Critique of the Received Definition of Social Work

Trouble in Paradise

The definition of social work depends upon the source.  Some associations of social workers (e.g., the National Association of Social Workers (NASW); the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW)) use terms like those found in this statement from the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW):

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.

The NASW’s concept of a mission statement for the social work profession refers to “the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  Comparably grand notions also crop up in several of the 13 “core purposes of social work” reported by Sewpaul and Jones (2005, p. 219).  One such purpose, they say, is to “Address and challenge barriers, inequalities and injustices that exist in society.”  Another:  “Enhance stable, harmonious and mutually respectful societies that do not violate people’s human rights.”

The impression emerging from such rhetoric is that social work may ethically be defined in terms of ideals that are vague and/or unattainable.  Consider the notion of challenging inequalities in society.  Here’s an example.  Suppose a majority of women find tall men more attractive than short men.  There’s some inequality there.  Are we going to change that?  If so, how, and who will be funding this effort?  Or how about the idea of a “stable” society:  does that include a freeze on population and a prohibition upon profitmaking?  Because as long as people keep having babies and making profits (not to mention myriad other processes of human existence, ranging from the turmoil of childhood to the anguish of death), there will most certainly be instability.

Perhaps there is a degree of perverse safety in defining social work in terms of vague and unattainable goals:  nobody expects you to actually achieve them.  It’s like the ambition of converting the world to your religion.  It’s not going to happen, so you can claim to be busy at it and yet you can relax.  Converting everyone who lives on your block to your religion — now *that* would be hard.  Likewise, can you imagine trying to bring about enduring equality, justice, harmony, and stability throughout your entire family — to the level of, say, first cousins?  It could be a lifetime’s work.

Schools of social work, and associations of social workers, have a vested interest in making social work sound grand and glorious.  Let me put it this way:  if you want to get your janitors excited about their job, and if you want to inveigle others into hiring on for the same, you don’t dwell upon the part that involves cleaning the toilet.  Instead, you characterize it as facilitation of world-class organizational systems within an industry-leading milieu.  If you want people to become social work students and then to graduate and become dues-paying members of your social work association, that is, you impress upon them the solemn significance of such affiliations.

This sort of marketing begins with the very origins of the profession.  In my own four years of master’s and doctoral study in social work, I have had to read and listen to dozens if not hundreds of laudatory references to Jane Addams.  Meanwhile, though, I have encountered virtually no mention of the oppressive and even murderous roles that social workers played in, say, the Nazi Holocaust (Bergen, 2009, pp. 62, 104, 128) or the Nisei Internment (Park, 2008).  There have been some serious criticisms of more recent dishonorable behaviors in this profession (e.g., Specht & Courtney, 1995; Margolin, 1997) — but, again, that sort of thing was not covered, not even in my Ph.D-level social work classes.

Besides being unrealistic, favored definitions of social work also tend to be accumulative.  That is, the foregoing definitions indicate that social work is the great collection of all of the different things that social workers do.  If social workers are working with kids, that’s social work; if kids give them a headache and they are instead working as office managers in nonprofit organizations, that’s social work.  If they are LCSWs serving the wealthy, that’s social work.  If someone can make a good argument for why fixing cars or teaching Sunday School is social work, why, then of course those are social work too.  It’s not like in law or medicine, where you have some kind of legal system or bodily system that serves as your focal point.  It’s just whatever, whenever, wherever.  Social work is what social workers do.  Get your degree and become your own unique part of the definition.

Sadly, there are people in other sorts of professions who do many of those same things.  Under the present scheme, they are our competitors.  Example:  I’ve got an MBA.  I know what kinds of things I had to study to get that degree.  In their social work courses, my macro-oriented MSW and Ph.D. social work classmates have barely been introduced to a fraction of that material.  A joint degree, the MSW plus an MBA or MPA, could make a lot of sense.  But generally, the MSW, by itself, as a competitor against an MBA or MPA, is ridiculous.  If you want serious training in professional management, you do not belong in a typical social work program.

Likewise in the policy area.  Social work education can give you the silly idea that policy is a big playpen where you get to stand up and mouth off, and people are supposed to take you seriously.  You just blast away at your pet targets, and then you wait for them to hang their heads and beg your forgiveness.  From what I’ve seen, even in one of the top schools, social work education grossly fails to train students to conceptualize, articulate, and defend controversial viewpoints against sincere, intelligent attack.  I’m not suggesting that every social work student interested in policy should earn a joint degree in law or political science.  I’m just saying that, if the educations and experiences of policy-oriented social workers don’t train them to develop and present their arguments knowledgeably and persuasively, in opposition to lawyers and political scientists, they can expect to be sidelined if not unemployed.

