Social Work and Technology: Past, Present and Future

Social work has always used tools of the time period to help those in need. We are the helping hand, the caring voice, and the ready help for those in need, but a common misconception is that we cannot tell the difference between a computer chip and potato chip.

Quite the contrary, being soft-hearted does not mean we are also soft headed. Social workers have always embraced technological change through out history.Though the official profession of social work has only existed since the 17th century, people have been using the tools of the time to help those in need. These tools are often technological innovations which have taken many forms over time.

Social Work in the Pastabaman2500 B.C. Ancient Hebrews used mandatory tithes to benefit the poor, it could be said this was the origin of the first social workers who used tithing to minister to the needy. This later evolved into what we now consider charitable contributions to the Church.

500 B.C. The first use of the word philanthropy appears in Prometheus bound; Phil=Love, Anthro= meaning man. Maybe some the first written conceptualization of giving service to those in need, in reference to Prometheus giving man fire and blind hope. (The second being characteristic of social workers)

373 B.C. Ancient India, King Ashok helps create some of the first known official social services, the abacus was used to keep track of donations.

325 A.D. Emperor Constantine the 1st legitimizes the Christian church which then sets up a variety of social services including; elder care, hospitals, orphanages.

1817 A.D. Elizabeth Fry, know as the angel of the prisons attempts to reform the prison system of England. Thanks to her work treatment of prisoners became more humane. 

1884: Arnold Toynbee, one of the first to notice the economic disparity caused by the industrial revolution. His contributions inspired others to developed a map to visualize the data they collected on poverty. A precursor to modern projects like healthy cities which can be used to help improve social services.

 1889: Jane Addams, the settlement houses in the United States. Pioneer in the social work field. Hull House maps and papers they reported on the effects of concentration of different ethnicity and their living conditions, about labor circumstances in the sweatshops, about child labor.

1985: The book, “Computers in human services” comes out and brings to the forefront need for computer use in social services and counseling. Soon after this use of technology exploded, social services starts to integrated technology into practice.

What does this mean for you now?

allthetechCurrently social work as a profession receives a failing grade when it comes to technology literacy; we do not teach it in schools according to a research study by the National Institute of Health in  2011. Without the ability to integrate and use new technology, we will fall behind a profession. We will neither be able to help our clients or ourselves in the modern era.

So now we are in the modern era, there are so many new technologies every day it can be overwhelming. There are 1,157,279 Apps for download on the itunes store, and there are countless pieces of software available. Not to mention the differences between a Mac and PC, Android and Apple, Google chrome, internet explorer, firefox etc. Now if you further want to complicate things, you can inject the famous social work ethics which then restricts you from using certain pieces of software/hardware because of the actions of the company that made it. (See Firefox debacle)

How to move forward?

bmanYou need to learn how  to effectively utilize these technologies for our clients and the organizations we work for. Social work is often seen as a profession of technological Neanderthals. This myth is partially true and comes from the fact that we often work in underfunded organizations. We often end up using technology that is outdated and not completely functional, whereas many times other professions are using the latest and greatest on the market.

It is true that new technology is expensive, if we do not have an understanding of its value it becomes hard to justify this expense to the organizations we work in. Unlike other sectors, we do not have the luxury of adopting the newest technology because it is new. Unless you have a firm understanding of how useful technology can be such as the time and costs it can save, convincing the CFO that you need new laptops maybe a challenge.

So what does that mean for you? Its time for you to learn! Social Workers should be Tech savvy, if not experts. The time and cost it can save means more clients helped with less work for us. We work in a profession that is perpetually underfunded and over worked, and isn’t it time we come up with some solutions?

Here is where I come in, I will post/doodle every week about new technologies that can help you. More importantly, I will give you information about how technology can help you everyday and how you can learn to use it to meet your needs. We will also touch on ethical questions that come up with using technology in social work such as the use your clients data and whether technology is a barrier or an aid for your client. What are your thoughts?

Serving Our Veterans: Micro vs Macro (Part 3 of 4)

Part one of this series analyzed the impact of the Bonus Army, and part two looked at the survival of the Private vs. Public argument when providing services to those who fight our nation’s wars. In this third installment, I will be analyzing micro vs macro an even greater tension that has persisted from the Depression to present day, and it still continues to influence our effectiveness at serving our veterans.

Bronfenbrenn-system-bigSocial work as a field is constantly living within the Micro vs. Macro tension, as were the Bonus Army veterans also known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.). At the most basic micro level, social workers aim to assist individuals in need. At the macro level, social workers aim to change policy and environmental conditions that support social change and afford individuals some level of security and autonomy. All along the way, we can observe tension among individuals and agencies, who place a higher priority on one or the other.

