Review of Literature
History and Background of Social Work’s Unapologetic Progressive History
Social work’s history has been characterized by social activism that has favored liberal reform where efforts left-leaning reform activists work to advance social justice (Abramovitz, 1998). McCloskey (2016) describes the term liberal as regarding legal and social equality. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, in a speech given at the 1998 Social Workers World Conference, stated that progressive beliefs were paramount in social work practice (Freire, 1990). He said that progressive social workers must have a “progressive obsession” that guides their daily work (Freire, 1990, p. 7). This progressive lineage can be traced to the roots of the social work profession. From its beginning, social work has endeavored to aid those in economic need (Schachter, 2014).
The Settlement House Movement and Charity Organization Societies began in the nineteenth century (Gil, 1998). Charity Organization Societies were less political – employed social workers who stayed out of the fray of advocacy – while providing direct services to their clientele (Gil, 1998). Settlement House workers, on the other hand, simultaneously provided social services and advocated for social reforms (Gil, 1998); they were identified as social justice advocates. While both groups had their distinct differences, together they were the provenance of the social work profession. Participants in the Settlement House Movement were aware that people’s traits and features were largely influenced by their social environments; specifically, social norms, economics, and cultural values (Gil, 1998).
Bertha Capen Reynolds (1991) stated that the acceptance of America’s class system is part of social work practice. Jane Addams identified that there were two Americas: one consisting of the upper class, the other consisting of the working class (McGerr, 2003). Each had its own social environment. The upper class was branded by entertainment, divorces, and indulgence, while the working class toiled in slums and saloons (McGerr, 2003). During America’s Gilded Age, these distinct classes, and their associated cultures, existed with increasing economic conflict (McGerr, 2003). While individualism was an upper class trait, Addams and her peers subscribed to a form of association that required people to cross class boundaries (McGerr, 2003). The class system imbedded in the Gilded Age’s social structure was supported by individualism, and served to keep people apart. The notion of association treated the existing class system as little more than a social veneer – challenging citizens to instead interact with each other across class lines.
Cross class interactions can be a tacit method to break social boundaries, and advance social justice. An overt example of this took place in Birmingham, Alabama. Henry Edmonds, clergyman and doctor, established Independent Presbyterian in 1915; “service to humanity” was listed as one of its top priorities (Flynt, 1977, p. 269). Services were held from 1915 – 1925 in the city’s Lyric Theater, and included representation from different segments of that day’s culture: blacks (who sat in a segregated balcony), prostitutes, gamblers, and the poor (Flynt, 1977). Edmonds’ work was advancing social justice in a socially divided city.
A covert example of association, identified by Jane Addams, was baseball. She observed that baseball transcended the urban social structures designed to keep people apart by bringing fans together in a class-blind communal fashion (McGerr, 2003). Oppression has many different appearances – both obvious and subtle. As the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era, advocates for social justice were recognizing an intervention to combat oppression as association.
The principle of association has been a pillar of social work since the profession’s beginnings. At the heart of association is “social solidarity with others” (McGerr, 2003, p. 67). This form of solidarity was exemplified by New York City’s Henry Street Settlement, whose mission was “to expand residents’ sense of connection to a larger history and social inheritance” (Chen, 2013, p. 768). One means utilized by the Henry Street Settlement was the creation of a community playhouse that catered to the wide variety of cultures living in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century (Chen, 2013). They used their playhouse as a way of bringing people from all segments of society together. In doing so, this represented an example of association in action.
The antithesis to the idea of association is individualism, which the direct practice emphasis that has overtaken the profession of social work may be a remnant of. It is presumed that people with the financial resources to pay for private practice, individual sessions are not those most in need of aid (D’Aprix et al., 2004). Individualism has become aligned with a problem-diagnosis mentality, where people are viewed as items rather than constituents (Pozzuto & Arnd-Caddigan, 2008). Items do not have solidarity with one another – constituents do. This represents the obverse to social work assisting the poor and the oppressed to obtain greater social justice; therefore, a singular focus on individualism is in opposition to social work’s progressive, social justice, tradition. Supporting Specht and Courtney (1994), this represents an example of social work losing its way. In fact, in D’Aprix et al.’s (2004) qualitative study of MSW student career aspirations, only one participant even identified a desire to work with oppressed people.
