Defining social work: five ways to explain to multidisciplinary colleagues what social work is

The government’s new Options for Excellence report flags up the need for a proper definition of social work. Here, Malcolm Payne offers a few thoughts of his own

Most things are socially defined by what people say or do or how they are in their social groups and teams. Therefore, the best way to express what social work is to our colleagues is by getting together as a team to work out a clear definition that fits exactly what we do. Here are five ways of DIY social work definition, based on recent scholarship.

1 The layperson’s view
Most people who need to know what social work is would look in a dictionary or on the internet. If you type “define ‘social work’ ” into an internet search engine you will be bombarded with a variety of ideas. Although the earliest publication of the phrase “social work” was in 1890 in Chicago, it didn’t appear in a dictionary – and in its supplement at that – until the 1920s. Dictionary definitions concentrate on personal help to poor people and those in need, particularly those with health or mental health problems.

The Oxford English Dictionary says social work is: “Work of benefit to those in need of help, especially professional or voluntary service of a specialised nature concerned with community welfare and family or social problems arising mainly from poverty, mental or physical handicap, maladjustment, delinquency etc. Hence social worker, one who undertakes social work, especially someone professionally trained.”

2 Social work views
Social workers have been trying to set out a brief definition of social work for nearly a century, and many examples are included in the book What is Professional Social Work?.(1) These are also a good start for looking at the present day job.

The latest example of committee definitions is that by the International Federation of Social Workers: “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.”

The Department of Health now quotes this as a definition of social work. The Scottish executive has also carried out a useful  project as part of the 21st century review of social work and a collection of materials appears on its website.

3 Views analysis
The international definition is an example of a current technique for understanding social work. It identifies a social work territory, which contains several views of social work. Every task that a social worker does contains different elements of these views; every social work job, every agency and every welfare system has a different balance of these views. You can look at something you have just done, your job or your agency and rate the balance between each of the views and combine them to put you on the map.

You rate every combination of:

● Problem-solving social work, which keeps society going by organising services, sorting out people’s problems and protecting people.
● Social change work, which aims to change society for the better.
● Empowerment social work, which aims to help people to greater self-fulfilment and satisfaction with their lives and relationships.

If we look at ourselves on a scale of one to three in terms of what we do most in our work (in terms of problem-solving versus empowerment etc) we can plot where we would like to be different and plan how you can make the change.

4 Pathways analysis
A social institution such as social work is partly defined by what people see as part of the job. A team can look at their pathways from when they were not in social work to the present time, using the headings in, “My pathway into social work”. You can use this as the basis for talking over what jobs brought you closer to social work, and what took you further away, what is “not social work” and therefore what is.

The example is a young social worker, who knew about social work only because her aunt was one. Then as a vacation job she took a care assistant’s post. She thought that was social care rather than social work; she saw her voluntary work with homeless people at university as social action rather than social work.

She built on that with a job in a family support centre, before training in social work. Using these concrete examples can help you be clearer about what makes social work jobs and what does not, especially if you can compare notes.

5 Agency analysis
Debate among agencies, about policies and service users also define social work, and change the definition. A friend recently did a fill-in job as an Asbo worker. This job didn’t exist five years ago, but the work is similar to what I did when I started as a probation officer in the 1960s. I thought of someone doing a pathways analysis with her when she is, as I am now, in her fifties. I can imagine them asking “what on earth was that?”. Ask the oldest social worker you know how they started in social work.

My first contact with social work was as a volunteer in a settlement where I met a woman in her seventies who had started as a volunteer before the first world war with the London School Care Committee, a forerunner of education social work. In my first social services department job, I worked with someone who started as a Poor Law relieving officer before the second world war. Policy and service changes say something about what social work is.

It is useful to look at three areas.

● Political debate: look at the Department of Health social care  and Department for Education and Skills
● Professional debate: Community Care and its website for this.
● User views: from websites of organisations at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

All these can give you ideas about how we can be clear about what social work is in the current system.

MALCOLM PAYNE is director of psychosocial and spiritual care at St Christopher’s Hospice, London, and author of Modern Social Work Theory and the recently published What is Professional Social Work?. He has worked in the voluntary sector, probation service, social services and universities.

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article describes five different ways in which social workers and their teams can be clearer with multi-professional
colleagues about defining social work. They can explore lay or official definitions over the years, analyse the combinations of three aspects or views of social work within social work tasks, our job or our agency, analyse team members’ pathways into social work or analyse political, professional and user debate.

(1) M Payne, What is Professional Social Work? (2nd edn), Policy Press, 2006. 

Further information
International Federation of Social Workers

This article appeared in the magazine on the 26th October, under the headline Which hat fits


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