Social Action in Social Work

Social work as a profession is a product of this century. Although its roots are well established in history from the time when people 1st began to take responsibility for their neighbours through activities which were called charity, poor relief, philanthropy and social reform.

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Social Work as a scientific helping profession applies methods like Social Casework, Social Group Work, Community organisation, Social Action, Social Welfare Administration and Social Work Research. In social work practise settings, social workers coordinate all the social work methods among social action is very important.

What is Social Action?

It's an organised group process solving general social problems & furthering social welfare objectives through legislative, social, health or economic progress. Social action refers to organised & legally permitted activities designed to mobile public opinion, legislation & public administration in favour of objectives believed to be socially desirable.


The profession of social work has looked at the human environment situation through the remedial lens of the primary methods for a long. Such a view was based on certain assumptions about human problems prevailing in the first quarter of the 20 century. The perception then was that specific individuals in need required leisure time engagements through associations and groups and those who needed better community services through coordination and cooperation.


The methods which were evolved to address these more significant groups were called social casework, social group work and community organisation in the professional literature. They qualified for inclusion in the primary category based on the above assumptions. Other methods that were thought to support them were relegated to the second category. Further, in the development of the social work profession, the human situation was looked at more in compartments. Clients were seen as fitting into one or the other method rather than the actual need felt for them by the professionals.


Scholarly definition of Social Action by Authors


According to Siddiqui, the Welfare approach is gradually wearing off, and the contradictions in the democratic system underline the need for new alternatives. According to him, this is the most controversial and most challenging method. Social work as a profession has its core values as social justice and equality. Social Action is the method advocated to achieve this. 

According to W.A.Friedlander, Social Action may be defined as an organised team effort to secure social progress and solve mass social reform by influencing social legislation or social service administration. 

Mary Richmond (1922) defined social action as “mass betterment through propaganda and social legislation”. This definition highlighted the concern of social work with the problems of many people and the solution of the situation through active participation. She suggested that propaganda and legislation are the appropriate strategies to bring the significant involvement of people.

Coyle. L. (1937) stated ‘Social action is the attempt to change the social environment to make life more satisfactory. It aims to affect not individuals but social institutions, laws, customs, communities.’ this definition emphasises that in social action, the main target is not on individuals but the social environment that consists of laws, social institutions, customs, communities etc. 

Wickendon (1956) defined “social action as a term applied to that aspect of social welfare activity, directed towards shaping, modifying or maintaining the social institutions and policies that collectively constitute the social environment”. This definition highlights the role of social action as a tool of social welfare, which is basically concerned with the desired change in the society and well being of the people and environment.

Surendra Singh (1986), an Indian author, defines social action as “ a process in which conscious, systematic and organised efforts are made by some elites and/ or people themselves to bring about change in the system which is instrumental in solving problems and improving conditions which limit the social functioning of weaker and vulnerable sections. On the practical plane, it is nearer to social reform than to social revolutions, which aims to smash the existing social structure and build a new social order.” 


This definition highlighted various aspects of social action, such as clarifying the process involved, describing goals, target groups, nature and relation of social action with social reform and ethics involved in social action.

Social action aims at bringing about desirable changes to ensure social progress. Creating awareness about social problems, mobilising resources, encouraging different 'sections of people to raise their voices against undesirable practices, and creating pressure to bring about the legislation are some of the activities of the social workers using the method of social action. It seeks to balance community needs and solutions mainly through individual and group initiatives and self-help activities.


Characteristics of Social Action 

 Social action is concerned with a change in current social practices. 

 Social action involves a goal accepted as desirable and worthwhile by the social actionists. 

 Social action always consists of an attempt to bring about action by people other than the social actionist. 

 Social action includes methods such as education, propaganda, persuasion or pressure, but it does not recommend physical coercion or compulsion. 

 Social action to be identified with specific methods and procedures.



Objectives of Social Action


1. Reduction of Discrimination: In our society, there are diverse forms of social discrimination such as Gender discrimination, Economic discrimination, Cultural Discrimination, Social discrimination and Class diversity; this is why various types of Psycho-social problems (Social mal-adjustment, disparity, frustration, ) occur and to remove all these problems is needed social action.


2. Emancipation of deprived downtrodden: Who are deprived or oppressed? They mostly fail to social functioning and to various types of social inequality, injustice and discrimination. So to emancipate them from exploitation, oppression, and repression, Social action is needed.


3. Building awareness among mass people: By social action process, Social workers try to understand among mass people with various types of social problems and make them conscious of these problems.


4. Building the field of Social Policies for the betterment and change in adjusting social policies: Through this process, Social workers try to make changes in policy planning, complete the appropriate field for social policies and modify the existing social policies.


