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Early History of Group Work

Early History of Social Group Work

Group work began to be accepted as a dimension of social work in America when it was given “Section” status by the organizers of the National Conference of Social Work (NCSW) in 1934.  As a result, the 62nd Annual Meeting of NCSW in Montreal in June 1935 included a number of presentations on the subject of group work, including the following:

      • “What Is Social Group Work?,” W.I. Newstetter
      • “The Integration of Group Work and Case Work,” Claudia Wanamaker
      • “Case-Work and Group-Work Integration: Its Implications for Community Planning,” Roy Sorenson
      • “Educational Methods in Teaching Workers,”  Mildred Fairchild
      • “What May Institutions and Group Work Contribute to Each Other?,” Leonard Mayo
      • “Group Work Experiments in State Institutions in Illinois,” Neva L. Boyd
      • “Group Play in a Hospital Environment,” Anne Smith
      • “Some Experiments in Research in Social Behavior,” Alice M. Loomis
      • “The Essentials of Training for Group Leadership,” Arthur L. Swift, Jr.
      • “Massachusetts Program for Unemployed Youth,” Mary H. S. Hayes
      • “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Group Work in America,” LeRoy E. Bowman
      • “Group Work and Social Change (The Pugsley Award Presentation),” Grace L. Coyle

There existed considerable debate about what group work was – and where it belonged in the social work profession. Although group work methodology was developed primarily within recreation and informal education agencies it was increasingly being used in social work-oriented agencies, for example, within settings such as children’s institutions, hospitals, and churches. Influential social workers, such as Gertrude Wilson argued that group work was a core method of social work and not a field, movement, or agency. At the same time theorizing about group work was benefiting from significant advances in the understanding of group dynamics  and small work groups. Educational courses on group work started to appear in the early 1920s, in particular, the work of Grace L. Coyle, drawing upon her experience of settlement work, the YWCA and adult education.

A discourse began around the work that transcended professional and sector boundaries. First, it was discovered that workers in a variety of agencies had a great deal in common and that the major component of that common experience lay in their experience with groups. Out of this recognition came the widespread use of the term social group work and the development of interest groups focusing on work with groups in a number of cities. The second discovery was that what was common to all the groups was that, in addition to the activities in which the group engaged, groups involved a network of relationships between the members and the worker, between the group as a whole and the agency and neighborhood in which the members lived. This combination of relationships was called the group process.

How to Cite this Article: Hansan, J.E. (2011). Early history of social group work. Retrieved [date accessed] from /programs/social-work-early-history-of-group-work-1935/.

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