere. Jan Steyaert and Kevin Harris are the founders.

  • Kruse, Elke. 2003. The first international comparison of social work training: Alice Salomon’s almost forgotten study from 1937. In History of social work in Europe (1900–1960): Female pioneers and their influence on the development of international social organizations. Edited by Sabine Hering and Berteke Waaldijk. Opladen: Leske and Budrich.

    The first attempt—by a leading personality in the history of European social work, working in Berlin, Germany—to make a comparative study of social work education in Europe.

  • Lorenz, Walter. 2006. Perspectives on European social work: From the birth of the nation state to the impact of globalisation. Ann Arbor, MI: International Specialized Book Service.

    Lorenz explores historically and comparatively the dynamic interchange between state social policies, civil society movements, and academic discourses. This helps explain the diversity in the development of the profession. A transnational perspective of practice is proposed that confronts these challenges and methodologies that realize the personal and political potential of hermeneutic competences.

  • Lorenz, Walter. 2008. Towards a European model of social work. Australian Social Work 61.1: 7–24.

    DOI: 10.1080/03124070701818708

    Lorenz outlines the simultaneous processes of standardization and diversification that have always characterized social work. Social work’s professional development has oscillated between engagement with this diversity and detachment. Lorenz seeks to explore the meaning of this characteristic, especially in light of 21st-century challenges of economic globalization and the social politics of neoliberalism.

  • Satka, Mirja, and Caroline Skehill. 2011. History of child welfare and child protection in Europe. In Oxford Bibliographies in Social Work. New York: Oxford University Press.

    The literature in social work is related to policy, various welfare organizations, and histories of childhood. Many of the crucial ideas in the development of child welfare and protection have traveled from country to country—and also from the United States to Europe.

  • Thane, P. 1996. Foundations of the welfare state. Social Policy in Britain. London: Longman.

    A standard textbook presenting an overview of the history of the UK welfare state, set in its wider economic, political, and social context. Has detailed comparisons with major developments in other European countries. The role of women in making social policy is examined and also includes copies of key documents.

  • Webb, Stephen A. 2007. The comfort of strangers: Social work, modernity and late Victorian England—part I. European Journal of Social Work 10.1: 39–54.

    DOI: 10.1080/13691450601143625

    Two related articles explore the history of social work in late Victorian England through the lens of “modernity.” This first paper explores dominant modernist themes that shaped the emergence of social work and how its governing ideas influenced philanthropy, forming part of a shared European heritage. There were common conditions across Europe and shared developments that shaped the rise of social work. Available online with subscription.

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