5. Building social change from the unexpected situations: Unexpected situations like social injustice, immorality, mischievous, miscreants, drugs abuse, racism, violence, unfair labour and so on. Social workers try to build a change from these unexpected situations through social action.


6. Form new laws and change unusual existing changes: Social action tries to form new policies, regulations, pressurises administration and government to create new rules and modify existing laws in favour of mass people.


7. Rising public opinion against harmful customs, rules and institutions: It's the most fundamental process of Social Action to rise or gather public opinion through posters, festoons, seminars, meetings, symposiums, conferences, miking, dramas, TV shows, Ads etc. against harmful customs, rules and institutions.


8. Solving social problems: Social problems are Poverty, drugs abuse, dowry, abortion, human trafficking, illiteracy, stress, violence, crimes, unemployment, child labour, eve-teasing, woman oppression, exploitation, maladjustment, inequality, injustice, maldistribution etc. The main goal and objective of social action in solving social problems through social awareness, public opinion, forming and modifying laws etc.


9. Social and economic development: The process of social action is to establish social (health, education, human resources, sanitation, hygiene, justice, environment) and financial (employment, creativity, banking system, market, road and transport, entrepreneurship, trade and commerce) development.

Social action aims at making the programmes of development and welfare more functional for their respective clientele than any other method could do. The method can be very effective in procuring the welfare services that are due or in the claims for their right to develop.


Steps of Social Action

a) Identifying the problems (in this case injustice), diagnosing them, gathering information about it, about who the principal actor is, what roles they play, what interest they have and what benefit they derive) 

b) Determining the position be taken. 

c) Identifying the social action goals, i.e. expected outcome. 

d) Mobilising support using both non-formal and formal methods and locating the network of influence and power. 

e) Setting up the machinery to carry out the struggle canvas action provides leadership. 

f) Laying down the strategy. A well-drawn plan indicates the series of actions and their networking among leaders. 

g) Laying down the communication channels and the decision making loci of the social action movement. 

h) Carrying out the action 

i) Reviewing the implementation of the strategy, weighing alternative approaches and working out alternative plans. 

j) Sustaining the pressure

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

Read: Strategies, Principles and Models in Social Action

Siddiqui (1984) has mentioned the stages used in the Sarvodaya strategy drawing from the Sarvodaya social action movements inspired by the Gandhian philosophy. The stages are: 

1) Prachar (Publicity) 

2) Parichaya (Introduction) 

3) Adhyayan (Surveyor study) 

4) Sahavasa (Association) 

5) Seva (Service) 

6) Pratikar (Resistance) 

7) Construction Work or Community Service 

8) Building the Climate of Change


Process/Stages of Social Action in Social Work

Generally, the term 'process' can be understood as a series of systematic steps undertaken to accomplish some desired and specified goal/goals. In social action, process refers to the generally accepted steps or stages involved while moving towards achieving the objectives of social action. Lee has suggested 4 stages with nine tactics used by social actionists. 

4 Stages of Social Action

Four Stages of Social Action

Following are the generally accepted steps or stages of the social action process:

1. Awareness building stage
2. Organising stage
3. Strategy development stage
4. Action stage

Stage 1: Awareness Building Stage

This is the first step of the social action process. In this step/stage, conscious efforts are made to critically understand different dimensions of the problems existent in the society, their root causes, and identify the various socio-economic and political factors perpetuating the issue at hand. It is inappropriate to recognise and understand the problem based on subjective generalisation and unestablished information. A concrete and authentic statistical report can stand as evidence for any social analysis and advocacy and can significantly support a social activist in finding ground for social activism. Hence, it is essential to carry out extensive research on the issues affecting society and infer and develop a sound idea about the problem from practical perspectives. Besides, attempts are made to make people aware of the causes and situations responsible for the social issues through the tactics of education and awareness. The first step/stage would call for the analysis of the problems involved and provide information to those affected by the situation.


Stage 2: Organising Stage

The second step of the social action process involves exploring the possible solutions to the problem and creating a public opinion. This would include organising the people using the community organisation method of social work. In the process of organisation of the people, a sense of collaboration, cooperation and we-feeling has to be generated in the people's minds. When these are achieved, the people are ready to work together under one leadership umbrella.

The next challenge of the social activist is to build up people's organisations at the community and local level, which will act as a common platform and a forum for the community people to work towards addressing the issues of the identified problem.


Stage 3: Strategies Development Stage

The third step in social action is to plan, develop and adopt a suitable and workable strategy to achieve the determined goals. A particular strategy is adopted, looking into the needs and situation of the problem on the one hand and the clientele on the other. According to Lee, two strategies are widely used in social action: negotiation and confrontation. The negotiation strategy generally involves lobbying and submitting petitions to the appropriate authorities, campaigning to sensitise people, etc. Under this strategy, the social activist campaigns and bargains with the authorities/agencies to improve or change the existing conditions and arrive at a consensus.

