Academic journal article Social Work

The Search for Identity: Defining Social Work - Past, Present, Future

Academic journal article Social Work

The Search for Identity: Defining Social Work - Past, Present, Future

Article excerpt

The quest for status and identity has occupied center stage within social work since its inception. Its efforts in this regard have been hampered by the breadth of the profession, its relationship to the external sociopolitical and economic environment, and divisions within the profession itself. Examples include the historical divide between macro - and micro - practice and between agency - based and independent practice. The centennial of the profession provides opportunity to reflect once again on what social work is, as represented in efforts over the years to define its professional purview.

This article reviews some of the factors and forces that affect the definition of social work and the place of the profession in society now and in the future. Social work is not unique among the professions in its search for identify. Etizioni and colleagues (1969) explored the maturation of several of what they termed "semi-professions" in their quest for professional status; among these were teaching and nursing, as well as social work. The literature related to the sociology of professions, both historically and contemporarily, is ripe with debates about the boundaries and identities of the many professions that occupy a place in our society (see, for example, Bose, 1985; Burrage & Torstendahl, 1990; Lopata, 1990). In this regard, social work is relatively underrepresented in its expressed concern for identity clarification in an evolving societal context.

A major premise in this discussion is that social work is defined by its own place in the larger social environment at any given time; this view is analogous to the profession's locus of concern as the interaction between the individual and his or her environment. It is also argued that external forces have been more influential in defining the boundaries of social work and shaping the nature of its practice than intraprofessional forces and choices. The periodic debate about what constitutes the profession is viewed as both appropriate and positive; it signifies awareness of the dynamism of social work as it evolves to respond to and address a changing world. Such definitional efforts, rather than constituting an intellectual exercise, are essential if the profession is to exert greater influence in identifying its own purview. The future of the profession should be the result of a thorough explication of the options and informed decision making by the social work professional community - a proactive rather than reactive stance.

A Historical Perspective

"The times they are a-changin'," sang Bob Dylan. And as the times change, so does the profession of social work. The sociopolitical and economic environment at any given time has always influenced the goals, priorities, targets of intervention, and technologies and methodologies of the social work profession. The interaction, however, is two-sided. The mission of the profession, the motivations and characteristics of the social work labor force, and changes in methods and technology also serve to expand or contract what social workers do (Gibelman, 1995). The relative influence of internal (profession specific) versus external (societal) forces in defining social work may be idiosyncratic to particular times, but their dynamic interaction provides the context in which the growth and development of the profession can be understood.

Fluidity exists with regard to how the profession defines itself and the boundaries of what constitutes social work practice. Some of these debates about identity and status have been waged since the earliest days of the profession. As far back as 1915, Flexner raised the question of whether social work is a profession (Flexner, 1915), and, at about the same time, Richmond (1917) sought to identify the skill base for work with individuals and families. The 1959 Curriculum Study of the Council on Social Work Education pointed to "the lack of a single, widely recognized, or generally accepted statement . …

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