Is social work a science or is it just a profession?

Oldrich Chytil
Director of Social Work Studies at the Medico-Social Faculty
University of Ostrava
Medico-Social Faculty
Fr. Srámka 3
709 00 Ostrava-Mariánské Hory
Czech Republic


The development of social work in the Czech Republic is closely related to the development of education for social workers. In order to answer the question of whether social work is a science or a profession, it is important to study the history of, and the present situation in, social work in the Czech Republic

Social work and social work education in the period 1918-1938

Social work has had a long tradition in the Czech Republic. The founding of the independent Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 was in the same year accompanied by the establishing of the first school of social work in Prague under the name of Higher School of Social Care. Its establishment was a reaction to the need for well-prepared professional social workers who could develop modern social work from the then existing public care for the needy and youths and also the voluntary activities of various charitable societies (Socialní 1928, 15-18).

In the period between World War I and World War II, social workers were active in the areas of community social work (aimed at the needy), care for youths, social and pedagogical care (in schools), vocational guidance, institutional care for disabled youths and adults, health care for mothers and infants, anti-tubercular care, and child health care (Novotná et al. 1995, 3-6).

The requirements of social work practice led to the first efforts to introduce university education in social work. However, this was accomplished much later, in 1945. The Higher School of Social Care was abolished in 1935 and replaced with the Masaryk State School of Health and Social Care, where studies consisted of five academic semesters.1 This school provided specialized higher education (Novotná et al. 1995, 3-6).

It is possible to discern two main trends in the development of social work after 1935. The first trend is represented by sociologists and pedagogues who strove to establish an independent profession of social workers and to develop social work into an integral scientific discipline. The second trend was represented by medical doctors who emphasized the necessity to have well-educated social workers in health care, mainly to help doctors in the area of social medicine (Novotná et al. 1995, 3-6).

Social work education during the period 1918-1938 was characterized by efforts to develop social work as a scientific discipline. The author who can be credited most for the development of social work as a scientific discipline is Marie Krakesová, who taught at the Higher School of Social Care and later at the Masaryk State School of Health and Social Care. In 1934, Krakesová published her work titled the Social Case (Krakes & Krakesová 1934). In Krakesová's opinion, the task of individual social work is to return the client to independent life through the mobilization of resources from within the client themselves or from their surroundings. The author gives a thorough description of the methods through which a social worker can achieve this goal. (Krakes & Krakesová 1934). Krakesová can be seen as the predecessor of the psychosocial approach to social work. In the literature, it is Hamilton who is regarded as the author of the aforementioned approach though in fact she published her ideas related to this topic as late as in 1941 (Skidmore & Thackeray 1998, 14).

1 In the Czech Republic the academic year has two semesters: September-December and February-May


Social work and social work education in the period between 1945-1989


In 1945, the University of Political and Social Science, which included the Faculty of Social Science, was established in Prague. Two years later, in 1947, the University of Social Science was established in Brno. These two schools provided university education in social work for eight academic semesters.

While the establishing of university education in social work had tremendous significance for the development of social work as an academic discipline, its primary significance was for the development of social work as a science. The precondition which makes it possible to develop a scientific discipline is that research results are made available. The disciplines which prepared students for scientific work, including 'social work science', statistics and sociological research, were included in the curricula at the universities.


Special research establishments, called 'social clinics', formed an important part of the universities. According to the professional literature of that period,

Science institutes, laboratories and research institutes form the necessary part of every university and enable students to carry out scientific research and training. It is therefore self-evident that establishing the social clinics at the Faculty of Social Science of the University of Political and Social Science came as a necessary step. In this way, we laid the basis for the theoretical and scientific development of social work methods. (Janousek 1947, 3)


The social clinics at the University of Political and Social Science in Prague were headed by Marie Krakesová. Her research activity at these clinics translated into two publications, Psychogenesis of Social Cases (Krakesová 1946) and Introduction to the Practice at Social Clinics (Krakesová 1948). She published her theoretical notions in these works and included a description of the methods of the formative social therapy as the methods of individual social work. However, a more detailed description of formative social therapy can be found in Krakesová's last book, titled Formative Social Therapy (1973). In formative social therapy, it is necessary to replace family environment and other causal influences having negative impact on a client's socialization development with new facts and events which will instill new and constructive powers in the client and form his or her new social development. It is therefore of utmost importance to know what defective development the client has gone through as this subsequently determines the choice of formative environment for the client in contact with the social worker as well as the overall formative psychological procedure to be chosen. The main aim is that in the process of re-education, these destructive events and their consequences are replaced with new experience which can help the client create normal relationships and attitudes. (Krakesová 1973, 74).

