Social work in Poland: between theory and practice

Katarzyna Pawelek
Adam Mickiewicz University
Faculty of Educational Studies, Department of Resocialization,
ul. Szamarzewskiego 89, 60-568 Poznan, Poland
College of Pedagogy and Administration
ul. Wisniowa 13, 61-477 Poznan, Poland


Specificity of social work in Poland

In Poland the understanding of social work is slightly different from Anglo-Saxon interpretations for three reasons (Olubinski 2004): (1) since the Middle Ages there has existed the trend of church aid based on the tenets of Christian faith; (2) awareness and an attitude of providing help resulting from 123 years of captivity (1795-1918) when Poland was partitioned; and (3) social work as a scientific discipline has developed mostly under the influence of pedagogy, while the influence of psychology and sociology has been less.

The history of social work in Poland dates back to the Middle Ages, to the origins of secular help and care which were then subsequently supported by the successive kings and intellectuals. The 19th century saw the introduction of varied forms of aid and support for those in need (e.g. the poor, the sick).

The Polish authorities had to solve many social problems at the beginning of the interwar period (1918-1939) (Poland's 20 years of independence after World War I). In 1923 the Act on Social Welfare was passed, in which 'social welfare' was defined as catering for the fundamental needs of those who are unable to do so themselves, using public money.

In the beginning of theoretical and professional development of social work it was Helena Radlinska who played a leading role. She is considered to be the precursor of social pedagogy1 as well as social work, despite the fact that she did not use the terms social work and social worker (Marynowicz-Hetka 1996, 1998b). According to Olubinski (2004, 25), Radlinska saw the sense of social work in 'compensatory activities which made it possible to overcome and compensate developmental deficiencies'. Her initiative and efforts led to the establishment of the Study Center for Social and Educational Work at the Polish Free University in Warsaw in 1925.

Social work in Poland during the Communist past (the post World War II period, 1945-1989) either did not exist or was treated as a superficial activity. Since 1953 all forms of aid have been put under state control. The authorities assumed that socialism ensures work for everybody and eliminates poverty, so there was no point in practising social work. However, in 1966 the first schools for social workers were established.

1 Pedagogy-the science of education. Social pedagogy concentrates on the environmental and educational processes and the analysis of conditions which make it possible to provide for the developmental needs of a person in different phases of his/her life and various situations (Kawula 1999).


Radical change followed with the social and governmental breakthrough of 1989, including new developments in the social welfare system. Social work has become treated as an instrument of the social welfare system in Poland.

The systemic solutions have strengthened the role of social work and the position of social workers within the social welfare system (Sikora 2002, 36-44):

  1. Breaking off direct interrelations between social welfare and the health service. Until 1990 social welfare had fallen within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare; since 1990 social welfare has come under the authority of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
  2. In 1990 the Act on Social Help was passed (with later amendments).
  3. Changes in the organization of full-time care (e.g. residential homes): from the medical model (all employees were previously supervised by health professionals) to the caring and therapeutic team.
  4. New tasks in full-time care: fulfilling them together with the family and local community.
  5. Introducing educational standards for social workers, i.e. professionalization of social staff and continuous professional training: (a) the reform of education for social service workers; 2.5 years attendance at post-secondary school, based on the general secondary school (educational aims: practical and communicative skills as well as acquiring appropriate knowledge), social workers began to be trained at higher level schools (public and private); (b) creating a new image of the social worker.
  6. Emphasis put on the development of varied forms of social work: (a) gradual departing from only singular provision of aid to creating conditions in which most persons will be able to gain financial means for a living as a consequence of their own efforts; (b) activity supporting family.
  7. Non-Governmental Organizations have become (a) the principal partner of the state-run and self-government institutions in solving social problems, (b) a place of employment for qualified social workers.
  8. Development of theory, research and practice of social work.
  9. In 2004 the Act on Social Welfare was passed.

Social work: understanding and selected aspects

Aleksander Kaminski treated social work as a separate field of social pedagogy, which consisted of providing for people's social, material, cultural, and educational needs (Wódz, 1998).

Based on the survey of definitions2, Kazimiera Wódz (1997, 10) assumes that social work is 'a specific kind of profession whose basic tasks refer to overcoming negative effects of free market economy and flaws of democratic institutions as well as results of the weakening . of community bonds based on the principles of solidarity and reciprocation of services and benefits.'

2 Resolution No. 67/16 of the Council of Europe The Role, Training and Status of Social Worker; Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work Requirements and Regulations for the Diploma in Social Work, Paper 30; DuBois, L. & Krogsrud Miley, K. (1992). Social Work: An Empowering Profession. Boston.

The Act on Social Welfare of 12 March 2004 (Article 6) defines social work as a professional activity 'aimed at assisting both individuals and whole families in strengthening or regaining the ability to function in society by performing respective social roles and creating conditions conducive to this goal'. Based on this Act and detailed documents, the essential aims and tasks which a social worker should accomplish through his/her professional work can be distinguished as follows: supporting individuals and families in developing skills which would subsequently allow them full participation in social life; reinforcing the ability of groups and communities to independently solve their problems and development; effective organization of varied forms of help, administering them and developing proper infrastructure; shaping appropriate social policy, e.g. devising, introducing and developing services and programmes (Olubinski 2004, 28). To meet these goals a number of tasks should be undertaken, including making a diagnosis (collecting, analyzing and evaluating data), imparting information and extending aid, counselling, stimulating social activity, and initiating and participating in research on social problems.

