Social work is an academic discipline and practice-based profession that concerns itself with individuals, families, groups, communities and society as a whole in an effort to meet basic needs and enhance social functioning, self-determination, collective responsibility, and overall well-being. Social functioning is defined as the ability of an individual to perform their social roles within their own self, their immediate social environment, and the society at large. Social work applies social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, political science, public health, community development, law, and economics, to engage with client systems, conduct assessments, and develop interventions to solve social problems, personal problems, and bring about social change. Social work practice is often divided into micro-work, which involves working directly with individuals or small groups; and macro-work, which involves working with communities, and fostering change on a larger scale through social policy.
The social work profession developed in the 19th century, with some of its roots in voluntary philanthropy and in grassroots organizing. However, responses to social needs had existed long before then, primarily from public almshouses, private charities and religious organizations. The effects of the Industrial Revolution and of the Great Depression of the 1930s placed pressure on social work to become a more defined discipline.[need quotation to verify]
Global Definition of the Social Work Profession
“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels.”
Types of Social Work
Social workers are found in every facet of community life, including schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, senior centers, elected office, private practices, prisons, military, corporations, and in numerous public and private agencies.
Some social workers help clients who face a disability or a life-threatening disease or a social problem, such as inadequate housing, unemployment, or substance abuse. Social workers also assist families that have serious domestic conflicts, sometimes involving child or spousal abuse.
Some social workers conduct research, advocate for improved services, engage in systems design or are involved in planning or policy development. Many social workers specialize in serving a particular population or working in a specific setting.
Administration and Management
Social work administrators are proactive leaders in public and private agencies that provide services to clients. Many elements of this area of social work practice are common to administration in other organizations. However, administration and management also require knowledge about social policy and the delivery of social services, vision for future planning, an understanding of human behavior, and commitment to social work ethics and values.
Advocacy and Community Organization
Advocacy is one of the keystones of social work practice. Social work advocates champion the rights of individuals and communities with the goal of achieving social justice. Community organizing and advocacy work with the power of numbers—many people thinking, working, and acting together—to counterbalance wealthy and powerful groups and the means they have to protect and extend themselves.
Historically, community organizing and social work were responses to the many forces that created inequality in our society. They remain as necessary and effective as ever today.
Social workers link older adults with services that help them live independently and with dignity, thereby maximizing their quality of life and participation in society. Social work with older adults focuses on the physical, psychological, social, and economic aspects of daily living.
Child welfare social workers serve some of the most vulnerable children, youths, and families. Social workers specialize in building on the strengths of families and helping them to provide a safe and nurturing environment for children and youths.
However, when families are unable to do this, social workers must intervene to protect the children from harm. Child welfare social workers ensure that children and youths who have experienced abuse or neglect are supported through a range of services.
Social workers also help parents of children with developmental disabilities understand their legal rights. They help parents learn to be advocates and find special services that enable their children to be as independent as possible.
Since the early 1900s, professionally trained social workers have helped people deal with personal and social factors that affect health and wellness. Some health care social workers are in direct services and concentrate on individuals, families, and small groups.
Others work in settings where the focus is on planning, administration, and policy. In the health care setting, social workers may conduct research, develop programs, and administer social work and other departments.
International Social Work
The functions of social work in international development are diverse. They include direct services in communities, refugee camps, orphanages, hospitals, and schools, as well as supporting the efforts of national governments, intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations to enhance social well-being.
Justice and Corrections
Social workers who work in justice and corrections can be found in courts, rape crisis centers, police departments, and correctional facilities.
Mental Health and Clinical Social Work
Clinical social workers are one of the nation’s largest groups of providers of mental health services. They provide mental health services in both urban and rural settings, where they may be the only licensed provider of mental health services available.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Work
Social workers help individuals, families, and communities find ways to recover from substance use. They provide a much-needed ecological perspective to treatment that focuses on the client in relation to family and neighborhood environments, community support systems, cultural attitudes, and policies.
Consequently, social workers trained in treating alcohol, tobacco, and other drug addictions can be found doing case management, group and individual therapy, family counseling, advocacy for jobs and housing needs, community resource development, education, and policy making.
Occupational and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Social Work
Occupational social workers help organizations re-engineer their structure and methods to improve efficiency, creativity, productivity, and morale. They may also work for a union and be involved in job counseling or organizing.
Policy and Planning
Social workers analyze policies, programs, and regulations to see what is most effective. They identify social problems, study needs and related issues, conduct research, propose legislation, and suggest alternative approaches or new programs. They may foster coalitions of groups with similar interests and develop organizational networks.
There is a natural progression in the careers of many social workers from activism to leadership. Increasingly social workers are holding elective offices from school boards to city and county governments, from state legislatures all the way to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Social workers also play leadership roles in local, state and federal agencies.
Social work in public welfare entails planning, administering, and financing programs, training and supervising staff, and setting and evaluating standards and criteria for service delivery. Public welfare offers many challenges that require creative thinking and leadership from professional social workers.
Social workers in research typically tend to be academics with postgraduate degrees in social work. Research provides the framework for effective practice. Although considered an art by some, social work is also a science based on evidence.
School Social Work
School social workers act as the connection for school, home, and community services to help children with emotional, developmental, and educational needs. Most school social workers practice in public and private schools, although a small percentage may work in social services agencies or other service sites such as a preschool program or residential treatment center for children who are emotionally disturbed.
2021 NASW Leadership Summit
On June 29, join leaders from the social work community to share their expertise and help you hone your skills as a leader.
Social Work Advocates