Both the University of Political and Social Science in Prague and the University of Social Science in Brno were abolished in 1953 as a consequence of the Communist coup in 1948, based on the assumption that no social problems would exist under socialism and therefore no social workers would be needed. Several forms of education for social workers existed during the period between 1953 and 1989. In the 1950s, there even existed secondary school education for social workers in Prague which offered a certificated examination at the end of the course. Until 1968, the school in Prague had been the only one which had provided education for social workers in a two-year post secondary school programme of studies. In 1968, a secondary school of social work and legal studies was established in Ostrava and a year later one was established in Brno (Chytil & Popelková 2002, 68-69). In the 1950s and at the beginning of 1960s, social workers could only work in the field of social care for children and young people and in institutions for the elderly and physically handicapped. This was the period of practical liquidation of social work (Chytil & Popelková 2002, 68-69).

The most important impulse for the development of social work in Czechoslovakia came in 1968. One of the outcomes of the Prague Spring of 1968 was admitting the fact that even in socialism, there existed social problems, and this resulted in the forming of a new concept of social work. The Ministry of Work and Social Affairs was re-established and on the basis of experience gained in Western European countries, programmes of social work with children and families, the elderly, the physically handicapped, released prisoners, and homeless people were outlined and drafted. Social work was developed in industry, schools, the health sector, the penitentiary system, and in social care institutions (Chytil & Popelková 2002, 68-69).

After the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet armies and after the political suppression at the beginning of the 1970s, many people with a university education were forced to leave their positions. Notably, university teachers, psychologists, sociologists, and lawyers belonged to this group and, surprisingly, they were allowed to start working as social workers. This fact bore great importance for the development of social work in Czechoslovakia. The skills which these people brought into social work made it possible to outline new social programmes, introduce new social work methods and carry out research (Chytil 1996, 1-3).

Abolition of university education in 1953 should logically have led to the loss of interest in the development of social work research and in the development of theoretical concepts. Paradoxically, this was not the case in Czechoslovakia. The development of social work as a practical discipline after 1968 led to the requirement for theoretical reflection over practice. Remarkably, characteristic of Czechoslovak social work of that time is that it was not content with mere pragmatism and looked for answers to the question of what methods are to be used when working with clients and which theoretical conceptions of social work are to be used as the underpinning for these methods. The most widely used theoretical concept in the 1970s and 1980s was Marie Krakesová's formative social therapy. In addition, other theoretical concepts and corresponding methods were used when working with various target groups.

Social work in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s can be illustrated by the following example of social work with the target group of 'released prisoners' in the city of Ostrava. Social work with released prisoners was carried out by specialist social workers. Ostrava was the first place in the country where a special centre for social work with released prisoners, called the 'post-penitentiary' centre, was established as early as in 1973: eight social workers, four external psychologists and two external lawyers worked at the centre. In 1975, an in-house psychologist joined the team.

Social work was divided into five stages:

Stage 1 - Preparatory work.

At this stage, social workers acquired information on their future clients from social workers who worked in prisons and also from prisoners themselves, either by visiting them in prison or by visiting their families.

Stage 2 - Establishing and developing a therapeutic relationship.

This stage primarily emphasized the task of gaining the clients' confidence. Through their words and actions, social workers tried to persuade the client that they were interested in his or her fate and that they understood his or her problems. At the same time, social workers tried to motivate clients to participate in solving their social problems, which included:

- unfavourable interpersonal relationships (disrupted or dysfunctional family relationships)
- problems encountered when searching for a job (insufficient qualifications, disease)
- housing problems
- health problems
- financial problems.

Stage 3 - Determining the anamnesis and diagnosis, and creating a socio-therapeutic plan.

The aim in this stage was to create a socio-therapeutic plan which focused on finding a solution to the client's basic social problems with the aim of stabilizing the client. Another aim was the creation of a strategic plan focusing on the change in the structure of the client's system of values, fixed patterns in his or her interpersonal relationships and re-education in the area of fixed behavioural patterns.

Stage 4 - Implementation of the socio-therapeutic plan.

The method used to fulfil the aims of the socio-therapeutic plan was a modified version of Glasser's reality therapy.

Stage 5 - Conclusion and therapy evaluation.

Solving the client's social problems required coordination of the work of a number of institutions and hence committees were appointed which included representatives from prisons, courts, prosecutors' offices, police, health institutions, workers' departments, employers, trade unions, and social workers.

