Background History of Social Case Work


1.      Introduction

2.      Historical development of social case work

3.      Concept of Charity and Philanthropy

4.      Elizabeth Poor Law

5.      Association of Improving Condition of the poor

6.      Initiation of Training and Education

7.      Major landmark History of Casework Development


You will understand major event of social case work history in the following article. You are also going to learn about the Contribution of different scholars in the development of social case work in details. Lets begin.


Social case work can be described as a professional method that aims to develop the social functioning of an individual in the most basic sense. It was one of the first „methods to be used in the profession of social work. From the early days of its inception, the fundamental idea of social case work was to help people in distress.

In the words of Gordon and Hamilton “social casework which is both a tool and area of work consists of processes which develop personality through adjustment consciously affect individual by individual between man and his social environment”.

Miss Richmond gives this definition of casework. “Social casework is art of doing different things for and with different people by cooperating with them to achieve at one and at the same time their own and their society’s betterment.” Thus it is both art and science of resolving individual problems in social area, for individual and society are interdependent and social forces influence behaviour and attitude of an individual.

Historical Development of Social Case work

Concept of Charity & Philanthropy:

Reaching out to those in need has always been the way of life in all societies of the ancient. This feeling of goodwill and humaneness was common among early church and philanthropists, who pooled in services to relieve the effects of poverty, console the poor, care for vulnerable groups like deprived children, the ailing and the elderly as well as correctional work with the delinquents. Orphanages and homes for the elderly were typical results of these activities. Charity was based on the principal criterion of worthiness in determining allocation of aids to those in need.

Elizabethan Poor Law

In 1558 Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne and enacted the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, which had its based on the concept of charity. The Poor law in the intention of sorting out services and to cater to the needs of those living in sub-standard conditions categorized people into:

1.      Able body poor

2.      Impotent poor

3.      Dependent children

The Law by itself was an important effort on part of the government to enlist categories of people in need of help and render services accordingly. The Law also marks an important landmark of reiterating the role & responsibilities of governments in framing policies to address the needs of its people. However, Administrative loopholes and corruption led to the failure of the law, which was supposed to cater to the needs of the vulnerable group. The situation of the poor continued to be worse and flourishing charity & philanthropic groups sustained their best in providing relief services to the unfortunate.

Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor.

The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (A.I.C.P.) formed in America in 1843 approached the problem of poverty more individually than had been previously it was. The aims of A.I.C.P. were to visit the poor at homes, to give counsel, to assist them practically in obtaining employment, to instill in them self-respect and self-reliance, to inculcate the habits of economy and whenever absolutely necessary to provide such relief as should be suited to their wants.

Charity Organization Society in England & USA

Charity Organization Society was started in England in the year 1869. One of the key contributions of the COS to social work was its clear view of the cause of many social problems in England. London was beset with a „mass of chronic pauperism, beggary and crime, behind which lay „an appalling amount of genuine misfortune. In the late nineteenth century, the influx of immigrants from Europe and England to America increased rapidly resulting in a gradual increase in the number of poor, sick and unemployed people. This in turn led to an inadequacy on part of the local governments to meet the basic needs such as shelter, money and food of these populations. Eight years after the COS was established in London the first city-wide Charity Organization was founded in the year 1877 in USA. By 1885, the number of Charity Organization Societies exceeded one hundred throughout the USA.

Initiation of Training & Education

The COS recognized that effective work required a level of training of those people undertaking it. Indeed, one of its most significant legacies to social work was the development of systematic programmes of education and training for the role of the social worker. Towards the end of the 19th century the New York School of Philanthropy was established which engaged itself in providing the „paid agents assistance to get trained in the art of undertaking an investigation, arrive at a diagnosis and draw out a treatment plan for individual clients and families.

The conference which was organized for the employees of charity associations in 1873 was the first step taken to realize this need. It was followed by a summer school in New York in 1898. Then, the first school of social work was opened in Amsterdam in 1899. In New York, a school of social work was opened in 1904. Its training period was one year. In 1917, its training period was doubled. As a result of all this, social work education with individual method was involved in the curriculum of the school as a separate subject.

Major Landmarks in the History of Casework Development

Contribution of Friendly Visitor

Friendly Visitors was first used in 1877 by American Charity Organization Society for its volunteers. Citizens of England with the object of helping poor people founded this society. These people had funds to help poor and needy. They were kindhearted volunteers who visited poor families to assess their needs and to provide help, guidance and advice. They made their visits in act of charity and not expecting any monetary rewards.

The role of Friendly Visitor was educational one and goal was to improve the character through personal influence. Living advice and being model were two methods by which the visitor influenced the client and there can be no doubt that some of them did exert a wholesome personality influence in difficult personal and family situation.

Friendly Visitors was subsequently supplemented by the term “Paid Agents”. These Paid Agents developed systematic procedures in performing their task. They collected data about the needy individuals and families and helped them after assessing their needs.

Contribution of Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond for first time used the term “Case Work” to denote the process of working with individuals in the conference held for the employees of the charity associations. In the words of Richmond “Social diagnosis is the attempt to arrive at as exact a definition as possible of social situation and personality of the given client.

Richmond found that diagnosis is a process consisting sequence of steps in order to facilitate the worker to arrive finally at his/her definition of social situation and personality of client. The sequence of steps was as under:

1.      Interview with client

2.       Contact with his family and near ones Search of inside and outside sources for cooperation

3.       The interpretation of information collected.


Contribution of Freudian Theory

Today, as in the past, many social workers---not only those who specialize in psychoanalysis---draw on Freudian theory in their efforts to understand human behavior. In 1918, the first psychoanalytically oriented school of social work, Smith College School for Social Work, was founded to teach students about Sigmund Freud’s ideas and their application to practice, Freud’s influence is found in many areas of casework. His greatest influence was however on caseworker- client relationship. Previously clients were persuaded, convinced or even coerced into accepting the caseworker suggestions and ideas. But now the caseworker worker with client by listening and honoring the client’s self-expression.

Informally, a few psychoanalysts did provide training and supervision to social workers and in 1948 social workers were first accepted at the psychoanalytic institutes of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and the Postgraduate Centre for Mental Health, both in New York. Organizations such as the American Psychoanalytic Association, which earlier had prevented social workers, dropped their prohibitions against admitting social workers.


  1. Hamilton, Gordon (1940), “Theory and Practice of Social Case Work, Columbia University Press, New York.
  2. Mathew, Grace (1991), An Introduction to Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
  3. Scope & Methods of the Family Service Agency (1953), Family Service Association of America, New York. 


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