After completing this topic, students will be able to:

  • Describe the concepts of social work;
  • Understand why social work and social work are necessitated;
  •  Identify the different types of methods of social work;
  • Define the concepts of change agents and client groups and appreciate the role of health professionals as change agents;
  • Identify the different roles of health professionals as change agents;
  • Understand the principles of professional behaviors of change agents; and
  • Describe and internalize the fundamental guiding principles of social work and its relevance for health professionals.

What is Social Action?

As can be understood from the name itself, there are three fundamental points in the concept: first the existence of social action, then those who do the action and third those who are expected to benefit from the action.

Social action is described as an individual’s, group’s, or community’s effort within the framework of social philosophy and practices that aim at achieving social progress to modify social policies to improve social legislation, health and welfare services. From this description, we can understand that social action is an active, conscious, well thought effort.

This means any concerned individual, group or the community itself may involve in the task and process of social action to help other individuals, and groups who are facing a certain social problem or for whom a positive social change is necessary. A community can involve in social action to solve its own problems.

A more formal definition of social action is that it is the systematic, conscientious effort directed at influencing the basic social condition and policies, out of which arise the problems of social adjustment and mal-adjustment to which our services as social welfare are addressed ( Morales and Sheafor, 1997). Social action is part and parcel of social service. Both definitions make this fact clear: Social action is an effort. Whoever may make his effort, it should be systematic, programmed, and conscientious.

Methods of Social Work

Main Concern of Social Work

In the definition of social action, it has been pointed out that any social action effort should be carried out in the framework of social philosophy and social work. The concept of social work, here is worthy of definition.

Social work is a professional discipline (within the framework of social welfare programs and services) designed to assist people in enhancing the quality of their lives and their social relationships (Day 1996). The main concerns and objectives of social work are the following (Morales and Sheafor, op cit):

  • Service to individual in the performance of their various roles and relationships;
  • To give assistance to individuals, groups or communities when they face difficulties in making use of their capacities;
  • Avoiding negative factors that affect development;
  • To release potentialities in individuals, groups or communities and show the means to exploit those resources and potentialities; and
  • Development of capacity to manage one’s own life.

The justification for social work is that the complexity of modern life makes it difficult for the individual to develop his optimum potential, and social workers in their role as mediators, are increasingly called on to help people to contend with society’s manifold social problems (Suppes and Wells, 1996; Morales and Sheafor, op cit).

Basic Principles

The fundamental philosophy, which makes up the professional ethics of the field of social work involve the following principles:

  • A belief in the value and dignity of humans;
  • Respect to people;
  • Self-direction;
  • Accepting and appreciating the idea and belief system of people;
  • To work in collaboration with people, not to work for them;
  • Dedication to human dignity; and
  • Respect for and understanding of uniqueness of every human being and the values of client system. The main value here is that, social work agencies do not work for, but work with their client system (Morales and Sheafor, op cit).

Types of Methods of Social Work

The methods of social work are meant to be the ways, the means and techniques through which social workers and social work agencies carry out their task (activity). It is the how of social work. The most effective and known methods of social work are:

  1. Working with individuals
  2. Working with groups, and
  3. Working with communities, or community based work (Suppers and Wells, 1996).

Working with Individuals

This method of social work is called casework. Here, the individual is taken as a case. The principle here is to work with not for individuals. The purpose is to address to someone who is in socially strainful situation thereby overcoming the problem (Ibid). Before engaging in casework, the following points must be considered:

  • Knowledge of the science of human behavior and relations,
  • Knowledge of theories of helping people,
  • Types of problems individuals face,
  • Why people are in socially strainful situations, and
  • The role of social forces and the environment on the individual.

Group Work

Working with groups is called group work. It is the method (technique) of sponsoring and working with voluntary social groups such as families, clubs and gangs in order to develop socially desirable goals (qualities). The emphasis is treatment of the individual.

Unlike casework, group work focuses on the relation of the individual to the group and social growth of the group itself.

The aim is to give the individual satisfying experience through group relation and eventually enable him/her to make his/her own contributions to the life of the society.

Here, consideration is not only on the economic needs of the individuals, but other aspects such as affection, security, acceptance and other emotional and psychosocial needs of the individual. Some of the principles of group-work include:

  • A group worker has to be able to make the client system solve their problem;
  • Use of scientific methods like observation, analysis and fact-finding are essential;
  • Creating purposeful relationship between the group work agent and the group;
  • Conscious use of self: including self-knowledge, self discipline, etc, in relation to client system; and
  • Acceptance of people without necessarily accepting their behavior (Suppes and Wells, op cit).


Working with Communities

This method of social work is called community organization. It involves the process of creating and maintaining the progressive and more effective adjustment between community resources and community welfare needs. The aim is to make adjustment between the two, which is possible through the effort of professional workers on the one hand, and individuals and groups in the community on the other.

The most relevant method of social work is community organization in respect to the problem of developing countries. On the other hand, case group works are more applicable to the problems in developed societies.