What are the consequences of undertaking the aforementioned practices? The object and extent of social work relate to a very broad scope of knowledge and it is a field that is practical in nature because 'in its true sense it solves social problems and provides for socially recognized human needs and aspirations' (Olubinski 2004, 31).

The functions of social work stem from its aims: therapeutic and rehabilitative (restoring full strength and social skills, if possible), developmental and educational, of early detection, inhibition, and elimination of conditions and situations which may threaten normal functioning.

According to Stanislaw Kawula (2000, in Ib.), basic principles of social work are: charity (philanthropy); social justice and the resulting tendencies of material, cultural and educational egalitarianism; helpfulness (subsidiarity) and social support - searching for and activating social forces in the community ('giving a fishing rod, not fish'); complementarity of influence, relations, support, interaction, initiative, etc.; and interventionism (rescue services and first aid).

Social work: occupation and profession

The term 'social carer', used in the Act on Social Care of 1923, changed to 'social worker' along with a tendency towards more a professional approach. In the Polish literature the term functions as two words: 'occupation' and 'profession'; sometimes they are used interchangeably (Sikora 2002). Occupation is an economic and sociological as well as pedagogical category, with the following characteristic features: 'it forms a pattern of separate and repetitive activities, determines the social and professional position of a worker, constitutes the source of means of support, [and] requires special professional training' (Wiatrowski 1994, in: Purol-Wróblewska 2000, 23).

The Dictionary of Polish Language (Szymczak 1979, 930) defines professionalization as, among others, 'the process of developing new professions and specialties in a given field'. What is the essence of professionalism in social work? According to E. Steinert (1998, in: Sikora 2002), there are three basic dimensions to competence necessary to take professional action: (a) scientific - the knowledge of inside theories (within the scope of social work) and outside theories, which allow for evaluating social problems as a whole; (b) practical and professional - undertaking new forms of activity and their evaluation; and (c) personality-related - knowledge, skills, habits, interests, talents, etc.

Who can be employed as a social worker? 'A social worker is someone who holds a diploma giving him/her the professional title of a social worker or a diploma of a higher vocational school with the "social work" specialty in one of the following faculties: pedagogy, political science, social policy, psychology, sociology or family studies' (Article 116, paragraph 1, Act on Social Welfare of 12 March 2004).

Social work as a field of science

The Dictionary of Polish Language (Szymczak 1979, 300) explains that science is, among other things, a 'research discipline referring to a certain sphere of reality'. Is social work a theoretical and practical discipline? This paper resorts to the pedagogical perspective, which seems justified since pedagogy (Piekarski 1998), aside sociology and psychology, is a humanistic discipline which also deals with social work. Pedagogy may be divided into three sub-disciplines: theory, teleology and methodology (Pytka 2000).

Has social work developed a certain set of theoretical assumptions (interrelations of a relatively high degree of generality) in the course of its historical development? Szmagalski (1999, 203-204) writes that the 'theory of social work may be defined as a range of scientifically proved and justified reflections on knowledge, skills and motivations required in practising the profession. . The justification is provided by scientific theories [produced within the fields of social and biological studies] . which may be divided into generalizational and praxeological.' The generalizational theories describe and explain phenomena connected with social work: theories of systems (source: biological studies), theories of frustration (source: psychological studies), and theories of anomie (source: sociological studies). Praxeological theories (approaches or models of practice) form the principles of effective action.

Teleology (of social work) is interested in what is there to accomplish, what the goals are. It is based on a specific axiology, i.e. the study of values, educational and social ideals. Methodology (of social work) is interested in what tools can be used to reach the planned goals and the recommendations specifying the selection of optimal means of their realization.


Social work in Poland developed mainly under the influence of pedagogical theory - social pedagogy and educational sociology. It flourished in the 1920s, almost simultaneously and, in a sense, independently of founding its scientific basis in Western Europe and the USA which affected the way it is understood now. In the Polish People's Republic (1945-1989) the institutionalized social help (among others, educating social workers) played a secondary role. The political transformation of the 1990s led to the rebirth and development of the theory and practice of social work.

There has been a change in the image of the social worker. A precise definition of the scope of the professional duties of a social worker has become possible through transferring the 'American method of social work . onto the Polish conditions [and using] praxeology as the theoretical basis for the scheme of organized activity with a strong emphasis put on the diagnostic stage' (Olubinski 2004, 43).

In the Polish literature social work has been mainly understood as an occupation and profession (Bragiel & Kurcz 2002, Olubinski 2004), however, attention is drawn to 'a tendency to creating a separate discipline of social work . [Especially] in Europe can be observed a clear tendency for searching for distinction and autonomy of the new field, stemming from the reflection on the experience of its practice and application of selected theories of humanistic disciplines for its description and explanation' (Marynowicz-Hetka 1998a, 157).

The observable proceeding professionalization of social work (the growth in significance and the level of education and in-service training).


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