Professor Richard Ramsay
University of Calgary Home Page

Faculty of Social Work Home Page
Home Page



Revisiting the Working Definition: The Time is Right to Identify a Common Conceptual Framework for Social Work

R. Ramsay
Draft of Paper
Published as: "Transforming the Working Definition of Social Work into the 21st Century." Research on Social Work Practice, 13(3): 324-338.

“One of the problems [in social work] is the lack of adequate words, terms, concepts to represent 
the important facets and components of the profession’s practice as a whole” 
Bartlett, 1970, p. 46

The 1958 Working Definition of Social Work Practice, developed by a subcommittee of NASW’s Commission on Practice and chaired by Harriet Bartlett, was based on five core components: Value, Purpose, Sanction, Knowledge and Method (NASW, 1958). The definition was described as a constellation of components that were not unique separately, but together were thought to include the whole of social work and all its specializations. A year later, the Boehm Curriculum Study (1959) specifically identified social functioning as the goal of social work. Although the Working Definition identified the concept of interdependence between individuals in their societies, it was Boehm who clearly articulated the primary focus of social work to be on social interactions between people and their environments. Together these two reports framed mid-century progress toward the recognition of social work as a distinctive relationship-centered profession. 

The brief nature of the Working Definition statement did not provide background information on why the selected components were considered necessary for the definition of social work practice. Nor was there an explanation in the statement on how the components could be networked as a constellation to give social work a common conceptual framework. To get some of the background information one must read Bartlett’s Common Base of Social Work Practice (1970), especially chapter four (pp. 51-61). 

The Working Definition did not include information that identified the ontological foundations of the philosophical concepts that were included as part of the Value component. The contents of the Purpose component projected the impression that a Newtonian mechanical worldview respecting the normative state of inertia was used to define healthy social functioning as a state of equilibrium and social dysfunction as a state of disequilibrium. The contents of the Knowledge component, on the other hand, hinted at a complexity worldview respecting the dynamics of non-linear predictability and the absence of absolute truths in understanding human social functioning. The Method component described the orderly and systematic nature of intervention procedures that one would expect in this kind of social change process. However, there were no linking statements in the document to show how the systematic nature of a problem-solving process was connected with the systemic and qualitative patterns of the philosophical concepts in the Value component. The statement was also silent on how the interdependence between these components might be displayed as a holistic constellation of components. 

This paper will address the Working Definition from an ontological and 20th century science perspective. Ontological for the purpose of this paper is defined as the study of the nature of reality – the worldviews that guide the sciences and professions. Twentieth century science, sometimes referred to as postmodern science, is defined as the discoveries that marked a scientific shift away from the dominance of a Newtonian worldview, which is premised on the belief that all entities in their original state exist independently in space and time. 

The Working Definition will also be addressed in the context of an updated definition of social work approved by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW, 2000) and the recently approved national scope of practice statement by the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW, 2000). The challenge of reworking the Working Definition is discussed in the context of a proposed holistic conceptual framework for social work, which is derived from a naturally occurring system that Buckminster Fuller discovered to be nature’s minimum whole system (Fuller, 1969). Fuller devoted most of his adult life using physical artifacts of this holistic system to advance his life long vision of making “the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”. With perhaps a more modest intent in mind, I have used an abstract artifact of nature’s minimum whole system to help advance the profession’s quest for a common conceptual framework and its goal of social well being for all of humanity. 

Special Meetings on Conceptual Frameworks

Two special meetings on conceptual frameworks were sponsored by NASW, one in 1976 (Madison meeting) and the other in 1979 (O’Hare meeting) and published in two Special Editions of Social Work (NASW, 1977, NASW, 1981). The Madison meeting sought to address the question: Is there a common conceptual framework for the social work profession? (Briar, 1977, p. 415). This meeting used the Milford Conferences (1925-29) as a model for the kinds of questions to be addressed and as a baseline for comparing previous explanations of social work. One significant difference was the Madison meeting’s effort to identify the common base of the whole of social work, not just social casework as was done at the Milford Conferences. 

For the Madison meeting six social workers (Anne Minahan, Allen Pincus, Robert Morris, Shirley Cooper, Walter R. Dean Jr., and William Reid) were commissioned to write five papers. After the meeting four social workers (Armando Morales, Bernece Simon, Neil Gilbert, and Chauncey Alexander) prepared reaction papers to the issues raised in the commissioned papers. 

Minahan and Pincus (1977) addressed the development of a conceptual framework directly. They articulated three value sets to generate five problem areas of concern to social work and five corresponding objectives of social work practice. Their paper identified the importance of using “the dual concepts of resources and interaction with the social environment to explicate the objectives of social work and activities of social workers” (p. 347). They acknowledged the importance of generalist and specialist social workers but emphasized that all social workers should acquire and retain a broad social work orientation before advancing to a specialist form of practice. 

Dean, on the other hand, was deeply concerned that social workers had retreated into privatization and were neglecting concerns about economic, social and political redistribution of resources. Dean (1977) identified the danger of Western cultural values that emphasize the uniqueness of the individual as a contributing factor in social work’s drift away from social activism. He was quite strident in stressing that social workers cannot “ignore the political philosophies that support all social welfare programs” and pointed out that “the kind and type of social services delivery systems are determined by the attitudes that produce those services” (p. 373).  Morales (1977 was equally strident in his reaction paper. He was concerned that the conceptual framework of social work was shrinking from identifying the need in poor communities for a social worker to have the “knowledge and skills to do clinical work and who is able as well to intervene via social action on larger community systems” (p. 387). Simon’s (1977) reaction paper was quite blunt in stating that the conceptual frameworks in all the commissioned papers were like blind men trying to describe an elephant based on which part of the animal they handled. “None could describe the elephant as a whole” (p. 394). She was concerned that the variations found in the commissioned papers reflected the growing proliferation of personal practice frameworks in social work practice. Her assessment concluded that there was the basis for a common conceptual framework but the time had not arrived. 

Alexander (1977) spoke directly to the possibility of a unitary conception in his reaction paper. Like Simon, he was concerned that social work had not yet developed a “unitary conception reflecting a consensus of practitioners” (p. 407). Alexander was especially concerned that the commissioned papers “reconstructed and repeated the dichotomies and perceptions that have continued to spread doubt and dissension in the social work profession” (p. 407). His proposal for a unitary conception incorporated work from The Common Base of Social Work Practice (Bartlett, 1970) building on Boehm’s statement that articulated the profession’s  social functioning goal and its relationship-centered focus on the connections between people and their environments. Alexander recommended “psychosocial functioning” as a more appropriate term that reflected the goal and relationship-centered focus of social work practice. Alexander offered his own version of a common conceptual framework with five components: purpose, mission, practice, objectives and specialization. He defined social work practice “as a professionally guided system that engages people and their social units in change activities to alter their psychosocial functioning for the purpose of improving the quality of life” (p. 413). 

The O’Hare (Chicago Airport) Meeting focused on the identified need for a “real agreement on the purpose and objectives of social work” (Minahan, 1981, p. 5). The invited participants to this meeting were asked to prepare comments and critiques on the Working Statement on the Purpose of Social Work (p. 6).  Although the purpose statement was directed to the promotion or restoration of mutually beneficial interactions between individuals and society to improve the quality of life for everyone, it retained the core belief of self-determination that connects social work to a deterministic worldview. On the other hand, the underlying beliefs in the statement were clearly grounded to the principle of mutuality. The expectation of individuals contributing to their own well-being and the well-being of others was explicitly stated along with the expectation that societal institutions and services should be guided by values that honor the importance of providing equality based opportunities and resources for the well-being of all people. The section of the statement on objectives was clear about social work’s focus on person-and-environment in interaction but it was not explicit in stating that social work is a relationship-centered profession. The six objectives in the statement were logical extensions of the purpose and beliefs sections. The statement was specific in recognizing that practice options in social work included work with different client units – an individual, a family, a group, a community or an organization. However, it was less explicit in identifying methods of practice that are used to achieve benefits for people, who do not have a defined client status, as a recognized part of social work practice. The statement identified that the target of change varies in social work. However, the focus was placed on specific units of attention - clients, others in the environment or both - instead of on the relationships that need to be changed to benefit expected beneficiaries, whether they are specific clients or other categories of people striving for social well being. Or alternatively, on identifying modifications that are needed by particular units of attention that would change person and environment relationships in the direction of social well being for clients or other expected beneficiaries. 

Participants from special areas of social work practice prepared comments and critiques of the statement. Coulton (1981), from a health focus, wanted the environment component to include physical dimensions, including space, climate and facilities. She identified the need to understand social functioning in the context of role functioning in relationship to other role expectations and/or in relationship to the roles of others. Morales (1981), from the perspective of work with third-world people, argued for an ecosystems model (informed by ecology and general systems theory) to frame the focus of social work practice on interactions between person and environment elements. He supported Carol Meyers in believing that the traditional “methods framework has been used to maintain social work’s denial of what had to be done with regard to broad social problems.” Meyers (1981), from an educator’s perspective, stressed that social work needs to define its purpose through a definition of its domain rather than through tasks. In her mind, defining the profession’s domain would lead to improved abilities to select interventions that are not alien to social work values and to evaluate practice interventions that work or don’t work.  Brieland (1981), in a summary article, defined domain as special areas of practice (e.g. family and children’s services) that are recognized as a domain of social work. Domain was not defined as the area or scope in which social workers practice that can be differentiated from the domains of other professions or disciplines. Longres (1981) in a reaction article wanted more recognition of radical practice and drew attention to the need for an informing body of knowledge that would recognize social structures as constantly changing rather than static systems. 

Reworking the Working Definition

My interest in reworking the Working Definition begins with the same conceptual question that the Madison meeting addressed (Is there a common conceptual framework for the social work profession?) and with Simon’s belief that there was a basis for a common framework but the time wasn’t right in 1976. I am also reminded of Alexander’s criticism that the commissioned papers did little more than reconstruct and repeat dichotomies that had a history of spreading doubt and dissension in the social work profession. Bartlett was expressing the same concerns in 1970 as she tried to advance the Working Definition “toward a comprehensive professional model for social work practice” (p. 57). Finding a way to further advance Bartlett’s common base components toward a comprehensive conceptual framework, and the agreement I have with Alexander’s concerns, speak to my interest in discussing some of the ontological and scientific knowledge foundations of the definition that were not addressed in the 1977 Special Edition. 

A longstanding interest in the question of a comprehensive framework led me to search for an organizing structure that could be used in identifying common conceptual components in social work.  I was introduced to the work of Buckminster Fuller and his discovery of nature’s minimum whole system, the geometric tetrahedron, which is also the molecular structure of the carbon atom - the essence of life (Fuller, 1992; Fuller and Dil, 1983; Fuller, 1982; Fuller, 1975; Fuller, 1969). Fuller was an American of many contrasts and apparent dichotomies. Among a long list of descriptors he was known as a comprehensive generalist, an engineer, an inventor, a visionary, a scientist, a maverick, a gentle revolutionist, an anti-academician, an amiable lunatic and a prophet (Lichtrenstein and Krausse, 1999). To some, his understanding of geometrical thinking was unscientific and irrelevant. To others, he had a deep awareness of how the quality of life could be improved around the world and therefore he was seen as a 20th century Renaissance person. His life in many respects was experiential evidence of the co-existence and complementarity of perceived opposites in living systems. 

The four-dimensional features of the tetrahedral system, the tension-compression dynamics of its interconnected parts, and its capacity to model the unfolding complexity of minimum whole systems suggests that it might be the organizing structure that can be used to develop a common conceptual framework for the profession.  A more detailed explanation of this system is provided elsewhere (Ramsay, 1994; Ramsay 1999); however, a brief elaboration is provided to underscore its potential as an organizing structure for social work. 

Fuller discovered a universal coordinate system, which he named "synergetics” that cut across and underpinned all scientific disciplines.  Synergetics is a triangular and tetrahedral system that employs 60-degree coordination, which is “nature's way of physically packing elements together” (1975, pp. 22-23). Synergetics rejects all axioms as "self-evident"; every thing must be experientially verifiable. Fuller's discovery was based on the findings of physicists who found that nature is always most economical and therefore did not function according to man's 90-degree angle (X Y Z axis) coordinate system; instead it works from a 60-degree coordinate system (Fuller, 1969, p. 95). Synergetics is the exploratory approach of starting with the whole.  It is based on a generalized principle that the behaviors of whole systems are unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. The strategy of a synergic approach is radically different from the traditional strategies of differentiating out parts of a system to study their behaviors in isolation from the whole system. 

Evidence from Fuller’s work showed that a system must always have insideness and outsideness..  In a human system context the identification of a system begins first with the discovery of self or of "otherness."  A living system begins with awareness. If there is no otherness there can be no awareness. If there is no insideness and outsideness, there can be no life or thought. 

Fuller discovered the simplest whole system experience of the universe to be geometrically tetrahedral; a unique system-defining set of interdependent and related parts consisting of four (4) elements, four (4) faces, and six (6) connecting interrelationships. A tetrahedral system (natural system) is nature's minimum "set of elements standing in interaction" that constitutes a whole experience. Anything less than a tetrahedral is not whole. A tetrahedral system provides a geometric way of thinking in which basic properties of the system are invariant (do not change) when undergoing transformations. Users of this system can be taught to recognize, quantify, qualify and evaluate any discrepancies in the elements and interrelationships of a system.

What one takes from an understanding of tetrahedral systems is the need to have a minimum of four “somethings” (e.g. components) interconnected in a holistic constellation to provide a tetrahedral ‘whole’ for a common conceptual framework. Each component can be unfolded or multiplied into its own minimum system (or more) complexity and reconfigured to show the progressive complexity between the components. The dynamics of the geometric dimensions allow the framework to be used in varying degrees of complexity without compromising the minimum requirements of a whole system. A common conceptual framework in social work would therefore need a minimum of four components interconnected with each other. Each component would not be unique by itself, but together they could include the whole of social work, all its specializations and the relevant bodies of knowledge from the humanities and sciences that are needed to inform the practice of social work. In the context of the 2001 Kentucky Conference I would argue that the time is now right to identify a common conceptual framework for social work and a working definition that would be acceptable to the profession, internationally, nationally, regionally and locally. 

Working from the assumption that a four-dimensional conceptual framework would be acceptable or deemed to be common to the profession, I will proceed to the next challenge and propose four concepts that could be universal to the profession. My suggested concepts come from three substantive but quite different sources. Bartlett’s Common Base of Social Work Practice (1970); Kenneth Wilber’s Eye to Eye:The Quest for the New Paradigm (1990); and Thomas Kuhn’s  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

Bartlett’s common base, which in effect was a triangular constellation, had three core components: a central focus on social functioning, a broad orientation to people being served, directly or indirectly, and an interventive repertoire of professional interventions. She described the importance of professional use of self but didn’t give it the status of a core component. 

Wilber explored three realms of knowledge – the empirical realm of the senses, the rational realm of the mind, and the contemplative realm of the spirit. Wilber argued that any kind of discipline or profession could be considered a science provided it had a distinguishable domain (the central focus described by Bartlett) and a methodology (Bartlett’s interventive repertoire) of arriving at knowledge claims that are open to being challenged and refuted.

Kuhn introduced the concept of paradigm as a way of identifying communities of like-minded groups engaged in any form of disciplinary or professional endeavor. A paradigm component in a common conceptual framework would identify a community of like-minded people who adhere around common questions, problem interests, values, ethics, sanctions, practice approaches, methods of inquiry and validation, curriculum contents, and a declared orientation toward people. 

From the above sources, I developed three of four proposed common concepts: domain, paradigm and method. Domain of Social Work Practice will include the social functioning focus that is now generally described as social work’s person-in-environments area of practice. I would further suggest that person-in-environments is now the common description of social work’s domain around the world, although the expression of this domain is still being debated (e.g. person-in-environment [PIE], environment-in-person [EIP], person:environment [P:E]). My contribution to this debate is to propose person-environment network (PEN) or person-environments constellation (PEC). Paradigm of the Profession will include Bartlett’s broad orientation toward people being served and identify social work as a community of like-minded people who have a shared understanding of the profession and how it is practiced. Method of Practice will identify the professional interventions and particular modalities of practice that are informed by multiple theoretical perspectives and “evidence-based” in today’s parlance and open to refutation. The fourth concept, Domain of Social Worker/Practitioner, comes from Bartlett and the work of many others in social work, past and present, that consistently identify the significance of a social worker’s own person-in-environment system and its impact on their practice of social work. In this respect, the concept of domain is used twice: Domain of Social Work Practice and Domain of Social Worker/Practitioner. Together this constellation of interconnected components transforms Bartlett’s ‘common base of social work’ from a two-dimensional triangular conception to a four-dimensional tetrahedral conception that I suggest forms the ‘common whole of social work’ as a conceptual framework for social workers world-around.

Domain of Social Work Practice
Bartlett argued that the profession of social work needed a concept to identify its area of central concern; the identifiable domain that describes the area in which social workers do their work. This was not to be mistaken with Brieland’s idea in 1981 of special areas of practice that are recognized as domains of social work. Bartlett made the case for all of social work to have an area of central concern. Based on historical and practice evidence, she identified three critical elements that characterized the domain of social work: Person, Interaction, and Environment. Today, these terms are commonly described as person-in-environment (PIE) or the interaction of people and environment. The distinguishing feature of this domain description was not the traditional dual-purpose emphasis on person or environment units of attention that would raise the ire of those who argue against the use of divisive dichotomies. The distinguishing feature was identified as a unifying focus on the social interacting networks and patterns between person and environment. This feature clearly identified social work as a relationship-centered profession with a domain of practice that overlapped with other helping professions in a person and environments sense but was quite distinct and perhaps unique, through its unifying and central focus on interacting networks.  Bartlett’s person-in-environment description of the profession’s domain placed social work in a good position to be informed by knowledge from numerous science-generated discoveries in the 20th century that revealed the relationship-centered dynamics of previously thought to be “solid” systems (Kellert, 1993; Capra, 1996).

 Assuming that the person-in-environments domain is common to the whole of social work, one can unfold this component into its minimum four-fold complexity. Social well being from a World Health Organization (WHO) perspective on a healthy quality of life is the primary concern of the social work profession. Central to this concern is a vision of just and civil societies throughout the world (Witkin, 1999). The person element in varying configurations generally refers to developmental, demographic and social functioning status of individuals in family, groups and communities. The environment concept includes elements in societies that enhance or impede the development of individual and collective social well being. In particular, these elements generally include less formal natural support networks and more formal societal structures, which together with the person element are shaped by a variety of societal norms and expectations in the form of influential attitudes, beliefs, customs, policies and laws. Social functioning is social work’s way of measuring and assessing the strengths and problems of people performing their social roles in the context of how their respective societies provide structural supports and opportunities to help them perform these roles. The social functioning of people in their environmental contexts offers a strong indication of their social well being and the level to which the structural institutions that affect them provide a just and civil society live in. Based on the relational importance of “others” in social well-being, I have identified the core elements of social work’s four dimensional person-in-environments/person-environments network domain to be 1) person, 2) personal otherness, 3) resource otherness, and 4) validator otherness (Ramsay, 1994). The purpose statement component of a reworked Working Definition would evolve out of the common base of social work’s domain of practice. 

Paradigm of the Profession

The communities of like-minded people that adhere around the paradigm of social work stretch beyond national borders and allegiance to particularized bodies of knowledge that inform the practice of social work. At the international level, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) has fostered the development of a common adherence to ethics and values since its earliest beginnings in 1928. Recent contributions include the international declaration of ethical principles (IFSW, 1994) and the updated international definition of social work (IFSW, 2000). National organizations of social workers provide their members with contextually developed national codes of ethics and legislative statutes in a growing list of jurisdictions that require common standards of practice and regulatory systems in the interests of public protection. The Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) has gone the extra step of providing its provincial association members with a National Scope of Practice Statement (CASW, 2000). The articulation of common beliefs and values is part of the paradigm component and their selection must adequately support the avowed purpose of the profession. Social work is considered a higher education endeavor and common curriculum requirements set by sanctioned accrediting bodies are the norm in most countries that offer social work education. The common sanctions (e.g. society, law, agency/program and profession) that authorize and give social work permission to be fully or restrictively practiced are contextually connected to the paradigm component and influence the extent to which social workers can practice their profession. 

The paradigm component incorporates the broad orientation nature of practice that Bartlett identified and includes generalist and specialist prepared practitioners committed to a common person-in-environments domain. It also houses the Knowledge component of the Working Definition. Knowledge in social work practice is drawn from indigenous traditions, humanities and sciences (and not just the Western sciences) to advance the development of common human rights, distributive justice and sufficient societal structures for individual, family and community social well-being in all human societies. To this end, social workers are expected to respect the value of cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to alleviate discrimination, oppression, poverty and other forms of social injustice, even when it is in the guise of cultural and ethnic diversity. The Working Definition was silent on the ontological foundations of social work knowledge. In addition to drawing on supporting knowledge for practice, from social work and elsewhere, social workers need to understand the reality-defined base of the knowledge they are using. Does it come from a mechanistic worldview that treats all things as independent entities separate in space and time? Or, does it come from an ecological and organic worldview that treats all things as deeply interconnected in space and time? (Capra, 1996; Margulis and Sagan, 1997).

The fact that social workers have practice options that allow them to work directly with client groups, indirectly through other environment elements, or both provides a way to conceptually identify its broad orientation to people being served whether one practices as a generalist or specialist. The systems conceptions of Pincus and Minahan (1973) provide a way to place a social worker’s change agent action(s) within the paradigm of the profession component and identify three interconnected practice options that are common to the whole of social work: 

  • 1. direct work with clients through a relationship; 
  • 2. target an environment element to influence it in a way that will benefit a client (case advocacy) or other people served (cause advocacy); and 
  • 3. work through established action system networks (internal or external) to provide direct services or provide support for direct and indirect practice options.
The elements of the Domain of Practice and Paradigm of Social Work components can be interconnected to aid the social worker in making knowledge- based decisions. Once a Domain of Practice assessment is completed, the social worker selects a Paradigm of Profession practice option before deciding on the selection of a generalist or specialist method of intervention. Once the Domain of Social Work and Paradigm of Profession decisions are made the Methods of Practice component is activated with the selection of an intervention method. After the intervention is selected, each decision up to that point can be cross-checked to make sure the interconnected components are appropriately connected and aligned with each other. For example, if a social worker’s assessment identified a social functioning problem between a parent (client) and the operator of their child’s day care center, the social worker (in agreement with the parent) might appropriately select a case advocacy option. This plan would require an intervention designed to influence the day care operator into responding positively to the client’s concerns. If a counseling intervention was selected to influence the day care operator, the social worker will likely confirm the congruence between the person-in-environment assessment and selected practice option, but discover something is out of line with the planned intervention when he/she cross checks between the choices that were made. If the original Domain of Practice assessment is confirmed, then either the practice option or intervention choice is out of line. If the original practice option is confirmed, then the plan to use a client-based counselling method with the day care operator will be reconsidered and a more appropriate case advocacy intervention will be selected.

Similar to the above example, the Working Definition components can be cross-checked with the components of the common conceptual framework for incongruencies and areas in need of revision. Possible changes in two areas are offered as examples. The Value component identifies “equilibrium” and “disequilibrium” as normative terms to describe healthy social functioning and problematic functioning respectfully. The use of these terms needs to be reexamined in the light of 20th century developments in the sciences that identify the flexibility and robustness of far-from-equilibrium states as the scientific metaphor for healthy social functioning (Kellert, 1993; Briggs and Peat, 1999). At the other end of the continuum, equilibrium is understood as a static condition that describes problematic functioning, including death of the system or person.  The Knowledge component, on the other hand, identifies the difficulties of applying methods of intervention using a knowledge base that is predicated on assumptions of precise and linear predictability. The appropriateness of this inclusion in the Working Definition can now be supported with even more evidence from the sciences of complexity (e.g. chaos theory) that wasn’t readily available to social work at the time of the 1958 definition. 

Domain of Social Worker/Practitioner

The Working Definition included the “responsible, conscious, disciplined use of self in a relationship with an individual or group” (Brieland, 1977, p. 345) in the Method component. The emphasis was placed on the relationship that the practitioner would use to facilitate “interactions between the individual and his social environment with a continuing awareness of the reciprocal effects of one upon the other” (p. 345). From a common conceptual framework perspective, the disciplined use of self in relationship with others is seen as an important conceptual component in its own right. The disciplined use of self requires the social worker to have a comprehensive understanding of the relationships in his/her person-in-environment network that are conceptually the same as those that they are expected to understand and assess in their professional practice work. In this respect, social workers must constantly monitor their personal lives in relation to their natural support networks and more formal societal structures, which together with them are shaped by a variety of societal norms and expectations in the form of influential attitudes, beliefs, customs, policies and laws. The personal person-in-environments domain that the social worker brings to the workplace on a daily basis is interconnected with the Paradigm of the Profession component that activates the integrated dynamics of one’s personal-professional approach to practice. Because social workers are expected to rise above personal biases and difficulties in professional practice, the disciplined use of one’s personal-professional self is a daily requirement in social work practice. Whereas some professions might expect greater detached objectivity from their practitioners that in effect requires them to leave their personal domains in the “parking lot”, social work understands the co-existence of the personal and professional and expects its practitioners to consciously use this complementary dynamic in their practice activities. The Knowledge component of the Working Definition identified the importance of being able “to be aware of and to take responsibility for his [one’s] own emotions and attitudes as they affect his [one’s] professional functions." Bartlett did likewise in the Common Base of Social Work. Recognizing the Domain of Social Worker as a distinct component of a common conceptual framework helps the practitioner consciously address the dynamical interconnectedness and complexity between the three systemic components of Domain of Practice, Paradigm of the Profession and Domain of Social Worker.  In addition to the double-check process between a social functioning assessment, selected practice option and planned intervention, social workers will become fully aware that a systemic monitoring of themselves is an integral part of social work’s common conceptual framework regardless of where social work is practiced in the world. 

Methods of Practice

The Working Definition described the Method component as “an orderly systematic mode of procedure” (Brieland, 1977, p. 345). Whereas the other three common conceptual components are systemic in nature (similar to interconnected networks), the methods of social work are more systematic or sequential in nature. The sequential nature is usually described in the form of phases (e.g. study, diagnosis and treatment, Richmond, 1917; observation, assessment, plan of action, NASW, 1958; dialogue, discovery, development, Miley, O’Melia, DuBois, 2001). Using the tetrahedral structure helps to recognize that the systematic process could have multiple phases but these multiples can be enfolded to a minimum three or four phase model for understanding and implementation.  In the early days of social work the profession was largely defined through a method-and-skill model. Social work was conceptually identified with three methods as separate entities: casework, group work and community organization (Bartlett, p. 51). Bartlett was a strong advocate for changing this fragmented way of conceptualizing the profession. She suggested that the term “professional intervention” replace the concept of method. Intervention was chosen because it meant the intention of making a difference in an outcome or course of events. Intervention referred to the “action of the practitioner which is directed to some part of social system or process with the intention of inducing a change in it” (p. 76). Instead of named methods of social work Bartlett was in favor of an interventive repertoire that would cover multiple intervention modalities and techniques – everything that social work is using at any one time. Today, this interventive repertoire generally covers direct practice with clients, community organizing, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation. The Method of Practice component addresses the ability of social workers to use knowledge effectively and skillfully in relation to the other components of the whole model in the best interests of the people they serve. 

Common Conceptual Framework

The identification of four conceptual components, three systemic and one systematic, can now be configured in an interconnected constellation that will model the common whole of social work practice (See Appendix 1a and 1b). The graphic depiction of the constellation allows one to see the individualized pathway of clients and/or other expected beneficiaries in their person-in-environment context becoming connected with the personal-professional networks of a social worker on his/her pathway. In situations where the social worker participates directly with client systems they will work together in a collaborative relationship through a co-empowering intervention method selected from social work’s repertoire of interventions. In situations where the social worker is working indirectly through others to benefit a client (case advocacy) or people in particular situations (cause advocacy), the method selected and skills applied will be directed to expectations of collaborative and co-empowered outcomes that will not advantage or disadvantage one group over another. 


Reworking the Working Definition of Social Work Practice is a laudable undertaking at the outset of a new century. However, it becomes clear through a review of previous reports that a reworking of the definition needs to be done in the context of a common conceptual framework. The efforts by NASW and its members have contributed immensely to the definition of social work. These contributions have assisted others to address the definition and question of a common conceptual framework in other national and international contexts. Since the O’Hare meeting, IFSW approved its first international definition in 1982 at their General Meeting in Brighton, U.K.  Eighteen years later, a muliti-national task force chaired by Isadore Hare of the U.S. over a period of several years presented a new IFSW definition and commentary that was approved in 2000 at the General Meeting in Montreal, Canada (See Appendix 2). In the same year CASW completed a three-year task force effort to develop a scope of practice statement for Canadian social workers (See Appendix 3). The International Association of Schools of Social Work subsequently endorsed the IFSW definition in 2001. These documents are offered as resources to review in the preparation of a re-worked Working Definition of Social Work Practice. 

In her post-Working Definition book, Bartlett (1970) stressed that “in the long run, it is more important to build a viable theoretical structure for the profession as a whole than to be swayed by political currents and academic fashions of the moment” (p. 47). My work over several years has tried to work from this premise. The discovery of a geometric structure that reflects both the simplicity and complexity of holistic systems provided the foundation for building a conceptual framework that would be common to social work practice anywhere in the world and allow for cultural and knowledge-based adaptations to fit with the people being served.  The structure itself is atheoretical and invariant so that political variances, academic fashions and a range of theoretical perspectives can affect or inform the components at any time but the fundamental nature of the common whole of social work will not be altered. The four-dimensional and interconnected nature of the common whole model provides the underlying structure for a common conceptual framework of four core components: Domain of Practice, Paradigm of the Profession, Domain of Practitioner, and Methods of Practice. Each of these components can be unfolded in more complex systemic networks or systematic processes to represent the important elements and phases of working with people in difficult and challenging social situations. Within the unfolded complexity of the common conceptual framework the comprehensive nature and complexity of social work can be identified and the original elements of the Working Definition can be examined and assessed as to their 21st century relevance. With an international definition in place along with national variations and a common conceptual framework, social workers will leave schools of social work around the world with Bartlett’s long held dream that they will have “an initial grasp of social work’s full scope and content” (1970, p. 83). 


Alexander, C.  (1977) Social work practice: A unitary conception. Social Work 22(5), 407-414.

Bartlett, H. (1970) Common Base of Social Work Practice (1970).  New York: NASW.

Boehm, W. (1959). Objectives of the Social Work Curriculum of the Future. New York: Council on Social Work Education. 

Briar, S. (1977). In summary. Social Work 22(5), 415-416, 444.

Brieland, D. (1977). Historical overview. Social Work 22(5), 341-346.

Brieland, D. (1981). Definition, specialization, and domain in social work. Social Work 26(1), 79-82. 

Briggs, J and Peat, D. (1999). Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: Timeless wisdom from the science of change. New York: HarperCollins.

Capra, F. (1996). The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, New York: Anchor Books.

CASW. (2000). CASW National Scope of Practice Statement. Ottawa: Canadian Association of Social Workers. 

Coulton, C.  (1981). Person-in-environment fit as the focus in health care. Social Work 26(1), 26-35.

Dean, W. (1977). Back to activism. Social Work 22(5), 369-373.

Fuller, R. B. and Kuromiya, K. (adjuvant). (1992). Cosmography: A Posthumous Scenario for the Future of Humanity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Fuller, B. and Dil, A. (1983). Humans in Universe. New York: St. Martins Press.

Fuller, R. B. and Kuromiya, K. (adjuvant). (1982). Critical Path. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Fuller, R. B. in collaboration with E.J. Applewhite (1975). Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. New York: Collier Books, Mac Millan Publishing Company.

Fuller, R. B. (1969). Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press.Fuller, B. (1982).

IFSW (2000) .International Federation of Social Workers Definition of Social Work. Berne: International Federation of Social Workers.

IFSW. (1994). International Declaration of Ethical Principles for Social Work. Oslo: International Federation of Social Workers

Kellert, S. (1993). In the Wake of Chaos: Unpredictable Order in Dynamical Systems, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed., enlarged), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lichtrenstein, C.  and Krausse, J. (eds). (2000). Your Private Sky, R. Buckminster Fuller- The Art of Design Science. Zurich: Lars Muller Publishers.

Longres. J.  (1981).  Reactions to working statement on purpose. Social Work 26(1), 85-86.

NASW, (1958 ). Working Definition of Social Work Practice. Social Work 3(2).

NASW, (1977). Special Issue on Conceptual Frameworks. Social Work 22(5), 338-444.

NASW, (1981). Conceptual Frameworks II: Second Special Issue on Conceptual Frameworks. Social Work 26(1), 5-96.

Margulis, L. and Sagan, D. (1997). .Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia Symbiosis and Evolution, (91-111), New York: Springer-Verlag.

Meyers, C. (1981). Social work purpose: Status by choice or coercion? Social Work 26(1), 69-77.

Miley, K.K., O’Melia, M., DuBois, B.L. (2001). Generalist Social Work Practice: An Empowering Approach (3rd Edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Minahan, A. (1981). Purpose and objectives of social work revisted. Social Work 26(1), 5-6.

Minahan, A. and Pincus, A.  (1977). Conceptual framework for social work practice. Social Work 22(5), 347-352.

Morales, A. (1977). Beyond traditional conceptual frameworks. Social Work 22(5), 387-393.

Morales, A. (1981). Social work with third-world people. Social Work 26(1), 45-51.

Ramsay, R. (1994). Conceptualizing PIE within a holistic conception of social work. In J. Karls and K. Wandrei (eds.), Person-in-Environment System: The PIE Classification System for Social Functioning Problems (171-195). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Ramsay, R. (January 1999). Toward a new paradigmatic home: Social work in the 21st Century. Indian Journal of Social Work Vol. 69(1), 69-86.

Richmond, M. (1917). Social Diagnosis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Simon, B.  (1977). Diversity and unity in the social work profession. Social Work 22(5), 394-400.

Wilber, K. (Expanded edition) (1990).  Eye to Eye:The Quest for the New Paradigm. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Witkin, S. (July, 1999). Editorial: Identities and contexts. Social Work Vol. 44(4), 293-297.

Appendix 2

International Federation of Social Workers Definition of Social Work

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.

Social work in its various forms addresses the multiple, complex transactions between people and their environments. Its mission is to enable all people to develop their full potential, enrich their lives, and prevent dysfunction. Professional social work is focused on problem solving and change. As such, social workers are change agents in society and in the lives of the individuals, families and communities they serve. Social work is an interrelated system of values, theory and practice.

Social work grew out of humanitarian and democratic ideals, and its values are based on respect for the equality, worth, and dignity of all people. Since its beginnings over a century ago, social work practice has focused on meeting human needs and developing human potential. Human rights and social justice serve as the motivation and justification for social work action. In solidarity with those who are dis-advantaged, the profession strives to alleviate poverty and to liberate vulnerable and oppressed people in order to promote social inclusion. Social work values are embodied in the profession’s national and international codes of ethics.

Social work bases its methodology on a systematic body of evidence-based knowledge derived from research and practice evaluation, including local and indigenous knowledge specific to its context. It recognises the complexity of interactions between human beings and their environment, and the capacity of people both to be affected by and to alter the multiple influences upon them including bio-psychosocial factors. The social work profession draws on theories of human development and behaviour and social systems to analyse complex situations and to facilitate individual, organisational, social and cultural changes.

Social work addresses the barriers, inequities and injustices that exist in society. It responds to crises and emergencies as well as to everyday personal and social problems. Social work utilises a variety of skills, techniques, and activities consistent with its holistic focus on persons and their environments. Social work interventions range from primarily person-focused psychosocial processes to involvement in social policy, planning and development. These include counselling, clinical social work, group work, social pedagogical work, and family treatment and therapy as well as efforts to help people obtain services and resources in the community. Interventions also include agency administration, community organisation and engaging in social and political action to impact social policy and economic development. The holistic focus of social work is universal, but the priorities of social work practice will vary from country to country and from time to time depending on cultural, historical, and socio-economic conditions.

* This international definition of the social work profession replaces the IFSW definition adopted in 1982. It is understood that social work in the 21st century is dynamic and evolving, and therefore no definition should be regarded as exhaustive.
Adopted by the IFSW General Meeting in Montréal, Canada, July 2000

Appendix 3

CASW National Scope of Practice Statement 
Approved by CASW Board, March 2000


Social work developed as a 20th century profession out of its voluntary philanthropy and social reform roots. These roots are deeply linked to ancient values and concepts of charity, equality and compassion toward others in times of need. The profession's contemporary roots are particularly connected to social welfare developments in the 19th century. These developments included reform movements to change negative societal attitudes toward people in need; charity organization societies to help individuals and families; settlement houses to improve living conditions at the neighborhood level; and rising feminist advocacy for human rights, social justice and gender equality. The profession of social work is uniquely founded on altruistic values respecting the inherent dignity of every individual and the obligation of societal systems to provide equitable structural resources for all their members. 

Social work's primary concern is the social well-being of all people equally valued with the importance of their physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Social work pioneers were among the first to address the significance of deeply connected relationships that constitute the social context of people’s lives. Out of this rich heritage social work is recognized for its familiar  “person-in-environment” perspective, which characterizes the unique relationship-centred focus of the profession. Parallel advances in other fields now provide significant support for the on-going advancement of social work as a relationship-centred profession with a repertoire of person- and environment-oriented methods of practice.

The purpose of the National Scope of Practice Statement (NSPS) is to foster a growing understanding of the social work profession. The NSPS is a reference for social workers, CASW member associations, students in social work, those served by social workers and the community at large to inform the public and promote an accountable, effective profession. The statement is prepared as a consultation document. It can be used in part or whole to assist in meeting the information needs of diverse audiences, including legislators and those served by social workers, who may require or prefer a plain language statement that briefly and concisely describes the scope of social work (Appendix 3). 

Scope of Social Work

"Social well-being", "person-in-environment" and “social functioning” are key concepts in understanding the scope of social work. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes social well-being as an integral component of a person's overall state of health, complementary to, but different from physical, mental and spiritual well-being.  The scope of social work has several defining elements. 

Practice Domain

Social work’s person-in-environment perspective describes the area or domain in which social workers conduct their practice. Person refers to developmental and social functioning abilities in the context of environmental influences. The concept of environment in social work includes factors in society that enhance or impede the development of individual social well-being. In particular, these factors include their natural support networks and the formal structures in their communities, which together are shaped by a variety of societal norms and expectations in the form of influential attitudes, beliefs, customs, policies and laws. Social functioning refers to the way people perform their social roles and to the way societies provide structural supports to help them perform their roles.

The person-in-environment domain gives social work a common organizing framework and a holistic context for its mission and vision. The global vision of social work is a world consistently working toward social justice and well-being for all citizens. The central mission is to have social workers engaged in activities that will improve social well-being structures and enhance individual, family and community social functioning at local, national and international levels. 

The primary focus of social work practice is on the relationship networks between individuals, their natural support resources, the formal structures in their communities, and the societal norms and expectations that shape these relationships. This relationship-centred focus is a distinguishing feature of the profession. 

Practice Preparation

In Canada, the profession of social work constitutes a community of post-secondary educated social workers. They are guided in their work by international ethical principles (Appendix 4); a national code of ethics (Appendix 5); provincial statues governing registration, regulations and standards of practice; common curriculum requirements in schools of social work; and an expanding repertoire of evidence-based methods of practice. Social work includes generalist and specialist prepared practitioners who are well grounded in the knowledge, skills and ethical foundations of social work. Social workers are equally committed to the use of knowledge from the humanities and sciences to advance the development of common human rights, equitable social justice, and sufficient structural supports for individual, family and community social well-being in all human societies. To this end, social workers are expected to be sensitive to the value of cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice.
Like other professions in Canada, accredited baccalaureate education is considered the first professional practice degree, preparing social workers to practice as generalists. Preparation for specialized practice and research advances in social work is provided at graduate (Masters) and post-graduate (PhD) levels. In some provinces, the social work community includes practitioners with diplomas from community colleges. Community college education generally provides diploma graduates with approved transfer credit opportunities to continue their social work education at the baccalaureate level. 


Social workers are expected to have a comprehensive understanding of the complex nature of their own person-in-environment systems. They are prepared to rise above personal biases and preferences to advance the social well-being of others through their practice of social work.   Practitioners are instructed to constantly monitor and evaluate personal and professional influences that bear on the scientific and intuitive ways they use themselves as social change agents in practice situations. At the professional level, they are expected to perform a variety of professional roles, integrate the relevant codes of professional conduct that apply to their practice activities and adhere at all times to explicit standard of care tenets. 

Practice Methods

Social work’s practice methods are rooted in the early adoption of a clearly stated study, diagnosis and treatment process to systematize practice in a person-in-environment context. Implementation of the practice process was initially done through a variety of fields of practice, including child welfare, family services, medical social work, psychiatric social work and school social work, and several method specialties, including social casework, social group work and community organization. 

Contemporary practice methods are based on a systematic process of problem solving which empowers individuals, families, groups and communities to identify and use their own problem solving skills in order to improve their life situations, and requires social workers to simultaneously address broader social issues which affect people’s ability to obtain needed resources.. The practice method is facilitated through the application of social work values, ethical principles and practice skills to accomplish the core functions of social work. 

• helping people obtain basic human need services; 
• counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families and groups; 
• helping communities/groups provide or improve social and health services; and 
• participating in relevant legislative and social policy processes.

Practice methods in social work are those commonly used by qualified social workers (Appendix 1) or identified as restricted activities limited to social workers with specific qualifications (Appendix 2). Social work practice activities used to accomplish the core functions include direct practice with clients, community organizing, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation

Future direction

Social work’s original scope of practice was broadly defined by its pioneering and value based person-in-environment perspective, which shifted to a narrower scope defined by practice methods and the influence of scientific methods of intervention. As the profession moves into the 21st century social work’s practice will continue to be influenced by the scientific method but the sphere of influence is broadening again to include new advances being made in the humanities and sciences. The profession’s distinguishing focus on relationship networks between people in their social environment contexts will continue to be a valued aspect of its scope of practice and increasingly a focus borrowed by other helping professions. 



Capra, Fritjof (1996). The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books.

Greene, Roberta and Watkins, Marie (Eds.) (1998). Serving Diverse Constituencies: Applying the Ecological Perspective. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Karls, James and Wandrei, Karen (Eds.) (1994). Person-in-Environment System: The PIE Classification System for Social Functioning Problems. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Kemp, Susan, Whittaker, James and Tracy, Elizabeth (1997). Person-Environment Practice: The Social Ecology of Interpersonal Helping. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Pincus, Allen and Minahan, Anne (1973). Social Work Practice: Model and Method. Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock.

Sheafor, Brad, Horejsi, Charles, and Horejsi, Gloria (1994). Techniques and Guidelines for Social Work Practice (3rd Ed.). Boston: Allyn and B

To Top of Page
This is the Home Page