A distinguishing characteristic of social work is its understanding of how history, and people's perceptions of history, shapes individual, community, organizational, and societal behaviors. Our identification of problems, theories of causation, underlying assumptions about human need, and development and evaluation of interventions all reflect a historical perspective. What is often not acknowledged, however, are the ways in views of history shape the direction and structure of social work research. Based upon an analysis of archival materials, oral histories, and interviews with social work scholars, this paper explores the evolution of this relationship and its implications for social work scholarship today.
The research underlying this paper focused on two questions: (1) How have views of the past influenced the focus of social work research? and (2) How has the tension between historicism – i.e., a theory that history is governed by immutable laws – and the belief in human agency been reflected in social work scholarship? Although historical research of this nature is not explicitly hypothesis-driven, an underlying assumption which this study sought to explore is that historical perspectives shape the interpretation of present realities, including the definition of problems, explanations regarding their origins, conceptions as to what solutions are feasible and desirable, and means to evaluate the effectiveness of policy or practice interventions. For social work researchers, this has implications for the overall purposes of research, questions posed, types of evidence deemed viable, choices of methodological approaches, and ways in which findings are disseminated and applied.
Using qualitative and historiographical methods, including triangulation, the author analyzed the following data:
• Archival materials from the Progressive Era through the 1950s, including papers presented at the National Conference of Social Work/Social Welfare; projects supported by the Russell Sage Foundation; articles in journals like The Survey; and major studies conducted by educational institutions, such as the University of Chicago;
• Articles published in leading journals during the past half century, such as Social Service Review and Social Work; papers at SSWR conferences; and studies funded by NIH;
• Interviews of 100 social work researchers and oral histories of twenty senior scholars and policymakers, whose careers span the 1940s to the present.
Data were analyzed in terms of the following criteria:
Q1 –References to and perspectives on the past in framing research questions and determining the purposes of research; acceptance or criticism of the current environment; and assumptions about problem causation.
Q2– Emphasis on individual or structural change; belief in possibility of purposeful change; and perceived connections between past and current conditions.
Findings revealed correlations between the extent of social change in a particular era, researchers' possession of a dynamic or static view of history, and definitions of what constituted evidence; the generation in which scholars reached professional maturity, the connections drawn between research and historical events, and reliance of particular research methods; the role of personal narratives and perspectives on scholars' views of the significance of history; and the impact of professionalization on the increasingly ahistorical nature of social work scholarship.