It is perhaps not surprising that the term social work, combining the rich ambiguity of ‘social’ with the misleading and somewhat deterrent simplicity of ‘work’, has undergone considerable change in usage since it first appeared in England towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was then used to describe a perspective applicable from a number of different occupations rather than to announce the arrival of a particular new occupation. This perspective derived from the serious reconsideration of the role of citizen, and it can be illustrated from the dedication of a book entitled The Spirit of Social Work (Devine 1911) to
social workers, that is to say, to every man and woman, who, in any relation of life, professional, industrial, political, educational or domestic; whether on salary or as a volunteer; whether on his own individual account or as a part of an organized movement, is working consciously, according to his light intelligently and according to his strength persistently, for the promotion of the common welfare.
(The fact that Devine was an American indicates the speed with which social work was exported to the USA and, thence, eventually to many other societies, developed and developing.)
This broadly brushed backcloth has been more or less evident in the twentieth century as social workers have attempted to claim a role that is specialized and professional. It is perhaps one reason why an agreed and satisfactory definition of social work is not yet forthcoming. Other features of social work activity have also contributed to this lack of agreement about the nature of social work. The broad purposes of social work have become more ambiguous as social workers increasingly became state employees rather than volunteers or paid workers in non-statutory agencies. Sometimes public appreciation of social work has been blunted by the large claims made on behalf of social workers (for instance, that social work can cure a considerable...