Social Work: Search for Identity

By Leslie Leighninger | Go to book overview

8
Broadening the Knowledge Base: Social Work's Use of Social Science in the 1950s

In 1947, the Russell Sage Foundation announced a now emphasis in funding. Instead of investing in a large research staff and in general grants to social work agencies, the charitable organization would now promote interdisciplinary of forts to develop "a closer and more effective relationship between social welfare practice and the social sciences." Such of forts were important, the foundation decided, because while knowledge of human behavior had recently expanded, practitioners and social scientists had grown farther and farther apart. In an attempt to close the gap, the foundation planned a new role for itself as liaison between research and practice. (1)

The policy shift at Russell Sage was part of a general move to broaden social work knowledge and practice in the 1950s. The foundation's activities, under the chairmanship of Donald Young, were an important catalyst in this process. Other groups played a part: social group workers, social work researchers, and educators seeking to develop doctoral programs in social work. Two trends influenced these efforts: a growing sense of interrelatedness between the social sciences and psychiatry, and the perception of many social work educators that the profession needed to ground itself more thoroughly in a scientific base. In addition, the attempt to broaden social work knowledge in the fifties drew on earlier developments in social work practice and the relationship between social workers and social scientists.

Shifts in social work knowledge were related to changes in the scope and focus of practice from the 1930s on. The rise of public welfare and an undergraduate training movement, the refinement of group work theories and techniques, the growth of the functional school of case work, the development of federal involvement in mental health training and research--these and other factors pushed social work away from a focus on case work as traditionally defined. Changes in practice were accompanied by changes in the knowledge base. Taking place simultaneously, each affected the shape of the other. Both sets of changes occurred within the context of continued professionalization. They brought new versions of the ongoing debates over broad versus narrow professionalism, the importance of achieving professional status, and the degree to which social work should maintain autonomy in developing its own knowledge and training. Social workers sought a broader, more scientific knowledge base to bolster the profession. Yet,

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