Another way to remedy the social ills of a community, a region, a state, or even the nation, was through participation in progressive minded government sponsored reforms designed to increase social justice. Karger and Stoesz (2002) describe the Progressive Era as a time when educated people created social apparatuses designed to advance social justice. Many social workers were progressives, including Jane Addams (Keyssar, 2000; McGerr, 2005; Rogers, 1982). By the Civil War, white male suffrage was effectively ubiquitous, but women were still facing wide-spread voter oppression until many decades later (Wilentz, 1992). At the 1906 National American Woman Suffrage Association Addams spoke in support of social justice causes including women’s suffrage, obligatory education and child labor laws (Keyssar, 2000).
Members of the Settlement Movement had a keen awareness of injustice and believed its genesis could be found in established institutions (Gil, 1998). They believed that the effective response to social injustice resided within an active government (Gil, 1998). An example of this can be found in the efforts of social worker Alice Paul, who was a leader in advocating for a constitutional amendment to secure women’s suffrage (Allen, 1958; Keyssar, 2000). This is where the dawn of social work intersects with the Progressive Era – and together they promoted Progressive Movement reforms (Hrostowski, 2013; Gil, 1998).
Social work has been intertwined with the Progressive Movement since its beginnings (Gil, 1998; Murdach, 2010; Talbot & McMillin, 2014). One example of their common interests was their shared support of labor unions (Chen, 2013; Rosenberg & Rosenberg 2006). Murdach (2010) explains how social work has maintained a focus on “poverty, the welfare of children and families, unemployment, discrimination, and social justice” (p. 82). Gil (1998) states that the Progressive Movement, very similarly, included a focus on “public health, public housing, urban parks, women’s suffrage, consumer protections, labor and child labor legislation” (p. 80). Their shared goal was to ameliorate multiple forms of oppression through the advocacy of social justice reforms for a natural partnership.
Social workers, and progressive movement activists, were often times one and the same. Both groups believed in government’s valued role in aiding marginalized communities to obtain increased social justice. Perhaps the most famous pinnacle of this historical intersection was during the 1912 Progressive Party’s National Convention when Jane Addams gave a seconding speech supporting the nomination of Progressive Party Presidential Candidate Theodore Roosevelt (Murdach, 2010). Addam’s speaking at this national convention identifies the strong association shared between social work and the progressive movement.
The dust bowl and urban poverty of the Great Depression garnered the attention of social workers. This was a time when social divides between classes were acutely evident. Class divisions – the separation between what Alinsky (1971) termed the haves and the have-nots – can be a cultivator of oppression. Alinsky is building upon the Marxist perspective that identifies a dominant social class that is fixed on perpetuating its command (Berberoglu, 2015). He defines these classes within the arena of power, by describing one class of people, the haves, as being obsessed with maintaining authority, while the other class, the have-nots, as wanting to gain it (Alinsky, 1971). It was during this combustible time that many social workers focused their objectives towards social reforms (Gil, 1998).
Working together, social workers and progressives advanced worker’s compensation laws on the state level, and eventually The Social Security Act of 1935 on the federal level (Gil, 1998). Championing the New Deal, and many of its associated progressive reforms, were FDR’s close advisors, social workers Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins, who was the first woman to serve in a Presidential Cabinet as the Secretary of Labor (Burnier, 2008; Cupaiuolo, 2001; Goldberg, 2012). These were two examples of measures which served as a defense against economic oppression faced by many working families. It was during the Great Depression that economic stability achieved through government sponsored interventions became commonplace (Gil, 1998). As stated by Dermer et al. (2010) and Reisch and Gavin (2016) oppression is multifaceted. Those pushed to society’s margins face oppression, and so too, do the people who advocate for them.
The Oppression of Social Justice Advocates
Hegar (2012) argued that “social work has been generally unreceptive to radical voices” (p. 169). This propensity has a century-old history. Many social justice advocates were oppressed during the Red Scare of the early twentieth century (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Those pursuing radical minded citizens during this time included a former progressive, the Wilson Administration United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Fraser, 2015). During World War I, many years before being awarded the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, Jane Addams was labeled a “Bolshevik” because she advocated for peace (McGerr, 2005; Misztal, 2009). In 1919, the United States War Department placed her name first on a list of sixty-two people they identified as anarchists (McGerr, 2005). The Spider Web Conspiracy and the New York Legislature’s Lusk Committee were utilized, in part, as attacks on the efforts of social work leaders and left a public legacy of perceiving social workers as insurrectionaries (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). In these examples, social justice advocates were facing oppression from the highest levels of American government.
The Rank and File Movement consisted of social justice activists who did not believe that New Deal reforms went far enough – they viewed these reforms as serving to protect capitalist institutions rather than to change them (Gil, 1998). Bertha Capen Reynolds was an Associate Director at the Smith College School of Social Work. She was also a supporter of the Rank and File Movement and she was forced to resign her post due to her activism (Gil, 1998; Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Through the mid-twentieth century many social workers were fired from employment due to their support of issues that were publicly framed as radical ideology (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Also during this time, the FBI investigated many social workers based upon their ties to leftist organizations (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). This included University of Connecticut social work faculty who were eventually pressured to resign following an FBI investigation into possible communist sympathies (Andrews & Reisch, 1997).
The oppression of social workers who worked to advance social justice did not always come from outside of the profession. Social work, itself, has a long history of oppressing its own social justice workers. Social worker Jacob Fisher supported many radical organizations, including the 1930’s Rank and File Movement (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). In the 1950s he was ostracized by the social work community and eventually driven from the profession (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). Due to her political positions, the National Conference of Social Work did not permit Bertha Capen Reynolds at its 1953 convention (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). For many years Sophinisba Breckenridge was an activist leader within the radical social work community. She was treasurer of the Women’s Peace Party in 1915, and later was a promoter of women in industry, and advocated for expanded national welfare (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). However, a former student of hers recalls that in the 1930s Breckenridge dissuaded her from pursuing a social work education in group work, as it was considered too politically involved (Reisch & Andrews, 2001).
Resulting from the attacks on the profession which put their employment at risk – attacks from both outside and from within – many social workers became reticent to advocating for social justice reforms (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). Without being era specific, Hrostowski (2013) writes that social workers are often labeled radicals due to their endeavors in support of those disenfranchised by society. These characterizations can be used to stigmatize social workers, the populations they work with, and the efforts made by both. The suppression of social workers reflected the oppression of society as a whole (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). In this way both social workers who practice social justice advocacy, and the populations they advocate for, share a critical consciousness.
Trends in Current Literature
Psychotherapeutic leanings: Students of social work
Seiz and Schwab (1992) identify a longstanding schism within the field of social work regarding the branches of advocacy practice and direct clinical practice. Studies, including Weiss (2006), found that considerably more social work students were interested in direct practice than macro practice. D’Aprix et al. (2004) found that in a study of three different MSW programs a vast majority of students had a clinical interest. D’Aprix et al.’s (2004) study included a qualitative examination of the actual values of social work students (n=23). They identified that many students selected the social work profession because they viewed an MSW as an easier path to psychotherapy than a clinical psychology PhD (D’Aprix et al., 2004). Social work professor Ernest Greenwood (1957), however, stated that professions must dictate their policies of practice to their clients; therefore, the action potential of social work practice should travel from schools of social work to their prospective applicants; this should not happen in reverse.
D’Aprix et al. (2004) also found that students viewed clinically-based course work and clinical field study to be most practical for their futures. Most study subjects justified direct practice as being congruent with social work values by adopting a view that to some degree all people are disadvantaged (D’Aprix et al., 2004). In this manner, everyone can be qualified as facing oppression. Based upon this work, D’Aprix et al. (2004) conclude that the goals of many United States MSW students could be incongruent with the social work value of social justice.
The trend towards clinical practice has ripple effects beyond the bachelor’s and master’s level of study. Fogel and Ersing (2016) researched macro focused social work doctoral dissertations (see Figure One). They were able to ascertain that between 2000 – 2009, an average of 466 social work dissertations were awarded per year and the average number of awarded macro dissertations per year was only thirty-seven (Fogel & Ersing, 2016).
(Fogel & Ersing, 2016)
Doctoral students choose a topic of study about which they are passionate; therefore, a cause and effect relationship can be logically drawn between the overwhelming direct practice interests of school of social work applicants at the BSW and MSW level, and the lack of doctoral trained macro social work practitioners (Fogel & Ersing, 2016). “This should raise an alarm for us all, for a significant proportion of social work knowledge and practice skills has the potential to be severely underdeveloped and, at worst, missing in the future” (Fogel & Ersing, 2016, p. 176). As the social work paradigm has leaned towards direct practice, it is more and more essential to learn what ignites the flame of passion among advocates of social justice in an effort to better attract them to the profession.
Psychotherapeutic leanings: Schools of social work
Paulo Freire believed that schools were institutional sources of oppression in that they served to perpetuate existing systems of inequality (Freire, 1970; Turner & Maschi, 2015). He saw that school curriculums excluded topics related to the obstructions marginalized populations faced within society (Turner & Maschi, 2015). As a result, students were not gaining awareness of their cultural and political surroundings (Turner & Maschi, 2015). Schools of social work have become increasingly focused on engineering psychotherapeutic clinicians. Faculty with knowledge of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders often profess how students can be best skilled at assigning patient’s accurate categorical diagnoses. This direct practice approach, which favors emphasizing client pathology, connotes an innate power differential which is sustained as students become clinicians. Contrary to this paradigm, Gates (2011) reports that social work education is most effective as a shared, two-way output between teacher and student.
Supporting the sentiment of Fogel and Ersing (2016), Bowen (2015) states the need for social work education to reinvest in macro practice areas. In stating this, she bridges the often-perceived gap between macro practice and clinical practice. She emphasizes how the work done in a direct practice setting is tied to community organization and policy practice (Bowen, 2015). Research, however, has shown that many direct practitioners, and school of social work professors, see this differently.
Funge (2011) researched social work faculty orientation towards social justice. He found that the study’s participants questioned the relevance of social justice within their role as social work professors (Funge, 2011). Funge (2011) summarizes these findings as an indicator that the educational pendulum within the field of social work has swung towards direct practice at the expense of social justice principles. O’Brien (2010) acknowledges that while contemporary direct practitioners often work to advance social justice for their clients, there is scant effort among them to advance far reaching social change. Regehr et al. (2012) identify another example of the disparities between clinical practice and macro work within social work. In this modern time of empirically-based research and measurable findings, they identify that while there are numerous tools to measure student competency at clinically-based field placements, there is not a widely accepted tool for measuring student competency at macro field placements (Regehr et al., 2012).
Lane (2011) cites numerous studies that show a scarcity of schools of social work with macro concentrations. Her research focused on social workers who held elected office (n=270) (Lane, 2011). She identified that the average time gap between earning a social work degree (BSW or MSW) and first running for public office was 12.5 years (Lane, 2011). This decade plus time frame suggests that social work education did not compel the studies’ participants to engage in this form of civic action, and that any of an infinite amount of cogent life factors were instead the catalyst for candidacy.
Lane’s (2011) research also identified the trend away from macro social work practice, as she found that 32% of elected social workers earned their social work degree in the seventies, while only 7% earned their degree since the millennium (Lane, 2011). She found that of all participants – regardless of the social era in which they earned their social work degree – more than a third of participants did not believe that their social work education satisfactorily prepared them for their venture into the campaigning and representing arena (Lane, 2011). Tacitly identifying social work’s bias towards direct practice, Lane (2011) is compelled to state that this form of macro practice is legitimate social work practice. She wrote that “practice in the political arena is a legitimate and important career pathway already accomplished by many distinguished members of the profession” (p. 67).