Skip to main content

Social Work and Social Action-1945

Important Note: The message below was in the Foreword to the Proceedings of The National Conference of Social Work Selected Papers for the Seventy-Second Annual Meeting in 1945

For The Second Time During World War II the National Conference of Social Work has had to make major changes in its program in order to accommodate itself to war conditions. In 1943 the Conference divided its meetings between two cities in order to avoid too large a meeting in one place. This year, travel conditions were such that the Office of Defense Transportation requested the cancellation of all large gatherings. Consequently, for the first time in its seventy-two years of existence, the National Conference of Social Work did not meet. However, the Executive Committee carried forward the purpose of the Conference through two devices. A selected group of papers was written for the 1945 Proceedings. These papers were immediately mimeographed and made available to local communities for one-day meetings. In all, 139 such meetings were held. This plan involved a new type of responsibility for the Editorial Committee. Ordinarily, the Committee reads all the papers given at the National Conference sessions, selecting for publication in the Proceedings a group of papers that are particularly valuable because they either present new data, have immediate practical usefulness, are of historical significance, or are especially timely or provocative. These same criteria were kept in mind this year, but selection had to be made in advance of writing, on the basis of topics planned by the Program Committee. Most of the section chairmen already had plans under way for the program when the Conference meeting was canceled. The Program Committee, which includes all the section and subcommittee chairmen, went over these plans and sent to the Editorial Committee brief descriptions of eighty-four possible papers with suggestions of writers. From these, the Editorial Committee had the task of building a volume of about forty papers. In planning the volume the Committee had to take into consideration, not only the preference of the section chairmen as indicated by ratings, but also the balance of the volume in terms of topics and speakers from the various fields of social work. The Editorial Committee consisted of Paul T. Beisser (St. Louis), Gertrude Springer (Boston), Florence Hollis (New York City), Chair

Social Work And Social Action

By Kenneth L. M. Pray, Director, University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, Phildadelphia

This article is meant to answer, from one single point of view, certain questions which have long divided the profession of social work, its sponsors and supporters, and which have disturbed and retarded the development of constructive relations between the profession and many other groups in our communities who share many of our objectives and are struggling earnestly and effectively for their attainment. Upon the answers to these questions depend, not only the unity and strength and, therefore, the ultimate status and development of the profession as an instrument of service, not only the scope and nature and quality of that service, but, in truth, the very existence of our right and our opportunity to serve at all.

It is not necessary that we immediately find final answers upon which we can all agree; but it is essential that we shall honestly seek agreement, shall search for sound professional principles by which to measure the discharge of professional responsibilities and to guide all of us in coming to terms with the practical problems of our day-to-day relationship with forces of social change and social planning. It is supremely important that we shall not allow ourselves to divide into warring camps, around differing concepts of our role in’ the world, and shall not find a kind of exhilarating satisfaction in hurling epithets at each other across the chasm that may temporarily divide us on this issue. Whatever other principles may be at stake, it is surely sound professional practice to recognize, respect, and explore our differences, rather than merely to dogmatize or fight about them.

For the purpose of this discussion we shall define social action as the systematic, conscious effort directly to influence the basic social conditions and policies out of which arise the problems of social adjustment and maladjustment to which our service as social workers is addressed. This definition itself may not satisfy all of us to begin with, for it has at least one debatable limitation. While it does not deny, neither does it specifically acknowledge or emphasize the potential and actual indirect influence upon the total social scene which may emanate from the specific services social workers render to particular individuals and groups, through the traditional primary task of helping people to find and use their own strength and the resources around them for the solution of their own problems and the fulfillment of their own lives. I am inclined to believe that the importance and value of this indirect social action, inherent in our day-to-day service, are often unduly minimized or even forgotten in our discussions of social action. But for the present, it is not really in controversy, and I am quite sure that none among us would want to limit our professional service, either in scope or method, so as to preclude these potential, indirect, social gains. It is in relation to the direct, deliberate application of our effort to general social change that our problems and our’ differences principally develop

With reference to this issue, let us state some of the disturbing questions plainly.

