This symposium examines the history of social work in the mid-19th to early 20thcenturies when the dramatic transformation of the U.S. inspired the development of the profession. Early practitioners engaged in conversations, launched interventions, and debated the role of scientific methods, which shaped the profession and societal responses.
The symposium consists of four papers based on primary sources presented by senior scholars. The first pair present narratives of social work’s development. The role of research in transforming practice among the immigrant poor, looks at the influence of research on social work practice and the epistemology of practice in nascent social service agencies. Sociological social workers: a forgotten history, considers the sociological shape to social work practice through the understanding of social environments, the meaning attached to “the case,” and in direct practice intervention.
The second pair, examine a unique agency and illustrate ideas espoused in the first presentations. The Children’s Aid Society, 1853-1890: Laying Social Work’s foundations, focuses on the development of empirically grounded and visionary intervention strategies for poverty prevention and reform, that helped shaped societal responses to poor children. The second, Greenwich House, NYC: A laboratory of early social work practice and modernist social science, 1902-1917, focuses on a settlement house and explores the tensions between social science scholars and practitioner-advocates over approaches to knowledge development that emerged in the context of the uncertainty created by urbanization and industrialization.
All four papers employ historical methodologies and rely on primary sources. They draw evidence from special collections, which require pilgrimage to the archival sites. These sources are not available in regular library collections or as web-based resources. All four researchers collected unique evidence, analyzed it, contextualized their findings, and report them in an original historical narrative.
Although specific results are reported in each paper, collectively they raise important themes. Early practitioners demonstrated remarkably modernistic views on social work science and evidence. They responded flexibly when faced with transformative, rapidly changing, and complicated environmental and social factors including immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. These nuanced and thoughtful understandings of the complexity of social conditions permeated their service models, practice, and research. They successfully combined advocacy with research in ways that promoted the mission of social work, established the profession and its boundaries, targeted prevention and reform efforts, and shaped legislative responses. Early social work research transformed societal responses to urban problems and some of their handiwork remains in place today.
Symposium Conclusions and Implications
Today, social work is sometimes plagued by simplistic and reductionist arguments about practice and research. This symposium offers a reminder that our forbearers faced “grand challenges” as compelling as those existing now. Rather than retreat to methods of alleviating symptoms, they tackled root causes in all their complexity offering grand visions of prevention and reform. Their views on the complex nature of social problems and the significance of empirical evidence in transforming society provide both inspiration and guidance.