Revisiting the Working Definition: The Time is Right to Identify a Common Conceptual Framework for Social Work
“One of the problems [in
social work] is the lack of adequate words, terms, concepts to represent
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 FrameworksTwo 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
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 DefinitionMy 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
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 ProfessionThe 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:
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/PractitionerThe 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 PracticeThe 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 FrameworkThe 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.
ConclusionReworking 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,
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Appendix 2International Federation of Social Workers Definition of Social Work
* 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.
Appendix 3CASW National Scope of Practice Statement
Approved by CASW Board, March 2000
PreambleSocial 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 DomainSocial 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 PreparationIn 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.
PractitionersSocial 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 MethodsSocial 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;
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 directionSocial 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.
APPENDICES 1 – 5 ARE NOT INCLUDED
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