Methods of Social Work

What is Method? 


Generally, a method implies a systematic way of doing something. In social work, the method is understood as the systematic and planned way of helping the people. The main concern of social work is to solve psycho-social problems of individuals, groups, and communities through the conscious application of knowledge in methods, tools, techniques, and skills of social work. In this task, the social worker has to be equipped with all the necessary social work methods that ease his job to help the people solve their own problems.


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Methods of Social Work Method


Social Work practice includes a range of direct social work interventions with individuals, families, small groups, communities, policies, establishments and other human service agencies. Farley, Smith and Boyle (2006:7) define social work as “an art, a science, a profession that helps people to solve personal, group (especially family), and community problems and to attain satisfying personal, group, and community relationships through social work practice”. Social work is concerned with helping people in need develop capacities to help themselves. Social work is a scientific profession that takes knowledge from other disciplines to guide its practice. Social workers do not choose what problems and issues they would like to address. They see a problem, even a complicated problem and try to help people solve it. They must prepare themselves to help people with individualised personal problems on the one hand and comprehensive problems that affect whole organisations and communities on the other (Sinokki, 2011).


Read: What is Social Work?


Read: NASW Code of Ethics for Social Workers


Read: Significance of studying Social Work


Read: Why you should learn Social Work?


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As a profession, social work has relied on methods or techniques tested over a while (Uranta & Ogbanga, 2017). A method is what a social worker actually does when working with a client(s). When faced with a specific phenomenon (Teater, 2010). These methods and activities have become the pillars of social work practice, and their nomenclature stood out to describe them as “social work methods”, “social work activities”, or “social work processes”. These terms can be used interchangeably (Rao, 2011). They are used by social workers to help people of all ages and from various sections of society to enhance their social functioning and cope more effectively with their problems (Okoye, 2013). Generally, social work methods are divided into two categories, primary and auxiliary methods.


Social Work Methods


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Social work as a professional practice mainly uses the following methods while accomplishing its objectives:


a) Social casework


b) Social group work


c) Community Organization


d) Social work research


e) Social welfare administration


f) Social action

The first three methods given above are the primary or direct methods. These are direct and primary because they are directly applied in the field situation among the people to solve their problems. These methods solve the problems at the grassroots level through the social worker's direct intervention. The latter three are secondary or indirect methods because they are indirectly involved by some specialised agencies or a set of organised people. Unlike the primary methods, these methods generally operate at the secondary levels but not with the people directly.


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Basic/Primary Methods of Social Work

The primary methods are also called direct helping methods. Here, the social worker intervenes directly with the client(s) who need the professional services of a social worker at the individual, group and community level. Primary means basic to something, or before all others. These are Social casework, Social group work and community organisation.

a) Social Casework

b) Social Group Work

c) Community Organization

Social Casework


It is the primary method of social work. It deals with individual problems through one-to-one relationships guided by the social caseworker's professional knowledge. Under the method, the social caseworker attempts to repair the impaired relationship of the client with his social environment. Through a guided interaction, they enable the client to adapt to their social environment. Through this method, the caseworker discovers different aspects of the client's problem, prepares an appropriate treatment plan, and finally, with professional knowledge of social relationships, tries to bring about necessary changes in the attitude and behaviour of the client in favour of his own growth and development.


Read: Social Casework Method

Read: Data Collection Methods of Casework

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This is the oldest method of social work practice. Its origin is traced to work with the family, which was “recognised as the most important institution in the society with a firm belief that a balanced family will produce balanced individuals who will make up a balanced society” (Ekpe & Mamah, 1997). It is a unique method of problem-solving that helps an individual solve their psycho-social problems. It assists individuals to adjust to their environment more satisfyingly. One of its first proponents, Richmond (1992), posits that “it consists of those processes which develop personality through adjustments consciously effected, individual by individual, between men and their social environment”. An individual is involved in the problem as s/he cannot deal with it independently because of reasons beyond their control. Their anxiety sometimes temporarily makes them incapable of solving it. In any case, their social functioning is disturbed. The caseworker gets information regarding the client’s total environment, finds out the causes, prepares a treatment plan, and with a professional relationship, tries to bring about a change in the perception and attitudes of the client.

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Social casework encompasses a whole array of activities. Social casework enables individuals to obtain a higher level of social functioning through an interpersonal transaction or face-to-face or person-to-person encounter. The caseworker helps the client act to achieve some personal/social goals by utilising the available resources in terms of the strength of personality of the client, his social system or material provisions general in the community and/or agency. The caseworker’s knowledge and expertise and material resources are used (as tools) to inject strengths in the person to enable him to move more satisfyingly in the social situation he finds difficult to deal with.


The principles of social work guide casework practice, and its objective is to develop resources to enhance social functioning and remedy and prevent problems in social functioning. In social casework, the worker-client relationship is characterised by mutual acceptance. It has four essential components: person, situation, place and process (study, diagnosis, treatment, evaluation, termination and follow-up). According to Perlman (1952), every social casework model utilises techniques and theories from psychosocial therapy, functional casework, problem-solving, crisis-oriented short term casework, task centred casework, and behaviour modification.


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Social Group Work


Social group work is another primary method of social work. It is a process in which the individuals in a social group are helped by a professionally qualified worker, who guides their interaction through planned programme activities so that they may be able to relate themselves with others and find growth opportunities following their needs and capacities towards the noble end of individual group and community development. In this method, the group worker uses the group as a potential tool for individuals' positive change and personality development. In group work, individuals in the group are most important, and all programme activities revolve around their needs for growth. Through the group work process, they are helped to improve their relationship and personality traits, which may help them develop themselves and their community.


Read: Stages of Social Work Group Formation


Read: Group Dynamics, Group Process and Social Work Process


Read: Group Therapy in Social Group Work


Read: Recording in Social Group Work


Read: Leadership in Social Group Work


A group is defined as ‘two or more individuals connected to one another by social relationships. Groups are a fundamental part of human experience and social life. They allow people to develop more complex and larger-scale activities; are significant sites of socialisation and education; and provide settings where relationships can form and grow and where people can find help and support. Groups can be advantageous to their members and to society as a whole. “Social work practises with groups is founded on the premise that people are enriched by interpersonal experiences structured around collectively defined goals, satisfying peer relationships, and shared decisionmaking about the group’s life” (Uranta & Ogbanga, 2017). 


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A group can be natural, or it can be formed by people. Natural groups developed in an unexplained way or in the natural cause of the event. Examples include a family, a tribe, and a class. Formed groups were consciously created to deal with specific circumstances that are of interest and of concern to several or many people (Ezeh, Ezeah, and Aniche, 2010). Social work with groups represents a broad domain of direct social work practice. Social workers work with various groups in all settings in which social work is practised.


The social group work method was introduced during the first quarter of this century. It emerged when there was a renewed dichotomy within the profession between social workers who primarily regarded the cause of social problems as those within people and others who located these causes primarily within the social situations in which people with problems were living. During the first twenty years of this century, while the agencies developing social casework services continued to devote a more significant proportion of their time to working with people on an individual-by-individual basis, there was increasing participation of other social workers in working “for and with the masses” (Wilson, 1956). The premise is that no man is an island and no human being lives in isolation as a man constantly interacts with various groups in his environment. Social work with groups represents a broad domain of direct social work practice.


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Community Organization


Community organisation as a method of social work is a process through which efforts are directed towards meeting the community's needs by organising the human and material resources of the community. Identifying problems, finding resources relevant to their needs, developing and managing inter-personal and inter-group relationships, and planning and executing practical programme activities are some of the specific actions in the community organisation method. The community members' organised and collaborative effort for their own development is the primary concern of this method.


This method of social work is also called macro practice. Working with communities has been recognised as a critical work for social workers. Indeed, the community is a natural site for practice because the individuals who are the main focus of social work practice live in communities. However, community organisation is a contested topic as it varies across different contexts (Heena & Birrell, 2011). It could range from community building through services provided by the government or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as community-based organisations (CBOs) to community organising, which focuses on challenging social and structural inequalities through mobilisation and activism across different levels organised by various local and global sectors (Loomis, 2012; Midgley, 2010). Principles of social work and historical, social movements urging for social justice, equality, human rights, empowerment of individuals/communities, and partnership with service users influence community development. It could also be called community development, as is reflected in the degree “Social Work and Community Development” awarded by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.


Read: Community Development in Social Work


Read: Empowerment and Women Empowerment


Read: Community Empowerment in Social Work


Read: Community Organization and Community Development


Read: Community Organization in Social Work


Read: Techniques in Community Social Work Practice


The term community development was adopted as long as 1948 by the Colonial Office during its Conference on African development and defined as: A movement designed to promote the whole community with the active participation and, if possible, on the initiative of the community but if this initiative is not forthcoming spontaneously by the use of techniques for arousing and stimulating it to secure its active and enthusiastic response to the movement. Community development embraces all forms of betterment (Colonial Office, 1958).


