The Complete History Of Social Work

The history of social work is very interesting whether you intend studying social work as a career choice or not. Once could say that the history of social work started way back when Constantine I legalized the Christian Church, which then set up homes for the aged, orphanages, hospitals, and poor-houses. By 590 AD, each parish had some sort of system whereby consumables were circulated and distributed to the poor, and in the absence of any sort of government department to deal with this, the church continued to do this through the 18th century.

Unfortunately, although the church had the best of intentions, their offerings were in the form of charity, which was seen to be a sign of piety, via various forms of direct relief, such as money, clothing, food and other material goods, instead of trying to attempt the root cause of poverty. This of course meant that although the poor received help for what they needed from day to day, they could never get out of the cycle of poverty, and it was not until 19th century that the history of social work as we know it began in earnest.

People Making Contributions

Elizabeth Gurney Fry

Elizabeth Gurney Fry And The History Of Social WorkWhen looking at the history of social work, we will find that the first person to make significant contributions in attempting to change things was Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845), also known as `the angel of the prisons`, with the work she did in attempting to reform the British prison system. Betsy Gurney was a Quaker from a rather well-off family, and the Quakers had strong ideals about equality and peace. They were active in a range of philanthropic projects, including being amongst the early opponents of the slave trade. Betsy began her good work at an early age, when, at the age of 17 she set up a primary school for poor children in her own home. She took care of lonely and sick neighbors  and in 1813 started campaigning for prisoners rights, upon seeing the dire conditions in which women and children were imprisoned. Many of the reforms that Elizabeth Fry campaigned for were incorporated into British law in 1823 and she has been honored in various ways, including having a building named after her at the School of Social Work at Stanford University.

Thomas Chalmers

Thomas ChalmersThe next important figure in the history of social work was Thomas Chalmers, a Presbyterian preacher and an assistant to a professor at St Andrews, Scotland’s first university. He was ordained as minister the parish of Kilmany in 1803, and moved to Glasgow where he became minister of the Tron Church in 1815, where after he became minister of the church and parish of St John. Chalmers believed in helping the poor to help themselves and strongly dissuaded the poor in his parish to rely on public assistance. Chalmers found that this type of help dissuaded individuals from finding work and becoming self-dependent; he favored local solidarity and mutual support in the neighborhoods. He felt that with support and feeling that they were included in the community the poor could work and be modest while enlarging their own responsibility. He divided his parish into several districts and linked a deacon to each one of them whose duty it was to make frequent home visits, establish a friendly relationship with the poor and monitor their complete home situation, vis a viz material context, friendships, family ties, etc. as a basis for care and support. He also organized decent primary education for children, and weekend schools where they could receive additional secular and religious education. By doing this he helped the poor to help themselves, and his concepts were taken up by many, including Charles Loch who established the English Charity Organization Society, and Joseph Tuckermann who founded the Boston Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, 1835. His concepts are still very relevant to social work today.

Octavia Hill

Octavia HillThe next individual who played an important part in the history of social work was Octavia Hill, a teacher and artist, who began her work amongst the poor of London in 1864, in what is now known as the borough of Marylebone, one of the most expensive places to live today. Hill’s focus was the home, as she firmly believed that no matter how small a home was, if it was well-maintained and light and airy and the person had neighbors that cared, it would make a huge difference in their lives. From housing she also branched out into creating gardens and playgrounds for the children, and even built a small clubhouse behind her own house in which she hosted weekend activities for women, children, and older people. Hill used money from the art critic John Ruskin to buy three houses in what is now central London, which she rented out, collecting the rent herself and discussing tenants’ problems with them. These housing projects became an attractive investment, and eventually other women were trained to undertake a similar role to Hill’s, enabling them to act as social workers. Octavia Hill is significant in the history of social work because she rejected charitable alms, electing instead to provide help without charity. This approach was designed to strengthen the self respect of tenants and to allow them to trust in their own capabilities, which is what we call empowerment and resilience today. Hill was a founding member of the Charity Organization Society set up in 1869. She also began to campaign to protect the natural environment in and around London in 1875, and helped found the National Trust in 1894, which still plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of parks, stately homes, and landscape in the UK.

Arnold Toynbee

Arnold ToynbeeArnold Toynbee is another name that features in the history of social work for his proposed schemes for ‘university extension’, whereby students in deprived communities could apply and ‘extend’ their course material through volunteer work. This model received plenty of support in the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford, and it gained international recognition. Toynbee’s ideological ally, the Anglican priest Samuel Barnett, labelled it Practical Socialism, and after Toynbee’s early death in his twenties, he continued to promote the concept through the establishment of university settlements. These settlements provided these students with the opportunity to work to enhance the living conditions of the poor and also live among them for at least a year, with the aim of strengthening the links between scholars and the residents of urban slums, and achieving improved results in terms of mutual learning and social improvement. The philanthropist Charles Booth lived in Toynbee Hall whilst he worked on Life and Labor of the People in London, a study that mapped poverty in London at the end of the 19th century and influenced both social research and the fight against poverty for many decades thereafter.

