Academic journal article Social Work

The One Hundred-Year Debate: Social Reform versus Individual Treatment

Academic journal article Social Work

The One Hundred-Year Debate: Social Reform versus Individual Treatment

Article excerpt

After 100 years, one would think that professional social workers would agree about the basic goal of the profession; yet any social work conference, journal, or even professional dialogue is still filled with disagreements about that goal. We still hear "social work's basic treatment modality is clinical practice and its primary goal is individual treatment" versus "Social work's historic roots and major goal is social reform."

The NASW Code of Ethics states that the goal of the profession of social work is "to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society" (NASW, 1996, p. 1). Thus, NASW provides an inclusive goal with a statement of focus on the disadvantaged.

That goal seems clear, comprehensive, and noncontroversial, right? Wrong. Even given that professionally sanctioned goal, the debate within the profession about what skills, what target client group - indeed, what the goal of "treatment" is - continues to wage. The debate continues even though the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has strengthened the concepts and methods of advocacy and empowerment in its curriculum policy statement (CSWE, 1994). CSWE was as clear as NASW that this statement provided legitimization for social work educational programs to include or strengthen these elements - not to replace or diminish the focus on individual treatment through clinical methods.

This debate is still current and extremely critical in our profession as we approach the 21st century. The elements of the debate often appear to highlight the mutually exclusive premises rather than focus on the inherent commonalties of purpose; the debate often views social work's breadth of methods and client systems as a weakness rather than as a strength. Indeed, debaters can agree that the profession's mission is to train students to become experts in individual and social change and agree that the systems perspective is a unique and useful one to maintain, yet disagree because the debaters feel that the professional pursuit of both will diminish both (Abramovitz & Bardill, 1993).

The controversial position explicated by Specht and Courtney (1995) in Unfaithful Angels raised the level of the debate within the profession several decibels as it continued this dialogue. Although Jim Mickelson and I did not concur with all of their points, we agreed with their basic premise that social work may have lost sight of the public social services and the public arena as a legitimate place for social work intervention. We noted in the preface to our third edition of Affecting Change: Social Workers in the Political Arena (Haynes & Mickelson, 1997) that, in 1997, it had been "20 years since we became angry at the profession for its 'dispassionate, objective, and apolitical stance'" (p. xiii).

We, like Specht and Courtney (1994), did not like the profession's silence in the political arena or its distance from its historic roots and commitment to public service. And we did not like being labeled as "anti-clinical" or "anti-professional" for these views. We only wanted to ensure that advocacy, empowerment, and public social services were included and valued. However, we believed that the Specht and Courtney attack on our profession was, in some places, inaccurate or uncalled for.

This article is derived from the text of a speech I gave. It was to have been the keynote speech given by Dr. Harry Specht at the Texas NASW conference in November 1994. Unfortunately, Dr. Specht became ill, and I was asked to step in. I agreed to present Dr. Specht's remarks if I could debate them. His words are those written by him for this speech. Permission to publish this speech was obtained from Dr. …

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