The situation seems to be much the same in other parts of the social work realm.  Psychiatric social workers must compete against psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses, within medical environments that can feel like foreign turf.  Social workers who want to work with couples have to compete against marriage and family therapists and against counseling psych graduates, both of whom tend to get better and more specialized training because their curricula are less burdened with redundant drivel mandated by the CSWE.  On the research side, there are social work faculty, teaching at the doctoral level, whose teaching abilities and subject-matter knowledge compare poorly against those of good high school math and science teachers.  With prayer, doctoral students taught by these geniuses might someday succeed in proposing and conducting good research.  I do believe in miracles.  But where my faith fails, it is once again the poor who get screwed, as their putative rainmakers and miracle workers turn out to be frauds.

The point is not that social work education is a complete joke.  The point is that the expansive definition of social work leaves the empire dangerously overstretched, when the barbarians are at the gates. Simply put, if social work students are training to be all things to all people, then they will tend to be noncompetitive for many specific purposes and, as such, should expect that they and their profession will tend toward obsolescence.

Realistic (and Real) Social Work

These remarks have suggested that, if social work is to be defined by its mission, that mission should be phrased in specific and realistic terms.  In one approach, the mission might be presented as a target for the half-century mark (i.e., 2050), and might be tracked via achievement of decennial goals in the interim.  This would seem to represent an improvement upon the never-never land of present definitions of the social work profession.  Yet even this approach could entail a degree of unreality.  Social work will not be attaining any such goals — indeed, attainment of such goals would itself be a sign of failure in a larger sense — if what is really needed is awareness of this profession’s appropriate roles and ambitions within the context of its peers and competitors.

It is not social work, by itself, that will be feeding the world’s hungry people or responding to the world’s mental health needs.  It is social workers — plus psychologists, plus farmers, plus a host of others — who will be achieving such goals.  Farmers are better at growing food; MBAs are better at finance.  That is, some aspects of those kinds of pursuits will be better performed by people who are not social workers.  A definition of social work that is not only realistic but also appropriate will have to take account of the roles that various kinds of participants can and should play.

Social work, as I am sketching it out, has to be a profession whose priorities unfold via informed and collegial engagement with all sorts of “outsiders” who share our propensity for a motley assortment of do-gooder impulses.  The profession had best be defined, then, as having a commitment to the detection of various social ills and to the structuring of collaborative solutions to, or ameliorations of, such maladies.

In this light, the mission of social work is not to conduct a direct assault on social failings and abuses; it is to keep learning about such problems and to keep seeking out the needed resources.  Counseling psych people and MBAs are not our competitors, in this view; they are the ones who have the requisite skills.  If there aren’t enough of them, we may have to get in there and fake it — to provide direct service, that is — until either we have developed the expertise or, preferably, have found someone who was trained for exactly that purpose.  (I say “preferably” because you won’t be looking at the big picture, and juggling all of the balls that need to be juggled, if you are mired down in bookkeeping, in client counseling, or in other specialist tasks.)  The role of the social worker is, generally, that of the collaborator, the resource seeker, the persuader; it is not that of the accountant, the psychiatrist, or the nurse.

These remarks imply that (speaking, here, in general terms) licensed clinical social workers are not really social workers.  And of course they aren’t.  They made a good start — they got a degree in social work — but then they moved sharply away from everything that the profession is about.  Regardless of whether you use the high-falutin’ definitions of the profession cited above, or prefer my own developing conceptualization here, the fact is that you won’t be doing much for the poor if your work is oriented toward clients who have mental health insurance sufficient to pay your fee, and you won’t tend to be collaborating with allied professionals for the purpose of overcoming some form of oppression if your work day is filled with 50-minute individual client sessions.

I’m not alone in saying this.  Social workers have voiced a lot of perplexity with the professional distortions that have resulted from students’ strong drift toward using social work as a way to get psychologists’ credentials on the cheap.  Not that I blame students for wanting to do that; I have had some of those same thoughts and plans myself.  But we don’t let engineering students tell the faculty what engineering really is, and I’m not sure that social work should be completely different in that regard.  (If you want documentation for this paragraph’s claim that a number of social work academics have expressed dismay at the distortions resulting from this mental health preoccupation within the profession, stick around.  I’ll either come back here and add the citations, next time I stumble across them, or my next article will be published, sometime this coming winter.  I’m pretty sure that that article and/or the one I published in 2008 do document some such expressions of dismay.  I just don’t have time to investigate it right now.  Right now, this post is something of a distraction from — more accurately, a footnote to — a different issue I want to get back to.)

These remarks have negative implications for the NASW and other organizations of social workers.  If such organizations pursue an agenda of maximizing their membership, and hence their power and resources — as one would expect a rational, survival-oriented organization to do — then they will be susceptible of corruption, to the extent that they prove willing to endorse every version of social work that marches in the door.  Without developing the thought further at the moment, one can expect that there is the profession of social work, with its do-gooder orientation (whether defined in lofty or realistic terms), and then there is the NASW; the interests of the two are not the same; and granting the NASW carte blanche to speak on behalf of the profession as a whole is potentially detrimental to those whom we claim to serve.

I was planning, at this point, to offer a start of an alternative definition of social work.  But as I draft its first few paragraphs, I begin to recognize some interesting things that need to go into that definition.  The present post has become long enough, so I’m going to stop here and stick that material into another one, and this link will work when it has become well-formed enough to share with you.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  •  On April 22, 2015 at 1:21 PM

    As a B.S.W student I found this article extremely disheartening. If your goal was to make people feel dissatisfied with their education or career, Congratz! you succeeded. I don’t know if you are writing from Canada, but in N.Y. getting your LCSW is definitely not “the easy way” to become a psychotherapist. You need 3 years of supervised, full time, clinical experience, post M.S.W. You have to provide three years of your documented supervision to the state for approval and then you have to sit for you LCSW exam. This is much more rigorous than the requirement of a Master’s degree to be a MFT and Almost equal to the amount of years spent learning to be a Psy D; the difference being they do this 3 extra years of learning in their PHD program and an internship and Social Workers learn it while working in the field. I’m shocked as a Social Worker yourself, that you basically ripped apart and insulted the whole profession.

    • Ray Woodcock  On April 22, 2015 at 7:23 PM

      Justine, you can learn more about my own experience in social work education, and the basis for my remarks, by browsing the posts in this blog and in some of my other blogs. I do have a substantial amount of experience in social work education.

      It is widely understood — by social work academics, among others — that the MSW is a cheap route to licensed clinical mental health practice. The post titled Prospects for Clinical Social Work Education provides more information.

      On your specific example, the New York State webpages for psychologists and for LCSWs demonstrate some sharp differences. Those pages indicate that psychologists are required to complete a doctoral degree entailing three *years* of full-time study, or two years plus a year of internship or applied research, while social workers must complete only a master’s degree entailing roughly three *semesters* of study plus roughly a semester’s worth of internship experiences.

      Those educational programs also tend to differ in the quality of the education, and of the literature studied. As detailed in other posts in this blog, schools of social work widely offer virtually open admission. Many social work courses are a joke, even at some highly ranked schools. Meanwhile, GRE scores and other credentials of successful applicants to psychology PhD programs tend to be quite competitive.

      The New York State webpages confirm that LCSWs need three years of supervised experience, while psychologists need only two. Here again, however, there is a question of quality. The “Prospects” post cited above discusses quack practices and research-aversion among LCSWs. Unless your supervisors are well trained, you could endure 20 years of supervision, and you still might be doing more harm than good.

      I am sorry that your school of social work did not tell you these things. They make good money from their selective presentations of themselves. Unlike your professors, I am not getting paid for this — and no, I derive no special joy from upsetting people like you. But, upset or not, people deserve to understand what they are getting into. I hope more of them learn these things before, not after, they make that huge and often unwarranted investment.

      Having come from a school of social work, you know only that side of the story. For a more informed perspective on your remarks about ripping apart and insulting the profession, I suggest you read the post titled Genuine Social Work: Definition, Mission, and Purpose.

      I appreciate your willingness to present your views and to support them with some evidence. I would be interested in hearing a follow-up after you have read the posts cited above.

  • jacqi  On August 20, 2014 at 8:57 AM

    can any direct me towards a piece of research that critiques either social workers in schools or if there is a critiques for school social workers in school.

    • Ray Woodcock  On August 20, 2014 at 10:29 AM

      Jacqi, I’d be glad to help, but I’m not sure what you mean. Could you try searching within this blog, or reviewing the Archives, and see if any other posts provide a partial answer?

  • victor  On August 11, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    as student, I can relate to everything that you posted in this blog. More so, it’s going to be useful to help me push for a change in our department.

  • Ray Woodcock  On April 4, 2011 at 5:02 AM

    Thanks for your kind words. Agreed on generalist study and macro analysis.

    You might be interested in an article I recently published.

  • dakia  On April 4, 2011 at 1:01 AM

    I found this post very interesting. As a student in a “generalist” (whatever that means) program in Canada, I feel a profound confusion amongst the faculty and the students about what social work really is. We have endless (and fruitless) arguments about clinical vs. community social work. There are many self-identified people in the program that see the MSW degree as a license to practice psychotherapy.

    What distresses me the most is that there seems to be a general antipathy towards any kind of rigorous policy or macro analysis. It’s sad because I feel this is where social work as a discipline is at its strongest. The policy analyses social work can offer, blending both solid quantitative and qualitative data, provides the best guidance for social programs that support, engage, empower, and change. I studied at the undergraduate level in a Public Policy department, and the heavy emphasis put on pure quantitative data, without much context or mandate for social justice, seemed to provide policy formulations that better served governments rather than people. Social work is uniquely positioned to advocate for change, and offer solid data on efforts to achieve that change.

    It’s really unfortunate to me that there’s a continuing focus on clinical social work as a legitimate aim of the discipline, when it clearly does not meet the core values (as fuzzy as the may be) of the NASW.

    Your blog is interesting, keep writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: