Mari-Anne Zahl
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Department of Social Work




The title of this paper is open to different interpretations. The impact on the formation might indicate a social policy and social work history paper as well as one focusing on social work practice. I will present a brief introduction of social work in its formative years from voluntary service to a vocation and a profession with ties to society at large. This means I will not trace social care back in history and I will not enter the development from work done by the church and monasteries to responsibilities taken up by the state. These formative years were of course tainted by history and influenced by politics at any one time.

Social work is said to have become an institutionalized profession due to its function within established institutions. This is particularly the scenario within the Norwegian welfare system where we must add the governmental and the public aspect as well and not just confine social work to a philanthropic aspect. Norwegian social workers are, due to the system, challenged with how to interpret, advocate and transform social policy and existing welfare programs into practice in accordance with prevailing governmental intentions; they are also challenged in evaluating these and finding strategies of how to contribute to policy development as well as knowledge development in order to further their professional work.



Social work as a vocation, profession and discipline has evolved during the last 150 years. It has reached different levels of acceptance in countries across the world, been banned by authorities and reappeared. Due to its theoretical impetus as well as to its moral aspects, social work is hard to ban over time.

“Social Work was born in the slums of London in the late nineteenth century” according to Younghusband (1981), a pioneer in social work in England. “Social Work is an American product. It is a profession that evolved out of the industrialization of the United States and its consequences” (Goldstein, 1976). Goldstein and Younghusband alike are both relating the future of social work as connecting the development of social work to specific societal conditions, human needs and available knowledge. The establishment of social work was made possible by pioneers and their reaction to overwhelming mass poverty, brutality and ignorance. Human suffering among great numbers of people living in cities forced itself onto those who administered welfare donations as well as idealist and well-to-do persons - women in particular. Democratic ideas and a humanistic perspective influenced the reactions to living conditions and the felt responsibilities for suffering citizens. This goes for London as well as for the major cities in the eastern states in the United States of America.

The social work pioneers who started their struggle against poverty, brutality, and ignorance made several discoveries that have been built upon and added to ever since. These are:
1. Knowledge was, then as now, bound up with ideologies,
2. there was almost no usable knowledge to guide the pioneers,
3. social work methods,
4. social work itself and training for it,
5. kinds of organizational structures and procedures through which particular help could be most effectively given, and later,
6. social care that had to be combined with each of the other discoveries to set social work
on the tortuous road towards becoming a profession (Younghusband, 1981).

Their first discovery related to the deterrent Poor Law from 1661 and its underlying ideology, which was based upon the Malthusian theory of population, Benthamism and later Darwinism applied to human society. The pioneers were lacking other theories to fight and they substituted the existing dominating ones. Their arguments became therefore ethical and religious, promoting the dignity of human beings, the worth of the individual above just being one in the masses. The motto of the Barnetts’ in the well known London settlement Toynbee Hall was treating people one by one, and Octavia Hill in the Charity Organization Society thought knowledge of the passions, hopes and history of people was crucial (Younghusband, 1981). They focused on democratic ideas in everyday life as well as in politics. The problems they faced in regards to their assessment and conviction were made into societal concerns. They considered it a task for society at large to alleviate stressful living conditions in order to promote productive social living. “Social work leadership made a significant impact on social policy through the improvement of public welfare services and enlargement of programs of voluntary social agencies” (Bartlett, 1970).

Available knowledge and changing target-groups led to the psychoanalytical input to social work after World War I in the U.S.A. However, the depression in the thirties put poverty and unemployment back to a major concern of social work. These problems were out of reach to be solved by social work, but were accessible to society at large. Social workers could illuminate the negative social processes, urge for societal involvement and distribute resources in kind. They could provide cash for the poverty stricken to survive and somehow cope with social as well as with physical ills.

