Mari-Anne Zahl, Dr. polit
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Department of Social Work and Health Sciences
Hans Göran Eriksson, PhD
Høgskolen i Sør-Trøndelag
Self-Reliance as Reflected in Social Work Literature
(Paper presented at IUC: “Social Work and Social Policies” 16 – 21 June 2003 )
Over the years there has been a multitude of hyphenated “self” terms in social work such as self-determination, self-esteem, self-image, self-worth, self-realization, to mention a few. A search on Alta Vista in May 2003 using the combination of social work and self-reliance gave 62,810 results from all over the world and related to a specter of areas, including: services, individuals, community and collective, ethnicity, education, work. Based on this search, we state that the core concept chosen for this year’s symposium is a part of social work worldwide, from Hong Kong to Alaska, that is, as of today. What do we find if we go back to early contributions to social work? We have chosen to relate the key concept – self-reliance – to one of the most central books in the early course of the development of social work, to literature from social work in the community, with groups and with self-help groups. However, first we will examine the key concept.
Self-reliance is a widely used word, concept and construct. When we search for the etymological understanding, we find that the verb ‘rely’ comes from Old French, relier, from re + ligãre, meaning to ‘bind’. In its transitive form it has the meaning “to rally; also to assemble, to come together (again)”. It also has the meaning “To depend on a person or thing with full trust or confidence; to rest upon with assurance”, and “To put trust or confidence in a person or thing” (Oxford English Dictionary 1933:576). From this we have the noun ‘reliance’, meaning “The (or an) act of being relying; dependence, confidence, character of being with: on, upon, or in” exemplified in 1850 by Robertson in Seromonial Sermons with “Not by merit nor by works, but by trust or reliance only” (Oxford English Dictionary 1933:576).
The other part, self, stems from the Latin suus, meaning one’s own, developed as an intensive pronoun in the Old High German, selb, which is akin to the Medieval English and Old English pronoun ‘self’’ , and as an adjective meaning identical same, belonging to oneself.
A brief look at how self is understood and used in theories of personality, reveals that Carl Jung and Carl Rogers describe self as an essential constructs of the personality. Rogers regards self as one of the “footings upon which his theory rests” (Hall & Lindzey 1978:284–286). This view has similarities with Jung who claims that “The self is life’s goal, a goal that people constantly strive for but rarely reach” and “if it emerges it does not become evident until the person has reached middle age”. Thus, self is the centre of personality and provides it with unity, equilibrium and stability (Hall & Lindzey 1978:12 –25). Self has also a central position in sociology if we look into symbolic interactionism where self is considered to be a social object in constant change (Charon 1995). Self-reliance, then, has the meaning of reliance upon oneself, on one’s own powers, exemplified by John Stewart Mill as “Combining perfect self-reliance with the most unaffected modesty”, and in Mixed Essays on Democracy by M. Arnold in 1879 as “A self-reliance which disposed each man to act individually and independently” (Oxford English Dictionary 1933 Vol. XIV:929).
Thus we have to settle for an understanding of the concept self-reliance in order to know what to look for. Based on the above, in this article we will use the interpretation: confidence in one’s own powers. With this short preamble on looking at self and reliance we will examine self-reliance in social work literature.
Social work with individuals and families
The prefix ‘self-’ indicates a core consisting of people and not institutions or systems.
Institutions and systems represent powers of importance to clients and social workers alike, and an aura of confidence can reek out of the walls. Even so, the nucleus of self-reliance explored in this paper consists of client(s) and the social worker. All the same, we find it appropriate to pose two related questions: Are institutions and systems a source that transfers reliance to workers who might pass it on to clients? On the other hand, if the culture and aura of institutions and systems lack reliance can it result in a negative dependence filtering down to workers and clients?
When we read Mary Richmond’s book What is Social Case Work? (1922) searching for messages related to self-reliance, what do we find? This book was written before Freud’s psychoanalytical theory and his terminology became dominant in some areas of social work.
