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A Social Worker Is... and A Social Worker Does...



Video explanation of Social Work (NASW)




The definition below is taken from the

Canadian Association of Social Work website: www.casw-acts.ca 


You'll Need a Social Worker When...




Approved by CASW Board, March 2000



Social work developed as a 20th century profession out of its voluntary philanthropy and social reform roots. These roots are deeply linked to ancient values and concepts of charity, equality and compassion toward others in times of need. The profession's contemporary roots are particularly connected to social welfare developments in the 19th century. These developments included reform movements to change negative societal attitudes toward people in need; charity organization societies to help individuals and families; settlement houses to improve living conditions at the neighbourhood level; and rising feminist advocacy for human rights, social justice and gender equality. The profession of social work is uniquely founded on altruistic values respecting the inherent dignity of every individual and the obligation of societal systems to provide equitable structural resources for all their members.

Social work's primary concern is the social well-being of all people equally valued with the importance of their physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Social work pioneers were among the first to address the significance of deeply connected relationships that constitute the social context of people’s lives. Out of this rich heritage social work is recognized for its familiar "person-in-environment" perspective, which characterizes the unique relationship-centred focus of the profession. Parallel advances in other fields now provide significant support for the on-going advancement of social work as a relationship-centred profession with a repertoire of person- and environment-oriented methods of practice.

The purpose of the National Scope of Practice Statement (NSPS) is to foster a growing understanding of the social work profession. The NSPS is a reference for social workers, CASW member associations, students in social work, those served by social workers and the community at large to inform the public and promote an accountable, effective profession. The statement is prepared as a consultation document. It can be used in part or whole to assist in meeting the information needs of diverse audiences, including legislators and those served by social workers, who may require or prefer a plain language statement that briefly and concisely describes the scope of social work (Appendix 3).


Scope of Social Work

"Social well-being", "person-in-environment" and "social functioning" are key concepts in understanding the scope of social work. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes social well-being as an integral component of a person's overall state of health, complementary to but different from physical, mental and spiritual well-being. The scope of social work has several defining elements.

Practice Domain

Social work’s person-in-environment perspective describes the area or domain in which social workers conduct their practice. Person refers to developmental and social functioning abilities in the context of environmental influences. The concept of environment in social work includes factors in society that enhance or impede the development of individual social well-being. In particular, these factors include their natural support networks and the formal structures in their communities, which together are shaped by a variety of societal norms and expectations in the form of influential attitudes, beliefs, customs, policies and laws. Social functioning refers to the way people perform their social roles and to the way societies provide structural supports to help them perform their roles.

The person-in-environment domain gives social work a common organizing framework and a holistic context for its mission and vision. The global vision of social work is a world consistently working toward social justice and well-being for all citizens. The central mission is to have social workers engaged in activities that will improve social well-being structures and enhance individual, family and community social functioning at local, national and international levels.

The primary focus of social work practice is on the relationship networks between individuals, their natural support resources, the formal structures in their communities, and the societal norms and expectations that shape these relationships. This relationship-centred focus is a distinguishing feature of the profession.

Practice Preparation

In Canada, the profession of social work constitutes a community of post-secondary educated social workers. They are guided in their work by international ethical principles (Appendix 4); a national code of ethics (Appendix 5); provincial statutes governing registration, regulations and standards of practice; common curriculum requirements in schools of social work; and an expanding repertoire of evidence-based methods of practice. Social work includes generalist and specialist prepared practitioners who are well grounded in the knowledge, skills and ethical foundations of social work. Social workers are equally committed to the use of knowledge from the humanities and sciences to advance the development of common human rights, equitable social justice, and sufficient structural supports for individual, family and community social well-being in all human societies. To this end, social workers are expected to be sensitive to the value of cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice.

 Like other professions in Canada, accredited baccalaureate education is considered the first professional practice degree, preparing social workers to practice as generalists. Preparation for specialized practice and research advances in social work is provided at graduate (Master's) and post-graduate (PhD) levels. In some provinces, the social work community includes practitioners with diplomas from community colleges. Community college education generally provides diploma graduates with approved transfer credit opportunities to continue their social work education at the baccalaureate level.


Social workers are expected to have a comprehensive understanding of the complex nature of their own person-in-environment systems. They are prepared to rise above personal biases and preferences to advance the social well-being of others through their practice of social work. Practitioners are instructed to constantly monitor and evaluate personal and professional influences that bear on the scientific and intuitive ways they use themselves as social change agents in practice situations. At the professional level, they are expected to perform a variety of professional roles, integrate the relevant codes of professional conduct that apply to their practice activities and adhere at all times to explicit standard of care tenets.

Practice Methods

Social work’s practice methods are rooted in the early adoption of a clearly stated study, diagnosis and treatment process to systematize practice in a person-in-environment context. Implementation of the practice process was initially done through a variety of fields of practice, including child welfare, family services, medical social work, psychiatric social work and school social work, and several method specialties, including social casework, social group work and community organization.

Contemporary practice methods are based on a systematic process of problem solving which empowers individuals, families, groups and communities to identify and use their own problem solving skills in order to improve their life situations, and requires social workers to simultaneously address broader social issues which affect people’s ability to obtain needed resources. The practice method is facilitated through the application of social work values, ethical principles and practice skills to accomplish the core functions of social work.

• helping people obtain basic human need services;

• counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families and groups;

• helping communities/groups provide or improve social and health services; and

• participating in relevant legislative and social policy processes.

Practice methods in social work are those commonly used by qualified social workers (Appendix 1) or identified as restricted activities limited to social workers with specific qualifications (Appendix 2). Social work practice activities used to accomplish the core functions include direct practice with clients, community organizing, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation.

 Future direction

Social work’s original scope of practice was broadly defined by its pioneering and value-based person-in-environment perspective, which shifted to a narrower scope defined by practice methods and the influence of scientific methods of intervention. As the profession moves into the 21st century social work’s practice will continue to be influenced by the scientific method but the sphere of influence is broadening again to include new advances being made in the humanities and sciences. The profession’s distinguishing focus on relationship networks between people in their social environment contexts will continue to be a valued aspect of its scope of practice and increasingly a focus borrowed by other helping professions.


The following list is an example of practice methods commonly used by social workers. It is not presented as an exhaustive list or as an exclusive list that only social workers can practice.

Case management

Psychosocial therapy

Community resource coordination

Child protection assessments


Developmental social welfare

Client-centred therapy

Social casework

Grassroots mobilization/locality development

Clinical social work

Social group work

Program evaluation

Crisis management

Client advocacy

Neighbourhood and community organizing

Discharge planning

Network facilitation

Political and social action

Family and marital therapy

Network skills training

Social planning

Family mediation

Structural social work

Social policy analysis and development

Group therapy

Class action social work

Structural change






Restricted practice activities are practice methods defined to be exclusive to or restricted to a particular profession or specialty section of a profession. In social work, these activities are usually specified in provincial statutes or regulations governing the practice of social work. The specification of restricted practice activities may vary from province to province. The following social work activities are the most likely to be included as restricted practice methods: clinical social work, psychotherapy, child welfare and protection services and family mediation services.




The following statements provide examples of what might be a brief and concise scope of practice statement that meets the requirements of a legislative body and/or the needs of the general public.

Social work is the application of social work knowledge, values, focus and practice methods in a person-in-environment context to improve social well-being structures in society and enhance individual, family and community social functioning at local, national and international levels.

Social work is the application of social work knowledge, values, focus and practice methods in a person-in-environment context to accomplish the core functions of social work:

• helping people obtain basic human need services;

• counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families and groups;

• helping communities/groups provide or improve social and health services; and

• participating in relevant legislative and social policy processes.



IFSW Declaration of Ethical Principles of Social Work


·         Social workers serve the development of human beings through adherence to the following basic principles:

·         Every human being has a unique value, which justifies moral consideration for that person.

·         Each individual has the right to self-fulfillment to the extent that it does not encroach upon the same right of others, and has an obligation to contribute to the well-being of society.

·         Each society, regardless of its form, should function to provide the maximum benefits for all of its members.

·         Social workers have a commitment to principles of social justice.

·         Social workers have the responsibility to devote objective and disciplined knowledge and skill to aid individuals, groups, communities, and societies in their development and resolution of personal-societal conflicts and their consequences.

·         Social workers are expected to provide the best possible assistance to anybody seeking their help and advice, without unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, age, disability, colour, social class, race, religion, language, political beliefs, or sexual orientation.

·         Social workers respect the basic human rights of individuals and groups as expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions derived from that Declaration.

·         Social workers pay regard to the principles of privacy, confidentiality, and responsible use of information in their professional work. Social workers respect justified confidentiality even when their country's legislation is in conflict with this demand.

·         Social workers are expected to work in full collaboration with their clients, working for the best interests of the clients but paying due regard to the interests of others involved.

·         Clients are encouraged to participate as much as possible, and should be informed of the risks and likely benefits of proposed courses of action.

·         Social workers generally expect clients to take responsibility, in collaboration with them, for determining courses of action affecting their lives. Compulsion which might be necessary to solve one party's problems at the expense of the interests of others involved should only take place after careful explicit evaluation of the claims of the conflicting parties. Social workers should minimize the use of legal compulsion.

·         Social work is inconsistent with direct or indirect support of individuals, groups, political forces or power-structures suppressing their fellow human beings by employing terrorism, torture or similar brutal means.



 CASW Code of Ethics Obligations

A social worker shall carry out his/her professional duties and obligations with integrity and objectivity.

A social worker shall have and maintain competence in the provision of social work service to a client.

A social worker shall not exploit the relationship with a client for personal benefit, gain or gratification.

A social worker shall maintain the best interest of the client as the primary professional obligation.

A social worker shall protect the confidentiality of all information acquired from the client or others regarding the client and the client’s family during the professional relationship unless:

a) the client authorizes in writing the release of specified information, or

b) the information is released under the authority or statute or an order of a court of competent jurisdiction.

A social worker who engages in another profession, occupation, affiliation or calling shall not allow these outside interests to affect the social work relationship with the client.

A social worker in private practice shall not conduct the business of provision of social work services for a fee in a manner that discredits the profession or diminishes the public’s trust in the profession.

A social worker shall advocate for workplace conditions and policies that are consistent with the code.

A social worker shall promote excellence in the social work profession.

A social worker shall advocate change:

a) in the best interest of the client,

b) for the overall benefit of society, the environment and the global community.



Capra, Fritjof (1996). The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books.

Greene, Roberta and Watkins, Marie (Eds.) (1998). Serving Diverse Constituencies: Applying the Ecological Perspective. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Karls, James & Wandrei, Karen (Eds.) (1994). Person-in-Environment System: The PIE Classification System for Social Functioning Problems. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Kemp, Susan, Whittaker, James & Tracy, Elizabeth (1997). Person-Environment Practice: The Social Ecology of Interpersonal Helping. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Pincus, Allen & Minahan, Anne (1973). Social Work Practice: Model and Method. Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock.

Sheafor, Brad, Horejsi, Charles, & Horejsi, Gloria (1994). Techniques and Guidelines for Social Work Practice (3rd Ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


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