The spectrum of misery faced by social workers and the growing knowledge base added to a constant demand for self-reflection and exposition in social work. Challenges and discussions have over the years followed the dichotomized lines:
ideology - theory
public - private
neighborly care - profession
apprenticeship - education
Social work deals with people interacting with society. Social work is thereby a reaction to the way society sets up its own system to care for its citizens or does not care for special groups. The need for - or the very being of - social work reflects society whether social work is run by private institutions or public offices. The very existence of social work has value and is a reaction to dominating ideology as well as theory. It was once a fight against Darwinism applied to human society.

Social work is distinguished by its simultaneous focus on the client and the social environment. Social policies and programs are a highly significant feature of the clients’ surroundings, demanding every bit as much care and attention from the working professional as family, community, psychological and work factors. It is no secret that, for better or for worse, the lives of all private citizens are subject to serious and widespread invasions by governmental social policy (Chambers, 1986).

A neighborly concern is in general a positive attitude in society and an ideology to be supported and fostered. This does not mean neighbors have the needed resources to alleviate, solve or start processes leading to change or betterment for problems in general, or the knowledge and trust needed in special situations. Neighborly concern and charity is an important part of social functioning and, as such, not in conflict with social work.

The public/private aspect as well as the need for training were both areas of conflict at the turn of this century, the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, between the Charity Organization Society (COS) and the Settlement Movement in England and the U.S.A. alike. The COS stressed the need for an education composed of theory and fieldwork for persons working directly with people.

At the turn of this century social work training was established in the U.S.A. Courses soon developed into graduate training for women in particular, who had a college degree but no place to put it into work. The history of social work is also a history of able and well- educated women creating work opportunities for themselves in a new arena and also a history of how ideas traveled across continents.


The first courses in social work in Oslo were founded in 1920 by a private women’s organization (Norske Kvinners Nasjonalråd). The educational program offered consisted of social courses for women who wanted to seek their lifework and means of livelihood in social service (Kiær, 1937). The training program was a one year course modeled after the school of Alice Salomon in Berlin. Theory and practice were to go hand-in-hand, with practice during the summer months and theory in the fall and in the spring. The students were introduced to positive work in society, challenged in their way of reflecting and their solidarity was developed. Personal suitablity was the main entrance requirement.

The first public school of social work had quite a different starting point. The administration of the new social welfare legislation grew complicated and led to a bureaucracy. Public servants became in need of training to obtain sufficient competence to interpret and act upon the laws and regulations and thereby increase their qualifications to serve the target population. At the starting point of the school, management was the engine and along came a separate unit for social work.

In 1950 a one-and-a-half year plus an additional year program was offered at the state school in Oslo, but with no classes in social work. Most students admitted to this program at that time were men. Students most likely experienced a lack of some kind in the program and had a drive to learn more than what was on their curriculum. They initiated evening classes in social work. These classes were led by a teacher who had an MSW from the U.S.A. The first teacher hired to teach social work entered the school in 1960. Social work had become a separate subject for examination in 1959.

This very brief introduction of the two first schools of social work in Norway serves as an introduction of two different starting points. The first had a bearing of personal development and of service that was offered to women only while the second had a bureaucratic and public service focus for men and women. The latter school ended up absorbing the first.

When the third school of social work started in Trondheim in 1962, courses in social work like social case work, communication and interviewing were part of the program from the very start. The dean and her assistant both returned from studies in the U.S.A. and their qualifications influenced the Trondheim school. Students that were admitted had graduated from high school, or from junior high school. This means the students were not well founded in university studies in related fields such as psychology and sociology. This is mentioned as a contrast to the social work education at the graduate level in the U.S.

Group work and community work were both included by 1970. Community work found its tie to the radical movement and the Marxist influence. The Norwegian translation of community work was “societal work” (samfunnsarbeid) with an underlying understanding of societal reform. In the early 1970s social work literature presenting case work and social work with groups originating in the superpower U.S.A. was treated like trash by the radical wing and considered a degradation of what they wanted from social work. They set the stage with intensity in the schools of social work and fellow students with other interests were silenced. This period did not promote social work approaches and work in neighborhoods did not come into focus. As compared to the turn of the century when there was a commitment to societal change and a restructuring of living conditions with virtually no theory as a base, the radicals of the 1970s relied on Karl Marx.

