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Abstract and Keywords

This entry discusses some topics in social work and social welfare history. It covers different approaches to that history, such as an emphasis on social control functions of social welfare; a stress on the “ordinary people” involved in historical events; or particular attention to the stories of women, people of color, and other groups who have often been excluded from formal sources of power. It notes the importance of using original sources in writing history, and explains the various steps involved in researching and interpreting these sources.

Keywords: archives, evaluation, historical methodology, history as a research method, history of women and minorities, interpretation, nature of history, oral history, primary and secondary sources, social control, social history, social welfare history

Topics and Approaches

The historian Clarke Chambers (1973) noted that history and social work are natural allies, which share a common core: “the study of individual behavior and the course of human experience in society through the dimensions of time and space” (p. 14). The field of social welfare history takes this study further.

Well-established topics in social work and social welfare history include the development of social welfare programs and institutions, such as charitable societies, poorhouses, and mental institutions; the growth of the profession, especially its early years of charity and settlement work; and the creation of programs to address poverty, powerlessness, and dependence. Traditionally, the approach to these topics has stressed the role of key policy makers, well-known social reformers, and leaders in the profession, whose intentions were assumed to be benevolent. Generally, studies focused on White America. Women were not ignored, but their many roles in social welfare were not fully explored.

More recent topics have broadened social welfare history: the social control functions of social policy; the discovery of a new social history, or “history from the bottom up”; the inclusion of the stories of women and people of color; recognition of the long-standing interdependence of the public and private sectors in the social welfare arena; and an understanding of the role of experts and bureaucrats in the development of the welfare state (Bennett, 2006; Chambers, 1986a; Hornsby, 2005).

The concept of social control challenges the benevolent nature of the social welfare institution and its architects (see, for example, Katz, 1986; Piven & Cloward, 1971; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989; Zinn, 2003) An appreciation of the significance of experts and bureaucrats in policy-making balances the tendency to see politicians and social reformers as the primary players (Critchlow & Hawley, 1988). Analyses of the interaction between private and public welfare initiatives yield a more accurate picture of the development of U.S. social welfare (Berkowitz & McQuaid, 1992). However, the history of women and people of color have no doubt generated the largest bodies of work and may hold the greatest potential for altering the understanding of social welfare history.

Social history deals with ordinary people, rather than the elite, as contributors to larger historical processes (Chambers, 1992; Clubb, Austin, & Kirk, 1989; Novick, 1988; Stadum, 1992; Zinn, 2003). Gregory's study (1989) of the Dust Bowl migration in the 1930s and Grossman's description (1989) of the great movement of Black southerners to Chicago conveyed the feelings of the migrants themselves and transformed them from anonymous victims into real people (Teaford, 1990). Gordon's history (1998) of women facing family violence highlighted their coping skills and influence on agency policies. History from the bottom up is particularly appropriate for social work and social welfare historians as it focuses on the stresses and strengths of ordinary people and how social movements and institutions have affected them and been affected by them.

The social history approach reinforces attention to the stories of people and groups that have often been excluded from formal sources of power and authority. Their impact on the social welfare system has been chronicled in numerous studies, for example, Abramovitz (1988), Carlton-LaNey (1989), Chambers (1986b), Costin (1983), Diner (1970), Muncy (1991), Peebles-Wilkins & Francis (1990), Rouse (1989), and Scott (1990, 1992).

Nature of History

Is history “scientific” or merely “descriptive”? Is it a legitimate research method for social workers? Is it empirical? “If I write a historical dissertation, will I get a job?”

Although empirical research has an almost mystical quality in the lexicon of research, the term simply means knowledge derived from experience or experiment. Empiricism and quantitative research are not synonymous.

Historical research relies on the development of hypotheses, or guiding questions; the systematic gathering and analysis of evidence; and the discovery of patterns (Barzun & Graff, 1985; Shafer, 1980). While those conducting historical studies may use quantitative data, they also draw on other sources: interviews, correspondence, government documents, organizational reports, and artifacts. In addition, historians, like sociologists and others, strive to separate their own values from those of the individuals, groups, or communities they are studying (Stuart, 1985).

Historical Methodology

How does one go about researching and writing social work history? As Barzun and Graff (1985) note, “The facts never speak for themselves. They must be selected, … linked together, and given a voice” (p. viii).

A major step in selecting and interpreting facts is the formulation of hypotheses, or guiding questions, related to the area being studied (Stuart, 1985). The failure to start with a guiding framework leads to rapid immersion in an ocean of detail. A general study of the development of social work in the United States has few boundaries; but a study of the influence of professionalization on that development provides a focus and some criteria for selecting sources. Assumptions or hunches about the specific effects of professionalization aid in the interpretation of findings from these sources. (Leighninger, 1987).

