Genuine Social Work: Definition, Mission, and Purpose

In January 2011, I began writing a paper to address a fundamental problem. There appeared to be a gaping chasm between the ideals of the social work profession and many of the things that people were doing in the name of social work. It seemed to me that, if the ideals were to survive, it would be necessary for social workers to acknowledge that gaping chasm, and to make certain decisions about the kind of profession they wished to have.

This post presents that paper, which I submitted to Social Service Review in spring 2011. The paper was rejected. A separate post discusses that rejection. The version presented here contains a few minor revisions of the May 2011 version.


A Problem of Definition
The Purpose of Social Work
Professional vs. Genuine Social Work
Elucidating Genuine Social Work
Genuine Social Work and the Social Work Profession


* * * * *

The Definition, the Mission, and
the Purpose of Social Work,
and of the Social Work Profession

Ray Woodcock (2011)


The social work profession is distinguishable from genuine social work. The latter includes helping efforts undertaken by many professions that have followed in the footsteps of Jane Addams. As a superset of helping professions, genuine social work has a purpose, a definition, and a mission that significantly exceed those to which the social work profession, by itself, can plausibly lay claim. Such divergences entail differences in foci, and in the kinds and levels of resources brought to bear. Improved accuracy in the profession’s necessarily limited statements of purpose, definition, and mission, when compared to those of genuine social work, may encourage salutary changes in education and practice within the profession.


It can be difficult to define a term. On the most general level, a dictionary definition typically provides a concise statement of its meanings. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2009) defines social work as “work of benefit to those in need of help or welfare; esp. such work provided by trained professionals for those with family or social problems,” and the Merriam-Webster Free Online Dictionary (2011) styles it as “any of various professional activities or methods concretely concerned with providing social services and especially with the investigation, treatment, and material aid of the economically, physically, mentally, or socially disadvantaged.”

It is usually possible to find more elaborate explanations of what a term means. Such elaborations can be found in specialized dictionaries and also in encyclopedias, articles, and other books. These vary in their mix of reporting versus advocacy: they may seek just to explain more fully how the term is actually used, or they may include views on what it should mean. For instance, in The Social Work Dictionary, Barker (2003, p. 408) offers three different definitions of social work, the first of which is his own: “The applied science of helping people achieve an effective level of psychosocial functioning and effecting societal changes to enhance the well-being of all people.” The two other definitions he cites do not echo that social work is an “applied science.” It seems some social workers find it to be more of an art (Meinert, Pardeck, & Kreuger, 2000, p. 9). In Barker’s definition, moreover, the science being applied seems to be two – psychology and sociology – raising the question of whether social work should be defined as essentially two separate fields, like psycho­logical social psychology and sociological social psychology (see Stryker, 1977, p. 145). The point of the example is that the notion of social work as an applied science seems to be an injection of a debatable ideal.

It may be appropriate to treat statements of aspirations, intentions, or ideals as belonging more in the category of mission than definition. The two tend not to be the same. A mission is a task or undertaking for which a person or other entity is destined or designed, or toward which he/she/it has a strong aim, ambi­tion, or vocation (see OED). It is possible to have a definition without a mission. For example, people can say what the United States is, without being able to specify its mission. A definition, describing what is presently the case, tends to differ from a mission’s emphasis on a desired future. Thus, the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2008) begins with a mission statement emphasizing “particular attention to the needs and empower­ment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” That seems to be a statement of what NASW thinks social work should become focused on, as distinct from the clinical concerns that actually dominate social work practice (see Reid & Edwards, 2006). Likewise, when the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW, 2004) states that the mission of social work is, in part, “to enable all people to develop their full potential,” it is going far beyond what the profession is presently doing, or capable of doing.

Williams (2008, pp. 96-98) observes that, in the corporate world, mission statements are typically written for consump­­tion by employees, customers, and other stake­holders; that they can guide management in strategic decisions and resource allocation; and that they may include information about customers, employees, products, markets, tech­nology, desired image, ethics, uniqueness, and strategies for survival and growth. For nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike, a mission statement may be especially likely to serve a valuable function when it is focused and is developed through a process that involves and satisfies internal stakeholders (Bart & Baetz, 1998, pp. 847-848; Kirk & Nolan, 2010, pp. 474-477). Hence, even a relatively concise mission statement may address multiple interests of divergent constituencies. It tends to be a carefully refined text. As such, it differs from the simple purpose of the entity, as that term is used here. It is not necessary to read the mission statement of Toyota (2011) to know that it is a carmaker. It is not defined as a carmaker. It is typically defined descriptively: it is a Japanese corporation, of a certain size, with a certain history, and so forth, that makes cars (e.g., Pew Center on Global Climate Change, n.d.). The carmaking purpose, though central to its place in the world, is only part of its definition.

