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The search for identity: defining social work - past, present, future.

The quest for status and identity has occupied center stage within social work since its inception. Its efforts in this regard have been hampered by the breadth of the profession, its relationship to the external sociopolitical and economic environment, and divisions within the profession itself. Examples include the historical divide between macro - and micro - practice and between agency - based and independent practice. The centennial of the profession provides opportunity to reflect once again on what social work is, as represented in efforts over the years to define its professional purview.

This article reviews some of the factors and forces that affect the definition of social work and the place of the profession in society now and in the future. Social work is not unique among the professions in its search for identify. Etizioni and colleagues (1969) explored the maturation of several of what they termed "semi-professions" in their quest for professional status; among these were teaching and nursing, as well as social work. The literature related to the sociology of professions, both historically and contemporarily, is ripe with debates about the boundaries and identities of the many professions that occupy a place in our society (see, for example, Bose, 1985; Burrage & Torstendahl, 1990; Lopata, 1990). In this regard, social work is relatively underrepresented in its expressed concern for identity clarification in an evolving societal context.

A major premise in this discussion is that social work is defined by its own place in the larger social environment at any given time; this view is analogous to the profession's locus of concern as the interaction between the individual and his or her environment. It is also argued that external forces have been more influential in defining the boundaries of social work and shaping the nature of its practice than intraprofessional forces and choices. The periodic debate about what constitutes the profession is viewed as both appropriate and positive; it signifies awareness of the dynamism of social work as it evolves to respond to and address a changing world. Such definitional efforts, rather than constituting an intellectual exercise, are essential if the profession is to exert greater influence in identifying its own purview. The future of the profession should be the result of a thorough explication of the options and informed decision making by the social work professional community - a proactive rather than reactive stance.

A Historical Perspective

"The times they are a-changin'," sang Bob Dylan. And as the times change, so does the profession of social work. The sociopolitical and economic environment at any given time has always influenced the goals, priorities, targets of intervention, and technologies and methodologies of the social work profession. The interaction, however, is two-sided. The mission of the profession, the motivations and characteristics of the social work labor force, and changes in methods and technology also serve to expand or contract what social workers do (Gibelman, 1995). The relative influence of internal (profession specific) versus external (societal) forces in defining social work may be idiosyncratic to particular times, but their dynamic interaction provides the context in which the growth and development of the profession can be understood.

Fluidity exists with regard to how the profession defines itself and the boundaries of what constitutes social work practice. Some of these debates about identity and status have been waged since the earliest days of the profession. As far back as 1915, Flexner raised the question of whether social work is a profession (Flexner, 1915), and, at about the same time, Richmond (1917) sought to identify the skill base for work with individuals and families. The 1959 Curriculum Study of the Council on Social Work Education pointed to "the lack of a single, widely recognized, or generally accepted statement . . . of the aims and purposes of social work" (Boehm, 1959, p. 40). This landmark study concluded that the core activities of social work had not been authoritatively differentiated.

Over the years many notable colleagues have supported Boehm's contentions, as suggested by laments about social work's lack of a clear identity, the lack of a definition of the profession (or the absence of a consistent definition), the lack of a distinct knowledge base, and questions about whether social work qualifies as a profession (for example, Bar-On, 1994; Bisno, 1952; Eaton, 1958; Goode, 1969; Gordon, 1965, 1983; Greenwood, 1957; Kidneigh, 1965; Walz & Grove, 1991). Despite periodic deprecating comments about the status and identity of social work, various definitions have emerged about the purview of the profession in what can be termed an evolutionary and consensus-building process. As illustrated in the following discussion, although the definitions vary in breadth and scope, as they should, given the changing times in which they were developed, there is a remarkable consistency to them.


In 1956 the Commission on Social Work Practice of the newly formed National Association of Social Workers prepared a working definition of social work practice with the intention of providing a "temporary and tentative" base for the commission's programs. Included in the statement was a delineation of the purposes of social work:

1. to assist individuals and groups in identifying and resolving or minimizing problems arising out of disequilibrium between themselves and their environment;

2. to identify potential areas of disequilibrium among individuals or groups and the environment to prevent the occurrence of disequilibrium;

3. in addition to these curative and preventive aims, to seek out, identify, and strengthen the maximum potential in individuals, groups, and communities (NASW, 1956, pp. 1028-1029).