This form of work enabled effective solutions to the client's social problems and the fulfilment of aims of the strategic plan regarding the client's re-socialization. A network of voluntary co-operators to social workers was created as part of the system of social work with released prisoners and these co-workers were mainly active at the client's workplace. The network in Ostrava (population 325,000) included more than 1200 volunteers who received regular training and for whom a specialized magazine was published (Chytil 1998, 83-84).

The crucial factor for the development of social work as a scientific discipline and for the development of theories and methods is research. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the Research Institute of Work and Social Affairs which dealt with research in the field of social work. It was very important for the development of social work that graduates from the University of Political and Social Science in Prague and the University of Social Science in Brno worked at this research institution. Research was mainly oriented towards social-needs analysis of individual target groups, i.e. the elderly, the physically handicapped, families and children, the Roma ethnic group, and released prisoners. In addition, another type of research was carried out which focused on the efficiency of the methods of social work with the individual target groups (Dunovský et al. 1974, Schimmerlingová 1977, Junková & Cermáková 1979, Pavlok et al. 1984).

Research carried out by other institutes also dealt with social work. In this respect, the Research Institute of Criminology may serve as an example. This institute focused on examining the effectiveness of social work methods from the point of view of crime prevention in young people and adults. Other institutes, for instance the Research Institute of Penology, engaged in the research of social work methods in the penitentiary system.

Besides the research activities carried out in these institutions, research was also organized by specialized social work establishments. For instance, during the period 1986-1989, the Post-Penitentiary Center in Ostrava (engaging in social work with released prisoners) carried out research in cooperation with the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Palacký, in Olomouc. This research involved a group of 1200 clients with the aim of revealing the agents, both objective and subjective in character, which influence the social worker-client relationship (Chytil 1991).

In the 1970s and 1980s, the lack of social workers with university qualifications in the field of social work was compensated for by graduates from the disciplines of psychology, sociology and educational sciences. Further, it was the students of these branches interested in social work who carried out research on various aspects of social work as part of their theses.


Social work and social work education in the period after 1989

No substantial change has occurred in social work practice compared to the period before 1989. Social workers are mostly employees of municipalities and public (civil) servants. As they had done prior to 1989, social workers still work in the health sector (hospitals, institutions for infants, mental homes), in schools (counselling establishments, children's care homes, reformatories for delinquent children), in the penitentiary system, and in social care institutions (old people's homes, social care homes for the physically handicapped). Since 1989, non-governmental entities have also established themselves and provide social services, while at the same time they have provided opportunities for employment to social workers. The largest non-governmental entities in the Czech Republic include Charita (Caritas Czech Republic), Diakonie (Diaconia of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren) and the Salvation Army, and in addition to these, there are many smaller entities.

The number of social workers has grown in connection with the number of social problems in the society. For instance, in Ostrava the number of social workers working with children and families has grown from 17 in 1990 to 90 in 1996 (Rocní 1996)

Since 1990, social work education has been among the fastest growing fields in the Czech Republic. In 1989, there were only three secondary schools of social work and legal studies, located in Prague, Ostrava and Brno, but educational programmes for social workers were established in the philosophical faculties of Charles University in Prague, Masaryk University in Brno and Palacký University in Olomouc as early as in 1990. At the same time, secondary schools of social work and legal studies were transformed into colleges of social work and legal studies.

In the situation where these newly created and gradually completed educational programmes for social workers could not have continued in the tradition of an existing and widely regarded institution with a European standard (as there was none), the necessity to determine general quality criteria for social work education became apparent. It was decided this general quality criterion would be the Minimum Standard for Social Work Education. The parties involved in working out this standard between 1991 and 1993 were representatives of social workers' employers, The National Association of Social Workers in the Czech Republic, departments providing education for social workers in the philosophical faculties of the aforementioned universities, the then existing higher schools of social work and legal studies, as well as representatives of the schools of social work from the Netherlands, Great Britain and the USA. Here, the basic requirements for what qualifications a graduate of social work studies should have are defined on the basis of the principles of studies and a minimum set of the subjects of studies. In 1993, a voluntary organization of universities and those colleges offering at least three years of post secondary school education in social work was established, under the name Association of Social Work Educators of the Czech Republic (ASVSP). The ASVSP's long-term goal is to improve the quality of social work education and it regards the Minimum Standard of Social Work Education to be the most important instrument in the efforts to attain this goal. The core activities of the association have been and are its creation, innovation, the support of members during the organization's implementation and checking whether schools which are members of the ASVSP comply with this standard (Tomes 1997)

Practice is an essential part of social work studies and according to the ASVSP's recommendations it should amount to at least 25% of the volume of instruction. Therefore a decision was made to complement the practical part of social work studies with a special seminar where students could analyze their practical experience from the perspective of social work theories and methods (Tomes 1997).

