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The Scientific View of Social Work

The Scientific View of Social Work

by Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Social Work


Since its inception, social work has struggled with the questions of the extent to which it should use and it could have confidence in basing practice on knowledge derived from the social and biological sciences. “The Scientific Basis of Social Work” is a volume that gives an emphatic yes to this query (Karpf, 1931). Its author, Maurice J. Karpf, directed the Graduate School for Jewish Social Work, from its founding in 1924 to its closing in 1940 (Alexander & Speizman, 1983). The school set high standards. It required a college degree to enter. During this period there were 28 schools of social work and only five required an undergraduate degree to matriculate. It concentrated on science and had an arrangement with Columbia University for practice and field courses. During its brief existence the school’s graduates made many contributions to American and Jewish social work. For example, Charles Schottland the founding dean of The Heller School was a graduate. The school was a leader in the movement to make education a requirement to be a social worker.

The research which is the basis for this tome was intended to provide support for raising educational standards. It studied family casework records with the expectation that they could illuminate what social workers need to know for competent practice. The data was interpreted from a pragmatic stance that holds that while practice has to be based on the best knowledge available neither the use of knowledge nor technique can guarantee any outcome. Karpf did not see science as producing theory where every outcome could be determined and he was particularly concerned that data should be separated from conclusions.

What he was after was getting precision in relating knowledge to practice so that social work education would be seen as necessary for social workers to achieve full professional status. He proceeded by first specifying the knowledge that he thought social workers needed. Then he examined what knowledge social workers use. He did this by extracting family case records and looking at the judgments recorded. While the language of the categories is old-fashioned the topics covered are not. A partial list includes assessments of attitudes, emotional states, appearance, health, intelligence, and living standards. There is a separate discussion of the use of personality tests and what workers need to know about them. The final section in this part presents “methods of control.” These are the means workers use to try to change discrepant behavior.

The data from the workers was then used as a base for assessing the admission requirements and curricula of schools of social work. Finally, he goes over what he thinks social work needs to acquire a scientific basis and hence a true professional status.

The conclusions he reaches are powerful. He considers the social and biological sciences as the essential base for social work practice. Noteworthy is his emphasis on economics since his estimate is that without grounding in it the social worker is not equipped to either understand the lives of their clients or to be effective in working to change social policy.

In the judgment area he says, “We found little evidence that the caseworker uses any other than the common sense concepts and judgments relating to the attitudes, emotional states, personality and personality traits of the client, or in attempting to influence his behavior, or the care of his health, the care he gives his children, his standard of living, the adequacy and inadequacy of his housing, and a host of other types of important problems and situations. The caseworkers seemingly do not resort to any definite criteria for arriving at their recorded judgments.” (pp. 352-353) A particular point was made that when adjectives are attached to behavior there is no basis for interpreting them. He advocated objective recording.

He attributed this state of affairs to the fact that schools had no consistency in their curriculum and that because they were competing with agencies for students they did not have high selection standards. “The student thus goes from field to field, touching each on the surface only, never being stimulated to dig deep and devote himself to an intensive study of any particular field. Neither student nor teacher is impelled to do more than treat a subject lightly and as a consequence there is not developed the desire for thoroughness which is essential for fundamental progress. Nor is there developed in the student an appreciation that all social work has a great deal in common and that all the processes and techniques of social work are based in the same basic knowledge of human nature and its social environment.” (p. 331)

What follows from this is that the solution to the problem is to increase the standards of the schools. Those who taught practice should also be able to practice. Research should be studied not to turn out seasoned researchers but to learn what science is and the habits of thought, clarity, and verification that are necessary for practice. “How much more there would be to graduate training if it could be made more thorough, if it were to deal with fundamentals, and were not merely a recital of individual experiences!” (p. 333) He summed up his estimate of what was needed by listing the necessary equipment for a professional social worker. This consists of knowledge of personal backgrounds and culture, a philosophy of life and a point of view, knowledge of human nature and norms, and clarity and accuracy of thought. (pp. 22-23)

In his view social work schools should adopt the procedures of medical education. That is, no medical school presumes to educate a physician who is ready to practice. This is a function of the residency years where the resident is technically a student but functions as a practitioner under supervision. After that the resident is considered ready for independent practice. Neither social work education nor social work agencies have moved much in this direction.

There is a rich load of information in this work. Many of the tables give pause for thought. For example, Appendix A lists the courses taught by the schools. Under group work there were 9 courses in group work, 30 in recreation, 4 in field work, 1 in scout craft, and 1 in story telling. And under economics there were 16 in general and social economics, 29 in labor and industrial problems, 1 in social economy, and 2 in social and industrial history. For the most part such courses have dropped out of social work education.

This remarkable book provides a good base for assessing the current state of the profession and its education. One should not assume that old conflicts are resolved. Agencies still compete with schools for students. Many agencies won’t take first year students because “they don’t know how to fill out the forms.” Some faculty in some schools further this by wanting students to have experience before admission. The substantial de-professionalization of many tasks means that agencies hire a variety of non-professional service workers and counselors. The thesis has just about disappeared from social work education. The idea of the agency functioning as a teaching hospital for new graduates was a good one eighty years ago. It is still good.

Karpf was a man of vision. It provides the best justification for being concerned with social work history. For only by studying history can we find out whether we have learned and profited by the experiences of the past. If you will read The Scientific Basis of Social Work you may be chagrined at how little we have learned and how well the basic elements of scientific thought necessary for social work practice were understood 80 years ago and how well they have stood the test of time. Social work is still in the process of becoming a profession.


Alexander, L. B., & Speizman, M. D. (1983). The graduate school for Jewish social work, 1924-40: Training for social work in an ethnic community. Journal of Education for Social Work, 19(2), 5-15.
Karpf, M. J. (1931). The scientific basis of social work: A study in family case work. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2011). The scientific view of social work. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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