Abstract: Sociological Social Workers: A Forgotten History (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Sociological Social Workers: A Forgotten History

Thursday, January 14, 2016: 2:00 PM
Ballroom Level-Renaissance Ballroom West Salon A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Ian F. Shaw, PhD, Professor, Aalborg Universitet, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Background and purpose. In late 19th Century Europe and North America the emerging outlines of what would become social work shared particularly with sociology that, as a distinct way of practice and thought, it ‘came into being in the face of momentous historical changes and from the first was shaped by the experience of those changes’ (Philip Abrams). This part of the symposium examines historical evidence relevant to two questions:
  1. How should we understand the nature and boundaries of what we think of as professions and disciplines? In what sense if at all is social work distinctive?
  2. In what ways might such an exploration relevant and of value to current social work and sociology?

I draw on research evidence on Ada Sheffield, Pauline Young, Erle Fisk Young, Stuart Queen and Harriet Bartlett. My argument is that they represent a submerged cluster of people who, at least at one or other stage of their careers, took positions in relation to social problems, social work practice, modes of understanding, and research practice that reflected and even anticipated – knowingly or not – something we might call a Chicago-enriched sociological social work.

Research methods entailed extensive archival research from the Special Collections at Chicago University; recently digitized older journals; census records.

The results, from the dominant motifs in the writing and work of these five figures, suggest in various respects their work can be seen as giving a sociological ‘shape’ to social work practice in three central ways:

• Through their understanding of social environments. E.g. ‘the individual’s biographical endowment, and the relationships which show the interplay between this native endowment and his social milieu’ (Sheffield); ‘the complexity of the social forces underlying social situations’ (P Young); ‘to see people not just (as) personalities but people who were working and living and growing up in a social environment’ (Bartlett)

• In the meaning they gave to the ‘case.’ Answers to the question just what is the ‘case’ partly defined the fields of sociology and social work in early 20th century Chicago and elsewhere.

• In the direct practice of social work intervention. E.g. for both Youngs kinds of knowledge were ‘spatial or material’ and ‘social and personal.’ She had (1937) eight tests of a successful interview that entailed assumptions distant from then current psychiatric hegemony in some schools.

Running through much of this work can be detected a proto social constructionism, that in some cases anticipates the subsequent work in Chicago sociology. In each case this brought conscious deliberation on the relationship between social work and sociology

Conclusions and implications. I reflect on how we may explain this strand of sociological social work; why it became forgotten in both social work and sociology; and why should we think and care about it. In several respects this forgotten landscape opens up ways of rethinking how social work and sociological research are distinctive to their fields, and allows a less ‘pre-tuned’ discussion of how practitioners of either might reciprocally pursue their professions.