What’s in a Word(s)? Social Work Identity

By Al Murdach LCSW (retired)

This column explores some of the meanings behind words that today have a significant impact upon the Social Work profession. Our words for today are: Social Work Identity.

Social Work has long been troubled by questions of identity, such as: What is Social Work? Who are Social Workers? Who can be called a Social Worker and who can’t. Such questions bedevil Social Work more than they do other professions because Social Work’s purview, the interrelationships between individuals, groups and social systems, is so broad and diffuse. This leads Social Work theorists to make glittering generalities about the field, but they are often so abstract they provide little clarity about identity issues.

This column will briefly explore Social Work Identity issues from an alternative perspective, that of people seeking services instead of academics seeking intellectual clarity. Historically, Social Work was first viewed by service seekers as an organized effort to serve, rescue and “uplift” the poor and destitute in large urban centers of population. This identity became attenuated because of the field’s efforts to increase its professional status by adopting the methodology of other fields it strongly admired, such as medicine and psychiatry. Thus Social Work was cut loose from its original moorings in poor relief and thrown into a frantic attempt to ape other more established fields in order to regain some sense of direction and mission.

One way for Social Work to regain its sense of direction might be to ask what could be the reasons an “average” person today would request or seek the services of a Social Worker. We know that people go to psychologists for help with psychological issues, to doctors for medical assistance, to dentists for dental needs, to religious leaders about religious matters, etc., etc. But why would they want to talk to a Social Worker? Years ago, a Social Work author named C. David Condie, in an article titled “How the Public Views Social Work” (Social Work, January 1978), asked that question and came up with ideas like the following to explain why a person might seek out a Social Worker today:

The Need for Sympathy and a Good Listener: Social Workers have always been typified in the popular mind as people who are kindhearted, sympathetic, and willing to listen to people’s problems. This is a valuable image for people in trouble, and should not simply be rejected as an out-of-date stereotype of the profession. Most other professions, except for priests, nuns and rabbis, don’t share this image. Doctors, for example, are popularly viewed as cold and uncaring, psychiatrists as “kooky,” psychologists as “nerdy” nurses as “Nurse Ratched” types, Protestant Ministers as “Bible Thumpers,” etc.

The Need for Family Assistance: For decades, Social Work has been identified in the public mind as the profession that deals most often and most suitably with families and children. Although this area of practice has now been invaded by a host of competitors, such as family therapists, counselors, Marriage and Family experts of diverse backgrounds, nurses, psychologists and various other gurus, Social Work is still viewed as the profession of choice in this area. This is probably because of the field’s long identification with child welfare, adoption and child protection programs, as well as the profession’s sustained efforts to support and assist immigrant families and children in the early part of the last century.

The Need for Emergency Resources: The general public has long viewed Social Workers as “resource people,” and hence feel that Social Workers are professionals they can come to for information about and referral to those who provide needed assistance, such as financial aid, transportation, housing, training, job placement, legal help, companionship, helpful advice, etc.

The Need for Help in Navigating the “System”: Social Workers since the early days of the profession have been organizational creatures and, as such, are felt by most people to be knowledgeable and helpful in providing guidance and assistance in making one’s way through the frustrating red tape and blockages that characterize all organizational systems. In addition, when those systems break down, Social Workers are felt to be the people with the right connections to get those systems going again and operating more efficiently.

It seems to me that such capabilities of Social Workers, widely perceived and appreciated by the general public, are extremely important and should not be ignored as the field struggles to clarify its identity and its place in the wider society. To neglect such traits would be tantamount to denying some of the basic purposes for which the profession was founded and which continue to constitute its guiding principles and ideals.