Three Books I Recommend About: The History of Social Work

These books were written for an academic audience, but if you can cut through the theory there are many interesting stories about how professional social workers have cared for poor, unwell, and "maladjusted" Americans over the course of the twentieth century. There are many other excellent books on this topic, but these are the three that I find myself consulting most often for my own research.

1. Roy Lubove, The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career 1880-1930 (1965)

In this pioneering book, Lubove analyzed the transition of social welfare from charitable voluntarism to expert occupation by identifying how social workers adopted the three main tenets of a professional identity: specialization, bureaucratization, and the formation of an “occupational subculture.” It's a classic--every scholarly history of social work written since the '60s builds on Lubove's theory of how the profession originated.

2. Regina G. Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945 (1993)

While Lubove examined social work professionalization through a political-economic lens, in her 1993 book Regina Kunzel argued that the transition from evangelical “ladies bountiful” to scientific and objective professionals was not smooth or linear but rather a prolonged contestation of expertise and legitimacy. She also gendered Lubove’s professionalization thesis, challenging his implied conception of professionalism as inherently masculine and, conversely, femininity and women’s work as inherently not professional. Fallen Women, Problem Girls emphasized “not only that women participated in the process but that the transition itself was shaped and structured by gender.”  The tense takeover of Florence Crittenden and Salvation Army maternity homes, formerly the purview of evangelical Christian women, provided Kunzel with an excellent case study of how trained social workers sought to “improve the efficiency” of these homes as a mechanism for actually improving their own social status as scientific professionals. By identifying an occurrence of competition among females for professional authority, Kunzel revised a narrative that formerly posited that men seized legitimacy as experts and marginalized women to charitable work.

3.  Daniel Walkowitz, Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity (1999)

Published a few years later, in 1999, Daniel Walkowitz’s history of social work accepted Kunzel’s argument that professionalization was gendered but expanded her thesis to examine social workers as laborers embodying a contradictory class status—professionals without autonomy. Working With Class demonstrated that one “symbolic strateg[y]” used by social workers was to call themselves professionals—yet, as an overwhelmingly female workforce, their dependence on their male supervisors and on their wages limited their autonomy and stained their collars blue. Walkowitz argued that this contradiction, plus the rise of consumerism, began divorcing class identity from work over the course of the twentieth century and increasingly rooted it in the home. Working With Class thus attempted to fill a void perceived by Walkowitz, that historians had under-theorized class in studies of twentieth-century work. Accordingly, Walkowitz emphasized that the most interesting feature of labor over the past one-hundred years has been the struggle of “blue collar” workers to enter the middle class while recognizing that professional, “white collar” work was increasingly routinized and dependent. To demonstrate and ground these arguments, Walkowitz contrasted the public New York City Department of Welfare with an exploration of several private agencies funded by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, including the Jewish Board of Guardians, Jewish Child Care Association, and Jewish Family Services. This focus on Jewish social workers highlighted the subjectivity and intersectionality of identity and showed how race, gender, and religious commitment were fundamental to the construction of these professionals’ class identity. 

Honorable mention: This book is not a history of social work, but it does include a chapter that address social work professionalization! Elizabeth Lunbeck's The Psychiatric Persuasion (1994) detailed how psychiatrists professionalized and developed their own medical subspecialty. In her second chapter, Lunbeck discussed how psychiatrists’ and social workers’ knowledge and power problematically overlapped—they shared expertise and thus could share professional authority. Psychiatrists created a hierarchy based on gender, wherein men were authoritative medical professionals and women were, well, neither authoritative nor medical professionals. To counter the psychiatrists’ challenge, social workers attempted to become more scientific, adopting educational and licensing standards. In the 1920s, they also began doing psychotherapy casework. Unfortunately, however, women were “doubly handicapped” from gaining the “professional’s distinctive occupational authority” by both their gender and their perceived lack of scientific methods or objectivity.

Are there any other great books on this topic that you recommend?