The commission's statement was presented as a "beginning formulation with the understanding that it would be revised continuously as knowledge and understanding of social work practice grew" (NASW, 1956, p. 1028). Future revisions were seen as desirable and necessary. Indeed, such revisions have been debated and adopted. For example, in 1970 the following definition of social work was adopted by the NASW Board of Directors (1973): "Social work is the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favorable to this goal" (p. 4).

Other definitions, of course, have been offered over the years. For example, Crouch (1979) identified the need for a concise definition of social work built around the profession's diverse fields and specialties. He offered the following definition: "Social work is the attempt to assist those who do not command the means to human subsistence in acquiring them and in attaining the highest possible degree of independence" (p. 46).

In 1981 NASW made another attempt to develop an overarching definition of the profession. The NASW Task Force on Labor Force Classification gave this definition (NASW, 1981): "The profession of social work, by both traditional and practical definition, is the profession that provides the formal knowledge base, theoretical concepts, specific functional skills, and essential social values which are used to implement society's mandate to provide safe, effective, and constructive social services" (p. 5).

The domain of the profession, according to Rosenfeld (1983), is defined, in part, as the gap between the well-being of people at a particular time and place and the spheres of well-being of individuals for which adequate provision is not provided. Dealing with these discrepancies between the needs of people and the provision of resources is the specialty of social work. In fact, the very purpose of social work is to reduce such incongruities (Rosenfeld).

Barker (1995) offered a succinct definition of social work as the "applied science of helping people achieve an effective level of psychosocial functioning" (p. 221). The most recent definition of the profession comes from the revised Code of Ethics (NASW, 1996):

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historical and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. (p. 1)

Common to all these definitions is the focus on both the person and the environment; this duality and the interaction between them constitutes the special purview of the profession and makes it distinct from other helping professions. It is interesting to note that the most recent definition and the most detailed reasserts and emphasizes the commitment of the profession to vulnerable, poor, and oppressed people. This reiteration of the primacy of professional concerns comes at a time when and is perhaps in contradiction to the growing numbers of social workers in private practice who work predominantly on a fee-for-service basis with a more middle-class clientele (Gibelman & Schervish, 1996). Incongruities are inevitable.

The periodic call to reexamine the definition of social work relates, in part, to the varying degrees of influence of different segments of the professional community. From its beginning in the 19th century, social work has maintained a dual focus of concern (see, for example, Bartlett, 1970; Germaine, 1979; Hollis, 1970; Reynolds, 1942). One stream has emphasized the personal needs of individuals, families, and groups. A coexisting stream has emphasized social reform and social justice - the common collective good (Falck, 1988).

Despite concerns that social work has failed to clarify its focus and boundaries, it seems that, in tact, there has been a consistent strain of thought regarding the focus of the profession. Encompassed within the person-in-environment framework is the reciprocal relationship among an individual, relevant others, and the physical and social environment (Barker, 1995). The centrality of the client (be it an individual, group, community, or society as a whole) and his or her interaction with the environment is echoed in the relationship of the social work profession to the larger society in which it functions. The types of jobs available, the priority afforded particular problem areas or populations, the predominant intervention modalities, methods of and designated responsibility for funding services, and the settings in which social workers practice are all affected by the prevailing sociopolitical philosophy and culture. The same societal forces, exemplified, in part, in whether the prevailing political climate is "conservative" or "liberal," influence the perceptions and preferences of those entering the field of social work. Thus, some degree of congruence between social change and social work change can be found in dominant social thought at any given time.

Fluidity of Definitions

Any effort to define what social workers do must indicate the limitations of that endeavor. The social work profession is broader than most professions with regard to the range and types of problems social workers address, settings in which social workers work, levels of practice, interventions used, and populations served. There are many ways in which social work can be conceptualized: by fields of practice (health and mental health), by practice settings (community mental health, schools, courts), by agency-types (not-for-profit, government), by functions performed (direct service, supervision), by client population served (homeless people, children with learning disabilities, people with chronic mental illness), by methods used (social group work, casework, community work), by practice goals (prevention, problem resolution, symptom alleviation), by the services provided (marital therapy, case management, discharge planning), and type of presenting problem (marital discord, depression, unemployment) (Gibelman, 1995). There is constant fluidity in conceptualization and categorization. Confusion is understandable and justifies both an ongoing quest for self-definition on the part of the profession and continued interpretation to the public about its role and function.

