Social work, also a social science, is a relatively new discipline that is still evolving. Various scholars have defined it in different terms. According to Llewellyn, Lorraine and Mercer (2008 p. 1), social work is a contested area that has evolved within the wider political, economic, policy and social context in the social sciences. Among the definitions for social work is, “social work is a socially constructed phenomenon...defined by the economic, social and cultural conditions in which it takes place”, (Llewellym, Agu & Mercer, 2008, p 1). This definition puts emphasis on the uniqueness of societies across the world; therefore each society has its form of social work taking place.
The uniqueness in societies has seen social work evolve in different forms found in different societies. This divergent forms of social work are seen in the way different societies defines social care within the domain of their cultures. Llewellyn (2008) insists that it is a necessity that social workers understand the social conditions and processes within the context of the society. This denotes that different social workers have different roles defined by the groups they are working in, but the underlying aspect is that, they all work for the improvement of the society.
The International Association of Schools of Social Work, 2001, defines the role of social work as the promotion of social change, problem solving in human relations, and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance their well being. This definition is closely linked to the earlier one as they are all centred on the improvement of the society in a defined way.
Beckett (2006, p 12) in his definition of social work also emphasizes on the uniqueness of society and the changing roles of the social worker dependent on the problems in the society. He emphasizes on the role of control and coordination as unique to social work so as to help the members of a society attain their potentials.
Social care, provided for by the government and other key agents of development such as non-governmental organizations, and the private sector is important for the well being of the society as a whole. Many people across the world cannot cater for their social care needs; hence rely on free social care services provided for by the government. This is all in the realm of social work.
Social work is closely linked to sociology with many people confusing the two terms (Llewellym, Agu & Mercer, 2008, p. 2). Social work has evolved within the discipline of sociology, but has ended up taking a role and significance of its own, such that it is considered as an independent discipline from sociology.
Much as sociology emphasizes on understanding the dynamics of society with an emphasis on social science research, social work tends to take a more practical approach in tackling the problems that arise within societies. The two disciplines borrow a lot from each other, especially in the theoretical aspects and research. Social work is dynamic and keeps evolving to take in to account the changing needs of society (Jorrin, 1973). As the problems being encountered by members of society change with the development of new technologies that have enabled people to be in contact at a level never seen before, social work has been changing to take this new development in to perspective.
Originally social work entailed tackling societal problems as they arose, such as substance abuse, child welfare and sexual abuse. This was done without much involvement of the society as a whole, but the social workers took it up on themselves to be the community watchdogs. Overtime time this has changed to facilitating the elimination of such problems with empowerment of the community to develop their capacity to tackle the problems without much assistance from outsiders (Beckett, 2006).
Social workers have changed their roles to that of facilitators where they work on the improvement of the societies’ ability to tackle social problems (Llewellym, Agu & Mercer, 2008, 2008). This is achieved through the use of research methods and statistics to collect relevant information that would help the social workers understand the dynamics of particular societies. The information gathered helps in the generation of techniques and tools necessary to alleviate the problems.
Social work needs to have relevance of sociological perspectives in understanding societal and structural influences on human behaviour (Llewellym, Agu & Mercer, 2008, p. 5). This enables the social worker to get better collaboration from the members of society. Every society has opinion leaders and leadership structures that influence the activities of the members. Such leaders can provide massive assistance to the social worker if they are adequately involved in decision making, and creating awareness in the society.
Social work tries to understand and explain the links between definition processes contributing to social differences; problems of inequality and differential needs (Llewellym, Agu & Mercer, 2008, p. 5). In tackling problems such as child abuse, social workers need to have an understanding of the way culture has contributed to the continuity of the vice over time, and whether there are any mechanisms to stop the continuity of the vice.
In so doing, social work plays a role of trying to formulate solutions from the structure of the society, while at the same time using the members of the society to tackle the problems they are facing. This will lead to a situation where cultural and social changes occur, a necessary condition in overcoming the problems once and for all.