Jane Addams

Jane AddamsJane Addams is an important name in the history of social work for her settlement work in North America in 1889. Another Quaker, Addams was inspired by her visit to Toynbee Hall to develop a similar initiative in Chicago. She started Hull House with her friend Ellen Starr, in Near West Side, a neighborhood with many European immigrants, which rapidly developed into an action center with education for adults, room for children, culture and a focus on social progress. Addams was also famous for engaging in political action aimed at establishing new laws to protect the poor. She assembled a group of strong, committed young women who became the female face of the democratization movement in the Progressive Era and professionalized the contribution of women in social work. Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley, amongst others, reported on the effects of concentration of different ethnicities and their living conditions, about child labor and also about labor circumstances in the sweatshops. Their approach of ‘mapping’ contributed to the emergence of the famous Chicago school in urban sociology with key figures like George Robert E. Park and Herbert Mead. Addams succeeded in establishing a specific basis for American Social Work, which raised international interest, and Julia Lathrop later became the first director of the Children’s Federal Bureau (1912).

Joseph Rowntree

Joseph RowntreeRowntree is another name that should be remembered as part of the history of social work, even though the surname is more commonly known with regards to chocolate products such as Smarties or Kit Kat before their company was taken over by Nestle. Joseph Rowntree was also a Quaker, and was deeply concerned about the social problems of his time and became an active philanthropist committed to social reform. Rowntree’s main goal was to eradicate poverty and the other social evils, and he transferred his wealth in three trusts in 1904, which are still independently working towards reaching his goals. One of them, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, does many research projects which inspires social work in the UK and elsewhere. Seebohm Rowntree, Joseph’s son, initiated a house to house survey of York which he published in as Poverty, a study of town life in 1901, and various other studies.

Mary Ellen Richmond

Mary Ellen RichmondMary Ellen Richmond is another important name in the history of social work, and is known as “the founding mother of social casework.” She wrote a book called Social Diagnosis in 1917, which constructed the foundations for the scientific methodology development of professional social work. She dedicated her life to the modernizing and professionalizing of care for the poor from 1889 onwards, starting her career at the Charity Organisation Society in Baltimore, which was a US branch of the organisation Octavia Hill established in the UK. She was director of the charity department of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York, an influential fund supporting social science research, from 1909 until her death. Richmond systematically developed the content and methodology of diagnosis in the period around 1910, developing what she termed ‘social diagnosis,’ using her famous circle diagram which visualized the correspondence between client and environment. She identified six sources of power within the household, in the person of the client, in the neighborhood and wider social network, in civil agencies, and in private and public agencies that are available to clients and their social workers. Richmond gave social work clients a voice for the first time, opening up a new and fruitful area of social research which is still a cornerstone of social work today.

Alice Salomon

Alice SalomonThroughout the history of social work there are other individuals such as Alice Salomon, a key figure in the development of social work in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century; Orwell, Griffin and others wrote various accounts of poverty and injustice; Robert Holbrook and Bill Wilson who started Alcoholics Anonymous; William Henry Beveridge, the architect of the welfare state; Carl Rogers, responsible for the earliest forms of humanistic psychology and person-centered therapy; Jane Jacobs, an urban visionary; Erving Goffman, known for his concept of total institutions; Sherry Arnstein, who published the article: A ladder of citizen participation for which she is still remembered and respected; Michael Lipsky for his concepts of street level bureaucracy and discretionary power; Paulo Freire for his approach known as conscientization which means ” the ways in which individuals and communities develop a critical understanding of their social reality through reflection and action.”

Ann Hartman

Ann HartmanOthers who form part of the history of social work are Joel Fischer, who argued that “The issue of effectiveness of practice always must be of paramount concern to the profession and cannot be brushed aside”; Ann Hartman who began her career in 1959 as a caseworker for the Summit County Child Welfare Board in Akron, Ohio and worked as a social work researcher and educator at the University of Michigan faculty after completing her PhD. She made two related contributions to social work that still influence today’s practice: the introduction of the ecomap or ecogram, and the genogram as simple drawing techniques that enable social workers to depict social and family relationships, and the second being the fact that the focus of clinical practice should not be solely on the client but should also include his or her social network.

Ida Maude Cannon

Ida Maude CannonIn the more modern history of social work, Dr. Richard Cabot, a senior physician at Mass General, hired the first social worker in 1905 to provide social work services in the outpatient clinics, and hired Ida Maude Cannon to jointly organize the nation’s first hospital-based social work program. Ms. Cannon was named Chief of the Mass General Social Service Department, the first organized social work department in a hospital, in 1914, and the social work program was further developed under her tenure.

Each one of the aforementioned individuals and many that came after them all contributed to what we know as social work today; each of them brought their own insight and research to the table, informed by their own experiences and building on what had come before. From churches, to philanthropists, to missionaries and volunteers, to government departments and state boards, all of them played a part in the history of social work, and many of them still do.

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