A social worker is a helping professional who is distinguished from other human service professionals by a focus on both the individual and his or her environment. Generally, social workers have at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited education program and in most states they must be licensed, certified, or registered. A Master's in Social Work is required for those who provide psychotherapy or work in specific settings such as hospitals or nursing homes.
Social workers comprise a profession that had its beginnings in 1889 when Jane Addams founded Hull House and the American settlement house movement in Chicago's West Side. The ethics and values that informed her work became the basis for the social work profession. They include respect for the dignity of human beings, especially those who are vulnerable, an understanding that people are influenced by their environment, and a desire to work for social change that rectifies gross or unjust differences.
The social work profession is broader than most disciplines with regard to the range and types of problems addressed, the settings in which the work takes place, the levels of practice, interventions used, and populations served. It has been observed that social work is defined in its own place in the larger social environment, continuously evolving to respond to and address a changing world. Although several definitions of social work have been provided throughout its history, common to all definitions is the focus on both the individual and the environment, distinguishing it from other helping professions.
Social workers may be engaged in a variety of occupations ranging from hospitals, schools, clinics, police departments, public agencies, court systems to private practices or businesses. They provide the majority of mental health care to persons of all ages in this country, and in rural areas they are often the sole providers of services. In general, they assist people to obtain tangible services, help communities or groups provide or improve social and health services, provide counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups, and participate in policy change through legislative processes. The practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behavior, of social, economic and cultural institutions, and of the interaction of all these factors.
Gibelman, Margaret. "The Search for Identity: Defining Social Work—Past, Present, Future." Social Work 44, no.4. (1999).
National Association of Social Workers. 750 First St. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002-4241. <http://www.naswdc.org> .
National Association of Social Workers. Choices: Careers in Social Work. (2002). <http://www.naswdc.org/pubs/choices/choices.htm> .
National Association of Social Workers. Professional Social Work Centennial: 1898–1998, Addams' Work Laid the Foundation. 1998 (2002). <http://www.naswdc.org/nasw/centennial/addams.htm> .
Judy Leaver, M.A.