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Relation of social work discipline with social science

Social work has been called a helping profession, a problem-solving profession, or an enabling profession. To qualify to be a profession, social work, should meet several criteria. One of the major criteria is that it should have its own knowledge base (Greenwood,1957; 44-55). It should be able to produce knowledge and its practice should repeatedly validate. Theories and concepts should be formulated which explain the relationship between various factors that influence human behavior. Models for interventions should be formulated to solve problems. However social work, as it is a helping profession, has a major limitation in this area. Most social workers are engaged in practice with little time for developing theoretical perspectives. Social work academics are often criticized for producing research (knowledge) that is not of much use to practicing professionals.

Social work in the early period of growth depended to a large extent on knowledge derived from other disciplines like psychology, sociology, economics, and political science. However, since the 1970s social work scholarship has broadened and deepened its scope. The profession’s self-generated fund of knowledge has expanded substantially (Reamer in Reamer, 1994; 1). But this does not mean that social work’s engagement with other disciplines has reduced or is limited. Here we will discuss the relationship between social work and other disciplines.

Social work is related to various disciplines. The areas like sociology, psychology, and social policy are considered cognate disciplines of social work which has influenced social work. (Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, 1976 quoted in Dominelli, 1997)

Sociology and Social Work

Sociology (Latin “socius” meaning companion and Greek logos the study) is the scientific study of human society. It is called the science of society. All social sciences study human behavior, but the content, approach, and context of sociology are very different from other disciplines. According to Inkeles (1999;14-15), sociology has three distinctive subject matters. Firstly, sociology is the study of society with society as the unit of analysis. Here it studies the internal differentiations and how they interact with each other and how they influence each other. It studies the allocation of functions to the different structures of society. Max Weber, for example, studied the relationship between religion and capitalism and how the later helped capitalism emerge. Sociology also studies the external characteristics of the population and the rate and stage of its progress. The problems of society are explained using these factors. Secondly, sociology as the study of intuitions – political, economic, social, legal, stratifications, etc. It studies the features that these institutions share and the features that are different. Their degree of specialization and level of autonomy are also studied. Durkheim, one of the pioneers of sociology, called sociology as the study of social institutions Thirdly, sociology is the study of social relationships. By social relationship, we mean the interactions between individuals. Interactions between individuals are mediated by the norms and values of society and are intended to achieve goals.

The subject matter for sociology was the collective behavior of human beings. Society, community, family, religion, nation, and groups are concepts that sociology investigates and studies. Its methods are considerably influenced by natural sciences. Even more importantly sociology studied the European society that was polarized and divided on ideological lines. Society was in danger of being disintegrated. Sociologists through their theoretical contributions were responding to this major crisis that they saw around them. They were suggesting the ways and means that societies could adopt to face the problems caused by modernity.

Professional social work and sociology emerged in European society in the nineteenth century which was a period of great changes in society. Both responded to the crises caused by the changes in modern society. They used scientific methods to validate their means of work and gain acceptance and popular support. There were hard-fought ideological debates among the adherents of each discipline so as to the best way to solve problems. For example, in social work, the COS approach and the settlement approach influenced the direction of social work. The COS favored the person-centered approach which depended on casework to resolve the social problem while the settlement house favored a structural change to resolve the problem. In different forms, the debate continues to find the best way to resolve social problems.(Dominelli, 2004; 47)

But sociology and social work differ in many aspects. In Sociology the approach to society is theoretical and theory building is its major concern. Social work on the other hand has to be practical and deal with problems. So social workers spend more time in the field with people rather than in the libraries with books. Sociological theory is based on facts drawn from complex social reality. They offer precise causes to explain social phenomena. Often these theories are of little value to the practitioner as many other factors come into play which should be taken into account to reach a realistic solution. On the other hand, sociologists find social workers’ work to be fragmented and oriented only toward the problem at hand. Another important distinction between social work and sociology is that the latter made claims to be a value-free discipline. Being objective and free from bias was considered a virtue. Social work on the other hand is a value-based profession based on humanitarian principles. (Johnson, 1998; 14)

Sociology has a significant influence on social work. The work of Charles Booth on poverty gave new perspectives to society. The sociological analysis provides theoretical perspectives that can subject policies and the work which practitioners do to systematic analysis thereby enhancing our understanding of what is done and why (Dominelli, 1997;5). The following are the areas in which the contribution of Sociology is significant.

  • The systems theory in sociology has been used in the ecological model of social intervention in which the client systems are seen as being part of the environment and being influenced by it. (Germain, Carel in Reamer(ed), 1994: 103)
  • The major three approaches of sociology – structural-functionalist, Marxian, and interactionist – have influenced social work practice. Marxist theories have helped social workers understand that conflict is part of society and that different sections of society have conflicting interests. These perspectives have helped social workers look critically at its own methods and see whose interests the profession is serving. Further, they have enabled social work professionals to influence social policy by advocating for legislation and programs. The integrationist school has contributed to the understanding of sub-cultures and delinquency. Some of the key theorists and their concepts that have been significantly used in social work include the Foucault concept of power, Marx’s class relationship, and Goff man’s closed institutions. (Dominelli, 1997; 82)
  • Sociological concepts like role, status, authority, power, rights, responsibility, groups, communities, and nations are used in casework, group work, and community organization which has enriched social work practice.
  • The study of family, types of families, changing roles of family members, changing functions of family and its members, the problems and means to resolve these problems.
  • Problems of the elderly and their solutions.

Psychology and Social Work

Psychology (Latin psyche soul and logos study) is the study of mental processes and human behavior. Psychology can be defined as the science of human and animal behavior; it includes the application of this science to human problems (Morgan, C.T. et al, 1993; 30). Being a science, it uses the tools of observation, measurement, and classification to study human behavior.

Three main approaches dominate the field of psychology (1) Freudian and Neo-Freudian approaches. This approach gives importance to the unconscious part of the mind which plays an important role in determining the behavior of the individual. Sigmund Freud is the main proponent of this approach but since then many others like Carl Jung have contributed to giving a new direction to this approach. (2) Behavioral approach which takes behavior as being learned. Skinner the proponent of this approach advocated the use of empirical methods to study human behavior. (3) The third approach is the gestalt approach which takes a holistic approach to the study of human behavior.

Psychology is further divided into various specializations such as clinical psychology, abnormal psychology, industrial psychology, counseling psychology, developmental psychology, and sports psychology. While much of psychology is descriptive and analytical in nature. Psychology is also a practice profession. A variety of agencies employ psychologists for work related to recruitment, counseling, and training. Clinical psychology provides diagnoses for mental disorders and prescribes therapies for their cure. The area of social worker and clinical psychologist overlaps even in other areas like child development and there are common areas of concern also. Often social work and psychology expand their respective spheres of influence.

Along with sociology, psychology had a major influence on the social work profession. The emergence of Freud’s psychoanalytical approach gave a major impetus to casework in the earlier part of the twentieth century due to the following reasons (1) Casework in its initial stages was a very general method that needed only common sense and logical thinking to practice. The psychoanalytical approach gave it an established(medical) base on which it could develop into a specialized method. (2) the need for knowledge to explain difficult phenomena with which practice was involved. (3) the entrance into the general culture of psychoanalytical ideas. (4) political and economic contexts that, from time to time, emphasized individual culpability over social justice and societal responsibility. (Reamer 1983, quoted by Germain in Reamer, 1997) Social workers trained in this skill extended the clientele of the social work profession from the poor to the middle class and the rich classes. The social work profession’s total identification with the poor, destitute, and disabled was reduced when clients from other sections of society started using their services. Most of these clients were well off and were part of the mainstream of society. They mainly suffered from psychological ailments rather than from poverty. Thus, social work came to be seen as a helping profession rather than solely caring for the poor. This new role of social work was also better paying than those in other positions. Even now the categories of social work professionals who are the highest incomes are who offer individual and privatized care to their clients.

Psychology contributed a number of techniques to the social work profession 1) Behavior modification theories, psychoanalysis techniques like dream analysis, etc. 2) Child development with emphasis on role expectation at every stage. 3) Abnormal psychology and the various classification of mental illness. 4) Counselling psychology.

The social worker often used these techniques in their practice to increase their effectiveness. But social work engagement with psychology has its critics. The adoption of psychology methods removed social work from its original mission of helping the poor (Dominelli, 2002, Wootton, 1959; 271 quoted in Lymbery, 2005; 40). Further, this view also influenced the way social workers saw the problems of society. Seeing social problems as being created due to the individual’s incapacity diminished the part unjust social structures played in perpetuating injustices.

Psychiatry and Social Work

Psychiatry is the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders. Psychiatric social workers are specially trained social workers skilled in interviewing, assembling family histories of their clients, and assessing social factors involved in psychological disorders. (Clifford. et al, 1999, G-18). Social work and psychiatry have a close relation, as one very important area of intervention in social work is the mental health field. Social workers gained a significant amount of information from psychiatry — types of mental illness, their classification, causes, effects, and treatment methods. They rely on the medical model, sometimes called the disease model, which seeks to explain mental illness through organic and biomedical causes. (Golightlry, 2004: 22) Consequently psychiatrists deal with the biological and medical aspects of mental illness. They diagnose the illness and prescribe the necessary medication for the problem. Though the medical model is frequently used and accepted by the medical fraternity and the public at large its effectiveness has been contested.

Social workers on the other hand deal with the social aspects of the illness. They mobilize resources within the community to support the patient. It may be a job from the recovered person or getting funds for his livelihood. A social worker will also help his family cope with the difficult situation they find themselves in. Social worker views the mentally as a total person rather than a patient. The cooperation of social workers, psychiatrist, and other health professionals are needed for the holistic treatment of patients. In the USA the American Psychiatric Association, earlier known as the Association of Superintends of American Institutions of the Insane, looks after the curative and rehabilitative needs of the mentally ill.

History and Social Work

In simple terms, history is the record of past events. However, history has been able to discover underlying forces that have influenced those events. History is divided into the following specializations — political history, social history, economic history, history of ideas, and world history. The purpose of history is to know the past so that the present is better understood. If we want to know who we are we must know from where we came and how we reached here. So history studies past events, the factors that influenced them, and what circumstances brought about the events that happened.

For social work, history is important for the following reasons. First, the history of the profession is to be studied so that the current status of the profession is known. New methods in historiography have enabled us to go beyond the approaches that have been seen earlier. This has allowed new light to be thrown into some of the problems that the profession is facing today. For example, from the feminist viewpoint of the history of social work, the alleged low status of the social work profession lies in its origin itself. The pioneers in the profession were white women who were themselves marginalized by the society which was transferred to their profession. Second, the role of social work especially in the west is linked to the fortunes of the welfare state. The welfare state is today facing unfrequented crises due to the rise of neo-liberalism which advocates a minimal state. To fight this political tendency social work has often used history to explain the growth of the welfare state and present problems it needs to address.

Economics and Social Work

Economics is the study of how the goods and services we want to get produced and how they are distributed among society. Economics has a number of branches— agricultural economics, development economics, financial economics; industrial economics, etc. Economic policy is how the system of production and distribution works better. No area of society is free from the influence of economic policy. Many issues related to social work like income, poverty, unemployment, and migrations are directly related to the economic situation. A social worker has to understand the situation, has to adopt a thorough analysis of the situation which often includes the study of economic factors. Often individual and relationship problems have its root in the economic condition that in turn is created by factors beyond the control of people affected by it. For example, unemployment can increase the tendency to divorce and depression.


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