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Social Work History
Social Work History
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It was the social crisis which occurred in Western Europe and North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which led to the creation of social work as an institution and a profession. Social work emerged as a response to this crisis, and as a compromise between different views about what form that response should take.
 
The social crisis that tore a vent through many Western societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is commonly referred to as the ‘industrial revolution’. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation transformed the lives of all people, rich and poor alike. Social problems that had been dispersed and largely invisible in the countryside (poverty and overcrowding, poor housing, ill-health and disease, alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution, unsupervised children) were commonplace in the new towns and cities. Working-class freedom and social deprivation spelt danger to the middle-class city dwellers who clamoured for something to be done to contain and control the threat from the ‘dangerous classes’.
 
And something was done. A vast array of state social welfare initiatives have their origins in the 19th century. Schemes for public sanitation, education, policing, prisons, juvenile correction, public workhouses and mental asylums accompanied legislation governing working conditions and factory inspection as well as new mechanisms for recording population change. At the same time, the 19th century saw the creation and development of a wide spectrum of social work activity financed and run by philanthropic agencies, but working alongside statutory agencies such as courts, hospitals and workhouses.
 
This activity included:
 
Police court missionaries (forerunners of probation officers) had a commitment to ‘advise, assist and befriend’ offenders.
They offered alternatives to custody, gave financial help to prisoners’ families and supported those leaving prison.
 
Rescue societies set out to ‘save’ women and children from prostitution and sexual exploitation. They closed down brothels, found accommodation and employment for women and girls and campaigned for changes in legislation.
 
Housing associations aimed to provide well-managed, cheap accommodation to poor people and skills-training in household management, budgeting and child care. This was achieved through weekly visits by housing visitors whose job it was to instruct and advise as well as collect rent.
 
University settlements offered adult education, art and drama to deprived communities. Middle-class university students (many of whom went on to become clergy or professional social workers) lived in the communities and worked alongside the urban poor.
 
Children’s charities gave poor children what they saw as the chance of a ‘fresh start’ through residential children’s homes, ‘boarding out’ with foster parents and emigration to Australia or Canada.
 
Almoners worked in hospitals, providing support to patients and their families during and after a stay in hospital, and bringing a ‘social’ perspective to medical problems.
 
Caseworkers from the Charity Organisation Society (COS) and other relief agencies carried out detailed assessments to decide who should be entitled to receive financial and other material help. The COS also attempted to channel local charitable donations and co-ordinate the activities of other charitable agencies.
 
Visitors on behalf of churches of all denominations and other secular visiting organisations provided practical support and visiting to the sick and needy in prisons, asylums and hospitals, poorhouses and workhouses and in their own homes. Some of the visitors went on to become committee members managing the institutions which they visited.
 
Although social work in the UK developed as a philanthropic activity on the margins of statutory services, social work in the 20th century became increasingly a professional activity, either carried out directly by the state, or carried out by the voluntary sector on its behalf. Social work has been incorporated steadily into statutory mechanisms since its 'high tide' in the 1970s (Langan 1993). Not only has the state won the right to intervene in the lives of individuals, it has effectively taken control over how this should be carried out and by whom. Voluntary social work agencies cannot now function without some measure of control over their activities by the local authority and by the legislature. Even in the era of ‘care in the community’, it is the local authority which inspects voluntary institutions and give out contracts for work on its behalf.
 
references:
 
Cree, V.E. (2002) 'Social Workand Society', in Davies, M. (ed) Blackwell Companion to Social Work, 2nd edition, Blackwell, Oxford.
 
Langan, M. (1993) 'The rise and fall of social work', in Clarke, J. (ed.) A Crisis in Care, Sage, London.
 

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