Journal Article

State Social Work: Constructing the Present from Moments in the Past

John Harris

in The British Journal of Social Work

Published on behalf of British Association of Social Workers

Volume 38, issue 4, pages 662-679
Published in print June 2008 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online March 2008 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
State Social Work: Constructing the Present from Moments in the Past

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Social work is often seen as a straightforward response to self-evident human needs and problems or as the outcome of ‘professional projects’ pursued by social workers. However, consideration of social work's history suggests that it is a contingent activity, conditioned by and dependent upon the context from which it emerges and in which it engages. The contingent nature of social work is considered by locating it in the contexts of five historical ‘moments’ that have had significant implications for social work's profile and practice: the nineteenth century origins of social work; social work in the post-war period; the Seebohm Report; the New Right; and New Labour. The review of these historical moments shows that welfare regimes are key in shaping the manner in which social work is constituted and enacted. Furthermore, aspects from each historical moment have been carried forward into present day social work; the construction of the present always owes something to moments from the past.

Keywords: Social work history; nineteenth century; Charity Organisation Society; welfare state; Seebohm Report; New Right; New Labour

Journal Article.  7481 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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