An Overview of Social Work

A Deeper Look at Social Work

Social work is a broad field which endeavors to help both the individual and society as a whole. While social work takes many forms, it is always centered on understanding and helping our fellow humans. Social work is binary in nature. The two branches which comprise the field include one centered on treating individuals with interventions and therapies, and another which is a macro-level analysis centered on expanding social work knowledge, or to advise on policy at the societal level.

Social work that is centered on the individual or family can take the form of direct one-on-one treatment, group therapy, couples counseling, or family counseling sessions. At this level, social work focuses on helping individuals, couples or families to recognize cognitive behavioral issues through assessment and psychological inventories. Using these tools, social workers can help individuals and families recognize and address the issues causing problematic behaviors. There are many forms this can take; there are marriage and family therapists, addiction counselors, and licensed clinical social workers, to name a few. While each worker may be addressing very diverse behavioral issues, all of them are helping individuals recognize underlying causes of problematic behaviors, and using strength-based approaches to help correct these behaviors.

Social work that is done at the macro level can include social work research, or interventions for communities such as public health or other policy level consultation done with governments, corporations or community stakeholders. Social work research is often done in a clinical setting so that sociological studies can be undertaken in a controlled environment. Research can also take the form of surveys that are done on behalf of corporations, think tanks, governments, political parties or universities. This research is then peer-reviewed and can then contribute to real-world practices at the individual or community level.

Social Work Practice vs Social Work Organizations

While social work itself can be divided into two branches, so too can the practice of social work be divided. Some have social work careers within organizations and others practice independently. The majority of social workers across all job titles work within an organization, whether it is a public agency such as in government, or for a private employer. Public sphere social work is usually involved with treatments and interventions for the individual. This can take the form of counseling-based social work, or the administration of government safety net programs wherein a social worker helps to determine which aid programs or publicly funded health interventions are appropriate for an individual client. Additionally, social workers will work at a policy level with community stakeholders, corporate boards or legislators to create large-scale public policy within a given community. Some social workers will end up in publicly funded clinical research through organizations such as universities to help advance the field of social work knowledge. The public sphere of social work is very diverse and comprehensive.

By contrast, the private practice social worker is one who usually acts in a counseling-only capacity, or more rarely as a private practice advisor to policy makers. The most common form of private practice is that of the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and other therapeutic social workers. For the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), the focus is on developing their own private practice and techniques to assist clients in cognitive behavioral therapies and other interventions that have been shown to be effective. For many LCSWs, what attracts them to private practice is the idea of being their own boss and running their practice as they see fit. From setting your own schedule to having your own system of case file maintenance, there are many reasons why a private practice might be appealing to you.

Social Work Codes of Ethics

Social work is a profession where you often are dealing with very vulnerable clients and often have access to extremely personal and intimate information. When working with clients, you will always be expected to follow the latest HIPAA laws regarding client confidentiality. In addition to legal requirements, the field of social work has a stringent set of ethics that are required if you wish to practice in a licensed capacity. Further, many organizations require the strict adherence to social work ethics and guidelines as provided by the state social work licensure boards and other regulatory bodies. While these vary from state to state and organization to organization, professional integrity demands that social works follow these guidelines in order to protect clients health and safety. An example of ethics is the injunction against any sort of romantic entanglements with clients. Another example of common ethics guidelines is ensuring there is no financial or legal conflict of interest when a social worker has a client on their caseload. This is especially relevant in cases where a social worker is involved in court related social work such as evaluating clients who are referred to them by the courts. While many of the various codes of ethics for social workers are different in one state compared to another, most are common sense guidelines on ethical behavior with a client. The National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) developed the following ethics guidelines which are considered a best practice minimum standard for social workers nationwide. They are based on a set of ethics that are predicated on specific social work values. Be sure you are aware of any additions your state or organization might have. You can find the NASW Social Work Code of Ethics by here.

Social Work Theory

Social work theory is an ever evolving field of knowledge that brings together the entire scope of the social work field into a cohesive framework of best practices developed in various social work research studies. This research is performed in clinical settings by licensed clinical social workers and other licensed social work professionals. At the core of social work theory is the exploration and attempt to understand human behavior, what motivates it, and how to change human behavior that is seen as problematic. This is achieved using the scientific method to develop evidence based practices to understand human behavior and how to change it when necessary. While often focused on the individual, social work theory can also be expanded to aid in understanding why large-scale behaviors are occurring in society as well as developing theories on how to educate and inform the public to change these behaviors.

Some examples of social work theory that have been accepted and brought into mainstream use are ideas such as:

  • Equity and inclusion
  • Microaggressions
  • Trauma informed care
  • Dual Diagnosis treatment
  • Cultural Competency

Social Work Policy

Social work policies are created by using social work theoretical frameworks and applying them to policy creation. This can take the form of a social worker brought in to help a corporation’s human resources department develop policies of equity and inclusion along with cultural competency as part of corporate efforts to modernize HR practices. This can also take the form of social workers advising policy makers in local governments on how to make policies that are socially conscious and equitable. Social workers also can help develop policies that maximize the effectiveness of public education efforts.

Social work is a vast and diverse field centered around helping us recognize our collective humanity and understanding the underpinnings of human behaviors. The ultimate goal of social work is to help create better conditions and facilitate understanding of our fellow human beings.