Confrontation is a strategy under which people collectively come to face the responsible stakeholders with certain conditions to be fulfilled. At times, negotiations fail. When negotiations come to failure, the activists are bound to resort to the strategy of confrontation. This strategy sometimes witnesses conflict situations like strikes, lockouts, demonstrations, sit-ins etc. In such a situation, it should be remembered that social action as a method of social work has to be essentially no-violent and should follow the ethics and values of social work. This strategy denotes bringing about some sort of disruption in the normal functioning of the society to make people, as well as the authorities, realise the magnitude and significance of the issue.


Stage 4: Action Stage

This is strategically the last stage of the social action process. Still, more steps may be required in some instances, or the activities may continue in the recycling process to achieve social action goals. The students should not be mistaken that the strategies discussed in the previous point have not been applied yet. They have only been developed. Their application takes place only in this stage of the social action process. Once the community-based organisations become structured and the strategy for intervention is decided through consensus, the group embarks upon joint action. The collective action may be initiated with the collaboration of local voluntary organisations, community-based organisations and local leaders, spearheaded by the social activists.

In this stage, the actual implementation of the selected strategies is implemented. When negotiations come to failure, the activists are bound to resort to the strategy of confrontation. This strategy sometimes witnesses conflict situations like strikes, lockouts, demonstrations, sit-ins etc. In such a situation, it should be remembered that social action as a method of social work has to be essentially no-violent and should follow the ethics and values of social work. This strategy denotes bringing about some sort of disruption in the normal functioning of the society to make people, as well as the authorities, realise the magnitude and significance of the issue.

It should also be kept in mind that the process of social action should ideally take up the form of a movement to give it a sustainable form. Some problems are settled at the end of active social action within a short period. Some issues call for long term social action, which takes decades together to achieve the objectives of social action because they involve critical processes before reaching the consensus stage.


Skills involved in Social Action

After understanding the concept and principles of social action, let us look at the skills needed by social workers for social action. These skills are no different from the general skills; professional social worker uses these skills by combining the ethics and principles of professional social work. However, a social worker using social action as a method of social work requires specific skills; the more important among these are briefly described below. 

Relational Skills

The social worker should have skills for building rapport with individuals and groups and maintaining these relations. Helshe should be able to develop and maintain professional relationships with the clients. The social worker should be able to identify the leadership qualities among the clientele and be skilful to harness these qualities for social action. Along with this, working harmoniously with the established local leaders is also needed. Helshe should be able to deal with intra-group and inter-group conflicts effectively. The ability to diagnose problematic behaviour among the clients and provide counselling is required to develop and maintain integration within the community. The social worker should identify tension producing situations and diffuse them before they become serious. Developing and maintaining cordial relations with other agencies and NGOs in the same geographical area and those working for similar causes is also required.


Analytical and Research Skills

The social worker should have the ability to objectively study the socio-cultural and economic characteristics of the community. Helshe should be able to find out the pressing problems and needs of the clientele. Helshe should be able to analyse the social problems, the factors contributing to them, and their ramifications on the social, economic, political, ideological, cultural, and ecological aspects of life. Added to this, the social worker should be able to facilitate the community people to speak out for their own felt needs and prioritise them. The social worker should never try to impose their own understanding of the social situation and problems on the community.

Intervention Skills

After need identification, the social worker should have the ability to help the clientele chalk out practical intervention strategies to deal with the problem. The social worker should provide various options to the clientele and help them analyse the pros and cons of each option for taking proper steps. Social action may require 'confrontation' with authorities. The social worker must inform the community about the consequences of taking up hard steps like sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, etc. The social worker should be able to maintain the desired level of feeling of discontent and emotional surcharge to bring about the necessary change, enthusiasm, and courage among the community people for a relatively long time to mitigate/mobilise the possibility of failure of mass mobilisation before the set objectives are achieved. The social worker should be able to maintain patience and composed behaviour as they have to deal with the emotional balance of the clientele in a rational way. Added to this, the social worker should have the ability to create an environment wherein individuals and groups can actively participate. The interventions should be developed keeping in mind the pressing need, resources (human and material) and socio-cultural milieu of the community. Helshe should be able to improvise situations for targeted interventions.  


Managerial Skills

The social worker also needs the knowledge and ability to handle organisation, which may result from the institutionalisation of people's participation. Helshe should be able to coordinate and collaborate with various groups and local leaders to unite the clientele for the required intervention. Helshe should be skilful enough to make policies and programmes, plan, coordinate, record, budget and elementary accounting and maintenance of various records. Helshe should be able to mobilise internal-external resources in terms of money, men, materials, equipment, etc. The social worker also requires the skills of supervising human and material resources and their effective utilisation for the welfare and development of the targeted community. 

