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What is Social Group Work?

What Is Social Group Work?


A Presentation at the 62nd meeting of the National Conference on Social Work


by W. I. Newstetter, Director of Course in Group Work, School of Applied Social Sciences Western Reserve University, Cleveland


In years the term “group work” has been increasingly used to designate the agencies in one of the major divisions of the field of social work. This tendency is best illustrated by its use as one of the four newly organized sections of this venerable conference. It is obvious that the use of the term in this instance is for the purpose of describing a particular field within the general field. But there are two other uses of the term which more specifically define what is meant by group work. One of these is in connection with describing a certain process, the other is in connection with describing certain techniques or conscious efforts. It is necessary, therefore to distinguish between group work as a field, group work as a process, and group work techniques. Since the use of the term to describe an educational procedure or process appears most fundamental, let us first consider it from this point of view.

The group-work process. — Group work may be defined as an educational process emphasizing (1) the development and social adjustment of an individual through voluntary group association; and (2) the use of this association as a means of furthering other socially desirable ends. It is concerned therefore with both individual growth and social results. Moreover, it is the combined and consistent pursuit of both these objectives, not merely one of them, that distinguishes group work as a process. But what do we mean by a process?

Let us begin by visualizing a face-to-face primary group. Such a group may be described, first, in terms of aggregation or compresence; second, in terms of interactions between members of the group; third, in terms of consciousness of kind, a “we” feeling by means of which it distinguishes itself from all others. This latter we may call a bond. Now there is constant adjustive effort taking place within this group which may be called a social process, specifically the group process.

Now let us visualize our group-worker. He makes a certain conscious effort, called a technique, toward this group. Let us call this technique No. 1. And let us assume this is an effort to discover interest. As a result of this conscious effort, or technique, the social process in the group becomes slightly modified. This conscious effort, we may assume, is made in line with the general objectives or aims of group work mentioned above. Now the situation in the group represented by the modified social process determines to a large extent what the next conscious effort or technique of the worker shall be. Obviously this requires observation on the part of the worker. It also requires a scheme for the interpretation of human behavior. So the next technique, number two, is determined not by prearranged sequence, but by the worker on the basis, primarily, of the modified social process in the group. Other considerations, to be mentioned below, also enter into this determination. Then technique number two is applied by the worker. This, in turn, further modifies the social process in the group. And this provides the basis, primarily, for the selection of the next technique. It is this reciprocal procedure just described that we may call the group-work process. The nature of this procedure or process is determined by (1) the objectives of the worker; (2) the adjustive efforts within the group itself; (3) the worker’s observation and interpretation of the adjustive efforts within the group; (4) the skill of the worker in the selection and application of technique.

If we are familiar with the history and development of social case work we may recall the time when it was thought that a prearranged sequence of investigation, analysis, diagnosis, prognosis, and, finally, treatment was the order of the social casework process. We know better now. Treatment may begin with the first contact. But many people today are still trying to develop a group-work procedure in terms of prearranged sequences and standardized procedures, or in terms of techniques selected at random. More and more we are coming to recognize that this is not good group work.

If we may be permitted to develop this concept further, let us imagine that there are some hundred and fifty different conscious efforts or techniques involved in group work. If we could write them down accurately on a piece of paper and look at them (and we must do this sooner or later), we would have an interesting array. Now let us see if we can apply our concept of process to case-work. Could not this reciprocal relationship between client and worker be utilized to describe the process of case-work? Could we not apply this concept to describe the process of community organization? And let us imagine again that there are about one hundred and fifty conscious efforts or techniques utilized in each process. If we could write these all down under proper headings on our same piece of paper would we find many of these techniques identical? I am sure we would. Some day we are going to be looking into this, and when we do, we may be changing, among other things, a great deal of our curricula in schools of social work. Undoubtedly there are techniques peculiar to each of these three processes. But it may be suspected that ultimate stated objectives in all of them are nearly identical if not identical. Certainly the stated objectives in group work and case-work are closely related. But when we come to examine the actual practical efforts of case-work agencies in the field we find that the second objective I have stated, social results, reflects in practice largely a gospel of individual “salvation” and not a social gospel; and the practical efforts of group-work agencies largely a social gospel without much appreciable effort along the line of individual “salvation.”

