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? 

Five Books I Recommend About: Washington Heights and Inwood

I devoted most of last week to reading other historians' research, which was a nice change of pace from trying to write my own. I thought it might be nice to share some of the books that have helped me make sense of events in the Jewish community of Washington Heights and Inwood after World War II. 

1. Steven M. Lowenstein, Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German-Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-1983, Its Structure and Culture (1989)

One of the most distinctive features of Washington Heights' during the 1940s through 1970s was the presence of a large German refugee community. These escapees from Nazism, who arrived en masse to Washington Heights between 1938-40, balanced a trio of identities: German, Jewish, and American. In Frankfurt on the Hudson, Lowenstein argues that the refugees' adjustment to America was of a dual nature. Like the wave of Eastern European Jews who immigrated between the 1890s and 1920s, these German Jews coped with being a Jewish minority among a Christian majority. In addition, they had to cope with being an ethnic minority within the Jewish community because their German customs differed from the Eastern European majority in Washington Heights. Lowenstein's description of how, exactly, these refugees adjusted to America is vivid and--if you skim over the more dense discussion of his surveys--would be of interest to a lay reader who wanted to learn more about this particular Jewish experience.

2. Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (2008)

This book focuses on another immigrant community in Washington Heights, those who migrated from the Dominican Republic to New York after 1965. Dominicans differed from the German-Jewish refugees because they had the option of returning to the Dominican Republic (and they often took advantage of opportunities to travel back and forth). Hoffnung-Garskof examines the influence of this transnational migration, and A Tale of Two Cities asks how the Dominican national identity evolved as a result of the regular movement of its citizens between the DR and the United States. This might be a difficult read for those who dislike social science theory, but Hoffnung-Garskof's book is well written and includes many engaging stories; a lay reader could skim the text for these excellent narrative nuggets.

3. Robert W. Snyder, Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City (2015)

This BRAND NEW publication traces the history of northern Manhattan from the New Deal to the present. Snyder argues that despite tense relations between the many ethnicities and races represented in the area, residents of Washington Heights and Inwood were able to bond together often enough over the biggest issues (housing, crime prevention, parks preservation) to sustain the neighborhoods through the urban crisis. As entire blocks of the Bronx burned just across the river, residents and activists in Washington Heights forged tenuous but effective coalitions to improve their schools, protect their blocks, and hold police accountable for their actions. Snyder writes like a journalist, and Crossing Broadway is almost entirely devoid of theory. It's the perfect book for any amateur historian of New York City.

4. Ira Katznelson, City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States (1981)

City Trenches is an essential book for anyone studying the history of Washington Heights. It is, however, a dense book, and I would recommend brushing up on Marxist theory before sitting down with it. Katznelson argues that instead of breaking down and reshaping urban politics, the minority-majority of Washington Heights was boxed into the traditional "trenches" of machine politics. Black and Latino resident-activists did not achieve their radical aims of integration and equality during the urban crisis because the city's political structure of community boards pushed their complaints down to the local level where big, systemic changes like housing reform and public school funding could not be resolved. The result was to force community activism into the mold of old-school ethnic politics, where each ethnic or racial group competed for the few gains possible within the scope of their limited power.

5. Eric C. Schneider, Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York (2001)

The title of this book is as colorful as the cast of young men and women that it studies. Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings is not exclusively about Washington Heights--there are also case studies about youth gangs in Hell's Kitchen and the Lower East Side--but one of the best chapters is about a brutal murder in Highbridge Park in 1957. Schneider's writing is very accessible and the book is narrative-driven, making it a great read for a general audience. 

If anyone has other recommendations, I would love to hear them!