One can trace the origins of social work back to pre-Modern history, but the version of social work as a practice which we would broadly recognise developed in the mid 19th century, evolving to professional status in many western countries by the early decades of the 20th. In subsequent years, industrialised society has often been described as having transformed beyond recognition – aspects of it did certainly: quite whether the essential nature of people, the human condition, or society has changed anywhere near as much as the infrastructure and trappings is a highly debatable subject. But one issue that historians and social scientists do appear to agree on is that there has always been poverty, vulnerability and need affecting people around the globe at various times and to various extents, since pre-history. And in tandem with that, one sees the development of what we now call social work. And social work of course is the epitome of something that has to be seen context. And that context is society.
In those industrialised countries over the last century, there are a number of social changes which deserve mention in relation to viewing contemporary social work in context. Firstly, and these are not in any sort of priority order, there has been the increasing secularisation of society. I am an agnostic on the importance, or not, of religiosity (though secularisation certainly does not just refer to that), but I do recognise from a social science point of view the effects of secularisation on social structures, social welfare development, and meanings related to modernity and society. I will go no further into the detail of that here, as it tends to be an extremely complex, lengthy, challenging, and not infrequently divisive subject area. But I acknowledge its relevance within social history.
Secondly, there has been the phenomenon which social scientists often refer to as ‘the death of the extended family’: another complex subject. Again, without getting diverted off into high detail, I think most historians and social scientists would agree that there has been significant change and evolution to western societal structures, communities and familial constructs over the past century. The arguments then begin over which were good changes, and which were not.
Thirdly, there has been the emergence of the welfare state: by which I mean not simply Beveridge-type changes to formal social welfare provision, but the evolution of the state, independent, and third sector social care and welfare provision which we see in the present day, in various shapes and forms, in innumerable countries around the world.
Those and many other socio-cultural, political, economic, scientific (etc, ad infinitum) factors have shaped and impacted upon the practice of social work in contemporary society.
I would add one final element into the mix. It is what Francis Fukuyama called ‘The End of History?’ It contends, essentially, that eventually liberal democracy will become the only form of universalised government for all. One extrapolation of that, in terms of social welfare, is that ‘everyone’ will end up with a homogenous social welfare provision that will look the same, will be funded the same, and will be delivered the same wherever one goes in the world. Whether I agree with that, I will come back to, but it is certainly relevant to the debate.
Before finally coming on to the central issue of the importance of social work in contemporary society, perhaps one should first consider whether it has been important so far. I think that is actually very easy to answer: and it sometimes drives me to distraction that this is not said often or loudly enough. OF COURSE IT HAS! We have over a hundred a years of anecdotal and research evidence from around the globe which demonstrate unequivocally that social work has assisted, advised, supported and protected hundreds of thousands of people. It may even run into the millions. We really should be producing that evidence far more often. We should be so proud of that record. I am.
So, is social work important in contemporary society? Well, to answer that I will return to Fukuyama.
I have absolutely no idea whether there will ever be what he terms the end of history. But one area where I do agree with him is the postulation that everything is ultimately determined by human evolution. And that, I think, is precisely the determinant of whether social work is important in contemporary society. Because it actually does not matter whether one is asking the question in 1912, 2012, or 3012. As long as there is poverty, vulnerability, and need, then there will always be people who want to help, support, assist, and protect those who are subject to those social ills. Whether they are called social workers or not is really neither here nor there. There were social workers before such a term existed, and there will be social workers once that name has morphed into something else. The need for and importance of ‘social work’ will only end when humanity has evolved beyond the existence of any of those social ills. And that, I am very sad to say, will not be any time soon.
Join us on World Social Work Day (Tuesday, 20-March-2012) at 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM EDT to discuss and explore the “Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development” in a rich and lively Twitter Debate @SWSCmedia.