Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: Creating a New Profession: The Beginnings of Social Work Education in the United States (2000)

Creating a New Profession: The Beginnings of Social Work Education in the United States (2000), by Leslie Leighninger, is the first monograph of its kind that gathered primary sources to narrate how the social work profession began in the United States. He gathered essays by the leading social work pioneers in the last century and the origins of social work centers in urban cities -- Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis and so on. Early social workers focused on organized training, scientific knowledge, the importance of field work, the significance of race and gender, the search for balance between client-focused and social reform perspectives, and attempts to keep up with technology and new techniques.

Selections included Anna L. Dawes, Mary Richmond, Jeffrey R. Brackett, George E. Haynes, Forrester B. Washington, Abraham Flexner, Edward T. Devine, Edith Abbot, Ziplpha Smith, and Mary Richmond. While these names are briefly mentioned in most standard social work textbooks, Leighninger allows readers the full flavor of social work pioneers' ideas, aspirations, and enthusiasm for a new profession. For instance, Mary Richmond is identified with the client based (social casework) perspective and Jane Addams is identified with the social reform (settlement house) perspective. Social casework provided a coordinated system of philanthropy where "friendly visitors" identified which families needed assistance, whereas the settlement house provided a community center in the heart of the neighborhood where workers and residents could engage together in social reform activities.

This book was insightful in three ways. First, I developed a deeper appreciation for the early social workers who developed a profession in response to many societal factors at the time (immigration, urbanization, industrialization, concentrated poverty, discrimination, and so forth). The Progressive Era (1890-1913) enlightened middle-class women and men to address the causes of poverty and reform the nation at the local, state and federal levels. Second, the philosophical perspective (client-based vs. social reform) in a particular city determined the direction of the social work curriculum (the Northeast adopted a client-based model based on social work casework whereas the Midwest adopted a social reform model from the settlement house movement). This perspective is still reflected today in the contemporary social work schools.

Finally, I was delighted to learn about the social work profession from an African-American perspective. The authors (Haynes and Washington) argued that black social workers were needed to "uplift" the African-American community since no one else would or could help black families. This mindset followed W.E.B. Dubois' approach to communal empowerment (also known as the Talented Tenth, the most talented and educated would give back and provide leadership to the African-American community during times of racial unrest and discrimination).

Overall, I am very happy that I read this book because it gave me a better understanding of the origins of social work education in the United States. I highly recommend it to social workers and social welfare scholars who want a grounded understanding of the theories that led to the development of the social work profession in the early twentieth century.

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