European Social Work in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

European Social Work in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

In the 1900’s, European social work services became increasingly the province of the state, with government agencies bound by law to either provide the services directly, or to oversee provision by the voluntary sector through controlling funding and inspecting for compliance with legal rules and regulations (Cree, 2002). The role of the British state was fundamentally redefined during this period.

The ‘modern’ era was, like all punctuation of historical time, to some extent an artificial construct. In broad terms, it was a shifting away from agrarian and rural, and towards industrial and urban life, characterized by “progress, scientific reasoning, and enlightened thinking” . There were also losses to be considered, including traditional values and longstanding social networks. Capitalism and socialism were both explored as political and economic mechanisms for resolving ongoing social problems of ignorance, poverty, insecurity, and violence. During the ‘postmodern’ period, which continues to this day, successes and failures of these competing systems have been increasingly interpreted as evidence that we live in a ‘runaway world’  full of contradictions and risks associated with globalization. We’ll return briefly to that theme below.

In the UK, Elliot & Walton  identified several related phases of development in social work education and practice. Truncating much of the history presented here so far, and concentrating primarily on the postmodern era, their phases were:

the beginnings till 1945

  • the development and consolidation of the welfare state (1945-1971)
  • a radical change in the organization of service delivery in the post Seebohm period (1971-1979), and
  • the period of radical change in the structure of social work education (1980-present).

Over viewing these changes, Cree (2002) observed that the period during and after World War II was characterized by massive social legislation programmes designed to tackle the five giant problems of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness. Programs were developed to include social security and pensions, the National Health Service, education, family allowances, housing and planning, child care and national assistance. “The aim was to end social inequality; the task of social work would be to pick up the small number of people who fell through the welfare net and…rehabilitate them as citizens” . Voluntary agencies remained involved, but chiefly as aides of the state, or in some instances (i.e. children’s protective services) still relatively autonomous.

Critics during this period argued that the emerging profession of social work was increasingly self-serving and less interested in bringing about social change. They were accused of abandoning their commitment to the poor, and of diminishing the authority of women’s voices within the profession. As the state became ever more powerful, the welfare state in general, and social work in particular came under increasing attack from all sides.

In 1979, a conservative government was elected in the UK, and the decade that followed was heavily marked by the influence of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative social and economic ideologies (Elliott & Walton, 1995). The welfare consensus that had held sway for over thirty years was replaced by a new view that individual citizens were responsible for their own welfare. In response to the widespread poverty and social malaise that accompanied the deep recession and unemployment occurring in 1980-81, Thatcher continued economic and welfare policies that would disguise the worst suffering of the era.

Challenges for social workers in the UK during this period included:

welfare state for radical change,

  • Black and anti-racist groups drawing increasing attention to deep-seated racism in the conceptualization and practice of social work,
  • child abuse tragedies, underscoring the limits of the profession to prevent the worst forms of suffering,
  • feminists claiming that state services reinforced gender stereotypes and confirmed women’s oppression,
  • disabled people campaigning for increased control  over which services were provided for them, and how they were delivered,
  • radical social workers pointing to structural causes of social problems, and forming alliances with labor unions, and
  • a New Right political agenda promoting replacement of the welfare “nanny state” with increased dependence on the family and volunteer services.

“There was an inherent problem in conservative ideology whose policies promoted poverty and social distress. No conflict was seen in implementing new legislation which increased the responsibilities of social services departments while restricting the financial resources to make the services effective. Each person’s or family’s problem was seen as an individual phenomenon unrelated to the structural features of unemployment, homelessness and poverty”. Over a time, these policies co-occurring social conditions were associated with more restrictive social security and frozen child welfare benefits, reduced service eligibility for late adolescents, and reduced grants providing supplementary assistance benefits. Many became disillusioned with the welfare state at the same time the state was hardening its position against broad-scale service provision. “The idea that the state could not – and should not – provide all social welfare began to gain ascendancy”.

Schools of social work and social welfare agencies were encouraged to emphasize efficiency and standards in an environment of “hard-nosed concerns about cost”. The influential Barclay Report, in 1982, illustrated the emerging tensions about what social workers should do, and how they should be trained.

“The majority report crudely categorized social work roles into counseling and care coordination/ management, but most interesting element was the two minority reports, one advocating a broad community work approach and the other a full blooded, highly
professionalized casework approach. This conflict epitomized the debates of the 1960s and 1970s between the traditionalists and the radicals”.