A Problem of Definition

Fundamental disagreement about the nature of social work has persisted from the early years of the profession (e.g., Shoemaker, 1988, p. 186; Boehm, 1959, p. 40). Since about 1920, the profession seems to have swung toward the psychological pole in fat years, when there has been money for individualized clinical treatment of millions of clients, but toward the socio­logical pole in lean years, when there has been a forced focus on masses of needy people (see Reid & Edwards, 2006, pp. 468-475). In this interpretation, since America has had a mostly fat century, social work has been oriented toward the psychological.

That propensity has provoked some notable objections that social work should be recognized as being a matter of much more than clinical practice (e.g., Specht & Courtney, 1994; NASW, 2008). Gibelman (1999, p. 300) observes a contradiction between the theory that the profession is committed to social justice and the fact that it is producing large numbers of clinicians who serve and/or want to serve middle-class clients. Gibelman herself does not attempt a definition, asserting rather that “Any attempt to determine the boundaries of the profession is likely to be both arbitrary and unsuccessful” (p. 303). Similarly, Popple (1985) suggested that “attempts to develop a unified definition of social work have failed . . . and are in fact futile . . . [because] social work is not a unitary profession” (p. 569).

It is not clear what the purpose of such a profession might be, other than to employ social workers. As noted by Wakefield (1996a), other major professions do tend to have “a defining purpose” (p. 5). That purpose, in practice, may not be quite as simple as the ostensible purposes of “health, legal justice, and knowledge” that Wakefield (p. 5, echoing Flexner, 1915) attributes to the medical, legal, and educational professions, respectively; but it is true that these professions do tend to be about one general kind of thing, as distinct from another. Wakefield (pp. 12-13) does not himself have anything so lucid for social work. He vaguely suggests that “Social work, by definition, is concerned with certain kinds of interactions between the individual and the social environment,” but does not specify what “definition” he has in mind (see Wakefield, 1996b, p. 198). As he admits (pp. 185, 210), the social work profession has been trying but failing to define itself clearly since at least 1929 or, more likely, since at least 1915 (see Morris, 2008, p. 40; Karls & Wandrei, 1992, p. 80).

The Purpose of Social Work

Rather than begin with an attempt at a dictionary-style definition, there may be another way to develop a concept of social work. One might start by identifying its purpose, and then use that as a key element within a definition (see Wakefield, 1996b, p. 189).

But does social work have a purpose? Flexner (1915, p. 586) notoriously concluded that it does not – that one reason why it fails to qualify as a profession is that it tries to do too many things. In his view, a profession must have “an absolutely definite and practical object” (p. 579) – a specific purpose, as the term is used here. He gives the example of the physician, who preserves and restores health, and the architect, who designs and builds buildings. Wakefield (1996b) concedes the point: unlike these examples, he considers social work to have “purposes,” plural (p. 192). If that were the last word, it would be hard to answer Flexner’s implicit question. The teacher teaches, he might have said, but what does the social worker do?

Actually, though, that is not a difficult question. It is answered on the first day of school. Social work is a helping profession (GADE, 2003, p. 1). The teacher teaches; the social worker helps. Implicitly, help will not be helpful if it is not needed, but one can make it explicit: the purpose of social work is to provide help as needed. What the teacher teaches, or how the social worker helps – these are good questions, but they do not change the basic purpose. Tradition­ally, teachers teach children, especially in subjects like reading and writing; but that is not the only kind of teaching they can do, and the same is true regarding traditional clients of social work and the traditional kinds of services provided. Teachers are not the only ones who teach, nor are professionally credentialed social workers the only ones who help; it is more a question of bringing in the professionals when specialized training seems to be needed.

One might like to claim something more pointed and powerful about social work. It may seem more dynamic to assert that one attends to healing, or teaching, or justice, than to say simply that one helps. One could indeed say something more focused and impressive, if social work were a more focused affair. But as Green and McDermott (2010) observe, that is not the case. Social work “was cobbled together from a wide variety of interventions, programmes and functions” and thus enjoys a “rich diversity” (p. 2418). That diversity of origins hardly necessitates weakness, though. There is, in fact, an advantage in the bald assertion that social workers help: it reserves the option of helping in new ways, as new needs unfold. Nursing, counseling, and other helping professions will not be training paralegals, to cite one conceivable example; but social work could do so, not as an odd sidelight, but as part of a coherent effort to enhance its capabilities with respect to certain key foci (e.g., social justice) already embraced by the profession. Such an effort would be consistent with the impetus to help, and would be justified by the palpable need for help in law-related areas (see Woodcock, 2011a).

