Posted: September 18th, 2022

Promoting Change: Where Does It Start

200 words based on the text book reading
Use your Social Work Macro Practice text to read Chapter 9, “Building Support for the Proposed Change,” pages 267–298.
Identify and explain the four systems that promote change and the four systems that are the focus of change. What is your preferred focus of change, and what systems would you target?

Competency Chapter

Competency 1: Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior


Make ethical decisions by applying the standards of the NASW Code of Ethics, relevant laws and regulations,
models for ethical decision-making, ethical conduct of research, and additional codes of ethics as appropriate
to context


Use reflection and self-regulation to manage personal values and maintain professionalism in practice


Demonstrate professional demeanor in behavior; appearance; and oral, written, and electronic communication 10

Use technology ethically and appropriately to facilitate practice outcomes 2

Use supervision and consultation to guide professional judgment and behavior 8

Competency 2: Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice

Apply and communicate understanding of the importance of diversity and difference in shaping life
experiences in practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels

2, 6, 8

Present themselves as learners and engage clients and constituencies as experts of their own experiences 3, 5

Apply self-awareness and self-regulation to manage the influence of personal biases and values in working
with diverse clients and constituencies

1, 7

Competency 3: Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and
Environmental Justice

Apply their understanding of social, economic, and environmental justice to advocate for human rights at the
individual and system levels

3, 10

Engage in practices that advance social, economic, and environmental justice 2, 8

Competency 4: Engage In Practice-informed Research and
Research-informed Practice

Use practice experience and theory to inform scientific inquiry and research 9

Apply critical thinking to engage in analysis of quantitative and qualitative research methods and research


Use and translate research evidence to inform and improve practice, policy, and service delivery 1, 3, 6, 7, 11

Competency 5: Engage in Policy Practice

Identify social policy at the local, state, and federal level that impacts well-being, service delivery, and access to
social services


Assess how social welfare and economic policies impact the delivery of and access to social services 1, 6

Apply critical thinking to analyze, formulate, and advocate for policies that advance human rights and social,
economic, and environmental justice

2, 5

CSWE EPAS 2015 Core Competencies and Behaviors in This Text

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Competency Chapter

Competency 6: Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and


Apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in- environment, and other
multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks to engage with clients and constituencies

7, 5, 9

Use empathy, reflection, and interpersonal skills to effectively engage diverse clients and constituencies 3, 4, 6

Competency 7: Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and

Collect and organize data, and apply critical thinking to interpret information from clients and constituencies 4, 8

Apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in- environment, and other
multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks in the analysis of assessment data from clients and constituencies


Develop mutually agreed-on intervention goals and objectives based on the critical assessment of strengths, needs,
and challenges within clients and constituencies


Select appropriate intervention strategies based on the assessment, research knowledge, and values and
preferences of clients and constituencies


Competency 8: Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and

Critically choose and implement interventions to achieve practice goals and enhance capacities of clients and


Apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in-environment, and other
multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks in interventions with clients and constituencies

4. 5

Use inter-professional collaboration as appropriate to achieve beneficial practice outcomes 10

Negotiate, mediate, and advocate with and on behalf of diverse clients and constituencies 11

Facilitate effective transitions and endings that advance mutually agreed-on goals 11

Competency 9: Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups,
Organizations, and Communities

Select and use appropriate methods for evaluation of outcomes 12

Apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in-environment, and other
multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks in the evaluation of outcomes


Critically analyze, monitor, and evaluate intervention and program processes and outcomes 12

Apply evaluation findings to improve practice effectiveness at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels 12

CSWE EPAS 2015 Core Competencies and Behaviors in This Text

Adapted with permission of Council on Social Work Education

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Social Work Macro
F. Ellen Netting
Virginia Commonwealth University

Peter M. Kettner
Arizona State University

Steven L. McMurtry
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

M. Lori Thomas
University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Sixth Edition

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Preface xi

1. An Introduction to Macro Practice in Social Work 1
What Is Macro Practice? 1

The Interrelationship of Micro and Macro Social Work Practice 2
Macro-Level Change 3
Macro-Practice Arenas and Roles 4

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Policy Practice 5
A Systematic Approach to Macro Social Work Practice 7

The Foundation of Macro Practice 9
The Importance of Terminology 9

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Diversity and Difference 9
Theories, Models, and Approaches 11
Values and Ethics 13

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Ethical and Professional Behavior 16
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Research-informed Practice (or Practice-informed Research) 17

Four Case Examples 19
Case Example 1: Child Protective Services 19
Case Example 2: Case Management with Older Adults and Disabled Persons 21
Case Example 3: Advocacy and Organizing with Immigrant Youth 23
Case Example 4: Chronic Homelessness 24

Surviving in Professional Practice 26
Summary 27

2. Historical and Contemporary Inf luences on Macro Practice 29
The Context within Which Professional Social Work Emerged 29

Social Conditions 30
Ideological Inf luences 32

The Development of Social Work as a Profession 33
Charity Organization Societies and Settlement Houses 34
Early Social Work Education 35
Recognizing the Importance of Macro Roles 36


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Social Work’s Commitment to Diverse and Oppressed Populations 40
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Diversity and Difference in Practice 40

Native Americans 41
Latinos 42
African Americans 43
Asian Americans 44
Women 45
Persons with Disabilities 46
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Persons 47

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Human Rights and Justice 47

Contemporary Challenges 48
Addressing Poverty and Welfare Reform 48

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Policy Practice 49
Recognizing Income Inequality 50
Assessing Changing Community Patterns of Affiliation and Identification 51
Assessing Changing Organizations and Delivery Systems 52
Wisely Using Technology 54

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Ethical and Professional Behavior 55

The Importance of Change 56
Summary 57

3. Engaging with Diverse Populations 59
Diversity and Difference 59

Advancing Human Rights and Social and Economic Justice 60
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Human Rights and Justice 61

Where Does One Begin? 61

A Framework for Engaging Population Groups 62
Task 1: Start Where the Population Is 63

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Diversity and Difference in Practice 65
Task 2: Assess the Impact of Difference, Discrimination, and Oppression 67
Task 3: Search the Professional Knowledge Base on the Target Population 73

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Research-informed Practice
(or Practice-informed Research) 73

Task 4: Develop Strategies for Authentic Engagement 77
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Engagement 82

Summary 84

4. Assessing Community and Organizational Problems 87
The Social Worker’s Entry into an Episode of Macro-Level Change 87

Conditions, Problems, Issues, Needs, and Opportunities 89
Narrowing Down to the Most Useful Data and Information 91

Framing and Reframing Problems 91
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Assessment 93

vi Contents

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A Framework for Assessing Community and Organizational Problems 94
Task 1: Gather Information from Persons within the Community or Organization 95

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Engagement 98
Task 2: Explore the Professional Knowledge Base on the Condition, Problem, Need, or

Opportunity 98
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Research-informed Practice

(or Practice-informed Research) 106
Task 3: Frame the Problem and Develop Working Hypotheses 107

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Intervention 110

Summary 113

5. Understanding Communities 116
Conceptualizing Community 116

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Diversity and Difference in Practice 118
Defining Community 118
Dimensions of Communities 119
Community Functions 122
When Community Functions Fail 124

Community Theories 125
Systems Theories 125
Human, Population, or Social Ecology Theories 130

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Engagement 131
Human Behavior Theories 133
Theories about Power, Politics, and Change 137

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Policy Practice 139

Contemporary Perspectives 140
Strengths, Empowerment, and Resiliency Perspectives 141
Asset Mapping 143
Capacity Building 144

Community Practice Models 147
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Intervention 149

Summary 151

6. Assessing Communities 153
Engaging Communities 153

Two Community Vignettes 154
Vignette 1: Canyon City 154

Encountering the Community 155
Narrowing the Focus 155
Mobilizing Resources 156

Vignette 2: Lakeside 156
Assessing Major Changes 156
Witnessing the Impact of Change 157

Contents vii

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Implications of the Vignettes 157
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Diversity and Difference in Practice 158

Framework for Community Assessment 159
Task 1: Identify Focal Community 160

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Engagement 164
Task 2: Locate Data and Information on Community Needs,

Issues, and Problems 167
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Research-Informed Practice

(or Practice- Informed Research) 170
Task 3: Assess Community Social and Political Assets 171

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Policy Practice 173
Task 4: Assess Community Structure and Capacity 177
Examine Service Delivery Units 177
Identify Patterns of Inf luence, Control, and Service Delivery 180
Determine Linkages between Units 181

Summary 184

7. Understanding Organizations 188
Conceptualizing organizations 188

Using Theories as Frames and Filters 189

Structural Theories and Perspectives 192
Bureaucratic Theory 192
Scientific and Universalistic Management 194

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Research-Informed Practice
(or Practice-Informed Research) 197

Organizational Goals and the Natural-Systems
Perspective 197

Management by Objectives (MBO) 198
Organizations as Open Systems 200
Contingency Theory 201

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Engagement 204

Human Resource Theories and Perspectives 205
Human Relations Theory 205
Theory X and Theory Y 207
Quality-Oriented Management 208

Political Theories and Perspectives 211
Decision-making Theory 211
Resource Dependency and Political-Economy Theories 212
Critical and Feminist Theories 214

Symbolic Theories and Perspectives 216
Organizational Culture Theory 217

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Diversity and Difference in Practice 220

viii Contents

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Organizational Learning Theory 222
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Ethical and Professional Behavior 223

Summary 224

8. Assessing Human Service Organizations 226
Engaging Human Service Organizations 226

Two Vignettes of Human Service Organizations 228
Vignette 1: Canyon County Department of

Child Welfare 228
Creating a Dynamic Organization 228
Dismantling a Dynamic Organization 229
Involvement of the County Board 229
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Ethical and Professional Behavior 229

Vignette 2: Lakeside Family Services 230
Historical Development 230
Major Changes Occur 230
The Search for Strategies 230

Implications of the Vignettes 231

Framework for Organizational Assessment 232
Task 1: Identify Focal Organization 232

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Assessment 235
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Human Rights and Justice 236

Task 2: Assess the Organization’s Environmental Relationships 238
Task 3: Assess Internal Organizational Capacity 246
Task 4: Assess the Cultural Competency of this Organization 259

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Diversity and Difference in Practice 261

Summary 263

9. Building Support for the Proposed Change 267
Designing the Intervention 267

Task 1: Develop the Intervention Hypothesis 268
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Research-informed Practice

(or Practice-informed Research). 272

Building Support 272
Task 2: Define Participants 273

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Engagement 284

Examining System Capacity for Change 286
Task 3: Determine Openness and Commitment to Change 287
Task 4: Strengthen Collective Identity 288

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Assessment 290
Task 5: Identify Outside Opposition to Change 292

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Intervention 293

Summary 296

Contents ix

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10. Selecting Appropriate Strategies and Tactics 299
Assessing the Political and Economic Context 299

Task 1: Assess Political and Economic Feasibility 301
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Human Rights and Justice 303

Selecting Approaches to Change 304
Task 2: Select a Change Approach 305

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Policy Practice 305
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Ethical and Professional Behavior 307

Selecting Strategies and Tactics 309
Task 3: Select Strategies and Tactics 309

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Intervention 318

Summary 326

11. Planning and Implementing the Intervention 329
Understanding the Logic Model 329

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Research-informed Practice
(or Practice-informed Research) 330

Applying the Logic Model to a Case Example 331

A Framework for Planning the Details of the Intervention 333
Task 1: Revisit the Working Hypothesis of Intervention 335

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Assessment 336
Task 2: Set a Goal for the Intervention 336
Task 3: Write Outcome and Process Objectives 336

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Intervention 343
Task 4: List Activities for Process Objectives 343
Task 5: Initiate the Action Plan 346

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Intervention 347

Summary 350

12. Monitoring and Evaluating the Intervention 358
The Importance of Monitoring and Evaluation 358

Types of Evaluation 359
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Evaluation 359

How Changes Can Go Wrong 360

A Framework for Evaluating The Change Effort 361
Task 1: Conduct a Process Evaluation 362
Task 2: Conduct an Outcome Evaluation 368

CorE CoMPETEnCy: Evaluation 369
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Evaluation 375
CorE CoMPETEnCy: Evaluation 379

Summary 381

References 383
Glossary 398
Index 405

x Contents

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Twenty-five years ago, three colleagues at Arizona State University School of Social Work decided to write a book
to use in two courses in the foundation macro practice sequence in which we were teaching. At that point, we
were using “course packs” comprised of readings f rom professional journals and book chapters, and we needed a
textbook that integrated a growing conceptual and empirically based literature on organizational and community
change. Through multiple revisions we continued our collaboration, in 2012 adding a fourth author to our team.

Much has changed in 25 years, but our commitment to our original goal remains steadfast. From the beginning,
we wanted to recapture a broader definition of social work practice that recognizes that all social workers must be
able to engage, assess, and intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. In short,
we believed (and continue to believe) that active involvement in community and organizational change represents
one of the richest and proudest traditions of social work practice over the last century.

new to This Edition
It is our intent in this edition to bring readers abreast of the changes within the field. We have worked to make the
sixth edition more practice oriented, integrating more field-based vignettes and examples throughout and elab-
orating the planned change model originally introduced in earlier editions. We have incorporated more material
on international and global content in order to prepare future practitioners for encountering both domestic and
international social problems. We have paid special attention to the use of technology such as social media and
electronic advocacy, in addition to video links and media asset recommendations. We have reinforced the role of
advocacy in all aspects of social work practice. Structurally, we have rearranged chapters, added a new chapter, de-
leted dated material, added new material, and integrated the most up-to-date conceptual and empirical scholarship
into all chapters. Across all chapters, at least one-third of all references are new to this edition. In all changes in
this edition, we have tried to be as conscientiously attentive and responsive to reviewers’ feedback as possible while
ensuring consistency with current professional literature on macro practice.

Specific changes follow:

• Framing Macro Social Work in an International Context. In Chapters 1–2, we have framed macro
practice within an international context, adding references from international journals and information on
international codes of ethics, referring to differences in social work education across multiple countries,
adding a case example on international social work, and writing a new section entitled “Global Perspectives
on Social Work.”

• Adding Content on Diverse Populations. Chapters 3 and 4 have been reversed, placing the chapter on
populations before the chapter on problems. In Chapter 3, we lead with a new section on “Advancing
Human Rights and Social and Economic Justice,” including new content on cultural humility, cultural
competency, whiteness studies, and critical race theory. Another new section, “Developing Strategies
for Authentic Engagement” in Chapter 3, includes new material on working with groups, community
organizing, and community engagement.

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• Including Alternative Theories. New theoretical content has been added as
follows: Critical Race Theory, and Identity Theory (Chapters 3 and 9); Framing
Theory (Chapter 4); Assets Mapping, Field Interactional Theory, and Power De-
pendency Theory (Chapter 5); and Organizational Culture, Feminist, and Critical
Theories (Chapters 7 and 8). Chapter 7 was entirely restructured to tighten up the
content on classical theories in order to focus more on contemporary approaches
reorganized within four schools of thought.

• Updating Practice Frameworks. All f rameworks have been revised, rearranged,
and updated in Chapters 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. New tasks within the frame-
works have been renamed to be more congruent with EPAS competencies and
graphical representations of each framework are now included. A new task and
set of activities on “Identify Focal Community” leads the framework in Chapter
6. A new task on “Assessing the Cultural Competency of an Organization” is
now featured in Chapter 8. New material has been added to Chapters 11 and 12
on the logic model in an attempt to strengthen the student’s understanding of
the relationship between this model and the macro practice procedures we are

• Adding Content on Technology. Chapters 1 and 2 feature updated information
on the wise use of technology. In Chapter 9, a new section called “Strengthen
Collective Identity” focuses on how use of the Internet, social-networking sites,
and mobile technology can be used to facilitate communication among action
system members. This is reinforced by a section on the use of technology in ad-
vocating for change in Chapter 10.

• Adding new Chapter on Evaluation. Our original Chapter 11 has been divided
into new Chapters 11 and 12. Each chapter has been expanded in light of review-
ers’ concerns that more material on the planning, implementing, monitoring,
and evaluating aspects of planned change needed more depth. The new Chapter
11 now introduces and focuses on understanding the logic model, illustrated by a
series of new figures that demonstrate the model’s use. Chapter 12 is almost com-
pletely new, focusing in detail on monitoring and evaluating.

• Chapter reviews at the end of each chapter allow students to evaluate mastery
of skills and competencies learned.

• Marginal media assets are included so that students can search the Internet for
relevant content.

Connecting Core Competencies Series
The sixth edition of this text is now a part of Pearson Education’s Connecting Core Com-
petencies series, which consists of foundation-level texts that make it easier than ever to
ensure students’ success in learning the nine core competencies as revised in 2015 by the
Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This text contains:

• Core Competency Icons throughout the chapters, directly linking the CSWE
core competencies to the content of the text. Critical thinking questions are
also included to further students’ mastery of the CSWE standards. For easy refer-
ence, a chart in the front pages of the book displays which competencies are used
in each chapter.

xii Preface

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Interactive Enhanced Pearson eText
The sixth edition Enhanced eText, produced by Pearson, contains new digital elements
to enhance student learning and user experiences:

• Assess your Understanding Quizzes appear at the end of each major section
within each chapter, with multiple-choice questions to test students’ knowledge
of the chapter content.

• Chapter review Quizzes appear at the end of each chapter, with essay questions
to test student’s understanding of major concepts in the chapter.

• Video links are provided throughout the chapters to encourage students to
access relevant video content.

Instructor Supplements
An Instructor’s Manual, Test Bank, and PowerPoint slides are available to accompany
this text. They can be downloaded at

The Importance of Macro Practice
We contend that social workers who see clients every day and encounter the same prob-
lems over and over are the ones who are most aware of the need for macro-level change,
and even if they are not in a position to take the lead in initiating change they need
to understand the process and be supportive of others who are involved in macro-level
efforts. Macro practice, understood within this context, defines the uniqueness of social
work practice. Many disciplines claim expertise in working with individuals, groups,
and families, but social work has long stood alone in its focus on the organizational,
community, and policy contexts within which its clients function. The concept of
person-in- environment is not simply a slogan that makes social workers aware of en-
vironmental inf luences. It means that social workers recognize that sometimes it is
the environment and not the person that needs to change. Mullaly (2007) states that so-
cial workers are not simply called to be direct practitioners, but are equally called to be
change agents particularly in situations that place service users’ best interests first. Our
book is designed to prepare social workers to be agents of change for the purpose of
improving people’s quality of life.

We are aware that the history of social work as a profession has been marked by
shifts in and tensions between intervention with individuals and intervention with and
within larger systems. Early perspectives on the latter tended to focus primarily on
policy-level involvements (especially legislative processes). As the need for content on so-
cial work administration and management, and community practice was recognized and
incorporated into the curriculum of many schools of social work, these topics were also
embraced as an area of concentration for those who wanted to work with and within
larger systems. In order to manage oversubscribed curricula, students have often been
forced to concentrate in either macro or micro areas, creating a false dichotomy, when
social work of all professions is uniquely positioned to integrate both.

Therefore, over the years as we taught required foundation-level courses on com-
munity and organizational change, and as we worked with students and professionals in
the field, we became aware of the changing dynamics of practice and expectations for
practitioners. Both students and practitioners were working with populations such as

Preface xiii

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homeless persons, members of teen street gangs, victims of domestic violence, chroni-
cally unemployed persons, frail older adults, and other disenfranchised groups. Although
social workers will always need casework and clinical skills to help people in need on a
one-to-one basis, it was becoming increasingly evident to many in the profession that
they were also expected to intervene at the community level. Typical activities included
promoting the development of shelters, developing neighborhood alternatives to gang
membership and juvenile incarceration, addressing chronic unemployment, and navigat-
ing the complexity of long-term care services as a community problem. It was becoming
more and more evident that social workers must be contextual thinkers.

These activities are not new; many closely mirror the work of settlement-house
workers in the early days of the profession. Yet, many social work students have tra-
ditionally seen themselves as preparing strictly for interventions at the individual or
domestic level. It is unexpected and disconcerting when they find themselves being asked
to initiate actions and design interventions that will affect large numbers of people and
take on problems at the community or organizational level if they are not prepared to
undertake and support these kinds of professional activities. When social work practice
with macro systems is seen as solely the realm of administrators, community organizers,
program planners, and others, a vital linkage to millions of people who struggle daily
with environmental constraints has been severed. Macro-level change may, but does not
necessarily always, involve large-scale, costly reforms at the national and state levels or
the election of candidates more sympathetic to the poor, neglected, and underserved
members of society. Sometimes useful macro-level change can involve organizing a local
neighborhood to deal with deterioration and blight; sometimes it may mean initiating a
self-help group and stepping back so that members will assume leadership roles. Thus,
the focus of this book is on enabling social work practitioners to undertake whatever
types of macro-level interventions are needed in an informed, analytical way and with a
sense of confidence that they can do a competent job and achieve positive results.

As this sixth edition goes to press, schools of social work and professional
associations are continuing the ongoing debate about the role of macro social work
practice in oversubscribed curricula; and making choices about what content to
cover, and which courses to offer and methods to use (e.g., classroom, hybrid, and
online), in delivering that content. Reports on the state of macro practice social
work have been issued, and a Special Commission to Advance Macro-Practice in So-
cial Work is engaged in a multipronged strategic approach to deal with imbalances
between micro and macro, the marginality of macro practitioners and educators,
and the lack of support for macro practice (Rothman & Mizrahi, 2014). Challenges
to professional macro practitioners’ identity, recognition of tensions among social
work educators, and concerns about state licensing that privilege clinical roles all
promise to fuel a continuing dialogue among individuals and groups committed to
the field (Hill, Ferguson, & Erickson, 2010).

Amid these debates and challenges about social work as a profession is an increasing
recognition that skilled macro practitioners are needed more than ever within a global
context (Santiago, Soska, & Gutierrez, 2014). So much has happened in the last 25 years
that could not have been predicted. The editors of a special issue of the Journal of Commu-
nity Practice name a few: “global and domestic terrorism, economic adjustments, natural
disasters, migration and immigration, new and emerging technologies, globalization …
not unique to the United States and … mirrored around the globe” (Gutierrez, Gant, &

xiv Preface

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Preface xv

Richards-Schuster, 2014, p. 1). Within this international context, we believe it is critical
to reiterate our original goal—to recapture a broader definition of social work practice
that recognizes that all social workers must be able to engage, assess, and intervene with
individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Across the world, macro
practice skills are needed more than we ever imagined 25 years ago when we started
this endeavor. It is our hope that we may contribute to preparing the next generation of
social workers to embrace their calling.

Gutierrez, L., Gant, L. M., & Richards-Schuster, K. (2014). Community organization in

the twenty-first century: Scholarship and practice directions for the future. Journal of
Community Practice, 22(1–2), 1–9.

Hill, K. M., Ferguson, S. M., & Erickson, C. (2010). Sustaining and strengthening a
macro identity: The Association of Macro Practice Social Work. Journal of Community
Practice, 18(4), 513–527.

Mullaly, B. (2007). The new structural social work (3rd ed.). Don Mills, Canada: Oxford
University Press.

Rothman, J., & Mizrahi, T. (2014). Balancing micro and macro practice: A challenge for
social work. Social Work, 59(1), 1–3.

Santiago, A. M., Soska, T., & Gutierrez, L. (2014). Responding to community crises: The
emerging role of community practice. Journal of Community Practice, 22(3), 275–280.

As we finish this sixth edition, much has changed since our original 1993 publication. We
are now scattered in four different geographical locations: Virginia, Arizona, Wisconsin,
and North Carolina. We are indebted to our colleagues and students at the four uni-
versities where we have worked who have given us constructive and helpful feedback
throughout the years. We want to thank colleagues who provided feedback as they used
our text at other universities. We appreciate as well the efforts of a number of reviewers
who provided careful and thoughtful assessments of earlier drafts. For this sixth edition,
these individuals are Donna M. Aguiniga, University of Alaska Anchorage; Kathleen
Arban, Salisbury University; Iran Barrera, California State University, Fresno; Mark
Cameron, Southern Connecticut State University; Adrianne M. Fletcher, University of
Wisconsin, Green Bay; and Angela Kaiser, Oakland University.

To our editor, Julie Peters, we express our sincere appreciation for her oversight,
patience, interest, and assistance as we began the revision of our text. To Janet Portisch
and Megan Moffo at Pearson we thank you for working so hard to facilitate the many
transitions we made during this edition. To our project managers at Lumina Datamatics,
Doug Bell, Prathiba Naveenkumar, and Murugesh Rajkumar Namasivayam, we extend a
round of applause for their diligent oversight about details, constant enthusiasm for the
process, and unconditional support. Most of all, we thank those students and practition-
ers who, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers, continue to practice
social work the way it was intended. This book is dedicated to them. They intervene at
whatever level is needed. They persist with what may appear to be intractable problems
and work with clients who have lost hope until hope can be rediscovered and pursued.
Their spirit and dedication continually inspire us in our efforts to provide whatever guid-
ance we can for the next generation of social workers.

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Learning OutcOmes

• Define macro practice and its
relationship to micro practice.

• Explain the theoretical and values
foundation of macro practice.

• Discuss case examples used to
illustrate macro practice.

• Discuss methods used to survive
practice challenges.

chapter OutLine

What Is Macro Practice? 1
The Interrelationship of Micro and

Macro Social Work Practice
Macro-Level Change
Macro-Practice Arenas and Roles
A Systematic Approach to Macro

Social Work Practice

The Foundation of Macro
Practice 9
The Importance of Terminology
Theories, Models, and Approaches
Values and Ethics

Four Case Examples 19
Case Example 1: Child Protective

Case Example 2: Case Management

with Older Adults and Disabled

Case Example 3: Advocacy and
Organizing with Immigrant Youth

Case Example 4: Chronic

Surviving in Professional
Practice 26

Summary 27

An Introduction to
Macro Practice in
Social Work






What Is Macro PractIce?

This book is intended for all social workers, regardless of whether
they specialize or concentrate in micro or macro tracks within
schools of social work (Rothman & Mizrahi, 2014). Because we be-
lieve that all social workers are professional change agents, we use
the terms social worker, professional, and change agent interchangeably
throughout this book.

This book is also designed to be an introduction to macro prac-
tice as a set of professional activities in which all social workers are
involved. Although some practitioners will concentrate their efforts
primarily in one arena more than another, all social workers en-
counter situations in which macro-level interventions are the appro-
priate response to a need or a problem. Therefore, we define macro
practice as professionally guided intervention(s) designed to bring about
change in organizational, community, and/or policy arenas.

professional identity is a relational concept in that one iden-
tifies with a community of colleagues who share a common value
base and whose joint efforts work toward “a way of life with public

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2 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

value” (Sullivan, 2005, p. 39). Professions “exist to meet the needs of others” within the
larger community (Gustafson, 1982, p. 508). This characteristic has led a number of
writers to refer to professions as callings because they literally call members to contrib-
ute to the civic good. Professions are therefore client oriented and conform to a set of
values that encapsulate the community good that is to be served. In many ways, it is this
commitment to the understanding and changing of larger systems that defines social
work. Sullivan (2005) argues that the very nature of professionalism implies a responsi-
bility to the larger society and to the common good.

In his classic book, Social Work as Cause and Function, Porter Lee (1937) described the
dual calling of social work—to address systemic social problems and to provide for the
needs of individuals and families. Lee acknowledged the inherent tension in trying to do
both. In planning for social change while simultaneously responding to immediate need,
social work finds its unique “both-and” contribution (Gates, 2014).

This book is based on the assumption that professional social workers will always
experience tension as long as they recognize the importance of both providing direct
services and addressing organizational and community problems. Social workers must
see themselves as problem solvers and do both in order to truly be doing social work.
The only other option is to ignore recurring problems. Thus, macro practice is not an
option but is an integral part of being a professional social worker. All social workers will
engage in some form of macro practice.

the Interrelationship of Micro and Macro social Work Practice

A broad focus on arenas for change is a feature that makes social work unique among
helping professions. When the arena for change is limited solely to casework with in-
dividuals and families, an assumption is being made. The assumption is that causal fac-
tors associated with the problem or need can be found only in some deficit in the micro
system—the client, couple, or family coming for help—or in their abilities to access
needed resources. Broadening the problem analysis to include organizations and com-
munities recognizes the possibility or likelihood that, in some situations, the pathology
or causal factors may be identified in the policies and/or practices of macro systems—
communities and their various institutions. For example, an organization may fail to pro-
vide relevant and needed services, or may provide them in a narrow and discriminatory
manner. Or some members of a community may find themselves excluded from partici-
pation in decisions that affect them.

It is not unusual for direct practitioners to have clients ask for help with problems
that at first appear to be individual or interpersonal, but, after further examination, turn
out to be macro-level problems. A family that loses its primary source of income, under-
goes eviction, and finds that there is no affordable housing and a three-month waiting list
to get into a homeless shelter represents a symptom of a community problem. Clearly,
the family’s immediate shelter problem must be resolved, but just as obviously, the com-
munitywide lack of affordable housing and emergency alternatives must be addressed.

