Human Services Guide

Definition of Social Work

At times people will ask you to “define social work” and this is not an easy task to be done. There are many forms of social work and so a simple and concrete definition of social work is not easy to come by in a sentence or two. Instead social work is a vast discipline that encompasses many modalities and methodologies. These far flung occupations include everything from humanitarian rescue missions, to helping families gain access to government assistance, to the counseling of those who are near death and their loved ones. A simple social work definition simply does not do justice to the myriad ways that social work touches the lives of people every day. The one thing this vast array of occupations has in common is that social work strives to better the lives of people whether at the individual, family, group or societal level.

One aspect that all of social work has in common is the intake or initial examination of both a client and their situation. This occurs at many levels from the intuitive to the thorough analysis of data that a client will provide. In the case of social work in a medical or counseling environment this can take the form of diagnosis of mental conditions that are noticeable in the way the client presents. This can also take the form of a careful evaluation of a client’s economic background in the case of a Family Support Worker trying to determine eligibility of a family for government assistance. The initial evaluation of a client during the intake process is the first point of contact and allows the social worker to get their bearings to better serve the client.

When a client is in crisis the social worker’s job is to effectively evaluate both the client themselves and also their current situation. This kind of analysis helps the Social Worker to understand what interventions will be most effective to aid the client. Sometimes it is simply a matter of connecting a client with resources such as government assistance in order to stabilize a situation that is purely economic in nature. In other cases, a client might be in need of medical or mental health care. Being able to effectively diagnose the needs of a given situation is a critical skill in social work.
Social work can also take on the form of acting in a counseling capacity. This can be as a mental health counselor (commonly called a Licensed Clinical Social Worker or LCSW), a substance abuse or addictions counselor. In all of these forms the goal of the social worker is to empower the client to be able to see their own inner strengths and build upon them so that they can overcome the challenges they are facing in their lives. All social work requires a high degree of empathy and excellent communication skills. However, the counseling sub-discipline of social work relies upon these even more heavily than other fields within social work.

Social work can also take place at the group, community or societal level. By working with stakeholders in communities along with policy makers, the social worker can strategize on how to make communities a safer more empowered and integrated place to live. The development of public policy is an area where the social worker can achieve some truly large scale and impactful societal changes. By drawing upon social work theory and knowledge built up during one’s social work education, the social worker can help a wide section of society to understand ways in which they can implement changes for the betterment of all involved.

Social work can also occur at the level of management. Social work usually occurs within the frame work of an organization with the possible exception of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who is working in a private practice. Within organizations there is a need for leadership and organizational decision making and this requires managerial positions. While the manager may not provide direct services to clients they are still performing a key role in the distribution of social work to the community at large.

As you can see, there is no one definition for the social worker, but rather there are many and varied roles that fall under the umbrella of social work. The common thread that unites them all is the desire to alleviate suffering and empower individuals, groups and communities to be able to make the most of their own talents and resources for the good of all involved.