Emergence of Professional Social Work


Social work is a professional discipline which is practised in various settings in many countries. Today social workers get employed in governmental, non-governmental, private and industrial settings and some also works as private practitioners. Since its evolution as a profession in UK and USA, it has now spread to different countries of the world. Social work emerged as a profession in the 20th century with its field of study that has uniquely blended perspectives from other disciplines like the biological and social sciences, with its own values, knowledge and skills.

In the medieval period in England like other European countries, it was a virtuous duty of the church to help and protect the poor. The church especially the monasteries, became the centres for distributing food, medical aid and shelter. People at the individual and family level were also helping and giving alms to the destitute, differently abled, itinerant and poor out of religious sentiments. There was a shift in responsibility for relief from church to state when restrictive legislation was passed forbidding begging and vagrancy. In England, a series of laws were enacted between 1350 and 1530 known as the “Statutes of Labourers”, designed to force the poor to work. The declining authority of the church paved the way for the government in England to a series of measures which culminated in the famous Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 that divided the poor in three categories: The abled bodied poor also called the sturdy poor were forced to work in the House of Corrections or in Work Houses. People were not allowed to give them alms and individuals refusing to work in the Houses were put in the stocks or in jail, the impotent poor or unemployable poor were placed in alms houses or were given outdoor relief for their livelihood. They were the sick, old, blind, deaf, dumb, lame and so on, the dependent children were orphans and children who had been deserted by their parents or whose parents were so poor that they could not support them. With the passage of time Elizabethan Poor Law was revised and several other measures were taken in the same line. 

The middle of the 19th  century witnessed a problem of competing and overlapping services in London which increased over the years, at that time a group of public-spirited citizens founded in 1869 the London Charity Organization Society (COS). Octavia Hill and Samuel Barnett were two of these founders. In her work as housing reformer, Octavia Hill introduced a system of “friendly rent collection” as a method of improving slum housing. She communicated to the volunteers certain principles or laws to be followed in their activities by stressing that everyone must be treated with respect for his or her privacy or independence, to individualize each case and situation. She believed in the value of dignity of even the most degraded of her tenants and advised her workers not to judge the tenants by their personal standards. Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house was founded by Samuel August Barnett where wealthy Oxford students “settled” in an attempt to improve the living conditions in the slums of Whitechapel, the basic idea was to bring the educated persons in contact with the poor for their mutual benefit. They realized that mere distribution of charity does not solve the problems and one needed to live with the poor and listen to them in order to understand the situation of poverty and underdevelopment.

During the last half of the 19th century as a result of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, together with massive growth of population increased social problems in US. In response to these problems three social movements began that formed the basis for the development of the social work profession\i.e. Charity Organization Society Movement (1877), Settlement House Movement (1886) and Child Welfare Movement (1853) The “scientific charity” attitude adopted by COS led to the beginning of professional approach to the problems of human need and enabled them to understand and cure poverty and family disorganization rather than merely assisting the poor. The charity organizations wanted to apply science to social welfare in the same way that had been applied to medicine and engineering, the COS leaders also sought to replace chaotic charity with a rational system that would stress on investigation, coordination and personal service. Cases were assigned to a friendly visitor who investigated and considered each case individually by using techniques consisted of personal attributes such as sympathy, tact, patience and wise advice. The COS friendly visitors were the true forerunners of today’s social workers, COS movement fostered the development of the family service agencies of today, the practice of family case work, family counselling, schools of social work, employment services, legal aid and many other programs which are a part and parcel of social work today.

Another significant development of social services in America has been that of settlement house movement which combined social advocacy with social services. Through group work and neighbourhood organizing strategies, the settlement house workers from wealthy families after their graduation lived among the poor as “settlers” and established centres and offered services such as citizenship training, adult education, counselling, recreation, and day care. The settlement house leaders believed that by changing neighbourhood they can improve communities and by changing communities they can develop a better society. The seeds of social work methods, namely, Group Work, Social Action and Community Organization, were thus sown in the settlement house movement. The Children’s Aid Society (1853) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (1875) which began in New York formed the basic elements of a child welfare movement. The child welfare agencies were basically concerned with rescuing children from inadequate homes or from streets and finding for them whole some living situations.  Gradually the need for training social workers was felt and in 1898, six week summer training program was started by New York Charity Organization Society, this was probably the first and the beginning of formal social work education in US and later it was called the New York School of Philanthropy.

Coming to India charity and religious devotion was the mainstay of the Indian culture in ancient period, the nature of social service was that of charity which could be found in Rigveda which encourages charity by saying “May the one who gives shine most’. We also see Ashoka, Kanishka and other great kings of India developing a comprehensive system of social welfare including women’s welfare, rehabilitation of prisoners, rural development, free medical care, regulation of prostitution, provisions of public utilities like roads, rest house for travellers wells, liberal donations and grants for the construction of Buddhist vihars, monasteries and stupas which were the centres for learning, and help to the needy people. Social reform and social work can be traced back to the beginning of 19th century, especially to the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy who sowed the seeds of religious and social reforms, a number of social reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and others concentrated in reforming Indian society like caste system, child marriage, widow remarriage. The ideas of justice, equality, liberty were the underlying principles of these reform movements. With the advent of Gandhiji, he inked political movement with social movement and took it to the next level by transforming it to a mass movement with the participation of all section of population including women, peasants and lower castes. However, in India the beginning of training and education of social work profession started with the establishment of the first school of social work, Sir Dorabji Tata Graduated School of Social Work (now Tata Institute of Social Sciences) at Mumbai in 1936, followed by Delhi School of Social Work, now known as the Department of Social Work.  Today, we find many schools of social work in different parts of the country including Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram. Nagaland has also crafted out its place in the realm of social work schools with the inception of Mahatma Gandhi Centre of Social Work in 2010 under the partnership of IGNOU, Nagaland Gandhi Ashram (NGA) and Chuchuyimlang Village Council.   

At this juncture, we need to understand and differentiate the term social work and social service despite having similar concepts between the two. Social work is a field of study that draws from many subjects and is considered interdisciplinary learning, someone who acquires Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and Master in Social Work (MSW) academic degree are called professional social workers equipped with essential knowledge and skills to work with people in all sorts of problems and conditions. On the other hand, any work that is done by individual or group to improve the quality of life of others is considered as social service. Social service is not limited to just individual and groups but even organizations and governments do a lot of social service in the form of free education, free health care, free housing, mass cleaning drive, clothing and food for poor etc.

Scope of Social Work
Now we clearly understand that the concern of social work’s is to help people who are in need so that they develop the capacity to deal with their problems by themselves. Social work is both science and an art; it is science in the sense that the knowledge taken from different disciplines forms the body of knowledge for a social worker and uses this theoretical base for helping people i.e. for practice.. Hence, professional social work with selected knowledge and the set of social work values are transformed into a professional service. A social worker establishes a positive relationship with the clients and has the capacity to interview, write reports, diagnose by finding out the problems and work out a treatment plan. 

Social work is a very vast field with numerous areas, issues and groups to work with. It offers diverse opportunities for intervention at various levels in the society like children, adolescents, girl child and women, youth, elderly. Each of these categories may face countless problems within the family, work place, other system of the society and may require help of social work professional. Some of the common fields of social work practice that offers job opportunities for qualified social workers includes- educational settings, medical and psychiatric settings, criminology and correctional institutions, industrial and corporate sectors, research institutes, counselling centres, governmental departments, NGOs, management and administration. Social workers also works with rural and urban communities, differently abled, elderly and has always worked in policy and planning field by addressing issues such as child abuse, violence, women issues, mentally challenged, poverty, unemployment and many more.