NASW has struggled for years to classify the social work labor force in a way readily understandable to its members, government, and the general public and that accurately reflects the totality of the profession. This struggle results, in part, in the expansive and expanding boundaries of social work and the difficulty in providing succinct, encapsulated descriptions of a complex and multifaceted profession. After all, "person-in-environment" encompasses most of the human condition to which people are subject individually and collectively. The complexities of this task are accepted as a given, and it is recognized that efforts to organize and categorize what social workers do is, to some extent, arbitrary.

The profession grows and changes. Some may argue against the direction of change, but value judgments about the wisdom of the course of the profession's development are, by and large, irrelevant. It would be an unusual group process in which total unanimity was reached. Social workers are not a homogeneous group. Although they share in common a belief in and commitment to the principles of the profession's Code of Ethics, their personal beliefs and values are as varied as the population's as a whole. Many social workers are politically liberal, but there are also politically conservative social workers. Some social workers identify with the socialist tradition, and others have strong convictions about the merits of free enterprise (Ginsberg, 1988). Some favor a one-on-one approach to helping, whereas others believe that social action is the only viable means of affecting change. The composition of the profession reflects the diversity of American society. The definition of social work and its fluidity allows for such diversity within the profession and means that growth and change are possible.

Certain themes reverberate throughout the years with regard to the boundaries of the social work profession. These include ongoing debates within the profession about the appropriate emphasis of social work on behalf of all people versus a focus on special population groups or special social problems, the application of diverse theoretical orientations by which to understand people and guide interventions with and on their behalf, the choice of practice methods; the role and place of generalist and specialist practitioners, the earlier debate concerning the demarcation of the educational level constituting entry-level practice (BSW versus MSW) and continued efforts to differentiate BSW and MSW roles, and the role of social work in certain areas of service, such as public welfare (Minahan, 1982). Such debates are positive and appropriate.

Every profession has its distinct pattern of relationships and behavior, and each moves at its own pace in its professional development (Houle, 1983). In fact, one of the hallmarks of a profession, according to Houle, is the concern of its members with clarifying and defining its dominant characteristics and functions. The relative emphasis given to these areas of debate are frequently defined by the prevailing cultural, political, social, and organizational environment. In this context, social work also has been described as "a residual institution with boundaryless areas of concern" (Bar-On, 1994, p. 53). Bar-On argued that the role of social work can only be deduced from the particular context in which it is practiced; the range of the profession's concerns is reflected in the needs not being met by primary need-meeting institutions of the society. Thus, the boundaries of professional concern are defined in the here and now.

Change does not imply value judgements about the profession, but these are inevitably applied by commentators on its status. For example, the shift in focus toward the provision of "soft" services has been seen as carrying negative consequences for psychiatric patients when social workers are reluctant to perform some of the more concrete service tasks, such as discharge planning, that are essential to clients' well-being. Davis (1988) concluded that this "current mind-set should be challenged and practical functions should be reincorporated into the social worker's repertoire" (p. 373). Similarly, Specht and Courtney (1994) unequivocally viewed the movement toward a clinical, private practice emphasis within the profession as negative: "We believe that social work has abandoned its mission to help the poor and oppressed and to build communality" (p. 4). In their view, community problems are increasing, whereas social work as a profession is devoting itself more and more to "the psychotherapeutic enterprise." The profession now seeks overridingly to "perfect the individual" rather than acting on the belief in the "perfectibility of society."

This argument, in fact, is not new. It is, rather, one that resurfaces as the profession's boundaries change and expand and the traditional concepts of what constitutes social work are reopened for scrutiny. Harriet Bartlett (1970) much earlier noted that, with the broadening of social work practice, social work's concerns with individuals and small groups might be sacrificed. She expressed concern about the potential for sharp separation between the two views of practice (what we would today call micro- and macro-practice) and the risk that the division would undermine the profession and threaten its unity.

