Does American social work have a progressive tradition?

Author:Murdach, Allison D.

The field of social work has long been identified with a focus on poverty, the welfare of children and families, unemployment, discrimination, and social justice. These areas are also among the constant concerns of progressivism, a political movement stemming from the early 20th century that, at various times, has dominated the political process in the United States during the past 100 years. Given the similarity of the concerns of social work and progressivism, it has been argued that because social work from its earliest days adopted a "tradition" of humanitarian social reform--called the "American tradition" by Cohen (1958)--the profession has essentially become identical with progressivism in all major respects. Furthermore, it has been asserted that this orientation has distinguished social work from other service professions by giving it a predominantly activist and hberal approach to professional activity (Bisno, 1952; Cohen, 1958; Howard, 1954). Because the issue of whether a progressive tradition actually exists in American social work has lately been questioned (Margolin, 1997), this article reexamines that issue from a broad historical perspective. In this way--considering social work and progressivism as interacting trends and not as competing interests--it is possible to gain a more comprehensive view of the subject and not end up merely with a description of a zero-sum game.


Various attempts have been made over the years to identify traditions in American social work. For example, social work authors in the 1950s attempted to identify social work with liberal and progressive traditions to claim that these also constituted an "American" tradition in social work (Cohen, 1958) that gave the profession uniquely progressive values and goals. Since that time, other voices in social work have denied these assertions and instead claimed divergent traditions for social work in this country. For examples, see Muncy's (1991) tracing of a "female dominion" in American reform and social work, Simon's (1994) efforts to delineate an "empowerment" tradition in American social work, and Martin and Martin's (2003) explication of a black helping tradition in social work in this country. In exploring the question of whether social work does indeed possess a progressive tradition, I follow the pattern of these more recent works by addressing three main questions:

  1. What is progressivism?

  2. Is there evidence that it has been manifested with any regularity in the history of the social work profession?

  3. Can it be shown that progressivism has been "passed on" to different generations of social workers in a form that constitutes a "tradition"?


    To explore the first question, I must review a little history. Progressivism is a political movement born in the early 20th century as a reaction to the excesses of the American industrialism and expansionism. It arose initially in the cities among the middle class, horrified by the growing poverty, political corruption, governmental indifference, corporate arrogance, blatant greed, and national imperialism spawned by the rapid industrial growth and mechanization in American society during the latter part of 19th century (Hofstadter, 1963; Simon, 1994). It is helpful to review briefly its announced goals as embodied in its first official nationwide statement, the Progressive Party platform of 1912 (Shannon, 1966) which was largely crafted by social workers and those sympathetic to social work values. The platform, titled "A Covenant with the People" (Shannon, 1966), stressed that the goal of the Progressive Party, "born of the nation's awakened sense of justice" (p. 124), was to "destroy [the] invisible government" of special interests established by the "old parties" and substitute the "rule of the people" by instituting such reforms as equal suffrage; limitation of campaign contributions; registration of all lobbyists; and reform of the courts, the judicial system, and civil service. It also proposed sweeping economic and social changes, such as federal enforcement of the right of all workers to organize, governmental intervention to protect natural resources and improve conservation, increased federal power to regulate business and commerce, the development of a national health plan, and federal efforts to improve agriculture to return to a more healthy rural life. On the international scene, the platform urged negotiation and arbitration in place of war to settle international disputes, and it called for a just and equitable immigration policy.

    In this sweeping program of reform, the words "government" and "governmental" always referred to the federal government, which became the ultimate source of positive authority for the Progressive Party. The above summary of the party's platform goals reflects the wide-ranging interests of progressivism in 1912, when it was in full flower in this country. The list also demonstrates the public-spirited and social activist values of progressivism, which continue to be emphasized today and which are referred to often in the discussion to follow.

    The progressive movement flourished strongly in the first four decades of the 20th century and has waxed and waned in intervening decades depending on economic and social conditions. The reoccurrence of its values in many social action groups and government programs in the 1960s was especially noteworthy (Dionne, 1997; Rabow, 1972). Although progressivism has not been an active, official political movement for over 50 years, and its complete demise as a movement has been frequently predicted (Filene, 1975), its ideals and acolytes appear to be constantly able to resurrect themselves on because of recurrent economic and social crises in this country. Lately, in the early 2000s, during the Bush administration, progressivism appeared to be thriving once more, and despite beginning national political life as a Republican splinter party, it appears now to have found a home within the bosom of the Democratic Party (Gore, 2007).


    Regarding this second question, it should be noted that social work has been involved with the progressive movement in various ways from its beginnings. The first major statement of the movement was Ida M. Tarbell's The History of the Standard Oil Company, originally published as a series of articles in McClure's magazine from 1902 to 1904 (Tarbell, 1969). The fact that it was a blistering expose and was written by a woman symbolizes two important features of the progressive movement, its "unmasking" style and the fact that women, many of whom were social workers, often assumed a dominant role in directing and developing progressive campaigns (Stromquist, 2006).

    Tarbell's work was quickly followed by the first major progressive social work expose, Robert Hunter's Poverty, published in 1904. Through relentless social investigation, Hunter attacked the view that poverty was a sign of moral failure. Poverty was also one of the first books by an American social work author to promote the use of sociological concepts and factual analysis in attacking social problems (Hunter, 1904/1965).

    However, though many progressives were social workers, not all social workers were progressives. Historians have noted that the social workers most identified with progressivism were found in the social settlement, community organization, and social reform segment of the...

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