Admittedly, it may be necessary to educate the profession and society in the claim that social workers help. But initial awkwardness should be no more of a deterrent than in any other area where social change occurs. If the matter had been seen clearly in 1915, perhaps Flexner would not have overlooked the obvious truth that this really is what social work is all about; perhaps the profession would have responded by emphasizing its helping role. “Ironically,” says Gray (2010, p. 1804), “much of social work’s critical discourse has sought to distance professional practice from its caring beginnings” (emphasis in original). In Flexner’s day, it was only beginning to be recognized that helping, like other tasks in an industrial society, may be professionalized rather than being left informally to clan and community (see Schwartz, 1996, p. 505, interpreting Durkheim, 1893, e.g., p. 137).

This orientation toward preserving the diverse strengths of social work under a helping rubric is opposed to those who urge that social work should suppress if not discard valuable parts of its heritage in order to become more like other mental health professions (e.g., Reid & Edwards, 2006, p. 482). If the profession takes that path, it becomes vulnerable to competition on that single dimension, where it may not always fare well (see Woodcock, 2011b). In the extreme case, it is conceivable that the search for efficiency may someday lead to consolidation of mental health professions, not necessarily to this profession’s advantage.

Dictionary definitions (above) may be paraphrased as suggesting that social work is work for the benefit of people who are disadvantaged or otherwise in need – or, more simply, that social work helps people in need, or as needed. In other words, those dictionary definitions seem to be statements of the purpose of social work. A specialized dictionary might try to elaborate on this by using descriptive or other forms of definition (see Blackburn, 2008), so as to give a better sense of who social workers are, what they do, and why they do it.

Needs vary according to circumstance, and evolve over time. Social workers will disagree as to the priority of a given need, depending upon such factors as their political views and their clinical or non-clinical orientations (Woodcock, 2010). The question of whether social work should be more oriented toward needs prioritized by psychology or, rather, by sociology is primarily a question of resource allocation. It is similar to a debate about whether society needs math teachers more than it needs English teachers. Identification of a purpose that supersedes particular sub-missions thus positions the vocation as a relatively permanent part of society.

Professional vs. Genuine Social Work

If teachers started out with a dedication to teach all subjects, but then decided not to teach certain subjects, those subjects would be neglected unless someone else stepped in – in which event teachers would no longer monopolize teaching. This is what happened in social work. Jane Addams started out by providing help across a broad variety of needs, including recreation, housing, public health, advocacy, and unionization (Brieland, 1990; Addams, 1910, 1917; Platt, 2000, p. 205). Similarly, Flexner (1915, p. 584) defined social work as

any form of persistent and deliberate effort to improve living or working condi­tions in the community, or to relieve, diminish, or prevent distress, whether due to weakness of character or to pressure of external circumstances. All such efforts may be conceived as falling under the heads of charity, education, or justice.

By the late 1920s, however, social work had substantially narrowed itself into a profession of micro-level casework, and casework had become heavily psychiatric. Since then, there have been periods (e.g., the Great Depression, the 1960s) when societal turmoil has pushed the profession back toward its settlement house roots, but a micro-level, frequently psychological orientation has been the norm (Reid & Edwards, 2006, p. 472; Reisch & Andrews, 2001, pp. 113, 159). Hence, as in the case of the teachers who would not teach, social work has been the helping profession that, in many ways, would not help.

So others have had to step in. Public health is an example. The public health work of Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and Mary Brewster (see Reisch & Andrews, 2001, p. 35; Hawkins, Hayes, & Corliss, 1994; Duffy, 1992, p. 213) prefigured a “close partnership” between Johns Hopkins and Mary Richmond, around the turn of the century, featuring discus­sions about “how to merge social work and medicine” (Gehlert, 2006, p. 6). Even today, Schild and Sable (2006) observe that the social work and public health professions “share many of the same values, theories, and practice methods,” including a commitment to enhance social and economic justice as well as a primary focus on “oppressed, vulnerable, and at-risk groups” (p. 71). Unfortunately, social work ceased to be a major participant during the formative years of the public health profession (Duffy, p. 252). When compared against the psychological knowledge that social work has prioritized, social work study of, involvement with, and practice in the area of public health is quite limited (e.g., Burghardt, 2010; Figueira-McDonough, 2007; NASW, 2009, p. 17; 2006, p. 10). Public health has gone from being an important aspect of social work, as Jane Addams understood it, to being a minor part of professional social work today.

