Origins of the Functional School of Social Work

Ed. Note:  This entry is taken almost completely from pages 54-59 in the 2008 publication 100 Years: A Centennial History of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice

By Mark Frazier Lloyd, University of Pennsylvania

Introduction: In the 1930s the Great Depression overwhelmed the nation with unemployment and a staggering volume of social welfare issues. The priorities of Federal, state, and local governments were reordered, with renewal of the economy and assistance to the afflicted moving to the very top of the agenda. Social work executives found themselves recruited by government agencies to fill newly created positions. The Pennsylvania School of Social Work was no exception. In December 1935 Pennsylvania Governor George H. Earle, III announced the appointment of Karl de Schweinitz to the head of the State Emergency Relief Board of Pennsylvania, effective in January 1936. Earle simultaneously established the Pennsylvania Committee on Public Assistance and Relief, which hired Kenneth Pray as its full time Secretary, effective in February 1936. In the winter of 1936 the Pennsylvania School lost both its Director and the Dean of its faculty.

The Trustees of the School elected Virginia P. Robinson to the post of Acting Director. She had served the School as Associate Director since 1919 and had worked her way through seven years in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, earning the University’s Ph.D. in Sociology in 1931. She titled her dissertation “A Changing Psychology in Social Case Work” and the University of North Carolina Press immediately published it in book form. It was an extraordinary work, one which caused a sensation in the field of social work education. Bertha C. Reynolds, Associate Director of the Smith College School for Social Work, reviewed it with approval in the June 1931 issue of the Family Service Association journal, The Family.

Some books sink into the pool of oblivion with scarcely a ripple. Some, for a brief time, are like molten matter cast up by an erupting volcano. Some are like earthquakes, felt but not comprehended at the time and producing no one knows what changes. One only knows that after their coming nothing is the same again. “A Changing Psychology in Social Work” bears the mark of such a book.

On the other hand, Frank J. Bruno,  a distinguished professor of social work at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, reviewed “A Changing Psychology…” in the January 1933 issue of The American Journal of Sociology. He wrote with evident concern. In his view,

There has always been one school [of thought] which has relied upon differences in personality for the explanation of deviant behavior and another which has emphasized the predominant importance of the social, economic, and political mediums in which development has taken place. Miss Robinson goes nearly to the extreme of the personality hypothesis.…Her statement that psychology and not social science has spoken the last word upon social case work is confirmatory evidence of this allegiance. … The book exhibits the qualities inherent in positive statement of conviction as compared with the attitude of the scholar whose conclusions are tentative and subject to change on the presentation of new evidence. The author seems to have found in the methodology of [Otto] Rank an end to all searchings for method in social interaction. This leads to an uncompromising form of statement, as well as a confidence in the comprehensiveness of the formula which is in marked contrast to the tentative methodologies of most of the contemporary professions.

The Functional School is Born: Virginia Robinson was breaking new ground. Like others who lead a profession in a new direction, she suffered the criticism of many of her peers. Nevertheless, she pressed ahead. She had the courage of her own convictions. She was strengthened by the support of Karl de Schweinitz, Kenneth Pray, and the founder of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, the psychiatrist Frederick H. Allen, M.D.  Most of all, she enjoyed the committed backing and intellectual powers of her life partner, Jessie Taft. Taft was the one who had met Otto Rank in 1924, during his first visit to the United States. Taft had undergone psychoanalysis with him in 1926-27. She had authored “The Function of a Mental Hygienist in a Children’s Agency,” which she read at the National Conference of Social Work in 1927. She had published “A Changing Psychology in Child Welfare” in the September 1930 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In 1934, after fifteen years at the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania, she had become a full-time member of the faculty at the Pennsylvania Society of Social Work. In 1936 she had translated and published Rank’s Will Therapy: An Analysis of the Therapeutic Process in Terms of Relationship. Jessie Taft was the person most responsible for developing the “functional school” in social work theory and practice. Virginia Robinson was her partner every step of the way.

As Acting Director of the School, Virginia Robinson moved decisively to elevate the concept of function to the national level. Under her leadership the School inaugurated the Journal of Social Work Process and Volume I, Number 1 was published in November 1937. Titled The Relation of Function to Process in Social Case Work, the volume was edited by Jessie Taft. Robinson later summarized the significance of this publication. It “carried,” she said, “Dr. Taft’s definitive statement of the relation of function to process and illustrated the responsibility she carried as editor for the selection of articles chosen from theses of advanced students or from supervisors or executives who were working with her in exploration of the problems illuminated by this understanding of function. The entire volume bore her imprint.” After ten years of research and experimentation, the functional school was full born.

The turning point in the use of psychology by social workers was the publication, in 1930, of Virginia Robinson’s A Changing Psychology in Social Work. Robinson’s book crystallized the growing discontent many social workers felt with the old, paternalistic models and proposed a new way to synthesize the individual personality and the social environment. Heavily influenced by the psychiatric theories of Otto Rank, Robinson proposed that case work should focus not on planning for the social welfare of the client, not on the client per se (or the environment per se), but on the relationship between the client and the social worker. The client, not the social worker, should be the central actor in the casework drama; the social worker – client relationship was intended to strengthen the client. …

Robinson’s approach was heavily oriented to the client’s emotional adjustment, not to the client’s objective social welfare. Concrete services, home visits, and environmental manipulation by the social worker had little place in her model. Rather, the client chose the agency that offered the services he or she wanted; it was the social worker’s role to enable the client to make that choice wisely and to use the agency effectively. The agency itself became, to Robinson, a “sample situation” within which the client – social worker relationship was developed and played out. It defined and limited the social worker – client relationship; within it, the client would come to know and test himself or herself, his or her limits and strengths. Even the administration of a simple agency function, then, became “individual therapy through a treatment relationship.” …

As the decade wore on…Robinson and her colleague at Penn, Jessie Taft, developed their ideas further. But some of the implications of their rejection of Freudian orthodoxy now began to sink in and many social workers had second thoughts. Caseworkers began to split into two “schools”: the “functional school” (the followers of Robinson and Taft, a group that included Kenneth Pray, Almena Dawley,  Harry Aptekar,  Grace Marcus, and Ruth Smalley) and the more orthodox Freudian “diagnostic” (or “organic” or “psychosocial”) school (which included Gordon Hamilton, Florence Hollis, Lucille Austin, Fern Lowery, and Annette Garrett, among others). Although the functional school remained a small minority, the debate it provoked has had an enormous influence on social work methods and principles. Continuing for more than fifteen years, the debate quickly grew extraordinarily bitter, even vitriolic. By the late forties, graduates of “functional” schools (e.g., the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina) had trouble finding jobs in agencies that adhered to the diagnostic school, and vice versa. …

As the technical aspects of the debate have often been recounted, a brief summary will suffice here. The functional school believed in short-term treatment, focusing on the here and now (and specifically on the client in the agency); the diagnostic school tended toward a long-term therapeutic model based on an in-depth investigation of the client’s life history. The functional school called for “partializing” – focusing only on the immediate issues presented by the client – whereas the diagnostic school insisted on the necessity of examining and treating the “total personality” of the client, even if the help sought by the client was for a limited, practical problem. The functional school eschewed formal diagnosis and the setting of treatment goals, arguing that these would emerge in the course of the relationship; the diagnostic school, by contrast, insisted on differential analysis and a setting of short and long-term goals. The functional school saw the experience of the client in his or her relationship with the social worker within the specific agency setting and how the client used the agency’s functions (hence the name) as the key to personal change; the diagnostic school saw personality transformations – mobilizing the client’s ego strengths, resolving inner conflicts, and so on – as central. In the functional setting the client directed the process of change, whereas the worker was responsible only for his or her own part in helping the client release these processes. To the diagnostic school, the social worker was far more central and directive. The functional school stressed the importance of external structure (agency rules, time limits to therapy, agency fees); the diagnostic school believed in a more open-ended and constraint-free process. In the functional setting, clients were to pattern their experiences in their own unique ways and thus develop their own internal norms; treatment in the diagnostic setting was concerned with the adherence of the client to socially accepted norms.

What stands out in Taft’s defense of the functional school is the belief that she and the other theorists in the school had developed a fully integrated response to Abraham Flexner’s 1915 declaration that social work was not a profession. The functional school had constructed a body of knowledge and formulated methods of research, teaching, and practice which together fulfilled all the definitions of the classic professions. In the 1930s the American Association of Schools of Social Work built up educational standards to that of graduate work associated with and under the direction of a university. The decade was also distinguished by the first articulation of a creative and original philosophy unique to social work. The Pennsylvania School of Social Work stood at the forefront of both movements.

For more information on what was the theory and practice of the “functional school”? A good source is: John H. Ehrenreich, in his 1985 book, The Altruistic Imagination: A History of Social Work and Social Policy in theUnited States.

Source: 100 Years: A Centennial History of the  School of Social Policy & Practice, pp. 54-59 by Mark Frazier Lloyd, University of Pennsylvania


4 Responses to The Functional School of Social Work

  1. elham says:

    the article was very helpful. thanks a lot
    i have a question: by considering functional school of social work characteristics can we assert some of newer models such as task-centered and solution-focused model, have their roots in this school?
    i would be pleased if you can introduce me some books on social work theories roots(i mean which theories and models are predecessors of other theories)

    • jhansan says:

      I have been away from social work practice for many years and feel incompetent to reply to your question. I recommend you contact a local graduate school of social work or a recently retired professor of social case work. Good Luck.

  2. jhansan says:

    Thank you for the nice comment. I hope you continue to visit the site. Jack Hansan

  3. Eika says:

    It’s really helpful for me to learn more about the functional school.Thanks a lot.

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