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This term came into international usage when the United Nations (UN) (1971) defined and elaborated on its elements: Community development connotes the process by which the efforts of the people themselves are united with those of governmental authorities to improve the economic, social and cultural conditions of communities, to integrate these communities into the life of the nation, and to enable them to contribute fully to national progress. This complex process is made up of two essential elements, the participation by the people themselves in efforts to improve their level of living with as much reliance as possible on their own initiative; and the provision of technical and other services in ways that encourage initiative, self-help and mutual help and make these more effective.


Community organisation is mobilising and empowering communities through their institutions, organisations, groups, leaders, advocates, and volunteers. It is a long-term process whereby people who are marginalised or living in poverty work together to identify their needs, create change, exert more influence in the decisions which affect their lives and work to improve the quality of their lives and the communities in which they live. Community organisation is often distinguished from community planning. It entails processes directed at social change, social conflict management, and planning. The most popular approach to a community organisation is the Rothman’s (1974) three models of community organising which are based on the belief that to affect change, a wide variety of the community people must be involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation as well as social planning which involves a technical process of problem-solving and often provides little opportunity for citizenship input. It is a top-down approach; and social activities where the practitioner assumes that a disadvantaged segment needs to be organised to make demands on the larger community for increased resources or improved treatment following social justice or democracy.


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Auxiliary/Auxiliary Methods of Social Work

These are those methods that are intended to support the primary techniques. Here, the social worker indirectly deals with the client’s problem. 

a) Social Welfare Administration

b) Social Work Research

c) Social Action

Social Welfare Administration


Social welfare administration is one of the secondary methods of social work. It refers to how social policy is transformed into social service. In other words, it is a process to manage social work or social welfare affairs. Developing programmes, mobilising resources, recruiting and involving suitable personnel, proper organisation, coordination, skilful leadership, supervision and staff guidance, budgeting, and evaluation are specified activities in the social welfare administration method.


Read: Social Welfare Administration as a Social Work Method

Read: Social Welfare Administration: Science or Art?

Social welfare administration is a method of practice that looks for administrative and managerial skills among practitioners in executing welfare services. It is used to transform social policy into action. It is a two-way process of transforming policy into concrete social services and operational experience to recommend policy modification (Rameshwari & Ravi, 1998). This method uses scientific and administrative techniques of planning, implementing, directing, monitoring, organising, reporting, coordinating and evaluating services rendered for the welfare and development of the people. Its scope includes Planning, Organising, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting and Budgeting (POSDCoRB).


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Social Work Research


Social work research is another important method of social work. It refers to the systematic and critical enquiry of the questions encountered by social work professionals in the field of application. This method makes efforts to find answers to the existing and emerging social work problems to make them useful in functional areas. Like social sciences, social work research contributes a lot to the storehouse of its knowledge and helps better plan and implement social work programmes.


Read: What is Research?


Read: What is Social Research?


Read: Census versus Sampling


Read: Plagiarism: Forms and Way Forward


The effective planning and implementation of development programmes and projects in the country depend mainly on reliable, adequate and valid data. Social work research is the systematic and scientific study of social problems to produce knowledge for planning and carrying out social work problems. It is a powerful tool in all social work settings and is used in all the social work methods discussed earlier. For instance, all the social problems we have been citing so far can only be understood if we have scientific and systematic methods to find out their various causes to formulate specific intervention strategies to arrive at solutions. 


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The following highlight the importance of social work research: 


 It helps identify the social problem, its intensity and extensiveness, its causal factors, its impact on the target population, and its repercussions on the people's social life.


 Gives an understanding of the factual ground realities (not mere perceptions) of the social situations, which aid in conceptualising the pros and cons of possible intervention strategies. 


 Helps social workers gain in-depth knowledge about a social problem, factors contributing to it and its impact on the socio-cultural and economic life of clients. 


 Helps to focus on social issues prevailing in the organisation by studying various aspects such as the team climate to understand factors affecting team effectiveness through proper understanding of group effectiveness (Bhattacharyya, 2008). 


Finally, a systematic study of social problems is a must for the attainment of goals in all social work methods. Research findings thus help in the formulation of change and the design of intervention plans according to clients' needs. However, as some scholars have observed, some social, political and economic issues impede social research in Nigeria (Chukwu, Ebue, Obikeguna, Arionu, Agbawodikeizu, & Agwu, 2016).


