Of the six ethical principles listed in the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, the most striking is that “social workers challenge social injustice.” In its extended form, it enjoins social workers to “pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people.” Although such a commitment may seem obvious, this notoriously amorphous profession has, since its origins, struggled to reconcile professionalization with activism and the concern for individual welfare with the desire to upend oppressive social structures.
In the 1870s, what we now call “social work” took root in the United States after the transplantation of the British Charity Organization Society. As scholar Mimi Abramovtiz writes, the Charity Organization Society was broadly committed to the idea that “personal failures and the receipt of public relief” were the source of urban poverty. Thus, their organizational focus was trained on “moralistic self-help for people were destitute” as well as the “abolition of public relief.”
This model of moralistic individual aid was challenged in the 1880s and ‘90s by the Settlement House Movement, which attributed poverty not to the personal failings of individuals but to “adverse social conditions.” Unlike the Charity Organization Society, the Settlement House Movement provided support to a variety of social causes and institutions with the aim of relieving the conditions underpinning poverty. By the early 1900s, it gained considerable force by allying itself with a variety of progressive reformers and launching “a series of movements aimed at improving the quality of urban life on various fronts.”
After World War I, the increasingly professionalized field of social work took a conservative turn, much to the chagrin of some of its more impassioned activists. This expressed itself in a renewed emphasis on the psychology of individuals rather than social conditions responsible for psychic distress. The value in this development was that it helped the nascent profession to discard many of the invidious moral claims made by previous generations of social workers. It also, however, “devalued the profession’s historic concern with the community.” The professionalization of social work was thus achieved at the cost of its ambition for widespread social reform.
Even as social work retrenched into myriad forms of individual assistance in the decades after World War II, vestiges of its activist origins could be seen in the resistance by some social workers to the federal government’s attempts in the 1980s and ’90s to dismantle the pillars of the welfare state that had developed after the Great Depression. Many social workers, observes Abramovitz, “remained strangely silent” during debates over welfare reform during Bill Clinton’s presidency, but the vocal “activist wing” of the profession “ensured that [it] remained an arena of political struggle.”
Social work, as scholar and social worker Allison D. Murdach writes, has never been part of a clear “progressive tradition,” but its “fluctuating but ongoing association with progressivism and progressive thinking” has nevertheless lent it a “culture of progressivism.” How social work embodies its commitment to social justice has always been fluid, but its history demonstrates that even in the profession’s most conservative periods, there is an undercurrent of intense and compassionate concern not only to the welfare of individuals but to the shape of society as a whole.