The next step is gathering evidence related to the major hypotheses. The wide variety of sources of information can be divided into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary sources are materials produced by an actual witness or participant in the events being discussed, such as Jane Addams's letters to friends about her settlement-house work. Secondary sources are materials produced primarily by historians who lived after the event, for example Davis's (1973) biography of Jane Addams.

Secondary sources help orient one to the topic being studied. The library catalogue is a basic place to start; subject headings, such as Child Welfare, often include History as a subheading. Journal indexes, abstracts, and bibliographies are also useful (see also Trattner, 1986).

Other tools include Trattner and Achenbaum's (1983) annotated bibliography, the Journal of American History, and Social Work Research and Abstracts, as well as composite journal indexes and abstracts, such as the Social Science Index, the Humanities Index, and the Women's Studies Abstracts and articles in Reviews in American History, available at the Humanities Index, Within this index, http://hwwii/ offers a Historical and Contemporary Subjects headings list. These offer excellent orientations to current trends in social welfare history. Remember, however, that secondary sources present conclusions drawn by their authors. To draw one's own conclusions and to bring new data to light, it is necessary to use original sources.

The use of primary sources may seem intimidating. The range of evidence is vast: memoirs, correspondence, government and organizational reports, minutes of committee meetings, court testimony, newspaper articles, case histories from social work agencies, census reports, oral histories, photographs, and even songs. Occasionally, one stumbles across an exciting “find,” like a moldering box of 80-year-old case records in an agency basement. Usually, however, a painstaking search is involved at state and local libraries, archival collections, headquarters of organizations, individual agencies, and collections of oral histories. Fortunately, there are guides to many of these collections.

Archives house many kinds of unpublished records. Examples of important social welfare archives are the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota and the Social Work Archives at the Smith College School for Social Work. Other useful archives include the U.S. National Archives, Washington, DC; the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit; the Urban Archives Center, Temple University, Philadelphia; the Rockefeller Archive Center, Tarrytown, NY; and the Center on Philanthropy, Indiana University, Indianapolis. The National Union Catalogue of Manuscripts describes archival holdings throughout the country. Individual archives have their own directories, which are generally available online at their Web sites. The University of Minnesota's Social Welfare History Archives Center, for example, has an excellent Web site that provides useful links to other sites.

Oral histories present an individual's accounts of and reactions to important life events; historians may use oral histories conducted by others or carry out their own. The Smith College Social Work Archives and the Social Security Project at the Oral History Collection, Columbia University, are particularly helpful to historians seeking to understand the lives of ordinary citizens (Gordon, 1988; Stadum, 1992). The National Association of Social Workers recently established a Legacy Project, which raises funds for archiving the history of NASW, including the stories of prominent social workers.

Once gathered, the evidence must be evaluated. A number of questions should be asked about the evidence: Is it authentic? (For example, did the social worker's diary include material that he or she added years later?) What was the “situation” of the witness of an event? (Did that person have strong prejudices regarding the issues? How long after the event did the witness make the report?) What was the intent of the document in question? (Was it to persuade, or simply to describe?) A major strategy in the process is the use of multiple sources of evidence to eliminate inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and bias.

The final step is interpreting the evidence, or deciding what it has to say in relation to the hypotheses of the study. A number of common errors can lead to misinterpretation. One is cross-cultural error, or the lack of understanding of the values and customs of another culture. For example, White historians have only begun to appreciate the importance of the Black women's club movement as a form of social welfare organization. Leavy's Iconic Events: Media, Politics, and Power in Retelling History (2007) covers Columbine and other recent events. Another error is presentism, or the reading of characteristics of the present in events of the past. Presentism has interfered with historians' understanding that the suffragists had a different conception of women's rights from that of today's feminists. A third error is offering single-factor explanations, such as arguing that a social control motive was the primary cause of the rise and fall of welfare rolls (Mohl, 1983). Good history minimizes these errors. It gives us context, patterns, and a view of complex, interacting forces. It aims to present the past on its own terms and to develop the story of a diverse society using a variety of types of evidence. Social welfare history paints the background of the profession's present work and fleshes out hypotheses of the social welfare enterprise.


Abramovitz, M. (1998). Regulating the lives of women: Social welfare policy from colonial times to the present. Boston: South End Press.Find this resource:

    Barzun, J., & Graff, H. F. (1985). The modern researcher (4th ed.). San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Find this resource:

      Bennett, J. M. (2006). History Matters: Patriarchy and the challenge of feminism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Find this resource:

        Berkowitz, E. D., & McQuaid, K. (1992). Creating the welfare state: The political economy of twentieth-century reform (rev. ed.). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.Find this resource:

          Carlton-LaNey, I. (1989). Old folks' homes for blacks during the Progressive Era. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 16, 43–60.Find this resource:

            Chambers, C. A. (1973). The discipline of history in a social welfare curriculum. Journal of Education for Social Work American History, 9, 11–22.Find this resource:

              Chambers, C. A. (1986a). Toward a redefinition of welfare history. Journal of American History, 73, 407–433.Find this resource:

                Chambers, C. A. (1986b). Women in the creation of the profession of social work. Social Service Review, 60, 1–33.Find this resource:

                  Chambers, C. A. (1992). “Uphill all the way”: Reflections on the course and study of welfare history. Social Service Review, 66, 492–504.Find this resource:

                    Clubb, J. M., Austin, E. W., & Kirk, G. W., Jr. (1989). The process of historical inquiry: Everyday lives of working Americans. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                      Costin, L. B. (1983). Two sisters for social justice. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

                        Critchlow, D. T., & Hawley, E. W. (Eds.). (1988). Federal social policy: The historical dimension. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.Find this resource:

                          Davis, A. F. (1973). American heroine: The life and legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                            Diner, S. J. (1970). Chicago social workers and Blacks in the Progressive Era. Social Service Review, 44, 393–410.Find this resource:

                              Gordon, L. (1988). Heroes of their own lives. New York: Penguin Books.Find this resource:

                                Gregory, J. N. (1989). American exodus: The dust bowl migration and Okie culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                  Grossman, J. R. (1989). Land of Hope: Chicago, Black southerners and the great migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                    Hornsby, Alton, Jr. (2005). A companion to African American history. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.Find this resource:

                                      Katz, M. (1986). In the shadow of the poorhouse. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

                                        Lawson, Steven. (1998). Debating the civil rights movement, 1945–1968. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.Find this resource:

                                          Leavy, Patricia. (2007). Iconic events: Media, politics, and power in retelling history. Landham, MD: Lexington Books.Find this resource:

                                            Leighninger, L. (1987). Social work: Search for identity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.Find this resource:

                                              Mohl, R. A. (1983). The abolition of outdoor public relief, 1870–1900: A critique of the Piven and Cloward thesis. In W. I. Trattner (Ed.), Social welfare or social control? (pp. 35–50). Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.Find this resource:

                                                Muncy, R. (1991). Creating a female dominion in American reform, 1890–1935. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                  Novick, P. (1988). That noble dream: The “objectivity question” and the American historical profession. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                    Peebles-Wilkins, W., & Francis, A. (1990). Two outstanding Black women in social welfare history: Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Affilia, 5(4), 87–100.Find this resource:

                                                      Piven, F. F., & Cloward, R. (1971). Regulating the poor: the functions of public welfare. New York: Vintage Books.Find this resource:

                                                        Rouse, J. (1989). Lugenia Burns Hope: Black southern reformer. Athens: University of Georgia Press.Find this resource:

                                                          Scott, A. F. (1990). Most invisible of all: Black women's voluntary associations. Journal of Southern History, 56, 4–22.Find this resource:

                                                            Scott, A. F. (1992). Natural Allies; Women's associations in American history. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

                                                              Shafer, R. J. (Ed.). (1980). A guide to historical method (3rd ed.). Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.Find this resource:

                                                                Social Welfare History Archives Center, University of Minnesota. Online at

                                                                Stadum, B. (1992). Poor women and their families: Hard working charity cases. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

                                                                  Stuart, P. H. (1985). Historical research. In R. M. Grinnell, Jr. (Ed.), Social work research and evaluation (3rd ed.). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.Find this resource:

                                                                    Teaford, J. D. (1990). The twentieth century's great migration. Reviews in American History, 18, 218–23.Find this resource:

                                                                      Trattner, W. I. (Ed.). (1986). Biographical dictionary of social welfare in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.Find this resource:

                                                                        Trattner, W. I., & Achenbaum, W. A. (Eds.). (1983). Social welfare in America: An annotated bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.Find this resource:

                                                                          Wenocur, S., & Reisch, M. (1989). From charity to enterprise: The development of American social work in a market economy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

                                                                            Zinn, Howard. (2003). A people's history of the United States: 1492–Present. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.Find this resource:

                                                                              Further Reading

                                                                              Chambers, C. A. (1967). Seedtime of reform. Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Paperbacks.Find this resource:

                                                                                Ehrenreich, J. H. (1985). The altruistic imagination: A history of social work and social policy in the United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Grog, G. N. (1983). Mental illness and American society, 1875–1940. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Leiby, J. (1978). A history of social welfare and social work. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Lubove, R. (1969). The professional altruist. New York: Atheneum.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Patterson, J. T. (2000). America's struggle against poverty in the twentieth century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Reisch, M. (1988). The uses of history in teaching social work. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 2, 3–16.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Rothman, D. J. (1971). The discovery of the asylum. Boston: Little, Brown.Find this resource: