Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17016 Sociospatial Practices In US Social Work, 1880-1917: Changing Places, Changing People

Thursday, January 12, 2012: 4:00 PM
Independence E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Susan P. Kemp, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Yoosun Park, PhD, Assistant Professor, Smith College, Northhamptom, MA
Background and Purpose: This paper presents a detailed historical analysis of American social work's “spatial turn” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Influenced by evolutionary theory, public health, urban sociology, and by growing public awareness of the terrible living conditions of the urban poor, Progressive era social workers focused increasingly on environmental factors, addressed through interventions ranging from home visits and housekeeping advice to residency in poor neighborhoods, exhaustive social surveys, and advocacy for playgrounds, parks, gardens, bathhouses, improved sanitation and housing reform. However, this important strand in social work history has not been subject to close historical scrutiny. Building on scholarship that addresses Progressive environmentalism more generally (e.g. Boyer, 1976; Bulmer, Bayles & Sklar, 1990; Greenwald & Atkinson, 1996; Ward, 1989), this study aimed to develop a fine-grained, multidimensional analysis of social work's spatial frameworks and practices in the period before World War I, in the social casework agencies as well as in the settlement houses.

Methods: Primary source materials for the study include the Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (later the National Conference of Social Work), archival materials (e.g. the Russell Sage Foundation papers, Rockefeller Foundation archives), contemporary periodicals (e.g. The Survey), published writings of leading social workers (both caseworkers and settlement leaders), and relevant contemporary materials (e.g. Mary Beard's landmark study, Women's Work in Municipalities (1915)). Study findings are also placed in relation to relevant secondary materials. Analytically the study takes a critically theorized approach, informed by historical scholarship in the spatial sciences (e.g. Craddock, 2000; Hayden, 1995; Sibley, 1995) that directs attention to the recursive relationships between spatial and social arrangements.

Results: Social work's Progressive era environmentalist interventions were a welcome corrective to the overtly moralistic, person-centered which came before. They made clear the role of social and structural factors in human problems, resulted in important reforms in housing, sanitation, urban space, and public health, and, particularly in the casework agencies, supported more sympathetic assessments of the lives of the poor. Despite their seemingly pragmatic and rational constitution, however, the historical evidence makes clear that these were in fact sociospatial practices, with moral as well as material force, aimed at shaping the living conditions of the immigrant poor – and thus the poor themselves – in conformity with dominant (white, middle class) ideals.

Implications: The study's layered analysis of this largely invisible sociospatial legacy adds important dimensions to the literature on social work history. In tracing the profession's nascent attempts to realize its person-in-environment commitments, it also sheds light on current dilemmas in understanding the relationship between human behavior and the social environment. Moreover, by surfacing the complexities inherent in these earlier, abundantly well-intentioned, frequently effective, but also flawed environmental efforts, the study findings offer lessons (both optimistic and cautionary) that can and should inform social work's renewed interest, spurred by global environmental challenges and growing empirical evidence that ‘place matters' in health and well-being, in spatial and environmental interventions.