The History and Development
of Social Work
Is becoming a social worker primarily to be understood in terms of the ‘helping’,‘caring’ or therapeutic content of the job, or according to the official, bureaucratic, legal and even potentially coercive powers and responsibilities it entails? (Jordan, 1984: 13)
The purpose of this chapter is to analyse the establishment, growth and development of social work in Britain, from its origins in the nineteenth century to its position at the start of the twenty-first century. It is written on the assumption that understanding the history of social work is helpful when seeking to explore options for its future direction. This is particularly important when the social work role is under question, as it undoubtedly is in relation to work with older people. Ensuring that forms of practice are developed that pay full attention to its history and potential might form a useful corrective to the overwhelmingly ‘administrative’ nature of much contemporary social work. As the above quotation from Jordan (1984) indicates, there are different ways of interpreting the growth and development of social work as an organised activity. Following Seed (1973), three strands in its development are charted. The first of these is the focus on individual casework, which originated in the work of the Charity Organisation Society (COS) (Woodroofe, 1962; Lewis, 1995). The second is the role of social work in social administration, particularly (although not exclusively) involving various forms of relief from poverty. Although much of this originated from the Poor Law (Jordan, 1984), it was also promoted in some of the work of the COS. The third is the focus on social action, which has been particularly identified with the growth of the Settlement Movement, both in Britain and the United States (Rose, 2001).
Although these three strands will be addressed separately for analytical purposes, they have often been interconnected. If one examines the origins of social work, for example, many key figures spanned these themes. For example, Octavia Hill was closely associated with both the COS and the Settlement Movement
SOCIAL WORK WITH OLDER PEOPLE
(Bell, 1942), while Canon Barnett was originally a supporter of the COS before establishing the first settlement at Toynbee Hall in East London as an example of what he then considered to be the most effective way of bringing about social change (Mowat, 1961). Both Hill and Barnett actively engaged in more general processes of social reform, meaning that they were at different times ‘case-workers, group workers and reformers’ (Cormack and McDougall, 1955: 21). The close complementary working of the Poor Law and charity was a vital prerequisite for the effective operation of the COS (Bosanquet, 1914), while some practitioners – notably hospital almoners (Bell, 1961) – brought together casework and financial administration. These links and connections have reappeared throughout the history of social work, albeit in a range of different guises.
Most historical accounts identify the COS as the initiator of the social theory that led to the formation of the occupation of social work (see, for example, Seed, 1973). A particular element of the work of the COS was its focus on individual casework. As this section will demonstrate, this has been perhaps the most consistent theme running through the entire history of social work. This section will therefore examine the ways in which individual casework developed, starting with its origins in the COS before moving to consider how it flourished in the years immediately following the Second World War into the present day. One of the key contributions of the COS to social work was its clear – if perhaps partial and misguided – view of the cause of many social...
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