Though social work as a profession is a product of the twentieth century as a helping activity it is as old as mankind. Historically, charity and philanthropy have always been concerned with religious, educational, and personality building activities as well as the relief of destitution. It was during the 19th century that helping was given professional shape. However, the exact beginning of social case work is still unknown. Several milestones enable tracing its evolution.

The professional method of case work originated in America when in 1843, the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor (AICP) was founded and approached the problems of poverty individually. The purposes of AICP were to visit the poor at their homes, to counsel them, to assist them and help them in getting employment, to inspire them with self-respect and self-reliance, and wherever absolutely necessary to provide relief that should be suitable to their wants.

The Charity Organization Society (COS) was established in 1877 and started individualized service of providing relief to the needy through volunteers known as “Friendly Visitors”. Through the efforts of Friendly Visitor, the scientific charity evolved, and the seeds of social case work were sown. By the turn of the century, schools of social work emerged and visitors in training received instructions on methods of investigation, diagnosis, and treatment from experienced social workers. Developing out of the COS movement the first family welfare association was organized in 1905 by Mary Richmond and Frances H. McKlean. Mary Richmond’s book, Social Diagnosis which, was published in 1917 is considered the first book in case work. It set forth a methodology of helping clients through systematic ways of assessing their problems and handling them.

Social conditions external to individuals were characteristic of case work during the early part of the 20th century. The thinking was that if the environment could not be changed, the individual should be removed from the environment even if it meant separating families. A shift in emphasis from external sociological factors to the individual’s conscious social attitudes marked an important step in the development of social case work. Problems were considered as the outgrowth of real-life experiences such as neglect and rejection. These case workers found psychoanalytical and the concepts of psychology very useful in case work movement. This was the mental hygiene and psychiatric era of social work.

After World War I, the psychosocial component of the problem-solving method in social case work was focused. The social and economic needs of the great depression refocused sociological and reality considerations for social work. The problem-solving method applied in social case work nowadays marks a shift from the traditional approach.

The case work, in its limited meaning of a helping activity, existed from time immemorial. But case work as a mode of helping people on the basis of a person-to-person relationship originated in the second decade of the twentieth century in the U.S.A. to help the poor. In this development, the focus of concern has been people in some kind of distress and those who cannot help themselves. The case work of the pre-professional period depended very much on the qualities of the heart of the helper- warmth, generosity, kindness and being of service to others. But modern social case work as a professional method requires qualities of the heart, sound knowledge, and skills.

Additional Notes:

Casework is a method of helping people individually through a one-to-one relationship. It is used by professionally trained social workers in social work agencies or organizations to help people with their problems of social functioning. Problems of social functioning refer to situations concerned with social roles and their performance.

The origin and development of casework can be traced back to different historical periods and contexts. Some of the milestones are:

  • In the 16th and 17th centuries, St. Vincent de Paul and his followers practiced the art of friendly visiting to help the poor and needy people in France. They were considered the precursors of modern social workers.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany developed a system of poor relief and social control that involved the collection of data on social conditions and behavior.
  • In the late 19th century, Britain appointed the first medical almoners to assess the financial eligibility and resources of patients who needed medical care. They also provided counseling and referral services to the patients and their families.
  • In the early 20th century, Mary Richmond, an American social worker, set out the first rational and systematic approach to the analysis of individual social situations. She wrote Social Diagnosis, which is considered the classic text on casework theory and practice.
  • In the 1920s, casework was influenced by psychoanalytic theory and focused on the emotional aspects of human behavior. Freudian concepts such as unconscious motivation, defense mechanisms, transference, and countertransference were applied to casework practice.
  • In the 1930s, casework was influenced by functional theory and focused on the interaction between the person and the environment. The concept of adaptation was introduced to explain how people cope with stress and change. The role of the social worker was seen as a facilitator of problem-solving.
  • In the 1940s, casework was influenced by humanistic theory and focused on the personal growth and development of individuals. The concept of self-actualization was introduced to describe the potential of human beings to achieve their goals and values. The role of the social worker was seen as a helper of self-expression.
  • In the 1950s, casework was influenced by systems theory and focused on the interrelatedness of individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. The concept of homeostasis was introduced to explain how systems maintain stability and balance. The role of the social worker was seen as a change agent who intervenes in systems.
  • In the 1960s, casework was influenced by ecological theory and focused on the fit between the person and the environment. The concept of person-in-environment was introduced to emphasize the importance of understanding the context of human behavior. The role of the social worker was seen as an advocate who empowers individuals to improve their situations.
  • In the 1970s, casework was influenced by radical theory and focused on the structural causes of social problems. The concept of oppression was introduced to highlight the impact of power and inequality on human behavior. The role of the social worker was seen as an activist who challenges social injustice.
  • In the 1980s, casework was influenced by feminist theory and focused on the gendered nature of human behavior. The concept of patriarchy was introduced to expose the domination of men over women in society. The role of the social worker was seen as an ally who supports women’s rights and liberation.
  • In the 1990s, casework was influenced by postmodern theory and focused on the diversity and complexity of human behavior. The concept of discourse was introduced to analyze how language shapes reality and identity. The role of the social worker was seen as a collaborator who respects multiple perspectives and voices.

As a profession, casework has also evolved in different countries according to their socio-cultural contexts. For example, in India, casework was introduced by American missionaries in the early 20th century as part of their philanthropic activities. Later, it became part of the academic curriculum in various schools of social work. Casework in India has been influenced by indigenous concepts such as dharma, karma, ahimsa, satyagraha, etc.

In Nepal, casework started in 1996 as a theoretical course and a method of practice in Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of Social Work. Casework in Nepal has been influenced by Buddhist principles such as compassion, wisdom, interdependence, etc.


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