Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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Introducing social work: a starter kit

1 Defining social work

To begin thinking about defining social work, you’ll start by completing a quick quiz.

Activity 1 Thinking about definitions of social work

Which of the following statements do you think are LIKELY to be included in any general definition of social work?


Social work is easy, and anyone can do it.


Social work is nothing to do with politics.


Social work is a practice-based profession.


Social workers must force people to fit into society.


Social workers can work with groups as well as with individuals.


An effective social worker always achieves social justice.


Social workers often encounter the casualties of social inequality.


Social workers should encourage people to stay on welfare benefits.


To work with children, you must already have children of your own.


Social work is a community-based response to social need.

The correct answers are c, d, g and j.


Professional social work takes place in a social and legal context, and practice aspirations, behaviours and choices will not only be driven and shaped by your personal understanding and value base, but principally by the values and ethical imperatives of the profession. Social workers operate perpetually in the space between personal, professional and legal demands.

Social workers require a wide range of knowledge and a firm basis in professional values and ethics. They also need an appreciation and ability to work with social work processes and systems, and they must have developed high-level skills for understanding and working with people. Above all, social workers need to think carefully and have a clear view about what exactly social work ‘is’, because maybe more than many other professional roles, social work’s place and role in society is usually far from settled. Indeed, it is often contested, in its function, its duties, and in its range.

The following definition of social work was approved by the International Federation of Social Workers General Meeting and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) General Assembly in July 2014:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels.

(IFSW, 2014)

To help you clarify some of the terms that are included in this 2014 definition, complete the following drag-and-drop activity.

Activity 2 Thinking more about definitions of social work

Drag the following definitions to their correct label, to form complete sentences.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. occurs when there are significant alterations over time in behaviour patterns, cultural values and norms in society, which have profound social consequences.

  2. occurs where there have been improvements in the well-being of individuals in society over time, allowing for them to reach their full potential. It is not linked only to economic growth.

  3. occurs where people of communities have increased autonomy and self-determination, allowing them to more effectively represent their interests and act on their authority.

  4. occurs when a group believed to have been discriminated against achieve equal status and/or just treatment.

  5. occurs when there are fair and just relationships between the individual and society, often associated with the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges.

  6. are inherent to all human beings, regardless of gender, nationality, place of residency, sex, ethnicity, religion, colour or other categorisation. They are non-discriminatory, meaning that all humans beings are entitled to them and cannot be excluded from them.

  7. occurs where individuals are considered as being responsible for other people’s actions by tolerating, ignoring or harbouring them, without necessarily actively collaborating in those actions. In social terms, this can be considered a positive attribute.

  8. means understanding that each individual is unique, and where differences are recognised and respected, and includes the principle ‘do no harm’.

  9. are general explanations supported by evidence obtained through scientific method, about how humans interact or how they may react in various situations. These explanations can assist social workers in making decisions in their work.

  10. involve the scientific study of human society and social relationships.

  11. are academic disciplines that study aspects of human society. For example, history, philosophy, law and politics, visual arts, anthropology.

  12. is unique knowledge confined to a particular culture or society. This is also known as local knowledge, folk wisdom or traditional wisdom.

  13. include individuals as well as organisations.

  14. occurs when people seek and develop ideas and mechanisms to manage and overcome the barriers that may prevent them from achieving their potential and aspirations.

  15. occurs when steps are taken by individuals, sometimes with support, to promote and improve overall health and sense of achievement of what they want and hope for from life.

  • a.Respect for diversities

  • b.Social change

  • c.Indigenous knowledge

  • d.Theories of social work

  • e.Peoples and structures

  • f.Social justice

  • g.Social sciences

  • h.Liberation of people

  • i.Human rights

  • j.Enhancing wellbeing

  • k.Collective responsibility

  • l.Social development

  • m.Empowerment of people

  • n.Addressing life challenges

  • o.Humanities

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = b
  • 2 = l
  • 3 = m
  • 4 = h
  • 5 = f
  • 6 = i
  • 7 = k
  • 8 = a
  • 9 = d
  • 10 = g
  • 11 = o
  • 12 = c
  • 13 = e
  • 14 = n
  • 15 = j

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