European and North American notions of helping - or managing - poor and marginalised people have deep roots in religious texts and traditions which continue to influence contemporary social policy and social work practice in ways which many do not realise.
Bringing together interdisciplinary scholarship, Mark Henrickson argues that it is essential to understand and critique social work’s origins in order to work out what to retain and what must change if we are to achieve the vision of a truly global profession.
Addressing current debates in international social work about social justice, professionalisation, and the legacy of colonisation, this thought-provoking book will allow practitioners and scholars to consider and create a global future for social work.
The chapter sets out the scope and argument of the book that the origins of contemporary social work are found in Judaeo-Christian scriptures, Christian theologies of the 4th century CE, and Reformation Calvinism. Modern constructions of poor and marginalised persons remain remarkably consistent with these historical roots, even though modern social workers may understand themselves as non-religious. A fundamental tension exists between social control, which ensures social stability, and social care, which benefits the individual. Charles Taylor’s notion of the evolution of the social imaginary – the set of values, beliefs, laws, institutions, and symbols which shape the way we think of our society – from a vertical to a horizontal one, has been instrumental in the way the poor have been conceptualised. The scope of the book considers how human beings have addressed inequalities, the poor and vulnerabilised persons throughout history. Understanding these roots will enable social workers to consider if and how they will create a global future.
This chapter covers the period 4500 BCE to 300 CE. The royal obligation to protect the poor, the widow, and the orphan existed from the 4th millennium in the ancient Near East, Asia Minor, and Egypt. This expectation appears in the scriptures of the nomadic and monotheistic Hebrew people, who added ‘the stranger’ (or alien) to the groups that should be protected. These Hebrew scriptures formed the context for Christian scriptures which were codified in the 4th century CE. Early Christians held property in common and esteemed charity, good works, and caring for widows and orphans in their communities. These values are recorded in the gospels and epistles of what became the New Testament. A verse from one of these epistles (2 Thess. 3:10) reads ‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’. While this verse was intended to inspire people to continue to live their usual lives until the unpredictable return of Jesus, it became a way to differentiate the worthy from the unworthy poor for the next 2000 years.
This chapter covers the period from the 4th to the early 12th centuries CE. Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire in 324 and established Byzantium (later Constantinople) as his capital. He granted the church the right to collect donations and to be financially independent. In return, drawing on the traditional Greek and Roman civic habit of philanthropy, he gave the church the responsibility of caring for the poor. The church not only responded to the needs of the impoverished but it also invented a category of the poor who had never before existed as a distinct social class. Constantine expected that the church would keep the poor out of sight of the wealthy by caring for them in hospitals, orphanages, and poor houses. The church became an agent of state control of the poor. The Cappadocians theologised wealth, not poverty, as a problem. Charitable giving by the wealthy to the poor through the church was encouraged. Ambrose and Augustine promoted the distinction between worthy and unworthy poor, codified in the 12th century Decretum Gratiani. As the empire declined, the church’s power increased. From 622 CE Islam with its central pillar of zakāt (almsgiving) emerged and spread throughout Arab nations.
This chapter includes the Middle Ages through the Reformation, the 12th to the mid-16th centuries. It considers Gratian’s Decretum (ca. 1140) and two pivotal disasters of the 14th century, the Great Famine and Great Plague. The Great Famine (1315–17 CE) resulted in the deaths of millions in Europe. The Great Plague (1347–53) resulted in an estimated 25–200 million more deaths throughout Europe and Asia. These catastrophes impaired the church’s ability to provide care to the poor, and its authority waned. Civic authorities provided resources but retained distribution through churches and monasteries. Labour shortages resulted in legislation to stabilise population movements and wages; these were the first of the English and continental poor laws. The reformers Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Arminius challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s theology and authority and founded what became known as Protestantism on the continent and in England. The chapter concludes with careful consideration of the impact of the different reformers on Christian theologies of salvation, grace, work, and the poor. Calvin in particular gave new life to the idea that work demonstrated the worth of the individual, and wealth was evidence of God’s blessing. Wealth was no longer problematised but poverty was.
During the 16th to 18th centuries, responses to the poor included the highly centralised system established by the English Poor Laws administered by local parishes; the fragmented system of the Dutch Republic that was highly locally responsive; and the highly centralised system of post-revolutionary France that was impractical to administer in the provinces. Roman Catholic regions retained parochial systems of social care. As the social imaginary shifted from a vertical to a more horizontal one, post-Enlightenment liberal humanist states encouraged the development of private capital, colonisation, global exploitation, slavery, and Christian missionisation throughout South and East Asia, the Pacific, and the so-called New World through the British and Dutch East India companies. Liberal humanist states and their colonial (and post-colonial) offspring retained the Constantinian measures that promote social stability and harmony, social control, state care, and protection of the powerless (such as children and the very old). However, civic theologies also retained the reformed churches’ understanding that anyone who does not work should not eat, and that every person must conform to state-prescribed values (which are largely the values of the reformed churches) in order to receive assistance.
The Industrial Revolution, capitalism, profit, and wage labour had far-reaching effects throughout Britain, Europe, and America. In the UK, the Old Poor Law could no longer respond to the labouring poor or protect scarce state resources. The New Poor Law of 1834 retained the Calvinist assumption that the poor were responsible for their own poverty and for working their way out of it. The 1834 reform was very punitive, and many theological influences shaped responses to it. These included Evangelicalism and its emphasis on personal regeneration, Christian Socialism, the Tractarians and Broad Church factions, and the British Idealists. These influences informed the Charity Organisation Society and the Settlement House movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Evangelicals were prominent in many social reforms including the abolition of the slave trade; Christian Socialists took up a number of social policy reforms. Broad Church women and clergy were deeply critical of the New Poor Law, the atomised responses of Evangelicals and Tractarians, and private charity. They developed community-level interventions that systematised poor relief. On both sides of the Atlantic, Charity Organisation Societies and settlement houses attempted to fill in the gaps left by Calvinist-informed public policies of poor relief.
Social welfare reforms and the social imaginary of responses to the poor effectively came full circle during the 20th century. Calvinist-informed classical liberalism gave way to the welfare state in the UK and an increased role for government assistance in the US. During the reconstruction of the UK following the Second World War, the welfare state took over the functions of social assistance in much the same way as it had throughout Europe after the Great Plague of 1347–50; the Established (Anglican) Church formally acknowledged that reality in 1948 and ended the Constantinian contract. In the US, psychiatric social work came to dominate. The New Deal increased the role of the state in caring for the aged, the infirm, and employed the unemployed. Neoliberalism resulted in a civic retheologising of social assistance throughout most Western liberal economies, including Latin American nations. Order was maintained by enforcing conformity to dominant social values up to and including incarceration. As poor relief was taken up by secular authorities after the Great Plague of the mid-14th century, so the responsibility for establishing and maintaining social control was taken up by states who used the power of poor relief to enforce approved morals and behaviour.
This chapter addresses the question of whether social work is a profession or something else. It establishes a conservative list of attributes of a profession that includes a clearly defined and altruistic purpose, transmissible theoretical knowledge, specialised skills or techniques, a common values base and ethical code, individual responsibility and autonomy in decision-making, self-governing association, and public and political recognition as a distinct professional group. Social work currently meets some of these criteria in some places in the world, but nowhere currently meets all of the criteria. Social work must consider to what extent it wishes to act in a social control function on behalf of the state. Social workers must decide whether establishing social work as a global profession is important. The chapter proposes four possible ways forward.
Social care has been a common feature of societies around the world for millennia. Each society and culture has developed ways of working with the poor, the sick, and the marginalised largely shaped by its own religious, spiritual, or cultural beliefs. This chapter briefly considers social care in Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Shintō, indigenous African, and other indigenous cultures. In most of the world, relational values dominate, although Western values of individualism have been imposed in many of these cultures through a history of trade, colonisation, and missionisation. One of the challenges to Western social work is to become aware of how profoundly its values have been shaped by Christian values and Western epistemologies. That awareness can help shape genuine respect for other cultural assumptions and approaches. Contemporary global discussions about a global future for social work will not be about social care and social work as much as they will be about the fundamental beliefs and values of each culture and finding common ground.