History of Social Work – Theoretical Framework

Professional social work practice has undergone various transformations over the years marked by the development of various theoretical frameworks to guide practice. Although such transformation has resulted in a clinically oriented practice, the mainstay of social work remains within the pursuit of social justice for vulnerable populations such as the poor (Jacobson, 2001). In respect to this mission of ensuring social justice, John Rawl’s 1971 publication – A Theory of Justice – offers the basic theoretical underpinnings for social justice (cited in Morris, 2002, p. 365). Rawl’s perspective, unlike its predecessor perspective that equated social justice with utilitarian tenets, argued for fairness as the measure of social justice (Morris, 2002). According to such fairness perspective, a just society was not supposed “to bring harm to some of its citizens even if it could be justified by benefitting the greatest number in society” (Morris, 2002, p. 366). Recognizing that man acts primarily from self-interest, Rawl’s perspective established two tenets of social justice – that each person is entitled to an equal right to maximum liberty and, secondly, that “social primary goods” should be distributed in a fair systematic method (Morris, 2002, p. 366). In case such a distribution was not achieved, Rawl argued that societal institutions ought to be compelled to establish an environment where the least advantaged reap the greatest benefits of the social primary goods and a fair equality of opportunity is developed (as cited in Morris, 2002, p. 366).

Unlike social primary goods, aspects such as health, intelligence and imagination, according to Rawl, are “natural goods”, which are beyond the control of societal forces hence not a subject for which social justice may be sought (Morris, 2002). Expounding on Rawl’s recognition of self-respect as a social primary good, other scholars (e.g. Wakefield) argued psychological goods to constitute a social benefit that would require a fair distribution, for justice to prevail in society (Morris, 2002). Such arguments and a second mission of social justice not evident in Rawl’s work – enhancing human well-being (Morris, 2002) – formed the basis for a clinically oriented social work practice. Subsequently, clinically oriented social work has been advanced to promote an individual’s self-actualization, which complements the political practice that seeks to promote such self-actualization of every human being (Gill, 1979, as cited in Morris, 2002, p. 367). Subsequent theoretical frameworks of social justice such as the capabilities framework (Morris, 2002), take cognizance of such micro and macro aspects of social work practice.

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