The development in the area of social work education after 1990 has led to the establishing of the present educational system:

- specialized higher schools (three-year post secondary school studies)
- bachelor's degree programmes offered by universities (three-year studies)
- master's degree programmes offered by universities (five-year studies; or two-year studies
following a bachelor's degree)
- postgraduate doctoral studies.

During a relatively short period of time, the Czech Republic was successful in creating an educational system in social work from the level of specialized higher schools to the postgraduate doctoral level (Chytil & Popelková 1999, 6-7). Such a fast development of social work in university studies after 1989 was made possible by the following factors:

- when justifying the need for professionals and experts with university education in the field of
social work, it was possible to rely on support from the practical sector, which had called for the
reinstallment of university education since the 1970s
- previous tradition of university education in social work in the period 1945-1953
- the presence in practice of professionals with university education having experience both in
practice and in research in social work, and who were competent to work at universities
- the existence of university departments or institutes willing to establish and accredit social work
education (departments of sociology, education sciences, pedagogy).

In a relatively short time, the synergistic effect of the aforementioned factors made it possible to constitute all the levels of university education in social work.

It is possible to trace two trends applied in outlining the programmes of studies following the reinstallment of university education in social work. The first trend oriented social work education towards education for practical use so that it was pragmatically oriented towards skills without the requirement for the students to receive thorough theoretical grounding and training for research. The second trend presumed theoretically grounded education in the social sciences, enabling students to reflect their theoretical knowledge in practice as well as to turn to theory when looking for answers to the problems encountered in practice.

The first trend can be found at the level of higher school education and, in some schools, at the level of bachelor's degree studies. The second trend is characteristic of the greater part of bachelor's degree programmes of studies and of master's degree and doctoral (PhD) programmes. Education in the bachelor's and master's programmes of studies puts emphasis on the theory of social work method, theory and methodology of science, research methods, social policy, the theory of sociology and psychology, law, minority issues, and problems related to health and disease. The following is an example of the content of the doctoral programme of studies in social work in the Medico-Social Faculty of the University of Ostrava.


Topical issues in social work

This two-term course introduces students in the doctoral programme of studies to the principles of scientific work, to the basic scientific approaches used in human and social sciences, and to the possibilities and limits of applying scientific methodology in the field of social work. Emphasis will be given to the students' ability to apply the acquired knowledge in their own creative and independent professional work in the area of social problems.

Seminar 1:
The essentials in scientific methodology - its establishing, development and
Logical rudiments, empirical fundamentals and historical essentials in scientific study, metatheories and the science on science.

Seminar 2:
Historically Relevant (Fruitful) Theoretical and Methodological Approaches in
human and social sciences
Assembling scientific knowledge (formal systems, general systems, discourses) the
hypothetical deductive theorem in human and social sciences, methods and
techniques. Problems with objectiveness, veracity and legitimacy of scientific
knowledge in human and social sciences.

Seminar 3:
Heuristically Fruitful Methodological Disputes in human and social sciences
Explanation and understanding, everyday and scientific knowledge, veracity and
legitimitization, exactness and interpretation, objectiveness and participation, the
scientific and the non-scientific, discourse and the system.

Seminar 4:
The Possibilities and Limits of Applying the Methodology in human and social
sciences in the Field of Social Work Methodology and the nature of social work
objects, the problem of specific methods in social work, theory in social work and
hypotheses creation, the choice of research methods, the limits of general and
specific applications, research projects.

There are many kinds of highly specialised programmes, including for example those for elderly people, for disabled people, for intoxicant users, etc. These programmes differ from each other according to the age group or type of substance they relate to, respectively. Different authorities are responsible for working out welfare plans and programmes and implementing them at national, regional and local levels (Table 1). This applies also to child policy programmes.


The theory of the social sciences and social work

In the form of seminars, this course will acquaint students with selected problems of sociology in relation to the present social tendencies. The focal point of the course will be the consequences of the deepening crisis of the welfare state, namely the issues of marginalization, and the threat of social exclusion. The concept of the world of networks, which in various areas replace the existing fixed and formal organizations, will be used to analyze the impact of the ongoing changes in the social sphere. The latest globalization trends will also be taken into consideration, with regard to both their impact on the traditional social structure as well as their relation to the further development of the welfare state and the nature of social work in the near future.

Seminar 1:
Modern Sociology and The Crisis of the Welfare State
The aim of this seminar is the social risks analysis in relation to the so called crisis
of the welfare state. Its subject matter will also include the phenomenon of social
integrity crisis, as it is depicted by the sociologies of the developed countries. The
crisis of the welfare state will be analyzed in light of the ongoing global civilization
and economic processes. The concept of civilization risks and the concept of
reflexive modernity will also be analyzed in relation to the ongoing social processes.

Seminar 2:
Marginalization and Social Exclusion
The problem of social exclusion will be analyzed, primarily on the basis of French
source documents. This perspective will be used to analyze some of the indicators
of social cohesion once again. The problem of homelessness will also be dealt with,
including all of the various aspects of what homelessness means. All of the present
sociological theories dealing with the issue of social cohesion and social exclusion,
again namely the French ones, will be critically evaluated.

Seminar 3:
Social Work in the World of Networks
The ongoing changes in social institutions from formal and fixed organizations
towards changeable and flexible social networks will be evaluated on the basis of a
conception by the French sociologist Luc Boltanski. Both the possible benefits and the possible threats of this important form of restructuring occurring in the social sphere will be analyzed. Those social work concepts which reflect these structural changes will be evaluated in the seminar.

Seminar 4:
Globalization and Changes in the Social Structure
The subject matter of analysis in this seminar will be the process of globalization. The analysis will focus on the possible or probable consequences of the ongoing changes in the social sphere. Namely the prospects of the middle classes will be examined from the point of view of social integrity. The issue of the middle classes will also be commented on in connection with the efforts to call in question the institution of the welfare state itself. The process of globalization, the process of changes in the social structure and the phenomenon of the welfare state crisis will be examined in common context and in relation to one another.


Research and its application on social work

The aim of this two-semester course is to extend knowledge, skills and competence in the area of research methods and techniques used in research in the sciences on man both at the theoretical level and at the level of their application.

The specific focus on the area of social work necessitates the use of interdisciplinary research procedures which are to be applied on selected problems dealt with by the Ph.D. students themselves in their doctoral theses, or within the framework of various methodological procedures when analyzing the social impacts of various measures in relation to the current social situation.

At least two sessions will be held for each of the seminars.

Seminar 1:
Quantitative Research Strategy in Social Work, Survey
The aim of the seminar is to improve the methods of mathematical statistics in order to gain knowledge about the possibilities and limits of data analysis in social work, skills in data processing on available statistical software and competence in adequate analysis and interpretation of results acquired through various statistical programme systems on the one hand, and skills in survey solutions on the other hand.

Seminar 2:
Qualitative Research Strategy in Social Work
The aim of the seminar is to improve the principles of qualitative methodology in their application in social work. This involves methods of data collection and analysis, both on a theoretical basis and in their application. Systematic cultivation of the students' skills in the use of the basic research methods (observation and interviewing) is required in order to gain knowledge in this area.

Seminar 3:
Integrative (Extended, Systemic) Research Strategy in Social Work
The aim of the seminar is to make use of a research strategy which respects the fact that the subject matter of the social sciences are people, i.e. living human beings. This theory is built in interaction between phenomena and notions, activities and ideas, with the interaction understood as a dynamic system. Empirical orientation focuses on the research of behavior.

Seminar 4:
Selected Problems of Evaluation in Social Work
The aim of the seminar is the preliminary orientation of evaluation towards the area of research strategies taking into consideration the research target, towards evaluation of the effectiveness of social measures and towards social intervention evaluation. Further issues will be dealt with in the course of the seminars with regard to the current development in social issues.


Doctoral thesis seminar

The doctoral thesis seminar will run in the last three semesters of the studies, in the extent of ten tutorial lessons, either individually or in groups organized according to the topics of the doctoral theses. Diploma seminars will be lead by the individual instructors assigned for the individual doctoral theses.


In the course of development of social work as a profession and as an academic discipline in the Czech Republic it is possible to identify efforts to find theoretical grounding for social work. Social work, both in its practice as well as in social work education, tried to copy the logic of scientific work. It looked for theoretical sources for the methods used and verified practical results through research. In the history of social work in the Czech Republic it is possible to identify the period 1935-1953 as the time when theoretical preparation and research were realized in schools. In the period between 1968 and 1989, it was practice that provided the opportunity for development of theory and research. After 1989, the theoretical development of social work and of social work research once again came under the universities. The reinstalled social work education at universities, in the departments of social sciences (sociology, pedagogy and education sciences) not only enabled the establishment of independent departments of social work at universities but above all had a positive influence on the development of social work as an independent scientific discipline that respects the logic of scientific study in the social sciences. The existence of doctoral programmes of studies in social work is a guarantee of further development of social work as a scientific discipline.


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