First of all, the basic question: Does social work as a profession bear any specific responsibility to apply its knowledge and skill to the end of adjusting social institutions and arrangements to the needs of human beings, or is its responsibility limited to helping people find the utmost of satisfaction and achievement within the social circumstances that surround them, whatever those circumstances may be?

If the profession does have some responsibility to participate in social change, what are the boundaries of that responsibility? Has it any real boundaries? Can it be defined or measured in such a way as to differentiate the responsibility of social work in social action from that of other groups devoted to other forms of human service? Or is our responsibility unlimited, all-inclusive, subject only to a constantly changing and expanding definition of what constitutes social need and social betterment?

If, as a profession, we have an inherent, definite responsibility for participation in social action, is it a universal, individual responsibility, borne by every one of us, each in his own place and station? Or is it essentially a collective responsibility only, to be discharged primarily by chosen representatives of the whole profession, on behalf of all? Or is it, perhaps, a’ responsibility to be delegated by all of us to a few especially interested and competent individuals, employed in agencies devoted to this particular purpose?

Under any of these concepts, can the discharge of this responsibility be brought under anything like professional discipline? What is the relation of the performance of these tasks to other aspects of professional performance? How does it affect, for instance, our direct service relationships with clients? Can this primary professional service relationship be used in any way as an avenue for discharge of a professional responsibility for social action?

And how does our professional relation to a particular agency

which is an almost uniquely significant factor in the performance of our professional function-affect the scope or nature of our responsibility for social action? Does it define, control, limit, or modify this responsibility?

What is the place of the professional association in this whole problem? Is there anything in its function or its composition, or in our relation to it, that determines or defines the use we can make of it in discharging our responsibility for social action? And what of the union? Can we use it-how or to what extent can we use itCor this professional purpose?

Finally, what of our professional relation to political action, especially partisan political action? What part, if any, can we play as professional people in this recurring contest between opposing social interests and concepts and those that represent or uphold them? Does such participation necessarily violate professional standards, because it involves the abandonment of our primary obligations or the destruction of essential professional relationships? In this regard, does it make a difference whether we act as individuals, or in groups, or as a total profession? Can we, indeed, act as individuals or as groups, without involving our whole profession or entangling our primary professional services with divisive and extraneous public issues?

The history and the generally accepted basic philosophy of social work point to a definite answer to our first question. Social action, once more commonly called social reform, has always been an integral and often a decisive element in social work practice as a whole. From the early days of the charity organization and settlement movements in England, down to the mental hygiene and public welfare movement of our own time, there has never been a moment when professionally conscious social workers have been content wholly to separate their day-to-day service of particular individuals and groups from some measure of responsibility for controlling or preventing some of the broad social factors that caused, complicated, or intensified the problems with which they dealt. And the reason, I believe, is that there is no possibility of such separation in fact. In accepting responsibility for administering particular services, social workers accept, also, the inherent obligation to see that those services find their mark, so far as possible, in the lives of those that seek and use them. The special knowledge and skill and discipline upon which the professional character of our whole function rests are directed precisely to that end. Otherwise it would be empty pretense. But suppose, in that effort, we discover circumstances beyond the immediate control of ourselves or our clients which frustrate or obstruct the full and fruitful use of our service? That cannot absolve us from our inherent responsibility to make our service available and useful in fact, as well as in theoretical purpose. And how can we discharge that full responsibility without undertaking somehow to help in removing the obstructions that confront us and our clients? And what is this but social action?

