4 Social work and groups
Social workers are frequently engaged in working with groups, whether these be family groups, groups within care living environments, or in the application of more formal groupwork approaches. All practitioners require a good understanding of how groups function and the opportunities they present for development, support, and for empowerment.
Lindsay and Orton (2011) note that being in groups is a normal part of the lives of most people and that those with similar life experiences, situations and problems can be a source of support to one another. They recognise that groupwork can be empowering, with opportunities for giving and receiving help, as well as for feedback and learning. In addition, they suggest that groups can be valuable as an economical way of helping and offering ways of reaching marginalised people, and for bringing hope and optimism at times. Lindsay and Orton pointed out though, that groups can also be strange, offer limited confidentiality and that, inevitably, individuals in groups are less likely to receive undivided attention. They also observed that ‘groups can be complex and expensive to plan and implement’ (p. 15); and for some individuals, groups can actually be harmful.
Mark Doel trained as a groupworker in the 1980s at what was then the National Institute for Social Work. He is a widely published and highly respected groupwork author, practitioner and teacher. First, watch this video where Mark summarises his understanding of the relevance of groups to social work.
Much of current social work is directed towards intervention with individuals, and working with groups can be time-consuming and expensive to organise and to deliver. However, on occasions, there can be advantages to addressing some problems that are common to a number of individuals by meeting together in a group. In a group, individuals can extend awareness, provide mutual support, and investigate solutions that may be difficult or less efficient to work on alone. Sometimes groups are established and maintained by service users themselves, and sometimes groups are set-up by professionals specifically trained and experienced in the theory and practice of groupwork.
For people leading a group, including for social workers, it is important to be aware of a number of guiding principles and features about groups. These are explored in the following sections.