Politics govern policy in public offices. Since the majority of social workers in Norway are employed at public welfare departments, social work and social policy appear strongly intertwined. Because of this close connection and the fact that social workers are hired in this type of office, the social work community is challenged to facilitate social work practices in that particular arena of the welfare state.


There is a close connection between social work and society at large. Social work is concerned with the well-being of people as well as oppressive systems. Its ideology and ethics have not been in accordance with all political systems over time. During World War II the only education program in social work in Norway at that time was closed down by the authorities that had come into power. We read of the same thing taking place in Germany and of the exodus of scientists and professionals - among them social workers - from Europe to the U.S. during the nazi time (West, 1990). We also know of the destiny of social work in Communist regimes.

After the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, all university sociology and social work departments in China ceased to enroll new students and by 1952 they were all closed down. This was partly in order to follow the Soviet model of education. Materialism was perceived to be the true science of proletarians; sociology and social work were labeled the pseudo-science of the bourgeoisie and as such should have no place in socialist universities and colleges. Furthermore the socialist society would not encounter the social problems that sociology and social work purported to address (Jinchao, 1995).

Political systems as well as new knowledge and new technology all add to as well as hamper the ongoing challenge in social work. Theories and approaches will continue to be challenges in the formative years and the professional ethics and ideologies will be under constant scrutiny. Social work deals with social functioning: the interplay between people as well as that between people and institutions and can therefore not reach its final stage as long as the core is in a continuous changing process. As mentioned earlier, the radical students of 1970s Norway silenced their fellow students and defied social work literature and society at large. The radicals of the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S.A. were silenced by the McCarthyism and the haunt for communists. Social workers and social work faculty belonged to those fired during this period due to their sympathies or alleged sympathies to Communism and radical ideas. Universities had become more dependent on government funding and therefore susceptible to pressure. Social workers became increasingly passive on social issues. This decline of social activism among social workers slowed the development of the welfare state, particularly in the areas of public assistance and health insurance (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). “McCarthyism... left many formerly radical social workers unable or unwilling to risk fighting back or to engage in social action to any great extent” (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). This period also left a fear of being found ideologically incorrect.

Public policies in general are not designed with the needs of individuals in mind, and social welfare policies and programs are certainly no exception. They are designed for groups of people who share a common social problem. It is of utmost importance for social work practitioners to understand that. Precisely because of this feature, all social policies and programs will always fail some individual persons on some occasions (Chambers, 1986).

“External conditions and thereby the possibilities within the service system are often decided by other conditions than the needs and problems presented by the individual” (NOU, 1986, author’s translation). “Generally, the Nordic model of social welfare is universal, need-based and prevention-oriented” (Hämäläinen, 1997). Government sanctions social work in public offices. Public policies assign areas for work and leave social workers to be members of the grass root bureaucrats. As public servants, social workers provide available services and benefits of different kinds. They are at the same time paid to be part of the resources offered to the public. This means they are a resource in themselves through their knowledge and skills; they handle public funds and draw their salaries from somewhat the same sources. In consequence, the administration they are placed under keeps control over their bureaucratic as well as their professional work. Social workers are left with dual loyalties - to their employer, to their clients, and to their profession. Their assignments hold direct services to individuals along the intention level of social policy, regardless of available resources. We can then pose the question of what goal attainment on different levels (client, professional, practitioner, agency) is to be measured up against.

Simultaneously, as social workers procure services and apply their professional knowledge, they are expected to get involved in solving problems on a societal level. “Social workers should take part in or create a process that can change the situation of those in misfortune” (NOU, 1972). This might end up in split loyalties since the impediments can be upheld by insufficient public services. The Norwegian system does not present a national level for public assistance. On the contrary, the Welfare Act states the importance of professional assessment in each case.

