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The Appealability of the Social Work Profession in the United States: Possible Explanations

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Rigaud Joseph and Herbert Shon

Submitted: November 27th, 2019 Reviewed: February 9th, 2020 Published: March 9th, 2020

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.91671

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In many parts of the world, the social work profession has continued to become a magnet for students from various backgrounds. This field has attracted local and international students with prior expertise in other disciplines, including but not limited to, sociology, psychology, criminal justice, education, and law. This chapter, among other things, presents an overview of the social work profession in the United States, highlights the uniqueness of this discipline, and explains the rise in enrollment in the twenty-first century. It is hypothesized that the appealability of social work is associated with (a) a quest for social justice, (b) a pragmatic path toward direct practice, (c) a commitment for social services delivery, and (d) a passion for empowerment. Understanding the rationale behind the appealability of the profession is crucial for social work educators to meet the needs of their student body in a world deeply ravaged by contemporary social problems.


  • social work
  • social work education
  • social problems
  • social justice
  • social work practice

1. Introduction

The profession of social work has been in existence across North America since late 1900s [1]. Two reputable organizations oversee the profession of social work in the United States: The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) as governing body with regard to accreditation standards and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) as professional body in terms of ethical standards. The CSWE was formed in 1952, following the merging of the American Association of Schools of Social Work (AASSW)—formerly the Association of Training Schools for Professional Social Workers—and the National Association of Schools of Social Administration (NASSA). The original mission of the CSWE was to promote and regulate social work education in the US and in Canada [2].

Roughly three decades before the creation of NASW, social workers in the United States organized themselves under the auspices of the National Social Workers’ Exchange. By the early 1950s, there were several major social work organizations with national recognition. In 1955, seven of them—American Association of Social Workers, American Association of Psychiatric Social Workers, American Association of Group Workers, Association for the Study of Community Organization, American Association of Medical Social Workers, National Association of School Social Workers and Social Work Research Group—merged into a single entity: NASW [3]. The newly established organization was purported to further the professional status of social work.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the largest percentage of mental health and family services professionals reported having social work degrees [4]. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work has become one of the fastest growing community and social service occupations in the United States (US) in the twenty-first century [5]. The US accounted for more than 680,000 employed social workers in 2016. This number is expected to reach 790,000 by 2026 [6]. This chapter focuses on the appealability of the social work profession in the US by proposing to explore the following questions:

  1. To what extent has social work education in the United States experienced a growth in enrollment in the past decade?

  2. What explains the uniqueness of the social work profession in the United States in the twenty-first century?

  3. What is the rationale behind the appealability of the social work profession in the United States in the twenty-first century?

  4. In what ways can social work education in the United States best assess/meet the needs of social work students in the twenty-first century?

To answer these questions, the authors made an unsystematic review of the literature, gleaning information from both published and unpublished sources. Much of the information presented in this chapter originated from peer-reviewed outlets, such as journal articles and books. Yet, the authors also included materials (mainly statistical information) from reputable electronic databases in this conceptual paper.


2. The profession of social work in the United States

2.1 Scope of education

According to the CSWE, American colleges and universities offered 518 bachelor’s degrees, 255 master’s degrees, and 89 doctoral degrees in social work in 2017, serving 127,079 students in the process [7]. This is an overall 75% increase from a decade ago when only 72,309 students sought a social work degree. In fact, based on CSWE’s (2008) data, in 2007 the higher education enrollment for social work in the United States (US) reached 30,554 students for baccalaureate programs, 39,508 students for master’s programs, and 2247 students for doctoral programs [8]. Figure 1 below shows the substantial growth in enrollment for the decade 2007–2017. The increase in enrollment was particularly sharp for undergraduate social work education. Compared to the undergraduate and graduate programs, doctoral enrollment (PhD and DSW) underwent a less impressive improvement between 2007 and 2017. Yet, this was still a 43% jump over the decade [7, 8].

Figure 1.

Number of social work students in the United States for 2007 and 2017.

Combining undergraduate and graduate education statistics for the 2016–2017 academic year, the authors found that social work remains a predominantly female profession with 86.3% of students, on average, identifying as female [7]. With regard to race, the profession has become more diverse with minority students representing almost half of the student body in 2017 [7]. In terms of age, approximately two-thirds of students enrolled in social work programs across the US during the 2016–2017 academic year were below the age of 40 [7]. It is important to acknowledge that these demographic proportions only reflect a national picture of the profession in the US. National data may tell a completely different story at the subnational level, that is, across states, counties, and municipalities.

2.2 Validity of the profession

Farley, Smith, and Boyle defined social work as “an art, a science, and a profession that helps people solve personal, group (especially family), and community problems and attain satisfying personal, group, and community relationship through social work practice” [9]. However, the credibility of social work was under attack soon after its inception. Table 1 below exhibits 18 criteria or characteristics or a profession proposed by four scholars from various academic backgrounds.

Authors Criteria Criteria met
Flexner (1915) Knowledge and responsibility Yes
Esotericism Yes
Practical purpose Yes
Curriculum Yes
Commitment Yes
Social welfare Yes
Wickenden (1941) Common heritage of knowledge Yes
Educational institution Yes
Professional bodies Yes
Public recognition Yes
Maintenance and improvement Yes
Client confidential relationship Yes
Greenwood (1957) Systematic theory Yes
Authority Yes
Community sanction Yes
Ethical codes Yes
Professional culture Yes
Abbott (1988) Jurisdiction Yes

Table 1.

The validity of the social work profession.

Adapted from the work of Flexner, Wickenden, Greenwood, and Abbott.

Using a six-criteria grid, Flexner found that social work did not meet the conditions for a profession [10]. Flexner based his critique on the failure of social work to take final decision on critical issues (responsibility), define a clear goal (practical purpose), and have educational specializations (curriculum) [11]. Hence, for Flexner, social work is more of a helping profession rather than a profession per se. It is important to mention that the criteria under which Flexner (2015) appraised the profession were selected arbitrarily. Arguably, by stating that “social work is not a profession” based on his de facto criteria, Flexner somehow tarnishes the reputation of the field forever. However, no one would quarrel with the idea that his remarks did more good than harm to the profession. After all, Flexner’s remark raised awareness within the social work community on how to improve the profession. In other words, since Flexner’s assessment of the social work came at a relatively early stage in the development of the field, this set the stage for the depositaries of the profession to take remedial actions.

In 1957, Ernest Greenwood, University of California, Berkeley social welfare researcher and professor, launched a significant counterargument to Flexner’s claim that “social work is not a profession.” In his essay, “Attributes of a Profession,” Greenwood stipulated that social work is a profession [12]. The difference between Flexner and Greenwood lies in the criteria of selection upon which the scholars based their respective argument. As exhibited in Table 1, Greenwood’s framework includes the following criteria: systematic theory, professional authority, community sanction, ethical codes, and culture. The criteria in this framework are fundamentally different from those found in Flexner’s model (see Flexner’s work as described above [10]).

Although not part of the feud between Flexner and Greenwood, Wickenden and Abbott contributed heavily to the discussion [13, 14]. Common heritage of knowledge and skills, educational institution, professional bodies, public recognition, maintenance and improvement, and confidential relationship between practitioners and clients are criteria suggested by Wickenden [13]. Abbott’s notion of jurisdiction implies the uniqueness of social work [14]. More consideration will be given to Abbott’s sense of professional jurisdiction in the next section.

Today, the field of social work meets the criteria for a profession as expressed in the work of Flexner, Wickenden, Greenwood, and Abbott through:

  1. the implementation of core courses and competencies (curriculum/common body of knowledge and skills/jurisdiction),

  2. the proliferation of social work degrees across many colleges and universities (educational institution),

  3. the establishment of the professional bodies (NASW and CSWE),

  4. the National Social Work Month recognition granted by the Reagan administration in 1984 (public recognition),

  5. continuing education and professional development (maintenance and improvement),

  6. the NASW Code of Ethics (confidentiality, code of ethics),

  7. the person-in-environment theory (esotericism, systematic theory, jurisdiction),

  8. and group/subgroup membership, norms, beliefs, values, and decorum such as NASW chapters (professional culture).

Meanwhile, the profession of social work still faces some forms of modern criticism. Gambrill argued that social work has not moved much beyond an authority-based approach, which develops tolerance for assumptions and takes for granted top-to-bottom interventions [15]. Gambrill particularly bemoaned the lack of client involvement regarding informed participation in services, program effectiveness, and empowerment for advocacy [15].

Other scholars echoed Gambrill’s concern in reference to effectiveness of social programs. In particular, Joseph and Stoefller and Joseph contended that, in the United States, lawmakers and social services agencies do not always implement macro policies based on empirical evidence [16, 17, 18]. Therefore, the social work profession has an obligation to question the effectiveness of programs. Before advocating for the expansion of social policies, it would be standard practice for social workers to know whether those policies are effective in the first place [16, 17, 18].

With much of the funding for social services coming from the government, social work stakeholders may feel compelled to play by the rules defined unilaterally by the funding source. Opposing the government would tantamount to conflict of interest charges against social services organizations. It is important to mention that if social work becomes a fulcrum through which the government implements unscientific interventions, then the authority-based criticism leveled by Gambrill against the profession is justified. As far as social work is concerned, becoming an extension of any unfair system is nothing short of heresy.

Fortunately, social workers in general (scholars, researchers, graduate students, and clinicians) are committed to science, evidenced-based practice, and advocacy. Therefore, despite the concerns previously mentioned, the profession of social work still stands on scientific grounds and remains arguably the first and last line of defense against the system. As criticism only serves to make a profession stronger, members of the social work community need to figure out how to work with the government without losing their independence. The next section describes why social work is different from all other professions.

2.3 Uniqueness of the profession

Kirst-Ashman (2013) argued that social work draws on many other disciplines for its knowledge base [19]. These include but are not limited to sociology, psychology, political science, psychiatry, economics, and law [19]. However, social work differs quite significantly for other professions with respect to:

  1. Mission/purpose : According to NASW, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” [20]. Poverty and social justice have always been pivotal concepts in defining the mission of social work both in the US and abroad [17, 21]. Joseph argued that the strong emphasis on poverty and social justice within the social work community is the divider between social work and other professions [17].

  2. Eclecticism : Social work also embraces the generalist practice model, which consists in the application of a broad range of skills toward solving problems at the individual, family/group, organization, community, and society level [22]. The University of Missouri School of Social work put it best by asserting that “[social work’s]…unique approach to problem-solving and interventions is evidenced in direct clinical practice, policy planning and administration; community-level and state-level services; private and public sectors; and teaching, research, and scholarship” [23]. The generalist practice model also offers social workers an opportunity to play many roles in working with clients. These include working as a case manager, negotiator, mediator, facilitator, educator, community organizer, evaluator, and public speaker. Furthermore, under this model, social workers work side by side with client throughout a seven-step process: engagement, assessment, planning, implementation, evaluation, termination, and follow-up [22]. Many disciplines—nursing, medicine, psychology, counseling, etc.—apply some aspect of the generalist model, especially regarding the aforementioned steps. However, the level of intervention is narrower inside these disciplines. Indeed, nurses and physicians mostly provide micro-level services.

  3. Theoretical guidance : According to NASW, “Social work is different from other professions, because we focus both on the person and their environment. Social workers deal with the external factors that impact a person’s situation and outlook” [20]. Other professions such as psychiatry and mental health embrace primarily the medical model where the focus is on issues that are intrinsic to patients. Social work is the leading profession vis-à-vis understanding complex social problems and human behavior in the social environment.

  4. Advocacy : Social advocacy is another feature of the social work profession. In fact, it is not incumbent upon other fields of study to represent clients at the macro level. The California State University Bakersfield wrote that “The profession of social work is grounded in a commitment to serving vulnerable and oppressed populations and advocating for public policies that promote social justice” [24]. Social workers are ethically bound to advocate with, and at the behest of, their clients.

  5. Code of ethics : Many professions develop codes of ethics; however, the NASW Code of Ethics is sui generis. It is the official document that guides social workers’ actions.

2.4 Social work curriculum and student interests

Adapted from the 2018 CSWE’s report, Table 2 presents glimpses of the social work specializations and internship foci as offered by colleges and universities in the US in 2017. As seen in Table 1, social work schools in the US still provide students an opportunity to focus on micro practice, macro practice, or both. The clinical track allows students to provide direct practice to individuals, groups, and families. The macro tracks include areas such as advanced generalist practice, community practice, policy practice, program evaluation, and administration and management [7].

Intervention level Programs
Clinical practice 113
Non-clinical practice 134
Fields of practice Programs
Children, youth, and families 64
Health/integrated health 51
Mental health 44
Aging/gerontology 41
School social work 33
Addictions 15
Field Placements Students
Community mental health 9392
Health/mental health 7569
School social work 6769
Child welfare 6727
Family services 5725
Gerontology 1458

Table 2.

Levels of intervention, areas of practice specialization, and field placements for social work students in US universities in 2017.

Source: Council on Social Work Education, 2018.

Many scholars—Butler and Coleman, 1997; Huber and Orlando, 1993; Hymans, 2000; Kasper and Wiegand, 1999; Miller, Tice, and Hall, 2008; Reisch, 2016; Wolk, Pray, Weismiller, and Dempsey, 1996—raised doubt about social work educators prioritizing the clinical track over the policy track in designing curricula [25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31]. This concern, however, seems not to show up in the overall social work curriculum in the US. Another concern deals with field practicum. Koerin, Reeves, and Rosenblum, Miller et al., Raber and Richter, and Sui claimed that social work students in a direct practice track are more likely to be being more suitable to micro practice. Existing field placements are more suitable to social work students with a direct practice track as opposed to those who prefer a nonclinical setting [29, 32, 33, 34]. This issue appears to be more in alignment with the information in Table 1 where most students were placed in micro settings in 2017. Important topics such as poverty and social justice, advocacy and community organizing were basically not the focus of social work field practicum across the US in 2017.


3. Appealability of social work

The existing literature contains several explanations for social work as a career choice. Among them are the following: genuine, intrinsic commitment to service (altruism) [35, 36, 37]; connection to social work identity (social work idealism) [35]; adverse life experiences including trauma, addictions, and family illness [38, 39, 40]; versatility of social work with respect to employment and upward mobility [41]; and previous work/volunteer experience [37]. It is worth noting, however, that most of these studies were conducted decades ago [35, 38, 40, 41] and thus may not accurately reflect the reasons why students enter the field of social work. Another limitation is the fact that the majority of these studies were primarily designed to explore the choice of a social work career primarily at the individual (micro) level [35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41].

In a distant attempt to address the two limitations above, Colby and Dziegielewski [42] posited that the appealability of social work is due to the profession’s proven ability to address challenges facing communities across the globe [2]. This chapter builds on Colby and Dziegielewski’s [42] work by attributing antecedents to choice of a social work career mostly to macro issues. More specifically, this conceptual chapter contends that the appealability of social work in the twenty-first century can be linked to factors such as (a) a quest for social justice, (b) a pragmatic path toward direct practice, (c) a commitment for social services delivery, and (d) a passion for empowerment. Each of these factors is described below.

3.1 A quest for social justice (macro practice)

Most prospective social work students may develop disdain for the sociopolitical and economic system in which they and their loved ones live. As a result, these students may want to learn how to become an advocate not only for their own behalf but also for those who cannot represent themselves. Social work is the perfect destination for such students. Macro social work issues such as income inequality, poverty, homelessness, and institutional racism and discrimination can become a magnet for applicants, especially those with minority backgrounds. Indeed, the average full-time students from historically underrepresented groups accounted for 46.4% of the combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment in 2017 [7]. This percentage does not reflect the general population in the US where minority racial groups together represent less than 40%. However, it is hardly surprising to see disadvantaged people edge toward social work. In fact, the profession of social work has always been a refuge for minority students, including black, immigrant, women and Asian students.

3.2 A desire for clinical/direct practice (micro practice)

Compared to psychology, marriage and family therapy, mental health, and counseling, social work offers a more pragmatic path toward become a licensed professional. The advanced standing option in the master’s program is shorter and thus more cost-effective. Psychologists need a doctoral degree and many years of clinical experience to secure licensure. The road to licensure is much more straightforward for social workers who potentially can become a licensed professional in as little as 3 years beyond a baccalaureate degree. It is a different story for psychology.

3.3 A commitment for social services delivery/administration

Another group of students may be fed up with the phenomenon of red tape in the social welfare system. These students may want to bring about change into the system by tearing down the bureaucratic wall that prevents their clients from accessing social services. Such students are extremely passionate about social service delivery and may have been themselves victims of the social service system in the past. Social workers are generally thought of as people who commit to authentic acts of service to others. Service is one of the six core values of the social work profession [43].

3.4 A passion for empowerment

Another group of students may conclude that the best way to help clients is to empower them. Social workers who embrace empowerment are knowledgeable about community resources and value linking clients to these resources. In effect, a large chunk of social workers’ daily professional activities has to do with case management. Undergraduate social workers are passionate individuals whose purpose is to help clients become masters of their own lives.


4. Conclusions

This chapter overviewed the profession of social work in the US and formulates possible hypotheses for the appealability of the discipline in the twenty-first century. Although not intended to extend the literature empirically, this chapter conceptually contributes to the debate on the reasons why students choose social work above other professions. This chapter raises the bar to new heights by adding a macro perspective to the discussion, something that has vastly evaded previous work. Based on the current nature of the profession of social work in the US (as previously described), this chapter concludes that the appealability of social work in the twenty-first century is driven by many possibilities, including social justice issues, direct practice, service delivery, and empowerment. Other possibilities from the literature include a genuine desire to help others, professional idealism, personal and family life events, career outlook, and previous social work experience.

Social work is bound to become even more appealing over time as online/distance education continues to rise. In other words, the suitability for distance learning may play a preponderant role in increasing the popularity of social work across the globe. As things stand, the CSWE has accredited 28 full-time and/or part-time programs at the baccalaureate level and 85 programs at the master’s level. These programs are also offered by some renowned schools, including University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Buffalo, University of Alabama, Michigan State University, Arizona State University, Columbia University, and many universities in the California state system [44]. In 2017, there were 21 baccalaureate programs and 44 mater’s programs operating fully online, and 409 international students graduated with a master’s degree in social work in the same year [7].

It is therefore important for social work educators to assess what social work students expect from the curriculum that will enable them to meet their own, unique intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for pursuing an education and career in social work in the first place. One way to do so is to look at students’ personal statements that elucidate their primary motivation for social work. That is, application materials could inform schools of social work of the unique composition and interests of each entering cohort. Such data could help social work programs design their curricula in a way that is as relevant as possible to the needs of students. This would also help inform field directors of the need to assess the adequacy of their current field placements or explore the potential for new ones. In addition, the information can help make social work programs become more responsive to students’ personal and professional learning needs, and better prepare them for their intended areas of practice. Furthermore, new data could help keep social work curricula dynamic and ready to deal with contemporary social changes not only in the US but also across the entire planet. The broad range of social issues in this changing world may give rise to new, burgeoning areas of social work practice.


Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Written By

Rigaud Joseph and Herbert Shon

Submitted: November 27th, 2019 Reviewed: February 9th, 2020 Published: March 9th, 2020