Modern social work employs three methods of assistance: case work, group work, and community organization. Case work is the method by which individual persons and families are assisted. The person in need of case work may be physically, mentally, or socially handicapped. Among those regarded as socially handicapped are: the unemployed, the homeless, members of broken families, alcoholics, drug addicts, and neglected or problem children. To determine the cause of maladjustment, the social worker must understand individual psychology as well as the sociology of the community. Physicians, psychiatrists, and other specialists may be required to help diagnose the difficulty.
Social group work is exemplified by the social settlement, the supervised playground and gymnasium, and the classroom, where handicrafts may be learned. The community may be called upon to provide the buildings and grounds for such activities; often the services of volunteers and of public groups are utilized; in recent years people living in poverty areas have been employed to work in and direct poverty projects in their own communities.
Through community organization the welfare work of single agencies as well as of whole communities is directed, cooperation between public and private agencies is secured, and funds are raised and administered. The funds required by private agencies are often pooled in a community chest, from which each agency receives a share. Community welfare councils are organized to map programs of rehabilitation, to eliminate duplication of services, and to discover and meet overlooked needs.
Social work emerged as a profession out of the early efforts of churches and philanthropic groups to relieve the effects of poverty, to bring the comforts of religion to the poor, to promote temperance and encourage thrift, to care for children, the sick, and the aged, and to correct the delinquent. Orphanages and homes for the elderly were typical results of these activities. The word charity best describes the early activities, which were aimed at the piecemeal alleviation of particular maladjustments. In such charitable work the principal criterion in determining aid to families was worthiness, while the emphasis in later social work was on restoring individuals to normal life both for their own sake and for the sake of the community.
The first attempts to solve the problem of poverty in a modern scientific way was made by P. G. F. Le Play, who in the 1850s made a detailed study of the budgets of hundreds of French workers' families. Forty years later Charles Booth investigated wages and prices, working conditions, housing and health, standards of living, and leisure activities among the poor of London and revealed the extreme poverty of a third of the population. Booth's social survey became a method for determining the extent of social maladjustment, and through surveys in other cities in Europe and the United States a vast number of facts were accumulated, and methods were developed that provided the basis for modern social work.
In 1874 the National Conference of Charities and Correction (now called the National Conference on Social Welfare) was organized in the United States. Public relief and private philanthropic effort remained largely matters of local and state concern until after 1930, when the federal government entered the field of social work on a large scale to cope with the effects of the Great Depression. Resources were made available, the number of social workers was greatly increased, and it became necessary to coordinate public and private activities. Social work has been steadily professionalized, and special graduate schools as well as departments in universities have been established to train social workers. By 1999 there were 377 accredited undergraduate schools of social work in the United States.
See I. A. Spergel, Community Problem Solving (1969); R. E. Smith and D. Zietz, American Social Welfare Institutions (1970); W. C. Richan and A. R. Mendelsohn, Social Work (1973).
Social work is a discipline involving the application of social theory and research methods to study and improve the lives of people, groups, and societies. It incorporates and uses other social sciences as a means to improve the human condition and positively change society's response to chronic problems. Social work is a profession committed to the pursuit of social justice, to the enhancement of the quality of life, and to the development of the full potential of each individual, group and community in society. It seeks to simultaneously address and resolve social issues at every level of society and economic status, but especially among the poor and sick. Social workers are concerned with social problems, their causes, their solutions and their human impacts. They work with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities.
Social work as a defined pursuit and profession began in the 19th century. This was in response to societal problems that resulted from the Industrial Revolution and an increased interest in applying scientific theory to various aspects of study. Eventually an increasing number of educational institutions began to offer social work programs. The settlement movement's emphasis on advocacy and case work became part of social work practice. During the 20th century, the profession began to rely more on research and evidenced-based practice as it attempted to improve its professionalism. Today social workers are employed in a myriad of pursuits and settings. Professional social workers are generally considered those who hold a professional degree in social work and often also have a license or are professionally registered. Social workers have organized themselves into local, national, and international professional bodies to further the aims of the profession.
As there was no effective bureaucracy below city government that was capable of charitable activities, the clergy served this role in the west up through the 18th century.
During the Middle Ages, the Christian church had vast influence on European society and charity was considered to be a responsibility and a sign of one’s piety. This charity was in the form of direct relief (for example, giving money, food, or other material goods to alleviate a particular need), as opposed to trying to change the root causes of poverty.
The practice and profession of social work has a relatively modern (19th century) and scientific origin.
Social work, as a profession or pursuit, originated in the 19th century. The movement began primarily in the United States and England. After the end of feudalism, the poor were seen as a more direct threat to the social order, and so the state formed an organized system to care for them. In England, the Poor Law served this purpose. This system of laws sorted the poor into different categories, such as the able bodied poor, the impotent poor, and the idle poor. This system developed different responses to these different groups.
The 19th century ushered in the Industrial Revolution. There was a great leap in technological and scientific achievement, but there was also a great migration to urban areas throughout the Western world. This led to many social problems, which in turn led to an increase in social activism. Also with the dawn of the 19th century came a great "missionary" push from many Protestant denominations. Some of these mission efforts (urban missions), attempted to resolve the problems inherent in large cities like poverty, prostitution, disease, and other afflictions. In the United States workers known as "friendly visitors", stipended by church and other charitable bodies, worked through direct relief, prayer, and evangelism to alleviate these problems. In Europe, chaplains or almoners were appointed to administrate the church's mission to the poor.
During this time, rescue societies were initiated to find more appropriate means of self-support for women involved in prostitution. Mental asylums grew to assist in taking care of the mentally ill. A new philosophy of "scientific charity" emerged, which stated charity should be "secular, rational and empirical as opposed to sectarian, sentimental, and dogmatic." In the late 1880s, a new system to provide aid for social ills came in to being, which became known as the settlement movement. The settlement movement focused on the causes of poverty through the "three Rs" - Research, Reform, and Residence. They provided a variety of services including educational, legal, and health services. These programs also advocated changes in social policy. Workers in the settlement movement immersed themselves in the culture of those they were helping.
In America, the various approaches to social work led to a fundamental question – is social work a profession? This debate can be traced back to the early 20th century debate between Mary Richmond's Charity Organization Society (COS) and Jane Addams's Settlement House Movement. The essence of this debate was whether the problem should be approached from COS' traditional, scientific method focused on efficiency and prevention or the Settlement House Movement's immersion into the problem, blurring the lines of practitioner and client.
Even as many schools of social work opened and formalized processes for social work began to be developed, the question lingered. In 1915, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Dr. Abraham Flexner spoke on the topic "Is Social Work a Profession?" He contended that it was not because it lacked specialized knowledge and specific application of theoretical and intellectual knowledge to solve human and social problems. This led to the professionalization of social work, concentrating on case work and the scientific method.
The International Federation of Social Workers states, of social work today,
"social work bases its methodology on a systematic body of evidence-based knowledge derived from research and practice evaluation, including local and indigenous knowledge specific to its context. It recognizes the complexity of interactions between human beings and their environment, and the capacity of people both to be affected by and to alter the multiple influences upon them including bio-psychosocial factors. The social work profession draws on theories of human development and behaviour and social systems to analyse complex situations and to facilitate individual, organizational, social and cultural changes."
The current state of social work professional development is characterized by two realities. There is a great deal of traditional social and psychological research (both qualitative and quantitative) being carried out primarily by university-based researchers and by researchers based in institutes, foundations, or social service agencies. Meanwhile, many social work practitioners continue to look to their own experience for knowledge. This is a continuation of the debate that has persisted since the outset of the profession in the first decade of the twentieth century. One reason for the gap between information obtained through practice, opposed to through research, is that practitioners deal with situations that are unique and idiosyncratic, while research concentrates on similarities. The combining of these two types of knowledge is often imperfect. A hopeful development for bridging this gap is the compilation, in many practice fields, of collections of "best practices" which attempt to distill research findings and the experience of respected practitioners into effective practice techniques. Although social work has roots in the informatics revolution, an important contemporary development in the profession is overcoming suspicion of technology and taking advantage of the potential of information technology to empower clients.
Professional social workers are generally considered those who hold a professional degree in Social Work. Often these practitioners must also obtain a license or be professionally registered. In many areas of the Western world, social workers start with a Bachelor of Social Work (BA, BSc or BSW) degree. Some countries, such as the United States, also offer post-graduate degrees like the master's degree (MA, MSc or MSW) or the doctoral degree (Ph.D or DSW).
In the United Kingdom, often referred to as social services assistants or care workers, are persons who are not professionally registered and often do not hold any formal social work qualification. In England, to use the term 'social worker', one must register with the General Social Care Council (GSCC). This followed the Care Standards Act 2000 which has protected the title since April 2005 in England. Within the mental health sector in the UK, an additional qualification can be gained: an "Approved Social Worker". This enables the practitioner to assess and make an application to hospital for admission under the Mental Health Act 1983.
In a number of countries and jurisdictions, registration or licensure of people working as social workers is required and there are mandated qualifications. In other places, a professional association sets academic and experiential requirements for admission to membership. The success of these professional bodies' efforts are demonstrated in the fact that these same requirements are recognized by employers as necessary for employment.
On a national level there are organizations regulating the profession, as well. Some of these are the British Association of Social Workers (United Kingdom), the Australian Association of Social Workers (Australia), and the Professional Social Workers' Association (India).
Professional social workers have a strong tradition of working for social justice and of refusing to recreate unequal social structures. The main tasks of professional social workers can include a variety of services such as case management (linking clients with agencies and programs that will meet their psychosocial needs), medical social work, counseling (psychotherapy), human services management, social welfare policy analysis, community organizing, advocacy, teaching (in schools of social work), and social science research. Professional social workers work in a variety of settings, including: non-profit or public social service agencies, grassroots advocacy organizations, hospitals, hospices, community health agencies, schools, faith-based organizations, and even the military. Some social workers work as psychotherapists, counselors, or mental health practitioners, often working in collaboration with psychiatrists, psychologists, or other medical professionals. Social workers may also work independently as private practice psychotherapists in the United States and are able to bill most third party payers such as insurance companies. Additionally, some social workers focus their efforts on social policy or conduct academic research into the practice or ethics of social work. The emphasis has varied among these task areas by historical era and country. Some of these areas have been the subject of controversy as to whether they are properly part of social work's mission.
A variety of settings employ social workers, including governmental departments (especially in the areas of child and family welfare, mental health, correctional services, and education departments), hospitals, non-government welfare agencies and private practice - working independently as counsellors, family therapists or researchers.
There are a wide variety of activities that can be considered social work and professional social workers are employed in many different types of environments. In general, social workers employed in clinical or direct practice work on a micro level. Social workers who serve in community practice are occupied in the mezzo or macro levels of social work. The following lists detail some of the types of jobs that social workers may do.