A historical account of the Society for Social Work and Research: presidential perspectives on advances in research infrastructure.

Author:Williams, Janet B.W.
Position:Society for Social Work and Research - Organization overview

The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) was founded in 1994 to provide a meeting ground and support organization for individual social workers who engage in research. Over its first 14 years, SSWR has grown from a modest-sized organization that hosted an initial conference to a large and influential force that sponsors a wildly successful yearly conference. SSWR's annual conference now showcases a portfolio of awards, including a travel scholarship for a doctoral student, a named lecture, and a very competitive abstract submission process. Funding for research by social workers has grown over the years, and SSWR, in association with the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR), has become a regular provider of educational opportunities about funding sources. This article presents perspectives from the first seven presidents of the organization, who describe the growing richness and diversity of SSWR's membership and projects and the increasing visibility of research conducted by social workers.

KEY WORDS: infrastructure; organization; research; SSWR


The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) was founded as a membership organization in 1994 to support social workers interested in research. To preserve the history of SSWR, this article presents sections contributed by the first seven presidents, each describing, often from a personal point of view, how their efforts helped to build the organization and to contribute to the current research infrastructure in social work.


Janet B. W. Williams, Founding President, 1994-1996

It was 1992. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)Task Force Report on Social Work Research (1991) had just been presented to the National Advisory Mental Health Council of NIMH. The report clearly acknowledged the significance of social work research by recognizing the breadth of critical problems with which social work deals and the increasing need for all human services to demonstrate the effectiveness of the services they provide. This report provided the stimulus and led to the funding that supported the establishment in 1992 of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR). IASWR was created by five leading social work organizations: Baccalaureate Program Directors (BPD), National Association of Deans and Directors (NADD), Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education (GADE), Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and NASW.

SSWR was conceived in direct response to the NIMH Task Force Report conclusion that "[t]hroughout the profession there is insufficient organizational support for research development." As a research social worker who was not embedded in a school of social work, I had always felt somewhat professionally isolated and hungry for interaction with nay social work research colleagues. As a faculty member in a medical school department of psychiatry, I frequently attended conferences and meetings of research-oriented groups in psychiatry but knew of no similar groups in social work. Therefore, at a psychiatry research meeting shortly after the Task Force Report was issued, I discussed these thoughts with Dr. Alan Leshner, at the time the director of the National Institute on DrugAbuse (NIDA). He agreed to support the founding of such a group and to contribute to its first conference.

In 1992, at an NIMH-sponsored conference in Washington, DC ("Building Social Work Knowledge for Effective Mental Health Services and Policies"), I presented a plan for a new membership organization that would provide social work researchers with a base: the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWFZ). At that conference, Betsy Vourlekis also presented a report on the development of the new IASWR, as she had been appointed head of the implementation committee. At the conclusion of the conference, Betsy approached me and asked if I would delay the initiation of efforts to establish a membership group until the new organizationally based IASWR was firmly off the ground. Because the names and missions of the two groups were so similar, she was concerned that there would be misunderstanding about the very different natures of the two groups, which could interfere with fundraising for IASWR and membership commitment for SSWR. I agreed.

Because of this false start, the actual founding of SSWR did not get underway until 1993, when all the major social work groups had pledged support for IASWR. I spent the interim time developing mailing lists of social work researchers, culled from journal articles and other membership groups. Letters went out inviting charter members in early 1994, and by July of that year SSWR was launched.

A group of leaders in the field was constituted as the first board, and I was elected founding president (by anonymous ballot). In the next year, this group agreed on a constitution with bylaws and incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) organization. I solicited members by sending hundreds of invitation letters to authors of articles in all the leading social work journals, in those early days addressing and stamping the envelopes myself. Eventually the word spread, and by the publication of the first issue of SSWR News in December 1994, we had over 200 charter members (although only 60% had e-mail at that time!). Once established, membership has continually increased to the 1,200-plus members we have today.

The goal of SSWR was to be "an independent organization of social workers who are dedicated to the support of social workers in research activities." It was founded to foster a support and linkage network among social workers in research, to en courage more social workers to become engaged in research activities, to provide formal recognition of significant contributions to research by social workers, to advocate for increased research funding and research training programs, to promote advances in the knowledge base of the social work profession, and to encourage the betterment of human welfare through research and research applications. SSWR planned to work toward its goals with several initiatives: publishing a newsletter that would include notice of funding opportunities, job openings, and advocacy efforts for research funding; developing a database of social work researchers; holding national meetings; collaborating with IASWR in setting up a mentor program; sponsoring an awards program to recognize outstanding contributions to research by social workers; advocating for increased research resources; and disseminating research findings to the public and within the profession. The journal Research on Social Work Practice became the official journal of SSWR, and members subscribed at a discounted price. Dues were set at a modest $50 ($20 for full-time students).

There was much that needed to be done, but early efforts were directed at increasing the membership of the fledgling group and planning our first conference. In April 1995, SSWR and IASWR cosponsored "Advancing Knowledge for Human Services: A National Conference of Social Work Researchers" at Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia. The conference planning committee consisted of Betsy Vourlekis (SSWR secretary--treasurer), Kathy Ell (executive director of IASWR at the time), and me. With no support staff yet, we did all the work ourselves, including typing the program. The conference grant from NIDA and some funding from NIMH allowed us to arrange for hotel and meeting rooms and to print the programs, with nothing left over. On the first day of the conference, we were astonished to be inundated with attendees, finally registering more than 250 social workers by the end of the conference. Aside from a large selection of papers, whose abstracts had been selected by peer review, there were also invited speakers and a keynote address given by Dr. Leshner. The main meeting was preceded by four preconference institutes organized by IASWR. NIMH awarded seven doctoral students with travel funds to attend.

I have had the pleasure of watching SSWR grow in many of the directions I had envisioned. The board and the membership have increased dramatically so that more initiatives can be undertaken, conferences have now become annual and provide important venues for networking and collaborating, it has become increasingly competitive to have an abstract accepted for presentation at the annual conference, the awards program has flourished, and an organizational infrastructure is now in place (see Table 1 for a list of conferences). Although I may have planted the seeds, the subsequent leaders have done the hard work of nurturing and growing SSWR. The officers of the organization who have come after me have definitely taken the ball and run with it.

Tony Tripodi, 1996-1998

Janet Williams, as the founding president of SSWR, was dedicated to enhancing the organization by increasing its membership and by involving more people who were social work leaders to become active as officers in the organization. Janet thought that deans of schools of social work should become invested in SSWR, and she asked me as dean of the Ohio State University College of Social Work, to run for president. I agreed to do so because I thought that there should be a forum for social work researchers to exchange ideas and to present research papers without watering them down, as appeared to be the trend in social work publications and organizations such as NASW and CSWE. I ran, as I recall, unopposed. Basically, there did not appear to be a great deal of interest in the organization at that time (there were approximately 450 members). I had long been involved in advocating for social work research's place in the sun. Then a member of the NIMH Task Force on Social Work Research and the second editor of Social Work Research & Abstracts, I became the second president of SSWR.

I ran on a platform of continuity with the ideals expressed by the first president of...

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