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Lindeman, Eduard: A Neglected Social Worker

Eduard C. Lindeman: A Neglected Social Work Giant

By: Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Maryland


Eduard C. Lindeman
Eduard C. Lindeman
Photo: NASW Foundation

Eduard Christian Lindeman was a remarkable social worker but he is less well known than other early stalwarts. Many factors contributed to this. He was not a self-promoter, he was not a specialist and worked in other fields, and he was not a clinician.  Despite these “deficits” his life and writings are of continued value to social work.

He was born May 9, 1885 in St. Claire, Michigan and died in New York City April 13, 1953. He was the 10th child in a family of German speaking Danes. The area of Michigan they lived in was hostile to Scandinavians. Add to this the death of his father when he was a young boy and you have a picture of the classical marginal man. The poverty of the family meant that he had little formal schooling and a lot of hard work. He had jobs such as stable cleaner, brickyard worker, construction worker, and shipyard worker. He also had people who encouraged him. A farmer he worked for told him he could get into the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) if he could prove that he could do the work. At age 22 he gained admittance to a special “sub-freshman” course because his reading and writing skills were poor. He had no money and earned what he needed by working on the college farm. A secretary helped him and he soon was a proficient and productive writer. He also married the daughter of the chair of the Horticultural Department.

His commitment to Democracy and social action was forged early. While still in school he organized a protest over the expulsion of two students. Graduating in 1911 he then held a variety of jobs.  First he was editor of a liberal agricultural journal and then a pastor’s assistant in a Congregational church. From here he became state leader of Boys and Girls Clubs for his alma mater’s Agricultural Extension. For a couple of years he was an instructor at the YMCA college in Chicago. This was not a happy experience as his colleagues did not appreciate his learner- centered approach to education and his modern theological ideas. Then came two years as Professor of Sociology at North Carolina College for Women. His resignation there was forced. The KKK put pressure on the college because he invited blacks to his house and he objected to faculty attempts to dictate his teaching methods.   He spent the next two years as a free lance writer. In 1924 he joined the faculty of the New York School of Social Work and remained there until his retirement in 1950. He was considered a community organization specialist but his first courses reflect his interest in social ethics. These were Social Work and Social Progress, Social Psychology, and Social Technique and Social Ethics (Konopka 1958, p. 43). He also taught courses on unions and labor economy. In addition to school from 1935-1938 he was director of Community Organization for Leisure in the WPA. In 1946 he was educational adviser to the British Army in Germany.

Lindeman’s philosophy of education was derived from John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nikolai Grundtvig (a Danish philosopher), and William James. He also associated with leading intellects of his day, Mary Parker Follett, Herbert C. Croly, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Robert McIver and Max Otto. One of his non-academic friends and supporters was Dorothy Whitney Straight. She was a founder of The New Republic and The New School for Social Research.  He participated in a variety of liberal movements, especially cooperatives and supported labor unions. This man who started his college education late and unprepared became a highly productive scholar. He wrote 5 books, 16 monographs and hundreds of chapters, articles reviews and other writings. The titles of his books reflect the range of his contribution.

The most famous was The Meaning of Adult Education (Lindeman 1926). In the field of adult education this book is still studied in graduate programs. He didn’t believe in lectures or textbooks but used student-centered small group discussion. At the same time he held that as important as the group is the individual should not be dominated by it. Knowledge comes from students and not teachers. Textbooks were considered a secondary source of information.  Adult education was for living and not for occupational advancement. The ultimate goal was that students would participate in democratic social action. These ideas are still used in programs helping immigrants acculturate.

Probably his second most important book was Social discovery: an approach to the functional study of groups (Lindeman 1924). This work was a major contribution to community organization method and education. It reflected his belief in coordination, the cooperative movement, citizen participation in public affairs, and the importance of recreation. Science is a problem solving method, but he warned against being seduced by facts. He wanted to know when a number represented a fact since science is a method of discovery and facts are tentative. The group is seen as the source of all social data which must be gathered by careful observation. He argued for better observational techniques using valid methods. Perhaps because of its research focus this book has been largely neglected by social work.

The third important book was The Community an introduction to the study of community leadership and organization (Lindeman 1921). This was the work that earned him an invitation to join the faculty at the New York School of Social Work where he was considered an “inspired” teacher.   He saw the essential community problem as developing a working relationship between a democratic process involving total community membership and the necessary division of labor in a complex society that required specialists. To him there was no essential conflict between community work and individual work. The unit of analysis had to be the community but the individual and his rights had to be equally respected. In one of the more seminal statements in social work history he said, “Community organization is that phase of social organization which constitutes a conscious effort on the part of the community to control its affairs democratically and to secure the highest services from its specialists, organizations, agencies, and institutions by means of recognized interrelations. “ (Lindeman 1921, pp. 14-15). There has been no better and more concise definition of the field since then.

The fourth book was written with John Hader (Hader and Lindeman 1933) and was called Dynamic Social Research. This work stressed the importance of values in research. It was a study of employer-employee joint committees. The book continues to develop his social philosophy and gives a methodological discussion of how the study was done.  They deal with the problem of values and motives and maintain there is no pure objectivity. This imposes on all researchers the obligation to state the value position from which they undertake a study. This is an injunction in sore need of emphasis today. This was a pioneer study in group process but it too is not widely referred to in social work.

The fifth book The community: an introduction to the study of community leadership and organization (Lindeman 1921) was one of the first studies that helped establish community organization as a method. Gisela Konopka (Konopka 1958), one of the stalwarts of group work, did her doctoral thesis on a study of his philosophy.  She said his social pragmatism was compounded out of his commitment to democracy and to Christian values though he identified with no specific church. Holding to such a Democratic Christian Socialist social philosophy was enough to bring him to the attention of the McCarthy committee. He was joined by others social workers such as Marian Hathaway, Bertha Reynolds, and Charlotte Towle. While a few stood up social work’s response to this social injustice was not notable (Leighninger 1987, p. 193). Despite its vaunted belief in social justice when the going got tough the profession did not get going. On the last day of his life he said, “This is a beautiful country. Don’t let McCarthy spoil it” (Konopka 1958, p. 75)! (Ed. Note: For a view of Lindeman’s anti-communist views visit: Lindeman, Eduard: Correspondence)

In sum, to him Democratic ideals must permeate means as well as ends and values must be validated in action. He was a social activist who undertook pioneering work in adult education, community organization, group work, and labor management problems. Democracy meant not separating action from philosophy. The power of his conviction is best reflected in an article he wrote in 1938 on “Group Work and Democracy (Lindeman 1938). He warns against getting preoccupied with the numbers of groups and the numbers of people in them. “Whenever democracy is reduced to quantitative levels, one may be certain that it has already lost its appeal as a mode of life But one must repeat over and over again, democracy is neither a goal nor a mechanical device for attaining a preconceived goal. It is at bottom a mode of life founded on the assumption that goals and methods, means and ends, must be compatible and complementary if experience is to bear creative consequences. . …the function of group work is to determine whether or not we can produce persons who are both worthy of freedom and capable of utilizing its discipline in ministering to the common needs of their fellows.” (Lindeman 1938, p. 6). These are lessons that bear continual study. Konopka says, “Social work has not produced great philosophers.” Lindeman comes pretty close.


Hader, J. J. and E. Lindeman (1933). Dynamic social research. London, New York,, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Harcourt, Brace.

Konopka, G. (1958). Eduard C. Lindeman and social work philosophy. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Leighninger, L. (1987). Social Work: search for Identity. New York, Greenwood Press. Lindeman, E. (1921). The community: an introduction to the study of community leadership and organization. New York, Association Press.

Lindeman, E. (1924). Social discovery: an approach to the study of functional groups. New York,, Republic Publishing Company.

Lindeman, E., C. (1938). Group work and democracy. New trends in group work J. Lieberman. New York, Association Press.

Lindeman, E. C. (1926). The meaning of adult education. New York, New Republic.

Source: The Maryland Social Worker March/April 2007

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2012). Eduard C. Lindeman: A neglected social work giant. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from