Communication Skills

These skills are highly crucial for social action. The social worker should have the ability to develop effective public relations with local organisations and leaders. They should be able to effectively communicate verbally (including public speaking) and in writing. The social worker should be able to deliver or identify people who can deliver powerful speeches. Helshe should be able to devise indoor-outdoor media for effectively communicating with the target audiences. The social worker should be able to evaluate and use folk and mass media suited to diverse groups. These skills are used for developing slogans and motivational songs, speeches and IEC materials for mass mobilisation. The social worker should have skills to educate, facilitate, negotiate and persuade for necessary actions at needed places. 


Training Skills

The social worker should be able to train local leaders and identified leaders for taking up the charge of mass mobilisation and confrontation with the authorities. Helshe should be able to train selected people at the local level to impart knowledge about the social issue taken up for action and the modalities of carrying out the intervention, including the 'confrontation process'. These people should be trained for creating public opinion for or against the social issue taken up and identify and involve people in social action. They should also be trained to utilise social action strategies and tactics (confrontation, persuasion, negotiation, boycott, etc.) without the use of violence.


Importance of Social Action in Social Work

Every profession has a tested body of knowledge that includes its own set of principles, techniques, methods, procedures, tools, and terminology. The same can be said for professional social work. There are six methods of working with people in social work (casework, group work, community organisation, social action, social welfare administration and social work research). These are techniques for enabling people to function better in social situations. Social action is used as a method of professional social work practice. As an experienced social work practice method, social action is an organised effort to change or improve social and economic institutions through community organisation and mobilisation. Unlike other forms of social work, social action focuses on essential long-term changes in established social institutions. Movements for social, religious, and political reform, social legislation, racial and social justice, human rights, freedom, and civic liberty are all examples of social action. Previously, social action was regarded as a tool in community organisation, but it is now considered a distinct technique of social work and, as such, a fourth process.

The social action process, more or less, passes through the recognisable and systematic stages. First of all, scientific analysis or research on the social problem affecting the community people is carried out. Then, awareness is generated regarding various aspects of the problem, and people are encouraged to take collective and collaborative action to solve the problem. The third stage is centred on organising people for coordinated and directed intervention, whereas in further steps, suitable strategies are developed to achieve the goals, and lastly, action is taken. Every social action process passes through these stages, and professional social workers or actionists are well-equipped with the knowledge and skills required in different settings.


Social action is about people banding together to improve their lives and address critical community issues. It can take the form of volunteering, financial contributions, community service, or simple neighbourly acts.

There are various reasons why social action is frequently the best option:

a) It can empower and energise populations that have traditionally been weak or haven't realised their own power potential. Participating in action – especially if it is effective – can be energising for people who never imagined they might have an impact on the course of events. It can alter their perception of themselves and provide them with a new perspective on what is achievable. It can also prepare and maintain them for long-term struggles to accomplish lofty goals.

b) It has the potential to bring communities together. Many collaborative activities, such as collective action, bring individuals together. It fosters a sense of shared effort and passion, and it brings people together in a community with a common goal.

c) It can show that the organised group is a force to be reckoned with in the greater community. Even if they disagree with its requirements and interests, people must respect and deal with them.

d) It might be the only thing that can persuade an obstinate opponent to change his mind. The people who are the targets of social action may have been in power for a long time or believe that things are just the way they are. It may take a sustained activity campaign to persuade them that your concerns must be addressed.


e) It could be argued that it is morally necessary. Social action is not always easy or popular. Individuals often engage in it because they believe their cause is just and believe it is their moral obligation to take action.

f) It can stimulate people to take additional constructive action. Once people realise they have a say in what occurs in their world, they become willing to take on more responsibilities — founding cooperatives, repairing abandoned housing, and cleaning up communities. They begin to see that they possess the resources necessary to address many of their own problems and develop the drive and abilities required.

g) It may mark the start of a process that results in a more cohesive larger community. Once a group has proved its power and demonstrated that it cannot be pushed, the potential of conciliation and ultimate collaboration with former adversaries exists.

h) It has the potential to result in long-term good societal change. As with other types of community organisation, social action often has both long- and short-term goals. While the purpose of every given action may be limited, the long-term goals of most organising are more significant equity and social and economic justice. A well-managed social action movement sustained over time can result in a truly democratic society in which everyone's opinion is heard. Once again, the Civil Rights movement served as a model for our time, mobilising the entire country to demand an end to segregation and bigotry by action that revealed its moral force.

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