Abramowitz Social Work and Social

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Social Work and Social Reform:
An Arena of Struggle
Mimi Abramovitz
The profession of social work has the potential both to meet individual needs and to engage in social change. However, the profession’s position between the individual and society often forces practitioners to choose between adjusting people and programs to circumstances or challenging the status quo. The twin pressures of containment and change have made social work an arena of struggle since its origins in the late 19th century. In honor of social work’s centennial, this article examines the sources of the profession’s prochange mandate and the structural factors that limit social work’s ability to pledge itself to this stance permanently and recommends some steps social workers can take to recommit the profession to greater activism. Special attention is given to documenting the long but largely ignored history of social work activism.
Key words: activism; history; professionalism; social reform; social work

T

he twin pressures of containment and change have plagued social work since its origins in the late 19th century. The profession can boast of a long history of progressive activism directed to individual and social change. At the same time, observers within and outside social work have often accused the profession of serving as a handmaiden of the status quo. This contradiction has made the social work profession a site of ongoing struggle. Although often difficult, the battles the profession has endured have ensured that social work practice with individuals, families, groups, and communities is neither handed down from above nor written in stone. Rather, the design of social work as we know it reflects internal and external political struggles. The presence of

CCC Code: 0037-8046/98 $3.00 © 1998
National Association of Social Workers, Inc.

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