Historical Developments in Social Group Work

Settlement Houses

Group work was originally very activity oriented, that is the idea that by having people involved in healthy, constructive activities, settlement house workers could provide beneficial environmental influences for people living in poverty.  These processes included educational, recreational, socialization, and community involvement activities.  In addition to the benefits of content, clients were helped by feeling more integrated into their communities, better able to work with other people in similar situations, and more confident about changing things in their environment that needed to be changed to improve their lives.  “The focus was on promoting the well-being of individual members through acceptance, companionship, and solidarity, while at the same time promoting democratic participation, social justice, and social action in civic, industrial, and social institutions.”  (Toseland and Rivas, p. 44-45)

The YMCA, YWCA, and Similar Organizations

The text discusses the importance of the YMCA movement in the development of social work with groups.  There have been many other organizations, the YWCA, Girl and Boy Scouts, 4-H, and educational organizations, that recognized that group activities can be helpful in teaching children and adolescents prosocial and constructive behavior.  These approaches were also generally considered to be preventative and members are less apt to be considered clients.  For these and other reasons, these processes were less likely to stigmatize service recipients and were more likely to be accepted by a wide range of people, especially the children and youths for which most of these programs were designed.  This type of group work has often been referred to as club work, although this term is less frequently used today.

Contributions of Other Professions 

Many of the ideas that have influenced social group work have come from other professions, especially medicine and psychology.  Dr. Pratt, a physician, used groups with TB patients as early as 1905.  Psychologists and other psychotherapists have contributed many ideas over the years that have been used by social workers in their practice with groups, especially therapy groups.  As opposed to the preventive and activity-oriented groups of settlement houses and clubs, these groups were generally thought of as treatment-oriented.  Many relied heavily on discussion, but other activities that would lead to discussion or substitute for it, such as art and dance therapies, developed from the idea that people with problems could benefit from cathartic experiences in a group context.

Recent Developments

Social group work is very common in a wide variety of forms in current social work practice.  It continues to draw ideas from other helping professions and has benefited from the creativity and experience of social workers in many different settings.  One of the major incentives for group work is its cost effectiveness:  it is more efficient for a professional to work with several clients than with one at a time.  In the present environment of accountability and limited resources, such an advantage is important and many agencies have increased their use of group work because of it.  It is also important to understand that, as we have learned more about group processes, it has become clear that some things can be done more effectively, as well as more efficiently, with groups.