1 Introduction to Social Work

Learning Objectives

In this chapter the student will be reviewing:

  • A definition of social work
  • What qualifies social work to be considered a profession?
  • Characteristics of the social work profession
  • A comparison with other helping professions
  • Core concepts for the social worker
  • Brief description of common roles

Key Concepts for Social Work

Self-Determination: The priority for social workers to ensure that the client has the information and resources necessary to make an informed decision. Social workers consider this to be an expression of the belief that clients should be treated as experts in their own lives.

Empowerment: The empowerment process is the offering of both knowledge and skills necessary for the target system to achieve the agreed-upon goals. It is based on the notion that role of the social worker is to facilitate change, to be a collaborator in the change process, while carefully avoiding becoming overbearing in the change process.

Strengths-based Approach: Simply put, this is the intent to encourage and develop the strengths of the social worker’s target system, be it the individual, the members of a group, or the community.

Planned Change Process: This is a reference to the process commonly used by social workers. It is a series of steps in the resolving of presenting concerns or problems identified by the target system. The following steps are referred to as the planned change process: engagement, assessment, intervention, and evaluation.

Person-in-Environment: One of the unique features of the social work perspective is the belief that a person must always be consider in the context of their environment. Such a perspective is considered different from a more psychological perspective with its focus on the individual, or sociology with its focus on groups and organizations. Social workers approach the individual from a contextual frame of reference, and such elements of one’s environments would include family, social network (church, community, work), culture, and nation.

What is a Social Worker?

What comes to mind when you think of a social worker?

Let me welcome you to an introductory course on a helping profession that includes a Nobel prize urban activist, Jane Addams, and a pioneer writer and researcher on the impact of environment on individuals, Mary Richmond. Both are significant in terms in providing the historical foundation to the profession.

As you might expect from an overview course, time and attention will be given to defining the profession, offering some history on its development into a profession, and professional values and code of ethics. We will review the wide range of roles and responsibilities that are common to the social work practice. Our focus on the practice of social work will include a consideration of what it means to be a generalist practitioner and the 3 modalities of practice: micro, mezzo, and macro. Attention is given to the diverse fields of practice where social workers can be found with major consideration for the more common fields of practice: children and family, mental health and addictions, health, gerontological, administrative, to name a few. We conclude with a look at what might be future opportunities and challenges for new social workers.

A Definition of Social Work

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has defined the profession of social work in the following way (NASW, 1973, pp 4-5):

Social work is the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favorable to this goal. Social work practice consists of the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends:

  • Helping people obtain tangible services (such as housing, food, income)

  • Providing counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups

  • Helping communities of groups provide or improve social and health services

  • Participating in relevant legislative process

Another agency overseeing social work education, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), states that the purpose of the social work profession is to “promote human and community well-being” Which can be achieved through promoting social and economic justice and preventing conditions that limit human rights for all people. The CSWE’s vision is to ensure a well-educated social work profession equipped to promote health, well-being, and justice for all people in a diverse society.

What do you notice about the definitions of social work? I would like to note a couple of important points. For one, social work is considered a profession, and what qualifies it for such a distinction deserves some attention. Secondly, social work has a dual focus in that it addresses both individual well-being (micro practice) and more systemic well-being (macro practice). We will be addressing both micro and macro practice in this course.

What Makes Social Work a Profession?

So, what are the characteristics of a social work that qualifies it to be considered a profession?

  • Code of ethics: A formal statement that provides both the core values of the profession and the practice competencies in keeping with the core values.
  • Expertise (body of knowledge and skills): Professional body of knowledge and evidence-based practice
  • University education (bachelors and masters, etc.): Expectation that all professional degrees be granted by accredited schools of social work.
  • Status and income (prestige & compensation): Expectation of professional respect and regard by society as well as income based on one’s professional training.
  • Specializations: As evidenced in accredited Masters’ and Doctoral programs
  • Professional autonomy (exams, licensure, continuing education, professional boards, professional organizations): Professional education, training, organizations, and licensing boards.
  • Protection for consumers (the code of ethics, sanctions for unprofessional behaviors): State oversight of the examination process for clinical social workers and administering of sanctions in the event of code of ethics violations.

What Are Characteristics of The Professional Relationship?

Let us discuss some of the characteristics of the professional relationship with our clients. They are professional relationships that sets them apart from friendship and family relationships. Such relationships have a recognized purpose, they are time-limited, engage the client in a collaborative manner, they may involve some degree of authority and control, and the relationship is maintained and protected by the professional code of ethics.

What Are Some Characteristics of Social Work Professionalism?

  • Integrity (Truthfulness, honesty, and trustworthiness): The NASW Code of Ethics should not participate in, condone, or be associated with dishonesty, fraud, or deception. Therefore, integrity suggests
  • Professional knowledge: Professional knowledge is considered essential for both ethical and effective social work practice. Such knowledge will very according to the setting, the assigned roles, the work issues, and the population served.
  • Critical thinking and lifelong learning: Critical thinking is the treatment of all knowledge with a healthy skepticism and maintaining this questioning posture throughout one’s social work career.
  • Ethical decision-making: The social worker must know the profession’s code of ethics and legal responsibilities. It is important for them to be able to identify legal and ethics obligations as they apply to specific situations, and how to address ethical dilemmas.
  • Diversity and difference: The Council of Social Work Education indicates “that the dimensions of diversity are understood as the intersectionality of multiple factors including but not limited to age, class, color, culture, disability and ability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, marital status, political ideology, race, religion/spirituality, sex, sexual orientation, and tribal sovereign status.” (2015) Thus behooves the social worker to have an extraordinary self-awareness to know how best to serve others.
  • Self-understanding and self-control: Social work is a personal encounter that requires one’s conscious and intentional use of various aspects of oneself, such as one’s knowledge, attitudes, and skills. It

Consider the following comparison with other helping professions:

Disciplines Similarities Differences
  • Practice profession
  • Provide psychotherapy
  • Similar clients
  • Focus on individual
  • Psychological testing
Health professions
  • Practice profession
  • Work in health and mental health settings
  • Focus on physical health
  • Not as focused on community resources
  • Prescription privileges
  • Practice profession
  • Provide psychotherapy
  • Similar clients
  • Master’s-level professionals
  • Focus on individual
  • Not trained in community practice
Marriage & Family
  • Practice profession
  • Provide psychotherapy
  • Similar clients
  • Bachelors & Master’s level professionals
  • Focus on individual and family unit
  • Not trained in community practice

What Are Some of the Common Roles for BSW and MSW?

Broker: A common role for social workers linking clients to needed resources.

Case Manager: The coordination of services and resources within an agency or with multiple agencies.

Advocate: Another unique characteristic of the social work profession is the role of advocacy. Such a role relates to one of our core values: social justice. This role is one in which the social work promotes the needs or acts for change on behalf of a client.

Educator: This role is for the social work providing information and the teaching of skills.

Counselor: This is another common role for social workers, and one that can be referred to as a psychotherapist. This role is one in which the social worker facilitates the clients in the identification of problem areas and agreed-upon intervention strategies.

Mediator: The social worker in this role will assist in a dispute resolution process between conflicting parties.

Researcher: Such a social worker role is one of researching programs and policies, and the conducting of studies to improve social service systems.

Group Leader: This social work takes a leadership role for the facilitation of several types of groups, such as task and treatment groups.


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Introduction to Social Work: A Look Across the Profession Copyright © 2022 by James Langford, LCSW and Craig Keaton, PhD, LMSW is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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