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Social Action

The social action method of social work is the one that is used to bring about desirable changes in the flawed system for ensuring social progress. Through this method, attempts are made to mobilise people, create awareness of existing problems, organise them and encourage them to raise their voice against undesirable practices which hampers their development. Finally, create pressure for bringing about relevant legislation for social progress. This method seeks to relate the community needs with the solution of the problems mainly through collective initiatives.

Read: Social Action in Social Work

Read: Strategies, Principles and Models in Social Action

Read: Relation between Social Action and other Methods of Social Work

This was first coined by Mary E. Richmond in 1922. According to her, it is the “mass betterment through propaganda and social legislation”. Unlike other methods, social action emphasises essential long-term changes in established social institutions. It covers social, religious and political reform movements, social legislation, racial and social justice, human rights, freedom, and civil liberty. Social action, which, as we have briefly mentioned previously, is one of the models/tools of community organisation, has recently been considered an auxiliary method of professional social work in its own right (Siddiqui, 1984). However, it is not employed by social workers frequently. It aims at desirable social action and social progress. It is used to tackle controversial issues to bring about structural changes in the social system or prevent adverse changes. 

As a method of social work, it adheres to the philosophy of professional social work, which does not blame people for deficiency or problem; believes in the dignity and worth of human beings; rejects the doctrine of laissez-faire and survival of the fittest; adopts a commitment to the capacity of all people to take action through a non-elitist highly skilled process; and facilitate members to make choices and take action for themselves. This calls for skills used in combination with professional social work ethics and principles.

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The first is the principle of credibility building which means that the community must have faith and confidence in the social worker. The second is legitimisation which means that the social worker should make the people believe that their actions to achieve set goals are legitimate. The third is dramatisation done through strategies like slogans, emotionally powerful speeches, and rallies to create dramatic effects. Fourth is the dual approach, a combination of confrontation and constructive developmental activities. Fifth, multiple strategies involve the use of different ways and means. And lastly, manifold programmes aimed at tackling social, economic, and cultural issues (Siddiqui, 1984; Moorthy, 1966; Mishra, 1992; Antony & Kaushik, n.d.). 

Social workers practising social action should be versed in skills of rapport building (relational); objective analysis of social situations and problems (analytical and research); ability to use other methods of social work like casework, group work, social welfare administration adequately and appropriately (intervention); knowledge to handle organisations, coordinate and collaborate with various groups and local leaders (managerial); effective verbal communication (communication); and be able to train local leaders for mass mobilisation and confrontation with the authorities (training) (Antony & Kaushik, n.d.).

Social action entails a confrontation with authorities and sometimes involves taking difficult positions. Social action is different from other social work methods that employ specific strategies and tactics as tools to attain its goals. Negotiation, persuasion, competition, disruption, collaboration, bargain, boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, marches, fraternisation, tax-refusal, picketing, etc. It could be said to be a form of radical social work. The main focus is to increase political pressure on decision-making processes so that oppressed groups can receive equitable services, resources and power.

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Social action is employed by groups and organisations that seek to alter institutional policies or change the distribution of power. It is an organised effort to change or improve social and economic conditions. The objective of social action is to properly shape and develop the socio-cultural environment in which a more prosperous and fuller life may be possible for all citizens (Siddiqui, 1984; Britto, 1984). Its goals are prevention of needs; solution of mass problems; improvement in mass conditions; influencing institutions, policies, and practices; introduction of new mechanisms or programmes; redistribution of power and resources (human, material and moral), decision-making, effect on thought and action structure and improvement in health, education and welfare policies (Mishra, 1992). This calls for skills used in combination with professional social work ethics and principles.

The social worker uses a lot of advocacy, propaganda, education, persuasion or pressure, public opinion and collective support in social action. S/he raises awareness of the community people and helps organise them orderly to achieve their objectives. As a method, its relevance is felt in field situations by mobilising the general population to bring about structural changes in the social system. However, the skewed political terrain makes organising these activities difficult. Also, any success achieved through a change of legislation or social policy is stalled during the implementation stage. The dilemmas facing this method of social work practice in the country are enormous, notwithstanding its importance cannot be diminished.

Ref: Chukwu, N., Chukwu, N.N., Nwadike, N. (2017). Methods of Social Practice. In Okoye, U., Chukwu, N. & Agwu, P. (Eds.). Social work in Nigeria: Book of readings (pp 44–59). Nsukka: University of Nigeria Press Ltd.

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