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What is Professional Social Work?

What is Professional Social Work?

by L.A. Halbert


Editor’s Note: This entry includes the first 28 pages from a booklet written and published by Leroy Allen Halbert who has the distinction of being appointed Superintendent of the Kansas City, Missouri Board of Public Welfare in 1910.  This was the first time an agency was designated as a department of public welfare.  As his resume reveals, L.A. Halbert moved on to assume a number of significant roles in administration of social agencies and in leadership of social work organizations.

 In 2012, the pages for this entry were scanned with the cooperation of the Howard University School of Social Work library. There is a reference by the author to a chart accompanying the book; however, the one that accompanied the book available at Howard University’s library was classroom size and not suitable for scanning. Since 2012, a copy of this work has become available online through the Center for Research Libraries.  Scholars may want to search WorldCat to locate physical copies.


What is Professional Social Work?
What is Professional Social Work?
What is Professional Social Work?
What is Professional Social Work?














This attempt to give a technically practical answer to the question of the title is worthy of the initiative which called it forth. It was prompted by the endeavor to advance the country-wide effort to establish the professional status of social workers and thereby standardize social work. Yet it is far more the outcome of the author’s varied experience on many fields of social work in connection with a great variety of voluntary and official agencies.

The complexity of the charted data thus collated demonstrates both the need and difficulty of classification and correlation in order to arrive at some common understanding of terms and distinctions hitherto used in such different senses. The fact that the procedure and conclusions of the volume axe inductively developed from this data is its best argument for and demonstration of the practicability of squaring social work to scientific standards.

Its classifications and correlations, whether considered to be naturally or artificially, logically or arbitrarily arranged, will at least serve as good working hypotheses for working out other groupings which may be suggested by readers’ different points of view.

Mr. Halbert’s habit of defining his terms as he goes along clarifies his condensed style and statements. His readers are furnished with a series of definitions which not only distinguish things that differ and yet are often confused, but also illuminate spheres of service, functions of agencies and their officials, and the framework and procedure of organizations, which are so commonly accepted or taken for granted as to lose their significance.

By being challenged to state just what they are for, these organizations and their officials cannot fail to gain clearer cut conceptions of their fields and functions. The critical examination of too readily accepted usages valuably equip the reader to distinguish between the fundamental and superficial, the essential and circumstantial, the meritorious and meritricious, in the process of organizing and functioning social effort. These interrogation points are categorical imperatives which cannot be silenced or evaded, but must be answered by those intent upon honesty and reality in social work.

But criticism throughout the volume is only the means to constructive ends. “Steps of procedure” are simply, naturally and logically pointed out to anyone who would begin at the beginning and go to the end along anyone of the highways of social endeavor. Although these “steps” ·are taken along beaten paths, yet they leave fresh footprints which give zest to routine and inspire extraordinary interest in the ordinary.

While theoretic, the book is far more a manual for the worker than a treatise for the theorist. And yet it would be a suggestive text for a course of study in the field and requirements of social work.

Undergirding principles and overarching ideals are never lost sight of in the intense practicality of the author’s purpose and procedure. His clear and concise little volume will be welcomed alike by the worker in the field, the executive in the office and the donor and director at either end of the purse strings, as well as by all who would have social work and social workers measure up to what is increasingly and exactingly expected and required of them. It will do its good part in making tributary to each other and to the common welfare the domestic, professional, economic, educational, governmental, artistic, spiritual and religious elements that constitute the social work essential to the progress of every community.



Leroy A. Halbert, Superintendent of the Kansas City Board of Public Welfare, 1910.
Leroy A. Halbert, Superintendent of the Kansas City Board of Public Welfare, 1910.

This book grew out of studying the question as to who should be entitled to be members of the American Association of Social Workers.

The first step was the constructing of the chart which accompanies this book and really is the basis of the book. The writer was asked to present the chart and explain it at a meeting of the Kansas City Chapter of the Association. The partial statement made at that time elicited a good deal of interest and various workers suggested its publication. The statement was further elaborated and this book is the result.

The steps enumerated in the chart over and over again in the different kinds of Case Work, Group Work and Organization Work are really the elemental steps in the processes of modern science. In every case the process begins with investigation, proceeds to analysis and conclusions, crystallizes these conclusions in writing, spreads the ideas, applies them to a concrete situation and tests the results. This is applied to groups of every size from the individual up to the world and is applied to every kind of problem from those of health and existence to those of culture and refinement.

The author sends this forth with the hope that it will advance the profession which stands for intelligence and skill as well as kindness in solving human problems.

May 1,1923.
Kansas City, Mo.

The Object of Social Work

Civilization as it is constituted today is a vast complex of interwoven human activities carried on under established but changing methods and standards. To maintain a proper state of civilization it is necessary to educate each individual as to how to perform his part in this complex cooperative enterprise and to furnish him such motives as will make him want to do his part. Families, schools and churches should, normally, accomplish this but sometimes they fail. If a person is either unable or unwilling to meet the minimum standard that can be tolerated in any of his relationships he should be examined and treated and, if necessary, given a special environment adapted to a sick, defective or delinquent person that ,will make him as small a liability to society as possible. If a tolerable person can be modified or adjusted to his environment so as to be a more efficient member of society this should also be done. Improving defective adjustments of human beings to their environment and of environment to human beings when it becomes a specialized business is called social work. Social work is the repair department or “Trouble Department” of our social machinery, and in a measure the laboratory for social invention. Every person who cannot or does not meet the ordinary demands of civilized society should be given definite attention and every unfavorable condition requires action. We must prepare the under-standard individuals to perform their respective functions in the community if possible, care for the incurable and change any bad industrial or social practices that are destroying or wasting human life. This conception of social work was set forth by the writer in April, 1912, when, as superintendent of the Board of Public Welfare of Kansas City, Mo., he said in the annual report of the board: “It has been the primary object of the Board of Public Welfare to secure for the people of all sections of the city a reasonably good environment in which to (1) live and (2) work and (3) play. Environment is a very comprehensive term and every department of government all forms of industry, all churches, schools and social organizations are factors which go to comprise the people’s environment. Of course, we are not qualified to exercise any supervision or even to criticize intelligently all this round of human .activities, but we are required to care for the individuals who are cast off as moral or financial failures, because they do not respond to the appeal or fit into the plans made for these activities.

“The standard of living below which people must fall before they become dependent on charity and the standard of conduct below which they must descend before they are arrested, are so low that any social machinery which would tend to cast off normal people as either financial or moral failures is itself abnormal machinery. We may try to rectify such gross defects in our social machinery without making any claim to be critics of the fine points of efficiency in realms outside of the scope of our own work. We are fully convinced that no people born with normal faculties should be either led or driven into pauperism or crime and the ranks of the dependent and the delinquent are filled with people who began life as normal individuals.”

In other words social work consists of making the best adjustments possible in situations where the individual does not meet the requirements of’ society or society fails to fulfill its duty to the individual.

Social work is applicable to every family that is disintegrating whether it be the poor or the rich or whether the cause be poverty or the vices of fashionable society.

While people who are physically, mentally or morally unfit to take their proper places in society are distributed in all classes of people those who are supported and shielded by wealthy relatives or friends are not as likely to become public charges as those from poor families. Their relatives and friends make the necessary adjustments to offset their failures instead of calling upon public servants to do it. Only when the making of these adjustments becomes specialized and is done by a specialized person or agency does it come to be known under the title “Social Work.”
Social case work is concerned partly with taking the individual who does not fulfill his normal functions in society and bringing about such changes in him as will enable him or induce him to meet at least the minimum requirements of society and partly in bringing about such changes in those who control the social processes in which he might function that they will give him a chance to function in accordance with his capacities; but more largely than either of these it consists in discovering what the individual is interested in and qualified for, finding just the place where he fits or can be utilized to advantage and showing the advantages of his service to those who control the opportunity.

The Social Workers appropriate and adapt the services of experts in every line and draft the resources of all society to meet the needs of their clients. They are the white corpuscles that attack the unfriendly germs in the social body or hasten to repair its wounds. Our industrial regime and political institutions may be the bone and muscle of society, but the agencies of social health and vitality are to be found in social work.

The Scope of Social Work

The boundaries of social work have been obscured by the wealth of hitherto uncharted activities appearing under the name in every field of human endeavor, mystifying and confusing the public, but now it is emerging as a specialized work established to reconcile the social processes in all, these fields with social welfare.

It is important to see the universal ramification of social work into every phase of organized life. It follows the substandard individual into every place where he must function and seeks to bring him up to standard. It also fights for the normal individual against all substandard treatment which injures him.

Under this conception of social work its cases come from all classes of society and it is an adjunct to the family, public health agencies, business enterprises, schools, courts, churches and all other branches of our organized life.

Some say that it is impossible to have one profession include the solving of such a wide variety of problems, occurring in every branch of organized life, but there is a similarity in all this work and the diversity is probably not in excess of the diversity found in the special branches of medicine or law.

The chart accompanying this book connects each type of social work such as medical social work, economic social work and correctional social work with the branch of organized life where it is primary in importance but they, do not belong exclusively in these respective branches because it, often occurs that hospital cases require economic social work, employees in business require medical attention, correctional work must be done to preserve a family, and in fact wherever a social work process begins it is liable to involve any other process in the field of social work before it ends. It is this fact of interdependence between the processes which constitutes the essential unity of all social work and makes it a single profession.

This unity is not only illustrated by .the interdependence of different types of case work but it occurs in group processes and organization work. For example a social worker may find his health program hampered by politics and turn to political reform, or find it starved by lack of revenue and turn his attention to taxation or other economic problems.

Some will probably contend that social work is merely a segment in the whole movement for making social processes consistent with social welfare. Certain groups of social workers themselves have been slow to recognize other social workers as having any right to call their activities social work. The National Conference of Charities and Corrections in its early days consisted largely of public officials conducting eleemosynary institutions and they were loathe, for a time, to recognize the representatives of private charities. Later the conference came to be practically dominated by Charity Organization Society workers who were in their turn loathe to widen the circle so as to take in social settlement workers. Finally the name of the Conference was changed in 1917 to the National Conference of Social Work.

One of the more recent elements to get recognition in the Conference has been the group of people interested in labor legislation and economic reforms. It is apparent that the trend of events is in the direction of including among social workers more and more groups that are working for social betterment. In the Conference at the present time are representatives of every kind of movement for social welfare. Certain sectarian groups who recognize only one pet way of reforming society or improving human welfare will not recognize social workers or associate with them, as for example certain single taxers or socialists or prohibitionists or special preservers of the economic traditions of the fathers; but scientific social work is nevertheless inclusive of all their propaganda that will stand the test of experience.  Ultimately the labor unionists, the moral reformers, the religious missionaries and the social idealists will have to workout social problems by utilizing the processes of scientific social work simply because these are the processes by which social change and improvement take place. Some of these groups with limited procedure are wielding great influence. They are more or less like a man with a blunt instrument but powerful muscles. Some are ruining the people they influence as truly as the botch workman ruins the material out of which he may be trying to construct a useful article.  The principles of social organization and social procedure can be learned with some precision just as truly as mechanical principles can be learned. Only those who know these principles are qualified to lead any movement for social betterment.

There are many ways of getting the same result in social procedure and there is great room for differences of method and some room for difference of opinion about what are desirable social goals-just as there are many possible mechanical devices for doing the same piece of work-but these facts do not prove that mechanical science or social science are not of great practical value. A person using social science to solve social problems is doing social work.

Social Work Defined

Attention should be called to the fact that Social Work is not identical with “doing good.” The preacher and teacher and doctor are “doing good” in their regular work.

There is occasion for social work in connection with medical practice when successful medical treatment hinges on some special arrangement being made for the patient, the making of which lies outside the recognized functions of the doctor. Then the social worker undertakes to make the adjustments required and open the way for the patient to be treated by the doctor under such conditions as will be consistent with his recovery.

There is occasion for a social worker to assist a minister when his work has become so specialized that he cannot undertake to manage the relief problems of his parishioners, the troubles of those who have been taken to court, the recreational life of his young people and all the other things that affect the peace and spiritual welfare of his parishioners, without special help.

The social worker helps those who are doing “good” and those who are doing “business” both to adjust their work to the exceptional individual – sometimes taking up the problems at the request of those who are doing the work or giving the benefit and sometimes at the request of the exceptional person who is not getting the service which others are getting.

Social work does not consist of maintaining any social activity which has become standard and permanent. Social workers are continually originating certain activities and vindicating them and making them standard and permanent but after they have reached that stage they are not rated as social work. At one point kindergartens which are now a regular part of our educational system were promoted and maintained as social work. Some activities that are more or less permanent and standardized in regard to their procedure such as the relief work of old family welfare societies are nevertheless exceptional activities because the circumstances of the different individuals require and receive special treatment in each case. Even relief giving may pass out of the realm of social work if it is put on the basis of flat pensions and paid for out of taxation, as in the case of soldier’s pensions; or if pensions are given as a part of a fixed policy of a big corporation toward its employees, there is no reason to class the administration of these pensions as social work. The administration of widows’ allowances where the amount of the allowances is discretionary and must be adjusted to the condition of the families is still in the realm of social work however. If we have social insurance established, the routine administration of the benefits of such insurance will not be social work but if special efforts are made to adjust the problems of those who get these benefits,’ as is done in some of the cases of the New York Commission that handles accident compensation, then that is social work.

In current usage the term social work has a number of different meanings.

Under its most inclusive definition the field of social work may be marked off from the rest of the activities of the world by establishing a broad distinction between enterprises which have for their main object the promotion of human welfare and enterprises which have for their main object the accumulation of money.  In accordance with this distinction the field of social work would include the activities of the church, the state, the school system, charitable enterprises, reform movements, etc., while the other class of activities would be what is known as business or commercial enterprises.

The next narrower definition of social work makes it include only what is done about misfortune and bad conditions. In this sense it consists of what is done to deal with pathological conditions in society.
But there are many little voluntary acts being done by almost everybody to relieve distress or adjust difficulties and this definition is too vague for technical purposes, so the term is being narrowed again to apply only to the social work done by people who make a special business of it.

There have been people for centuries who have been making a special business of helping the poor and the delinquent. Since the rise of the social sciences there has been an attempt to reduce this work to a scientific basis. Now only that portion of the business of helping the unfortunate which takes advantage of social science and tests its work by scientific standards is entitled to call itself social work in the modern sense.

The above restrictions all hold true and progressively limit the field of social work.

After this general description of social work perhaps it is safe to venture a scientific definition for it.

Social Work is the business of producing, changing or adjusting social organization and procedure in the interests of human welfare according to scientific standards. This is submitted as an adequate brief definition of social work. Social work may be called a business because it has become a specialized occupation. It is becoming a profession. Technically only the things done by a professional social worker or as a part of his plan belong to the business of social work. The services in the interest of health which are performed by a good mother or even by a nurse do not constitute practicing medicine even if they are in the interest of health. Only the things done by a doctor or under a doctor’s orders are considered medical treatment. There are adjustments made in the interests of humanity by many people in all walks of life which are not social work but the adjustments prescribed or executed by a professional social worker are social work. This distinction is not made to imply any inferiority in the quality or usefulness of the things done to help people by those who are not social workers but are simply made in the interest of getting a technically accurate way of designating social work.

Saying that social work is the business of “producing, changing or adjusting” social organization and procedure emphasize the idea that the maintaining of the regular normal functions of such beneficent agencies as churches, schools, etc., is not social work but when there is some condition in which society or any of its members do not fulfill their normal functions the remedying of that condition is social work. When a machine is working satisfactorily you do not need a machinist; when you are well you do not need a doctor and when society is working smoothly you do not need a social worker. The norm for society may not be what has been. It may be a higher standard. Improving society is a social work job.

It is said that social work is the business of producing, changing or adjusting “social organization and procedure” because social work is devoted to improving the relationships between people and changing the way they treat one another. It works upon the organization and procedure used in society so that it will apply the available resources in a manner best adapted to meet human need. A social worker might improve the processes of agriculture or manufacture and do good in that way but that would be done not as a part of social work but in addition to it. His social work would consist of what was done to improve or rectify the organization and procedure of the people:  Influencing the conductor activities of an individual in regard to any matters wherein he relates himself to others is creating or modifying a social process, since the interaction of even two people is a social process. So even individual case work consists of creating and modifying a social process.

The phrase “in the interests of human welfare” indicates a test which every activity must meet before it can be called social work. Changing social procedure so as to serve selfish ends may be business and may require skill and knowledge of social processes but it is not social work.”

The phrase “according to scientific standards” is used in order to exclude things which are meant well but do not really do any good and may even do harm. Its effect is to exclude quacks.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Halbert, L.A. (1923). What is professional social work? Retrieved [date accessed] from The Social Welfare History Project .

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