Divisions within a profession are not unusual; in fact, as professions evolve, specialization within the ranks is to be expected. Specialists in a profession are typically able to coexist, as evidenced by the multiple fields of practice represented through the American Medical Association, American Bar Association, and the National Education Association. Such disparate interests within these professions do not negate the unifying identification as physician, lawyer, or educator. In some instances, specialty associations have been created to represent very specific professional interests, (for example, the American Psychiatric Association). Within social work, we have the examples of the National Association of Oncology Social Workers, the National Network for Social Work Managers, and the Association of Community Organization and Social Administration. Social workers frequently join specialty groups in addition to rather than instead of affiliation with the primary professional association, the National Association of Social Workers.

That social workers choose employment in clinical social work is a reflection of the availability of related jobs and the preferences of the social work labor force. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the relative weight of market forces over individual choice in tracking the evolution of the profession. For example, the number of social workers in community organization practice has decreased over the past decade (Gibelman & Schervish, 1997); this decline may indicate a retrenchment in the number of jobs rather than an abdication on the part of the social work community. Supporting data come from the steady erosion in community-oriented activist War on Poverty programs, such as Model Cities, Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the Community Action Program. In turn, such program changes reflected a turnabout in public and political attitudes about the causes of and appropriate interventions to alleviate social problems, cycling back to a more individualistic view of problems and remedies. Funding patterns further reflected the direction of change, with a wholesale abdication of support for community programs. Thus, Specht and Courtney (1994) may have reached the right conclusion - that social work has abandoned communality - but with a faulty explanatory base. The market may have abandoned social work rather than the other way around. An indeterminate factor is the extent to which social workers shared popular societal attitudes about the direction and scope of change. A more modern day scenario of this same nature can be seen in the large-scale entrance of social workers in the 1990s into the for-profit sector or independent practice; this phenomenon probably reflects labor market opportunity as well as individual choice.

Any attempt to determine the boundaries of the profession is likely to be both arbitrary and unsuccessful, given the constantly changing societal environment and prevailing ideologies. Also constraining professional boundary-setting is the ambivalence of society about the functions of social work and, by extension, those who carry out these functions. In prosperous times, society regards social work as openhanded and optimistic, but in hard times, social work is regarded as an unwelcome reflection of society's injustices (Hopps & Collins, 1995). As the political and economic environment shifts, the scope and nature of our work also changes, in part because of concomitant and inevitable alterations in the social work job market and also because of the desire on the part of the profession to meet priority social needs at any given point in time. The evolution of the profession also is rooted in changing technology and intervention methods. Our knowledge base continues to grow, and theories are subject to more rigorous testing.

This brief review of some of the major definitional efforts over time shows that perceptions of social work reflect the evolving and dynamic nature of the profession. Hopps and Pinderhughes (1987) saw such changes as positive: "Because social work continues to be seen as emerging and developing, it is important that the profession constantly defines and clarifies itself over the years" (p. 352).

The Evolving Profession

Social work's sanction comes from the society of which it is a part. This implies that society recognizes that there are disparities between "what is" and "what should be" and that there is a need to rectify this condition (Rosenfeld, 1983). This recognition on the part of any society that it is "flawed" should not be taken for granted. Social work simply does not exist or is not allowed to exist in some societies in our modern civilization because there is no sanction to address societal incongruities. Simply put, recognition that "all is not well" with some components of a society is a necessary precursor to the development of a systematic and professional response to address the perceived problems. The degree to which society is willing to identify such incongruities depends on the sociopolitical context of the times (Gibelman, 1995).

There is a sizable literature, as evidenced in any issue of Social Work, about the negative effect of changing federal policies on the role and function of social workers and, of course, on the well-being of the people social workers serve. Professional roles and relationships underwent substantial transformation during the 1980s, largely as a result of political negativism toward the profession and those it serves. Media perceptions and political rhetoric, perhaps fueling each other, raised questions about the legitimacy of the profession and left social work without a clear sense of direction (Jones & Novak, 1993). In this regard, Anne Minahan (1982), then editor-in-chief of Social Work, commented that the Reagan period represented one of the worst of times for social work and our society. She noted, however, that "a time of societal crises can create a common recognition of the shared social work perspective, values, and purpose that shape social workers' view of the world" (p. 291). It is not coincidental that, during the 1980s, when social policy resulted in a diminution of social work labor-market opportunities in some sectors of traditional practice, there was a substantial increase in the numbers of social workers entering independent practice (Gibelman & Schervish, 1997). What is less clear is whether the labor market defined or reflected social worker preferences. The overall conservative societal bent no doubt was reflected in the sociopolitical attitudes of the entering pool of social workers and similar attitudinal adaptations among the existing social work labor force. We are a product of and reflect, in degree rather than kind, the prevailing values of our society.

Public policies have a substantial effect on the breadth and scope of the services social workers provide, ultimately affecting the definition of professional boundaries. Such effects are not always negative. For example, during the 1960s social workers were active and successful in pressing state legislatures to enact consumer choice legislation, which recognizes social workers as qualified providers of mental health services and makes them eligible for insurance and other third-party reimbursement for services rendered (Whiting, 1995). The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1989 (P.L. 101-239) included a provision for clinical social workers to join the limited class of mental health professionals who are eligible for reimbursement under Medicare. And, more recently, final regulations for the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-3) include clinical social workers as health care providers (Staff, 1995).

Many federal policies that have expanded the boundaries of social work's domain concern the establishment of policies and programs to meet the needs of specific populations. For example, the enactment of such national social welfare policies as the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272), which ushered in an emphasis on permanency planning and family preservation; the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 (P.L. 100-77), which was the first major federal initiative that approached the problem of homelessness from a multiple problem framework; the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-690), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-336) resulted in new and expanded roles for social workers. These and other laws provided a new conceptualization of social problems and the financial incentive for the development of new programs. Social workers have always played an important role in planning, implementing, and evaluating new programs and services for our clients (Gibelman, 1995).

The current and pervasive movement to control health care costs has implications for the quality of health and mental health services, as well as access to care and clients' freedom to choose their providers. Social workers have had to learn quickly the business of managed care, including its technicalities, reimbursement systems, and legal and regulatory requirements. The nature of health and mental health services provided by social workers is again open to change, ultimately affecting self-definition and societal position. If social workers fail to adapt to this environment, they may find themselves excluded from service provision. This scenario, however, is unlikely, as adaptation is a consistent pattern.

Toward the New Millennium

Thirty years ago, the largest proportion of social workers worked for the government. Mental health was far behind child welfare and family services as the major arena of social work practice. Work in the for-profit sector was virtually nonexistent, and the private practice of social work was limited by the then ineligibility of most social work services for third-party payments. Social workers held leading managerial roles in public welfare, and the executives of most nonprofit social services agencies held an MSW degree (Gibelman, 1995; Gibelman & Schervish, 1997). Interventions focused on relationship and process.

As we approach the 21st century, we see a very different profession:

* Mental health is the fastest growing area of social work practice.

* Private practice has become an increasingly important alternative for the provision of social work services.

* The "generic" social worker has given way to the specialist.

* Technology is an important force driving how services are managed and delivered.

* Social workers are held accountable for the outcomes of their services, not just for the process.

* The for-profit sector has become an increasingly significant alternative for delivering social work services and, concurrently, the proportion of services delivered through the nonprofit sector has decreased.

* Bureaucracy, typically associated with government employment, has assumed a negative connotation and, with "Reinventing America," there is a decreasing source of public-sector employment for social workers.

* Competition has increased with allied professions, such as psychologists, counselors, marriage and family therapists, public administrators, and even business administrators, for direct service, supervisory, and administrative positions.

* Managed care holds the potential of limiting the role of social workers, as well as the quality and quantity of services available to the clients in need of social work services.

* There is a growing mandate for all social workers to incorporate research into their practice, a phenomenon underscored by the increasing influence of research-based knowledge on the development and debate of public policy (see, for example, Inouye, Ell, & Ewalt, 1994).

Technology deserves special mention as a factor influencing the evolution of the profession. The development of an "information superhighway" has had a profound effect on society, including how information is processed and knowledge disseminated and the speed, frequency, and nature of communications among people. Social welfare organizations and their personnel have embraced technology to enhance research capability, create management information systems, and streamline internal operations so that more time is available for client services. Similarly, computer-assisted instructional programs have been created as a means of guided training (Hopps & Collins, 1995). The application of computer technology in direct services to clients also is evolving, as seen, for example, in self-administered psychosocial diagnostic interviews and even distance counseling via computers (Butterfield, 1986; Macrov, 1991). The introduction of cellular phones in the field allows easy access to information on child abuse cases that facilitates rapid decisionmaking.

Biotechnology has solved some of the mysteries of disease and elongated life and has led to the ability to genetically engineer life itself. These advancements not only have created new practice arenas for social workers, such as genetic counseling, but also have created new ethical dilemmas about the nature and quality of life (Macarov, 1991; Gibelman, 1995). Such advances would have been unimaginable two decades ago. New methods of practicing social work and of learning how to practice, through social work education and training, have been the result. It is clear that technology will have an even more profound influence in the future on the nature of society and how social work responds to newly created societal conditions. To accommodate such change, the boundaries of the profession must be fluid.

An Ongoing Search for Clarity

With the identification of new social concerns or the compounding of existing social problems, the boundaries of the social work profession will continued to broaden and change. In some instances, social workers will be at the forefront of identifying new arenas of practice; at other times social workers will respond to the social welfare agenda defined by others. The labor market also limits or, conversely, opens opportunities for social workers, the dynamics of which relate to the state of the economy and the constraints or expansions of public social policy.

Modern society has grown increasingly sophisticated in its ability to forecast the world of the future and the consequences of projected changes. Although there may be some surprises on the social scene brought about by forces that cannot be predicted with great accuracy (for example, natural disasters or war), we have some fairly accurate knowledge about what the future holds for our society and for our profession. We know, for example, that the absolute and proportionate number of elderly people in our society is increasing; many will require services ranging from those associated with the creative use of leisure time to those concerning the provision of home health care. The number of people living in poverty will also continue to grow, especially children, as the middle class continues to shrink (Hopps & Collins, 1995) and as the effect of welfare reform manifests itself. Violence as a means of conflict resolution - on the streets in the case of drug wars and in the home in the case of domestic violence - will continue to threaten our safety and humanity, until such time as alternative means of resolving conflicts are taught and accepted. Creating an ethnically and culturally diverse society able to live harmoniously will become an increasing challenge as demographic trends create an even more heterogeneous population (Gibelman, 1995).

Where are we now? The U.S. economy is strong. The schism between "the haves and the have nots" has grown. Economic prosperity has been accompanied by a growing intolerance of the "have nots." Americans have begun to identify government, Wall Street, and private industry greed as unacceptable phenomena in society. The election of President Clinton in 1992 and again in 1996 was, at least in part, a repudiation of the exercise of power by elites in their own self-interest. Concurrently, there is a growing mistrust in the institutions of U.S. society, signified by the perception that "all is not well" and that the system itself is seen as a root cause of the problems. In such an environment, requests on the part of various interest groups for more funds, programs, and services is looked upon with suspicion, if not disfavor. The option, it is believed, is grounded in natural market forces, with communities, religious institutions, and private philanthropy taking on more and more responsibility. The extent to which these current ideologies and conditions coalesce and how social work responds to such challenges will have major repercussions for the breadth and nature of the profession in the coming years.

Barring unforseen events, the future is relatively clear with regard to the status of society - the larger environmental context in which the profession functions. We know less, understandably, about how our profession will respond to these current and future environmental conditions. The environmental factors influencing social work in the 21st century include

* public attitudes toward vulnerable populations

* conceptions of human need and public responsibility

* status of philanthropy

* federal public policy (health care, welfare reform)

* privatization

* demands for greater accountability

* demographic changes (increase in number of elderly people)

* managed care

* competing professions and licensing laws

* growth of the for-profit sector

* devolution of the role of government

* defederalization

* assumption of human services management by non-social workers

* technological advances

* unanticipated events (war or natural disasters)

* strength of economy.

Intraprofessional influences on social work in the 21 st century include:

* growing female domination of social work

* clinical, direct service focus

* disproportionate mental health services orientation

* growth in for-profit services

* growth in private practice

* increased interaction with managed care

* fewer ethnic minorities in the social work labor force

* increase in specialization

* increase in business savvy

* decrease in political activism and client advocacy

* reduction of role in government

* declassification

* increase in part-time and per diem labor force

* increase in case management, negotiating, service evaluation, and contract management roles

* increase in use of technology

* greater sophistication in measuring outcomes

* expanded and more explicit code of ethics.

The nature of social work in the future will be affected by the influence of both intraprofessional developments and external, environmental conditions and demands. And, of course, the internal and external developments interact with each other to produce a different set of contingencies and influences.

One index of the social work profession of the future can be discerned from data on the primary fields of practice and social problem concentrations selected by master's degree students currently enrolled in social work education programs and trends in postdegree employment of practicing social workers. For practicing social workers, family services and child welfare, when combined, rank first among primary fields of practice, followed closely by mental health and, lagging behind but still a major area, health. The dearth of social work students concentrating on aging, substance abuse, community planning, occupational social work, public welfare, and developmental disabilities shows a consistent pattern with the proportion of practicing social workers represented in these areas among the NASW membership (Gibelman & Schervish, 1997). Council on Social Work Education data (Lennon, 1997) suggest that, among graduate social work students, the interest in mental health practice continues unabated; for the 1996-97 academic year, mental health and community mental health ranked first as the primary field of practice for those graduate students indicating a subject concentration. The more traditional areas of social work practice - family and child welfare, for example, - have shown decreases.

An issue of concern is whether changes in social trends are accurately reflected in what social workers do and how they do it. For example, in light of the growth in the proportion of elderly people in the U.S. population, one might reasonably expect gerontology to be a growth area of professional practice. However, NASW and CSWE data indicate otherwise (Gibelman & Schervish, 1997; Lennon, 1997). Thus, social trends and social work response may not necessarily match. In this type of situation, in which demographic trends are irrefutable, it is the profession that will need to modify its course if it is to maintain an appropriate "fit" with its external environment. The job market will reflect social trends, limiting some areas of social work practice while broadening other areas.

A related area of concern centers on the extent to which social work education is adequately preparing social workers for the realities of the labor market. Any effort to measure the extent to which curriculum accurately reflects the nature of practice must be based on careful analysis of the interrelationship between public policy directions, labor force trends, and labor market needs. Such an analysis would produce the hard data on which informed decision making in the educational arena and in social welfare labor-force planning should be grounded (Siegel, 1975). Periodic efforts have been made to provide an approach and base to understanding the place of social work in the labor market and to analyzing what social workers do, but, in general, this area of study has been largely ignored (Gibelman & Schervish, 1997; Hardcastle, 1987; Siegel, 1975; Teare & Sheafor, 1995). Such disinterest limits the ability of the profession to effectively plan for the future and can potentially lead to a widening of the schism among social worker preferences, the focus of educational programs, and the realities of the social work labor market.

Visions of the Future

The definition of the profession and its boundaries, then, is a mirror reflection of the values, priorities, and technologies of American society in interaction with the social work profession at any given point in time. At various times in modern history, this societal context has served as a stimulus to expand professional boundaries; at times, social workers have had to advocate for and create opportunities in spite of prevailing politics and ideology.

Any effort to redefine the domain of social work runs the risk of resistance from some segments of the profession. However, social work is committed to and incorporates in it a strong value base that has been remarkably consistent over time. Social workers operate from a purpose and perspective rooted in a set of core values that include "service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence" (NASW, 1996, p. 5). These values are adaptable to changing circumstances involved in the human condition and how society sees fit to address such human needs.

Debates about the appropriate direction and emphasis of the profession will continue to be waged; such dialogue helps to crystallize the issues and fosters knowledge and informed decision making among social workers. As a brief historical view of the process of and factors affecting professional self-definition suggests, there has been ample room to accommodate the interplay between social work and the external environment in which it functions and of which it is a reflection. Rather than our lamenting the lack of a durable definition of the profession, its practice, and its boundaries, the periodic re-examination of such definitions should be seen as a positive reflection of a changing profession responsive to its environment.

Decisions about the future of the profession Can and should be within the profession's domain and of highest priority. Inherent in this debate is the ongoing re-examination and explication of who we are as a profession. The nature of self-exploration within the profession, however, is complex. It includes consideration of the extent to which the profession defines itself or is defined, by default, by external events and influences. It further includes consideration of the social environment at any given point and the particular way in which social work and the social environment coalesce or conflict. There is no one formula or model by which to analyze the relative influence of the many converging factors. The weight of the profession's history suggests that the environment may be more influential in boundary determination than the informed choices of its social work labor force. The potential failure lies not in what directions we choose but in not having the debate and allowing our profession to be defined by the forces and decisions of others. Abdication of our responsibility to define our own purview will probably result in disequilibrium between the dynamic relationship between social work and the environment in which it functions, with the latter becoming determinant of who we are and what we do.


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Margaret Gibelman, DSW, is professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, Belfer Hall, 2495 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10033-3299; e-mail:
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