Richmond (1922) introduces six narratives, where the cases and work processes are presented together with reflections from the social workers who have worked with the clients in the situations described. Among the criteria for selecting cases we find duration of services rendered from two to six years, case records with a fair degree of fullness, and agencies where social treatment was the primary service and not subsidiary to another profession. Aimless doings of social ills by inexperienced practitioners that were called social work but that had no relation to its theory or practice were rejected:
… all short-term services to individuals are excluded, such as tiding them over a temporary period of stress, helping them to find some agency or some professional skill which they know they need, giving them advice upon a question which puzzles them … All of these services have social value, of course, but, without more follow-up work and more detailed knowledge of their clients than case workers engaged in this type of work usually have, the permanent values cannot well be measured. (Richmond 1922:88)
Her tentative definition for the part she focuses on in this book reads: “Social case work consists of those processes which develop personality through adjustments consciously effected, individual by individual, between men and their social environment” (Richmond 1922:98–99). The other forms of social work that interplay with case work as Richmond sees it are group work, social reform and social research (Richmond 1922:223).
Richmond chose services rendered under unhampered, independent auspices. Restrictions placed on some public expenditure were not designed to cripple professional discovery and development. As an example can be mentioned the probation officer engaged in one of the case-narratives. She was a social case worker, however, one who was restricted by court conditions. She therefore called upon another social case worker who was free to work in accordance with professional judgment. This illustrates Richmond’s requirements for professional social work.
A case record, however thorough, will be a résumé of a process. The screening that takes place will give room for what is regarded of importance at any given time and the purpose of the case record. In this paper we search for traces of self-reliance and reading the narratives, the interpretations and discussions with this focus in mind. In the first part of the paper we mainly look into one of the cases Richmond presents, the case history of Maria Bielowsky that we briefly presents here:
Maria Bielowsky was a teenage girl who had come to the US five years earlier together with her father, stepmother and three siblings. The father died after three years in the US, the older brothers were out of the house, and the youngest was in a reformatory at the time Maria was brought to court. Maria got into trouble with her stepmother regarding her financial contribution to the household, as well as her curfew. These disagreements resulted in Maria moving out. According to the case record, the stepmother was a good woman who spoke only a few words of English and who had lost control over the children. Maria was brought to court for having stolen a few dollars. At the point of the court hearing she appeared shabby and had a record as an irregular worker. Even so, a reformatory did not seem to be the right placement. The social information revealed a girl who had done well in school despite her original lack of English knowledge. She had been a popular member at scout club and Sunday school.
Where could Maria best be served to get out of the downward spiral she found herself in? She was placed under the care of a small private agency where, after some time, the girls were usually placed out in families, though remaining under close supervision by a case worker at the agency. In this particular situation, the case worker became Maria’s legal guardian with sanction from Maria herself, the family and the court.
The holistic approach in this case shows concern about appearance, health, education, work, social relations, and skills. Maria was encouraged to take part in planning and was stimulated to grow to be an active partner. She was positively met when she presented her ideas. The social worker did not want to have a “no-no” approach. Even though some of Maria’s ideas seemed “unrealistic” she still had the chance to try them out. She participated in every step of the process and in making decisions (Richmond 1922:110). The case worker’s approach and philosophy is illustrated in the following quote: “Her appeal was constantly to the girl’s self-respect and ambition, though not so much in set terms as in acts which would stimulate these qualities” (Richmond 1922:38). One example was submitting a class composition to a periodical for youths. It was published and the writer, Maria, was paid for her contribution. The case worker contrived to see the world as it appeared to Maria and was alert not to inhibit the client’s initiative. This did not contradict with the worker’s determination to be honest and frank. The case worker was available not only during normal work-hours, but also on call at any hour. She was a guardian giving a maximum of individualized care with imaginative sympathy and trying to avoid rigidity of mind. During the four years under guardianship Maria graduated from high school, and she stayed and worked in five families during this time. The last one was in the house of a Polish professor and his wife. This gave her many advantages and the pleasure of being with compatriots. She was also given opportunity to go on summer vacation each year. Concerns for her well-being are shown in these examples and illustrate positive components for development of self-esteem and skills in making use of resources in herself and in the environment.
Even if we find evidence of importance placed on self-reliance in the case of Maria Bielowski this does not necessarily indicate that self-reliance is a penetrating idea in Mary Richmond’s work. So let us look at how she uses her data. The inductive study of Richmond concludes that the central factors in social case work as demonstrated in her work are: insights and acts. These main factors are each divided into two parts. These are:
- Insight into individual and personal characteristics
- Insight into resources, dangers, and influence of the social environment
- Direct action of mind upon mind
- Indirect action through the social environment (Richmond 1922:101–102).
Each of the above-mentioned core factors were not presented as important in and of themselves but the skills in combining them were vital for the work process. Having the insight to grasp the core of the difficulties among all details was the trademark of a skilled worker. The insight into the individual and into the environment combined, and the interplay between the two formed a base for understanding personality and for the social diagnosis.
Eagerness to serve, frankness, loyalty, patience, and a policy of encouragement were all central components for the case workers. These essentials were not to make for strong- willed workers taking over for the client or trying to be the one and only important relation for the client. Collaboration between professions and agencies were considered part of the work when it could benefit the client in a holistic perspective. This indicates that the worker does not rely solely on her/his own knowledge, but searches for expertise and resources wherever these might be found.
Re-education combined with a leading policy of encouragement was central in work with clients. The idea of developing personality is emphasized. Personality is understood as including native and acquired qualities, and being in continuous change. Emphasis is placed on the policy of clients participating in making plans for their own welfare and to promote their wants, giving room for wants and self-directed activity. The ideology behind this is that what clients do for themselves counts more towards permanent well-being than what is done for them. This is not just a matter of self-support and health. It relates directly to social relationships and is no more occupied with what might be problematic in the individual than in the environment. The case worker’s approach is back to the individual by way of his social environment (Richmond 1922:98) and striving for an intelligent use of resources in the community.
Social work in the community
In modern community development, a continuation of the Settlement Movement, we find that focus on strengthening the individual’s and the community’s potency still prevails. An alternative path to many straightforward problem-focused community development practices is found in Capacity-Focused Development (CFD), illustrated and practiced by John Kretzmann & John McKnight (1993). It focuses on and is committed to discovering the assets, capacities and skills individuals have in the community. The individual can be appreciated for, and rely on his/her personal capacities and forte. This approach is based on the assumption that “community development takes place only when local community people are committed to investing themselves and their resources in the effort” (Kretzmann & McKnight 1993:5). Regardless of the economic strength or composition of the people, even the poorest neighborhood is a place where individuals and organizations represent resources upon which to rebuild.
Following this premise for community work it becomes central to recognize and include people who have been labeled handicapped, disabled or marginalized in the community because they are too old, too young, too poor, or too unable to speak for themselves. They have to be recognized “not as clients or recipients of aid, but as full contributors to the community-building process” (Kretzmann & McKnight 1993:6). When they are reorganized based on their strength and positive attributes it allows them and provides them with an opportunity to develop trust and reliance in the self.
This type of community building or rebuilding is a process based on individual’s assets, intentionally focused and most important of all, relationship driven. It challenges the social worker to assist, facilitate and to constantly build and rebuild the relationships between and among local people, associations and institutions. An example of such type of work is the community building program in Logan Square, located on Chicago’s Northwest side and which is about sharing pleasure and intimacy, about celebration, taking time to get to know one another, looking out for one another, and about accepting that things can be changed (O’Connell 1990).
The purpose for the project was to include people who have been left out, to make sure everyone in the community is represented. The first step was to find people in the neighbourhood who might be interested in getting involved in community building. Thereafter, it aimed to look for and identify people with disabilities who might be isolated and want to meet new people and become part of the community. Through this search, a Community Building Group (CBG) was established. Connections were then made for people to get to know each other and to create activities together.
Through connecting and being given the opportunity to develop hidden skills and initiatives many of the disabled people experienced the innate capabilities and strengths that enriched their lives by relying on them:
Maritza, a woman in her mid-twenties, lives with her family and was involved in a day-program for people with disabilities, where she spent her time on colouring and pegboard to keep busy. However, she has much to offer. She is a warm woman who loves little children. A staff member from the CBG began bringing her to a Day Nursery, where the director was willing to see if Maritza could help out. At the beginning, the staff member went with her each time; later Maritza went by herself twice a week. She is called Miss Maritza by the children and staff. As any day-care worker knows, little children need a lot of hugs (which sometimes the worker may be too busy or harassed to give). Miss Maritza is one the children go to for comfort and affection; she is never too busy for a hug. The children understand that Miss Maritza is different in some ways from the other teachers — she is the one adult the children sometimes have to help. Yet children enjoy being able to help adults. Interestingly, being around the children and partly responsible for them has helped Maritza become more personally assertive and independent.
Another example is:
Bill is a man in his thirties who lives at home with his parents. He has been going to a hospital twice a week, where he works in the mail room under Joe and delivers the mail on the first floor. This task is a tricky one for him, since he cannot read. The mail room personnel have worked out a special colour-coding for him to follow, and people in other departments have learned to expect him and watch out for him (and their mail). Bill loves being a volunteer: he loves wearing the vest and the volunteer badge, and is convinced "this place couldn’t run without me." Bill is a great talker, and once prepared an elaborate report on how the mail room should be reorganized, which Joe took with calm consideration. Joe has also driven Bill home from the hospital and stayed to dinner with his family, and he is getting involved in talking about Bill’s future (O’Connell 1990:16-17).
In each of these examples we can see how a community has opened up for a disabled person to take active part. We recognize also how the relationships have created roles for the person through interaction and experiences, such that they have been recognized for their special strengths and thereby developed a sense of self-reliance: “Maritza, for example, has become Miss Maritza to the children at Day Nursery, and Bill glories in being the mailman at the hospital. In all the places, there’s been a willingness to accept someone who may slow things down a bit or create a few extra complications; in exchange, people recognize the warmth, friendliness, and enthusiasms that the new person brings as something valuable to the community as a whole” (O’Connell 1990:18-19). These glimpses illustrate how community work can be an arena for developing self-reliance. Another arena where self-reliance can be present is in social work with groups.
Social work with groups
In social work with groups, self-reliance is present both as a concept and as a practice principle. The description of self-reliance is understood, related, and connected with the dignity of each human being. To understand and make an effort to practice and respect the value and integrity of the client is the major touchstone for the reality of human services according to Konopka (1983). Consequently it follows that in order to understand the individual, it becomes important to discover and pay attention to interrelations between people. Hence, group activities and the group is a context where human beings can unfold, develop and practice confidence in one’s own power. This draws our attention to the fact that human beings are whole individuals interrelating with others.
This proposition is explored in the bioecological paradigm for a developmental model by Bronfenbrenner (1995). Its central components are process-person-context-time (PPCT). Bronfenbrenner’s first proposition is that “through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interaction between an active, evolving bio-psychological human organism and the persons, the objects, and the symbols in its immediate environment”, human beings develop over comprehensive and long-term periods of time. Here we can recognize the dynamic forces working between members in a group. These forces, called “proximal forces”, consist of the “form, power, content, and direction” which jointly effect both “the biopsychological characteristics of the developing person”, “the environment” and “the nature of the developmental outcome” (Bronfenbrenner 1995:620-621).
Thus, a person can react to and influence complex systems, not only to secure basic needs, such as food and shelter, but also to realize the need for love and caring, and to care for others. The group setting in social work can provide such a context where interaction with others in order to appreciate one’s own creative powers for self-respect can be developed and enhanced.
An excerpt from a group work session illustrates a member’s experience of being trusted and accepted:
You know that I had a terribly weak mother, and a father who did not care one hoot about his family... But I will never forget what it meant to me to have friendships in my youth group, to have understanding (this was directed to the group worker) and to be able to do things that made me not only forget my dismal home, but gave me the feeling that I was an important being, not just someone on this earth to be slapped around. (Konopka 1983:38)
A short review of the development of social work with groups illustrates also how self-reliance (although this exact term was not used) was present in the ideas and writings among the early group workers. Konopka (1983) states “The older services [of social work] distinguished sharply between the giver and the receiver. Yet among the newer services there were the beginnings of an idea turned into action: self-help, self-help of a group nature “(Konopka 1983:40). The foundation for social work with groups was built by and through organizations that had at its core, the idea of helping for self-help. Through interaction with others in a group setting and with a group work leader, the individual was given the opportunity to use one’s own strength, confirm it or develop it in order to use it for moving forward in society. Thus, we can visualize fostering self-reliance through social group work. Self-help groups developed from the need for mutual aid, but without a professional group leader.
In the foreword to a book on self-help groups, Alfred Katz states:
Self-help philosophy is that of working with people in a mutually helping way, that is non-bureaucratic, holistic, open to change, and that recognizes and seeks to optimize the inherent strengths and capacities of individuals, families, community groups and institution. (Katz 1992:3-4)
It is through “the results of varied activities and interactions in the self-help groups [that] growth in self-confidence, self-esteem and psychological well-being for the individual member, and of confidence, cohesion and the effectiveness of the group” take place (Katz 1992). Thus, we recognize similarities from social work with groups and self-help groups as vehicles for developing self-esteem. The major difference is the structure and presence of a professional present in the meeting. However, there are several variations of professional participation and leadership in these groups.
In the latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work, Thomas Powell proposes that empowerment can be a result of participation in a self-help group. For it to happen, the participant must or ought to have a desire to identify with others in the group. In addition, time spent in the group must be long enough to observe “how other self-help participants take responsibility for their own coping efforts” (Powell 1995:2117). From this it follows that one needs others as example models for newcomers in the group. Thus, shared experiences, equality of role relationship and similarities of goals and tasks among the members may be crucial. This is called referent power, “the power of the referent individual or group to motivate and influence the focal individual based on their understanding of and support for the individual’s ongoing struggles” (Powell 1995:2117). Here we can recognize Bronfenbrenner’s developmental propositions, where proximal processes over time are central factors.
These perspectives lead us to recent comments on research on self-help groups such as those made by Humphreys & Rappaport (1994), Borkman & Schubert (1994), and Chesler (1991). Our aim is not to give detailed descriptions of the research on self-help groups. However, an overview suggests that research on self-help groups ought to take account of the following propositions:
- Researchers may do better to study self-help as it occurs, with more emphasis placed on the qualitative features of participation in self-help groups and their similarity to normative social groupings like clubs, citizen action groups, or churches.
- Researchers need not claim the “objectivity” of the controlled study using standardized measures because self-help groups “do not meet the assumptions underlying controlled clinical trials with random assignment”. The random-assignment method so often used to avoid self-selection can even be considered a distortion since participation in self-help groups is self-selective
- New research need not automatically exclude other principles also characteristic of self-help that may be present even when self-determination is weak or absent, such as the fact that self-help is free, or that helping benefits the helper, even in a professionally facilitated group. These principles could make a group “quasi self-help” even when total self-determination is lacking.
- The new approach has the challenge of overcoming the well-known limitations of ethnographic research, such as the possible unreliability of first-hand accounts, and the distortion between perceived results and results measured independent of the group.
Returning to the etymological definition of self-reliance meaning “The act of aiding one’s self, without depending on the aid of others” (Oxford English Dictionary 1933:526), we can recognize similarity with how the Norwegian Self-help Forum, settled for their definition of self-help, namely “Self-help means to grasp our potentialities, discover our resources, accept responsibility for our life and live it in the way we ourselves decide. Self-help means starting a process of change -- from being a passive recipient to becoming an active participant in one’s own life” (Norwegian Self-help Forum 2003). (http://www.thebody.com/wa/summer02/self_help.html). They claim also that this definition now represents the basis of most of the self-help work that is carried out in Norway today
There are many issues and questions concerning how to understand self-reliance in social work practice and the consequences it may have for social work practice directed towards individuals, systems and organizations.
Self-reliance is a term with a positive connotation and in general it goes with the understanding “… help [somebody] discover their own sense of dignity and power” (Vaughn 1984:211). Help to self-help is a motto in social work and in social policies alike. To depend upon oneself and not to be a burden for other people or systems is a general ideal in western cultures. Independence is valued in its own right. Dependency is easily connected with being a burden. When we look at this idea in a contemporary context we most likely will find it presented in the term ‘empowerment’. If the overall message is to strengthen people’s right to use their potentials and emphasize expectations towards communities/public to make this possible, we are left with an ethical question regarding dependency. We are faced with the rights and responsibilities of any citizen to oneself and to society at large and the responsibility of society for its residents. This ideal is fine but leaves us with value challenges, particularly in times of scarcity. Social workers are confronted with restrictions placed on them by employers and public expenditure by working conditions hampering professional judgment, in Richmond’s terms.
Over time, policy makers have sought to encourage self-reliance in individuals and families. Financial independence is the goal. Methods used include scaring people away from social services by attributing those unable to care for themselves with stigma. This is particularly a dilemma in times of unemployment and for people with severe handicaps if, as Perlman (1968:86) states “… work is the central on-going life-function of adults in our society”. We might wonder which view on man is embedded in the policy ideals.
Socrates’ classic humanistic saying, ‘Know yourself’, is meant to be a liberating self-knowledge and promotes not being afraid of oneself. Strengths and weaknesses and values will be known. This might lead to self-reliance in the sense of confidence in one’s own powers. However, it also opens up for a self-esteem that gives room for living with one’s own limitations. Can that be named a power – a power to let go and a power to cope? Perlman (1968:109) draws attention to the push for self-realization and the expansion of our powers as sources to a move for change. When drives like social recognition and affirmation among others are gratified, a person feels free and energy is released. Hollis (1972) draws attention to the importance of the attitude social workers convey to clients and their self-image. Clients with self-reliance would want to form partnerships, participate in development of services and combine them according to their needs. We find this way of thinking reflected in social work literature.
Maybe it is to the point to remember a quote from Mary Richmond: “Civilization drops every now and then some necessary part of its luggage – and has to travel back to pick it up” (Richmond 1907:22). Perhaps self-reliance is something that social work has dropped along its road toward today’s society and needs to pick up and reexamine. Is it part of Frank Bruno’s “lost values; because folks could not understand why all were not sharing the new wealth or because they were horrified at the penalties of progress apparent all about them” (1936:82– 83) postulated at the national conference on social work in 1936 addressing the issue of social security and social work.
Alternatively, is self-reliance an expression with too strong focus on the individualistic attitude, “I do as I want when I want because I have the strength to do so”, which is a trend in today’s society? This brings to mind a statement from (Germain & Gitterman 1980:138): “At times, society and its institutions are responsive to the problems associated with poverty. They are more willing to consider structural inequality, and they are more open to problem definitions and services oriented toward societal change. At other times, self-reliance is highly valued, deviance is harshly treated, and problem definitions are oriented toward changing people”. We are looking for the self-reliance, the trust in ones own powers, that gives room for reciprocity and pays respect to feebleness.
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Vaughn, Susan. (1984). The Rural Poor: Toward Self-Reliance in the Context of Family, Community, and Culture. In Goldstein, Howard (ed.). Creative Change. A cognitive-humanistic approach to social work practice (pp. 191–212). New York: Tavistock Publications.
http://www.thebody.com/wa/summer02/self_help.html . Self Help and Empowerment: What Is It? Norwegian Self-help Forum (NSF) Morellsvei 9, 0487. Oslo, Norway E-mail: email@example.com Last updated June 16, 1999.
Richmond applies the terms case and client to bring the center of attention on the two essential parts: situation and person(s).
The Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), like many neighborhood organization, brings people together, and through the use of power make changes in the neighborhood. By contrast, Capacity-Focused Development “is not about conflict or power in that traditional sense. Instead, it is about a second kind of power: the power to take care of our own, to be responsible for one another. It involves reaching out to people, bringing them together around a common, positivepurpose, building relationships — and in the process building the strength of the community” (O’Connell 1990:7).
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