The social welfare agencies serve as a safety net for the population in crises. Some people tend to go from one crisis to the next and almost end up as serial-crises-ridden. They constitute a task for the welfare state as well as for social work. Social workers who meet them in their daily work can supply data to build on to those willing to listen.

The politicians themselves function within the policy model chosen by the government. This could be a Nordic, a Catholic, or a liberal model. In their different ways they will support or hamper ideas and development of services and hence the formation of social policy. Historically this can be illustrated through two major forms and structures of social welfare: Cash versus in-kind benefit and Cash and Care.

Cash versus in-kind benefit

Cash versus in-kind benefit touches upon a discussion we can trace back to the turn of the century. Benefits can be given in cash so that persons in need can purchase articles or services where and when needed according to their own judgment. This leaves the responsibilities and opportunities up to the person. The in-kind benefit supplies them with specific articles like food or medical services in a clinic. Food stamps are a phenomenon in social work. It was considered a way of providing the poor basic food products. However, in 1939 in the U.S.A. the food stamp plan was foremost a plan to dispose of agricultural commodities (Encyclopedia of Social Work, 1995). It was a way to make sure that farmers could sell certain products. This particular setup was “in the best interest of” those forceful enough to develop the program: the farmers and poor people who weren’t farmers. We are reminded that “the basic issue for the person who wishes to understand social policies and programs is that a particular social problem viewpoint underlies every social policy and program” (Chambers, 1986).

Today’s prevalent ideology in social policy and social work degrades in-kind services. This is obvious as long as we restrict the in-kind to cover merchandise. According to policy a person is assigned to the welfare department in his neighborhood, the foster home or through an available home-service person. People in Norway are free to choose where to go for groceries, but not where to go for public social services. They also are not able to chose the homemakers who enter their home. This may also be illustrated by how the need for special care becomes a major obstacle when planning to move from one municipality to another.

Cash and Care

When we look back on social work history as well as on social policy, services related to money are recognized, however, the philosophy behind dimes and dollars distributed has varied. We see the alms given with minimal sums to help poor people manage their day to day crisis. We see the struggle for support of an extent that is not plentiful but assumed sufficient enough to provide an opportunity to self-support. The sporadic dimes given was one of the challenges for the Charity Organization Societies (COS) at the turn of the century in the U.S.A. as well as in England. They invested in coordination of local charities. The COS in London found in the end of the nineteenth century that to organize the district was more important than case work with individuals (Younghusband, 1981). COS workers acknowledged that poverty and ignorance demanded more than a bare minimum if the objective was betterment over time. Simultaneously they believed in treating people as individuals and began to discover what was later named social care. This dimension became crucial.


When we trace social work tasks back to fight poverty, we find post-World War II to present several acts alleviating material hardship in Norway. The Norwegian social acts provide for widows, the disabled, the elderly, single parents, child support, workmen’s compensation, sick pay and rehabilitation, for example. We can add socialized medicine and free public education with governmental student loans to pay for living expenses, books, room and board. These legal rights are important for social policy and for the well-being of the citizens. This again has an indirect influence on the tasks left for social work. Social workers are not central in management of the acts regulating the above-mentioned benefits. We do, however, find social workers in particular closely connected to putting the acts concerning child care services and social welfare services into practice. These social acts include a spectrum of services as well as financial support.

When we look at the main principles in the Norwegian Act of Welfare Services from 1991, we find:

• generic services adapted to a spectrum of needs
• prevention
• cooperation and coordination within the public system
• the rule of law (legal protection) [rettssikkerhet]
• strengthening of self-determination for those served
• the securing of a minimum of services at the municipal level
• that services must be available (Rundskriv, I-1/93 Lov om sosiale tjenester, author’s translation).

These principles are all easily acceptable at face value. The challenge rests in giving them content and in realizing them in practice.

