It’s a common Introduction to Social Work question. But, I am not sure that all educators provide the most complete answer. Most helping professions include a person-in-environment perspective. Holistic assessment including biological, psychological, social, and spiritual considerations actually began in medical care, not social work. So, What’s the difference between social work and other helping professions?
“We don’t just give them a fish. We teach them how to fish.” A student said proudly when asked.
“Yes, that’s coping,” I responded. “But, psychologists do that. Social workers teach her how to manage fisheries. The current generation can ensure that the next generation has an expanded choice to fish, to manage fishermen, or to be educators, or musicians or whatever.”
It’s actually role theory suggesting expectations and predicting outcomes at the level of coping and the level of adaptation. Coping is a return to homeostasis characterized by a decrease in negative stress and anxiety about what may happen in the future. Adaptation is a new normal of functioning characterized by intentional influence and a level of control on future events.
The social worker works with clients to achieve coping. But, social work is also about building self-sufficiency and empowering the client toward new levels of functioning. This adaptation returns the natural progression to the client, to see themselves as potential helpers beyond their current need for help. Not just techniques to deal with life as it comes, but the opportunity to plan and orchestrate the life that they desire.
The Difference: SW & Managing Fisheries
Adaptation is the goal, not just because of the self-sufficiency of the client. It is also the understanding of the client as an agent navigating through systems. The social work difference is that we impact the agent’s outcomes by intentional work with the agent (client), mapping and configuring of the systems through institutional change, and structuring of the macro system through environmental practice. As if that is not enough, we also train the client to do this work themselves, within their systems of influence. This is what is meant by “managing fisheries.”
Building Fish Markets
The institutional change and the environmental practice often suffers both in social work education and in social work practice. The operational division of macro practice in this way is only recently gaining traction. Following is what this evolution in understanding enables:
- Prediction and Influence beyond Assessment & Intervention. Assessment and intervention are the basics of social work intervention. Understanding of operational research and agent-based modeling enables prediction of client behavior and outcomes. With this information and the ability to construct a control system, client behavior can be influenced toward sustainable choices.
- Modeling of Client-Level Decision-Making. Choice behavior results from decision making based on motivation, ability, and trigger. Add trauma, access, resilience, and attribution to that equation, and you have a fairly complete model of client sense-making.
- Intentional Institutional Policy Making. Business are built to make money. Social welfare institutions are built to make change. This evolved macro practice ensures that institutions incorporate structures for sustainability while remaining on the target mission.
- Formative Evaluation and Update of Operations. Real-time information is important, but useless by definition if no mechanism exists to make changes in the current processes correcting for new circumstances and information.
- Multi-systemic Assessment including Interactive Effects. Information from multiple systems at multiple levels is useful. But, information on the interactions between systems are needed to make predictions about what a change or intervention can cause.
- Efficiencies born out of Data-based Decision-Making. Evolve macro practice based on operational research requires the system to forever be either increasing, decreasing, or satisficing as its objective function. This means that the control system is always improving its performance. In social services, this means that the program and organization are always improving service to clients.
Other professions will suggest that they can bring insight to this unique social work approach to practice. They will have less success confirming that this is taught at the foundational level of education. Social work is the only profession that mandates and accredits generalist practice in this way at the baccalaureate level. Though some social work professionals are not as aware and continue to divide the clinical, case management, group, and community functions of social work, these elements together is what makes the work, social work. If your client needs fish, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that they can’t do much else until the fish need is met. But understand that teaching your client to fish is just the beginning when you are a social worker.