In affirming this basic concept that social work, as a profession, necessarily involves and includes social action as a professional function, we are brought close to an answer for our second question, as to the nature and scope of that responsibility. Social work is not the whole of social welfare enterprise. It is not the exclusive custodian or captain of social progress. The social welfare, in a true sense, is the common ultimate objective of every social institution; it is the characteristic aim of many parts of our modern culture. Social work cannot possess, it can only share, that objective. We have learned through experience the essential practical value, as well as the theoretical validity, of a limited and defined function as the basis of our direct professional service to clients. We know that we need that limitation as the focus of our own development in skill and knowledge, and as the solid framework that sustains and sanctions our helping process. We know that the client needs it, too, among other reasons, in order that he may know whether the service we offer meets his need, and whether he can use it with satisfaction and success. The same principle applies with equal force to that secondary aspect of our task which concerns our participation in helping the community effect broad change in itself. We need to know the limits within which we can truly help, as a basis for the development of our own skill and the formulation of our own criteria of the validity of change. The community needs to know the area of our special. knowledge and capacity, as the basis of its discriminating acceptance and use of our help.

What, then, defines the province within which, as a profession, we carry responsibility for social action? It cannot be bounded once and for all, by the range of the human problems with which it is concerned, in terms of the aspects of human living with which those problems are identified. One decisive characteristic of social work as a total professional field is the fact that there is no problem of human living in society which is not likely, appropriately, to come within the orbit of some of its professional practitioners. Problems of health, work, play, education, of family life, parenthood, childhood, of every social relationship within which people must find their’place, are grist to our mill. Yet, obviously, that cannot mean that our specific professional capacity and responsibility extend to the understanding and treatment of all the infinite ramifications of human life as a whole, or of any of these problems in their entirety.

There is, however, one focal point to which all our professional services do converge, whose specific significance sets off our tasks from every other part of social welfare enterprise. That is our concern’with the actual impact of any or all of these problems upon the individual life, and the way in which human beings face and meet these. problems, and thus attain, through social relationships, their mastery over’them. We do not know, ‘for instance-we have no way to find out through our own professional service or training — what constitutes a good and complete health program in any community, in terms of the technical components of such a program. We do know and we must know, because we are responsibly helping people to face their health problems as factors in their social adjustment, what stands in the way of the maintenance of health and the full use of health resources. We know the effect upon individual people of inadequate or inaccessible health resources, inadequate provision for meeting the economic hazards of illness, inadequate appreciation and, therefore, inadequate provision of integrated treatment, of the interacting physical, social, and emotional factors of illness. We know’some of the conditions, mechanisms, and processes that are prerequisite for the attainment of recognized standards of health. With respect to these aspects of the community’s health problem we have a clear professional responsibility to make our help available, not only in the realization, but also in the formulation of its own health standards and health program.

Take another example:’ We do not know, nor can we conceivably learn-as a part of. our own professional study and practice-all that must go into the organization and operation of an adequate and satisfying economic system. But we do know the impact of economic factors of life upon individual human beings and groups, and we know the problems that people face in the actual process,of adjusting to these fundamental realities of social living, because we have been responsibly and studiously engaged in helping people through that actual process. We do know, therefore, not only the fact, but the meaning to real people of inadequate income, of internittent employment and unemployment; we know the meaning to the individual of real work, of creative, free, self-respecting participation in the economic process and in the determination of his own working conditions. This does not entitle us to prepare or to endorse a detailed blueprint of a total reform of the economic system. It does obligate us to contribute of our special knowledge and our professional judgment to the formulation of acceptable criteria of the validity of economic arrangements, and to exert our influence toward the introduction into our economic structure of those mechanisms and processes that make it possible for people continuously to find positive satisfactions, through sound relationships, in all their working life.

The province of professional social work, then, either in its direct service or in its social action, does not encompass the total life problem of anybody, not the whole of any problem. We are concerned with social process-the impact of social structure and policy upon individuals, and the process by which people are enabled to meet and master the problems this impact presents.