In social policy we face a discussion of ends and means, of effectiveness and of product. What will a product in social work be? What is effective and what is efficient? Effectiveness is attached to goal attainment. Policy goals do not necessarily coincide with goals for each individual in the target group. It is therefore of importance to be able to keep different levels apart when evaluations of effectiveness are being carried out.

Social policy can be considered a frame, a means provider, a context in which social work is carried out. The more active the social policy, the more interfering and penetrating in every day social work practice. Social policy might provide a good arena for social work at the same time as the pressure between the bureaucratic and the professional role is very tight. “It seems to be a well-developed practice at welfare-departments that executive case management is given priority to betterment of clients’ life situations” (Eriksen, 1998, author’s translation). The main reason for giving preference to executive tasks is to secure financial support and clients’ legal rights connected to the bureaucracy.


Ideas, ethics, theories and approaches have traveled across continents. Poverty and social suffering have not been restricted to certain geographical areas only. The way countries and systems have found to fight, alleviate, or deny social problems differs over time.

Democratic ideas embrace the importance of the individual, and this is in accordance with values in social work as we know them. Social work focuses on social functioning and social care, therefore approaches developed seek to alleviate human suffering and make resources – be it cash or services - available to the public. The common human needs for food, shelter, and safety are of major concern. In addition, human suffering in interpersonal relationships, during time of crises, illness or strain of living matters in social work. In short, social work strives to provide means and opportunities for people to deal with external and internal conditions that hamper their social living.

Social workers approach human suffering. When problems in human interaction are responded to on an individual level and coped with through the interaction between social worker and client, the process aspect in social work is illustrated. Since the starting of a process is considered valuable in itself, this understanding might come in contrast to the problem-solving and goal attainment paradigm and it might question some effectiveness measures. Social workers are accountable to their clients. Their work is based on how situations are presented and how hardships are taken by each one. The problems to be worked on are to be described by potential clients and the investment from people involved is added. This means social workers are not just handing out services in cash or in kind. Their relationship with each client and engagement in work done will influence the results (Maluccio, 1979). This touches upon the evaluation of the personified public resource - in this context, social workers.

Norway with its democracy and well-developed welfare system embraces social work and social work ideology. More than half of the trained social workers are to be found within social welfare departments. There, they are primarily expected to carry out the intentions in the Social Welfare Act and the Child Welfare Act. Distribution of resources and making services available are setting ends in themselves. In social work, available resources are means towards ends that are seen as processes as well as observable products. The resources in social service offices hold services and cash as well as they hold professionals.

The Norwegian Social Reform Committee described (NOU, 1972) social workers’ future tasks as not only to be restricted to respond to demands for cash and services based on legal rights. They were expected to take part in solving problems on a societal level that creates social damage and undesirable living conditions. This means that social workers are expected to continuously sense and register unfortunate conditions and flaws in the system. Their observations, reports and actions are directed against the very same society who buys their loyalty through employment. They appear to be in a double bind situation and held responsible both for registration and reporting as well as for taking action to prevent, alleviate and solve. Social workers are not left in a position to just leave their observations with the politicians; they are committed to a wider responsibility.

During the 1970s social work went through a tough period when perspectives, approaches, and values were criticized. The social reform heritage from the past was considered dormant and politicized. Work with the individuals and with families became conservative at the same time as the tasks related to reform on the societal level were quite overwhelming for each worker to relate to. Available approaches in social work were considered as preservation of society at large as well as hard to put into practice in agencies with growing caseloads and where clients’ rights according to criteria were to be upheld.

It might seem as if social work first and foremost reacts to situations where people are already involved in hardship. This is partly the case. We also see that it is possible for social workers to offer services and act because of available theory and developed approaches. The desire to act has both a theoretical and a practice impetus. Furthermore, it has an ethical dimension if entering into other people’s lives also means to identify problems not presented and decide how to act or not to act in accordance with this knowledge.

