9/6/2017 Update

Sunday, January 14, 2018
1:15 pm – 5:30 pm
Marriott Marquis Washington, DC
Washington, DC

Social Service Review Symposium: Whither American Social Work in its Second Century?

This symposium will acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the National Conference of Social Work in 1917.  Social Service Review in collaboration with the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) and the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR), has invited a group of distinguished social work scholars to reflect on the state of scholarship, and the profession itself, in the core areas of social work’s professional turf—social welfare policy development and analysis; administration of social services; community organization; and direct practice with individuals, families and groups.  Authors will also be asked to comment on promising directions for the profession in its second century and the kinds of scholarship they believe will be necessary to sustain the professional enterprise going forward.  The symposium will involve the presentation of commissioned papers on these topics followed by comments from distinguished discussants and Q&A with the audience.  Authors will have the opportunity to revise their papers based on the seminar discussion and SSR will publish the resulting papers as a special issue in 2018.   The symposium is being held in conjunction with the SSWR annual meeting, during the afternoon of January 14th immediately following the conclusion of the SSWR conference.

1:15-1:30        Introduction to the Symposium: Whither American Social Work in its Second Century?  

Greetings from sponsoring organizations and an introduction to the purpose of the symposium.

1:30-2:15        The social work profession’s contributions to social policy development and practice  

Description of the profession’s current role(s) in policy development and scholarship. Recommendations for the kinds of social work roles and research that are needed going forward.  Presenters: Irwin Garfinkel and Jane Waldfogel, Columbia University.

2:15-3:00        The social work profession’s contributions to administration of social services 

Description of the profession’s current role(s) in administration of social services and producing relevant scholarship. Recommendations for the kinds of social work roles and research that are needed going forward.  Presenter: Michael Austin, University of California at Berkeley.

3:00-3:15        Break

3:15-4:00        The social work profession’s contributions to community organization and development 

Description of the profession’s role in community organization and development and producing relevant scholarship.  Recommendations for the kinds of social work roles and research that are needed going forward.  Presenter: Lorraine Gutiérrez, University of Michigan.

4:00-4:45        The social work profession’s contributions to practice with individuals, families, and groups 

Description of the scope of the profession’s roles in direct practice with individuals, families and groups, and the state of social work scholarship supporting those roles.  Recommendations for the kinds of social work roles and research that are needed going forward.  Presenters: Jeanne Marsh and Mary Bunn, University of Chicago.

4:45-5:30        Concluding Roundtable Discussion with Authors and Representatives from the Policy and Practice Communities



Background: The Significance of the 1917 National Conference of Social Work

The 1915 National Conference of Charities and Correction has received considerable attention in histories of American social work due to the discussion there of whether social work at the time was, in fact, a profession. Probably the most attention has focused on a speech by Abraham Flexner. The leaders of the national conference that year had invited Flexner, the author of an influential report on medical education in the United States, to speak to the annual conference on the topic “Is Social Work a Profession?” Flexner famously concluded that social work did not meet the criteria that he believed defined a profession, criticizing in particular social work’s lack of a single coherent purpose, the diffuse scope of its activities (e.g., casework, community organization, charity work, administration, and social reform), and inadequate development of a specialized professional body of knowledge.

Interestingly, one of the organizers of that same conference, Porter Lee, then director of the New York School of Philanthropy, asked the following question about social work in his address titled “The Professional Basis of Social Work”:

If it is or is to be a profession, has it definite characteristics which will admit all those who claim the name, or which will automatically exclude some? The announcements of this conference describe this as the greatest gathering of social workers on the continent. Our membership includes public relief officials, institution officers, play leaders, parish workers, charity organization secretaries, probation officers, placing out agents, nurses, settlement workers, medical social service workers, prison heads, friendly visitors, truant officers, matrons, teachers of special groups, members of boards of directors, tenement inspectors, public welfare directors, social investigators, executives of agencies for social legislation, industrial betterment leaders, those who work with immigrants, factory inspectors and—to avoid omitting any—many others. Is the tie which gives coherence to this group a professional one?

(Porter Lee, “The Professional Basis of Social Work,” in Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, 596–606, quotation at 598 [Chicago: Hildemann, 1915])

The observations of the outsider, Flexner, and the insider, Lee, both speak to fundamental questions that the creators of American social work struggled with at that time and that social work scholars, educators, and practitioners often struggle with today. Is social work really a profession? If so, what are the boundaries of its professional turf? And what knowledge does the profession need to claim and maintain its turf?

Two years later, in 1917, the members of the National Conference on Charities and Correction answered the first question with a resounding “yes” by renaming their gathering the National Conference of Social Work.  1917 was a fundamental turning point in the evolution of the social work profession in the United States, arguably the true birth year of the professional enterprise. To be sure, the fairly distinct core groups that made up the nascent profession—the managers of state and local institutions that cared for marginalized populations, the developers and purveyors of scientific charity, and the social reformers of the settlement movement—had been meeting together for many years at the national conference and often at the state level, too. Some, but not all, of them even referred to themselves as social workers, and there were a few educational programs training individuals for work in “charity,” “civics,” and “philanthropy.” And the national conference had begun to make space for the kind of critical self-reflection that professionals are known to engage in, such as the sessions devoted to the talks by Flexner and Lee. In other words, the aspiration of many of the participants in the national conference to professionalize their work was clear before 1917.

Nevertheless, it was in 1917 that the distinct cadres of would-be professional social workers agreed to formally rename their collective enterprise social work. This was not a trivial change for the organization, nor did it simply represent an effort to catch up with changes that had already taken place in the field. Founded in 1879, the National Conference of Charities and Correction had borne its name for nearly four decades prior to the 1917 meeting. The educational programs training individuals to work in charities, administration, and social reform did not routinely start calling themselves schools of social work until after 1917, and the Association of Training Schools for Professional Social Workers (later the American Association of Schools of Social Work) did not form until 1919. Similarly, social work professional associations, such as the American Association of Social Workers, came together after the 1917 conference.  And lastly, the first social work textbook to be widely used over a number of years, Mary Richmond’s Social Diagnosis, was published in 1917. Now, a century later, it seems timely to consider how well social work is faring across its diverse professional turf.

Please see the SSWR website for more information about the 2018 SSWR Conference [http://secure.sswr.org/2018-conference-home/]