Academic journal article Social Work

Situational Approaches to Direct Practice: Origin, Decline, and Re-Emergence

Academic journal article Social Work

Situational Approaches to Direct Practice: Origin, Decline, and Re-Emergence

Article excerpt

Beginning in the 1890s, major social and economic changes steadily began to affect every aspect of life in the United States. Social workers, social reformers, community activists, and social planners were caught up in waves of speculation and activity as they sought to determine the best ways to develop, restructure, and guide social programs and even society itself (Trattner, 1999). One offshoot of this tremendous burst of concern and energy was the attempt on the part of a small number of social workers and social thinkers to develop both a "scientific" as well as a "social" approach to social work direct practice. Foremost in this effort were Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, Ada Sheffield, Eduard Lindeman, and Mary Parker Follett. Either working together or under each other's influence, they pioneered efforts to forge a new "situational" approach to social work practice, a method that used evidence derived from practice experience combined with the latest findings of the social sciences to craft interventions designed to improve the lives of those needing assistance.


Development of the situational approach in social work was initially driven by the emergence in the late 19th century of various concepts of social reconstruction inspired by developments in the physical sciences, biology, and sociology (Franklin, 1986). One of the offshoots of these new ideas was the philosophy of pragmatism, which emphasized process and experimentation instead of fixed qualities and mechanistic explanations (Franklin; James, 1967; Thayer, 1973). A key idea in the pragmatic approach is that human situations, or "contexts in which human intelligence, purposes, and action affect what is experienced" (Thayer, p. 113), are both the starting point and basis for all human learning and development. Such ideas especially appealed to social workers, who found all their work heavily influenced by the environmental and social contexts in which their clients were engaged.

The concepts of "situation" and "situational practice" were widely used in the social work literature until the end of the 1920s, when they fell into temporary abeyance following attacks by the increasingly influential psychiatric wing of the social work profession (Siporin, 1972). Proponents of a more psychiatrically oriented approach dismissed the sociological perspective in social work direct practice as "futile" (Robinson, 1930) because they felt it failed to get "beneath the purely situational aspects of an individual's problem" (Robinson, p. 52). To achieve this they recommended instead the "accepting [of] the psychiatric point of view as the basis of all social case work" Robinson, pp. 54-55, compare Field, 1980).

Beginning in the 1960s, interest in situational thinking in social work revived, largely because of theorists and researchers such as Siporin (1972, 1975, 1978), Meyer (1976), and Germain (1984). Central to this renewed interest in situational approaches is the concept of transactional relationships--social interactions characterized by negotiation and exchange (Safran & Muran, 2000), a basic perspective also well known to the pioneers discussed here.

To better understand the emergence of the situational approach, I re-examine its beginnings and its subsequent development in social work practice. I begin by considering the work of Jane Addams.


Jane Addams (1860-1935) remains, by all accounts, the most famous and influential social worker this country has produced. Born in rural Illinois of well-to-do and politically prominent parents (her father was a state senator), Addams was educated privately both in this country and in Europe. After witnessing grinding poverty in Europe, she returned to this country to found Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago. Through her intense involvement in settlement work and as a champion of a wide variety of public and political causes, she became first nationally and then internationally known. …

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