social Work

The objective of this work is to trace and critically evaluate the relationship of social work to social justice through the lens of the fact that social work has a record of inclusion or exclusion of oppressed or marginalized groups. This work will explore this through a contemporary social work practice issue.

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In understanding the historical perspective of social work in the United States one must first gain an understanding of the basis of the formation of the United States in its’ thought and rationale of order within a governmental system. In a speech on social work Ruth G. Dean from the Simmons School of Social Work stated that: “Social work, it seems, now content spending more time doing paperwork than working with people. We talk and write in the professional patois of pathology rather than with words that worry life and insight into dreams and aspirations and hope. We now too often speak the vapid language of objective science rather than in narratives that sing with the heart and soul of life and imagination. We seem to have lost our vision of great causes, of what is possible and worthwhile and worth struggling for, and of what could be if only we believed.” (p.4) Dean stats that: “The dominance of ideas of social control and the prevalence of the business ethic are crating dramatic changes in the practice of clinical social work – a profession that developed within an ethos of social welfare. Third party payers control the terms of service, requiring social workers to offer very brief interventions and limited possibilities to clients.” (2004) This problem is not a new one in the field of Social Work.


According to Edward Said in the work entitled: “Culture and Imperialism”: “The U.S. was founded as an empire, a dominion state of sovereignty that would expand in population and territory and increase in power. There were claims for North American territory to be made and fought over with astonishing success. There were native peoples to be dominated, variously exterminated, variously dislodged. Then, as the American republic increased in age and hemispheric power during the nineteenth century, there were distant lands to be designated “vital to American interests,” to be intervened in and fought over. Curiously, though, so influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism and opportunity, that imperialism in the United States as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of the United States culture, politics and history.” (1993) in other words, the American way was ‘the’ way and thus all institutions whether for- or not-for-profit were founded on this idealism. Said speaks of the ‘hierarchies or race’ that were established in the early years of the United States and this is inclusive of certain ethnic groups being considered to be ‘under- and un-educated’ ignorant of the American way and school of thought both in politics and religion as well as those same groups being considered to be a threat to the American way of life as is evidenced in the writings of the early Nativists of the United States such as Morse, de Toqueville, and others.

Edward Said states that: “Imperialism” means the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center that rules a distant territory. Out of the imperial experiences, notions about culture were clarified, reinforced, criticized or rejected.” (1993) Said goes on to state that “imperialism has not really ended…” And that.” thinking tends to reproduce superpower, Cold War, regional, ideological or ethnic contests of old.” (1993) According to Said.”..the decrease in American power…underlines the continuity of the ideological need to consolidate and justify domination in cultural terms that has been the case in the West since the nineteenth century and even earlier. ” (1993)

Said holds that the intervention of the U.S. into third world affairs which has occurred on a regular basis since approximately the year of 1945 is simply a repeat of the pattern of domination that was exhibited in the.”..old imperial order, which developed during the era of mass societies commanded at the top by a powerfully centralizing culture and complex incorporative economy.” (1993) According to Edward Said the “major task…is to match the new economic and social dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…[which can]…be achieved only by revised attitudes to education.” (1993)


The work of Ronald Takaki entitled: “A Different Mirror: History of Multicultural America” recounts the history of the United States: “from the viewpoint of the many peoples previously left out of the historical canon.” (1993) the prevalence of racism in the society of the United States is explored by Takaki and how the conflict in the inner cities developed because of issues relating to educational access for African-Americans during the time of school segregation and racial prejudice. The imperialistic influence in the field of social work and education have been massive in terms of the ideology of society of the United States.

Latinos have experienced much of the same as described in the work of Kilty and Haymes entitled: “Racism, Nativism, and Exclusion: Public Policy, Immigration, and the Latino Experience in the United States” and published in the Journal of Psychology (2000) as these authors relate that immigrants into the country often experience stress in their family unit due to the bicultural nature of their new country of residence and it is because of prior experience with public officials that the immigrants are unwilling to share information or interact with social workers because their history has been colored by these prior experiences leading to anger and fear of social workers that is justified.

Kilty and Haymes also state that the immigration policies in recent years with the English-only requirements have worked toward creating an unwelcome atmosphere for immigrants which is “compounded by a long history of discriminatory policies against Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans.” (Eighth Conference on Health Survey Research Methods, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004)


What is needed according to the work of Said is to “situate the identifies of our students and ourselves in a geography of other identities, people, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they always overlap with each other through unhierarchical influenced, crossing, incorporation, recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and of course conflict.” (1993) it is quite clear that the imperialistic mindset has dominated the field of social work both historically and ongoing and that this mindset continues even in this age of ‘globalization’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multicultural’ society. Edward Said is of the opinion that oftentimes these very phrases are used to gloss over the existing problems without actually applying the thought needed toward finding a solution to reverse and change this mindset in the application of social work intervention. Dean states that: “Social workers of the future will need to develop practice frameworks that are truly multicultural and balance an understanding of cultural differences with an awareness of our common humanity.” (2004) Dean additionally states that: “Social workers of the future will need to be able to crate programs, obtain funding, and demonstrate the effectiveness of their work. Instead of being overwhelmed by the needs they see, social workers will imagine ways of meeting these needs and bring them into being.” (2004) Change then it seems, must begin at the level of interaction instead of waiting on the controlling imperialistic mindset to change for indeed how long will that wait entail?


Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror. In a different mirror: A history of multicultural America (pp 1-170. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Company.

Kilty, K., & Haymes, M. (2000). Racism, nativism, and exclusion: Public policy, immigration, and the Latino experience in the United States. Journal of Poverty 4, 1-25.

Shacknove, a. (January 1985). Who is Refugee? Ethics 95, 274-284.

Said, E. (1993) Culture and imperialism.

Platt, a.M., & Cooreman, J.L. (2001). A multicultural chronology of welfare policy and social work in the United States. Social Justice 28, 91-137.

Reisch, M. (1998). The sociopolitical context and social work method, 1890-1950. Social Service Review, June, 162-181.

Carlton-LaNey, I., & Hodges, V. (2004). African-American reformers’ mission: Caring for our girls and women. Affilia, 19, 3, 257-272.

Gordan, L. (2002). If the Progressives were advising us today, should we listen? Journal of the Guilded Age and Progressive Era 1, 1-8.

Gordan, L. (1991). Black and white women’s visions of welfare: Women’s welfare activism, 1890-1955. Journal of American History, Sept. 559-590.

Williams, L.F. (2003). An assult on white privilege: civil rights and the Great Society. In L.F. Williams, the Constraint of Race: legacies of White Skin Privelege in America (pp.107-165). Pennsylvania, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Reisch, M., & Andrews J. (2002). The future of radical social work in the United States. In the Road not take: A History of Radical Social Work in the United States (pp. 227-235). London: Brunner-Routledge.

Dean, Ruth G., D.S.W. (2004) Looking Toward the Future in Unsettled Times 21 April 2004 Simmons School of Social Work.

Cohen, Steven. B. & Lepkowski, James M. (2004) Eighth Conference on Health Survey Research Methods. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control.

Historical Perspective of Social Work

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