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The Professional Basis of Social Work–1915

The Professional Basis Of Social Work

A Committee Report By Porter R. Lee, New York School of Philanthropy, Chairman

Note: This Is a Committee Report Presented on May 17 at he Forty-Second Annual Session of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction: Baltimore, Maryland May 12-19, 1915

Amid the confusion that arises from attempts to define social work or to mark off its field from others, three conceptions of the social worker are distinguishable. Each may be briefly stated.

The first conception would include any person in any form of activity whose work is guided by a particular social purpose: the promotion of the common welfare. A good statement of this conception is to be found in Mr. Devine’s book, The Spirit of Social Work. He dedicates the book “to all social workers“; “that is to say, to every man or woman who, in any relation of life, professional, industrial, political, educational or domestic; whether on salary or as a volunteer; whether on his own individual account or as a part of an organized movement, is working consciously, according to his light intelligently, and according to his strength persistently, for the promotion of the common welfare-the common welfare as distinct from that of a party or a class or a sect or a business interest or a particular institution or a family or an individual.” The social worker in this sense is the socialized individual. Any person is a social worker if his work has conscious social purpose, although his vocation may be any one of the historic forms of human activity.

The second conception includes as social workers those who are engaged in so-called preventive work, that is to say, those whose efforts are directed toward social legislation, toward the development of the social point of view in the general public, and toward readjustments in social institutions and social habits. A distinction is sharply drawn between this group and those whose work is the treatment of the sub-normal. From this point of view social workers are investigating industrial conditions, reducing infant mortality, fighting tuberculosis, restricting child labor, promoting social legislation, and influencing political platforms. Those whose chief concern is with the treatment of the subnormal are not here classified as social workers unless they contribute also to these so-called preventive campaigns. Social work in this sense is not concerned with those who are disabled by adverse conditions of life, but with the adverse conditions.

The third conception of the social worker, on the other hand, identifies him primarily with efforts in behalf of the subnormal. To one holding this conception, the social worker is he who endeavors through case-work to re-establish disabled families and individuals in a routine of normal life. This does not preclude interest in social legislation and other forms of preventive work, but these are not the first tasks of this social worker. When social work as a generic term first came into general use leaders in work for dependent families, neglected children, the defective, the delinquent, and the destitute sick comprised almost the entire group to which it was applied. However much new enthusiasms and new knowledge may have added to the program of social work, to most case workers, I fancy, their own contribution is still its foundation.

Whichever of these conceptions command the greatest measure of support from those who call themselves social workers, the proponents of all of them agree in speaking of social work as a profession. If it is or is to be a profession, has it definite characteristics which will admit all those who claim the name, or which will automatically exclude some? The announcements of this conference describe this as the greatest gathering of social workers on the continent. Our membership includes public relief officials, institution officers, play leaders, parish workers, charity organization secretaries, probation officers, placing out agents, nurses, settlement workers, medical social service workers, prison heads, friendly visitors, truant officers, matrons, teachers of special groups, members of boards of directors, tenement inspectors, public welfare directors, social investigators, executives of agencies for social legislation, industrial betterment leaders, those who work with immigrants, factory inspectors and-to avoid omitting any-many others. Is the tie which gives coherence to this group a professional one?

Profession undoubtedly is given an even greater variety of definitions than social work. There are the professions of medicine, law, teaching and the ministry. The designation profession is also applied to acting and baseball. Ordinarily however, as Mr. Flexner has told us, we use the word profession as connoting a dignified calling in which men, carefully trained, seek to reach certain definite ends, important for the well-being of the race, through recognized and proven methods. Social workers, when they think of themselves as professional men and women, incline to ally themselves with doctors, lawyers, teachers, and clergymen rather than with other vocational groups.

Up to the present time social workers have been classified as social workers because they have been engaged in certain occupations. That is to say, two men of approximately equal natural ability and general preparation may be choosing a career at the same ‘time. One enters a bank, the other becomes secretary of an anti-tuberculosis association. Immediately the latter is recognized as a social worker and the former is not. Differences of opinion as to who is a social worker therefore are really differences of opinion as to what is social work. That is to say, the title has been attached to the character of the occupation and not to the qualifications of the worker. This is entirely legitimate as a method of classification; but it is clear from Mr. Flexner’s paper that it is not the basis of professional distinctions.

When we speak of social work as a profession we are making large claims for ourselves. One does not become a doctor by assuming the title or even by prescribing iodine for the sore finger of a friend. Professional standing implies expertness. Expertness is not the result alone of interest in a problem, or even of attempts to solve it. Ordinarily expertness implies responsibility and power gained by hard work which other persons, including other kinds of experts, do not have. If social workers are to justify their claims to professional standing it will not be chiefly because they are working to promote social welfare, but because they are qualified to promote social welfare, and to promote social welfare in ways which other professions cannot.

We assume that human welfare, both individual and general, is based upon definite laws some of which science has discovered and which men have applied in their various forms of activity. This conscious activity to promote welfare, based upon scientific discovery of new possibilities of richer, healthier, more wholesome life, has been differentiated and standardized in various ways. It crystallizes in the professions of medicine, law, the ministry, and teaching. It crystallizes in various technical vocations and trades. It crystallizes in commercial activities. New forms of professional service such as engineering, new trades, new developments in commerce and industry, appear as experience and scientific experiment demonstrate their value. As a result of changed standards, modified practices and new forms of activity which new knowledge and experience bring about, there has appeared within a generation a new combination of old ideals, human needs and modern knowledge. To historic forms of organized activity designed consciously or unconsciously to promote human welfare-this generation has added the cluster of more or less related activities which we call social work. A large part of the effort put forth in its name implies beyond a doubt only the sort of enlightened citizenship which we defined as the first conception of social work.

No organized activity, however, can claim professional standing until it rests upon scientific knowledge, and has developed definite methods of using that knowledge to reach its goal. When technical processes within a profession have become established those who seek to enter it must not only work towards its particular goal of achievement; they must master those processes first. These processes change continually in any profession. The treatment of the sick today in many respects has little in common with the treatment of one hundred years ago. From day to day and from year to year, however, the change is slight; and it is through the mastery of established processes first that the development of new processes becomes possible. In other words, the technical skill of the practitioner, as Mr. Flexner has pointed out, is one of the bases of any profession.

To those who believe in the professional possibilities of social work the mission of such enlightened citizenship as, we defined under our first conception is primarily to give a new ideal, the ideal of social welfare, to every kind of activity-to the older professions, to artisans, to legislators, and to those engaged in commerce and industry. The real conception of the social worker is of a person technically trained and otherwise equipped to deal with certain problems which cannot be solved or even understood without such training and equipment. Fully appreciating the supreme importance of spiritual values in social work, this committee, nevertheless, respectfully suggests that the chief problem facing social work is the development of training methods which will give it this technical basis. This report is designed to emphasize the importance of this technical basis and to indicate its nature.

In the opinion of this committee, social work, strictly defined, deals with human welfare as affected by the economy of social life. To exercise this function requires a technical skill certain forms of which we do not believe to be implied in the technical skill necessary to the pursuit of any other calling. The tests of this technical skill we believe to be two: the diagnosis and treatment of disabilities so far as they are influenced by the social routine of the disabled person or family, and the determination of the general effect upon human welfare of different phases of the economy of social life. Further discussion may make these statements mean something.

The first problem for the technical skill of the social worker is the diagnosis and treatment of disability. Overwork, unemployment, low wages, bad heredity, ignorance, illiteracy, unsuitable education, sickness, vice, eccentricities of temperament and unstable character are definite handicaps to efficient living. Some are the products of others. All are the products of the economy of our social life. In behalf of the family or individual presenting some one or some combination of these disabilities we may apply simultaneously or successively the trained skill of the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, the clergyman, or other technically trained persons and, in some cases, where the problem is simple, the result will be the development of a full measure of efficiency in the person or family so treated. In others it will not; why? Because the power to diagnose the effect of these disabilities upon human nature, human physique, human char acter and human efficiency implies technical skill some forms of which are not an essential part of the professional equipment of any of these other callings. This suggests no mere gap in the resources of a community desiring the welfare of its members, which social workers, seeking a niche of their own, may decide to fill. It is conclusive evidence that this power of social diagnosis is a distinctive and essential contribution to organized human efficiency and one for which other professions, as well as the needs of men, already are calling.

If we could say that we had already established the content of a training which would give this technical skill there would be little need for this report. We have, however, only made a beginning. Technical processes are always derived from experience. Standard methods in any form of work were experiments at one time. Repeated over and ever, now unconsciously, now consciously, their universal validity is finally recognized. By studying their experience case workers dealing with the socially disabled have established some elementary principles. They have learned that there are certain methods which are more likely than others to yield the information necessary to an understanding of the disabilities of their clients. They have learned also that, given this knowledge, certain combinations of education, medical treatment, personal influence, opportunities for self-maintenance, restraint or relief are likely to lead to the removal of these disabilities to a greater or less degree. They are learning also that certain of their clients can never be improved by any of the methods now known to us.

We have, therefore, in the process of determining the general degree of welfare which any given client has reached, laid the foundation of a technique. This process-case work —includes the assembling of his health history and present physical condition, his heredity, the degree and quality of his education, his work record and other evidence of vocational ability, his reactions upon his fellows, his ideals and other indices to his capacity, moral character, and general standard of living. In this process, a knowledge of the sources whence this information must come and the way to use them is essential. Once this “degree of welfare” in the case of any given client is determined, the process of case work becomes one of adjustment between the client and his environment. There is no limit in sight to the degree of precision, the clarity of judgment, the ingenuity or the scientific knowledge which this case work process Inay absorb. The complexity of the task of inter-weaving the factors of employment, recreation, education, moral influence, and material environment with the temperment and powers of one’s client in a routine which will bring out his best is too obvious to need more than suggestion; the implications of the task are as far-reaching as the boundaries of human power.

This problem of adjusting individuals and families to their environment and environment to their needs is not confined to work for the subnormal. It is seen wherever conscious effort is made to develop the efficiency of human beings: in the school room, in the factory, in the charitable society, on the playground, in the institution. The process of meeting it is a technical process requiring a high degree of trained skill. How far the development of this skill can be carried we do not know. We only know that we are steadily acquiring greater skill; ‘and that we see every day more clearly how indispensable to social welfare is the contribution of the case worker.

The technical qualifications of the social worker have another and equally, fundamental phase. How does the economy of social life affect human welfare? In determining how it has affected a particular individual or family, the social worker, as we have seen, must build up a diagnosis from the social history which his skill enables him to secure and interpret. But does the economy of social life affect all individuals alike? Obviously not. That its effect upon groups of individuals, upon communities and nations can be determined and controlled is a fundamental assumption at the basis of all our social legislation and other preventive activities, and at the basis also of our case work.

Social legislation is designed to promote social welfare, by which is meant the welfare of the individuals in the mass who compose society. What determines the particular laws which we try to have enacted? Political expediency, in part, of course; but, more fundamentally, it is our knowledge of the evil effect upon human beings of certain phases of the economy of social life. We believe child labor to be bad for children and therefore bad for society. With more or less effort we gather certain facts and convince a community and its legislature that child labor should be abolished. Similarly we get a certain degree of compulsory education based upon knowledge of the effect of ignorance and illiteracy-of sanitary control, based upon knowledge of disease and its causes-of recreational facilities, based upon knowledge of children’s need for play.

Superficial knowledge regarding the general aspects of certain of these adverse conditions every person, certainly every social worker, has. The farther we go, however, in readjusting our social institutions and habits, the less adequate does this superficial knowledge become. It is no light responsibility to urge social action which will radically alter institutions long established in the economy of social life. If, however, it can be shown that such institutions have a bad effect upon human welfare, then such action is justified. Freedom of contract, the law of wages and other cherished institutions with solid achievement to their credit in the history of human progress were all threatened by the statute Which limited the working hours of women. Who could say that social welfare would be better safeguarded by the new policy than by the old? Nobody, with any certainty, until there was. compiled in behalf of the statute an irresistible array of evidence of the bad effect of long hours upon women and therefore upon society. Here were a compilation and interpretation of facts regarding the effect of one detail of the economy of our social life upon human welfare which, until our knowledge increases, cannot be challenged.

Every phase of the environment in which human beings live has its effect upon human efficiency, human physique, human nature; congestion, overwork, long hours, housing, education, temptation, noise, recreational facilities. In the wise direction of our activities toward social welfare, precise knowledge of their effect is essential.

How is this knowledge to be acquired? We believe this, also, to be a technical process. We have conceded this, at least to the extent of recognizing the experienced social investigator as a part of our trained equipment. Beyond a doubt the gathering and use of statistical material, the understanding of general social conditions through a study of the individuals and social groups affected by them-all of those processes which are suggested by the social survey and the special social investigationare being standardized to a degree which will make proficiency in them a technical acquirement. It is through the application of these processes to living and working conditions that knowledge regarding the effect of our social economy upon human welfare is to be acquired.

It may be thought that in outlining the technical qualifications of the case worker and of the social investigator we have defined two types of the social worker instead of one. We believe, on the contrary, that both forms of skill should be developed in the training of any social worker, whether he be preparing for case work or for social investigation. Certainly a case worker who attempts to deal with a family in which employment is a factor, needs to be trained to see the effect of modern working conditions upon human beings. Every social disability which he finds in a particular individual has implications extending far beyond the weakness of this particular client; and these larger implications may well modify his program in behalf of this client.

On the other side, since social welfare can be interpreted only in terms of the welfare of many individuals as individuals, the power to understand the forces which make individual welfare is essential in a worker whose field is the promotion of social legislation or the readjustment of social habits. If the time ever comes when the social worker is recognized as a social worker because of the skill he has, rather than because of the job he holds, it will be when he has been trained in these two fields.

The steps we have taken in acquiring a technique in case work and social investigation are only a beginning. If for no other reason than this, we would be loath to see any exclusive assumption of right to the title of “social worker” by those who have taken these steps. Other phases of social work have developed a technique which time may show to be as fundamental and distinctive as these. Certainly the problems of administration, of coordination of effort, of publicity, of the preparation and passage of social legislation call increasingly for technical equipment. We confess, however, that at present these are forms of technique which seem to us essential in the same way to the practice of business and of other professions and are not distinctively the technique of social work.

Moreover, if we confine the title of social worker to trained case workers and social investigators, we rule out most of those who have thus far given prestige to the title. We are far from asserting or believing that this should be done. In our campaigns for social welfare we cannot dispense with the socialized individual whose contribution is a point of view rather than a technique. Technical attainments alone will never make a social worker. Social ideals and a sympathetic understanding of the human soul in adversity are as indispensable now as ever. In dwelling upon the importance of technical attainments, we are merely voicing our belief that their development has lagged behind our growing knowledge of social problems and our emotional reactions to them. We do believe that the social worker of the future must be a technically proficient person. Just how far in the future this type of social worker may be we do not know. In the meantime, many of us have never had the advantage of technical training other than that given by grim experience. We need not question our status because a committee of the National Conference of Charities proposes for the social workers of the future qualifications which we could not meet. We should be disloyal to our calling if we did not believe that its standards of achievement are to rise. Standards rise only as they are raised by the better qualified workers of a new generation. That has been the history of every standardized human activity and it will be the history of social work.

We do not suggest that technical training is the sole necessary part of the equipment of prospective social workers. How many other factors such training must include has already been indicated in our session on the Curriculum of the Professional School. It may well be that social worker as a distinctive title fits more appropriately the growing army of socialized individuals interested in the common welfare than it does this type of trained worker. If so, a new designation for those who meet the technical requirements outlined in this report will be evolved. As we compare an interest in social welfare with the trained ability to promote it, it is the distinction and not the name that is important to those who believe they are working in the pioneer stage of a new profession.

In conclusion, it may not be amiss to point out that it rests largely with social workers, themselves, whether their calling rise to the plane of a profession, or sink to the level of a trade. “I hold every man a debtor to his profession,” said Bacon, in the introduction to The Maxims of the Law, quoted by Dr. Henry S. Pritchett. “That debt,” says Dr. Pritchett, “devolves upon him who enters one of these great professions the obligation to fit himself for it, the obligation to conserve the honor and advance the cause of his profession, and above all to remember in his practice his duty to the state as well as to himself. It is only through the observance of these ideals that a profession can remain a profession.”

In a sense of responsibility to society, social work as we know it today was born. Regarding the effect of the economy of social life upon human welfare and the way to control it, we are probably no more benighted than was the human race regarding the body of man and its afflictions in the early centuries of the medical profession. As the bad effects of industrial processes, living conditions and community habits have been discovered and understood, social workers have been fearless in making them known. If they have been less conspicuous in suggesting remedies-although a lower death-rate, better education more recreation and greater protection for workers and for the weak testify to the soundness of their remedies-it has been because remedies must evolve slowly out of thoughtful experience. Just here is perhaps the greatest responsibility of social work to the public and to itself. The collection and interpretation of facts in a large body of knowledge is part of the foundation of any profession. Anatomy, physiology and kindred sciences are fundamental in medicine; the history of jurisprudence, legal principles and legal processes and other studies in law. These bodies of knowledge were not discovered fully developed, but were built up out of experience by doctors and lawyers interested in the advancement of their professions. Social workers find economics, biology and psychology essential to their own preparation, but beyond these there is need for the facts of social economy scientifically interpreted. Social work will grow from an occupation to a profession only if its practitioners can develop this body of knowledge out of their experience and acquire the power to apply it. When this committee considers, on the one hand, how easily social workers assume the mantle of expertness and, on the other, how long and how painstaking is the process by which the older professions have come to authoritative leadership they could wish for social workers of this generation, as part of their endowment nothing, more earnestly, than the spirit of humility in the face of their unparalleled opportunity.

Source: Official proceedings of the annual meeting: 1915, p. 596: National Conference on Social Welfare. Collection: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings











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