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Social Work: Group Work and Change – 1935

By Dr. Grace L. Coyle, Assistant Professor of Group Work, School of Applied Social Sciences Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH

Note: At the 62nd meeting of the National Conference on Social Work in 1935 Dr. Grace L. Coyle’s paper entitled “Group Work and Social Change” was selected as the winner for THE PUGSLEY AWARD.  Mary E. Hurlbutt, Chairman of the Conference at that time said: “…The Editorial Committee was unanimous in adjudging Dr. Coyle’s paper on “Group Work and Social Change” to have made the most important contribution to the subject matter of social work at the Conference of 1935. Dr. Coyle discusses the group process as “a significant mode of social action” in the contemporary world. Social participation today requires not simply a relation to the state but an assumption of responsibility to various group relations. Hence the opportunity of group work as an educational force for social change. The theme is handled creatively, so that it becomes directly applicable to practice, and is, at the same time, serenely rooted in a wider cultural perspective.”

In a period like the present every human activity must test itself by its contribution to the vital changes that are remaking our society. Group work is a part of the educational process by which society aims to produce certain effects in individuals and to preserve and transform its cultural heritage. Like the formal aspects of education, group work must assume a responsibility both for the transmission of our culture and for its re-evaluation at those points at which it is not adequate to the new circumstances of a rapidly changing time. As leisure assumes a larger part in our life, the opportunities for education provided by the informal, voluntary activities of the group-work agency become an increasingly significant part in the total educational program of the community. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the group-worker to try to envisage his part as an educator in our contemporary life.

Group work has several purposes, and the interpretation of its function will vary from agency to agency and from worker to worker. Certain of its purposes aim at the growth and adjustment of the individual. But like all education it cannot avoid also a social responsibility for the making of citizens-that is, for the production in individuals of those attitudes and accomplishments which will contribute to the kind of society we desire. Each of these functions is essential, but for the purpose of this paper, I am confining myself to the potential contribution which group work might make to social change through its educational programs-especially with adolescents and young adults. Within those limits, I shall attempt to discuss these social jectives in terms of three aspects of the group-work program: (1) the experience in collective living afforded by the groupwork agency, (2) the social function of the so-called cultural activities of the group-work agency, and (3) the place and function of direct education on social questions and social action. These three aspects do not include all the ways in which group work may effect social change but they have been selected because they are all widespread, and also because, though very diverse, they can each be permeated with social significance.

1. Group work as an experience in collective living. – The experience of living and working in groups outside the family is one of the characteristics of our complex civilization. Significant as the family is in the intimate personal life of every human being, it is increasingly true today that many values are shaped, many significant relationships developed, many social functions performed in a great variety of associations, play groups, classes, movements, pressure groups, and other types of collective life.

One of the outstanding characteristics of our present society is the tendency for its direction to be determined by group pressures of various kinds. In the realm of political behavior, we have a system of strongly organized power groups which determine by their relative strength and tactics the course of our political decisions. In the economic field, organized investors through corporations, organized sellers through producers’ cooperatives, and, increasingly, organized workers through the labor movement, and the organized unemployed through their newly formed councils are engaged in a struggle for the use and division of our economic resources. In the cultural realm, nationality and racial interests seek organized expression; promoters of all types of cultural fads as well as socially desirable ideas make their impact upon us through organization. This increasing collectivism has distinct results for the individual and for society. For the individual it means that orientation into the real world about him as he matures involves the ability to live and move in a labyrinth of group adjustments, to play his part in club and party and association, to lead and follow, to meet and handle propaganda, to integrate conflicting loyalties, to cooperate at certain points and to exert group pressure at others. In such an age, the right to organize becomes essential to participation in society, and the ability to organize effectively becomes crucial in the struggle for survival. More than that, however, in a society which becomes the resultant of such collective forces, the quality of collective action may be of predominant importance. If that society is to maintain itself and not be torn to pieces by conflict, it must discover how to adjust group pressures effectively, how to allow freedom to organize and at the same time how to achieve some rules of the game between groups, how to develop new ethical standards, and new values to govern our collective life.

As organizational life comes to have greater significance for the individual and for society, the internal quality of the organizations becomes important. What kind of leaders dominate our great associations? How much participation do they allow, expect or encourage from the members? How are their representatives expected to function for them? How do they treat minorities within the organization? On what level and by what methods do they reach collective decisions? Harold Laski in a recent book puts much of his hope for democracy in the Anglo-Saxon countries in the fact that our society is permeated by a web of voluntary organizations in which people are constantly having the experience of democratic practice. It is in such organizations, he says, that we get our schooling in selfgovernment. This is undoubtedly true where such organizations are themselves democratic. In a time when it is largely through such organizations that our society is functioning, the quality of their life expresses and determines in part the life of our whole society.

One of the primary functions of group work is the attempt to build on the inevitably social interests both of children and adults a type of group experience which will be individually developing and socially useful. By providing within the groupwork agency for experience in group management, in co-operation for a common interest, in collective behavior, the agency can help its members to discover how to take their place in this organizational life of the community. What contribution has this function of group work to make to our present social situation? When we consider the thousands, even millions, of young people who belong to the clubs, classes, interest groups, house councils, etc., of our agencies, we can see that we have in fact a great school in collective living going on continuously within the controlled environment of the agency. As they have to select their leaders, run their meetings, lead discussions, arrive at collective decisions, and carry through their projects, the experience of organized life is built up. From it they will go out into the trade unions, the churches, the political parties, the pressure groups of all kinds. It becomes important, therefore, for group-workers to examine their methods and objectives to see what is the quality of collective effort which they are teaching.

Does the group life within the agency provide the experience in democratic participation which Mr. Laski anticipates, or does it teach the type of political manipulation which will later be of use in ward politics? Does it encourage the type of leadership which dominates the group for its own purpose, or that which encourages and develops full participation for common ends? Is the experience in the clubs a training in maturing self-determination, or in dependence upon authoritative leadership? Do individuals learn to be loyal to the group and at the same time intelligently critical? What experience do members gain in the socially effective handling of conflicts within their group or with another group? A group-work agency with its variety of groups, its representative bodies, its conflicts and integrations of group interests, is itself a microcosm of our collective life-both within its groups and also, one might add, in its staff and board. Are its social relations of the sort which we wish to have writ large on the community?

If the group-worker lays claim to a special skill in human relations in and through groups, of what use may such skill be when it has been acquire d in local conflicts between racial groups, in the rising movements of the unemployed including members of group-work agencies, in the need for collective action by the workers in industry, in our neighborhood, or for the legislative purposes of groups of our fellow-citizens?

If the group-worker recognizes in group experience not only an opportunity for individuals to develop personally, but also the characteristic social form of a developing collectivist society, he will be critical of the group experience he helps to provide in terms of its social significance. He will realize that not all collective action is equally valuable for the individuals involved or equally effective in society. He will, therefore, recognize his responsibility as an educator to develop, in so far as he can, that kind of experience in collective living which, when repeated outside the agency, maylead to democratic and effective methods of social interaction. Only so can group work become a part of that schooling in real democracy and in the newer forms of collective effort upon which so much of our future may depend.

2. The social function of cultural activities. – The learnings from group work in most cases consist of more than a training in group relationships and collective action. Most groups pursue some kind of program involving content. The range and quality of such programs are infinitely various, according to the interest of the group, the skill of the leader, and the educational philosophy of the agency.

For the purposes of this paper, I wish to select two aspects of progress-that dealing with the so-called cultural subjects (music, art, dramatics, writing, etc.), and that which touches directly upon social problems. The first type of program forms a large and increasing proportion of the content in many agencies. The recent report on social trends recognizes the growing part which such interests are coming to play in our American scene. The group-work agencies reflect this tendency in an enlarged program in the arts. To what end this multiplying of little theaters, craft shops, writing groups, musical productions, etc? Is their contribution entirely to the development and enjoyment of the individuals participating, or have such activities a social significance as well? Art is always an expression of a culture and in its turn alters the mode of thought, determines the values, and molds the ideas of the society it expresses. What is the meaning of the recrudescence of these interests as leisure-time pursuits and what objectives govern their development within the groupwork agencies?

This question was raised in a somewhat different form several years ago in an article by John Dewey called “Crisis in Culture.” He points out that our period is one in which there are probably more cultivated individuals than at any time in history-persons who are concerned both as producers and as appreciators in the culminating aspects of civilization. Such periods of high personal cultivation can and often do exist simultaneously with a low and unworthy state of “culture as a pervasive manifestation of social life.” They are liable to provide satisfactions for the few, a cultivated elite supported on the backs of the toiling masses, and they usually are transient phases followed by a cultural eclipse. Unless in America we can create a distinctively American culture in which our material techniques and resources are made to serve a high level of the common life we shall never develop the cohesive, unified, and enriched society which we desire. The question which confronts us is: “Can a material industrial civilization be converted into a distinctive agency for liberating the minds and refining the emotions of all who take part in it? It is a childishly futile answer to this question to bring art and aesthetic surroundings to multitudes working and living in the ugliest surroundings, who leave their ugly factories only to go through depressing streets to eat, sleep, and carry on their domestic occupations in grimy sordid homes.” Such an attempt is likely to result in providing a veneer of cultivation for a few who escape from the social reality for short periods only to return to find it untouched by any of the values they have come to cherish. Such a bifurcated life can only mean maladjustment for the individual, and for society a kind of sterilization of values and aspirations which might be serving as a leaven for a different type of society.

Such a challenge has a particular significance to the groupwork agencies. There is little doubt that the cultural activities of the agencies contribute considerably to the increasing number of cultivated individuals. There is still less doubt that these individuals come in large part from those in the population who suffer most from the sordid ugliness of modern industrialism. What is the social effect of such activities? This is a problem confronting all education, but particularly, perhaps, those agencies providing leisure-time occupations to young adults capable of realizing the social implications of their activities. It would seem that group-workers might in several ways turn such activities to account for social as well as individual ends.

In so far as these activities in the arts provide an opportunity for participation, call for creative imagination and ingenuity, develop the unique expression of each individual, they provide a very essential antidote to the mechanical, passive, conforming habits of industrialized communities. In so far, also, as they create an understanding of the great achievements of our race and an appreciation for the more developed forms of art they help to determine the level of values which is an essential part of all civilized life. If the group-work agencies can bring their programs in the arts to the place where these ends are accomplished it will be no mean achievement. In a period like the present, however, is this enough? If group work has a responsibility to society as well as to the individual, can it encourage a process by which art remains an adornment for the few or a hobby for isolated periods of escape from the social scene.

Is it not possible to go a step farther? – Only, it would appear, if the mature participants in such activities are led to see their possible social significance. The experience of creative participation and the passion for the best may become sharp tools of criticism of our present social scene. The contrast between the possibilities of life as envisaged and experienced in aesthetic expression and its reality for many should turn the attention of some, at least, to social causes. Many of the great artists have been social innovators. It is the aesthetes that sit comfortably at home over the teacups. Which are we producing in the groupwork agencies? Can we be content to produce cultivated individualists? Must we not also be prepared to open the way for those who will to see through a personal aesthetic experience the larger issue of a civilization whose basic values are in many ways destructive of that beauty which they desire?

I am not here suggesting that the arts should be used for propaganda purposes put over by the group-worker. I am suggesting, however, two considerations for those carrying on such programs. To what extent is this program encouraging intensified individualism by stimulating ambitions for personal expression and cultivation only-in a period of social crisis which needs the socialized thinking and social intelligence of large numbers of persons? In the second place, if such artistic expression is to tap life at its deepest today, can it avoid the great molten stream of social discontent and social injustice underlying present conditions? This would suggest that if such artistic enterprises are carried on with sufficient understanding and insight they are quite likely to result in social expressions of art, music, dramatics, writing, etc.-not through propaganda from the leader, but because real artistic experience on a mature level in our day cannot escape the social crisis. There is some evidence, I believe, among our best writers, painters, etc., to support this contention. There is already some experience in group-work agencies with music, dramatics, dancing, writing, painting, in which the tragic experiences of modern youth and its social aspirations are finding expression. In our period, it would seem the extension of experimentation along these lines can lead both to individual enrichment and to a real contribution to cultural change.

3. Direct education on social questions and social action. – This brings us, in the third place, to the responsibility of group-work agencies for direct education on social questions. Many groups of adolescents and young adults have in recent years demanded an opportunity for such education in economics, political questions, social issues. Many others can be induced to experiment with programs of this sort if the leaders are sufficiently skilful in exposing them to these questions at the point nearest to their existing interests. If the group-work agency is aware of its social responsibility for the making of citizens it can hardly ignore the opportunity it has. The significance of organizations like ours for citizenship training is fully recognized by the dictators of the totalitarian states. One of the liberties we retain in America is the opportunity to see that such education is carried on in comparative freedom, and not superimposed from above. We should not neglect the opportunity, however, in a time when young citizens are faced with more difficult decisions than those of most previous generations. Upon their sense of social responsibility and their ability to handle the complex social issues of our time may depend the solution of our crisis.

The problem of the group-work agency as it attempts to deal directly with producing adequate citizens for today is an extremely difficult one. Many of the agencies are located in areas with high delinquency rates, in which mere conformity to the elements of honesty and decency have been made impossible for many by adverse social circumstances, such as bad housing, low wages, and unemployment. The problem of salvaging as many as possible from the corrupting influences of the neighborhood is the most obvious and urgent task confronting the agency. This subject of the relation of the group-work agency to delinquency is one requiring more attention than the present paper allows, and more knowledge than the present writer has. In addition to the delinquent, however, the group-worker deals with many who are potentially valuable citizens but who are absorbed in their personal lives, inert and uninterested in the wider life of the community. It is with this group-and also, possibly, with many of the near delinquents-that much can and should be done to stimulate to wider interests and to encourage intelligent participation in the life of the times. If it attempts to assume such responsibility, the agency meets certain problems arising out of current conditions which make training for citizenship particularly difficult. Two of these problems are particularly important to the group worker: 1) the fact that citizenship involves functioning through groups as well as voting at the polls, and (2) the confusion in our underlying ideology.

In a society in which many individuals function, not only as citizens of the state, but as members of an economic organization-and possibly also as members of a racial group and of one or two other cultural groups with various social programstraining for social participation is no simple matter. Most groupwork agencies are located in neighborhoods consisting largely of workers and their families. If their interests are to receive attention in our present society it is likely to be only through strong and effective organization in the trade-union movement. In some cases group-work agencies deal with races or nationalities who suffer from various discriminations and social injustices. Unless they organize to present their needs they are not likely to find adequate remedies.

Social participation today, therefore, requires not simply a relation to the state but an assumption of responsibility through various group relations. It is not enough to vote at the polls. One must also vote in the trade union or the nationality society if one is to function at the crucial points in our present society. At the same time, if such groups are not to tear society to fragments their members must integrate their loyalty to the part with a larger consideration for the common good. The problem of competing loyalties is one of the major problems of modern citizenship. It cannot be ignored by discouraging membership in pressure groups, since that leads only to exploitation by the stronger groups. It must contain a conception of differentiated participation which will include loyal membership to the partial group and a realization of the common good of all. This is a difficult achievement.

The group-work agency is in a peculiarly strategic position in this matter. As its members become adult they begin to have contacts with these organizations through which group pressures are being exerted. Many of these are local in character and known to the agency. It has, therefore, an opportunity to help its members find their place in those organizations which adequately express their group interests and to interpret to them the function of such groups in modern society.

Anyone interested in undertaking education on social questions today finds himself confronted also with an even greater problem. Students of our society generally agree that it suffers from a crisis in ideology. We no longer know where we are going. As Professor Whitehead of Harvard has said, “Mankind can flourish in the lower stages of life with merely barbaric flashes of thought. But when civilization culminates, the absence of a co-ordinating philosophy of life spread throughout the community spells decadence, boredom and the slackening of effort.” We are now in one of those periods when a new synthesis is required to give direction to social effort, and thereby meaning to the individual life, and the major task of our generation may be to begin at least the development of that synthesis.

Education always takes place against a backdrop of such an accepted ideology or systems of social objectives. When that backdrop is shattered by social convulsions, education is uncertain, insecure, pointless, or reflects within it the conflict of ideas.

What does a group-work agency do under such circumstances? It can, of course, avoid the issue by filling up the time of its members by individualized hobbies, by cultural activities leading to personal cultivation only, by athletics, or other programs. But if in addition to these, which are no doubt valuable in themselves, it assumes any responsibility for training in modern citizenship, it must consider its own assumptions as to the type of society it desires. Some of the agencies doing group work either have adopted or will adopt one of the current ideologies, for some this will be status quo, for others, one of the newer social philosophies. For such the issue is comparatively simple. For the moment at least, knowing what kind of society they prefer, they can conduct their social education on those assumptions. Most of the agencies, however, either have no accepted social philosophy or have within their staff and membership great diversity of opinion. For such the answer would seem to be the encouragement of a wide range of intelligent discussion of all the various proposals by their participants. If a new ideology is to be formed, if the crisis in our culture is to be solved, it can only be done satisfactorily if large numbers of our citizens understand the issues and can make up their minds after free discussion. The opportunity for such discussion, therefore, is badly needed, and its provision may be one of the great contributions of the private group-work agencies.

The times demand intelligent and courageous education on social issues.  The group-worker may contribute to such education at several points. (I) In the first place, he can encourage and develop social interests within his own groups. This takes skill and insight, but it can be done. These will often culminate in the group participating in social action as it sees fit. The educational process in this line cannot stop short of experience in social action if it is to be effective. (2) He can help members of this agency, as they mature, to find their place in the organized life of the community, in those social action groups through which their collective interests are finding expression. (3) He can see that provision is made in the agency for the free discussion of the basic economic and social conflicts which are so crucial to any adequate solution of the present crisis.

It may seem to many that we have here been making unwarranted claims for group work in its relation to society. Such claims are protected somewhat by the assumption stated at the beginning of this paper, that we are here dealing with potential rather than actual contributions-with that qualification it would seem fair to say that we have in our hands a great opportunity, the leisure of millions who voluntarily organize themselves for activities within our doors.

Whether or not we wish it or are aware of its implications, these activities will affect the social attitudes of the participants in ways which are vital both to themselves and to society.  This paper is an attempt to point out a few of the ways in which group work may contribute to social change in essential and significant respects. Whether or not it will do so in practice will depend upon whether we, as group-workers, adopt educational objectives which recognize social needs as well as individual growth. For the fulfilling of such objectives the group-worker will require not only a set of techniques-valuable as these arenot only a skill in program making or in organization, but, in addition, a social philosophy and the courage to turn his philosophy into action. Only so can he become an adequate groupworker-or for that matter, what is perhaps more important, an adequate citizen of a new age.

Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Welfare – 1935. The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web 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 web site for this resource is:

(pp 393-405)

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