This is because most of the social pathologies in industrialized societies are at individual and group levels (Morales and Sheafor, op cit).

The Limitations and Challenges of Social Welfare Programs

Some of the limitations and challenges of social work and welfare programs need to be mentioned here; putting the ideal philosophies and principles of social work programs alone does not suffice. Some of such limitations include the following (Personal communication, Dr Teketel Abebe, AAU, Dept of Sociology and Social Anthropology):

  • There is often the possibility of creating dependency syndrome on the part of the targets. The very term “client” may here imply some kind of dependence by affected people on service providers. Despite the main aim of social work is to help people help themselves, there may often be the risk of creating dependency syndrome.
  • There is what may be called “charity mentality”, on the part of those who provide social services. Thus it may be often the case that the more underlying problems that might have caused the problems are left unaddressed, while attention is given to the superficial issues, the “symptoms” of the problems. More structural issues such as the highly unbalanced distribution of power and resources are overlooked. Despite social work professionals often realize that the underlying socio-political structures are responsible for poverty and social problems, the attitude of blaming the victims often remained in the public mentality (Day, 1996).
  • Bureaucratization and elitism: This refers to the problem of the risk of original ideals of social work being undermined, while more attention is given to procedures, professionalism, standards, etc. Processionals my turn out elites, looking down upon the needy people.

Planned Social Change, Change Agents and Client Systems

Despite the fact that human society seems to stick to its traditions, beliefs, customs and cultural patterns, there is always an undercurrent of change taking place from time to time. Change is inevitable and universal; it may take place at the expense of human social life and progress. Planned social change is essentially a social action to bring about positive social change in the community; it is a conscientious, deliberate and purposeful action to achieve a determined change in the part of a client system (Suppes and Wells, op cit; Indrani, 1998).

Client systems are also called target groups. These are people who are in need of the guidance and professional assistance of change agents. More specifically, by client system/ target group, we mean an individual, group or community or any larger or smaller system that are helped by the professionals.

Change agents are persons who are trained to give guidance and assistance to the community, in need of desired planned social change. They are different forms of agents who work with (in) the community, helping the community and introducing new useful ideas and innovation for diffusion.

The Role of Change Agents and Professional Behavior

Change agents do not to impose their wish and decisions on the client system. The basic role is to help the client system help themselves. Change agents should play their roles as catalysts, assistants, coordinators, leaders, guides, etc Suppes and Wells, op cit; Let us see some roles of the change agents.

  • The role of enabler: change agents work with clients. They enable the people; supply the means and direction for the client to do something. They temporarily stay among the people to show them the means of doing things
  • The role of a catalyst: As catalysts, social workers stimulate the people. They act as enzymes, so to speak. When the people face lots of problems and fail to know which problem are the most serious ones, change agents may show them to select one or two problems which are easily handled by deploying community resources.

As regards professional behavior, change agents should not be guided by their own personal prejudices and beliefs, but by the professional ethics and standards.

And health professionals are no exception to this. If they intend to bring effective, desired and positive change in the lives of the client system, they should be guided by professional behavior. The health worker as change agents should take into account the following points

(Morales and Sheafor, op cit):

  • Learn the way the people think; in other words, understanding the thoughts of the people in the community before asking a community to assume new health habits;
  • Learn to break from ethnocentric ideas, assumptions, and views;
  • Learn to work patiently with the target groups; and
  • Know about the community’s culture, health views and beliefs, social structure and institutional arrangements, groupings and organization.


Social action and social work are related concepts. They refer to any action or work that aims at bringing about positive, desirable change in the lives of people.

Individuals, social groups or communities may find themselves in any kind of strainful, psychosocially difficult circumstances, and affected by forces beyond their capacity. They are called client systems. Those who make any kind of systematized and conscientious efforts to help the clients help themselves are called change agents.

Change agents should be guided by the fundamental guiding principles of the methods of social action or social work. Whether the change agents work with an individual person, i.e., casework, a social group, i.e., group work, or community, i.e., community organization, they have to take into account the basic working principles and approaches. In any case change agents should play their roles as catalysts, leaders, organizers, researchers, guides, counselors and brokers; and they should carry out their duties in ethically and professionally appropriate ways. They should also be equipped with appropriate knowledge of relevant theories, and be sensitive to the client systems culture, social or community situations, institutional arrangements, ecology, and other dimensions.


  1. Explain the term social action?
  2. Define the concept of social work and discuss its fundamental guiding philosophies. Discuss the relevance of these principles in your future professional practice as a health worker.
  3. Mention the three methods of social work. Which of the methods of social work is more relevant to the conditions of developing countries? Why? Which one of them is more suited to the conditions of developed societies? Why?
  4. Define the term change agent. What kind of changes are the health professionals expected to bring about in the lives of communities? Discuss.
  5. Who are client groups?
  6. Mention and discuss the key roles of health professionals as change agents.
  7. Discuss the appropriate professional behavior of health workers.
  8. Discuss the basic principles of casework as one of methods of social work.