It is obvious, if this be true, that the responsibility of social work for social action is both an individual and a collective responsibility. It cannot be entirely separated from individual practice; it cannot be wholly entrusted to a special group of workers charged exclusively with the specific set of tasks involved in social action; it cannot be delegated by each of us to a few chosen representatives of all of us. Each of us carries a dual responsibility: first, to perform with all the competence and faithfulness we can muster the particular services which are entrusted to us by the particular agency with which we are identified; second, to contribute steadily of our understanding and skill, derived from this experience, to help the community constructively to relate its institutions and arrangements and services to the fundamental needs of human beings as these are disclosed in our service relationships. No one of us can know all about all these needs; each of us can and must know a part, and each of us must be responsible, therefore, for contributing his own part to the larger whole.

There are four kinds of relationship within which this responsibility must be defined and controlled, if professional standards are to be discovered and upheld. There is the client-worker relationship; the agency relationship; the relationship to the profession as a whole; and the relationship with other organized forces of social change and control in the larger community

It seems clear that the client-worker relationship must be held clear for service, and for service only. Any use of that relationship for the attairment of any goal other than that to which it is dedi cated in advance-the service of a particular need upon which the agency has offered help, through the worker-is a betrayal of the client’s confidence, of the agency’s purpose, and of the worker’s professional obligation. The process of service itself, by helping to discover and release strength and energy in clients, which they may ultimately turn, along with others, if they choose, toward, the conscious change of social policies that affect them, may, it is true, indirectly promote social change. But this must always remain one of the incidental, unpredictable, and undesigned outcomes of service-never its goal.

The professional social worker’s agency relationship is of another order. Here he is somewhat freed to participate directly in social action affecting the problems encompassed within agency function. As an individual he discharges this aspect of professional responsibility in helping the agency to mold its own part of the total social structure to the needs of those who seek its help. By the consistent and continual registration of the worker’s actual experience, and the circumstances surrounding the client’s need and his use of agency service, through the established agency channels, the worker contributes responsibly to that alert awareness of, and readiness for, change, which is the hallmark of every effective social agency. By sensitive and discriminating participation, at every appropriate time, in the formulation and expression of progressive agency policy, geared to clients’ needs, the individual worker helps to mold this little part of the total organized community. This is no negligible contribution. Given an agency under professional leadership, in which there is a constant two-way flow of creative interest and experience, among board, administration, and professional staff, the habit of sensitive response to the changing needs and new meanings of its own service is bound to grow into an expanding concern for factors beyond agency control that cause or complicate the problems with which agency service is concerned. And that kind of an agency is going to feel an obligation to contribute, as a whole-not only through its professional elements-to the pool of community feeling and understanding out of which new and more serviceable social structure and policy will emerge. I venture to affirm that every social agency expressing, as it must, in its own function, the community’s purpose to meet a specific need, is obligated to help the community to fulfill that purpose completely, by removing the obstructions that prevent the service from reaching its mark in the lives of people, and by relieving the conditions that steadily augment or intensify the need.

But it is also true that every agency necessarily carries, in prac  tice if not in theory, a limited function. Its responsibility for social action-and, hence, the opportunity of professional workers to discharge their responsibility through it-is limited to the area of need with which it is functionally involved. Furthermore, the agency is composed of both lay and professional elements. It can only act, as an entity, within the area of its own internal agreement. It may not, at a given time and place, be ready to act, or capable of acting effectively, toward ends that its professional staff, or some of its members, consider to be necessary for the full discharge of their professional responsibilities. Does this circumstance absolve the individual professional worker of all further responsibility? Or, to put it another way, is the professional staff member stopped from further professional social action beyond that which he can discharge through the agency or within it?

On the contrary: Professional responsibility is individual. It cannot be surrendered or evaded. Within the bounds of one’s direct functional service, the professional worker is, of course, the representative of the agency and faithfully applies its policy, expressing his own professional self in the process of helping clients use agency function and policy to the utmost for their own good. Beyond those boundaries, one still carries one’s own individual professional responsibility to free oneself for professional performance in accordance with one’s own professional standards. It is here that the professional association, as an instrument of professional social action, serves an indispensable purpose. Here the limitations of an individual service responsibility, and the limitations of a particular agency function, are erased; here, as a member of the total professional group, the worker finds an avenue through which to bring to expression his whole professional self, in behalf of the highest professional standards.

As a united body, pooling the experiences and the resources of all its members, the profession is free to establish its own criteria of social structure and policy, to articulate its own total contribution to the guidance of social change, and to participate in social action to that end in accordance with its own deliberately accepted standards and methods. The circle of individual responsibility and influence is thus widened; one’s own interests and purposes and standards are measured and tested against others. In the end, one can join confidently and helpfully in support of professional interests and aims even far beyond those bounded by one’s own specific experience. To help the professional association serve that useful purpose, with courage, with foresight, with consistent determination, in social action, is one of the solemn obligations professional workers accept with their membership in the association.

Here again there are prerequisite conditions that must be observed and maintained. The association unites professional workers around one basic interest-the discovery, progressive development, and consistent use of the highest professional standards of service. It is concerned with the actual performance of social workers, through the acceptance and enforcement of such standards. Its members are not asked to check their religious, their political, even their economic and social convictions and differences at the door. They are asked to join in support of certain common standards of performance, whatever other differences may divide them. The usefulness of the association as an instrument of social action is necessarily limited by that primary functional concern with professional standards. Even within this area of interest, its practical usefulness depends upon the degree of its actual internal agreement. It is foolhardy and dangerous for the association to presume or pretend to speak for the whole profession upon any issue, even those affecting or affected by professional standards, when actually professional agreement does not exist. It is sound principle and serviceable practice that have led the association usually to limit its undertakings in social action to those that, after study and discussion by the whole membership, command the convinced support of a clear majority.

There is, of course, danger in this concept of the limitation of association responsibility. Endless study, aimless talk, may become an easy refuge from the perils involved in clear conviction and decisive action. The boundary between intelligent discretion and unconfessed cowardice is sometimes difficult to draw, but we must depend upon a growing, vital sense of true professional responsibility to protect us against yielding to ignoble fears.

We can also depend upon vigorous individual and group action, supplementing united association effort; for, just as the individual’s professional responsibility for social action is not completely absorbed into agency function, so the individual’s responsibility is not completely submerged in the professional group. Each of us continues to carry that responsibility for living up to our own standards, and for finding a way to discharge this responsibility, whether or not the whole profession supports and sustains it. It is right here that the union in social work finds a suitable and effective place in the discharge of individual responsibility for social action. The union opens, in a way, a still wider circle of interest and effort and influence than that of the association. As the professional association breaks down the barriers of individual specialization, of experience, and of agency function, in relation to the worker’s responsibility for social action, so the union levels the walls enclosing a narrow professionalism. It unites professional workers, not only with other workers in social agencies, but also with the whole wide labor movement. It may thus open avenues for the effectual application of concerted conviction upon matters about which all professional workers are not now and may never be united. It offers, therefore, to groups of professional workers an instrument for effective use on matters beyond the area of association function and association agreement.

Here, again, there is a true functional limitation. The union in social work, like any other labor union, is united around common economic interests. It is an appropriate and effective instrument for protection or realization of those interests. It is certainly not the most appropriate agency for the determination or formulation of professional standards, nor for the articulation of programs involving the application of professional standards. That is a professional responsibility for which professional workers are accountable to their peers, and which they cannot share with nonprofessional colleagues. As the professional association more and more consistently and courageously represents truly professional interests in social action; as it recognizes the value, even to itself, of freeing groups of its members to unite with other workers in promoting causes, upon which the whole profession is not and probably cannot be united-it is to be hoped that the union need no longer seem to be an intruding competitor in professional circles, but an additional instrument through which individual professional workers may promote some of their legitimate professional interests, in social action.

Upon the same basis rests the validity of individual and group action of professional workers in the political arena, where many social issues come inevitably to final settlement. It is perfectly obvious that a social agency, dedicated to a specific service, about which, alone, its sponsors and its supporters are united, cannot ethically or practically expend its energies or resources to ends not directly related to that service. Its social action must be, confined to the interpretation of its own experience, in terms of chosen objectives, accepted principles and incontestable facts, commended on their merits, as factors in the determination of community policy affecting its service. It cannot take responsibility for measuring the relative importance of this aspect of public policy, as compared with others, as decisive factors in a political contest. It would be wholly inappropriate for an agency, therefore, to espouse a particular party cause or candidate.

The professional association is in a somewhat similar position. It is united upon objectives and principles, on the basis of professional standards. In all but the rarest instances, it cannot command the judgment of its members, or bring them to agreement, as to the relative weight to be assigned to these agreed concepts, as compared with other issues involved in a political campaign, nor as to the relative capacity and determination of opposing candidates to carry these concepts to realization in public policy. It would be utterly inappropriate, it seems to me, for the association, as such, to throw its influence in behalf of one or another party or candidate in a political contest in which other than strictly social issues were at stake.

Does the same set of limitations bind the individual professional worker? To answer that question in the affirmative seems to me to threaten the integrity both of the individual and of the profession as a whole. The individual not only can but must exercise his judgment as to the relative weight of issues at stake; he must make a final choice, as a citizen. If, in his honest and considered judgment, social issues are paramount, and if his choice is made between parties or candidates on the basis of their position on these problems and of their relative capacity and determination to solve those problems by measures that conform with professional principles, must he stifle those convictions, remain silent, and refuse to make his judgment as a social worker available to anybody else? And because the professional group as a whole is prevented by its collective responsibility and function from direct participation on the political level, must social work have no voice at all in the moment of decision? The individual must, if he is true to his own professional responsibility, remain free to act as an individual beyond the level of agreement of all his colleagues. It is that freedom, that personal obligation of the individual to be an independent creative unit, which is the essence of professionalism. It is likewise the source of the progress and achievement of the profession as a collective whole.

It is of special consequence to the profession of social work that this freedom should be conserved and protected. It is of the nature of professional social work practice that the individual practitioner shall not be completely free in the performance of a specific service. He is, and must be, the representative of a social agency, bound to operate within its policies, which cannot always express his own highest ideals of service since they must incorporate, also, the differing viewpoints of nonprofessional sponsors and supporters. He is protected against the loss of professional integrity, in this complete identification with agency, by his active and responsible participation in the development of agency policy, on the one hand, and by his membership in the professional association, where standards are sustained, on the other. If, however, his identification either with agency or with association limits or nullifies his independence as a professional person in the realm of social action in pursuit of professional objectives, then he has no further means of protecting his professional integrity-the fulfillment of his own sense of professional responsibility. His independence even as a citizen is qualified and limited.

There is risk in this individual freedom which we affirm-risk to the individual, to the agency, and to the profession. But that risk is as nothing compared to the danger of placing social workers and their profession under the suspicion that any considerations other than honest conviction and the analyzed outcomes of their study and experience can determine the part they shall play in decisive struggles for the realization of social ideals. The perfect pattern of political action affecting social work would be achieved, I firmly believe, only when every administrator, every board member, every practitioner of every rank, in every social agency, would regard it not only as a privilege, but an obligation, frankly and openly to relate the knowledge and judgment derived from his own social work experience to contested public issues, and thus to make his special sincere contribution to the formulation of enlightened public judgment and decision. I would have no fear of divided counsels in the field. I would welcome them in the open forum, where differences could be defined and tested, and where, in the end, social work would surely find a voice worthy of its own potential role in human affairs

Source:  Proceedings of The National Conference of Social Work Selected Papers Seventy-Second Annual Meeting 1945 (p. 348) – http://www.hti.umich.edu/n/ncosw/

One response to “Social Work and Social Action-1945”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *