Philosophical Foundations of Social Work

It is important to know about the philosophical foundations of social work because they can be instrumental to examine the ultimate realities of the concepts, principles, and values of social work and can help us to obtain a deeper understanding of the essentiality of the profession. Before entering into the discussion on the philosophical foundations of social work, it is necessary to understand what philosophy is and what social work philosophy is.

Concept of Philosophy

The term ‘Philosophy’ has been derived from the two Greek words ‘philo’ which means Love and ‘Sophia’ which means Wisdom. The literal meaning of the combination of the two terms is ‘Love for wisdom’. Therefore, the meaning of philosophy is love for wisdom. Wisdom is the fine and rationalized outcome of one’s own life experiences. Philosophy is the science that investigates the most general facts and principles of human nature and the conduct of life.

According to Webster’s New International Dictionary, “Philosophy is the science which investigates the most general facts and principles of reality and human nature and conduct; especially and now usually, the science which comprises logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics and theory of knowledge”.

According to John De Wey, “It is concerned with problems of being and occurrence from the standpoint of value, rather than from that of mere existence”.

Social work involves itself in analyzing the basic principles and concepts of social life and presents the highest ideals of social relationships. It is also concerned with revealing some fundamental truth concerning the relations of man with other men and men with the universe as a whole. Thus, philosophy is the critical discussion and evaluation of fundamental assumptions that people make in everyday life, in their own life, in family, in politics, in religion, in science, in arts, and in other broader areas of human activities including social work practice.

Social work Philosophy

Like other professions, social work borne and grew out of certain needs of human beings. In the beginning, social work served mainly the poor and helpless, but with the changing situations, it took the face of other services. Now in the twenty-first century, it is mostly concerned with the problems wherever human institutions or human relations either break down or are threatened to break or even are not at the stage of maximum potential. It is found that problems of human life are not influenced by this or that single factor but it is the product of multiple factors that are linked with the survival and development of human society which is the ultimate reality. In this context, it is essential to know the philosophical foundations that strongly uphold social work as a noble profession.

Social work is the youngest profession that emerged in the 20th century. As a profession, it is still at its tender age. Though it continues to exist from the very beginning of human civilization as helping activity, has not produced great philosophers of its own. It, therefore, uses philosophical thoughts from other professions and relates those to the basic knowledge and methods applied in its own areas of operation. Edward C. Lindman was the first social worker who made a conscious effort to identify some philosophical bases of the social work profession.

According to E.C Lindman, Social work is based on humanitarian philosophy, for its main concern is the welfare and happiness of human beings. Except from devotion to the welfare of human beings, a social worker has to find a method of enabling those who are assisted to regain their confidence in themselves for the proper adjustment to normal life. The philosophy of democracy also has a sound base for social work. It strengthened the need to recognize every human being as an individual, worthy of respect and recognition. The basic philosophical components of democracy like the importance of the consent of the ruled, rule of the majority, respect for the creative minority, and freedom of assembly, speech, and religion are fundamental for human development. These components lay the foundation for social justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity which form a significant part of social work philosophy.

The American Association of Schools of Social Work has set down a statement that may be said to represent the current philosophy of social work. As the statement goes, “Social work accepts as its main objectives the adjustment of the individual in the society. It views this adjustment as dynamic and changing as individual development takes place and as the social setting is modified. It views lack of adjustment as originating in the physical, mental, and emotional makeup of an individual, and in the environment which conditions his behavior. Thus, the profession of social work functions in both areas, utilizing certain skills for service to the individual and others for the control of the environment” The main concern of social work is the individual, the understanding of his needs and his adjustment to his environment. Social workers enter people’s lives in a very practical and intimate way. They necessarily become involved in issues that have an inescapable connection with the philosophy of human beings.

The third International Survey on Training of Social Work conducted by the United Nations sums up some of the philosophical foundations on which the profession of social work has so far been built:

  • To organize the worth of individual human beings, regardless of the circumstances, status, race, religion, politics, or behavior; and to foster the growth of human dignity and self-respect.
  • To respect individual, group, and community differences, at the same time as seeking to harmonize them with the common welfare.
  • To encourage self-help as a means to grow in self-confidence and ability to assume responsibility.
  • To promote opportunities for satisfying living in the particular circumstance of individuals, groups, and communities.
  • To accept professional responsibilities to work for the implementation of social policies consistent with social work knowledge and philosophy about human desires and needs, with the aim of affording to every individual the opportunity to make the best use of his environment and his own potential.
  • To safeguard the confidential nature of the professional relationship
  • To use this relationship to help clients (individuals, groups, or communities) to become more free and self-reliant rather than to try to manipulate them to fit a preconceived pattern
  • To make responsible use of resources and professional relationships for the purpose of promoting as objectively as possible the greatest good for the individual and the best interest of the society.

Herbert Bisno has described the philosophy of social work in details in his book ‘The philosophy of Social Work’. He has narrated the philosophic tenets of social work in 4 areas, such as:

  • The nature of an individual,
  • The relation between groups, groups, and individuals and between individuals,
  • The function and methods of social work, and
  • Social maladjustment and social change.

In recent years, some thinkers of the social work profession, after careful analysis of the concept, principles, methods, and experiences gained from the social work practices have formulated some basic tenets of social work philosophy that can be stated under the following points:

1.      Belief in the worth and dignity of an individual

Every individual no matter where he stands in the social order, what he does, what he contributes to society, and how big or small qualities he possesses are of worth. Social workers strongly believe that each person’s life is socially desirable and every person has some dignity to hold on. The worth and dignity of the individual is the central theme of social work. Some fundamental principles of social work like individualization, non-judgmental attitude, equality of opportunity, the rights of weaker members of the society, social justice, democratic values etc manifest the importance of the worth and dignity of the individual.

2.      Belief in individual freedom

One of the earliest philosophers Rousseau said: “Man is borne free but everywhere he is in a chain”. It implies that man is in eternal bondage of various needs and deficiencies in himself and his social environment. Social work which is also known as a helping profession seeks to mitigate those needs and deficiencies and ameliorate human problems. It tries to free individuals, groups, and society from the clutches of various problems. Social work emphasizes on total freedom of individuals for it realizes that freedom is indispensable for human growth and development and ultimately human happiness. Total freedom encompasses political freedom, freedom from poverty, freedom from social maladies, and freedom from chronic sickness (physical and mental) and so on that stand in the way of the development of an individual or the society.

3.      Inter-dependency between the individual and the society

Individuals and society have always maintained unbreakable and inseparable relationships between them since their existence. Man cannot live without society. For the fulfillment of every single need from womb to tomb, man depends on the society in one or the other way. Starting from child care to education, security, employment, livelihood, love, and affection everything is possible only through social relationship which is the living cell of society. In the same way, society cannot exist without individuals and no social relationship can happen without human beings. Hence, the sole priority of social work is the individual and his relationship with society. When the relationship between an individual and his society is disturbed, a problem occurs. Social work does nothing but attempts to make an adjustment in the relationship between the individual’s need and the social environment.

4.      Multiplicity of the causal factors

A human or social problem doesn’t come from a single factor. Several factors are responsible for a single social problem. For instance, if we take poverty as a social problem, it is a result of not one or two factors. If you ponder about it, you can find several factors responsible for the poverty of a person or a society. Similarly, the problems of alcoholism, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency, beggary, crime, etc have multiple of causal factors. Social work for this reason believes in a holistic approach to intervention in solving social problems. Social work does not simply believe in a single factor for a problem. It adapts scientific social diagnosis to find out related factors which may be contributing to a particular problem. It also works on attacking all the factors contributing to the problem at hand and tries to bring about a scientific solution.

5.      Collective responsibility

The solution to a Psycho-social problem is not a single-man job. It calls for a collective effort from all people especially those who are directly related to a given problem. Life in society has always demanded collective responsibility. Even in the ancient days, people with problems were helped by family, caste panchayats, and other human groupings. Social work believes in a participatory approach to solving problems and making development. It attempts to involve all the possible forces to tackle problems. In the cases of individual problems, social work tries to organize the people around the individual and involves them to solve his problems. In the case of community/social problems, the social worker attempts to organize the community/society to solve the problems. Thus, collective responsibility forms a foundation of social work philosophy.

6.      Recognition of the concept of the welfare state

A welfare state can be defined as “a state where well-being/welfare of the people is the responsibility of the state/ government.” It implies that in a welfare state, the government takes mandatory responsibility for the well-being and welfare of its citizens. The concept of a welfare state has been recognized by most of the independent countries of the world including India. Social work upholds the idea of a welfare state and very often uses popular forces to pressurize the government to plan and work for the welfare of the people. The recognition of the concept of a welfare state has given social work a strong platform to make conscious use of state resources for the upliftment of the needy people in society.

7.      Belief in democratic values

Belief in democratic values is one of the fundamental components of social work practice. It is a known fact that social work as a profession stands on a democratic footing. The humanitarian principles of democracy like equal rights, social justice, and equal opportunity are also accepted as fundamental guidelines of social work practice. Under the guidance of democratic values social work operates on the basis of humanitarian philosophy which upholds the ideals of human welfare and happiness as the highest moral of society. In its noble mission of human happiness social work involves itself in attaining equal rights, social justice, and social equilibrium in society. It looks forward to establishing a just society where everyone lives a happy and comfortable life.

8.      Positive Change

There is serious political, economic, and cultural maladjustment in our society. The co-existence of such maladjustments calls for conscious efforts to bridge the underlying gaps for the good cause of society. If these gaps are to meet, there is a need for social change, and for a positive social change; there is a need for social planning. Social workers, otherwise known as change agents know the intelligent direction of social change. They find the best possible ways and means to bring about social change in society. To bring about a desirable change in society, social work basically sets two broad objectives:

  • to enable and organize the people and use their cooperative power for the improvement of society.
  • To work on the system to make it suitable and functional so that people can help themselves to contribute to their own development.

Source: Deepak Nayak, History, Philosophy and Fields of Social Work

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