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«of Social Work & Social Welfare Social is Fundamental: Introduction and Context for Grand Challenges for Social Work Social Is Fundamental: ...»

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of Social Work & Social Welfare

Social is Fundamental:

Introduction and Context for Grand Challenges for Social Work

Social Is Fundamental:

Introduction and Context for

Grand Challenges for Social Work

Michael Sherraden

Washington University in St. Louis

Richard P. Barth

University of Maryland

John Brekke

University of Southern California

Mark W. Fraser

University of North Carolina

Ron Manderscheid

National Association of County Behavioral Health & Developmental Disability Directors Deborah K. Padgett New York University Working Paper No. 1 January 2015 American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare aaswsw.org The Grand Challenges for Social Work are designed to focus a world of thought and action on the most compelling and critical social issues of our day. Each grand challenge is a broad but discrete concept where social work expertise and leadership can be brought to bear on bold new ideas, scientific exploration and surprising innovations.

We invite you to review the following challenges with the goal of providing greater clarity, utility and meaning to this roadmap for lifting up the lives of individuals, families and communities struggling with the most fundamental requirements for social justice and human existence.

The Grand Challenges for Social Work include the following:

  Ensure healthy development of all youth Build financial capability for all   Close the health gap Harness technology for social good   Stop family violence Create social responses to a changing  environment Eradicate social isolation

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What are the nation’s major social challenges? The purpose of the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative is to chart an agenda for social innovation in the 21st century. To lay the groundwork, we begin by introducing the social work profession and assessing the current social context.


Since its start more than a hundred years ago, social work has been an interdisciplinary profession. Its intellectual bases have drawn from public finance, social psychology, urban sociology, and welfare economics as much as from philanthropy and advocacy for child saving, suffrage, civil rights, and community development. To understand social work is to understand the discovery of innovative methods for addressing challenges, at every level, by designing, testing, and implementing programs and policies that promote human protection, dignity, and social justice.

Social work has matured from a set of family and community practices to an evidence-based profession, relying on systemic data, though with continuing commitment to human decency and social justice. Founded in part on the traditions of critical scholarship and empirical investigation, social work now operates as applied social science. Social work builds knowledge for positive change in human lives and social conditions (Brekke, 2012). The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare is organizing the Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative in order to apply rigorous research evidence to critical social issues (Barth et al., 2013; Uehara et al., 2013).

Social work and scientific research have not always been conjoined; however, social work has achieved its greatest triumphs at the nexus of science and social action. The social sciences emerged from the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, which pointed to the use of systematic inquiry for the purpose of achieving a better world, and social work is very much a product of this tradition (Soydan, 2012). For social work, the scientific approach assumes that

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society can be studied and understood. Emphasis on application assumes that the combination of systematic knowledge and purposeful effort can lead to improvements in social conditions.

In this regard, both the past “grand accomplishments” and future “grand challenges” in social work emphasize inquiry, innovation, testing, and application. The overall strategy emphasizes evidence and innovation in seeking creative and effective means for dealing with social problems and opportunities.

Innovation occurs in the context of core social work values and commitments. These core values are social justice, social inclusion, social development, and social well-being. These reflect a deep commitment to social caring and social development, and can be simply translated into decency, fairness, participation, and growth.

For social work, values are reasons for action. Social work aims for innovation and change in social and economic conditions so that people, especially the most vulnerable people, can lead more fulfilling and productive lives.

In social work, people are seen in context. The person-in-environment perspective of social work recognizes the full range of change potential for persons, relationships, families, communities, organizations, social institutions, and governments at all levels (Gordon, 1969). At the heart of social work is the worth, dignity, and agency of the individual. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual orientation, all peoples are seen as imbued the capacity to achieve. When that capacity is conditioned, the full range of social, environmental, and geo-political constraints are considered. Accordingly, change strategies occur across the spectrum of social work practice, including individual and family casework, delivery of social services, group organizing and problem solving, promotion of human rights and social advocacy, community development, and social policy.

As in the past, social work scholars will ask daring and sometimes unpopular questions. Being provocative without positive change has little merit, but critical inquiry is valuable inasmuch as it leads to innovations that have meaningful applications and positive impacts on social and health conditions.

In social work, human differences are valued. A successful society finds ways not only to tolerate and accommodate differences, but also to take creative advantage of the range of human differences in backgrounds, outlooks, practices, and potential. From the outset, social work has embraced differences as a resource from which effective solutions to complex problems may arise.

A core concept in social work is capabilities (Nussbaum & Sen, 1993). Grand Challenges in Social Work is guided by a vision of a world where people develop their capabilities to be and do to the fullest extent across the life course.

Grand Challenges in Social Work addresses core areas of human well-being and social environment. These include: identity and recognition, love and nurturing, nutrition, shelter,

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family responsiveness, social protections, public health, medical care, education, opportunities for life experiences, information, employment, economic resources, financial services, systems for safety and justice, meaningful participation in society, and personal fulfillment.

How can social work “intervene” successfully in these major areas? For the most part, successful innovations require substantial institutional reforms that create positive change. Yet, following this logic, the Enlightenment and modern science—including the applied social sciences—may have been too optimistic. To be sure, science and technology have created the wonderments of modern “civilization,” but social stability and development remain fragile. We humans are very clever in creating technologies with massive impacts. However, our social and technological institutions are not always equipped to deal with large-scale and long-term conditions such as global warming, nuclear weapons proliferation, mass urbanization, aging societies, and rising inequality. We are just beginning, for example, to understand the emergence of older adulthood and the challenges it presents for families, health care, housing, and transportation, as well as defining new means for healthy older populations to contribute to society. If we are to face these challenges successfully, science is among the best strategies we have.

Turning now to social context, we start by understanding the basic nature of human beings, so that we can build on the best strengths we have.

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Although some modern societies, including the United States, have become highly individualistic, the long record of human biological and cultural evolution, and the progress of civilization, is not a story of accomplishments of individuals. It is a story of working together.

Humans are highly social animals. Although the roots of sociality are found in non-human primates, it is humans who developed social interaction to evolutionary advantage (Enfield & Levinson, 2006). The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, in The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), surveys evolutionary development of social behavior and concludes that social behavior is the key to exceptional progress among animal species. The dominant terrestrial species among invertebrates are the social insects (especially ants), and among vertebrates, human beings.

Wilson traces the series of adaptations that led over some three million years to advanced sociality among humans. Walking, grasping, hunting in groups, use of fire, campsite organization and protection, and division of responsibilities contributed to increased interdependence and social capacity among small groups of early humans.

Working Paper


Interactions among small human groups led to abilities to “read” the intentions of strangers, make judgments regarding likely future behavior, and collaborate toward shared goals.

Eventually these complex social adaptations led to the emergence of what Wilson singles out as the basis of human advancement: sociality (see also Herman et al., 2007). There is reason to believe that social behavior is highly adaptive (Runciman et al., 1996; Shaller et al., 2007).

Sociality led to language and language in turn led to advanced cognition. It is advanced cognition that makes humans most distinctive among all animal species. The ability to encode and interpret cues in the social and physical environment is rooted in sociality. The result is today’s “epigenetic” tendencies of humans to work together. Although this epigenetic human nature plays out in many different forms, it is always highly social.

The emergence of human sociality led, over very long periods of time, to the creation of more elaborate, large-scale social institutions (Ostrom, 2000; Powers & Lehmann, 2013). Today these institutions make up the dazzling fabric of social organization that we think of as civilization. To be sure, modern civilization has its plusses and minuses, but it is inarguably a remarkable social achievement.

Thus, major human advancements are not simply technological and economic, they are more fundamentally social. Human achievements have depended on massive social innovations, for

example in:

 Living together peacefully  Shaping and protecting a permanent settlement  Exploring unknown territory  Generating visual art, music, and shared stories  Specializing in tasks and functions within a group  Organizing work and production of all kinds  Distributing supplies, resources, and goods  Developing systems of contracting, recording, and accounting  Defining guidelines for conduct, and implementing rule of law  Investigating, recording, and using knowledge  Passing knowledge across generations and geographies  Governing fairly and effectively  Resolving conflicts and promoting cooperation among groups  Establishing systems of defense and security  Inventing systems of diplomacy  Protecting health and well being This is a stunning list of human social achievements, though we take so much of it for granted.

It is important to note that, in the long story of human history, massive social innovations have created conditions that make technological and economic advancements possible. It is not the other way around.

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The social matters. Humans are made to work together. This is how we have evolved—both biologically and culturally—and how we have succeeded. What lessons can we gather from the experiences of “the social” in human existence?

Though social innovations are often taken for granted, they are not innate or automatic. To be sure, humans are deeply social, but social innovations nevertheless have to be created and put into practice. In other words, social innovations require work. This social work includes designing and testing, and then moving successful models into widespread application.

Social innovations do not arise easily or even naturally—they have to be continually created and recreated by human invention and cultural evolution. In the past, this has occurred largely through trial and error. Fortunately, today we have the tools of systematic testing and scientific assessment, which enable us to be more efficient than trial and error.

Understanding this profoundly social context for human success is a central tenet of the profession of social work and the designing of grand challenges. Spurring social progress is never automatic. Indeed, it requires enormous effort. Again we arrive at the core theme of Grand Challenges in Social Work: The social requires work. No other profession addresses social conditions and social innovations as directly as social work.

None of this is ever “settled” and completed. As conditions change, social work must adapt to new challenges. Social work faces challenging circumstances in the world today. We live in an age of rapid development and major transitions. Successful social innovations—after testing and documenting—will be very much needed and welcomed.


The Grand Challenges in Social Work project focuses on social issues in a rapidly changing world. Social work in the coming years must understand basic conditions and challenges in order to create and test responsive innovations. This “grand context” includes several key themes. We divide these into large global trends and conditions, and specific areas of the U.S. context. First

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