In the Anacostia Flats during the summer of 1932, there were certainly veterans of the B.E.F. who were there for their own personal motives, operating from a micro perspective. There were also veterans among them, who were motivated by a macro perspective, hoping to effect change for the entire veteran population. Life in Anacostia for these WWI veterans during the Bonus March had its own Micro vs. Macro tensions as a result.

During the same time veterans of the B.E.F. were impacting macro level change; the field of social work was taking a similar approach. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s social workers advocated for changes at the macro level, often taking the form of community organizing. Even the field of social work itself was founded in macro level approaches. Through Jane Addams’ Hull House and the settlement house concept of the late 1800’s, social work gained its foot hold as a profession by working with groups and communities, advocating for policy change, and even Addams herself was a political leader.  After a few decades however, the field of social work began to shift more toward micro level perspectives.

As time progressed and our society continued to challenge the status quo at the macro level, social workers by and large became distracted at the micro level. This change was largely fueled by an increase in Freudian ideology, which brought social workers out of the community and into their offices as individual counselors and case workers. With social work changing its focus to the micro level practice of diagnosing and counseling individual clients, the field had much less workers on the macro scale advocating for public services and had very little stake in the changing political climate of the 1960’s and 1970’s as a result. Only within the past decade or two has social work begun to step back into the macro level as a viable agent. So we observe this Micro vs. Macro tension shifting among social work over time.

As Bertha Reynolds (1935) pointed out, “social case work rather finds its function in dealing with difficulties in the relationship between individuals or groups and their physical or social environment”. Her observation, which was made during the same period as the events of the Bonus Army, was true before these events and is still true to this day. The tension between Micro vs. Macro is likely to continue to persist.

What can we learn from this? If these tensions will persist indefinitely, what’s the point? I would argue that by acknowledging the existence of these tensions, we are more apt to finding better solutions that will help us be more effective at serving our veterans for the long haul. So what are the implications of these tensions in how the U.S. government addresses it’s military veterans now? What can we do better? Stay tuned for the final segment of this series to find out.


Addams, J. (1893). The objective value of a social settlement. Philanthropy and social progress (pp. 27-40). New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell.

Andrews, J. & Reisch, M. (1997). Social work and anti- communism: A historical analysis of the McCarthy era. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 8, 29-49.

Fisher, R. & Karger, H.J. (1997). Macro practice: Putting social change and public life back into social work practice. In Social work and community in a private world: Getting out in public (pp. 117-147). New York: Longman.

Perlman, H.H.(1957). Freud’s contribution to social welfare. Social Service Review, 31, 2, 192-202

Reynolds, B.C. (1935). Whom do social workers serve? Social Work Today, 2, 6, 5-8.

Seigfried, C.H. (2009). The courage of one’s convictions or the convictions of one’s courage: Jane Addams’ principled compromises. In M. Fischer, D. Nackenoff, & W. Chmielewski (Eds.). Jane Addams and the practice of democracy. University of Illinois Press.

Waters, W.W. & White, W.C. (1933). B.E.F.: the whole story of the bonus army. Mass violence in America. (1969). New York, NY: Arno Press & The New York Times.

Don’t Follow the Rules When You Can Change the Rules: Fierceness of Jane Addams

Jane Addams is known for being the mother of social work. However, she did not fit the image of the “traditional” lady of her time. She was seen as radical, bold, and unconventional in a time when women were not allowed to vote. People like Jane Addams and the women of Hull House did the unthinkable and advocated for themselves and others.

women-rightsJane Addams practiced what is known today as macro practice social work. Macro practice does not follow the rules, it changes the rules. Somehow social work has gotten soft along the way.

The profession has abandoned its mission of building the “infrastructure of society” and left the responsibility to people outside the profession. As a result, the rules were changed and so has the focus. We can see this in the language used in social work today.  Many times social work is mentioned as the “safety net” of society.

Jane Addams was against seeing her work as “charity” she saw it as “lateral progress” or “civic housekeeping.” Instead, she saw her work as an investment in society and stated, “I am always sorry to have Hull House regarded as philanthropy.” Jane Addams believed the progress of society was measured not by the elite, but by the “weakest link.” This view is still not popular, and we are still playing by the rules that people “need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

We could all be inspired by Jane Addams because she was a fierce pioneer who was not afraid to go against social norms. She did not wait for change to happen, and this is what our society needs to help facilitate change. Advocacy and community organizing inspire growth and progress however many times this means challenging the status quo.

It’s time for the social work profession to stop being led and start leading society again.

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