Let us turn from this to group work as a process. What are some of the guiding principles for this educational procedure? First I should mention particularization, i.e., individualization of group members as to backgrounds, capacities, needs, interests, not only on the basis of what is observed in the group itself, but also on the basis of all other information obtainable.

Next I should mention self-direction, i.e., promotion of the assumption of maximum responsibility on the part of the group for determining and interpreting its own acts through practice. Next I should mention indirection, i.e., guidance and stimulation primarily through influence on the social and physical setting of the group rather than through the direct personal influence or authority of the worker. Then I should mention repetition, i.e., the promotion of habitual responses to a variety of life situations. And finally I should suggest integration. This has two aspects: first, guidance in the adjustive efforts of the group in its acceptance of each individual member, and the acceptance by each individual member of the group; second, guidance in the unifying of objectives of individual growth and social results. Generally speaking, stress is placed on the guidance, not the manipulation, of the adjustive efforts being made by members of the group and the group as a whole, rather than on the authoritative direction of these adjustive efforts. Spontaneity, self-direction, and determination are the sine qua non of group work. The program is not the thing. It must take a second place. The detailed superimposed leisure-time program and the authoritative leader have little or no place in the process. The group-worker’s role is largely that of understanding the needs of individual members, of helping to set the stage, of helping to provide the suitable environment for learning, expression, adjustment, and social action.

If we accept some such definition of the group-work process as has been briefly described, to a certain extent we set it apart definitely from that social case-work process which deals primarily with individuals on the basis of a person-to-person relationship between client and worker. But I am not sure we have a complete distinction here, for much of modern social case-work has to deal with adjustive efforts with a family group, which is a primary group. If this is done person-by-person, our distinction holds. But we must not overlook new experimental efforts such as dealing with the family as a group over periods of time, nor can we overlook certain experiments with groups of clients.

We have also set apart the group-work process from the mass approach in which large numbers of people are dealt with in mass education and recreation. This may be just as worthy an effort. Let us grant this. But certainly it rules out most if not all the kind of individualizing we say is so vital to our process previously described. It does not rule out individual growth in a general way. It does not rule out the second of the two objectives we have mentioned for group work, namely, social results.

It might be well to discuss this second objective further, namely, “the use of this association as a means of furthering socially desirable ends.” Socially desirable ends may be thought of as more general social objectives. These, in the last analysis relate to individual adjustment and development, but are often pursued apart from their immediate bearing on the specific needs of specific individuals. Such social ends as group articulation, co-operation, social legislation, peace, a planned economy, social attitudes, love of country, to mention only a few, serve as examples of values some people think desirable for our day and generation. The group association becomes one means of passing on desirable or undesirable cultural patterns and of evolving new ones. The process of group work is utilized to promote the peace movement, the labor movement, the cooperative movement and many other movements.

This brings me to my next point, that adjustment and development of individuals require a framework of reference in terms of values. Perhaps we can illustrate again from the practical field.

A certain group of unemployed men in a settlement house developed a conviction over a period of time and discussion that the rent policy of a relief agency dealing with their families was unjust, dishonest, and demoralizing. Their leader upon investigation came to the same conclusion. The relief agency was being forced to carry out instructions from above. The group as well as the leader decided something should be done about it. He encouraged and participated in an effort along the lines of social action to get social results.

I think it is fair to say that the point of reference and objective here went beyond the development and adjustment of the particular members of this group and included the learning of values of co-operative effort, and other important values for society as a whole.

I am not so deluded as to deny the implications of “trying to play God” which some people are inclined to shout in order to damn or shame those who are frank to admit they have social ends in view. If we wish to be creative and to develop the creative in others, I suspect there is a certain amount of this “playing God” involved. This is my definition of being creative, and I am not ashamed to admit it. Maybe the Kingdom of God is within!

Some agencies emphasize values in terms of social or group objectives well-nigh to the exclusion of the adjustment of particular individuals. This, again, is a worthy effort. It involves an educational process. But this process is not group work as a process here defined. It is not our growing point, I believe. All work with groups is not group work. A class carrying through a lesson which is taught by a teacher on generalized assumptions of needs, with no self-directed activity, is not group work. If we fall into the error of assuming this, think how far it will carry us afield. It will include almost everything. We must limit our attention sufficiently to the development of the thing that stands at the very core-the group-work process. Otherwise we shall have a sudden mushroom growth, our roots will not be deep, and we shall wither before we have borne the fruit that is expected of us. Let me give you no impression, however, that I think group work is a panacea.

To summarize up to this point, we are saying that the school of thought, as well as practice, defining group work as process maintains that unless there is the combined and consistent pursuit of both objectives, the efforts do not fall entirely within this concept of group work. The underlying social-philosophical assumption is that individualized growth and social ends are interwoven and interdependent; that individuals and their social environment are equally important. Group work in this specific sense is thought by some to be comparatively recent, and the practice of it comparatively rare. Certainly it is in a state of development. Its progress has been retarded by the lack of literature in the field, and the dearth of research necessary for its growth. But just as the development of case-work as a process has been the center of the development of the agencies in the case-work field, I am pleading for the development of group work as a process in our field.

The group-work field. – If group work is defined as a process as described above, it may be said that much of what is labeled group work today falls considerably short of this particular variety. As we have pointed out, some organizations aim primarily at the development and social adjustment of individuals in a general way but not on an individualized basis. This is indeed a desirable procedure, and is, and probably always will be, a definite part of our work. But we should frankly recognize that work with large leisure-time groups, many having little or no stability of enrolment or attendance; work with groups whether large or small in which the primary objective is a program to fill leisure time, to “prevent delinquency,” to “keep them out of mischief,” or to “build citizenship,” is often making only partial application of the group-work process and that it is a different, though desirable thing, just as mass relief is different from case work. But the fact remains that the reason more real group work is not actually being practiced where it might be practiced, is due in part to a lack of understanding and appreciation of group work. This, together with the facts that few people have been educated and trained to employ it, that meager facilities are available at present for this purpose; that there is as yet no considerable recognition and demand for professionally qualified personnel; and that funds are limited, may account in part for the long delay in our recognition in this conference, and for the small number of group workers in the membership of the American Association of Social Workers. Most, if not all, of the agencies in the leisure-time field dealing primarily with groups are usually designated as “group-work” agencies. I see nothing wrong with this. For the time being the group-work field might be defined as including all leisure-time agencies to which the development of the group-work process is centrally important.

Group-work techniques. – Many techniques are employed in the group-work process. These techniques may, in turn, be used otherwise than as parts of that process, as for example in case-work, community organization, education, and recreation. One of these techniques, namely group discussion, is employed widely for administrative purposes, as in case conferences and in boards of trustees, and for other group-for-action situations. It is also used extensively for educational purposes in adult education, parent education, health education, and workers’ education, where the group-work process is not always fully utilized. Other group-work techniques have their wider application.

The techniques employed in the group-work process are being developed in practice around the means utilized by leaders to deal with a series of very practical problems. Some of these are the following: (a) how groups may most effectively be formed and with what types of organization; (b) how mutually satisfactory relationships may be established between the worker and the group; (c) how individual interests, capacities, differences, attitudes, backgrounds, and needs may be discovered; (d) how a tentative program of group activities may be developed on this basis; (e) how the group status of each member may be determined and modified; (f) how conflicts resulting from different norms or standards, objectives, and personalities may be adjusted; (g) how the relationships between members within the group may be improved, and how the relationships of the group itself to other groups may be developed; (h) how to provide for the personal guidance of individual members, when necessary; (i) how the group process can be made to serve individual and social ends simultaneously.

The technique of recording group experience is also being developed in some quarters. The group record, or as it is sometimes called the “group case record” is being kept on selected groups by a small though increasing number of agencies. The analysis of groups from time to time largely on the basis of group records is an additional technique under development.

Relation of group work to other processes – The acceptance of group-workers into the fraternity of social workers bears testimony to the broadening base of social work and an emphasis on generic concepts. It can be partially explained by the need felt by case-workers for more adequate treatment resources. It is being increasingly recognized that both case-workers and group-workers have much to give to each other, and that generic social work can only be achieved to the extent that the contributions of both are focused upon problems demanding applications of both methods.

Editor’s Note: The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available online thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The information can be found at

How to Cite this Article: Newstetter, W.I. (1935). What is social group work? Proceedings from the 62nd Meeting of the National Conference on Social Work, Held in Montreal, Canada, June 9 -15, 1935, p. 291 -299.

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