As with public health, so also with other fields. The reinterpretation of social work as mainly a mental health profession discouraged the development of credentials in and/or affiliations with public administration, recreation, criminology, and other public service fields that originated in or were shaped by the settlement houses, as noted above, or that emerged during the Progressive era (e.g., Stivers, 1995, p. 527; Collins, 2003, pp. 24-25; Ehrenreich, 1985, p. 66). Hence, opportunities were missed. People found other ways of organizing to achieve the broad purposes that are still echoed in the mission statements, though not broadly supported in the actions, of the contemporary social work profession.

In effect, social work itself has become an ideal. The mission statements – even the parts relating specifically to e.g., the needs of the poor, never mind those that talk about “all people” (NASW, 2008) – invoke the dream of an Addams-like breadth of endeavor that simply does not exist within the present-day profession (see Woodcock, 2008, p. 579). The mission statements’ grand goals would be difficult to achieve even if social work had become a major force across the range of needs that Addams tried to address. The pursuit of such goals today requires a coalition of professions.

It is necessary to ask, then, how one should understand “social work.” There is the option, on one hand, to construe it as meaning only the social work profession, and as continuing to mean exactly that, even if the profession’s market niches are narrowed or ulti­mately fore­closed (e.g., by shrinking budgets; by falling behind evidence-based competitors; by neural implants for mental health). Since social work professions vary among nations (Dixon, Weiss, & Gal, 2003), this option means that the definition of social work will vary likewise. That conclusion is not consistent with social work literature and dialogues generally. Such a conclusion is particu­larly awkward when one nation’s social workers participate in atrocities considered appropriate in their country but deplored elsewhere (e.g., Barney & Dalton, 2006).

On the other hand, there is the option to understand “social work” as having a fairly consistent meaning independent of its construal by any particular nation’s social work profes­sion. Social work originally entailed (and, in the mission statements, still entails) a willingness to address all sorts of needs. This broad interpretation focuses on the work that needs to be done, not on whether some particular organization or other collection of individuals is inclined to do it. The concept is that, when the American social work profession became preoccupied with individual psychosocial phenomena and turned its back on other major areas of helping, it essentially invited other professions to step in and become unacknowledged partners in genuine social work. In this interpretation, much of the practice of social work is now being done by professions other than social work, just as much of the practice of psychology is now being done by professions other than psychology.

To be sure, not every professional social worker today works in psychologically oriented areas of practice. Yet similar conclusions arise elsewhere. Social work became known as the profession that transfers money to the poor, and also as the profession that takes babies away from their mothers (Brieland, 1990, p. 134; Michael, Renkert, Winey, & Massey, 2010). It largely ceased, that is, to be the representative of the lower classes to the powers that be, and became instead the government’s face to the lower classes. Certainly it can be helpful to persuade the government to fund positions that tend to the needs of the downtrodden. But when such positions begin to represent and impose the interests and mindset of the entity that writes the paychecks, they can turn into tools of oppression (see Margolin, 1997).

There is, then, a solution to the quandary (above) regarding the divergence between social work ideals and the clinically oriented realities of the profession. The solution is that the social work profession, so called, has strayed from the practice of genuine social work (Specht & Courtney, 1994), and that much of genuine social work is being done elsewhere. In other words, after nearly a century of tending to ignore or down­play important aspects of social work, it is rather late to ask whether the profession, in America, is much more than a producer of clinicians (Reid & Edwards, 2006, p. 482).

Elucidating Genuine Social Work

Several factors narrow the broad purpose of providing help as needed. First, it may be emphasized, genuine social work is not a matter of doing everything. Consistent with the example set by Addams, it is a matter of doing what is needed. The world’s health aides, account­ants, decorators, and physicists are already taking care of a vast number of needs. The question for genuine social work is, what is being left undone?

That question implies some skepticism toward the market economy. The market neglects some needs entirely, and it serves some poorly – by too few service providers, for example, or at too great a cost, or at a low level of quality. Examples of such market failings include, but are not limited to, issues of hunger, unemployment, and environmental degradation. Relevant interventions can include attempts to alter laws, attitudes, resource limitations, and other factors that prevent the market from meeting actual needs. Such attempts may have to be undertaken once, repeatedly, or continually, and may involve the efforts of small or large numbers of people.

Going against the market can be expensive. It can mean that people doing genuine social work will be underpaid, or must be hired or subsidized by the government; it can require in-kind and financial donations. Resources tend to be insufficient to meet the spectrum of needs of people around the world whom the market disserves. It is predictably necessary, in the practice of genuine social work, to prioritize and economize among needs, and to maximize resources.

An effort to maximize resources may call for attention to market distortions that skew the allocation of resources (e.g., Foellmi & Oechslin, 2010, p. 15; Fletschner, 2009, p. 628). For instance, most people appreciate a good meal, but the market should not report – as it does, using money as its measure of value – that a steak dinner in a rich nation is worth more than the amount needed to save a life in a poor one. In its effort to maximize resources and to match them to needs, genuine social work may thus call for education; disclosure and reporting of accurate information; and advocacy against corporate welfare, exploitation of raw materials suppliers, currency manipulation, and other distortions in an unfair or otherwise skewed market.

As the dictionaries (above) show, one can define the social work profession in terms of its day-to-day activities, without reference to any such ambitions. By contrast, genuine social work, as described here, emphasizes those ambitions. It can be defined as the dynamic, energetic attempt, by countless people in many fields, to provide help as needed, up to and beyond resource limits – to leave no stone unturned in the effort to shape and enlighten relevant processes of resource creation, allocation, and usage. In other words, the social work profession is all about having a job in which one is described as a social worker, whereas genuine social work is all about actually doing social work.

The U.S. has changed greatly since Jane Addams’s day. Consumer protection organiza­tions, federal agencies, and a host of other entities and individuals have followed in her footsteps, addressing important aspects of her vision of social work. Many abusive practices of her time are now countered by private litigation and/or prosecution. Protections against discrimination, protections in the workplace, protections against substandard housing – these and many other reforms have changed, and in important ways have ameliorated, the concerns that she addressed. Of course, times change; an area of need once addressed may again slip into neglect.

There are numerous ways to participate in genuine social work. People can obtain training in a profession that seeks to provide help as needed. They can take other jobs, outside of helping professions, and can redirect those jobs in helping directions. They can avoid taking jobs that exacerbate need. They can take time out of their day, or after work, to participate in relevant efforts, as volunteers or otherwise. They can supply funding or other resources.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the agencies, organizations, and individuals just mentioned, there remains a great deal to do. It is still possible – indeed, for millions it is necessary, even in the U.S. – to live in fear for one’s safety, to be essentially forced into unsafe housing, to go without adequate health care, to subsist on an unhealthy diet, to live without access to inviting opportunities for exercise and recreation, and otherwise to experience profound and in many instances life-shortening deprivation. These are the sorts of needs that genuine social workers, in all walks of life, will continue to address.

Genuine Social Work and the Social Work Profession

People with degrees in social work would have to be included among the individuals named in a cataloging of social reforms over the past century. But others – economists, for example, and engineers, and lawyers – have been more prominent in the sorts of reforms just mentioned. The clinical turn of the social work profession has distracted it from other, more pressing needs, at the expense of people in need, and also of the profession and its members.

This is not always appreciated within the profession. There seems to be a vague belief that social work somehow becomes a part of reforms by defending them after the fact. For instance, the profession now proclaims its solidarity with black people. Yet while the battle for civil rights has been a major social issue in America since the mid-19th century, social work largely continued, right up through the 1960s and beyond, to take a paternalistic, out-of-touch stance that was rejected by blacks who demanded real change (e.g., Zeitz, 1964, p. 309; Stringfellow, 1966, pp. 145-146; Walker, 1968, p. 397; Walker, 1963, p. 231; Caplan, 1970, p. 60; Margolin, 1997, p. 118). Women’s rights, amazingly, is another example. Accord­ing to Kemp and Brandwein (2010, pp. 344, 348), casework-oriented female social workers in the early 20th century generally supported traditional gender arrangements and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. Even in the 1970s, “Social work’s institutional response to the women’s move­ment was incre­mental, piecemeal, and – as has often been the case with social work and social change – relatively tardy” (p. 352). Likewise, social work is now loud and proud on gay rights. Yet that is no longer particularly risky. That movement has been underway for more than 40 years but, again, social work was not among its early supporters (Poindexter, 1997, p. 608).

In short, an orientation toward bold action on behalf of people who need it, at the time when it is needed, is not characteristic of professional social work. The profession “is not widely regarded as a leader within the larger global human rights movement” (Healy, 2008, p. 735). Historically, social work has resisted significant social change even at times when there was no serious alternative, and it appears inclined to continue in that path (see Reisch & Andrews, 2001, pp. 227-235; Ferguson, 2008, pp. 120-136).

The clinical turn itself has probably been the profession’s primary macro-level intervention over the past century. By flooding the market for psychological services with MSWs (Stoesz & Karger, 2009, p. 108), schools of social work have met a need for mental health practitioners, have forced down the costs of mental health services, and have contributed to needed changes in related laws (e.g., Peterson, Reid, & Allen, 1999, p. 77; Frank & Glied, 2006, p. 85; Goodheart, 2010, p. 190; Tomes, 2008), hopefully without severely reducing the quality of services to clients (see Baker, McFall, & Shoham, 2009, p. 67). The clinical turn may or may not have been the most effective intervention, and the field of intervention may or may not have been the one where the social work profession would have been best advised to invest the bulk of its efforts over these decades, but some good does seem to have come of it.

Given the risks of career dissatisfaction and eventual burnout (e.g., Siebert, 2005), social work education could help to increase the numbers of social work students who go on to satisfying careers in which they come closer to providing real help for real needs. A particularly important contribution may be to insure that clinically oriented applicants have real-world exposure to nonclinical areas of practice, since such exposure seems to inspire some students to recognize that mental health work is not the only, or necessarily the best, way in which they can address needs (Han & Chow, 2010, pp. 214-215; Gutheil, Heyman, & Chernesky, 2009, p. 60).

None of this is intended to deny the financial realities that face the individual student, however idealistic, who wonders how to make a living while making a difference. Nor is there any doubt that the profession is the home of many who have gone on, after graduation, to dedicate themselves to identifying and addressing vital needs. But on the macro level, the profession’s long-term priorities have diverged profoundly from those of genuine social work.


In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce (1911) defined “lawful” as “Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction” (p. 186). One could proceed, in like spirit, to equate social work with whatever social workers do, good or bad. As in Bierce’s definition, though, such an approach invites subtle resentment of those who portray themselves as keepers of the keys, but who do not necessarily live up to their mandate. Actions taken and views advanced by social workers have in fact gone very wrong, at times, and are often at risk of empirical refutation. If physicians are not the only ones who deal with physical health, and psychologists are not the only ones who deal with psycho­logical matters, it is not clear why one must consider social workers the only ones who deal with social work.

Among the many areas of need recognized by Jane Addams and, subsequently, by other social workers, the social work profession has indulged a long-term preoccupation with providing direct services to individuals and families, especially in the form of clinical mental health services. Where the clients have been of lower socioeconomic status, the profession has often reversed its loyalties, representing the interests of higher classes via the government. To a considerable extent, the profession has removed itself even further from its original purpose, cutting the lower classes out of the picture entirely and positioning many of its members as providers of clinical services to the middle class instead.

These moves have left other professions to fill a substantial void. Those professions, along with many individuals acting on their own or in connection with other groups, have taken very substantial steps to do so. Thanks to their efforts, the living conditions of people in middle as well as lower classes are significantly better than they were in Addams’s time.

Under such circumstances, while it might be easy and/or traditional to assume that social work is what professional social workers do, the more reasonable conclusion is that social work – referred to in this article as genuine social work – is the province of many contributors, all bearing a bit of Addams’s legacy, who collectively provide help as needed across the range of individual and collective experiences in society.

It has therefore seemed advisable to work toward statements of the purpose, the definition, and the mission of genuine social work, as distinct from those that have been advanced with respect to the profession. The purpose of genuine social work has been understood, here, to be the provision of help as needed. The definition of genuine social work seems to entail diligent efforts to identify and use resources to alleviate and, where possible, to eliminate especially the most urgent and/or important human needs. The mission of this profession of professions is, presumably, to achieve the net sum of its constituent professions’ respective missions.

These conclusions have significant ramifications. Among other things, accuracy in the profession’s claims for itself, and fairness in its acknowledgment of other professions, may encourage improved cross-disciplinary collaboration and better adjustment of the profession to the achievements of its peers and to the market in which they compete. Truthful statements of purpose, definition, and mission touted by various social work organizations will help to steer would-be social work applicants to professions that are more suited to accommodate their particular aspirations. The mere prospect of such developments may stimulate salutary review of the place of clinical work within the profession, leading to greater clinical focus and competence and/or to better mediation between clinical and non-clinical areas of practice.


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