In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Mainland European Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Websites
  • Journals
  • Historical Sources and Edited Sources on the Histories of Social Work
  • History of Poor Relief and Welfare
  • History of Social Work as a Profession
  • History of Social Work Education
  • History of Social Work with Children and Young People
  • History of Women, Women’s Movements, and Social Work
  • History of Social Pedagogy

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  • Find more forthcoming articles...


Social Work History of Mainland European Social Work
Stefan Köngeter, Florian Eßer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0271


The history of mainland European social work does not exist as a singular entity. The term “Europe” refers to a geographical, historical, and cultural area of the subcontinent of Eurasia, but it also is used to refer to the political and economic European Union. This article mirrors the different prevalent understandings of Europe in academic writings and emphasizes the importance of the variations of this term in historical research, which become even more complex when the history of social work is the object of interest. Social work in Europe and its history are deeply rooted in the framework of the national welfare states that developed alongside social work as a profession. Politically, Europe consists of almost fifty countries; therefore, most of the literature on social work in mainland Europe is on the history of the respective countries and is written in the official languages of these nation-states. A unifying European perspective or “grand narrative” of social work history in Europe only came to the fore in the wake of the emergence of European institutions and of a growing interest in a common European identity. This may come as a surprise, as the history of social work includes social workers’ and social reformers’ early interest in the internationalization of social work as a profession and the lively circulation of knowledge within the countries on the European continent as well as across the English Channel and the Atlantic. It is even more astonishing because the early roots of social work history were influenced strongly by religious traditions of charity. Later, this influence was seen in social movements (such as the women’s movements) or political movements (such as socialism or communism), which were international in their scope from their very first days. The European aspects of social work history are discussed in this article, and the references cited identify first and foremost those historical studies that have a clear European outlook. However, the focus is not on a unifying history of mainland Europe. Rather, it is on stressing the importance of (1) the diversity of social work traditions in Europe; (2) the way in which social work in Central and Western Europe is interconnected with developments in (post-)socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as with the roots of social work in the United Kingdom and the United States; (3) the impact of religious traditions, social movements, and different academic disciplines; and (4) various fields of social welfare that are relevant to social work history. This article is not intended as a concluding discussion for a European bibliography of social work history. Instead, it is meant as a contribution to trigger more interest and research endeavors to understand the variations in (mainland) Europe’s social work history, a history that reflects both the diversity of national histories of social work and the interconnections and conflicts inscribed in those histories.

Introductory Works

The history of social work is embedded in the emergence of nation-states and their welfare approaches since the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the 19th century. At the same time, close connections were made among leading figures and social reform movements in the various national contexts. This situation of specific national developments and the entanglements of social work histories are probably a hindrance to writing an introductory work on the history of social work in continental Europe. Lorenz 2006 is the only volume that aims at such a decidedly European outlook (based on earlier endeavors in the 1990s, see European Outlooks). Healy 2012, Kniephoff-Knebel and Seibel 2008, Lorenz 2006, Seibel 2008, and Soydan 1999 can be considered to be relevant introductory pieces that help to locate the historical developments in a larger international context and give an insight into the early internationalization of social work in continental Europe that was heavily influenced by European pioneers. Furthermore, Satka and Skehill 2011 includes several important articles from a European perspective.

  • Healy, Lynne M. 2012. The history of the development of social work. In Handbook of international social work: Human rights, development, and the global profession. Edited by Lynne M. Healy and Rosemary J. Link, 55–63. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The chapter is an overview of the emergence of social work in the Western world since its inception at the end of the 19th century and follows its development until recent times. The history of continental Europe is viewed from an international angle that helps to explain the interconnections between various developments, including those in Eastern Europe.

  • Kniephoff-Knebel, Anette, and Friedrich W. Seibel. 2008. Establishing international cooperation in social work education: The first decade of the International Committee of Schools for Social Work (ICSSW). International Social Work 51.6: 790–812.

    DOI: 10.1177/0020872808095251

    This article provides an overview of the early developments of the internationalization of social work during the first decade of the International Committee of Schools for Social Work. It is particularly interesting for the development of social work in continental Europe because it describes in detail the three major conferences in Paris, Berlin, and Frankfurt and provides a list of important European classic thinkers in social work.

  • Lorenz, Walter. 2006. Perspectives on European social work: From the birth of the nation state to the impact of globalisation. Opladen, Germany: Budrich.

    This compilation of several articles offers the reader deep insights into the diversity of the social work professions in Europe, with their various historical developments, disciplinary and professional approaches, and national welfare regimes. It is one of the few publications to explain the interconnection between nation-state building and the social work professions and is therefore a social history of social work of recent times.

  • Satka, Mirja, and Caroline Skehill, eds. 2011. Special issue: European history of social work. Social Work and Society: International Online Journal 9.2.

    This special issue was published by the Network for Historical Studies of Gender and Social Work, established in 2001. It comprises five articles covering the history of social work in different European countries, such as Finland, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Bulgaria, as well as comparative insights into historical developments.

  • Seibel, Friedrich W. 2008. Global leaders for social work education: The IASSW presidents 1928–2008. Boskovice, Czech Republic: Albert.

    This edited volume consists of biographical portraits of the presidents of the International Association of Schools of Social Work from 1928 to 2008, including Alice Salomon, René Sand, Jan Floris de Jongh, Dame Eileen Younghusband, Herman D. Stein, Robin Huws Jones, Heinrich Schiller, Ralph Garber, Lena Dominelli, Abye Tasse, and Katherine A. Kendall (Honorary President). This volume is complemented by a preface by Friedrich W. Seibel and an introduction by Lynne M. Healy.

  • Soydan, Haluk. 1999. The history of ideas in social work. Birmingham, UK: Venture.

    Originally published in Swedish in 1993. Chapter 2 is entitled “Theoretical Framework” but also gives a systematic overview of various aspects of social work and their different historical origins. Chapters 3 to 6 introduce classic thinkers and schools of thought (such as the psychological school and the settlement movement). Although classic thinkers and influences in the United States play a big role, Soydan also refers to ideas from mainland Europe (especially Saint-Simon’s approach to social problems) and their impact on social work in Sweden.

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