Apart from problem solving, social work plays a fundamental role in human empowerment and liberation as stated in IASSW (2001). The human potential is unimaginable, but largely remains unfulfilled. This is as a result of lack of opportunities and knowledge on how to use this potential. Social work plays a pivotal role in the fulfilment of such potentials by engaging in empowerment campaigns that highlight the opportunities open to members of society.
Closely linked to empowerment and a major role of social work, is the role of creating cultural and social changes in societies. This is a necessity in societies who hold fatalistic beliefs such as female suicide and child abuse. Social work serves the role of being the agent of change in such societies, a slow and tedious task.
Beckett (2006), talks of the role of social workers as the control agents, this is the regulation and enforcement of behaviour change with the aim of protecting the vulnerable from being harmed or harming themselves. This distinguishes social work from other disciplines in the social sciences. Control agents provide mechanisms for members of society with guidelines on how to lead a fulfilling life. The presence of social workers acts as a deterrence to the people (Beckett, 2006 p. 12), who would otherwise have engaged in dangerous activities which could be harmful to others.
Social work also serves the role of coordination (Beckett, 2006, p. 13), especially when working in a multidisciplinary environment. Unlike care management which regulates the activities of a multi-disciplinary team, social work coordinates the activities of other professionals, so as to be in line with societal needs. This assists the society as a whole, as the team works with the objective of improving the condition of the society as a whole. Much as social work serves important roles in societies, it has been faced by a number of challenges that have hampered its roles of improving the human conditions, as discussed below.
Many people view social work as performing the role of care takers when the society faces a breakdown. There is some truth in this assumption, but it ends up leading people to view social workers as the solution to problems that could otherwise have been solved in the community. Beresford (2007) asserts that the over reliance on social work sometimes leads to a breakdown in the community, as people wait on the social workers to provide every form of social care.
This problem can be tackled through education and empowerment of the people, this is in order to change their worldview and reduce dependency on social care. This will create a sense of responsibility within societies, which is beneficial for the people in the long run. Some people attach stigma to getting assistance from social workers, where people look down upon members of society receiving social care from the government. This leads to a situation where people fail to air their grievances and bottle up their problems, resulting to a condition detrimental to society such as increase in suicide cases.
The belief that things need to be critical before the intervention of social workers is a widely held belief. Many people assume that social workers only intervene when there is an emergency, thus fear to be associated with the activities of social work, lest they be prejudiced by members of society.
Fatalistic beliefs held by various cultural groups have undermined the importance and effectiveness of social work (Beckett, 2006, p. 24). Such beliefs are usually hard to change and more often they act as inhibitors to growth and development. Social workers sometimes are viewed with suspicion and hatred, especially when they attempt to influence culture change where fatalistic beliefs have created obstacles to progress.
Social work is a relatively new field of study that has evolved within the social sciences and closely linked to sociology. The IASSW (2001) explains that social work utilizes theories of human behaviour and social systems to intervene at points where people interact with their environment. This is more fundamental when such interactions become injurious to the people or the environment.
Social work serves the roles of controlling and coordinating social care and other development programmes in close collaboration with experts from other disciplines, all with the aim of improving the human condition. The changing role of social work lies in the structure of the discipline, which views communities as unique entities with different problems and needs. Social work puts emphasis on the need to develop social care programmes with the unique needs of different people in mind. This ensures that each member’s need is taken in to account and does not lead to the exclusion of some members.
Social work differs from other social sciences as it has increasingly changed to accommodate the indigenous communities and the most vulnerable members of society in decision-making processes. This accommodation brings a sense of importance within the society and serves the role of empowerment.
It can be conclusively stated that social work puts an emphasis on people centred development, where the major aim is in empowering people to be their own actors of development. This is achieved through the enhancement of peoples’ capabilities and potentials by increasing their choices in life. This makes it an important discipline in the pursuit of development by many societies.