“Social work intervention in problems at any level is particular, developed out of the perceptions of that problem achieved by those involved, including the social worker” (Gibbons at al., 1985). The ongoing task for social work is to develop approaches that are appropriate for situations workers are faced with. Since the social welfare department is the only institution with a safety net function, how to respond to people in such a situation can first and foremost be developed related to that setting. Several types of work areas are overlapping with other agencies and are impelling forces for joint efforts.

Different terminology has appeared in the forefront over time. During the 1990s we find terminology from economics and law replacing psychological and medical terms. Goal orientation, effectiveness, time limit and contracts have been part of social work terminology over time along with process and relationship. The prevailing terminology conveys a message of the public, correct way of thinking. The closer the social worker is tied to other fields - here particularly social policy - the more the correctness in that arena will influence the way of thinking as well as acceptable actions within the practice settings.


In this paper I have given social work as a profession a starting point. In doing so I have not traced it back to theoretical, philosophical or religious antecedents. When it comes to social policy, a policy appears to be taken for granted. A society cannot be without a social policy, or if pretending to, that is policy as well with its ideological base. The presentation does not include policy directed towards health and education or the development and practice in medicine and pedagogy, even though it might have been of interest to compare how social policies have influenced these fields. It is however, not defined as the purpose of this paper.

Societies with a social policy based on the Nordic model might in one way influence social work more strongly than where the liberal model is chosen. However, the Nordic model might not feel a threat of social reform from activists and not hamper “progressive” activity in the same way as other models.

Prevention of social problems is a challenge for social policies as well as for social work. Social policy might apply social workers as one of several prevention tools. If so, social workers will most likely be assigned a certain social policy role. At the same time, this assignment is a sanction from society for social work to be in operation. This puts social workers on the front line and therefore in a position to have first-hand information of how social policies serve and reach the target populations. Social workers can act as informants in a feedback loop back to the politicians. Information as such does not necessarily serve as change agent on the political arena. According to the results in a study conducted by Ronnby (1991) in some rural areas of Sweden, politicians and administrators there showed no active interest for accumulation and application of knowledge from social workers as a base for development of a more offensive social policy, or use of such knowledge in planning when to be on the offensive for the development of social policy.

The Social Welfare Act as well as the Child Welfare Act open up services that give room for interpretation. The already mentioned main principles in the Social Welfare Act are an illustration of politically correct terminology. They convey a message of social care and of services, however, abiding the Act in everyday work touches upon available resources in each municipality.

The main principles in the Welfare Act set the stage. What room do they give for social work practice? On paper there are no clear criterion and no restrictions. It appears rather to be the contrary - it opens up great opportunities. The Act serves as a sanction for social workers to practice. According to the governing idea in the Act, the level of public assistance given each applicant is to be based on expert assessment and not on national standardized norms. This leads social workers in welfare departments to spend a fair share of their time calculating the amount of welfare money for each applicant based on presented needs, standards set in the particular municipality, professional assessment and, some might say, ideology. Sufficient funds provide for food and shelter, but they are also viable to people in order to prevent negative social processes like isolation and marginalization. It is a social work concern to prevent social deprivation, and one available tool is money. Public assistance is meant to give financial security on a temporary base. The goal is to provide opportunities for people to become self-sufficient and not to encourage them to stay on assistance.

The amount of money and the number of services received by each client can be counted and reported. The care involved and the positive or negative processes started ask for a different type of registration and it is questionable if they can best be expressed in effectiveness and product terminology. However, it might appear paradoxical that in the Norwegian society, with all its benefits and the low unemployment rate, social work is in demand. Most likely a bypassing tourist will not spot poverty or slums. Slums are not to be spotted and poverty covers more than what is easily noted.

The main principles in the Social Welfare Act do not appear to represent a limitation of professional social work. The intentions are seemingly all good. So how can you fight or complain about such a positive federal statement? However positive, it is not in connection to our welfare departments. We are used to find units for research and a tradition for knowledge development. However, social scientists have found welfare departments to be an interesting arena for research, and politicians are asking for effectiveness. The welfare department deals with money, stigma and values, and can easily be made into a scapegoat. This includes applicants and staff alike.

Agency goals cannot be directly applied to a case. They are too general and the program they cover is an aggregation of services provided according to legislative mandates and public responsibilities. They are normative and they reflect political aims. There is no technology for carrying out broad agency goals applied on individual clients. Clients’ goals can be in accordance with agency goals and professional goals alike, and they are the only practical way to carry out goal oriented strategies for individual case action (Epstein, 1980).

A circular from the national Department of Child and Family Affairs (1997) states the principle that siblings are to be placed in the same foster home. This can be deviated from as an exception only. Are we then discussing social policy or social work or psychology for that matter? This statement came in 1997. To my knowledge there is no new theory to support or challenge the wish to keep up contact between family members during foster home placement. Practice might have shown that siblings get split up when they are placed out of their home. There could be a good reason for doing so. The tendency is to keep children in their home as long as possible. We can ask if they are kept at home until they are so hard to live with that foster parents do not see how they can handle more than one. Separation can serve as one strategic tool when a change in negative processes is the goal. This example is given to illustrate how a specific policy and professional work can be intertwined. At the same time it spurs a wondering why such a directive appears.

Social policy sets the stage for foster home recruitment and it also provides funds. Professionals are governed by knowledge and structure. In the above-mentioned policy statement, the basis for professional judgment and the recommendation for placement are threatened by political interference.

The blurred boundaries between social policy and social work leave social workers vulnerable for attack by the public. Dissatisfaction needs an address. Complaints regarding an agency or a policy leave a receiver with no face. An agency and a policy can be personified through those employed to implement public policies. Social work approaches and the reasoning behind why a particular perspective has been chosen in a specific situation are not common knowledge to the public. Due to confidentiality only fragments may be discussed in the open and the public is left free to make their own interpretations and judgments. For clients who are dissatisfied with services or decisions made in situations where, for example, interference in child care becomes the focus, the involved social worker is an obvious target for complaint. The social workers are tied to bureaucratic regulations and criteria as well as to professional assessment based on knowledge and ethics. These combined aspects are carried out by each worker according to his or her skills. As long as work is based on both policies and professional competence, the professional can readily be the one to carry the burden of the evaluation of both. In treatment settings, the professional is foremost held responsible for her knowledge and skills.


If we look back on the principles discovered by the pioneers, the first one mentioned relates to knowledge being bound up by ideology. This binding is to be noticed; either the combination is considered positive or negative for different bureaucratic levels within the organization or for people involved. As put forward by Chambers (1986), social policy rests on some ideology.

The “how to do”, the social work approaches, have a theory base and social work has a code of ethics. The code states the equality of people regardless of race, age or gender as well as the protection of the individual. The individual viewed in its context, however, is not to be sacrificed on behalf of the group. Jinchao (1995) points to the self-actualization ideal in the west as undesirable in China and therefore not to be put forth by Chinese social workers. A statement of this kind as well as the haunting of reform ideas are setting a stage for the development of social work – be it approaches or values.

The organizational structure of public agencies is, to a large extent, decided by the state. When we face universal public services, social workers enter into the establishment. Social work then becomes part of the care dimension that the welfare state wants to show its citizens. Thus it is a continuous challenge for social workers to relate the social care expectations to the previous discoveries as mentioned by Younghusband (1981) and at the same time not be able to act in accordance with the intentions of social policy but within the frame and resources provided.

When social workers become absorbed in bureaucracy, they are no longer altogether free to question the system of which they are part. How to keep balance between the mediation of public services to the citizens and “get their head above water” to find ways for improvement in services and ways of meeting people of all ages who contact or are brought to the attention of social agencies are ongoing challenges to street level bureaucrats like social workers. They experience the consequences of public policies. It is a task for policy makers to make room for critical assessment of the system in order to follow up their own intentions.


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Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.

2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice