History of Social Activism in Social Work

collage of professionals in policy today and activists from 1915

Below is a sample of the many resources you’ll find in the NASW Research Library on the history of social activism in social work. 

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Political Social Work: History, Forms, and Opportunities for Innovation

Authors: Pritzker, Suzanne; Lane, Shannon R.
Source: Social Work. Jan. 2017, Vol. 62 Issue 1, p80-82. 3p
The authors reflect on the history and various forms of political social work in America as of 2017, and it mentions opportunities for innovation, as well as the NASW Code of Ethics and the efforts to engage social workers in political activities in the U.S. over the past 50 years.

Specialty Practice or Interstitial Practice? A Reconsideration of School Social Work's Past and Present

Authors: Phillippo, Kate L.; Blosser, Allison
Source: Children & Schools. Jan. 2013, Vol. 35 Issue 1, p19-31. 13p
This article analyzes school social work's history to provide perspective on current dilemmas in social work practice and research. The authors use interstitial emergence theory, which holds that practices from overlapping fields (like social work and K-12 education) can develop into new fields, as an analytic framework.

Community Practice in the Bulldozer’s Shadow: The History and Legacy of Social Work in Urban Renewal

Author: Bowen, Elizabeth A.
Source: Journal of Community Practice. April-June 2015, Vol. 23 Issue 2, p164-181
Social work has a long history of involvement in urban development policy, dating to the settlement house movement. This article explores a neglected part of this history by analyzing the role of social work in urban renewal programs.

Selective Memory: A Note on Social Work Historiography

Author: Burnham, David
Source: British Journal of Social Work. Jan. 2011, Vol. 41 Issue 1, p5-21. 17p 
Since the Second World War, histories of social work have regularly confirmed that the activities of philanthropic visiting societies, chiefly the Charity Organisation Society (COS), supplied the principles and practices of late-twentieth-century social work. Similarly, histories of social work have asserted that there was no legacy from public sector welfare workers to the development of social work after 1948, which date marks the start of social work in the public sector. This paper reviews these orthodox assumptions, concluding that both are flawed. There is evidence that the reported legacy of charitable visiting societies owes a great deal to a particular set of circumstances after the Second World War and also that the public sector hosted social work roles and activity from before the Great War.

Does American Social Work Have a Progressive Tradition?

Author: Murdach, Allison D.
Source: Social Work. Jan. 2010, Vol. 55 Issue 1, p82-89
Social work authors in the 1950s claimed progressivism as a unique social work "tradition" and set of values; this historical interpretation has influenced many versions of social work history since that time. Today, other voices in the profession claim various divergent traditions for social work and note that the progressive tradition has waned in the profession. The question of whether social work has or still possesses a progressive tradition is once again revisited, and the current relationship between social work and progressivism is evaluated.

Between Women: Gender and Social Work in Historical Perspective

Author: Laura S. Abrams
Source: Social Service Review. 78(3):429-446, The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
This article discusses a growing body of knowledge concerning the intersections of women’s history and gender history in American social work and related social reform movements. The authors explore current themes and conceptual frameworks that characterize this new scholarship, including professionalism, maternalism, and race relations. They also discuss how this literature challenges traditional interpretations of social work history, suggest that this scholarship should be more fully integrated into the social work knowledge base, and recommend promising directions for historical inquiry in the social work field.

The Temperance Movement and Social Work

Author: Murdach, Allison D.
Source: Social Work, v54 n1 p56-62 2009, NASW
This article examines a forgotten episode in social work history: the involvement of the profession in the temperance movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ida Cannon, Ethel Cohen, and Early Medical Social Work in Boston: The Foundations of a Model of Culturally Competent Social Service

Author: Laura J. Praglin
Source: Social Service Review. 81(1):27-45, 2007
Early medical social workers Ida Cannon and Ethel Cohen formulated innovative models of hospital social service in Boston. As directors of the social service departments of Massachusetts General and Beth Israel Hospitals, respectively, they ensured that medical social work developed as a profession. They also formulated standards of patient care and educated health‐care professionals about the social aspects of medicine. This study analyzes the work of Cannon and Cohen within the contexts of progressivism, professionalization, immigration, and ethnic identity.

Social Work as Applied Social Science: A Historical Analysis

Authors: Klein, Waldo C.; Bloom, Martin
Source: Social Work. July 94, Vol. 39 Issue 4, p421-431
This article studies social work as an applied social science in a historical perspective. This analysis makes clear that the dichotomy that sets social work practice in opposition to social work research is false.

A History of Social Work in Public Health

Authors: Ruth, Betty J.; Marshall, Jamie Wyatt
Source: American Journal of Public Health. 2017 Supplement 3, Vol. 107, pS236-S242
Today, many of the nation’s 600,000 social workers practice broadly in public health and in other health settings, drawing on a century of experience in combining clinical, intermediate, and population approaches for greater health impact. This article traces the historic arc of social work in public health, providing examples of successful collaborations.

Facilitating Injustice: Tracing the Role of Social Workers in the World War II Internment of Japanese Americans

Author: Yoosun Park
Source: Social Service Review. 82(3):447-483, The University of Chicago Press, 2008
Nearly the whole of the Japanese American population of the United States was incarcerated by the federal government during World War II. This article traces the role of social workers in that history, showing how they facilitated all aspects of the process. The forgotten history traced here may prompt a reconsideration of how social work has made sense of its professional obligations and its professional ethics. The events may also induce the profession to examine how it now should conceptualize its role in facilitating problematic social policies.

The Evolving Politics of Race and Social Work Activism: A Call across Borders

Author: Jeyapal, Daphne
Source: Social Work. Jan. 2017, Vol. 62 Issue 1, p45-52
Social work has engaged with and led the revolutionary social movements of the past century. Yet today, as activism by and for racial others unfolds across the United States and Canada, our discipline remains largely silent. This article considers new ways for social workers to conceptualize social work activism, challenge the existing erasures within the profession, and construct innovative strategies to locate social work within the critical social movements of our time.

Is Social Work a Human Rights Profession?

Author: Murdach, Allison D.
Source: Social Work. July 2011, Vol. 56 Issue 3, p281-283
The author discusses the role that the social work profession plays in the protection of human rights. She is critical of individuals who suggest that social work harms human rights and is supportive of attention which the social work profession pays to the issue of human rights because of its code of ethics, which asks social workers to focus on individual well-being in a social context and on the well-being of society.

Social Empathy as a Framework for Teaching Social Justice

Authors: Segal, Elizabeth A.; Wagaman, M. Alex
Source: Journal of Social Work Education. April-June 2017, Vol. 53 Issue 2, p201-211
Social work education stresses training students to understand oppressive structural barriers and promote social and economic justice. Social empathy, which is rooted in a deep understanding of those who are different from us through contextual understanding and macro perspective-taking, offers a framework for teaching social justice that addresses critiques of the profession, such as a partisan political perspective.

Asylum, children's rights and social work

Authors: Cemlyn, Sarah; Briskman, Linda
Source: Child & Family Social Work. Aug. 2003, Vol. 8 Issue 3, p163
This paper focuses on the situation facing children seeking asylum with or without their families in Britain and Australia, and the implications for children's rights and for social work. The policy background and its racist foundations in both countries are outlined.

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