A veteran may report having difficulty getting an appointment to see a specialist at
the Veterans Administration and is put on a waiting list. This may seem like an isolated
incident until the social worker begins to see a pattern developing among his clients who
are service members or veterans. When he watches the news one night to learn that this

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 3

delay is keeping thousands of veterans from getting health care services and that policies
surrounding how waiting lists are handled need to change, what seemed like an individ-
ual’s problem is quickly seen as a macro problem in the veterans’ health care system.
Collecting data, advocating at the local level, and joining others around the country to
advocate for system reform become necessary if his clients are to receive what they need.

A mother may describe the pressures put on her son to join a gang and become
involved in the drug trade. The immediate need of this family can perhaps be met by
building a support system for the boy designed to keep him in school, in a part-time job,
and in constructive activities. However, this individual/family approach alone would not
solve the problem for the many other families who must live daily with the same threats.

In yet another example, a social worker employed by a community-based agency
on an American Indian reservation talks about the importance of her work, as she con-
stantly has to ask indigenous people for advice so that she does not make assumptions
about the people with whom she works. The concept of community and what it means
to this tribe, even the value of the land as a part of their tradition, is so crucial. It is much
more complex than she had assumed when she was in school. In her position, this social
worker has come to appreciate the false dichotomy between micro and macro social
work. Although she works directly with tribal members, she is constantly assessing their
environment, asking for advice, and recognizing the cultural context in which all her
actions are embedded.

In instances like these, micro-level interventions alone may be inefficient (and often
ineffective) ways to address macro-level problems, and they also run the risk of dealing
only with symptoms. In some ways, using micro-level interventions to address a mac-
ro-level problem is similar to treating individuals who are suffering from a new f lu strain
one at a time rather than vaccinating the whole population before they contract the dis-
ease. In short, it is as important for social workers to understand the nature of individual
and group interventions as it is to understand the nature of organizational, community,
and policy change.

Macro-Level change

Intervention in organizations or communities is referred to as macro-level change.
Managing macro-level change requires a good deal of professional knowledge and
skill. Poor management and f lawed decision making in the change process can result
in serious setbacks that can make things worse for those already in need. On the other
hand, many positive changes in organizations and communities have been orchestrated
by social workers and others who have carefully planned, designed, and carried out the
change process.

Social work students often express the concern that they came into the profession
because of an interest in working with individuals and families, not with communities
and organizations. This can sometimes present an ethical dilemma, because at times
what a client or family most needs in the long run is macro-level change. This does not
mean that the immediate need is not addressed. It also does not mean that the social
worker is left alone to bring about community or organizational change. Macro practice
is a collaborative effort, and change will rarely be immediate. But ignoring the need for
change should not be considered a viable option.

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4 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

Given the complexity of macro interventions, practitioners may begin to feel over-
whelmed. Is it not enough to perform good direct practice or clinical work? Is it not
enough to listen to a client and offer options? Our answer is that professional practice
focusing only on an individual’s intrapsychic concerns does not fit the definition of social
work. Being a social worker requires seeing the client as part of multiple, overlapping
systems that comprise the person’s social and physical environment. The profession of
social work is committed to seeking social and economic justice in concert with vulnera-
ble and underserved populations, and macro-practice skills are necessary in confronting
these inequalities. For example, consider a woman reported for child neglect who lives
in a run-down home with structural problems her landlord refuses to fix. A clinical in-
tervention designed to strengthen her emotional coping skills might be useful, but that
intervention alone would ignore the context of the problem facing her and other women
living in similar conditions. Social workers engaging only in working with their individual
cases and ignoring larger scale problems may be doing so to the detriment of their clients.
Similarly, social workers who carry out episodes of macro practice must understand what
is involved in the provision of direct services to clients at the individual, domestic unit, or
group level. Without this understanding, macro practice may occur without an adequate
grounding in understanding client problems and needs. One example might be a social
worker who conducts a community crime prevention campaign to combat high rates of
petty theft in a neighborhood, unaware that most such acts are the work of a relatively
small number of residents desperately in need of drug-abuse intervention. The intercon-
nectedness of micro and macro roles is the heart of social work practice.

Macro-Practice arenas and roles

This book is not designed to prepare practitioners for full-time agency administration,
program planning, community organizing, or policy analysis positions. Social workers
who assume full-time macro roles will need a more advanced understanding than this
text provides. Nor is this a book on how to specialize in macro practice. Instead, it is
designed to provide basic knowledge and skills on aspects of macro practice in which
competent social work practitioners will need to engage. We also want to raise aware-
ness about how versatile social work is as a profession and about the potential one has to
engage at the macro level.

There are different ways to conceptualize the arenas in which macro social work
practice occurs. Rothman, Erlich, and Tropman (2008) identify three arenas of inter-
vention: communities, organizations, and small groups. We have selected communities
and organizations as the arenas on which the majority of this text will focus, folding
small-group work in as a critical part of most interventions in both communities and
organizations. Small groups are seen as collections of people who collaborate on tasks
that move toward agreed-upon changes. Small groups are often the nucleus around
which change strategies are developed in both communities and organizations, and they
are therefore more logically conceptualized as part of the strategy or medium for change
rather than the focus of change.

Other writers focus on the policy context in which macro intervention occurs
(Gilbert & Terrell, 2013; Jansson, 2014; Karger & Stoesz, 2013). The policy arena is
well articulated in other social work textbooks that complement the content here
(e.g., Cummins, Byers, & Pedrick, 2011). Organizational and community arenas are

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deeply embedded in political systems, which are typically the
starting points for development of social policies. Although the
creation and analysis of these policies are not our main focus,
an understanding of how ideologies and values are manifested
in local, state, national, and international politics is fundamen-
tal to macro change.

The majority of social workers deal with change directly with
clients, usually working with individuals one on one, or with fami-
lies or small groups. Some practitioners focus on communitywide
problems. Others work in the areas of planning, management, and
administration of organizations. Regardless of the professional so-
cial worker’s primary practice orientation, it is crucial that all social work practitioners sup-
port the position that although some problems can be resolved at an individual or family
level, others will require intervention that takes on a broader scope, including the need to
effect changes in organizations and communities. Social workers are constantly identify-
ing changes needed to make systems more responsive or sensitive to target populations.
Other professionals may also see themselves as change agents, and it is important for the
contemporary social work practitioner to collaborate and partner with those from other
professions so that the knowledge of diverse fields can be used in planning effective change.
Macro changes are typically too complex for one to address alone.

It is not uncommon to have social workers describe themselves as psychiatric social
workers, geriatric specialists, child welfare workers, and so on. These specialties denote the
target populations with whom these practitioners work. Just as common are terms such
as medical social worker and behavioral health specialist, indicating a setting in which these
professionals are employed. Within all of these specialities or settings, there are multiple
roles one can play as a social worker (Kerson & McCoyd, 2013).

Terms such as planner, community organizer, case manager, and group worker
describe actual functions performed by social workers. In addition, social
workers plan, develop, and coordinate programs; as well as administer, man-
age, and supervise staff in human service organizations. Social workers de-
velop and organize communities around the world. They advocate for policy
change and work as policy analysts in local, regional, national, and even inter-
national arenas.

Social work practice is broadly defined and allows for both micro (individual, do-
mestic unit, or group) and macro interventions (organization, community, or policy).
See Box 1.1. Social workers who undertake macro interventions will often be engaged
in what is called “policy practice” ( Jansson, 2014) because policy change is so integral
to what happens in organizations and communities. Given this division of labor, some
professional roles require that the social worker be involved full-time in macro prac-
tice. These professional roles are often referred to by such titles as planner, policy ana-
lyst, program coordinator, community organizer, manager, and administrator.

The micro service worker or clinical social worker also bears responsibility for ini-
tiating change in organizations and communities. Workers in micro-level roles are often
the first to recognize patterns indicating the need for change. If one or two persons pres-
ent a particular problem, a logical response is to deal with them as individuals. However,
as more individuals present the same situation, it may become evident that something
is awry in the systems with which these clients are interacting. The social worker must

Watch the video on
collaborating with
colleagues and clients

for effective policy action in
community organization. What
change arena do the community
members focus on in the

chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 5

Policy Practice

Practice Behavior: Assess how social welfare and
economic policies impact the delivery of and access to
social services.

critical thinking Question: In your field or work
experience, what policies have influenced how you prac-
tice? How have these policies benefitted or constrained
your work?

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6 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

then assume the responsibility for identifying the system(s) in need of change and
the type of change needed. The nature of the system(s) in need of change and the type
of change needed may lead to communitywide intervention or intervention in a single

Suppose, for example, the staff in a senior center discover that a number of older
persons in the community are possibly malnourished because of self-neglect and social
isolation. A caseworker could follow up on each person, one at a time, in an attempt
to provide outreach and needed services. But this could take a long time and produce
hit-or-miss results. An alternative would be to deal with the problem from a macro per-
spective—to invest time in organizing agency and community resources to identify older
people who need the senior center’s services and to ensure that services are provided
through a combination of staff and volunteer efforts.

Or assume that a social worker begins seeing more and more mixed-status families,
composed of members with varying legal status. Parents are fearful of being targeted by
deportation laws that could cause them to be forced to leave the country without their
citizen-children. Choices are having to be made every day as some parents choose to leave
their children in hopes that they will have a better life, whereas others choose to take their
children with them even though this will mean taking them into exile. The social worker
recognizes how untenable this position is for parents who have to make a choice between
orphaning their children or exiling them to an unknown fate (Zayas & Bradlee, 2014).
This social worker decides to document these cases, and asks her colleagues to do the
same thing, so that they can join forces in advocating for immigration reform.

Level Primary Focus of

examples of roles

Micro Individuals Clinician
Care Coordinator

Micro Domestic Unit Family Counselor
Case Manager

Micro and Macro Small Groups Group Worker

Macro Organizations Human Service Administrator
Midlevel Manager
Program Coordinator

Macro Communities Community Developer
Community Organizer
Community Planner
Social Activist

Macro Policy Legislative Advocate
Policy Analyst

Box 1.1 Focus of Intervention

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 7

This may seem like a complex undertaking for someone who came into social work
expecting to work with people one at a time. Yet, these social workers know that they
have valuable practice experience that can be used to advocate for change . . . and, as a
social worker, they are committed to being a voice for those who are unheard.

Although it is true that macro-level interventions can be complicated, we will offer
a somewhat systematic approach that attempts to make such efforts more manageable.
Remember, too, that these interventions are typically accomplished with the help of
others, not alone.

a systematic approach to Macro social Work Practice

Social workers find themselves drawn into episodes of macro practice through a num-
ber of different avenues, which we will refer to as (1) population, (2) problem, and
(3) arena. The three overlapping circles in Figure 1.1 illustrate the focal points of the
social worker’s efforts in undertaking a macro-level change episode. As the intervention
becomes more clearly conceptualized and defined, political and policy contexts must
also be taken into consideration. Figure 1.1 illustrates an approach that can be used by
social workers to identify, study, and analyze the need for change and to begin formu-
lating solutions.

Initial awareness that a problem exists may occur in a variety of ways. It might be
brought to a social worker’s attention by a client. A group of residents within a neighbor-
hood may present issues and concerns that need to be addressed. Issues in the workplace,
such as the quality of service to clients, may surface and require organized intervention.
Community problems may be so glaring that the need for change comes f rom many
different directions. Social problems may be broadcast around the world, illustrating that
multiple societies are struggling with some of the same challenges that one has iden-
tified in a local arena. Regardless of how social workers identify change opportunities,
they function in a political environment that cannot be ignored.

Political & Policy Context


(Communities and


Macro Practice Conceptual Framework: Understanding Problem, Population, and Arena

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8 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

More will be said about these interacting factors later in this book, as the analytical
and intervention phases of macro-level change are described. The following examples
will illustrate these different points of entry into an episode of change.

• A social worker working with a senior center discovers that assisted-living
resources in the community are limited for low-income seniors. In this instance,
the worker’s point of entry into the episode of change may be through the
population of low-income older adults, helping them organize and approach the
city council or the state legislature about the need for more options for low-in-
come seniors who can no longer live alone.

• A social worker with a neighborhood service center may discover that among
the many families served by the center are five or six single parents who have
recently moved from welfare to work but are unable to find affordable child
care. Working with this group’s problem or need (children who need to be cared
for while the parent is at work) as his or her point of entry into the episode of
change, the social worker and others develop a plan for child care for the children
of these single parents.

• A social worker at a community center learns that many apartments in the
neighborhood are being used as drop points for undocumented immigrants,
where they wait until they are sent to various communities across the country.
Concerns are expressed about sanitation, safety, and exploitation. In this
instance, the worker’s point of entry into the episode of change may be the
community or neighborhood, perhaps by sponsoring some communitywide
meetings to discuss the impact, involving the appropriate community leaders
and  authorities, and working toward a resolution. This represents entry through
the community arena.

In the course of engaging with and assessing populations, problems, and arenas,
the social worker will inevitably focus on the areas of overlap depicted in Figure 1.1. To
engage in macro practice to help a client who is addicted to alcohol, for example, the
social worker must understand the problem (alcoholism), the background of the person
addicted (e.g., older, retired males), and the arena (community or organization) within
which the problem occurs. It would be important to review literature on the target
population, theory about how alcohol addiction develops, and reports from studies test-
ing various interventions. As the change agent builds a body of knowledge about the
population and problem, it becomes especially important to focus on the overlap be-
tween the two areas: alcoholism and its unique impact on retired males.

It is likewise important to understand how the phenomenon of alcoholism affects
the local community (the overlap between problem and arena), and to what extent the
needs of the population of retired males are understood and addressed in the local com-
munity (overlap between population and arena). Ultimately, in an episode of macro prac-
tice, the objective is to work toward an understanding of the area where all three circles
overlap (alcoholism and its impact on retired males in a given neighborhood or town).

As the social worker and other change agents assess the situation, they will gain
at least some level of understanding of (1) retired males, (2) basic concepts and is-
sues surrounding alcoholism, (3) the local community and/or relevant organiza-
tions, (4)  alcoholism as it affects retired males, (5) alcoholism and how it is addressed

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 9

in the local community, (6) how the needs of retired males are addressed in the local
community, (7) available interventions and their applicability to both the population and
community of interest, and, finally, (8) the problems and needs of retired males in the
local community who are addicted to alcohol.

Social and community problems and needs must also be addressed within a larger
context that affects the population, the problem, and the community or organization.
Dealing with social and community problems and needs effectively requires an awareness
of the political environment within which the change episode will be undertaken. For
these reasons, we have placed the three circles (population, problem, and arena)
within a large dotted outer circle intended to depict the political environment.
The importance of and the need for understanding the political and policy con-
texts within which macro-practice tasks take place cannot be overemphasized.

the FoundatIon oF Macro PractIce

Understanding the professional mission of social work that integrates micro and macro
interventions and respects the practitioners who perform those roles is essential to rec-
ognizing why macro practice is important. Essentially, social workers have a mission to
join the strengths of doing “both-and,” being able to intervene with an individual service
recipient and then skillfully moving into a larger system intervention that will make a
difference in the lives of multiple individuals.

Similarly, the person-is-political perspective underscores the belief that individuals
cannot be viewed separately f rom the larger society. The actions—or lack of actions—
of individuals inf luence those around them and may have broad implications for others
within an organization or a community. Thus, micro and macro roles are interconnected.

For those social workers committed to bringing about positive change not only for
individual clients but also for whole neighborhoods, organizations, and communities,
the question becomes: How is it possible to meet all the expectations of a job and still be
involved with larger issues?

In Chapters 3 through 12 of this book, we will attempt to present the building blocks
of a planned change model that makes it both possible and manageable to carry out epi-
sodes of change. Before we focus on a change model, it is necessary to develop a founda-
tion for macro practice. That foundation is based on an understanding of the relevance
of language; theories, models, and approaches; as well as values and ethics.

the Importance of terminology

It is important to acknowledge terminology used to describe di-
verse population groups with whom social workers interact.
Social workers need to recognize that terms used to define and
distinguish special populations can be applied adversely in ways
that reinforce stereotypes or isolate the members of these groups.

Abramovitz (1991) called attention to how common speech
sends messages beyond those actually spoken. She offered as an
example the phrase feminization of poverty, which calls attention

assess your understanding
of macro practice by

taking this brief quiz.


Diversity and Difference

Practice Behavior: Apply self-awareness and
self-regulation to manage the influence of personal
biases and values in working with diverse clients and

critical thinking Question: Why is language
so important in working with diverse clients and

M01_NETT8523_08_SE_C01.indd 9 9/28/15 10:35 AM

10 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

to the economic concerns of women but may also imply that poverty is a new issue for
women. She argued instead for the term povertization of women, which better ref lects the
long history of women’s economic disadvantage. She also argued against the use of the
sociological term underclass, which has been suggested as a replacement for multiproblem,
disadvantaged, or hard-to-reach poor people, because of its stigmatizing connotations.

Since the 1950s, growing attention has been given to employing more accurate
and less historically laden language when referring to special populations. For example,
among ethnic and racial groups, blacks adopted the term black as a preferred descriptor
in the 1960s and 1970s, supplanting the segregation-linked terms of Negro and colored.
Since the Civil Rights Movement, the term African American has gained widespread use,
and research indicates that Af rican Americans are evenly divided between black and
African American with regard to their preferred term (Sigelman, Tuch, & Martin, 2005).
Among Native Americans, the term Native American has been promoted as more appro-
priate than Indian. However, the full phrase American Indian is considered appropriate to
be used interchangeably with Native American (Native American Journalists Association,
2006). In Canada, the term First Nations People has come into general use, replacing the
term Indian for the indigenous people of the Americas. The term Latino is used as a
generic expression to represent persons of Latin American ancestry, including Puerto
Ricans, Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans (who also use the term Chicano), and oth-
ers. Advocates of the use of Latino or Latina contend that Hispanic (which was originally
created by the U.S. Bureau of the Census) is appropriately applied only to persons with
links to Spain (Gutiérrez & Lewis, 1999), but a survey by Hispanic Magazine (2006) found
that Hispanic was preferred by about two-thirds of the more than 1,000 registered voters
in the sample. About one-third chose to identify themselves as Latino (Granado, 2006).
Finally, the term white, despite its common usage, is poorly defined, but it remains more
broadly applicable than Anglo or Caucasian. Results f rom a study to determine the term
they prefer to be used when describing their group showed that, among whites, white
was preferred by a wide margin (62 percent) over Caucasian (17 percent) (U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics, 1995).

The term persons with disabilities is considered appropriate as a broad descriptor of
individuals who have different physical or mental capacities f rom the norm. The term
differently abled has been advocated as a way to avoid categorizing members of this group
in terms of their perceived limitations, but this phrase has not yet been commonly
adopted. With respect to sexuality, gay and lesbian have been preferred terms for at least
the past three decades, whereas individuals who are bisexual or transgender have also
become better recognized as distinct groups. Members of each group were previously
referred to as being distinguished by their sexual preference, but the term sexual orientation
is now considered more appropriate because it ref lects research indicating that such
orientation is innate rather than a matter of choice. The abbreviation LGBT (lesbian,
gay, bisexual, and transgender) has become commonplace and is now often expanded to
LGBTQ. In some uses, the additional letter stands for “questioning,” referring to people
who are uncertain about their sexual orientation. In others, it stands for “queer,” a once
derogatory term that activists have embraced as a sign of defiance against discrimina-
tion. With respect to gender, some feminist writers have argued for use of the terms
womyn or wimin on the basis that they are less derivative of the word men, but as yet these
terms have not gained wide use.

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 11

We recognize the importance of language, and it is our intent in this book
to ref lect that importance in our use of terms. Based on the preceding re-
views, we will intersperse the terms black and African American, Native American
and American Indian, and Hispanic and Latino. Our goal is to be sensitive to the
convictions and wishes of as many people within diverse population groups
as possible, and to ref lect what is considered standard terminology by mem-
bers of those groups. We hope the reader will recognize this as evidence of
the dynamic, evolving nature of modern language and as an acknowledgment
that social workers need to ask the persons with whom they work about what
language they view as respectful terminology.

theories, Models, and approaches

Theories are sets of interrelated concepts and constructs that provide a f ramework for
understanding how and why something does or does not work. Models are prescriptions
based on theories that provide direction for the practitioner, whereas approaches are less
prescribed. In other words, theories provide the tools for thinking about a problem or
need, whereas models and approaches provide guidelines for action and intervention.

In this book, we develop a practice model of planned change that is fairly prescrip-
tive and derives f rom systems theory. At the individual level, for example, theories pro-
vide explanations about the causes of various types of mental disorders, and practice
models arising f rom these theories suggest ways of helping people affected by the dis-
orders. On a larger scale, sociological theories may describe how communities, organi-
zations, or societies function. A practice model for initiating change in communities and
organizations (such as the planned change model presented in this book) illustrates how
these theories can lead to specific actions.

One theory that seems to have considerable relevance at both the micro and macro
levels is systems theory. systems theory contends that there are multiple parts of any
entity, whether it is a group, an organization, or a community. Entities can be best under-
stood as systems with interconnecting components, and certain common principles help
in understanding systems, whether they are as large as an international corporation or
as small as a family. There are resources that the system needs in order to function, and
they may come in the form of people, equipment, funding, knowledge, legitimacy, or a
host of other forms. These resources interact within the system, producing something
that becomes the system’s product.

Consider a human service agency that targets gay and lesbian youth. The volun-
teers and staff, funding f rom various sources, teachers f rom local schools, concerned
parents, and the youth themselves may all come together within this human service set-
ting. Their relationships and interactions will determine whether the organization func-
tions as a system or merely as a disparate assortment of parts. Functional systems have
a dynamic interaction among components that holds them together. The interaction
that holds this human service agency together may be the communication that occurs as
teachers, parents, and youth come together; their bonding over an important cause; their
shared commitment to the mission; and the desire to create a safer, more supportive en-
vironment for the youth. Systems expect conf lict and have ways to cope when it occurs.
For an agency dedicated to gay and lesbian youth, there will be strong community forces

Watch the video on the
conversation around
immigration. how does

the video challenge the use
of terminology in the debate
regarding immigration?

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12 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

that do not agree with what the agency is doing, and organize to challenge the change
effort. Depending on the level of conf lict, the system may have boundaries that are fairly
rigid in order to protect itself f rom external forces. The product of this system would be
youth who are better able to function in the larger environment and who have a sense of
who they are.

In an organizational arena, a systems approach reveals the complexity involved in
recognizing multiple groups (e.g., professional staff, clerical staff, management, admin-
istration, the board, clients, funding sources, neighbors, and others in the community)
that have a stake in what that organization does and whom it serves. This theoretical
perspective reminds the practitioner that organizations are complex systems embedded
in larger community systems, all of which are interacting on a daily basis.

Community researcher Roland Warren (1978) provided a good example of how
systems theory can be applied to understanding communities. He built on the work of
Talcott Parsons, a sociologist known for defining the characteristics of social systems.
He also incorporated the work of others who described how community systems would
differ from the groups and formal organizations to which systems theory had previously
been applied.

Warren saw the community as not just one system, but a system of systems in
which all types of formal and informal groups and individuals interact. Given the diver-
sity among groups and subgroups, communities have a broad range of structural and
functional possibilities that do not conform to a centralized goal. The beauty of a com-
munity system is that it is a complex arena in which multiple groups and organizations
with differing values may simultaneously exist.

Warren’s contention that a system endures through time speaks to social work prac-
titioners who work with groups committed to maintaining their communities and griev-
ing over the loss of what their communities used to be. For example, the physical land
and the interactions that occurred on that land may render it sacred to indigenous peo-
ple. Similarly, a widow who has lived on the same street corner for 60 years may hesitate
to move even when increasing crime threatens her physical safety.

Systems theory recognizes the importance of formal groups and organizations. For
example, in dealing with child maltreatment, child protective service workers, law en-
forcement officers, hospital emergency staff, teachers, public prosecutors, and others
combine their efforts within a community to ensure that vulnerable children receive the
highest levels of protection possible. However, it is equally important to recognize and
acknowledge “informal linkages.” For example, the social support that a female caregiver
of an aged parent receives from other caregivers may not be formalized or highly visible
in the community. Yet this linkage is vital to whether caregivers will be able to continue
the caregiving role. Therefore, systems thinking is value-based thinking; what is selected
for consideration will determine what is considered important. Because communities are
complex, thinking of them as social systems involves balancing a number of variables
that are in dynamic interaction.

Systems theory provides a set of assumptions that undergird the planned-change
model in this book. It is important to note that there are multiple approaches to sys-
tems theory, some more open to change than others. We assume that social workers will
encounter systems of every kind. Some organizations and communities will be more
amenable to change than others, some will be more closed, and others will be more

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 13

open to conf lict. Being able to assess these arenas and their openness to change is central
to the planned-change process.

In addition, systems theory that informs the planned-changed model implies that
there will be goals and outcomes, both of which are important steps in the planned-
change process. Our model of planned change assumes that there will be broadly de-
fined goals to guide practitioners’ efforts. goals are usually long term and sometimes
idealistic. However, goals provide a vision shared by clients and colleagues—a hope of
what can be—and they assist the practitioner in maintaining a focus. The identification
of these goals should be based on the best knowledge available.

From goals, we assume there will be outcomes, defined as quality-of-life changes
in clients’ lives, based on the interventions planned by practitioners. Much of the his-
tory of social work practice has been focused on process—what the social worker does.
Interventions of the future will be driven by outcomes—what change is expected to be
achieved by and for the target population as a result of this change effort. Balancing the
importance of process and the push for accountability through outcome measurement
is part of competent, contemporary practice. It is also key to planned-change interven-
tion. Together, goals and outcomes are based on the best available evidence, guided by as
complete as possible an understanding of the systems in which change will occur.

The model presented in this book and throughout most of this text is often referred
to as a rational planning approach. It is based on a study of the current situation and
a carefully developed and prescribed plan for change that leads to predetermined out-
comes. In rational planning there is a type of linearity present in that the plan, when
produced, goes f rom one step to the next until the established goal is achieved. This
process is called “reverse-order planning” (Brody, 2000, pp. 77–78): establishing a goal and
then backtracking to fill in the actions that need to occur to arrive at the selected goal.
However, this is not the only approach to community and organizational change avail-
able to social workers. The alternative to reverse-order planning is “forward-sequence
planning,” which begins by asking where can one start rather than what one wants as
the final result (Brody, 2000, pp. 77–78). These more interpretive planning processes
and emergent approaches are elaborated in other textbooks (e.g., Netting, O’Connor,
& Fauri, 2008) if you are interested in exploring alternative ways to plan. Rational ap-
proaches to change are typically preferred by funders and regulators; thus, it is important
that the social worker be as certain as possible about the course of action to be taken
in professionally assisted planned change, because there is often so much at stake. For
this reason, we recommend beginning with a rational planning approach and moving to
these alternative approaches only when the social worker is confident that an emergent
process is necessary.

Underlying any planned-change process is recognition of the potential value con-
f licts and ethical dilemmas that can occur in macro practice. We now turn to those.

Values and ethics

Professions require mastery of a large body of theoretical, research-based, and techni-
cal knowledge. Having professional expertise means being up-to-date on what theories
and practice models are available and integrating the best research evidence into one’s
practice. Thus, professional judgment derives f rom the ability to skillfully apply and

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14 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

discern the quality of the best knowledge available in a workable manner. Gustafson
(1982) argues that professional practitioners prefer guidelines rather than rules because
guidelines offer direction instead of rigid formulation. They allow professionals to exer-
cise discretion and to use their judgment. However, professionals also carry enormous
responsibility because what they decide and how they act will affect both their clients
and the multiple constituencies previously discussed (Cimino, Rorke, & Adams, 2013). In
professional practice, every choice is a value judgment.

Being a professional implies identification with a set of values that places the inter-
ests of the client first; a professional relies on knowledge, judgment, and skill to act on
those values. We define values as those strongly held beliefs about what is necessary and
worthy that many or most members of a social system perceive to be fundamental to
quality social work practice. In some ways, values are similar to theories—they provide
a framework for understanding and analyzing situations. ethics are similar to models—
they provide guidelines for practice in carrying out values. One can feel strongly about
something, but acting on that feeling involves ethical behavior, which is the operational-
ization of that value.

Because codes of ethics serve as guidelines for professional practice, it is imperative
that students know the content and limitations of written codes. It is also important for
social workers to know that codes of ethics develop over time (they change as new issues
arise), that there are multiple codes of ethics for social workers around the world, and
that there is an international code of ethics for social workers.

The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) has published a Code of
Ethics that endorses human rights and social justice as fundamental to the social work
profession. Their website links to codes of ethics in over 25 countries throughout the
world. Codes in Canada and the United States are very similar, and comparative stud-
ies have examined the relationship of national codes to the IFSW Code (Powell, 2009).
A commitment to social change is evident across social work codes, even though it is
viewed as dangerous for social workers in countries such as China to pursue this agenda
(Staniforth, Fouche, & O’Brien, 2011, p. 196). With assistance f rom the Center for the
Study of Ethics in Professions, Buila conducted an online review of 700 professional
codes of ethics in health, dental, mental health, and education fields. She selected 55 for
in-depth review, using key terms such as social justice, diversity, and discrimination. She
concluded that social work codes are unique in the value they place on social responsibil-
ity to pursue social and political action (Buila, 2010).

The U.S.-based National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics is
intended to introduce a perspective that drives practitioners’ thinking, establishes crite-
ria for selecting goals, and inf luences how information is interpreted and understood.
Regardless of which role the social worker plays—program coordinator, community
organizer, political lobbyist, or direct practitioner—these professional actions are not
value free.

The NASW Code of Ethics lists six core values on which the ethical principles of so-
cial work are based: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance
of human relationships, integrity, and competence. We focus on these core values f rom
the NASW Code to illustrate ethical conf licts that social workers may face when respon-
sibilities to multiple constituencies clash.

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 15

Social workers are often simultaneously engaged in both direct and indirect practice,
actions intended to help people in need and to address the social problems they face.
Closely related to providing service is the concept of beneficence, which is based on the
desire to do good for others, as well as not doing harm. Persons entering the field of so-
cial work will often say that they chose this profession because they want to help others.
The core value of service is typically a primary motivator for those professionals who
work in health and human service settings.

There is an ongoing debate in the field of social work around the core value of ser-
vice. Historically, there has been tension over where to direct limited resources, with
more radical members of the profession arguing that focusing on delivering social ser-
vices will create individual dependencies and redirect limited resources away from more
aggressive methods of changing oppressive systems and advocating for social justice.
Mainstream proponents argue that services must be provided to population groups that
are suffering and that collective action is fine as long as the focus on immediate need is
not lost (Gates, 2014). This debate and accompanying tension can be f ramed as a con-
f lict between the desire to provide service (status quo) and the quest for social justice
(social change). A social worker may feel there is never enough time to fully provide
high- quality services without becoming a part of a system that needs reform and losing
sight of the bigger picture. The conf lict is that providing services (a responsibility to
clients) may be creating dependencies and putting bandaids on social problems that need
to be addressed at the broader system level (a responsibility to the profession).

Social Justice
Social justice means being committed to challenging injustice and pursuing social
change with and on behalf of oppressed groups. The principle underlying this core value
is primarily focused on social workers addressing poverty, discrimination, unemploy-
ment, and related issues. Jansson (2014) points out that social justice is based on equality.
With the many entrenched interests one encounters in local communities, it is likely that
social workers will focus their efforts on oppressed target population groups and will
always be discovering new inequalities. Because so many groups face problems related to
having enough financial resources, social workers often extend the principle to include
economic justice, thus focusing on social and economic justice concerns.

Concerns about social and economic justice are exacerbated when clients cannot
pay for services. As long as clients can pay, professional decision making may not conf lict
with the larger society because resources do not have to be redistributed. Conceivably,
as long as clients can pay for professional services, professions can operate within the
market economy. Private-practice and fee-for-service agencies conform to this approach.
Quality care is exchanged for economic resources, often in the form of third-party pay-
ments. The key to this approach is that the client has insurance coverage or access to
sufficient personal funds.

This approach breaks down, however, when clients cannot pay. Many social work cli-
ents are in problematic circumstances because their income is inadequate to meet their
needs and other resources are not available. Social workers face ethical challenges when
the practice settings in which they work limit eligibility based on socioeconomic status.

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16 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

Patients with AIDS may find themselves unable to pay for care
at the same time that their needs increase because they are fired
from jobs when news about their disease becomes known. Older
people could avoid institutional care by hiring in-home caregiv-
ers, but despite having considerable lifetime savings, medical
expenses may leave them with too few funds to meet their needs.
Youth who have grown up in poverty may feel there is no way
out except to break the law.

Health and human service systems are driven by consider-
ations of whether resources are available to pay for (or subsi-
dize) the services that clients need. If resources are not available,
patients with AIDS and older people may be forced to expend all

of their own resources before ending up in public institutions, and youth may continue
in cycles of insufficient education, housing, health care, and job opportunities.

Dignity and Worth of the Person
Often called self-determination or autonomy, valuing the dignity and worth of each per-
son means respecting and honoring the right of that person to make his or her own life
choices. Concepts such as empowerment are built on the value of dignity and worth,
implying that power or control over one’s life means seizing the opportunity to make
one’s own decisions. As an example, the pro-choice proponents in the abortion contro-
versy advocate for autonomy, a woman’s right to choose. This stance conf licts with a
number of religious codes arguing the immorality of abortion and stating that the right
of the unborn child must be considered as well. Although autonomy may be perceived as
individualistic and therefore more relevant to direct practice situations, one has only to
be involved in the heated debate over abortion to realize the ethical conf lict involved in
situations where the autonomy of both parties cannot be equally respected.

Similarly, respecting the dignity and worth of people means that social work is com-
mitted to addressing the needs of persons who are marginalized. One example is faced
by same-sex couples who desperately want their committed relationships to be recog-
nized by the larger society. Access to survivor and spousal benefits, retirement income,
and inheritance; hospital visitation rights; adoption; and immigration are just a few of
the civil and financial issues faced by same-sex couples. The dignity and worth of persons
are disrespected in policies that do not recognize same-sex relationships. Social workers
attempting to honor these relationships may be advocating for changes at all levels of
policy making and may find themselves in conf lict in practice settings that do not recog-
nize the rights of same-sex couples (Pelts, 2014).

Importance of Human Relationships
The NASW Code of Ethics lists the importance of human relationships as a core social
work value. This means continually finding new and meaningful ways to facilitate con-
sumer as well as citizen participation in organizational and community arenas. Nurtur-
ing relationships is an ongoing and necessary challenge for the dedicated professional.

In macro-change opportunities, the challenge is to include multiple stakeholders
who may be both consumers and collaborators in the process. This challenge is
grounded in the importance of human relationships, even when people do not agree.

Ethical and Professional Behavior

Practice Behavior: Make ethical decisions by apply-
ing the standards of the NASW Code of Ethics, relevant
laws and regulations, models for ethical decision-making,
ethical conduct of research, and additional codes of eth-
ics as appropriate to the context.

critical thinking Question: Can you address
issues of social justice and inequality without engaging
in macro practice? Why or why not?

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 17

Technological advances help facilitate communication, particularly in mobilizing clients
and providers to work toward a cause. Knowing how to engage clients and others in
one’s change efforts is critically important. As new technological venues emerge, it will
be necessary for the practitioner to keep up-to-date so that these tools can be used to
communicate with and sustain the central importance of strong relationships with vari-
ous constituencies.

Reamer (2013) identified a number of ethical and risk management challenges that
accompany the new digital landscape. Many intervention methods are available, including
but not limited to online, video, and telephone counseling; cybertherapy; web-based self-
guided opportunities; social media; email; text messaging; and a host of other possibilities.
Macro social workers who administer and manage agencies have an ethical responsibility
to clients to be certain that confidentiality is maintained, to monitor potential conf licts of
interest and boundary issues that emerge in digital transactions, and to assure that appro-
priate digital documentation is safely maintained. The ability to connect in multiple ways
provides increasing options for maintaining human relationships but changes the nature
of those relationships in ways that codes of ethics typically do not address in detail.

Integrity is based on trustworthiness and consistency. This core value implies that one’s
associates (e.g., colleagues, clients, and community groups) should be able to expect
consistency in one’s thinking and acting. Integrity gets to the character of the person.
Professional integrity means that those persons who call themselves professionals will
remember that the center of their practice is always the client. Social work is only one of
many helping professions, but its unique contribution is to serve as a constant reminder
that people are multidimensional and that they must be viewed in the context of their

In professional practice, integrity means that one does not simply do what one would
like to do, but fits problems to solutions based on thorough analysis. Defining the prob-
lem to be changed requires integrating what clients have to say with what is known from
scholarly research and practice results. This analytical process
is iterative, dynamic, and interactive, often causing the change
agent to ref rame the original problem statement because new
information constantly requires rethinking. However, once a
problem statement is agreed on, social workers must ascertain
that their interventions have integrity in relation to the problem
at hand. Interventions often require a creative imagination that
goes beyond traditional approaches and seeks more fundamental
change. Thus, it is hoped that the social worker will be imagina-
tive, will think critically, and will use his or her best judgment as a
professional in the process of planned change.

Professional social workers are expected to be informed and skilled. The competent
macro practitioner will approach the need for change with an understanding and expec-
tation that decisions will be based on as complete a set of data and information as time
and resources allow. We recognize that there are multiple ways to regard systems, and it

Research-informed Practice
(or Practice-informed Research)

Practice Behavior: Use and translate research
evidence to inform and improve practice, policy, and
service delivery.

critical thinking Question: Why does defining the
problem to be changed require integrating what clients
have to say with what is known from scholarly research
and practice results?

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18 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

is important to carefully assess each arena in which social workers plan to carry out an
episode of change. Competence implies that informed decision making is pursued in a
systematic and scholarly manner, utilizing the best available theoretical, research-based,
and practice-based knowledge. The approach is often called evidenced-based or
evidence-guided practice and applies to whatever level of intervention the practitioner is
addressing, whether individual, group, organizational, or communitywide.

In 2001, NASW issued Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work
Practice. These standards were intended to guide practice with individuals,
groups, organizations, communities, and societies in respecting languages,
classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other factors of diversity
(NASW, 2001). In addition, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
issued Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) called “com-
petencies” that are being used to guide curricular development in schools of
social work and are listed at the beginning of this book (CSWE, 2012). These
competencies include the ability to engage, assess, intervene, and evaluate
practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communi-
ties. In other words, the ethical principle of competence means that a social
worker should be skillful in working in both micro and macro situations.

Ethical Conf licts
In the NASW Code, social workers have responsibility (1) to clients, (2) to colleagues,
(3) in practice settings (typically, organizations and employing agencies), (4) as profes-
sionals, (5) to the social work profession, and (6) to the broader society. Inevitably, there
will be situations in which these responsibilities interact and create ethical conf licts. For
example, a worker who values a child’s right to a safe and secure environment must also
value the parents’ rights to have a say in their child’s future. But in a potentially harmful
situation, there is the potential for conf lict between the worker’s responsibility to protect
the child’s worth and dignity and the importance of a relationship with the parents. The
social worker who serves as a public housing administrator may value the freedom of a
disruptive resident to play loud music at top volume, but must also respect those in the
building who value peace and quiet. Whereas respect for the individual is important, so
is creating a fair and just environment for all residents. A social worker who is advocat-
ing for diverse client populations may come into conf lict with her employing organiza-
tion that is mandated to set boundaries on who will (and will not) quality for benefits.
A choice between equally important values or responsibilities to various constituencies
may have to be made when there are no easy or obviously “right” or “wrong” solutions.

During the socialization process of preparing for professional social work practice,
each person will have to determine how her or his personal values relate to the profes-
sional values being learned. This growing self-awareness includes recognizing one’s own
privilege and power in being a professional and one’s ability to oppress even in attempt-
ing to help others (Garran & Rozas, 2013). Integrating one’s personal and professional
values is a part of professional identification, and it leads to what Sullivan (2005) and oth-
ers say about professions as communities of identity in which colleagues come together
to work toward the civic good. Embracing that identity and approaching one’s practice
with integrity and competence will contribute to one’s ability to join with others in pur-
suing the values of the profession.

Go to the International
Federation of social Workers
homepage and do a search on
“statement of ethical Principles.”
after reading the statement of
principles, compare and contrast
the ethical principles of nasW
and the International Federation
of social Workers. What are the
implications of their similarities
and differences?

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 19

Balancing the values of service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the
person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence de-
mands an analytical approach to decision making and intervention. Inevitably,
the macro practitioner will face ethical conf licts that go beyond the bounds of
codes of ethics. This requires that he or she have a strong professional identity.
We now turn to four case examples that illustrate the dilemmas often encountered by
social work practitioners.

Four case exaMPLes

Some of the aspects of social work macro practice that need to be understood by the stu-
dent and the beginning practitioner can be illustrated by case examples. We selected the
following examples because they contain similar themes but focus on different target pop-
ulation groups: children, older adults and disabled persons, immigrant youth, and persons
who are homeless. As these cases and the workers’ thoughts are presented, we encourage
the reader to think about how macro-level change might be approached by beginning
with a study of the population, the problem, and the arena within which change might take
place. We also hope that these examples will illustrate both the systemic nature of social
work macro practice and the types of value dilemmas confronting social workers.

Case Example 1: child Protective services

Child Protective Services (CPS) workers have responsibility for dealing with the abuse and neglect of children.
When reports of alleged abuse or neglect come to the unit, the CPS worker must investigate the report and
make decisions about the disposition of the case. It is a very demanding and emotionally draining area of spe-
cialization within the field of social work. One CPS worker took the time to record the details of a particular
case, and also shared a list of dilemmas and contradictions he had encountered over the years, in the interest
of helping new workers prepare for what they will face as they enter practice.

Friday, 10:40 a.m. Supervisor text-messaged me about a report of neglect. She felt it should be checked
out today because it sounded too serious to be left until after the weekend (as agency rules allow with
some neglect allegations). According to the neighbor’s report, parents have abandoned three minor

11:10 a.m. Got in my car, loading the address in my GPS. I know the neighborhood well. It is the
poorest in the city and unsafe at night. A high percentage of families receive some kind of assistance.
Homes are run down, streets are littered, and any visible sense of pride in the community has long been

11:40 a.m. The house at the address given is among the most rundown in a seriously deteriorating neigh-
borhood. The house has no front steps—just a cinder block placed in front of the door. Window casings
are rotting out for lack of paint. There is no doorbell. I knocked. There was rustling inside, but no answer.
I waited and knocked again. I walked around and peered through a window and saw a small child, about
3 years old I guessed, curled up in a chair. An older girl, about age 8 or 9, peeked out from behind a

I remembered that the oldest child was named Cindy, so I called out to her. After a bit of conversation,
I persuaded her to let me in. I quickly recognized that this would not be an ordinary case. A foul smell hit
me so hard it made my eyes water. I used a tissue to filter the air. The worst odors were coming from the
bathroom and kitchen. The water had evidently been shut off—toilets were not working, and garbage

assess your understanding
of the foundations of

macro practice by taking
this brief quiz.


M01_NETT8523_08_SE_C01.indd 19 9/28/15 10:35 AM

20 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

was piled up. The kitchen was littered with fast-food containers, possibly retrieved from the dumpsters of
nearby shops.

There were three very frightened children—Cindy (age 9), Scott (age 6), and Melissa (age 3). None
would talk.

12:35 p.m. I made arrangements to transport them to the shelter and went back to the office to do the

2:15 p.m. A previous neglect report revealed the following:

Father: Stan, age 27, unemployed, in and out of jail for petty theft, public intoxication, and several
other minor offenses. Frequently slept in public parks or homeless shelters. Rarely showed up at home
anymore. Several police reports of violence against wife and children. Admits paternity for only the
oldest child.
Mother: Sarah, age 25, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) recipient, high school dropout, never
employed. Tests performed in connection with one attempt at job training revealed a developmental
concern. Child care skills have always been minimal, but there is no previous history of abandonment
of children. Whereabouts at this time are unknown.

3:35 p.m. Filed the appropriate forms with agency and the police. Entered field notes into laptop for the
record. Children placed at Vista Shelter until a more permanent placement can be arranged. Emailed confir-
mation of placement to supervisor, copied to shelter staff.

Over the years, as this CPS worker dealt with similar cases, he kept a running list of
the kinds of dilemmas, f rustrations, and contradictions he and his colleagues regularly
faced. These are excerpts from his list:

1. Abused and neglected children desperately need to be loved and nurtured in
order to develop into healthy teens and adults. We can see that their needs for
shelter, food, clothing, and medical care are met, but we can’t insure that they
will be loved, nurtured, and given a chance for some type of success. These
deficits in their lives present a clear problem. Are there people in this community
who have the capacity and are willing to invest the time to insure that a child
feels loved and valued? Where could we find volunteers willing to take on this
type of challenge? Could we approach church groups, PTAs, college or high
school organizations, or service clubs?

2. A disproportionately high percentage of lower socioeconomic status teens get
pregnant and drop out of high school, go on welfare, parent poorly, and recy-
cle many of their problems to the next generation. In this case, Cindy is a very
likely victim. These issues focus on a population. How can we interrupt this
pattern? Can we develop some type of intervention (maybe a group approach)
to help young women make informed decisions during this highly vulnerable
time in their lives and find ways to evaluate whether it works?

3. And what about parents like Stan and Sarah? They both appear to be from a
culture that doesn’t share mainstream values about parenting and taking re-
sponsibility for a family. True, they are breaking the law and need to be held
accountable, but that approach alone has rarely proven effective in improving
parenting skills. Is there some way we can help parents like these overcome
their deficits and have some chance of rebuilding a stable family? This might be
approached from either a problem perspective or a community arena perspective.

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 21

Case Example 2: case Management with older adults and disabled Persons

Case managers work in a variety of public and private settings. They are responsible for screening potential
clients, assessing client needs, developing care plans, mobilizing resources to meet identified needs, and
monitoring and evaluating services provided. The case manager in this example works for a nonprofit agency
in an inner-city neighborhood, where many of her clients have lived all their lives. She is assigned to the home
and community-based long-term-care unit, and carries a caseload of about 60 older and disabled clients. As
part of the program evaluation, she was asked to keep a diary of what happened during a typical day. The
following are excerpts from her diary.

Wednesday 7:30 a.m. Arrived early to catch up on email. Entered client data from previous day.
Organized three new care plans and five medical reports.

8:00–8:10 a.m. Mrs. Garcia (age 79) called, distraught over a letter received from the Social Security
office, thinking it meant her benefits would be cut off. Explained that it was a form letter, a routine change,
not affecting the amount of her check. Knowing that she is often forgetful and has a hearing problem,
made a note to make home visit tomorrow.

8:10–8:30 a.m. Met with Jim from In-Home Support Services. Mr. Thomas, age 93, fell last night. Is in
Mercy Hospital. Home Aide found him when she arrived at 7:00 this morning. He is not expected to live.
Aide is very upset. Called his daughter and will meet her at hospital later this morning.

8:30–9:30 a.m. Staff meeting regarding 10 clients discharged from City Hospital with inadequate
discharge plans. Discussed how to work better with discharge planners. As I left, another case manager
told me that Mrs. Hannibal had refused to let the home health nurse in.

9:30–9:45 a.m. Called Mrs. Hannibal (age 77), no answer. Called lifeline program to meet me at her

9:45–10:00 a.m. No one answered when I knocked; got manager to let me in. Mrs. Hannibal had been
drinking. Threw bottle at me and screamed, “No one is going to get me out of here. I’ll never go to a
home. I’ll die first.” Worked with lifeline staff to calm Mrs. Hannibal down. She goes in and out of hospital,
and has a severe drinking problem.

10:00–11:00 a.m. Arrived at Mercy Hospital. Met Mr. Thomas’s daughter, who was in tears, saying it was
all her fault, that if he had been living with her this would have never happened. Talked with her regarding
her father’s desire to live alone, that this had been his choice. Contacted hospital social worker to work
with daughter.

11:15 a.m.–12:00 p.m. Back to office. Entered notes on visits to Mrs. Hannibal and Mr. Thomas. Called
two new referrals, faxed documents to hospital, and set up appointments to do assessments tomorrow.

12:00–12:30 p.m. Ate lunch with Adult Protective Services (APS) worker. Discussed abusive relationship of
Mr. and Mrs. Tan, a couple in their 60s living in public housing. Agreed to work closely with APS regarding
this situation.

12:45–2:00 p.m. Conducted in-home assessment for new client, Ms. Johnson. She was released from hos-
pital yesterday and is receiving home-delivered meals and in-home nursing. Small house is a mess, roaches
everywhere. Needs chore and housekeeping services, but there’s a long waiting list. Called and cajoled
volunteers at Area Agency on Aging (AAA) to help her temporarily. Ms. Johnson was too weak to complete
full assessment, will come back tomorrow.

2:30–3:30 p.m. Attended public hearing preceding the planning process for the AAA. Testified about the
need for more flexibility in providing services to disabled clients under age 60. Gave examples of persons
in their 40s with severe mobility problems.

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22 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

3:45–4:15 p.m. Stopped to see Mrs. Martinez, newly admitted to Sunnyside Nursing Home. Has been my
client for 5 years. Doesn’t know me, seems confused. Checked with social worker regarding her meds and
called physician regarding potential drug interactions. Used smart phone to access health department’s
report card to see if there are complaints about this facility. Texted local long-term-care ombudsman about
any issues she might be aware of. Made note to check on Mrs. M’s disabled daughter, who is still at home
and will need supportive services previously provided by her mother.

4:45–5:15 p.m. Returned to office, found out Mr. Thomas had died. Called his daughter. Tried to call
physician about Mrs. Martinez’s medications, but his nurse could not reveal any information to me because
of the privacy act.

Just as the CPS worker had kept a running list of the kinds of dilemmas he faced
through the years, the case manager had kept a list of her dilemmas as well. In prepa-
ration for the Area Agency on Aging public hearing, she had updated the list in hopes
something could be done. Excerpts from her list follow:

1. Although some of our resources can be used to serve any older person in need,
most of our funding is tied to income and age eligibility. Slots for people who
aren’t destitute are quickly filled, and there are long waiting lists. Disabled
clients who are not yet 60 years of age do not qualify for case management,
even though physically they may be as challenged as many much older adults.
Focusing on the diversity within aged and disabled population groups and
recognizing the needs of vulnerable subpopulations are critically important.
Couldn’t we organize population groups to help each other advocate for their
needs? How do we familiarize policy makers with the diverse needs of these
populations and persuade them to consider changing income and age
eligibility criteria?

2. So many of the older people I see have had problems all their lives. You can
almost tell what’s going to happen in their old age by what happens to them
as they go through life. Drug and alcohol problems only seem to get worse.
Abusive situations escalate. If someone had intervened early when they
began having these problems, it would have been much easier because the
behavior patterns are well established by the time I encounter them. I know
people can change at any age, but it seems harder when one is under stress or
facing hard times. Is there some way we could organize a prevention effort to
prepare middle-aged people for their senior years and address problems

3. I’m learning some revealing things about case management. Case managers
attempt to coordinate what is really a nonsystem of services. If we had a real
system, we wouldn’t need to pay people like me and we could put those re-
sources toward client services. We are investing a lot in institutionalizing case
management when it often just covers up the real problem—that we don’t have
an accessible service delivery system in place. Change will require engagement
in organizational and community arenas to get agencies to collaborate in estab-
lishing a coordinated and accessible system of services. Who should be involved
in a communitywide coalition to work toward a more integrated system of care
for aged and disabled persons?

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chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 23

Case Example 3: advocacy and organizing with Immigrant Youth

Numerous nonprofit organizations work to support immigrants in the United States through advocacy and
services to facilitate integration into local communities. Two social work students were completing their
second-year field placements in an agency that worked to organize and support Latin American immigrants.
One of their primary assignments was to help organize Latin American youth around equal access to higher
education, opportunities, and a range of civil liberties. The social work students worked with the agency’s
advocacy director to help support youth leaders and facilitate youth-led efforts. As one of their learning
activities, the students kept records of their daily activities and some of the questions and dilemmas they
faced or observed.

Monday, 9:00 a.m. At weekly agency staff meeting, the client services director described difficulties her
office faces in locating affordable housing for recently arrived immigrant families who have fled violence in
their own country. She announced a reception for local landlords to build relationships in order to open up
affordable housing opportunities. We described the event we will be leading on Saturday at a local street
fair to draw attention to the deportation of unaccompanied youth.

10:00 a.m. The youth advocacy director, also our field supervisor, pulled us aside to discuss a protest
he had just learned about. A national anti-immigration group had secured permits to protest outside
deportation hearings at the federal courthouse on Thursday. He asked us to research this group’s activities
and then meet with the advocacy team to discuss our findings.

10:15 a.m. We began research on the anti-immigration group. Juanita focused on the group’s website and
recent publicity. I focused on descriptions of the anti-immigration group by organizations like the Southern
Poverty Law Center that monitor the activities of hate groups. We found the group registered as a 501(c)3
nonprofit organization and with a slightly different name as a 501(c)4 organization. Because the organiza-
tion is registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, we were able to get its 990 form, which lists major
donors. A local manufacturer that provides numerous jobs in our immigrant community was listed as a
major donor.

We discovered that this group was responsible for the blowback that our agency and a number of its
collaborators were getting over the “Quit Using the i-Word Campaign.” Ever since U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Sonia Sotomayor had used the term “undocumented” immigrant to refer to persons who were in
the United States without proper authorization, a social media firestorm had been blazing. We had been
naïve when we had helped initiate the campaign last year and couldn’t believe the angry reaction. This
anti-immigration group may have been at least partially behind this harsh reaction.

12:15 p.m. Met with the advocacy team to present our findings. They were surprised to find out about the
affiliation of the local manufacturing firm with the anti-immigration agency. The fund development direc-
tor was particularly concerned about the implications of the discovery. No one was surprised to learn that
the group had opposed the i-Word Campaign, and they pulled up a number of irate messages about the
campaign that the group had posted on Facebook.

2:00 p.m. We met with field supervisor about mutual interest in international social work. We had located
a number of professional resources, including the International Federation of Social Workers, the Interna-
tional Association of Schools of Social Work, NASW and CSWE immigration materials and international
publications, and the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development. We found job opportunities
through the United Nations, the Peace Corps, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and a number of
other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). We discovered a growing literature on the type of work we
are doing. Zayas and Bradlee (2014) explored the detention and deportation of families and the impact
on citizen-children born in the United States. Gates (2014) reported lessons learned from an immigrant
work center in which the tension between providing services and the crying need for advocacy had to be
balanced. The changing face of immigration was studied by the Urban Institute (Gelatt, Adams, & Monson,

M01_NETT8523_08_SE_C01.indd 23 9/28/15 10:35 AM

24 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

2014), and the journal International Social Work explored numerous issues challenging social work
practitioners and educators in preparing students to practice in a global world (see, e.g., Dominelli, 2014;
Hawkins & Knox, 2014; Healey & Wairire, 2014). We need to take advantage of these and other resources
as we prepare for contemporary practice.

4:30 p.m. Attended the youth organizing meeting. Youth leaders discussed plans for Saturday, including
how participants should handle encounters with individuals who oppose our efforts.

The social work interns discussed a number of questions and dilemmas that had
arisen that day. The following excerpts are related to the activities noted above:

1. Juanita is a member of a first-generation immigrant family from Colombia,
South America, with roots in Colombia and the United States. I am a White
American with roots in U.S. southern culture and tradition. Sometimes our
observations are very similar. However, sometimes they are not. How can I
become more aware of my own prejudices and of White privilege? What do I
need to do to become more culturally competent? One thing is clear. We need
to immerse ourselves in learning about the population of Latino youth with
whom we are working. Meeting with them individually and in groups is es-
sential for finding out how they perceive the problems they face, and including
them in every aspect of any change effort is absolutely necessary.

2. Agency staff really struggled with how to address the planned anti-immigration
protest, because one of our agency’s key donors is a partner in the manufactur-
ing firm that supports the anti-immigration organization that is leading the pro-
test. A number of staff wanted to confront our donor. Others wanted to have a
conversation with him about his organization’s involvement in anti-immigration
efforts. Others wanted to gain more information before deciding on a course of
action. How should our team address this problem when what is needed by the
organization (fundraising) may contradict the advocacy efforts of the organiza-
tion? What constitutes a conf lict of interest here?

3. It is still hard to believe how angry to the point of violence people can become
when their beliefs and attitudes are threatened. We’re still reeling from some
of the comments the anti-immigration group posted for all the world to see. As
social workers, we believe that calling someone illegal is dehumanizing and that
no human being is illegal. But we also realize that there are people who think
we are bleedingheart liberals, and convincing them to use different terminology
is like asking them to change their worldview. How do we confront these issues
without being intolerant of intolerance within our own community arena?

Case Example 4: chronic homelessness

A social worker at a homeless shelter had a caseload of 25 clients and was responsible for orientation, co-
ordinating physical and dental exams, and referral and transportation to community agencies to deal with
problems related to income, permanency of housing, employment, counseling, and other problems and needs
caused by their homelessness. Excerpts from the social worker’s field notes follow.

Tuesday, 8:30 a.m. Jack C., a 3-month resident, had been delivered to the shelter the previous evening by
local police after having been cited for drunk and disorderly conduct. I went over the shelter’s policies on
alcohol and drug abuse, and explained that additional offenses could result in expulsion from the shelter.

M01_NETT8523_08_SE_C01.indd 24 9/28/15 10:35 AM

chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 25

His response was very passive and noncommittal, and he indicated that he really didn’t care if he stayed at
the shelter or not.

9:00 a.m. Went to my office to check my email and return phone calls. Set up two meetings with case
managers at a local clinic for homeless individuals. I want to see how the service providers understand the
problems faced by homeless adults experiencing serious mental illness. I also want to begin to better iden-
tify the strengths of the population—I’ve noticed that much of our conversations about these homeless
adults are about their challenges, not about their resilience and strengths.

10:30 a.m. Met with Trevor L., a 45-year-old man who had been at the shelter for 2 weeks. He had been
referred to two different employers and was waiting to hear whether he was still in the running for either
job. He had a list of available apartments provided by the shelter, had circled several possibilities in red,
and was prepared to follow up if he got one of the jobs. I reinforced his initiative in following his care plan
and told him I was available if he needed any help or direction.

1:00 p.m. At the request of my supervisor, met with a community housing committee who were exploring
the creation and development of a new shelter. The group reported on two older motels on a major bus
route that could potentially be converted into efficiency apartments for chronically homeless individuals.

2:30 p.m. Met with my group of seven residents to discuss progress they were making with their care
plans. There is really a wide range of problems and needs even just across these seven, including chronic
versus short-term homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, length of unemploy-
ment, and many others. For many, it is challenging just to set goals. For others, they feel they know exactly
what they need and are in the process of trying to resolve their problems.

4:00 p.m. Read some materials that my supervisor shared with me on a concept called hous-
ing first, an innovation in homeless services that differs from the traditional treatment-first
model. Housing-first models assume that homeless individuals need the stability of perma-
nent housing to succeed in services. Treatment-first models assume that homeless individuals
need services to become ready for housing. The article presented compelling evidence that
housing first was a promising practice that was reducing chronic homelessness and its associ-
ated costs in several cities across the country.

5:00 p.m. Was notified by one of the attendants at the residence that Alan W. was ill and running
a fairly high temperature. Since he was in a wheelchair, I took him to see the on-call physician’s
assistant at the shelter, provided her with necessary information, and left for the weekend.

The dilemmas experienced by this social worker focused on both micro and macro
concerns about the homeless population. Ref lections from the social worker’s notes follow:

1. Homeless people tend to get lumped together in the minds of the general pop-
ulation and even the professional community. Yet, even in my own caseload,
there is a wide range of different problems and needs. Some need just a place to
live and a job, and they are ready to become self-sufficient again. Others are fac-
ing serious mental health problems and addictions, and they are lacking many
of the skills needed for employment and independent living. Is there a need to
categorize, or can we experiment with placing some of our residents regardless
of problems or needs into independent-living situations and allow them to seek
the services they need? These issues focus on a population.

2. Some of the providers I met with were particularly concerned about the phi-
losophy of the program we were studying, in that they felt that participation
in recommended services should be required. How could we help homeless

Watch the video on the
national movement of
communities working

to end homelessness for
100,000 americans. how do
leaders in nashville discuss the
concerns that service providers
have about housing first?

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26 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

people if they weren’t required to participate in services, quit using substances,
and take the medication that would help them recover? How could we justify
serving people who weren’t willing to follow the rules while so many people
were in need and willing to meet eligibility requirements? These are legitimate
concerns that need to be thought through, but, at the same time, the treat-
ment-first model has not exactly produced excellent results. And housing first
honors self-determination. These issues tend to focus on a problem.

3. If we are going to move ahead, we need to focus on developing popular support
and the political will to try out the housing-first model. After all, this isn’t a
particularly popular population to serve—people often assume that people are

homeless because of bad choices and a refusal to address their addictions to
alcohol and drugs. How can we develop a communitywide effort to promote
the positives of this model? These issues tend to lend themselves to being ad-
dressed in the community arena.

surVIVInG In ProFessIonaL PractIce

We have presented these rather lengthy scenarios and the accompanying observations
of the workers in an attempt to characterize the kinds of issues and problems social
workers face almost every day. The nature of a capitalist system is that some people
succeed economically, whereas others do not. For the most part, social workers deal with
those who are not able to care for at least a part of their own needs. It should be clear by
this time that direct practice interventions alone cannot address large-scale community
problems. Social workers must also master the skills involved in organizing people who
may want change and have good intentions but need coordination and direction. Faced
with these contrasts, a practitioner has a number of options, which can be categorized
as follows:

1. Develop a strong support system. The types of dilemmas that the practi-
tioners in our case examples faced rarely can be handled by one person, no mat-
ter how competent that person is. Social workers owe it to themselves to reach
out to colleagues and friends, to make connections with persons from other
professions, and to create opportunities to use formal and informal teams to
solve tough interpersonal and political issues. No one has to work in isolation.

2. Join with Others to initiate change. Building on a strong support system, so-
cial workers can go beyond interpersonal problem solving and join concerned
colleagues, clients, and citizens to initiate change. Together with colleagues,
workers can form committees and task forces with the intent of changing orga-
nizational and community problems.

3. prioritize efforts. Initiating feasible change means that the social worker must
be selective, recognizing that not every problem is solvable and that choices
must be made as to which will be addressed. Working toward change calls for
sound judgment and discretion. Think about how to channel your energies so
that the causes that really matter become the focus of your efforts.

4. Find Ways to Do self-care. Some practitioners may burn out but remain on
the job. Social workers can get caught in believing that they are working at

assess your understanding
of the four case examples
by taking this brief quiz.


M01_NETT8523_08_SE_C01.indd 26 9/28/15 10:35 AM

chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work 27

impossible jobs. They stay in the system and feel powerless, accepting
that they, too, are victims of the things they cannot control. They may
do the basics of what has to be done with clients and ignore the larger
issues, which means that they accept organizational norms and relin-
quish the advocacy role. This is a tempting option because taking on
the larger issues can add many hours of work to an already busy week
for what often seems like an impossible task. The profession, then,
ceases to be a calling and becomes “just a job.” One way to counter
these tendencies is to engage in self-care behaviors. This means be-
ing intentional about nurturing oneself. Find ways to rest, get away,
enjoy the outdoors, or do whatever renews you both personally and

Much of the work done by social workers who seek to bring about change
is what we refer to as macro practice, and it is carried out with widely varying
degrees of skill. The purpose of this book is to present a theoretical base and
a practice model designed to assist the professional social worker in bringing
about change in organizations and communities. Not only do we encourage
readers to become change agents within the organizations and communities
in which they will work, but also we believe that the value base of social work
demands it. We believe, too, that surviving the dilemmas requires a strong
professional identity.


In this chapter, we have provided the basic foundations on which students can build an
understanding of social work macro practice. We defined macro practice as professionally
guided intervention designed to bring about planned change in organizations and com-
munities, and we examined the interrelationships of macro and micro practice, empha-
sizing that all social workers engage in both types of practice in their careers. As long
as individuals, groups, and families are viewed in context, there will always be macro
aspects to one’s job.

We began a discussion of the circumstances leading to the need for planned change.
A conceptual framework was provided. Systems theory guides the planned change model
that will be elaborated in subsequent chapters. Systems theory contends that there are
multiple parts of any entity, whether it is a group, an organization, or a community. These
parts have connections, some more closely aligned than others. There are resources the
system needs in order to function, and they may come in the form of people, equipment,
funding, knowledge, legitimacy, and a host of other components. These resources inter-
act within the system, producing something that becomes the system’s product.

The IFSW has published a Code of Ethics that endorses human rights and social
justice as fundamental to the social work profession. Their website links to codes of eth-
ics in over 25 countries throughout the world. We focused on the value base of social
work, as summarized in the U.S. NASW Code of Ethics, which embodies the profession’s
orientation to practice. Intervening at any level presents ethical dilemmas that must be
faced by the practitioner. In many cases, no right or wrong answer is present, and the
appropriate course of action is not at all clear. In such instances, the practitioner’s job

Watch the video on how
trauma workers maintain
and find balance and

healing in their own lives. What
resources did the workers in the
video use to cope with what
they observed and experienced
in their work?

do an Internet search for “self
care starter Kit” from the
university at Buffalo school of
social Work. after reading the
article, what key components
should you include in your
maintenance and emergency
self-care plans?

assess your understanding
of surviving in professional

practice by taking this
brief quiz.


M01_NETT8523_08_SE_C01.indd 27 9/28/15 10:35 AM

28 chapter 1: an Introduction to Macro Practice in social Work

Assess Your Competence

Use the scale below to rate your current level of achievement on the following concepts or skills associated with
each learning outcome listed at the beginning of this chapter:

1 2 3

I can accurately describe the concept
or skill(s) associated with this


I can consistently identify the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome when
observing and analyzing practice activities.

I can competently implement the concept
or skill(s) associated with this outcome

in my own practice.

Define macro practice and its relationship to micro practice.

Explain the theoretical and values foundations of macro practice.

Discuss case examples used to illustrate macro practice.

Discuss methods used to survive practice challenges.

can be facilitated by analyzing the situation in terms of the six core values in the NASW
Code of Ethics. Service (sometimes called beneficence) refers to the value of helping oth-
ers. Social justice is assuring equal access to resources and equitable treatment. Dignity and
worth of the individual (often associated with autonomy) refers to the value ascribed to an
individual’s right of self-determination. The importance of human relationships recognizes
the value of connecting with others to improve quality of life and to facilitate change. In-
tegrity and competence are values that implore professional social workers to be consistent
and skilled in all that they do. Social workers engaged in macro practice may find that
their job is one of balancing these values.

From a macro-practice perspective, social and economic justice considerations may
demand that one focus not on individual helping but on attempts to alter macro systems
that fail to distribute resources in a fair manner. These points were reinforced through four
case studies showing how policies, program structures, resource deficits, and other macro-
related criteria have much to do with social workers’ ability to be effective in their jobs.

One way that social workers sometimes respond to these realities is to give up fight-
ing against them. However, social workers who are skilled in macro practice have other
options—to develop strong support systems, join with others to bring about needed
changes in these systems, prioritize efforts, and find ways to do self-care. These skills are
not and should not be limited to those who are working in traditional macro-practice
roles, such as administration or planning. Instead, they are critical for all social workers
to know, including those engaged mostly in micro practice.

Working through these dilemmas aids in the development of a professional identity
that incorporates both micro- and macro-practice aspects. Just as the profession must be
built on social workers who are committed to making a difference in the lives of individual
clients, these same workers must also be committed to making a difference in the systems

within which clients live and on which they depend. In the chapters that follow,
we will provide a macro-practice model to guide social workers in undertaking
change processes. But first, Chapter 2 will complete our introduction to the
field by reviewing the historical background of social work macro practice.

recall what you learned in
this chapter by completing
the chapter review.


M01_NETT8523_08_SE_C01.indd 28 9/28/15 10:35 AM


Learning OutcOmes

• Identify historical social conditions
and ideologies leading to the
establishment of social work as a

• Discuss how professional social work
education and practice developed
during the 1900s.

• Describe issues faced by diverse and
oppressed population groups.

• Identify contemporary challenges
related to social work macro

• Explain why change is so important
to social work practice.

chapter OutLine

The Context Within Which
Professional Social Work
Emerged 29
Social Conditions
Ideological Inf luences

The Development of Social Work as
a Profession 33
Charity Organization Societies and

Settlement Houses
Early Social Work Education
Recognizing the Importance of

Macro Roles

Social Work’s Commitment
to Diverse and Oppressed
Populations 40
Native Americans
African Americans
Asian Americans
Persons with Disabilities

Historical and
Inf luences on
Macro Practice











The ConTexT wiThin whiCh
Professional soCial work emerged

As noted in Chapter 1, social workers operate in a complex and
rapidly changing society. To understand the problems and oppor-
tunities they face, it is important to be familiar with the histori-
cal trends that have shaped today’s social systems and to recognize
forces that will affect the evolution of these systems in the future.
Garvin and Cox (2001) call attention to social conditions and ideo-
logical inf luences that inf luenced professional development. We
will examine both in the context of U.S. history, recognizing that
there are different stories of social work’s emergence in different

M02_NETT8523_06_SE_C02.indd 29 10/1/15 1:29 PM

30 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

social Conditions

Numerous social conditions set a context for the development of social
work as a profession. In the following sections, we focus on population
growth and immigration, industrialization and urbanization, changes
in institutional structures, and the emergence of the welfare system.

Population Growth and Immigration
The first U.S. census in 1790 revealed a national population of less than
4 million. By 1900, this number had grown to almost 92 million, and
the final total f rom the 2010 Census estimated the nation’s population
at just under 309 million (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2010a). The pe-
riod of fastest growth was in the 1800s, when the nation’s population
increased by more than one-third every 10 years throughout the first
half of the century, and, despite the death and destruction of the Civil
War, continued to grow by more than 25 percent per decade during the
century’s second half. The rate of growth moderated after 1900, with
increases diminishing to an average of about 10 percent per decade

since 1960. Still, in raw numbers, the nation continues to add almost 30 million people to
its population every 10 years.

Immigration has always been a critical element in population growth in the United
States. One of the first great waves of immigrants occurred in the 1840s. To the east
coast came Irish and German immigrants f leeing famine and political upheaval; to the
west coast came Chinese workers seeking employment during the California gold rush.
Successive waves followed f rom southern and eastern Europe as well as Asia, reaching
a peak during 1900–1910 when immigrants totaled over 6 million and accounted for
almost 40 percent of the nation’s population growth.

Industrialization and Urbanization
Accompanying U.S. population growth was a rapid shift toward industrialization of its
economy. Stern and Axinn (2012) use the production of cotton in the South to illustrate
the effects of this shift. Total cotton production was only 6,000 bales the year before the
invention of the cotton gin in 1793, after which it grew to 73,000 bales by 1800, and to
almost 4 million bales near the start of the Civil War in 1860. In fewer than 70 years,
mechanization thus helped to effect an almost 700-fold increase in production. This type
of dramatic change transformed working life throughout the country. The economic
opportunity produced by industrialization was a key enabling factor for the rapid growth
of the nation’s population. The wealth generated by an expanding industrial economy
meant that many more people could be supported than in previous agricultural econ-
omies. Trattner (1999) called particular attention to the vast growth in national wealth
that occurred following the Civil War. In the 40 years between 1860 and 1900, for exam-
ple, the value of all manufactured products in the country grew sixfold and total invest-
ment in industry grew by a factor of 12.

The combination of population growth and industrialization brought about in-
creased urbanization. No U.S. city had a population of 50,000 at the time of the 1790
census. Fifty years later, there were 40 communities in the nation that the Census Bureau

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and
Transgender (LGBT) Persons

Contemporary Challenges 48
Addressing Poverty and Welfare

Recognizing Income Inequality
Assessing Changing Community

Patterns of Affiliation and

Assessing Changing Organizations and
Delivery Systems

Wisely Using Technology

The Importance of Change 56

Summary 57

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Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 31

considered urban. Most population growth initially occurred in the urban core
of large industrial cities.

Changes in Institutional Structures
As the United States became more urbanized and industrialized, its social
structure also changed, especially the system of organizations that meet peo-
ple’s needs. In the early 1800s, these organizations were usually few in number,
informal, and small in scope (e.g., families, churches, and schools). Engaged
primarily in agriculture and living in rural areas, people were forced to be
largely self-sufficient and depended on organizations for a limited range of needs. With
the advent of industrialization, however, new technologies were linked with advances in
methods of organizing, and new patterns emerged.

Of particular importance was the rise of a complex system of highly specialized
organizations. These ranged from accounting firms to satellite communication systems.
Their specialization allowed them to do a few tasks efficiently and in great quantity, but
they were dependent on other organizations for resources such as power, raw material,
and trained personnel, even if they did not always recognize this dependence. Instead of
learning the range of tasks necessary for basic self-sufficiency, individuals now concen-
trated on learning specific skills that allowed them to carry out particular functions—
such as social work—that usually occurred within or were provided by an organization.
This allowed both individuals and organizations to perform those tasks better and more
efficiently, meaning that society as a whole was more productive. But a corollary effect
of specialization was that individuals and organizations were no longer able to produce
most of what they needed on their own, and the level of interdependence within soci-
ety became increasingly greater. Moreover, individuals who met their needs through the
roles they were able to fill were much more dependent on assistance from societal insti-
tutions. This was a principal reason for the development of social work as a profession.

Emergence of a Welfare System
In the United States, organized efforts to respond to human welfare date back to En-
gland’s Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. This first written statute established a govern-
mental system of services for the poor and adopted a decentralized approach to service
provision. Under this law, assistance to the poor was a local function (as was taxation to
pay for the assistance), and responsibility for service provision rested with an individual
“overseer of the poor.” This model was retained more or less intact in the American
colonies, and until the 1800s, relief efforts for the needy were primarily local and small
in scale.

The reformist period of the early nineteenth century began a slow transition to
larger scale services in the form of state-run asylums for dependent children, the men-
tally ill, and children and adults with mental retardation. Later, as population, urban con-
centration, and service needs increased, so did the diversity of both public and private
programs. Eventually, it became apparent that a coordinating mechanism was needed
for these various efforts. Using Massachusetts in the late 1850s as an example, Trattner
(1999) described a hodgepodge of private facilities serving orphaned or delinquent youth,
people with physical or developmental disabilities, those with mental illnesses, and oth-
ers. Each institution tended to be independently governed, and lack of communication

watch the video on the
Triangle shirt waist fire.
why had the women who

worked in the Triangle shirtwaist
factory gone on strike the year
before the fire?

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32 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

between them meant that critical information on matters such as standards of practice
or treatment advances was infrequently shared. Trattner argued that this illustrated both
the need for and value of having states assume coordination and regulatory roles.

Box 2.1 provides an overview of historical trends.

ideological influences

Not surprisingly, changes in broad social conditions coincided with considerable ideo-
logical change. Garvin and Cox (2001) identified several viewpoints that arose during the
late 1800s in response to these conditions. These included Social Darwinism, Manifest
Destiny, the growth of the labor and social justice movements (once called “radical”
ideologies), and what is today called progressivism.

In the late 1800s, the English writer Herbert Spencer drew comparisons between
Charles Darwin’s biological theories and social phenomena. Applying the concept of sur-
vival of the fittest, social Darwinism suggested that persons with wealth and power in soci-
ety achieve this status because they are more fit than those without such resources. He also
argued that in the biological world, the random appearance of favorable traits leads to the
gradual supplanting of less favorable traits, but in societies some individuals or groups
remain inherently “inferior.” Not surprisingly, this philosophy was embraced by many
of the wealthy, who contended that little should be done for the poor and dispossessed
on the grounds that such help would simply perpetuate societal problems (Bender, 2008).

The concept of manifest Destiny, f irst coined by newspaper editor John L.
O’Sullivan in 1845, described the belief that God had willed the North American con-
tinent to the Anglo-Saxon race to build a utopian world. Such a world would fuse capi-
talism, Protestantism, and democracy, and in it Anglo-Saxon peoples were not to dilute
their superiority by marrying members of other races ( Jansson, 2015). Manifest Destiny
was used to fuel westward expansion in the late 1800s and to justify seizure of lands
from American Indian groups already occupying them.

Partly as a reaction to the racism and classism inherent in these views, but also in re-
sponse to the growing inf luence of Karl Marx and other socialist writers, the first f low-
erings of the labor and social justice movements appeared. The labor movement drew its

• Population Growth and Immigration. From fewer
than 4 million in 1790, the U.S. population reached almost
309 million in the 2010 Census. Today, more than 1 in
10 residents in the United States are persons who were
born outside its boundaries.

• Industrialization and Urbanization. Most Americans
200 years ago were farmers living in rural areas. Now,
fewer than 1 in 300 works in agriculture, 80 percent are
urban dwellers, and more than half live in the 50 most
populous metropolitan areas.

• Institutional Structures. Although largely self-sufficient
when the nation was an agrarian society, Americans now
live in a highly interdependent economy and social system.
Most workers are extremely specialized, and relatively
young professions such as social work have developed in
response to the increased complexity of society.

• Emergence of a Welfare System. Dating back to the
Elizabethan Poor Law, a local system of providing services
to the poor developed in the United States. However,
well into the 1900s, the primary focus remained on
decentralized private-agency provision of services.

Box 2.1 historical Trends at a glance

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Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 33

strength from the appalling workplace conditions facing most industrial wage earners at
the time. A goal of many writers and activists in the movement was to transfer industrial
control f rom capitalists to trade unions (Garvin & Cox, 2001). Meanwhile, the growing
number of poor people, their concentration in urban slums, and the desperate condi-
tions in which they lived spurred the growth of what became the social justice move-
ment. Its goal was and still is to mobilize, organize, and empower those who lack equal
access to the nation’s economic resources.

progressivism is a complementary ideology that arose partly as a secular expression
of Judeo-Christian values of egalitarianism and social responsibility, which were seen as
ways to temper the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. In this view, human rights super-
sede property rights, and society is seen as responsible for promoting the collective good.
One of the early expressions of progressivism was scientific charity, which
sought to harness what were seen as “natural” feelings of compassion for
the poor to build private systems to provide one-on-one help (Bender, 2008).
This view was to contribute to the rise of some of the earliest human service
agencies—the Charity Organization Societies—in the late 1800s.

Box 2.2 provides an overview of the early trends discussed in this section.

The develoPmenT of soCial work
as a Profession

Women played a major role in building the foundations of social work. Three traditions
of women’s organizations and programs appeared in the early to mid-1800s: benevolence,
reform, and rights. Starting in the late 1700s, women’s benevolence primarily took the
form of missionary work and the founding of orphan asylums to address immediate
human needs. The rise of the reform tradition in the 1830s saw the creation of organiza-
tions to advocate for the abolition of slavery, closing of brothels, provision of sex educa-
tion, and cessation of inappropriate sexual advances. In the 1840s through 1860s, a third
tradition of feminist organizing arose around women’s rights and produced groups such
as the National Women’s Suffrage Organization (Becker, 1987).

• Social Darwinism.  The belief that income differences
between rich and poor are natural and arise because the
rich are more fit. A corollary is that services should not be
offered to the poor since this would perpetuate the sur-
vival of those less fit.

• Manifest Destiny.  The belief that North America
was divinely intended for white Europeans, especially
Anglo-Saxons, to inhabit and control.

• Social Justice Movement.  A broad term covering the
philosophies of union organizers, anticapitalists, and social

reformers who fought the excesses of the Industrial Rev-
olution and advocated on behalf of laborers, immigrants,
and persons living in poverty.

• Progressivism.  A counterargument (in part) to Social
Darwinism that contends that as societies become more
complex and individuals less self-sufficient, government
must act to ameliorate the problems faced by those less
able to cope.

Box 2.2 historical ideologies, ideas, and definitions

assess your understand-
ing of the context within

which professional social
work emerged by taking this
brief quiz.


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34 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

Historically, benevolent work was viewed as compatible with women’s nurturing re-
sponsibilities, and even social change efforts were seen as an extension of domestic roles into
the public arena (Chambers, 1986). Trattner (1999) noted that because elected office was
effectively denied to most women, an alternative chosen by many was to pursue their interest
in social and political issues through involvement in the settlement houses and other efforts.

Charity organization societies and settlement houses

The formation of the charity Organization societies (COS) and settlement houses
was a partial recognition of the advantages of establishing standard service practices
within the framework of a strong organizational base. Local COS agencies, which began
forming in the 1870s, were usually umbrella organizations that coordinated the activities
of a wide variety of charities created to deal with the problems of immigrants and rural
transplants who were f looding into industrialized northern cities in the United States in
search of jobs. Ironically, Social Darwinism provided some of the philosophical base of the
movement, as the “scientific charity” provided by COS agencies tended to be moralistic
and oriented toward persons deemed able to become members of the industrial workforce
(Stern & Axinn, 2012). Workers in the COS agencies were often volunteers, especially mid-
dle- and upper-class women, who served as “friendly visitors” to poor individuals and fam-
ilies. They tended to share idealistic goals of providing the poor with an opportunity to
“better themselves,” meaning that they typically viewed poverty as the result of individ-

ual failings and targeted their efforts toward reforming individuals rather than
systems ( Chambers, 1985). Although there was a gradual fading of the attitude
that sufferers of problems such as oppression, poor health, or mental illness were
somehow at fault for their plight, the focus of the COS movement on serving
individuals on a case-by-case basis formed the foundation for social casework and
for a modern array of micro-level interventions in social work (McFadden, 2014).

At about the same time that the COS agencies were developing, a different
response to human need was employed by settlement houses. Conditions in the
crowded slums and tenement houses of industrial cities in the late 1800s were
as dire as any in the nation’s history, and the goal of the settlement house move-
ment, spearheaded by Jane Addams and others at Hull House in Chicago, was
to attack these problems on a systemic level. This meant an approach that em-
phasized societal as well as individual and group reform. Many of the settlement
houses served as religious missions and, like the COS members, did their share
of proselytizing and moralizing. However, they were also more willing to meet
their mostly immigrant constituents on their own grounds and to believe that
chasms of class, religion, nationality, and culture could be spanned. In addition,
their societal vision tended to be pluralistic—COS workers feared organized ef-
forts such as the labor movement, whereas settlement leaders tended to support
these endeavors. Settlement houses also played prominent roles in the birth of
organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the American Civil Liberties
Union (Brieland, 1987). Involvement in these sorts of efforts typifies what is now
referred to as macro-level social work practice.

Box 2.3 provides a quick overview of how micro and macro practice

go to the “Jane addams hull-
house museum” homepage
and find “hull-house history
on Call.” listen to “southern
horrors: lynching in all its
Phases,” presented by Paula
giddings. why did ida wells-
Barnett challenge the research
of reformers associated with
hull house? how did ida wells-
Barnett use statistics and other
research to challenge Jane
addams regarding some
of her assumptions about
african americans?

watch the video on
the settlement house
movement. what are the

early roots of settlement houses?
why did settlement houses begin
to change in the 1920s?

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 34 9/28/15 10:39 AM

Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 35

early social work education

Workers in COS agencies emphasized the need for a systematic approach to service pro-
vision, whereas workers in settlement houses demanded training on how to effect so-
cial change. Both traditions emphasized efforts to gather information systematically on
neighborhood problems (Brieland, 1990), and the resulting need for skilled staff fostered
the organization of schools of social work. Service responsibility gradually began to shift
f rom volunteers to paid employees.

The New York School of Philanthropy began in 1898 as a summer training program of
the New York Charity Organization Society; the Boston School of Social Work was jointly
founded by Simmons and Harvard colleges in 1904, also in response to prompting from local
COS agencies (Trattner, 1999). Soon after, persons involved with the settlement house move-
ment helped establish the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy in 1907 ( Jansson, 2015).

Accompanying these efforts, a debate ensued over whether the f ledgling profession
should focus on macro or micro social work models. Macro models, concerned with fun-
damental social policy issues, demanded an academic curriculum based on social theory
and an orientation toward analysis and reform. A parallel movement, represented by Jane
Addams, emphasized training for political activism and promoted not only economic re-
forms but also a pacifist agenda (e.g., advocating peace negotiations instead of military
involvement in World War I). In contrast, micro models focused on case-by-case assis-
tance and required that caseworkers learn how to conduct fieldwork.

An important turning point in this debate was the 1915 meeting of the National
Conference of Charities and Corrections. Abraham Flexner, a prominent national figure
in medical education, was asked to address the issue of whether social work was truly a
profession. He argued that social work still lacked key characteristics of a profession and
could more appropriately be called a semi-profession, a view that is sometimes applied
to careers in which women predominate (Etizoni, 1969). Flexner’s six characteristics of
a true profession were that (1) professionals operate intellectually with large individual

micro macro

• Forerunners were COS agencies. • Forerunners were settlement houses and state boards of charity.

• Guided by tenets of “scientific charity,” focus was on
improving the individual.

• Focus was on improving conditions for neighborhoods or
other groups.

• Evolved into social casework. • Evolved into community development and community organization.

• Influenced by books such as Social Diagnosis. • Influenced by books such as Case Studies of Unemployment.

• Approach to practice influenced by clinical approaches such
as Freudian psychoanalysis.

• Approach to practice influenced by mass-movement approaches
of progressivists, trade unionists, and civil rights advocates.

• Influenced by disciplines such as medicine and psychology. • Influenced by disciplines such as sociology, economics, and
political science.

• Motivated by desire to achieve professionalization of
practice, including scientific knowledge base.

• Motivated by desire to achieve social reform.

Box 2.3 origins of micro and macro Practice

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36 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

responsibility, (2) they derive their raw material f rom science and learning, (3) this mate-
rial is applied practically, (4) an educationally communicable technique exists, (5) there is
a tendency toward self-organization or association, and (6) professions become increas-
ingly altruistic in motivation (Morris, 2008).

Some developments in the field tended to strengthen these characteristics. In 1917, for
example, Mary Richmond published Social Diagnosis, which brought one-on-one casework
practice to the fore and cast it firmly in a traditional, professional mold. By comparing case-
work assessments with diagnostic work, Reisch and Wenocur (1986) argued that the book
opened the door to what is sometimes called the “medical model” in social work. The focus
on diagnosis was further strengthened by the inf luence of Freudian psychotherapy, which
became the dominant theoretical basis for casework practice throughout the next half cen-
tury. On the other hand, Morris (2008) argued that the situation was more complex, and
that social work continued to be involved in efforts at both micro and macro levels.

recognizing the importance of macro roles

Although inconspicuous and not specifically professionally focused, macro-practice
models developed alongside the casework method. By 1921, The Community by Eduard
Lindeman had appeared, and at least five more books on the subject were written within
the next 10 years. Organizational theorists such as Mary Follett and social work educa-
tors such as Lindeman called attention to the potential role to be played by small primary
groups working to strengthen local areas within larger communities (Garvin & Cox,
2001). However, differences had already begun to arise concerning the appropriate focus
of macro-level interventions. On one side were advocates of grassroots efforts to effect
community change; on the other were those arguing for greater involvement in policy
development and agency-based provision of services.

In addition, a social justice agenda emerged in the mid-1920s that reached a peak in
the New Deal Era and was embraced as a part of professional identity in the early 1940s.
Unionization efforts in the late 1920s and early 1930s resulted in social workers such as
Bertha Capen Reynolds collaborating with other professions to reduce management
abuses and ameliorate the impact of workforce reductions and pay cuts. Social workers
also marched side by side with residents of urban slums, demanding improved hous-
ing conditions. These social workers were mostly young, held low-level positions (such
as case managers and community action organizers), and did not strongly identify with
“professional” social workers (Wagner, 1989).

The Effects of the Great Depression
The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929, became a wa-
tershed event in the history of macro practice. In the 4-year period f rom 1929 to 1933,
the gross national product of the United States fell by almost half, and the rate of un-
employment reached 25 percent. The resulting impoverishment of vast segments of the
population raised doubts about traditional notions that poor people were responsible for
their own plight and should solve it through personal reform. The realization that one
could become unemployed and poor when society malfunctioned resulted in temporary
relief programs being developed and eventually the passage of the Social Security Act
(Stern & Axinn, 2012).

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 36 9/28/15 10:39 AM

Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 37

This was the point that settlement leaders, social reformers, and social justice ad-
vocates had long argued, and it was to play an inf luential role in the development of
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. A number of social workers and agency ad-
ministrators who had supported New Deal–like reforms during Roosevelt’s term as gov-
ernor of New York later assumed key positions in his presidential administration. Harry
Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and Frances
Perkins, Secretary of Labor, were the most visible of these ( Jansson, 2015).

Community Organization and Social Reform
In an atmosphere of sweeping change in the late 1930s, social justice advocates and
mainstream social work leaders worked together more closely. The journal Social Work
Today began to pay attention to social work practice, muting its traditional view that
casework constituted a bandaid approach to human needs. Social justice elements re-
mained identifiable as social work’s left wing, but they were less dramatically differen-
tiated f rom progressive but professionally oriented leaders. These shifts were enhanced
by the achievement of mutual goals such as passage of the Social Security and National
Labor Relations acts in 1935. The latter ensured labor’s right to organize, strike, and bar-
gain collectively, and it marked the beginning of a period of great success by the labor
movement in organizing much of the industrial workforce in the country.

After the mid-1930s, large governmental agencies began to dominate the provision
of human services, and the battle of social work roles shifted to this arena. Reisch and
Andrews (2002) note that advocates of the casework model were well placed in many of
these organizations and developed job specifications that largely excluded community or-
ganizers. However, members of the Rank and File Movement of social justice– oriented
social workers also became involved in the public services arena, and they brought with
them an emphasis on large-scale social reform (Wagner, 1989).

These developments in the 1930s and 1940s set the stage for later social movements.
Although the 1950s were not a time of great tumult, key events occurred during the de-
cade that would open the door for considerable social change in the 1960s. A landmark
example was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court
that struck down “separate but equal” policies in public education. Ensuing efforts to
ensure the ruling was applied in all schools and to overturn segregation elsewhere be-
came the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. Beginning with the Montgomery,
Alabama, bus boycott in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Lead-
ership Conference carried out a campaign of nonviolent resistance through sit-ins and
demonstrations. Other groups, such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sponsored “f reedom rides” and trained
young whites and blacks f rom elsewhere in the country to assist with orga-
nizing efforts in the South. Both the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil
Rights Act of 1965 were passed largely as a result of these efforts.

In response to the struggles of blacks in the South and elsewhere, so-
cial change movements designed to help members of other traditionally op-
pressed groups began to appear. Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers began
organizing the predominantly Chicano field workers in the Southwest, and
the La Raza movement sought to gain political power for Latinos through
voter registration drives and other efforts that had worked well in the South.

watch the video on
activist dolores huerta.
what reasons does

dolores give for beginning
a career as a community

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 37 9/28/15 10:39 AM

38 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

The American Indian Movement (AIM) called attention to governmental policies that
often worsened rather than ameliorated problems in Native American communities.
Books such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) became a catalyst for the
Women’s Movement, which sought to extend into the social and economic realms
the equality that women had gained in voting rights through the Suff rage Movement.
Episodes of “gay-bashing” by citizens and police officers in New York City led to a
disturbance in 1969 called the Stonewall Riot. This became a catalyst for the Gay Liber-
ation Movement, the first large-scale effort to overcome prejudice and discrimination
against homosexuals. Finally, the Counterculture Movement, student unrest (through
groups such as Students for a Democratic Society), and protests against the Vietnam
War helped make the late 1960s the most turbulent period of the century in terms of
mass social movements. Participation in these movements provided on-the-job training
for many community activists who later became professional social workers.

Also in the 1960s, expanded governmental social programs, although sometimes ill
conceived, provided new opportunities for community-level interventions. One stimulus
for these changes was renewed awareness of the plight of poor people, brought on in
part by books such as Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962). John Kennedy’s
election in 1960 on a platform of social activism also played a part, resulting in the initi-
ation of programs such as Mobilization for Youth, inner-city delinquency prevention ef-
forts, and (with an international focus) the Peace Corps. These efforts helped create and
refine new models of community development (Trattner, 1999).

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s call for a war on poverty led to the passage of a vast array
of social welfare initiatives known collectively as the “Great Society” programs, after a
phrase in one of his speeches of the time. These programs left a mixed legacy of results
but provided an opportunity for testing macro-practice models. One of the most import-
ant examples was the Community Action Program (CAP), part of the Economic Oppor-
tunity Act of 1964, a keystone of antipoverty legislation. The goal of CAP was to achieve
better coordination of services among community providers and facilitate citizen par-
ticipation in decision making through “maximum feasible participation” of community
members and groups (U.S. Congress, 1964, p. 9). CAP agencies were created in neighbor-
hoods and communities throughout the country, and residents were recruited to serve as
board members or paid employees alongside professionally trained staff.

Ref lecting this trend, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in 1962 recog-
nized community organization as a method of social work practice comparable to group
work and casework. In 1963, the Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Development
of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare funded CSWE to develop a
curriculum for training community organizers. Between 1965 and 1969, the number of
schools of social work providing training in community organization rose by 37 percent,
eventually including virtually every school in the country (Garvin & Cox, 2001). Com-
munity organization thus emerged as a legitimate part of social work practice.

Administration and Planning
Communities are macro systems in which all social workers interact and for which prac-
tice models have evolved. However, communities themselves are largely composed of
networks of organizations, and it is these organizations that usually assume responsibil-
ity for carrying out basic community functions. As such, organizations are a second type
of macro system with which social workers must be familiar. We will examine many

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 38 9/28/15 10:39 AM

Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 39

types of organizations in Chapters 7 and 8, but COS agencies, settlement houses, CAP
agencies, and other such organizations that focus on the needs of society’s have-nots can
be categorized as human service organizations. Their history reveals a pattern of shifting
emphasis between centralization and decentralization of agencies and services.

It was not until the Great Depression that public organizations for the provision
of human services were established on a large scale. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs
created an infrastructure at the federal level designed to provide a governmental safety
net to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from falling below a minimum standard
of living. A key function of these programs was to distribute relief funds to states, and
this helped spur the creation of state-level public welfare organizations. Some programs,
such as FERA and the Work Projects Administration (WPA), were designed to respond
to specific Depression-era problems and thus were relatively short-lived. Others, such as
the Social Security Administration, formed the institutional basis of ongoing federal pro-
grams, and they continue to play major roles. With the creation in 1956 of the Depart-
ment of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human
Services), most of these agencies were combined into a single, cabinet-level organization
through which federal insurance and assistance programs were administered.

Since its earliest stages, social work has usually been carried out f rom within some
type of organization. These organizations have varied over time, as have the skills needed
for effective practice within them. In the early years of social work education, for example,
the focus was on preparing a limited number of macro practitioners to assume roles as
administrators of small agencies, usually in the private sector. The skills needed included
fundraising, working with voluntary boards, and supervising direct- service workers.

With the growth of large public bureaucracies and nationwide networks of
private-sector agencies, the size and complexity of human service organizations changed,
as did the role of macro practitioners within them. Trends such as the increased size
of human service organizations, the growing complexity and diversity of services, and
changes in budgeting policies forced administrators to acquire new skills. Concerns arose
that if social work administrators do not acquire these skills, leadership of HSOs may
pass to persons f rom other disciplines who lack training in individual behavior, social
systems, and the interaction of person and environment.

Some writers also voiced concerns that administrative decisions in human service
agencies might become so dominated by a focus on fiscal or operational efficiency that
client needs and service effectiveness would be ignored. In response, Rapp and Poertner
(1992) were among a number of voices calling for client-driven models of administration
in which the achievement of desirable outcomes for clients became the primary criterion
for decision making. The intent of this model was to view administrative practice in social
work as a unique blend of managerial skills combined with broader knowledge of social
problems and the means of addressing these problems. Patti (2000) has argued that the
role of administrators in human service organizations is to fulfill instrumental tasks com-
mon to all managers (e.g., budgeting, acquiring resources, and hiring and directing person-
nel) while remaining committed to improving the circumstances of those being served.

Global Perspectives on Social Work
Beyond the early tension between individual versus social change perspectives in the
United States and Europe has been a shift f rom a Westernized viewpoint of what so-
cial work is to an international perspective that emphasizes the importance of global

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40 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

economic and political realities. Social work is part of an international arena that
was formally recognized as early as 1928 in Paris, when the International Association
of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), and
International Council for Social Welfare (ICSW) were founded (Dominelli, 2014, p. 258).

In South America, Chile established social work education programs as early as 1925.
India initiated programs in 1936 and has developed special schools of social work for Mus-
lim and Christian minority groups. The University of Cape Town established the first
school of social work in 1924 focused on reducing white poverty, with the first nonwhite
school founded in 1941 in South Africa. In Cairo, the first school of social work in North
Africa opened in 1936. Australia and New Zealand have long social work traditions, and in
recent years scholars f rom these countries have made major contributions to communi-
ty-based practice with indigenous peoples. The last half century has witnessed an acceler-
ation in schools of social work in the Global South (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013).

Globalization has its risks in social work education and practice in that educators
and practitioners f rom the United States and Europe may superimpose their clinical bi-
ases onto programs that were designed to respect the traditions and values of indigenous
cultures. For example, educational programs in Argentina have largely rejected inf lu-
ences f rom the United States and Europe, creating their own ideologies and practices
with a heavy emphasis on community (macro practice) and social change.

Weil, Reisch, and Ohmer (2013) identified three concerns in light of the increasing
interest in and emphasis on international social work: (1) the potential for intellectual co-
lonialism to occur when Western approaches are considered superior; (2) the unsuitabil-
ity of Western-derived theories that may not respect history, culture, and context; and (3)

the need for educators and practitioners f rom the Global North to recognize
the contributions of participatory approaches to community work developed
by their Global Southern counterparts. In short, there is much to be learned
from other countries in terms of social work practice theories and methods in
diverse cultures and contexts.

soCial work’s CommiTmenT To diverse and
oPPressed PoPUlaTions

Within the context of an increasing focus on international social work, it is important to
recognize that within the United States, social workers are constantly working with di-
verse and oppressed populations. The oppression of ethnic minorities, women, disabled

persons, and sexual minorities predated the development of the
social work profession. The profession was thus born into an en-
vironment in which social change was needed. The effects of dis-
crimination, ideological shifts, and economic and technological
changes often intensified prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory
behavior toward certain groups and created social pressures that
could not be indefinitely ignored. The following sections focus
on historical trends affecting populations whose members are
important constituents for professional social workers commit-
ted to social justice.

assess your understanding
of the development of
social work as a profession

by taking this brief quiz.


Diversity and Difference in Practice

Practice Behavior: Apply and communicate
understanding of the importance of diversity and
difference in shaping life experiences in practice at the
micro, mezzo, and macro levels.

Critical Thinking Question: How can one
learn about diverse populations without engaging in
stereotyping different groups?

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 40 9/28/15 10:39 AM

Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 41

native americans

In the 1800s and early 1900s, oppression of American Indians was governmental pol-
icy, enacted via war, forcible relocation, deliberate spread of disease, contravention of
treaties, and confinement to reservations. The Removal Act of 1830 gave the federal
government the right to relocate any native groups living east of the Missis-
sippi River. For many tribes, this meant virtual genocide. Relocation of the
Cherokee nation in 1838, for example, led to immense loss of life from disease
and exposure, becoming known as the Trail of Tears. Beginning in the 1890s,
when many American Indian families had been forced onto reservations,
generations of Native American youth were made to attend off-reservation
boarding schools where the goal was to blend them into white society so well
that their original cultural identity would be unrecognizable. The effect was to
damage Native American family life and alienate American Indian youth from
their heritage (Coleman, 1999).

Native Americans benefited in important ways from the social upheavals of the 1960s,
with groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) helping to focus attention on
the troubled relationship between tribal organizations and the federal government. As a
result, tribal governments were able to diminish the paternalistic inf luence of agencies
such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and gain greater autonomy over their own opera-
tions. For example, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 gave jurisdiction of child welfare
cases to tribal rather than state courts, thus placing tighter controls on practices such as the
adoption of Native American children by non-Native American families. Other federal leg-
islation included the 1978 Religious Freedom Act, which recognized the legitimacy of the
Native American Church; the 1988 Gaming Regulatory Act, which confirmed that tribes
may create gambling establishments on reservation land if gaming of any other form is
allowed in the state; and the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act,
which requires that artifacts removed from tribal lands be returned if requested.

Nonetheless, Native Americans have a more distinct cultural heritage than many
other ethnic groups, and the struggle to simultaneously preserve this heritage and
integrate with the rest of society has taken its toll. Poverty on some rural reservations
is as pervasive and severe as anywhere in the country, and much remains to be done
to improve economic conditions in these areas. Another concern is health care. The In-
dian Health Service (IHS), which was created to meet treaty-based federal guarantees for
health care provision to Native Americans, has a record of inconsistent and sometimes
dramatically inferior care. In recent years, it has also faced both budgetary cutbacks and
controversy over the extent of its responsibility for providing services to urban as well as
reservation-based populations (Westmoreland & Watson, 2006). The Indian Health Care
Improvement Act, a part of the major health care reform legislation passed in 2010, is
designed to help the IHS meet these challenges.

In 2009, Native Americans had the second lowest per-capita annual income, the
highest rate of poverty, and the second highest unemployment rate of all racial/ethnic
groups. They also suffered the highest incidence of health that was only “fair” or “poor,”
and they had the highest rates of both alcohol and drug abuse. In their study of at-risk
Native American youth, Waller, Okamoto, Miles, and Hurdle (2003) summed up the sit-
uation as institutionalized oppression that has continued into contemporary times. Not
only are the health care, education, social service, and criminal justice systems based on

watch the video on the
forced removal of the
Cherokee nation from

the southeastern United states.
what state and federal policy
decisions led to the removal of
native americans from their
ancestral lands?

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42 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

Eurocentric models, but also they are consistently underfunded, poorly administered,
and culturally insensitive.


More than 100,000 indigenous Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest became part of
the United States following the Mexican-American War in 1848. The war began primarily
as a result of U.S. military incursions into Mexico, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
that ended it included specific protections regarding property rights and civil liberties
for former Mexican citizens who became part of the United States. Nonetheless, many
people were forced f rom their lands (Griswold del Castillo, 2001). Language was also a
common tool of oppression, with Latinos being denied participation in voting and public
education because they were not proficient in English. Following the Mexican Revolu-
tion in 1910, large waves of Mexican immigrants began to face similar barriers. During
the Depression years of the 1930s, unemployment pressures and racism led to large-scale
deportations of supposedly undocumented residents, as many as 60 percent of whom
were in fact U.S. citizens (Boisson, 2006).

The Hispanic population in the United States is currently growing faster than any
other ethnic or racial group in the country, and this trend is expected to continue well
into this century. By 2050, for example, Latinos are expected to number more than 130
million in the United States. This would represent about 30 percent of the total popula-
tion, as compared to 9 percent in 1990 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011a). Latinos tend
to be younger than the rest of the population and mostly urban. As of 2006, about two-
thirds (64 percent) were of Mexican descent, 13 percent were f rom Central and South
American countries, about 9 percent were Puerto Rican in origin, and 3 percent were
from Cuba (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011a). Population concentrations are in the West
and Southwest for Mexican and Central Americans, the Northeast for Puerto Ricans, and
the Southeast for Cuban Americans. Based partly on historic inequality and partly on the
effect of many recent immigrants still struggling to gain equal economic footing, income
among Latinos is much lower than for the population as a whole. In 2009, Hispanics had
the lowest per capita income of any major racial/ethnic group, along with the highest
incidence of food insecurity. Because many Latino children have to learn English while
in school, dropout rates are high, and the percentage of Latino adults who lack high
school diplomas is more than double that of any other group. Finally, lack of health in-
surance and regular access to health care affects a particularly high proportion of Latino

By far the most prominent and contentious issue involving Latinos is undocu-
mented immigration, mostly by Mexicans and Central Americans crossing the U.S.–
Mexico border. Much of the debate centers on how undocumented immigrants should
be viewed. Social workers, because of their commitment to human well-being, often
take the side of ensuring that undocumented immigrants and their families have access

to basic services, whereas others fear that their “limbo” status in society makes
them especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Meanwhile, many aver-
age citizens feel economically threatened by undocumented immigration and
are vociferous in their opposition. Perhaps the best that can be said is that this
issue is likely to remain difficult and divisive well into the future.

do an internet search on
the “history of Chicano Park san
diego.” why did residents of
Barrio logan occupy the park?

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 42 9/28/15 10:39 AM

african americans

The Civil War won emancipation f rom slavery for African Americans, but equal treat-
ment was slow to follow. The Freedmen’s Bureau, set up in 1865 to assist the transition
of freed slaves, was a rare example of federal involvement in the provision of social wel-
fare services. In its brief 6-year life, it assisted many former slaves in finding employment
or gaining access to education and health care. But more typical of the Reconstruction
era was the founding, also in 1865, of the Ku Klux Klan. Its reign of terror in the South
lasted almost 100 years, effectively denying many freedoms African Americans had sup-
posedly gained. In the courts, rulings such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Plessy v.
Ferguson decision of 1896 upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine that in essence made
discrimination a governmental policy. Trattner (1999) notes that although advocates
for better social welfare programs achieved important gains in the first decades of the
twentieth century, these often had a much greater impact on poverty among white than
among black Americans.

For blacks, victories in the U.S.-based Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and
1960s meant the rejection of segregationist practices that had prevailed since the Civil
War. These gains helped spur electoral successes at both the local and national lev-
els. Since the mid-1980s, five of the nation’s six most populous cities—New York, Los
Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia—have been led by an African American
mayor, and Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president in 2008 was an historic event.
Nevertheless, grave concerns remain regarding the dramatic gap in economic well-
being between African American families and others. In 2009, more than one-third of
Af rican Americans households lived in poverty, a rate well above the national average
and almost two-thirds higher than that of whites. A contributing factor is unemploy-
ment, which hit African Americans especially hard in the recession that began in 2008.
At 15.8 percent, the jobless rate among Blacks was almost double that of whites in
2009. Annual income was also low, as indicated by a per-capita rate among Af rican
Americans of $17,711, which is more than 40 percent lower than the comparable
figure among whites.

Poverty among African American children is even more widespread, affecting more
than one in three (, 2010). Also, poverty and other historical disadvantages
have had negative effects on the structure of Black families, and Black children in 2005
were more likely than those in any other racial/ethnic group to live in a single-parent
household or one headed by a grandparent.

Perhaps the most glaring indicators of Af rican Americans’ struggle to overcome
past oppression and its consequences are in the area of health. Infant mortality rates are
much higher among Blacks than in any other racial/ethnic group, and they also have the
second highest incidence of health that is only “fair” or “poor.” Also striking are statistics
from the Centers for Disease Control (2010) regarding annual death rates due to various
causes. For example, in 2006 African Americans’ annual mortality rate f rom all causes
was more than double that of the healthiest racial/ethnic group (Asian Americans). The
gravest threats were heart and cardiovascular diseases and cancer or cancer-related ill-
nesses. Also, because low income and lack of mobility often mean living in dangerous
neighborhoods, Af rican Americans in 2006 had a death rate f rom homicide that was
eight times higher than that of whites.

Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 43

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44 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

It is important to point out that there are strengths among African Americans that
typically receive little attention. Compared to other historically disadvantaged groups,
for example, Af rican Americans have a low proportion (about one in five) of persons
age 16 to 65 who lack at least a high school education. Perhaps even more noteworthy is
the fact that, corrosive stereotypes to the contrary, rates of illegal drug use among Black
adults is essentially no different f rom drug use rates among whites, and African Ameri-
cans are less than half as likely than whites to engage in problem drinking (defined as the
number of days per year in which five or more drinks were consumed).

Efforts continue within the Af rican American community to conf ront problems
and consolidate gains. An ongoing emphasis on strengthening basic institutions such as
churches, families, and neighborhoods is one example of this, as are efforts to highlight
the unique African American heritage through holiday celebrations such as Kwanzaa.
Particular attention is being given to ensuring strong electoral representation, and
the latest available Census figures placed the number of black elected officials nationwide
in 2002 at 9,430, or more than six times higher than in 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census,

asian americans

On the West Coast, Chinese immigrants were often exploited as cheap labor, but when
economic conditions changed they became targets of discrimination and hostility. An
example is the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which for more than 60 years outlawed all
Chinese immigration to the United States (Orgad & Ruthizer, 2010). Meanwhile, immi-
gration from Japan increased between 1890 and 1907, resulting in changes to California
state laws that restricted the ability of Japanese residents to own or even lease property.
Finally, in one of the most egregious examples of governmental discrimination by race,
hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment
camps during World War II (Park, 2008).

Public attention is often directed toward the educational achievements of Asian
American youth, who, for example, led all other ethnic groups on indicators such as
the percentage of students scoring “Proficient” on national tests in grades 4 and 8, SAT
scores in the 12th grade, and rates of college completion (National Center for Education
Statistics, 2007). As a group, Asian Americans have achieved other successes in areas such
as income, employment, health, and low rates of substance abuse.

Still, evidence of such overall successes has sometimes masked problems facing par-
ticular Asian American groups, especially those of Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong or-
igin who are often among those most recently arrived in the United States and whose
numbers have increased rapidly in the past three to four decades. Many were refugees
who arrived destitute and without an existing community of prior immigrants available
to assist in their transition to U.S. society (Haynes, 2014). Once here, they had to adjust
to a different culture and language, and most have had to struggle to overcome lingering
problems of poverty, poor housing, and discrimination in hiring. Le (2006) notes that the
“model minority” label attached to Asian Americans can sometimes be destructive in
that it ignores the fact that it is a heterogeneous population within which some groups
still face many social and economic challenges.

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Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 45


In the 1800s, the status of women had improved little f rom ancient times, and many
women were often treated as little more than chattel. In the United States and other
developing countries, outright subjugation had given way to a “fairer sex” stereotype of
women as the repositories and purveyors of public virtue. This model was then used as a
rationale for denying women access to education, employment, voting rights, and other
benefits so that they would not be diverted from their role as moral guardians of society.
Some women rose above this and began what has been termed the “first wave” of femi-
nism (Gray & Boddy, 2010). Voting rights were the principal goal of this wave, but it also
sought to overcome the homebound nurturer mold into which most women of the time
were forced. Other women leveraged these stereotypes to aid in founding societies and
associations that became the forerunners of contemporary human service organizations
(Carlton-LeNey & Hodges, 2004; McCarthy, 2003).

Women’s advancement has been marked by both progress and disappointment. One
important gain was the development of women’s groups such as the National Organiza-
tion for Women (NOW), which was organized in the mid-1960s. NOW and other orga-
nizations formed the core of the Women’s Movement, which had considerable success
in calling attention to institutional sexism present in employment, government policy,
and language. These efforts constituted what is known as second-wave feminism (Gray
& Boddy, 2010), and they led to many tangible gains, such as the narrowing of the differ-
ence in earnings between men and women. In 2009, for example, the value of median
weekly earnings for women was 80 percent of the value for men. This was up f rom
62 percent in 1979 but slightly below the peak of 81 percent in 2005 and 2006 (U.S. Bu-
reau of Labor Statistics, 2010a).

Collins (2010) notes that one of the most important pieces of women’s rights
legislation was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It included antidiscrimination protections
for women that were added as a joke by a pro-segregation congressman, but to his
surprise the additions were passed along with the rest of the Act. A disappointment
for many was the failed attempt to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution. The amendment was designed to offer further protections against
gender-based discrimination. It drew vociferous opposition by groups that believed
it would undermine women’s traditional roles, and in 1982, it failed due to lack of
ratification by a sufficient number of states. One successful initiative was the 1994
Violence Against Women Act, which was reauthorized in 2006. It put in
place programs to prevent domestic violence, improve law enforcement
response to acts of violence against women, and assist the prosecution of
offenses such as dating violence and stalking. Another advance was the
Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which allows individuals to take ac-
tion against employers for wage discrimination of the type that has often
affected women (National Women’s Law Center, 2009).

As with other historically disadvantaged groups, women still struggle to
overcome gender stereotypes that cast them in nurturer/caregiver roles rather than as
full participants in society. They also have considerable ground to make up in order to
achieve parity in economic and career opportunities. They are greatly underrepresented

watch the video on
african american women
and the struggle for

equal rights. how did the Civil
rights movement contribute to
equality for women?

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46 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

in high-prestige, high-power jobs and overrepresented in those that pay poorly, making
them much more likely to have incomes below the poverty line.

Persons with disabilities

Laws urging charitable and considerate treatment of persons with disabilities date
f rom the Code of Hammurabi and ancient Judeo-Christian writings, yet in practice
many societies have dealt harshly with their disabled members. Even in the relatively
enlightened Greek and Roman cultures, accepted practices included infanticide, en-
slavement, concubinage, and euthanasia (Trattner, 1999). More recent societies have
renounced these practices, but their treatment of persons with disabilities has still
been affected by long-standing tendencies to view a disability as somehow the fault
of the disabled person or as punishment for unspecified sins. Terms such as crippled
or simple-minded, which have only recently faded f rom common usage, are instructive
because (1) they describe disabilities through pejorative terms and (2) they define dis-
ability as some form of deficit vis-à-vis others in the population, although research has
shown that persons with disabilities do not perceive themselves in terms of deficien-
cies (Wright, 1988).

In the United States after the Civil War, battlefield injuries were one of the few cat-
egories of disabilities receiving public attention. In 1866, the state of Mississippi spent
one-fifth of its budget on artificial limbs for wounded veterans (Wynne, 2006), yet no
public system existed in the state to serve the needs of persons with mental retardation.
Even for veterans, available assistance was usually limited and did little to foster indepen-
dence or integration with the rest of society. Not until the Veterans Rehabilitation Act
of 1918 and the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920 were federal programs
established to promote greater participation and self-sufficiency. These were followed by
income assistance programs created by the Social Security Act of 1935 (Percy, 1989).

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the subsequent Rehabilitation Act Amendments
of 1974 were for persons with disabilities what the Civil Rights Act had been for other
groups. The acts prohibited discrimination against anyone who currently has or had in
the past “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of
such person’s major life activities” (Rehabilitation Act of 1973). The Rehabilitation Act
also was the first to require that public facilities be made accessible to disabled persons,
and it laid the groundwork for the expansion of these requirements to all commercial
properties through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Another example of re-
lated legislation was the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which re-
quired children with developmental disabilities to be given access to mainstream public
education rather than the traditionally segregated “special education” system. In 1990,
the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was renamed the Individuals with Dis-
abilities Education Act (IDEA), and it was reauthorized in 1997 and 2004 (O’Brien &
Leneave, 2008).

The IDEA legislation and other initiatives share the general goal of mainstreaming,
which is defined as providing assistance in such a way as to minimize the need for per-
sons with disabilities to remain apart or operate separately f rom others in society. Un-
fortunately, efforts to measure success have progressed slowly. The nature of disabilities

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Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 47

varies widely, as do their causes, and thus people affected by a disability cannot be treated
as a single group. This means that statistics on the well-being of members of this popu-
lation are difficult to locate, and it is also difficult to determine whether efforts to maxi-
mize their participation in society are bearing fruit.

lesbian, gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (lgBT) Persons

Due to long-standing and widespread persecution, members of the gay and lesbian com-
munities, along with persons of other sexual orientations, have historically been the most
hidden of oppressed groups. In particular, homosexuality was often viewed through the
lens of religious taboos, and some religious authorities placed it in the same category
as willful murder (as an example of a “mortal” sin). English law, unlike that of many
other European countries, made homosexuality a crime as well, and as recently as 1816,
English sailors were executed for the crime of “buggery” (Marotta, 1981). English legal
codes on homosexuality were adopted in the United States, and, although not always
enforced, were often used selectively as means of harassment. Finally, well into the latter
part of the twentieth century, drawing in part on theories advanced by Sigmund Freud,
gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons were considered mentally ill and
could be forcibly subjected to hospitalization or other measures designed to cure their
“perversions” (Crompton, 2003). Author Randy Shilts (1987) documented how these
views contributed to the AIDS epidemic being viewed as a “gay disease,” thus eliciting a
painfully slow response compared to what would have been the case if an equal propor-
tion of heterosexuals had been affected.

The task of overcoming prejudice against lesbians, gay men, and others in the
LGBTQ population has been slow and difficult. Expressions of homophobic views or
displays of what Corsini (2002) terms heterosexism remain surprisingly commonplace in
a society that long ago ceased to tolerate such behaviors when directed toward racial or
ethnic groups. The advances that have occurred have come about mostly f rom political
activism. Lesbians, for example, were an integral part of the Women’s Movement and
have both contributed to and benefited from its achievements. Wilkinson and Kitzinger
(2005) note that many gay males were inspired by the work of Black civil rights leaders
in the 1950s and 1960s, and this helped to foster the creation of organizations such as the
Gay Liberation Front. A unique difficulty facing members of the LGBTQ population,
however, is that in order to begin advocating for fair treatment, they must go through the
process of recognizing their own sexual or gender identities and overcoming the fear or
reluctance that often goes with such acknowledgment.

A major step in legal advocacy was taken with the 2003 U.S.
Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas law prohib-
iting consensual homosexual acts between adults. In effect, this
negated all such laws nationwide, and it represented a significant
victory in the struggle for equal rights. Another advance oc-
curred in late 2010, when Congress voted to end the “don’t ask,
don’t tell” policies of the U.S. military. These policies required
that service men and women be dismissed simply for acknowl-
edging being LGBTQ.

Human Rights and Justice

Practice Behavior: Engage in practices that advance
social, economic, and environmental justice.

Critical Thinking Question: Even with the U.S.
Supreme Court’s decision about same-sex marriage, there
are persons who disagree with the decision. What are the
social justice issues concerning this ruling?

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48 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

By far, the most contentious recent issue affecting the LGBTQ community is the
effort to secure legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples. Same-sex marriage is legal
throughout Canada, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Ice-
land, France, England and Wales, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico City, Argentina,
Uruguay, and parts of Brazil. In a 2015 landmark decision the United States Supreme

Court legalized same-sex marriage.
In summary, these brief historical overviews of a number of different

population groups reveal one of the greatest contemporary challenges for
social work—advancing human rights and social and economic justice. In
Chapter 3, we will focus in depth on engaging with diverse population
groups to address issues of discrimination and oppression.

ConTemPorarY Challenges

Since the early days of the profession, changes in the United States have brought about
profound improvements in areas such as health, income, and transportation, but not all
aspects of the transformation have been ones to which members of society could easily
adjust, and in some cases this has led to new social problems. We now highlight a few of
these changes, along with their implications for macro-practice social work.

addressing Poverty and welfare reform

In 1995, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) (P.S. 104-193) into law. Although it was viewed as a set of
sweeping changes to public assistance programs, amendments to the Social Security Act
of 1935 (P.L. 74-271) had already altered Title IV-A, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC),
in a number of previous amendments (Pimpare, 2013). The changes in PRWORA were
largely prompted by conservative charges that the existing system promoted welfare de-
pendency and a bloated, bureaucratic service system.

The key changes implemented in welfare reform were (1) the requirement that most
recipients had to find work and (2) time limits were placed on their eligibility for assistance.
In 2006, 10 years after the act, considerable discussion and debate took place regarding its

Studies also suggested that many families failed to take advantage of benefits avail-
able to them not because of improved economic well-being but because of organiza-
tional barriers. Parrott (2006) found that more than half the drop in welfare caseloads
in the late 1990s occurred less because families earned their way out of poverty than
that they simply did not apply for help. A study by Wu and Eamon (2010) illustrated
possible reasons for this, showing that families with meager resources who might ben-
efit f rom help were often thwarted by insufficient information, bureaucratic barriers,
and unreasonable eligibility criteria. Similarly, a study by Broughton (2010) found that
most of the drop in welfare caseloads cited as evidence of success of welfare reform
actually occurred as a result of “bureaucratic churning,” efforts to deny applicants
who, with help, might have qualified, and other means of restricting service access
(p. 155). These problems do not appear to be restricted to large governmental agencies.

assess your understand-
ing of social work’s com-
mitment to diverse and

oppressed populations by taking
this brief quiz.


M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 48 9/28/15 10:39 AM

Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 49

Benish (2010) studied efforts in one state to transfer responsibility for services to the
private sector and found that rules and regulations in the new nongovernmental agen-
cies became more rigid and inf lexible than had been the case in older governmental

From a macro-practice perspective, these findings are useful in showing a de facto
shift in the role of the federal government from poverty prevention to employment sup-
port. Holt (2006) called attention to the growth of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC),
which distributes federal funds in the form of tax refunds (often more than the amount
actually paid) to low-income earners who file a return. From less than $2 billion in 1984,
the program grew to about $65 billion in 2012 (U.S. Internal Revenue Service, 2014), and
it continues to expand. Ironically, the Internal Revenue Service, which administers the
EITC, might thus be said to have become a key agency for meeting the needs of poor
people, a role for which many observers might question its suitability.

Box 2.4 provides a summary of the pros and cons of welfare reform. It is import-
ant for social workers to recognize how the shifts in federal policies can impact persons
who live in poverty.

The pros and cons of welfare reform are highly relevant
across industrialized nations. The difficulties inherent in reform-
ing welfare and addressing poverty were heightened by the crash
of global financial markets in 2008, which led to an economic
recession deeper than the 1930s depression. National govern-
ments in the United States and Europe focused on saving the
banking system, then quickly turned to curbing public sector
expenditures in order to reduce government debt. McKay (2013)
argued that spending cuts in Europe disproportionately impacted

Pros Cons

• Welfare caseloads dropped dramatically in the first five years
after passage of the reforms.

• Much of the caseload decline may have occurred because poor
families assumed they would not qualify, not because they
became less poor.

• More mothers joined the workforce. • Jobs taken by many recipients who entered the workforce pay
too little to allow real self-sufficiency.

• Work earnings as a percentage of household income rose
sharply after the reforms, while income from welfare
benefits decreased.

• Economic gains by poor families in the late 1990s may have
been due to a strong economy rather than reform policies.
Low-income families are now facing great hardship following
the start of a recessionary period.

• Child poverty rates dropped after reforms were enacted,
especially among black children, and some other indicators of
child well-being also rose.

• Indicators such as child poverty, percentage of mothers in
the workforce, and earnings from work among low-income
families have worsened since about 2001.

• Children have benefited from the positive model of a parent
who is employed and seeking to be self-sufficient.

• Conditions for the poorest of the poor have steadily worsened,
as has the number of children in extreme poverty.

Box 2.4 summary of Pros and Cons of welfare reform

Policy Practice

Practice Behavior: Apply critical thinking to analyze,
formulate, and advocate for policies that advance human
rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.

Critical Thinking Question: What are some ways
PRWORA may espouse values similar to those of Social
Darwinism? How is it different?

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50 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

women due to the gendered nature of caregiving work. She discussed the concept of
providing a minimum income guaranteed to all citizens, even though no industrialized
nation has enacted a Citizens Basic Income (CBI). This type of reform would involve an
entirely new way of thinking about social security policy and respond to what feminists
have called a wicked problem, one that is incredibly complex and cannot be easily tamed.

The United Nations General Assembly reported that 1.5 billion people worldwide were
living in poverty in 2011 (U.N. General Assembly, 2011). For an excellent overview of ways to
confront global poverty, we recommend Chowa, Masa, Sherraden, and Weil’s (2013) chap-
ter on “Confronting Global Poverty” in the Handbook of Community Practice.

recognizing income inequality

In the midst of debates about poverty policy, many advocates have become concerned
about the increasing income gap between the highest-earning and lowest-earning house-
holds in the United States. In the four decades during and after World War II, the econ-
omy of the United States expanded rapidly, and households in poor and middle-income
families (those at the 90th income percentile or below) enjoyed greater percentage in-
creases in earnings than households in the top 10 percent. Since the late 1970s, however,
income increased substantially in the 10 percent of households with the highest earn-
ings, while few gains have been made by households in the bottom 90 percent of income
(Shaw & Stone, 2010). In 1977, for example, the highest-earning 10 percent of house-
holds received about one-third of all income in the United States, but by 2007 this figure
had grown to the point that 10 percent of households earned about half of all income.
This represented the greatest income disparity between the bottom 90 percent and top
10 percent of households ever recorded (Piketty & Saez, 2014).

Large disparities also exist between rich and poor with regard to net worth, which
is the value of all assets minus the amount of all debts. In 1983, the wealthiest 5 percent
of households accounted for 55 percent of all net worth, and this grew to 62 percent
by 2007. The least wealthy 40 percent of American households accounted for just nine-
tenths of 1 percent of net worth in 1983, and this dropped to two-tenths of 1 percent
by 2007. Disparities are even greater if home values are excluded. In 2007 the wealthiest
5 percent of households held 72 percent of nonhome wealth (up f rom 68 percent in
1983), whereas the least wealthy 40 percent of households accounted for −1 percent
(compared to −0.9 percent in 1983). The negative values mean these households’ average
debt exceeded their nonhome wealth (Wolff, 2010).

Disparities such as these can produce a variety of problems. Studies have shown that
increased income inequality is associated with poorer infant health outcomes (Olson,
Diekema, Elliott, & Renier, 2010), lower self-rated health status among adults (Hildeb-
rand & Van Kerm, 2009), increased homicide risk (Redelings, Lieb, & Sorvillo, 2010),

increased suicide risk (Huisman & Oldehinkel, 2009), political and commu-
nity disengagement of low earners (Bernstein, Mishell, & Brocht, 2000), and
many other concerns. Observers such as David Shipler (2005) argue that as
the gap between the aff luent and everyone else widens, more Americans will
find themselves among the “working poor” who teeter constantly on the
brink of disaster. He offers an example in which poor housing aggravates child
health problems, which lead to higher medical costs, then late payments, then

watch the video on
inequality and opportunity
in america. what factors

contribute to social mobility?

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Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 51

penalties or higher interest rates on an already undependable car. That, in turn, threatens
the ability to hold down a job, which increases the likelihood that the family will have
to remain in rundown housing. Even minor calamities can intensify a vicious cycle that
becomes ever more difficult to escape.

These conditions affect many former welfare recipients who have replaced public
assistance with work earnings, suggesting that reductions in welfare dependency have
not been accompanied by increases in actual economic security. Box 2.5 provides an his-
torical comparison of trends in income inequality.

assessing Changing Community Patterns of
affiliation and identification

A recurring question in community literature concerns whether communities are meet-
ing the needs of their members and whether the traditional benefits of community liv-
ing are in jeopardy. In 1978, for example, Roland Warren called attention to what he
described as the “community problem,” which involved a feeling among Americans that
the communities in which they lived functioned less well than in the past and were sub-
ject to more frequent and serious disorders than before.

Fukuyama (1999) described what he termed a “Great Disruption” in countries within
the developed world, where an unexpected growth of social problems occurred during a
period beginning in the 1960s and extending into the 1990s. Among these problems were
rising disruptions in family systems (high divorce rates and high rates of births to single

mid- to late Twentieth Century Twenty-first Century

• 1940s to 1970s—poor and middle-income households had
greater earnings increases than those in the top 10%.

d S • 1980s to present—poor and middle-income
households made few gains; earnings increased
substantially in top 10%.

• 1977—the highest earning 10% of households received
about one-third of all income.

d S • 2007—the highest-earning 10% of households received
about half of all income.

• 1979 to 1998—households in the top fifth had sizable
income increases; those in the middle three-fifths saw little
change; those in the bottom fifth had a net decrease of

d S • 2002 to 2007—households in the top 1% earned two-
thirds of the new income from economic expansion.

• 1976—households in the top 1% earned about 9% of all

d S • 2007—households in the top 1% earned about 21% of
all income.

• 1979—households in the bottom fifth earned about 7% of
all after-tax income.

d S • 2007—households in the bottom fifth earned about 5%
of all after-tax income.

• 1985—the wealthiest 5% of households held
55% of all net worth.

d S • 2007—the wealthiest 5% of households held 62% of all
net worth.

• 1983—the least wealthy 40% of households held 0.9% of
net worth.

d S • 2007—the least wealthy 40% of households held 0.2%
of net worth.

Box 2.5 U.s. income and wealth distribution in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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52 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

or very young mothers), increased crime, deterioration of inner cities, erosion of trust
in traditional institutions and organizations, and generalized “weakening of social bonds
and common values” (p. 56). Putnam (2000) focused on changes in how people associate
with each other, calling particular attention to falling participation in local membership
groups as diverse as neighborhood bridge clubs, f raternal lodges, and college alumni
chapters. Unlike Warren or Fukuyama, however, Putnam argued that these changes
were not necessarily ominous. The fact that people affiliate in different ways than before
does not necessarily portend a breakdown of social cohesiveness, but some members of
society will inevitably adapt less well to rapid change than others.

Among the causes of the above changes are trends we have already discussed, in-
cluding urbanization and what Warren (1978) called loss of geographic relevance. Large,
complex cities offer many benefits, but they can also breed large, complex problems,
and the very size and complexity of a city can interfere with solving these problems.
Likewise, it is impossible to get to know all of one’s fellow residents in a large city, where
most people one sees are often blurred faces passing by in vehicles or on busy sidewalks.

Still, many city dwellers love urban life and do not find it alienating. They may define
“community” in different ways than in rural areas and apply the term to an apartment
building; an ethnic enclave; a neighborhood surrounding a particular factory, church, or
school; or even an area of gang turf. As we will discuss, this means that practicing social
work at the local level in urban areas requires recognition of a complex arrangement of
communities within communities.

Technological advances are also enabling the replacement of locality-based rela-
tionships with those that transcend geographic boundaries and make physical distance
meaningless. The rapid proliferation of cell phones and Internet access paved the way for
advances ranging from text messaging to blogs to videoconferencing to multiplayer gam-
ing. Social networking sites have also grown with incredible speed. As of late 2014, Face-
book alone had more than 600 million active users, and it is likely that users of other sites
equaled or exceeded that total (Facebook Pressroom Statistics, 2014). These networks
exist in cyberspace rather than physical space, so what Warren termed extracommunity
affiliations now involve not only redefining “place” (e.g., as a web address rather than a
street address) but redefining “community” as well.

Extracommunity affiliations are important not just to individuals but to organiza-
tions and institutions as well. An automobile assembly plant may be the major employer
and economic engine in a small community, but despite its local prominence, its most
important ties may be to the home office of its corporate owner in a country far away.
A decision to close the plant, or a work stoppage at a supplier of critical parts for its as-
sembly line, might happen far outside the community, but local residents could feel the
effects quickly. Communities and their institutions are thus highly dependent on global
ties, and the rapid development of new communication technologies sharpens that de-
pendence and adds complexity to social work practice at the community level.

assessing Changing organizations and delivery systems

In addition to community issues, contemporary developments in the structure of
organizations are also important. One parallel between communities and organizations
is that both have continued to become larger and more multifaceted. In organizations,
this has often been accompanied by the bureaucratization of operations.

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Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 53

The problem with bureaucracies is that they sometimes become as machinelike as
the tools they employ, and the result can be a dehumanizing environment for employees
and unresponsive or ineffective services for those in need. This often grows more pro-
nounced as organizational size increases, and large governmental HSOs have developed
reputations (sometimes deserved, sometimes undeserved) for ref lecting the negative as-
pects of bureaucratic structure. Even in small agencies, externally imposed regulations
(such as for certain operational practices or financial procedures) may produce a service
approach characterized by stringency and rigidity. Lens (2008) demonstrated that work
requirements for clients seeking public assistance led line-level staff to adopt a “harsh and
punitive” orientation resulting in denial of benefits or unjustified sanctions (p. 217). As
we will discuss in later chapters, understanding how organizational structure and rules
affect interactions with clients is essential for effective macro practice.

Beyond the issue of structure, a lingering topic of debate concerns which organiza-
tions should be responsible for providing services and how this should be financed. From
the start of the New Deal through the War on Poverty, public agencies were created to
provide human services ranging from mental health care to welfare benefits to child pro-
tective services. Beginning in the 1960s, however, proponents of privatization became
increasingly inf luential. Privatization calls for reducing or ending direct provision of hu-
man services by public agencies and replacing it with purchase of service (pOs) con-
tracting, whereby governments pay private agencies (both nonprofit and for-profit) to
provide those services. This trend might more accurately be called “reprivatization” be-
cause it involves returning human services to the sector in which they were mostly based
prior to the New Deal.

In the early 1980s, for example, an economic slowdown led to decreased public
funding, after which POS funds began drying up. Many nonprofit agencies, which had
previously grown larger on public dollars, were suddenly faced with stiff competition
for limited resources. Nonprofit agencies had traditionally served low-income clients by
offsetting their costs with revenues earned f rom paying clients. But with government
funds more scarce and paying clients being siphoned off through competition from hos-
pitals and for-profit providers, the frequent result was cutbacks in services that fell most
heavily on clients most in need (McMurtry, Netting, & Kettner, 1991).

Driven by a desire to reduce the size of government and to encourage competition
and cost control, the amount of money f lowing into POS has grown enormously.
Within the POS model, decision-making and financing functions remain with public
agencies, but the actual delivery of services is shifted to the private sector. This can be
attractive to service seekers because going to a local nonprofit agency may be viewed as
less stigmatizing than asking for “government relief.” Advocates of POS also argue that
having agencies bid for contracts provides a variety of f ree-market benefits (e.g., min-
imizing costs and improving oversight) that would not occur if services were provided
directly by the public agency in charge. To further advance the goal of service improve-
ment, contracting agencies are now increasingly using performance-based contracting,
in which agencies that receive contracts for services are required to meet specific targets
for the quantity or quality of services provided (Martin, 2005).

The question of whether privatization has had positive effects on the delivery of
human services remains in contention. Critics complain that the narrow focus of POS
contracts ignores important client problems and promotes an orientation toward solv-
ing problems after the fact rather than preventing them. Others argue that the increased

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54 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

reliance of private agencies on government contracts threatens the independence of the
private sector agencies and makes them more vulnerable than in times when their bud-
gets were more diversified, especially when government cutbacks occur. Still other critics
question the potential inequitable accessibility of providers. (Marwell & Gullickson, 2013).

Not only has the United States experienced a proliferation of nonprofit organiza-
tions, but also economic and political changes in other nations have altered the roles and
responsibilities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Having widely varying
histories and functions across countries, NGOs, self-help groups, and community-based
organizations of various types face economic challenges in locating resources to meet
community needs. International NGOs such as Bread for the World, Habitat for Human-
ity, and Save the Children seek to address global issues of poverty, hunger, and housing.
The global nature of these concerns means that social workers are constantly engaged in
what has been called a global perspective in which organizations in communities facing
human challenges must communicate across borders and learn from one another in ad-
dressing human needs (Moxley, Alvarez, Johnson, & Gutierrez, 2005).

wisely Using Technology

Anyone who has used a computer or smartphone to make a purchase, schedule a f light,
find a restaurant, send a message, locate an old f riend, or make a new one knows that
rapidly advancing information technology continues to make dramatic changes in our
lives. Futurist Alvin Toff ler predicted this trend more than 30 years ago, believing that
it represented a major new form, or “Third Wave,” of human society (1980). In the first
wave, it was agricultural products, and in the second, it was manufactured goods. In the
third wave, it is information.

Information as a commodity comes in many forms—one example of which
is knowledge, such as that acquired and used by professionals. If a farmer was the
emblematic figure of the first wave and a factory worker that of the second, in the third
it is professionals, who, as opposed to farmers or factory workers, provide services rather
than physical goods. The shift to services is becoming increasingly profound, and in
the past 50 years the service sector of the economy has grown far more rapidly than
any other.

Economies in developed countries seldom grow because new resources are found
but because better use is made of existing resources—human or material. When
economists refer to “productivity,” they typically mean the value of goods and services
produced divided by the resources (human and material) available to produce them. In
2002, for example, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) examined the question
of how much computer technology had to do with increases in productivity nationally.
The results were that all net productivity between 1996 and 2001 was attributed to
technological changes in the production of computer hardware and the easier access to
computer technology this caused (U.S. Congressional Budget Office, 2002, p. viii).

Advances in information technology are transforming the workplace in other
ways as well. Increasing numbers of employees are staying home for part or all of
the work week, carrying out their tasks over voice and data lines linking them to na-
tional and international networks. These changes have the potential to dramatically
alter the nature of community life. At a minimum, they are likely to modify traditional

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Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 55

commuting patterns by allowing more workers to “go to the office” at home. Eventu-
ally they could reverse urbanization trends, contributing to smaller and more decen-
tralized communities.

Technological advances have created a world community across national boundar-
ies. Community activism, mass demonstrations, and social movements are immediately
visible to populations around the world, mobilizing resistance and support f rom far
reaches of the globe. Now there is the technological capacity to spontaneously translate
needs and issues as they are being identified into public discourse. With this ability to
know what is happening as it is happening come multiple challenges for social workers.
It is easy to become overwhelmed with so much apparent need and conf lict in the world.
It is also important to recognize cultural contexts within which needs and conf lict are
f ramed and to not jump to conclusions about how to assess and engage “solutions” to
complex problems that may seem to work in one cultural setting but might not be feasi-
ble or even helpful in another (Reisch, 2013).

Social workers can expect the ongoing changes in information technology to have
two types of effects on their own work. One is that the nature of the social problems
they encounter will be altered, and the other is that the way they do their work will
change. With respect to changes in social problems, we have already noted the income
gap between high and low earners in the United States, and a looming shortage of skilled
workers to fill information-related and other high-tech jobs is likely to further widen this
gap. This will further complicate the task of social workers who are attempting to assist
society’s poorest members, because few of those individuals will have the skills neces-
sary to qualify for better paying jobs.

The way social workers do their jobs is also changing. They
compose reports, write progress notes, exchange messages with
others internal and external to the organization, access client re-
cords, search for referral options, and perform a variety of other
functions that define the technical details of their professional
roles. Computers, databases, and other information resources
have become essential for these tasks. Smartphones and laptop
or tablet computers can be used to take case notes, fill out forms,
or administer assessment tools. In most cases, they also provide
wireless access to allow workers to email questions to a super-
visor, search for referral agencies, or schedule appointments for clients. Access to elec-
tronic agency files allows workers to search client records, upload forms and case notes,
or input information used to monitor and evaluate services. They can also keep up with
professional literature through online access to journals and research reports, post ques-
tions to members of a listserv who work in the same area of specialization, or visit web-
sites that provide information on problems with which they are unfamiliar. Perhaps of
greatest potential value to macro practitioners is their ability to download data on cen-
sus tracts or access geographic information systems to plot the distribution of income,
crime, age, health status, and many other variables on high-resolution maps
of targeted areas. In other words, as in virtually all other fields, rapid change
in computer and information technology will continue to change the way that
social workers do their jobs. Box 2.6 provides an overview of contemporary

assess your understanding
of contemporary social

work challenges by taking
this brief quiz.


Ethical and Professional Behavior

Practice Behavior: Use technology ethically and
appropriately to facilitate practice outcomes.

Critical Thinking Question: If you were asked
to develop several principles for social workers about
how to use technology ethically and appropriately, what
would they be?

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 55 9/28/15 10:39 AM

56 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

The imPorTanCe of Change

The development of social work macro practice has proceeded hand-in-hand with
rapid changes in society. In fact, change is one of the few constants in modern life, and
its effects are sometimes difficult to evaluate. Is fading participation in local member-
ship groups evidence that people’s connections to their communities are dying, or are
we simply witnessing the replacement of old modes of affiliation and old definitions of
“community” with newer ones? Does the gradual absorption of immigrants into the
larger society represent a loss of their cultural identity, or by becoming a part of that
society are they adding new f lavors to it and guarding its variety and vibrancy? Is pri-
vatization a way to use market forces to lower costs and improve the quality of human
services, or is it an intermediate step on a path toward abandonment of government
responsibility for human services? Viewed up close, questions such as these are often

difficult to answer, and sometimes it is only with the passage of years that a
consensus begins to form.

In the meantime, social workers involved in macro practice must be aware
that change is a constant force in society, and certain consequences of its pres-
ence can be anticipated. For lack of a better term, we will refer to these as
axioms of change. They are:

1. Some individuals, organizations, and communities will be more
welcoming to change than others.

• Addressing Poverty and Welfare Reform.  Between
1996 (when major federal reforms were passed) and 2001,
the number of welfare recipients dropped by more than
half, but caseloads then began to stabilize. Poverty is now
on the rise—especially child poverty—and children are
more likely to be poor now than in the 1970s or 1980s.

• Recognizing Income Inequality. Income gaps between
wealthy and poor are widening, with the richest one-fifth
of families in the United States gaining earning power
in the past 20 years and those in the poorest 20 percent
having lower earnings. In 2007, the top one-tenth of
households accounted for more than 50 percent of all in-
come earned, whereas the bottom one-fifth of households
received less than 5 percent of all income earned.

• Assessing Changing Patterns of Community
Affiliation and Identification. Members of society rely
less on local relationships and are less closely tied to their
communities than in the past. For example, they are less
likely to join local membership groups and more likely to
affiliate with national organizations whose other members

they may never meet, and they now use social networking
and other technology to maintain relationships over long
distances. Also, their organizations and communities are
much more affected than in the past by decisions made
outside the local area and across the globe.

• Assessing Changing Organizations and Delivery
Systems. Social workers are more likely than in the past
to work in organizations, and these are more likely to have
formal, bureaucratic structures. They are also more likely to
be private rather than public agencies and to depend on
POS contracts.

• Using Technology Wisely. Computerization of many
aspects of society means that the most valuable commod-
ity is information. Moreover, most jobs now involve the
production of services rather than food or manufactured
goods. Only $1 of every $100 in the economy now comes
from agriculture, while $4 of every $5 comes from services.
From computer programming to health care to a variety of
social work functions, services are increasingly information
driven and computer dependent.

Box 2.6 Contemporary Challenges at a glance

watch the video on health
care for americans with
mental illness. how do

changes in the mental health
care system impact people with
a serious mental illness?

M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 56 9/28/15 10:39 AM

Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice 57

2. Individuals, organizations, and communities will also vary in how well they
cope with change.

3. Resistance to change may occur as individuals, organizations, and communities
attempt to hold on to the familiar, but resistance may also be a rational response
to changes that have negative effects.

4. The constancy of change, the fact that people and collections of people vary in
how well they cope with change, and the fact that the change may be negative
create an ongoing need for social workers to assist at both the micro and macro

We believe that a planned change model can be employed to assist social
workers in answering these questions and addressing problems in macro systems.
Chapter 3 will introduce the basic elements of such a model by discussing how
to engage target populations in addressing macro-level problems.


The need for social workers to be able to understand and practice in macro systems
is based on both the history of the social work profession and the society in which it
evolved. Major social changes such as rapid population growth, immigration, industri-
alization, urbanization, and the rise of modern institutional structures led to concen-
trations of people in large urban areas. Accompanying these changes were modern
problems of urban crime, unemployment, poverty, and blighted neighborhoods. Soci-
etal responses to these conditions were affected by new ideologies. Social Darwinism
provided a rationale for ignoring many of these problems (through the reasoning that
people in need were weak and helping them would in turn weaken society) or to provide
paternalistic and judgmental forms of assistance. However, services guided by progres-
sivism and social justice concerns resulted in much more proactive helping efforts, such
as the rise of the settlement houses.

Social work as a profession emerged in the United States during the Progressive era.
At that time, Charity Organization Societies (with their emphasis on case-level practice)
and settlement houses (with their more community-oriented efforts) fostered micro and
macro perspectives. Workers in COS agencies emphasized the need for a systematic ap-
proach to the work, whereas workers in settlement houses demanded training on how to
effect social change, as early social work education emerged.

Recognition of macro roles evolved as social work education developed. These
roles included community organization, social reform, administration, and planning. In
different parts of the world, these and other roles were emphasized as diverse perspec-
tives about social work as a field of practice emerged.

Social work’s commitment to diverse and oppressed populations revealed many
issues faced by Native Americans, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, women,
persons with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Complex
urban, industrial communities produced vast wealth during the past century, but this
was not always shared by ethnic groups segregated (formally or informally) in ghettos
or on reservations. Highly bureaucratized organizations became efficient at processing

assess your understand-
ing of the importance
of change by taking this
brief quiz.


M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 57 9/28/15 10:39 AM

58 Chapter 2: historical and Contemporary influences on macro Practice

individual clients in standardized ways, but they did not consistently advance in their
ability to meet individual needs or avoid practices that actively or passively discriminated
against particular groups.

Advancing human rights as well as social and economic justice became one of so-
cial work’s ongoing challenges. In addition, several contemporary challenges were iden-

tified, including: addressing poverty and welfare reform, recognizing income
inequality, assessing changing community patterns of affiliation and identi-
fication, assessing changing organizations and delivery systems, and wisely
using technology.

Assess Your Competence

Use the scale below to rate your current level of achievement on the following concepts or skills associated with
each learning outcome listed at the beginning of this chapter:

1 2 3

I can accurately describe the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome.

I can consistently identify the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome when
observing and analyzing practice activities.

I can competently implement the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome in my

own practice.

Identify historical social conditions and ideologies leading to the establishment of social work as a

Discuss how professional social work education and practice developed during the 1900s.

Describe issues faced by diverse and oppressed population groups.

Identify contemporary challenges related to social work macro practice.

Explain why change is so important to social work practice.

recall what you learned in
this chapter by completing
the Chapter review.


M02_NETT8523_08_SE_C02.indd 58 9/28/15 10:39 AM


Learning OutcOmes

• Discuss issues of discrimination
and oppression faced by different
population groups.

• Use a framework for engaging
population groups in a change

chapter OutLine

Diversity and Difference 59
Advancing Human Rights and Social

and Economic Justice
Where Does One Begin?

A Framework for Engaging
Population Groups 62
Task 1: Start Where the Population Is
Task 2: Assess the Impact of Difference,

Discrimination, and Oppression
Task 3: Search the Professional

Knowledge Base on the Target

Task 4: Develop Strategies for
Authentic Engagement

Summary 84

Appendix 85

Engaging with
Diverse Populations







Diversity anD Difference

Figure 3.1, originally presented in Chapter 1, illustrates how the
three domains of population, problem, and arena have unique
as well as overlapping elements. In order to be effective in bring-
ing about macro-level change, the social worker and collaborators
must begin by becoming knowledgeable about (1) the population
affected; (2) the problem, need, or opportunity; and (3) the locality
or arena where the change will take place. These three domains can
also be thought of as three intersecting circles in which the most
critical knowledge and information are at the points of overlap.

In this chapter, we will focus on one of the three circles: the
population. The following chapters will explore the remaining
circles: understanding problems (Chapter 4) and assessing commu-
nities (Chapters 5 and 6) and/or organizations (Chapters 7 and 8)
with and in which macro practice is carried out. This chapter and
the next will be used to guide the practitioner into the study of a
particular population that has social, community, or organizational
problems or needs. Altogether, these chapters will present a con-
ceptual framework for a model of macro practice and will specify a
series of tasks for collecting data and information.

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60 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

We turn now to diverse and different population groups to provide a context for the
framework that follows.

Problems affect people. Solutions, if they are to be effective, must ref lect an under-
standing of and respect for the people affected and the capacity to build on their strengths.

A particular target population may be implied or stated as a part of f raming a
problem. Focusing on a problem such as a high rate of teenage pregnancy and under-
weight infants immediately narrows the population to young women between the ages
of approximately 11 and 19. Addressing a rising incidence of elder abuse narrows the
population to people who are usually over age 65 and in a vulnerable and dependent
situation. In some cases, a population may be distinguished by shared race, ethnicity, or
culture. For example, a focus on health disparities among African American women or
resettlement barriers faced by Hmong immigrants suggests factors that may be central
to understanding a population and the challenges they face.

Historical and contemporary issues faced by a few oppressed groups were sum-
marized in Chapter 2. The following paragraphs provide a brief overview of why it is
important for social workers to engage with diverse and different population groups in
order to advance human rights and social and economic justice.

advancing Human rights and social and economic Justice

Gutierrez and her colleagues (2013) identify issues faced by macro social workers as
they work with diverse population groups. For example, the life expectancy of people
of color continues to lag behind the general population. and a major public health prob-
lem is that the life expectancy for black men continues to decline, with homicide as the
leading cause of death for young men of color. Members of the social networks for chil-
dren of color have become overwhelmed in trying to provide support at a time when it
is needed more than ever. With the implementation of welfare reform, women of color

figure 3.1 
Understanding Population, Problem, and Arena

Political & Policy Context


(Communities and


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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 61

have been disproportionately pushed into low-paying jobs with inadequate (if
any) child care. Persons who have immigrated to the United States work long
hours to send income to members of their extended families in their countries
of origin.

Two contrasting views can and often are held when assessing current circum-
stances affecting historically disadvantaged groups. One view sees progress in the
way that racism and, to a lesser degree, sexism are recognized and condemned
both informally among society’s members and formally through laws, operational
rules, and new programs created to address old injustices. The opposing view sees
lingering disparities in income, education, and health that continue to affect ra-
cial and ethnic minorities; stereotypes and paternalistic attitudes affecting women;
neglect and ignorance affecting persons with disabilities; and reactionary legal initiatives de-
signed to label LGBTQ citizens as aberrant and undeserving of equal protection.

The contrast between these views illustrates the way in which ideological differ-
ences seem to have become more sharply defined across the political spectrum, with
the result that concepts of compassion and caring for vulnerable populations sometimes
appear at risk of drowning in a sea of rhetoric. The task facing social workers is further
compounded by the fact that their efforts are often portrayed as destroying individual
responsibility and fostering dependency among those they serve.

Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind is that social programs tend to ref lect
the status quo because they address symptoms of oppression rather than causes. Professionals
frequently assume they know the causes of oppression—and thus
the needs of consumers—without directly asking the people they
serve. During recent decades, efforts such as social movements and
citizen participation activities have taken steps to address the needs
of special populations in a more comprehensive and consumer-
involved manner. The task for practitioners remains that of
(1) truly engaging population groups in every phase of change efforts
that will impact their lives, (2) finding interventions that respond ap-
propriately to the needs of these populations, and (3) keeping in the
forefront a genuine commitment to meeting these needs.

Where Does One Begin?

Social workers engage with populations throughout the world who experience
oppressive conditions and are discriminated against on a daily basis. In some cases, the
population may not even be clearly defined.

For example, an episode of change may focus on a neighborhood. In this instance,
the population may be neighborhood residents within which there are numerous sub-
populations such as preschoolers, children, teenagers, young families, adults, and/or
elders in multiple racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. When intervening at the neighbor-
hood level, assessing the arena (to be discussed in subsequent chapters) will require close
collaboration with community members. Without their engagement, false assumptions
could easily be made about the needs of this community.

In another instance, the arena could be a long-term care facility in which the lowest
paid workers are doing “the bed and body work” of daily patient care. Primarily minority

Watch the video on how
the social, economic, and
physical environments

in which we are born, live, and
work affect our longevity and
health. How does the video
explain the causes of health

Human Rights and Justice

Practice Behavior: Apply their understanding of
social, economic, and environmental justice to advocate
for human rights at the individual and systems level.

critical thinking Question: As a practitioner, how
do you plan to balance your responsibility to advocate at
both the individual and systems levels?

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62 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

women perform these backbreaking duties every day, often moonlighting in more than
one facility in order to make ends meet. Their voices are seldom heard by administrators,
even though they likely know more about patients and their daily needs than anyone
else. Theirs is an economic justice issue in that they are rarely paid enough to provide for
their own families, yet are expected to provide quality care for members of other fami-
lies. Hearing their stories is crucial if change is to occur.

A word of caution is needed at this point. In this and subsequent chapters, we will
provide guidance on how one might begin engaging and assessing situations before at-
tempting to initiate or participate in a change process. Every population group and every
problem are complex, no matter how they appear on the front end, and there is no one
right way to begin. In fact, even though we will offer you various tasks that may appear
to be logical, you may find that some are useful and others are not. You will also find that
often there is not enough time to do everything we suggest because timelines and other
demands are often superimposed and out of your control. It is important to know that
change agents do not have to use every aspect of every assessment tool in lockstep fash-
ion. We provide you with multiple assessment tasks so that you know they are available.
When change efforts are made within existing resources, choices can be made about
what to use. However, some macro-level changes require special funding, and when ad-
ditional resources are requested it is very likely that the funding source(s) will specify at
least some of the topics to be covered.

Although these tasks are presented in a series, you will find that they are iterative
in that you may be working on multiple tasks simultaneously, with each task informing
your thinking about another.

You might be asking at this point: Where do I begin? How is it possible
to focus? We recommend that you begin by prioritizing the population’s
perspectives on the problems and opportunities they face. In the f ramework
that follows, we underscore the importance of engaging in a critical ref lection
process of self-awareness in preparation for working with any population group.

a frameWOrk fOr engaging POPulatiOn grOuPs

For change to be initiated, there must be an individual or a small group that recognizes the
need for change and is prepared to take action. Within this core group, early decisions are
made about collaboration and sharing of responsibility. Skills are needed in the areas of
interviewing representatives of affected populations, researching the professional knowl-
edge base, collecting quantitative and qualitative data, and making an informed analysis
based on findings. Remember that it is likely that the case to be made in favor of change
will ultimately be taken to a decision-making body and possibly to a funding source. Peo-
ple who make decisions and allocate funds have a right to expect that those who come
before them are knowledgeable and informed, and have “done their homework.”

“Doing one’s homework” in this instance means taking a disciplined, methodical
approach to understanding the population, problem, arena, and political context of
the proposed change. Referring to Figure 3.1 as a guide to our study of these domains,
we first approach them as separate circles. This means that a social worker might, for
example, look first at the population and attempt to understand everything he or she can
about this domain within the limited time frame available.

assess your understanding
of diversity and difference

by taking this brief quiz.


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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 63

To begin assessing the population, we propose that the change agent engage in a
series of tasks, as depicted in Figure 3.2.

task 1: start Where the Population is

A mantra of social work practice is to “start where the client is.” This is as much the
case in macro-practice activities as it is in work with individuals and families. Engaging a
population and assessing the problems they face require attention to a range of perspec-
tives. Problems can be understood in a number of ways, including (1) experiencing the
problem firsthand, (2) working closely with people who have experienced the problem,
or (3) exploring the professional knowledge base about the problem. In considering these
approaches, it is important to distinguish between the understanding and insight gained
by personal experience as contrasted with other methods of learning. For this reason, it
is important to communicate directly with persons who know about the problem first-
hand, and to remember that early encounters in which one is humble and open will help
pave the way for mutual trust and engagement.

Task 1 includes two sets of activities—developing cultural humility and listening to
different perspectives from population members.

Develop Cultural Humility
Most, if not all, episodes of macro-level change will involve populations that differ on
some dimension f rom the social work change agent. For this reason, we emphasize lis-
tening to members of the target population and gathering a wide variety of theoretical
perspectives and empirical evidence in order to develop an effective planned change in-
tervention. But before a social worker engages in these learning activities, she or he must
attend to interpersonal attitudes regarding diversity and difference.

Questions to be explored for this activity include:

• What experiences has the social worker had with members of this population group?
• What self-identities and attitudes does the social worker bring to this situation?
• What are the strengths, vulnerabilities, and power imbalances faced by this

population group?

Ideally, in each macro-level change effort, there would be a change agent available
who ref lects the race, culture, ethnic group, gender, age group, and life experiences of
the target population. This ideal should be pursued but at times is not possible. Social

figure 3.2 
Tasks in the Framework for Engaging Population Groups

Task 1:
Begin Where
Population Is

• Develop cultural
• Listen to

Task 2:

Task 3:

Task 4 :

• Explore
and oppression

• Assess
implications of

• Identify growth and

• Assess impact of
social relationships
and structures

• Create
for participation

• Work with

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64 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

workers find themselves the focal point or conduit for concerns representing many
diverse perspectives, and it is expected that they will find ways to give visibility and voice
to each perspective (Brooks, 2001).

If a social worker is a 23-year-old white or Hispanic woman working with an older
African American or Asian person, she must recognize that her experiences are not the
same as those of persons with whom she is working. In fact, the white or Hispanic social
worker should not assume that her experiences are the same as those of someone who
shares her ethnicity. Similarly, a social worker engaged in intercountry adoption work
must recognize that there are diverse cuturally embedded perspectives on the acceptabil-
ity of adoption and the definition of what constitutes a family (Roby, Rotabi, & Bunkers,
2013). Effective cross-cultural social work in these situations requires that the social
worker be able to hear the voices of persons with different perspectives and to partner
with others as they guide one another toward understanding and change.

To become effective in such cross-cultural situations, social workers have been en-
couraged to develop cultural competence. Cultural competence includes interrelated
actions, thoughts, and even policies that are joined within a system or organization to
facilitate effective cross-cultural work (NASW, 2000, p. 61). NASW (2001) recognizes cul-
tural competence as both a process and a product that includes self-awareness and respect
for diversity as well as effective practice behaviors on micro, mezzo, and macro levels.

Cross, Bazron, Dennis, and Isaacs (1989) identified six points on a continuum of
competency. The authors suggested a process of growth that includes practitioner and
agency awareness, knowledge, and skills. The authors’ six points on the continuum are
noted in Table 3.1.

table 3.1 cultural competence continuum

competency continuum Description

Cultural Destructiveness •   Attitudes, policies, and practices that are destructive to cultures are also destructive to individuals 
within cultures.

Cultural Incapacity •  The person, agency, or system lacks the capacity to help members of a cultural or ethnic group.

•  The person, agency, or system does not respect the beliefs or traditions of the group being served.

Cultural Blindness •  The belief that culture is not important and that all people are the same.

•  Use of helping approaches is seen to be universally applicable.

Cultural Precompetence •   The individual, agency, or system recognizes its cultural deficiencies and begins to make attempts to 
address them through outreach or hiring practices.

Cultural Competence •  Differences are accepted and respected.

•  Self-assessment of staff and policies are made in relation to culture.

•  Cultural knowledge and resources are expanded.

Cultural Proficiency •  Culture is held in high esteem.

•  Cultural practice is enhanced by research.

•  Cultural knowledge is increased.

Based on Cross, Bazron, Dennis, and Isaacs’ (1989) six points of cultural competency.

M03_NETT8523_06_SE_C03.indd 64 9/28/15 10:38 AM

chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 65

The assumptions of cultural competence have been questioned in recent inter-
disciplinary scholarship, particularly the assumption that competence can ever truly
be attained (Hook, Owen, Davis, Worthington, & Utsey, 2013). For example, Johnson
and Munch (2009) identified four paradoxes in current understandings of cultural
competence. First, despite professional emphasis on learning from clients, models of
cultural competence often espouse knowing about clients and
assume specialized knowledge can be acquired about different
client groups. Second, although ethical standards emphasize the
dignity and worth of individuals, descriptions of difference are
by definition stereotypical and may overlook the uniqueness of
each individual. Third, the ethical value of self-determination
may be undermined by a focus on the group. Finally, the authors
questioned if competence can ever be achieved given (1) the
lack of clarity about the definition and (2) the numerous unique
combinations that comprise individual identities.

In contrast to cultural competence, medical educators
Tervalon and Murray- Garcia (1998) proposed cultural humility as
the goal for cross-cultural practice. Unlike competence, humility does not suggest that
one can master everything about a culture. Instead, it suggests an ongoing process that
includes a continual commitment to learning and self-ref lection, to altering the power
imbalances in the interactions between helping professionals and service consumers,
and to developing collaborative and equitable relationships with community members.
Tervalon and Murray-Garcia and other critics of cultural competence recognize the im-
portance of increasing knowledge and skills, but also recognize the limits and potential
dangers of these behaviors if they are not accompanied by ongoing self-evaluative pro-
cesses and relationship building.

For social workers who practice directly with individuals and families, each encoun-
ter with a client provides an opportunity to exercise cultural humility. For social workers
who practice with organizations and communities, these opportunities are also readily
available. Using Tervalon and Murray-Garcia’s (1998) components of cultural humility,
Table 3.2 provides critical questions to consider when faced with opportunities to de-
velop and exercise cultural humility.

Although we emphasize cultural humility in this text, we do not discount the value of
the work that has been done to develop the concept and practices of cultural competence.
Seeking to increase one’s understanding of different groups and cultures is a goal worth
pursuing and a task required by many professional bodies. Conceptual and empirical works
on cultural competence are invaluable resources for professionals. For example, Organista
(2009) proposes a practice model with Latinos that synthesizes previous models and meth-
ods of culturally competent practice. Using a range of theories and research, Organista
contends that practice with Latinos should be attentive to four dimensions in order to prac-
tice competently: (1) Increase service availability and access, (2) assess problems in the so-
cial and cultural contexts, (3) select culturally and socially acceptable interventions, and (4)
increase service accountability (p. 300). These dimensions should assist practitioners as they
assess and critique current practices and develop new practices with Latinos. The value of
such an integrative model is that it provides a ready tool for practitioners as they work with
one of the fastest growing minority groups in the United States.

Diversity and Difference in Practice

Practice Behavior: Present themselves as learners,
and engage clients and constitutencies as experts of their 
own experiences.

critical thinking Question: What is the difference
between learning from clients and learning about clients?
Why does this matter?

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66 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

table 3.2 critical Questions about cultural Humility

components of cultural Humility critical Questions for social Workers

Having a lifelong commitment to
self-evaluation and critique

•   How are my beliefs and values influencing how I view this 
person, group, or community?

•   Have I identified and reflected on how my past 
experiences might influence how I view and treat this 
person, group, or community?

Attempting to redress power imbalances
in the interaction and dynamics between
social workers and a consumer of services

•  Where is power located in this relationship?

•  How am I using power in this situation?

•   Am I using power “over” or power “with” this person, 
group, or community?

•   How can I begin and sustain relationships that 
acknowledge and equalize power differences?

Developing mutually beneficial and 
nonpaternalistic partnerships with

•   How are community perspectives incorporated into this 

•   Have community representatives been a part of this 
partnership since its early stages?

•   Were community perspectives sought before solutions 
were imposed?

Based on Tervalon and Murray-Garacia’s (1998) components of cultural humility.

We stress, however, that knowledge acquisition is only one dimension of ethical
and effective cross-cultural practice. Drawing from Tervalon and Murray-Garcia (1998),
such practice must also address power imbalances, mutuality in relationships, and critical

Listen to Different Perspectives from Population Members
As practitioners continuously cultivate self-awareness and cultural humility within the
context of social work values, the imperative to seek population perspectives is clear.
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• Identify key informants from the population of interest.
• Include diverse voices and perspectives in articulating the issues faced by this


To better understand a particular population, the social work change agent must
seek the perspectives of those who are members of the population. This activity is both
an application of cultural humility and social work values, as well as a prudent means to
gather useful information to inform the planned change effort. Hook and his colleagues
(2013) suggest that a humble person has an accurate view of self and is other-oriented
as opposed to being self-focused. Humble professionals respect others and do not exert
superiority over others. They see members of the population with which they are engag-
ing as experts on the challenges they face. They look for strengths first.

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 67

People who live or work in the place that is seen as needing change may not perceive
the situation exactly as the change agent does. They may have important social support
structures or resources unknown to persons outside that group. They may also have seen
previous efforts by well-meaning change agents fail and/or ignore their plans and desires
for their own community. Their positions in the community or organization and their
perspectives need to be respected. Cues should be taken f rom indigenous people as to
appropriate roles and responsibilities in initiating a change effort.

Many changes involve cultural and ethnic considerations, so the preceding points
about cultural humility should be incorporated early in any planned macro-level change.
Also important is an awareness of the many ways in which culture can be manifested. For
example, in an extended care facility there is a culture-of-care provision. In a high school,
faculty, staff, students, and administrators will typically have developed an organizational
culture over time. In these and other situations where the change agent is perceived as
an outsider, the components in Table 3.2 can help the organizer or change agent build
credibility and avoid mistakes with persons who are part of those environments.

Understanding a macro-level problem or need in all its complexity requires skillful elic-
iting of information from a variety of people who have experienced the problem. Knowl-
edge and sensitivity are required for this type of interview. The work done in macro practice
in social work is not like that of a newspaper reporter gathering information for an article.
A trusting relationship must be built so that those persons in the community or organiza-
tion will develop a commitment to the changes needed and participate in the change effort.

Furthermore, if a person who identifies with the population is not already a part of
the change effort, seeking input from members of the population may identify a represen-
tative or representatives of the population for participation in the planning and implemen-
tation of the change. Those who have direct experience with the problem or opportunity
might not accept those without similar experience as spokespersons. People who have
experienced life on public assistance may not be willing to accept a social worker as a rep-
resentative of their feelings and needs. Likewise, someone living in an affordable housing
development may be more likely to turn to a fellow resident as spokesperson. Describ-
ing the experiences that led to posttraumatic stress disorder in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq,
and Afghanistan is more credibly done by someone who was there. People of
a particular ethnic group may be able to speak for the experiences of their own
group but not for another group. A person who is not a transgender may not be
able to credibly represent a transgender person. For these reasons, it is import-
ant to find spokespersons who are accepted and supported by their peers and
who can help to articulate the perspectives of the group(s) involved. Identifying
key participants to take lead roles in certain areas doesn’t diminish the role of
the social worker. It merely changes its focus.

task 2: assess the impact of Difference, Discrimination,
and Oppression

Difference that is stereotyped and stigmatized can result in prejudice, discrimination,
and oppression. prejudices are based on preconceived stereotypes, rather than on expe-
rience or reason (Hoyt, 2012). Discrimination refers to detrimental action or an absence
of action because of individual and group differences (Bell, 2007). Oppression occurs

go to the community
toolbox homepage and do a
search on “chapter 7.” read
section 8, “identifying and
analyzing stakeholders and
their interests.” What reasons
are provided for including
stakeholders and their interests?

M03_NETT8523_06_SE_C03.indd 67 9/28/15 10:38 AM

68 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

when an individual, group, or society unjustly uses authority or power over others, and it
includes everything from institutional discrimination to personal bigotry (Hoyt, 2012).

Task 2 pushes deeper into examining the impact of discrimination and oppression
on the population group. Two sets of activities follow: exploring the discriminatory
issues faced by, as well as the intersectionality within, the population.

Explore the Discriminatory and Oppressive Issues Faced by This Population
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What stereotypes or generalizations confront this population group?
• How has this population group been discriminated against or oppressed?
• Do members of the population group feel marginalized, and if so, why?

Population groups that are recognized as different f rom the dominant culture are
frequently stereotyped. Stereotypes are generalizations about a group that suggest that all
members of that group are the same and will exhibit the same behavior (Rosenblum &
Travis, 2008). Link and Phelan (2001, p. 367) suggest that stigmatization occurs when the
following five elements converge:

• Human differences are identified and then labeled.
• Cultural differences and values link labeled people to negative stereotypes.
• A separation of “us” and “them” develops, categorizing people as a group.
• Persons in the labeled group lose status and are discriminated against.
• Because they are stigmatized, the labeled population does not gain access to

resources and is disempowered and excluded.

Stereotyping and stigmatizing others provide a rationale for discrimination and
oppression. When a difference is construed as abnormal and wrong, individuals, pro-
grams, and institutions that identify as normal have a rationale to maintain their perspec-
tives. The change agent must search beyond these normative descriptions of “different”
groups to understand a population and its challenges. Constructed categories such as race,
class, or gender maintain social hierarchies and power relations, privileging some groups
at the expense of others (Sewpaul, 2013). Social workers must recognize how a difference
is portrayed and how dominant interpretations of that difference have resulted in discrim-
ination and oppression. Oppression can occur around any dimension of difference, but
common “isms” describing specific forms of oppression are defined in Table 3.3.

The “isms” are based on steoretypical thinking that generalizes to a group of peo-
ple, based on their shared characteristics. Often, these attitudes become barriers to

community participation even though they are subtle and difficult to identify.
The “isms” exist in the values, norms, and traditions of a society to be trans-
lated into local community activities. For example, as children are socialized
in their educational, religious, and familial roles, they are given messages re-
garding what is considered appropriate for women and men. Bricker-Jenkins
and Hooyman (1986) proposed that social workers should examine patriarchy
within the community. They suggested that the recording of history and the
establishment of myths that set direction for succeeding generations are parts
of a patriarchal system in which experiences of women tend to be devalued
and their contributions subjugated.

Watch the video featuring
camara Jones discussing
race and racism. How

do Dr. Jones’ allegories help
you understand the impact of
privilege and oppression on you
and the populations with whom
you may work?

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 69

The target population may encompass one or more racial or ethnic groups. Infor-
mation on such factors as rates of employment, educational achievement, and socio-
economic status within these subgroups is important to understanding the effects of
institutional racism. Whether persons from different groups within the target population
are involved in decision-making roles is an important indicator of sensitivity to ethnic
and cultural issues. Services and other resources available to people f rom diverse eth-
nicities in the target population proportionate to their numbers in the community com-
prise another indicator. Statistics on violence against women and resources to deal with
this problem are available from such organizations as women’s support groups, women’s
centers, and shelters for battered women (Busch & Wolfer, 2002). Lack of services, such
as child care and transportation, may limit women’s access to employment.

Cultural attitudes associated with classism f requently blame people who are poor
for their own situation. These judgments are based on the assumption that those who
are poor lack initiative and are unwilling to work to achieve a better socioeconomic sta-
tus for themselves and their families. Such perspectives are sometimes ref lected in the
prejudicial language and popular culture stereotypes used to describe people from lower
socioeconomic levels. Terms like trailer trash, low class, ghetto, white trash, and redneck
impugn the character of individuals f rom lower socioeconomic levels. In popular cul-
ture, working-class people may be viewed as ignorant, whereas upper-middle-class life-
styles are seen as normal (Leondar-Wright & Yeskel, 2007).

homophobia is a term used to describe irrational fears held by people toward
individuals who have a same-gender sexual orientation. Homophobia, in the ex-
treme, has taken the form of “gay bashing,” a practice of physically beating gay

table 3.3 systems of Oppression

system of Oppression Definition

Ableism An institutional, cultural, and individual system of disadvantage and
discrimination against people who are considered physically or mentally
unable to function as well as others.

Ageism An institutional, cultural, and individual system of disadvantage and
discrimination against people because of their age.

Classism An institutional, cultural, and individual system of disadvantage and
discrimination against people who are at a lower socioeconomic level.

Enthocentrism Ethnic groups share a common language, customs, history, culture, race,
religion, or origin. Ethocentrism is an institutional, cultural, and individual
system of disadvantage and discrimination that implies that one’s ethnic 
group is superior to others.

Heterosexism and
Trans Oppression

An institutional, cultural, and individual system of disadvantage and
discrimination against people who are (or are perceived to be) lesbian, 
gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Racism An institutional, cultural, and individual system of disadvantage and
discrimination against people based on their race or perceived race.

Sexism An institutional, cultural, and individual system of disadvantage and
discrimination because of gender.

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70 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

people. In other forms, heterosexism and homophobia result in job discrimination,
ridicule, and ostracizing. Like all prejudices (literally, “prejudgments”), homophobia
blinds those aff licted with it to the individual qualities of lesbians and gay men and
causes them to perceive these populations only in the context of their sexual orien-
tation. Homophobia, along with heterosexism, heterocentrism, and other systems
of oppression, have an impact on every aspect of a person’s life, including work en-
vironment, housing acquisition, access to health services, and religious and commu-
nity life (Appleby, 2007).

The vast majority of older adults and persons with disabilities are capable of self-
sufficiency and productive lives, yet they may be excluded from employment and from
playing an important role in the community because of perceptions about their abili-
ties. Persons with disabilities and older individuals may not be hired because employers
are concerned about higher than average medical costs. If age or disability is relevant to
understanding the target population, statistics on the numbers and age ranges of those
persons in the community should be compiled. How many persons are frail older adults
(over 85)? How many persons are physically disabled, and what types of disabilities are
documented? Is there adequate access to services that engage persons with disabilities in
active community roles—transportation and outreach, for example? Are there support
services (e.g., nutrition programs, homemaker, and respite) that sustain these persons and
their care partners?

“Isms” do not exist in isolation, but rather intersect with other systems of oppres-
sion to further impact individuals and populations. For example, many of the “isms”
intersect with classism to further marginalize members of affected populations.

Assess Implications of Intersectionality
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What are the dimensions of intersectionality within this population?
• What issues of power, privilege, discrimination, and oppression are identified by

members of this population?
• What frameworks are useful in understanding population dynamics?

Macro practitioners work with individuals and communities that vary along a num-
ber of dimensions, including race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and religion,
among others. In addition to talking to members of various populations, concepts and
frameworks have been developed that help practitioners better understand the complex-
ity of these intersecting dimensions and the relationship of a person’s identity to major-
ity culture.

An early f ramework for understanding the complexities of cultural characteristics
and the impact of those characteristics on the identity and well-being of individuals was
Norton’s (1978) dual perspective. The dual perspective views an individual at the cen-
ter of two surrounding systems, which Norton called the nurturing system and the sus-
taining system. The nurturing system includes the values of parents and an extended
family or substitute family via community experiences, beliefs, customs, and traditions
with which the individual was raised. Surrounding the nurturing system is a sustaining
system, represented by the dominant society and culture. The sustaining system also
ref lects beliefs, values, customs, and traditions.

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 71

Sustaining systems are made up of inf luential and powerful people, including, for
example, teachers, employers, and law enforcement and elected officials. Some segments
of sustaining systems may ref lect ageist, racist, sexist, or other prejudicial attitudes, and
can therefore be perceived by diverse population groups as representing alien and hostile
environments. An example is the often antagonistic relationships that develop between
ethnic communities and the local police. Norton suggested that the more incongruence
between a person’s nurturing and sustaining systems, the more difficulty she or he would
have. She urged social workers to take actions to support the nurturing system and edu-
cate and confront the sustaining system when needed.

Years earlier, W. E. B. DuBois (1903) coined the term double consciousness or two-ness
to refer to African Americans’ awareness of their identity and the identity ascribed to
them by the dominant white society. He and subsequent scholars recognized this dual
consciousness as both a “special gift” and a powerful source of maladaptive identity de-
velopment. As a gift or strength, double consciousness recognizes the bicultural capacity
of minority group members that function, by necessity, in both their own culture and
the dominant culture. Members of the dominant culture rarely need and are seldom
forced to experience and live within minority cultures. Along with that strength, how-
ever, is the risk that members of minority groups might internalize the stigmatized and
stereotyped messages the dominant culture conveys about them.

In recent years, studies about whiteness and white identities have increased across
multiple fields of study. The reification of whiteness has been recognized as the standard
against which anyone who is not considered “white” is measured. The unrecognized
and unexamined category of whiteness has dominated all aspects of society as the norm
against which everyone is judged. The power behind whiteness comes in its lack of
acknowledgment, yet its inf luence saturates every aspect of life. Western film, literature,
and other cultural manifestations have perpetuated the institutionalization of whiteness
as dominant. Essentially, whiteness functions to project the image that being white is
beyond racial categorization, and, when left unscrutinised, it is used to gain white
privilege. White privilege includes a vast range of unearned social gains that white people
have by simply being white, but that are largely invisible (taken for granted) by them
( Jeyaskingham, 2012).

Critical race theory (CRT) reveals how policies, laws, and court decisions that abol-
ish the most visible signs of discrimination are often underminded by the deeply insti-
tutionalized and less visible values, norms, and cultures of the arenas in which they are
implemented (e.g. housing, education, and employment). These arenas have institution-
alized norms of whiteness whereby racial groups are marginalized in subtle but none-
theless damaging ways. CRT is used to analyze, deconstruct, and transform those power
relationships that marginalize racial groups. Basic premises of CRT are highlighted in
Table 3.4.

Perspectives on intersectionality emphasize the complexity of multiple dimensions
of difference that individuals occupy and the isms related to those dimensions in under-
standing identity development (Mattsson, 2014). Born out of Black Feminist scholarship
(Hill Collins, 2000; Hooks, 1981, 1989), intersectionality suggests that gender alone is an
insufficient analytic category to understand the experiences and identity of women of
color. In fact, any singular category is inadequate. Instead, when considering life expe-
riences and the development of identity, one must consider the interaction of multiple

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72 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

categories and isms. Specifically, everyone has a race, gender, and class, and these cate-
gorizations intersect to form complex, layered identities (Doykos, Brinkley-Rubinstein,
Craven, McCormack, & Geller, 2014). Identity is further developed by other differences,
including age, ethnicity, physical ability, and sexual identity.

The dual perspective, double consciousness, and intersectionality provide guidance
when working with different population groups, particularly groups that are marginal-
ized. Each of the concepts suggests that the best place to begin to understand a pop-
ulation is with the population itself, especially if the change agent is not a member of
that population. In attempting to solve vexing social problems, the social work change
agent should assume that oppressed or ignored groups have a better understanding of
their culture than the change agent does. Related, the change agent should recognize
that members of oppressed groups are more likely to understand and function within
the dominant culture than members of the dominant culture are in minority cultures.
People who live within a dominant society observe and experience, on a daily basis, the
values, beliefs, traditions, and language of the dominant society through personal con-
tact, television, newspapers, and other media. Representatives of the dominant society
do not regularly observe and experience the values, beliefs, and traditions of nondom-
inant groups. A social worker must often help representatives of the dominant society
understand the strengths and needs of the marginalized populations experiencing a so-
cial problem. For example, a young, black, special education student recently testified
before the state legislative committee on his experiences with bullying. Special education
students are by far the majority of victims. A social worker and a teacher identified this
young man and made arrangements for his testimony so that his voice and experience
could be heard by persons in decision-making roles.

table 3.4 themes of critical race theory

themes of critical race theory

1.   Racism is deeply and perpetually embedded in societal institutions, making it very difficult to identify. 
Despite the banning of visible signs of discrimination, racial privilege continues. CRT seeks to study and 
change the relationship between race, racism, and power, questioning the liberal order of things.

2.  Racism has become normalized in societal structures and institutions in which whites are privileged and 
persons of color are not. Thus, race and racism serve psychological, social, and material interests, and in 
order for change to occur it must benefit majority interests as well as those interests of excluded minorities.

3. Race is socially constructed, having no basis in genetics or biology. Yet, categories of difference have
been created by law to normalize race and underscore white privilege.

4.  Symbolism and meaning of racial groups have changed over place and time depending on political, 
social, and economic needs.

5.  The intersectionality of multiple identities is recognized, and to solely recognize gender, race, class, 
sexuality, disability, or any other identity without acknowledging the complexity of their overlap leads to 
further marginization.

6.  The voices of people of color are unique, must be heard, and are often more effective in assessing the 
intended and unintended consequences of public policies and programs.

Adapted from Freeman (2011); and Kolivoski, Weaver, and Constance-Huggins (2014).

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 73

Most policies, programs, and services, along with their underlying rationales, are de-
signed f rom a dominant-society perspective. Theories used to explain the problem and
the research on which the practitioner builds hypotheses may ref lect majority-culture
biases. Practitioners with the best intentions of working with a population group bring
their own layered identities to the engagement process, and when power differentials are
unexamined, they can unwittingly contribute to the institutionalized oppression that al-
ready exists. Members of diverse population groups, on the other hand, may have differ-
ent perspectives of the problem and how to resolve it. These perspectives are crucial in
understanding a problem and creating effective solutions for change (Doykos et al., 2014).

Consider, for example, a situation in which some of a community’s older adults
are experiencing deteriorating quality of life. One culture may value the concept of ex-
tended family and wish to maintain older parents in the home, but family members may
not be able to afford the expense of taking on another dependent. Another culture may
value the independence and privacy of older parents, but its members may not be able
to pay retirement-community prices. The community’s inf luential and powerful leaders
and decision makers may believe that government should not be involved, and that
decisions about aging parents should be left to adult children. It is likely that these
types of perceptions will be linked to factors relating to culture and/or gender and to
nurturing-system/sustaining-system perspectives.

Theoretical principles should be critically evaluated for their biases and
given credibility based on how thoroughly they have been tested, especially in re-
lation to the population being explored. Once selected as a framework for anal-
ysis, theoretical assumptions should be stated and shared with those involved
in the change effort. Change agents should always stay open to reassessing as-
sumptions as new information is gathered and new perspectives emerge. This is
intended to facilitate progress toward shared understandings of the population
group and openness toward amending those joint understandings in process.

task 3: search the Professional knowledge Base
on the target Population

There was a time when compiling information on a topic meant going to a library and
scouring journal articles on the topic. The Internet has changed all that, and for this
reason we no longer refer to a “review of the literature,” but rather use the phrase
exploring the professional knowledge base. The latest research, essays, case examples, and
many other resources can be found online in professional journals and at other sites that
specialize in populations and problems. Most journals provide a
table of contents, and some provide abstracts as well. Resources
can also be accessed by entering key words (e.g., “child neglect,”
“teenage alcohol abuse,” or “dementia”) into the search function
and getting a list of types of data and information available. Arti-
cles in social work journals can also be helpful in directing profes-
sionals to useful resources.

It is important, however, for those attempting to compile
a credible theoretical and research-based understanding of a
population or the problems they face to check the sources of

go to the unnatural causes
homepage and do a search
on “Health equity Quiz.” take
the quiz. What does the quiz
teach you about the relevance
of socioeconomic differences in
health outcomes? Did taking the
quiz make you reassess some of
your assumptions?

Research-informed Practice
(or Practice-informed Research)

Practice Behavior: Use and translate research 
evidence to inform and improve practice, policy, and
service delivery.

critical thinking Question: How can population
groups help practitioners use and translate research
findings? What if they disagree with the literature?

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74 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

information provided. Some of what is included on websites and other Internet resources
may be opinion or conventional wisdom passed on without regard to authenticity.

The professional knowledge base includes the major contributions to a field of study,
beginning with peer-reviewed professional journals in social work and related areas,
books and monographs focused on the population, and reliable organizational resources.
An Internet search can provide an overview of professional journals at websites such as
Social Work Abstracts, PsychINFO, and PubMed. WorldCat is a valuable source of informa-
tion on books. In addition to peer-reviewed scholarship and books indexed at the sites
listed above, useful data and information may also be provided by groups representing
populations such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the National
Alliance to End Homelessness, the Children’s Action Alliance, the American Cancer Soci-
ety, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Local studies done within an agency or a community are also valuable sources of
data. Although national studies tend to produce findings that are more widely applicable,
local studies have the advantage of being specific to the agency or community and are
therefore perhaps more precise and relevant to the population being studied. Agency
employees and networks of service providers can be helpful in identifying local research
projects and reports, as well as needs assessments, that may be available.

An important part of reviewing the knowledge base should be devoted to identify-
ing and applying relevant theoretical perspectives. Theories can be descriptive, helping
one to better understand the population group, or prescriptive in helping the change
agent know how to intervene (Mulroy, 2004; Savaya & Waysman, 2005). As opposed to
the random listing of facts and observations, theories allow for categorizing one’s find-
ings, making sense out of them, and turning seemingly unrelated bits of information
into explanatory propositions that lead to logical, testable hypotheses.

Understanding populations and framing problems is a professional undertaking that
must be approached with care and sensitivity. Without careful attention to the multiple
dimensions of populations and problems, descriptions and explanations may be overly
simplistic and result in “blaming the victim” (Ryan, 1971). This is always a risk when at-
tempting to understand why a population is experiencing a particular condition or prob-
lem. The risk can be addressed, in part, by recognizing that factors ranging from human
behavior and development to social relationships and structures contribute to robust
explanations of populations and problems.

Task 3 involves seeking additional information about the target population from ac-
ademic and professional resources. When examining existing literature about a popula-
tion, sets of activities may include at least exploring issues of growth and development
of the population, and assessing social relationships and structures.

Identify Concepts and Issues Related to Growth and Development
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What sources of the professional knowledge base are available on this
population group?

• What theoretical frameworks are available that will help in understanding the
target population?

• What factors or characteristics gleaned from the knowledge base on this
population will be helpful in understanding the target population?

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 75

In studying certain types of problems where human behavior is a factor, at least part
of the focus of the study should be on what is known about the various stages of growth
and development of the population. For example, problems such as eating disorders,
substance abuse, interpersonal violence, and suicide may be understood in a particular
population by considering stages of development over the life course.

In other instances, understanding the behavior of individuals within the target popula-
tion is not as important as assessing the impact of the arena (community or organization)
on its members. Organizations and communities can present barriers to full participation.
Problems such as overutilization of emergency room services for routine health care or
violation of zoning ordinances by housing multiple families in single-family units are
examples of situations where the focus should be on understanding how the community
or organization functions in relation to the target population. Whether the problem or
population suggests attention to human behavior and/or social structures, the knowledge
base on diversity and difference discussed previously will contribute to a better under-
standing of the factors that contribute to the population’s experience of a problem.

A useful starting point for understanding a population is a text on human growth and
development. These texts are frequently divided into ages and stages of life. For example,
Ashford and LeCroy (2013) organized their text on human behavior in the social environ-
ment around a multidimensional f ramework for assessing social functioning, including
the biophysical, psychological, and social dimensions. The authors then explore phases of
growth and development from pregnancy and birth through late adulthood. Hutchison
(2012) explores the changing life course and the person and environment. Santrock (2010)
has used the following chapter headings: Beginnings, Infancy, Early Childhood, Middle
and Late Childhood, Adolescence, Early Adulthood, Middle Adulthood, Late Adulthood,
and Death and Dying. These types of frameworks may be useful in organizing a study of
the target population. For example, in attempting to understand a population of teenage
methamphetamine users, a study might focus on adolescent growth and development,
perhaps using selected biophysical, psychological, social, cultural, and gender characteris-
tics that may, in some combination, contribute to the use and abuse of substances.

Theoretical perspectives may also assist in understanding a population’s experience
of a problem. One can draw f rom a range of traditional and alternative theories to
do this. For example, focusing on the population of adolescents who drop out of high
school, one might draw on the classical works of Skinner (1971), Erickson (1968), or
Maslow (1943) to understand the behavior of the target population.

Other traditional theorists provide additional perspectives on how adolescents deal
with issues of self-identity as they grow and develop (e.g., Kohlberg, 1984; Marcia, 1993;
Piaget, 1972). One can also draw f rom identity theories offered for various population
groups including, for example, the Cross (1971, 1991) Model of Black Identity Devel-
opment and Cass’s (1979, 1984) Model of Homosexual Identity Formation. These two
models are described brief ly below.

Cross (1971, 1991) suggests a four-stage model of black racial identity development.
In the first stage, Pre-encounter, the individual views her or himself f rom a white f rame
of reference. In the second stage, Encounter, the individual confronts experiences that
challenge a white f rame of reference (i.e., acts of discrimination). In the third stage,
Immersion–Emersion, the individual adopts a black identity and withdraws f rom inter-
actions with other cultures, particularly the dominant white culture. In the final stage,
Internalization, the individual develops self-confidence and security in her or his racial

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76 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

identity and embraces pluralism. Parham (1989) extended Cross’ model by suggesting
three ways of moving through the stages. First, a person can stagnate in any one of the
stages. Second, a person can make Stagewise Linear Progression (SLP) through the four
stages. Third, a person can recycle the stages and experience how it feels to struggle with
racial identity and the action required to resolve that struggle.

Cass (1979, 1984) developed the Homosexual Identity Formation model based on
her research of lesbian and gay individuals in Australia. In stage 1, Identity Confusion,
the individual is aware of being different and that her or his behavior may be considered
homosexual. In stage 2, Identity Comparison, the person realizes the she or he might be
homosexual and feels alienated because of this possibility. In stage 3, Identity Tolerance, the
individual accepts and tolerates the possibility of being homosexual and begins to seek
community. In stage 4, Identity Acceptance, the person accepts her or himself as homosex-
ual and increases efforts to create community. In stage 5, Identity Pride, the individual is
proud of her or his identity and angry about heterosexism and heterosexist privilege. In
stage 6, Identity Synthesis, the person is able to recognize heterosexual allies and integrate
multiple aspects of her or his identity. Cass emphasized that individuals may progress
through the stages at varying paces and that some individuals may stop at a particular
stage and not progress further, a process Cass referred to as Identity Foreclosure.

The two examples above suggest additional lenses through which to view the prob-
lems a population is experiencing. If the adolescents who are dropping out of high
school are predominantly Af rican American, perhaps members of that group believe
that the school culture, based on dominant-culture assumptions, is hostile to their own
experience. Likewise, if those dropping out of high school are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or
transgender (LGBT) youth, leaving may be related to the lack of acceptance and fear that
she or he feels as someone with a developing awareness of her or his own identity.

A number of other identity and developmental theories provide f rameworks that
help the social work change agent understand a population and its problems. A grow-
ing number of researchers have investigated how stereotypes inf luence identity devel-
opment in adolescents. For example, Way and colleagues (2013) interviewed 40 African
American, Chinese American, Dominican American, and European American middle
school students. Ethnic identities during adolescent were found to ref lect the macro
culture in which stereotypes about ethnicity, race, gender, and social class were infused
into every aspect of students’ lives. Thus, identities were constructed by comparing and
contrasting sets of stereotypes and attempting to avoid becoming a stereotype. The re-
searchers concluded that stereotypes pervaded identity development and that more at-
tention needed to be directed toward processes of “avoidance” and “negative identity” in
constructing identities, a point underscored by Erickson decades ago.

Assess the Impact of Social Relationships and Structures
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What structural and environmental forces are affecting this population group?
• What theoretical frameworks are available that will help in understanding the in-

teractions between members of the population and the larger social environment?

Understanding processes of growth and development contribute to the social work
change agent’s understanding of a population, but alone they may be insufficient in

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 77

understanding a population in relation to the problem(s) they are experiencing. Further-
more, use of these explanatory frameworks alone may inaccurately focus attention and
blame for a problem on the people experiencing it instead of on the contributing social
factors. In addition to these individually focused explanatory perspectives, theories from
sociology and social psychology can also provide insight on how social relationships and
structures impact a population and how members of that population act and understand

Focusing on family homelessness, one might use role theory, agency/structure theo-
ries, and conf lict theory to better understand families experiencing a housing crisis. Role
theory addresses the patterns of attitudes and behaviors typically associated with various
positions in society (Turner, 1982, 1990). Roles may be related to gender or age (basic
roles), or they may be related to a person’s occupation or family positions (structural
status roles). When a person fills a certain role, she or he is expected to conform to the
behavior patterns associated with that role. For example, a woman is expected to act in
accordance with the roles she holds as a daughter, mother, and wife.

Role conf lict may be experienced when one or more of the roles that a person holds
conf licts with another role. Role strain may occur when one struggles to meet the expec-
tations of a particular role. Single mothers in homeless families may experience role con-
f lict and strain as they attempt to be both an effective parent and provider. Emergency
shelter regulations that do not allow dependent male children over a certain age force
homeless mothers to contend with the stress of keeping their family together and pro-
viding housing for the rest of the family.

Sociological theories that bridge the concepts of agency (the ability of individuals to
act and create their own lives) and structural determinism (the inability of individuals to
act outside of constraining societal structures) can also be useful in understanding popu-
lations. Giddens (1979) proposed structuration theory to integrate agency and structure.
He noted that the social practices performed by humans are recursive, that is, as they
are repeated, social practices both create social structures and are conditioned by them.
Bourdieu (1977) popularized the term habitus to refer to the recursive frameworks, often
held unconsciously, that help humans function in everyday life. Conf lict theory recognizes
the inherent power differences among groups in society. Social problems in this perspective
are viewed as the result of conf licts among various groups in society vying for control of
important resources. Problems are not attributed to the individual, family, or social group,
but to the exploitative practices of dominant groups that alienate nondominant groups.

These three theories are only examples of the many theoretical f rameworks
that may inform your understanding of a population. Along with the community
and organizational theories noted in Chapters 5 and 7, respectively, sociological and
psychosocial theories may help to explain populations and their problems or
opportunities in terms of the interactions between members of the population
and the larger social environment.

task 4: Develop strategies for authentic engagement

Client participation, consultation, community or civic engagement, and stakeholder
involvement, among other terms, have been used to describe population
engagement in macro change. meaningful participation is defined as

Watch the video featuring
Dave meslin discussing
the antidote to apathy.

What barriers does the presenter
suggest prevent meaningful
community engagement?

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78 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

authentic engagement of participants and the use of their input in decision making
throughout the entire process (Woodford & Preston, 2011). The entire process may be a
defined episode of planning change or a long-term commitment to change that consists
of multiple episodes of change. If a program results from the change process, the entire
process includes participation in the design, implementation, and evaluation of that pro-
gram as well.

In pursuing authentic engagement, practitioners are urged to see beyond binary
views of insider and outsider, activist and community, practitioner and population, and
a host of other dichotomous ways of conceptualizing participation (Sonn & Quayle,
2013). A culturally humble approach to engagement recognizes that there are a complex
range of perspectives within and across groups that will come together in any group,
community, or organizational change. The importance of including diverse population
perspectives was reinforced by Weil, Gamble, and Williams (1998) when they pointed
out that for community members to be empowered, community practice must be con-
ducted “with” rather than “on” communities. Thus, the engagement of diverse popula-
tion groups and their members will open the door for the emergence of new ways of
thinking about the processes and outcomes of change.

Task 4 focuses on engagement with population members. Two sets of activities in-
clude creating opportunities for participation, and working with groups of population
members, allies, and advocates.

Create Opportunities for Participation
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• Who has been involved in identifying the need for change?
• What principles can be used to guide a meaningful engagement process?
• What methods can be used to engage diverse population groups?

The identification of a condition, problem, or change can come from any direction
and at any time. A clinical social worker may see multiple clients who remain in abusive
situations because they have no shelter or other resources in the community. A group of
African American community members march in protest when an unarmed youth has
been shot by police. A social media site features the problems faced by undocumented
workers. A health-care social worker discovers that older clients are routinely being
labeled as having Alzheimer’s disease and written off as untreatable. In each of these
situations, an individual or group of concerned persons may search for a place to start
addressing needed change.

getting started Gaining access to a population group, an organization, or a commu-
nity is a critical step in getting started. Sometimes access means following an established
protocol such as approval of a board to go about an internal organizational change. If
the change requires access to a population group in the community, it may be that
there are relationships already established. Oftentimes access is not guaranteed, par-
ticularly when social workers work across community, state, and even national borders
(Strier, 2013).

For example, Narag and Maxwell (2014) report on lessons learned about doing
field research in a slum area of the Philippines. They discussed differences between

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 79

Western and non-Western approaches to gaining entry into local communities and the
importance of being careful in the use of tried methodological approaches in unfamiliar
surroundings in order to avoid confusion, misinterpretation, and doing harm to partici-
pants. They concluded that standard approaches of being introduced to the community
by a known leader (or key informant) and participating in community life (such as volun-
teering) to gain access to local people were inappropriate in certain contexts. In cultures
where communication is not as direct, population members may convey information
beyond stated words. In cultures with collectivistic identities, expressed opinions may
ref lect a collective stance rather than an individualistic perspective. Differing cultural as-
sumptions about communication must be taken into consideration. Knowing the lan-
guage that population members use in the community, being cognizant of specific code
words, and being familiar with unique symbols are important. Dressing to blend into the
community may ease potential barriers. In short, Narag and Maxwell (2014) underscored
the importance of being creative and open to difference in approaching a population
group, that is, practicing cultural humility.

Getting started in addressing an injustice requires gathering information, assessing
what is learned, then reasessing as more information is gathered. For example, a com-
munity activist may have taken the lead in the past to ensure that health care for migrant
workers is available. If this issue is revisited later in the process, it is important to under-
stand the experiences and perspectives of the first initiator. Was he or she successful?
Why or why not? Did he or she alienate any critical decision makers? How did he or she
approach the issue, and what would he or she do differently? Has he or she brought cer-
tain biases or prejudices to his or her view of the situation? Who else was involved, and
what were their roles and perspectives on the proposed change? Change agents are not
obligated to utilize the same method or to affiliate with an earlier change effort, but they
should at least be aware of the approach taken and the results achieved.

Whether or not the current condition or problem has been addressed before, it is
important that the change agent develop an understanding of which local individuals
and groups support or oppose the change effort that is being considered. For example,
a small group of staff within an organization may want to promote an aggressive affir-
mative action approach to recruitment and hiring in order to better ref lect the changing
demographics of a community. It would be a mistake to assume that all staff, managers,
and administrators will favor this change effort. Rather than plan only with those who
agree, change agents should engage opponents in expressing their opinions. Working
with the opposition can present some difficult ethical issues, but the skillful change agent
will find ways to identify key local participants who favor and who oppose the change
effort, and will make every attempt to keep the process open to all.

Another group of local participants to be identified is those individuals who have
the power or authority to approve or reject the change that ultimately will be proposed.
Within an organization, this will most likely be the chief executive officer (CEO) or the
board of directors, but others throughout the organization may have an important say as
well. In a community, the identity of decision makers will depend on the domain iden-
tified for change. If the focus is on a school or school district, decision makers will in-
clude principals, school board members, parent groups, and others within the system.
In a local neighborhood, key people will include city council members or city staff and
their constituents. Some exploration will be needed to determine who has this type of

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80 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

authority. It is also helpful to have a complete briefing on local politics by someone who
knows the organization or community so that key inf luential people are not left out, and
so that alternative and opposing perspectives are understood. More will be said about
this in Chapter 9.

There are many ways in which to engage others in change opportunities. Typical
activities designed to gain participant input are surveys, community meetings, focus
groups (Letendre & Williams, 2014), and key informant interviews. Increasingly, so-
cial media is being used to engage large numbers of people in cyberactivism through
the use of listservs, websites, message boards, petitions, blogs, text messaging, polling,
mapping, and a host of other digital media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. In
organizations, advisory councils, governing boards, task forces, committees, and other
vehicles may be in place to serve as a nucleus for addressing the problem. Community
coalitions and alliances may be formed if they do not already exist. Intergroup dialogue
among diverse population members may provide opportunities for analyzing power and
privilege, key elements in raising issues around exploitation and empowerment
( Gutierrez, Lewis, Dessel, & Spencer, 2013). Typically, whatever form engagement takes,
social workers will need to understand how to facilitate and lead task-oriented groups.

task-Oriented groups Having informally talked with other persons about an injustice
that needs to be addressed, the change agent will engage with others in task-oriented
group work. An existing group may already be working on the change, and the social
worker decides to join with this group. A small informal group of population members
may serve as a nucleus for deciding what to do before a larger coalition of stakeholders
is formed. A virtual group that shares information online may be already chatting and
blogging about the issues. In an organizational change process, engaging a committee
or task force may be enough to get a change made, whereas in a communitywide effort
a larger alliance with a diverse group of residents may form. No matter what the mac-
ro change is, it is essential that the social worker has skills in creating, developing, and
leading task-oriented groups (Maidment & Brook, 2014).

Staples (2012) compares a social justice organization without task-oriented groups
to a human body without vital organs. Small groups are the vehicles for engaging peo-
ple in learning new skills, taking action, and experiencing collective power. community
organizing engages multiple indigenous community residents using their strength in
numbers to participate in empowering themselves to pursue social change. On the larg-
est scale, social movements are composed of small and large groups of people coming
together for a common cause. social action groups pursue community change and po-
litical activism (Dudziak & Profitt, 2012). community development connects people to
existing structures to engage in activities such as community building, economic devel-
opment, neighborhood improvement, and developing affordable housing (Staples, 2012).

In the past, group work was often separated into treatment/therapeutic or task-
oriented groups. Dudziak and Profitt (2012) offered a cautionary note about this dichoto-
mous way of thinking. If one sees a task group as solely focused on action, there may be a
tendency to neglect the importance of group process in favor of accomplishing change. It
is important to recognize that group members will learn from one another and will grow
personally and interpersonally just as much as they will take action. Having the opportu-
nity to struggle together, learn from one another, and develop in a collective effort may be

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 81

particularly healing for marginalized population group members who may be experiencing
the potential to become empowered for the first time. Attention to relationship building
and interpersonal dynamics is part of a successful group process (Staples, 2012).

Gutierrez, Lewis, Dessel, and Spencer (2013) provide a set of guiding principles
for practitioners who are engaging in multicultural group work. They emphasize that
practitioners need to be (1) f lexible, (2) self-ref lective, (3) skilled with theory and prac-
tice, (4) skilled in small- and large-group work, (5) inclusive, (6) aware of when the
concepts and methods they use were developed, (7) knowledgeable about the use of
evidence-based practice f rom multiple sources, (8) aware of the language used in as-
sessment and intervention tools, (9) consistent in their use and definitions of constructs
used to build the knowledge base, and (10) advocates for the use of community-based
workers (p. 448).

Woodford and Preston (2011) offer a set of principles designed to engage group
members in meaningful participation. Their principles were designed for inclusion of
service users in human service agencies but have applicability to task groups in general.
They are summarized below:

• Only practice authentic participation: Too often population members are told
their input is needed, but staff commitment is limited or inclusion is simply based
on a funding source requiring consumer participation. Woodford and Preston
(2011) advise the practitioner to be certain there are time and emotional commit-
ments before seeking advice from diverse population groups.

• include all stakeholders: As mentioned earlier, within any population group
there are diverse perspectives. Also, there are diverse stakeholders such as staff
members, referral sources, advocates, and others who have different views of
population needs and issues. Including diverse perspectives will offer alternative
approaches to expressed concerns.

• include participation in all phases of the change process: Critically important
is communicating with stakeholders about when and how much they will be
included; otherwise, misunderstandings can occur. If it is feasible, inclusion in
everything from initial input on a policy or program all the way through the
process of implementation is recommended.

• communication needs to Be Ongoing: Communicating the purpose of
participation, the level of involvement expected, how input will be incorporated,
when updates will be provided, and a host of other logistics is important so that
participants feel that they are truly part of the process.

• allot sufficient time: Meaningful participation takes time, and it is suggested
that no matter how much time is allotted, there will always be delays. Methods
to obtain rapid feedback when unexpected issues arise should be in place so that
stakeholders do not feel disregarded.

• ensure capacity: Change agents work for various groups and organizations,
and those bodies must have adequate capacity to engage stakeholders in the
process of inclusion. It is incumbent upon the social worker not to set something
in motion that cannot be supported by her employer or any other group within
whose auspices the process is occurring or whose affirmation is needed for

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82 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

There are numerous theories about group development with various phases, steps,
or stages identified. Tuckman’s model of the stages of group development has been used
to study small-group and team behavior. His stages are listed below:

• Forming: The beginning stage of group development in which members decide
to stay or leave, negotiate expectations, and operate on a fairly superficial level.

• storming: Conf licts between group members emerge in this stage, as
members begin to feel more comfortable in expressing how they really feel and
struggle over what actions need to be taken and how to go about the change

• norming: Some agreement (even if it an agreement to disagree) occurs as
values, norms, and expectations emerge.

• performing (cohesive team Building): Members work on tasks and actions
that have come out of the group process, often gaining a sense of collective
identity as they achieve (or not) what they are committed to doing.

• adjourning: Task forces, ad hoc committees, and groups formed around specific
or time-limited change opportunities have an ending stage. Some groups such
as alliances and coalitions may be formed with the intention of moving from
one change to another. Whenever the group ends, in the adjourning stage group
members may share the meaning of their experiences, engage in final problem
solving activities, and look to the future.

These stages are not linear, and they may ebb and f low in an iterative process. The
major thing is that facilitators recognize that group dynamics will change over time and
that attending to group process is important in achieving a collective identity (Seck &
Helton, 2014).

In summary, engagement is a process. Planning, recruitment, and group formation
are all part of engaging with population members. Table 3.5 provides a brief overview of
potential considerations as you move though that process.

Work with Groups of Population Members, Allies,
and Advocates
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• Who are the allies and advocates of this population

• What can be learned from allies and advocates about the
history of experiences with the target population and the
pressing problems and opportunities?

• How can relationships be built and maintained?

In addition to involving and listening to members of the population, allies and
advocates for the population may also assist the social work change agent in understand-
ing the target population. An ally is a person of privilege who actively works to eliminate
stigma and discrimination that occur based on that stigma ( Rosenblum & Travis, 2008,
p. 473). Broido (2000) suggests that allies work to end oppression based on dominant
members having greater privilege and power (p. 3). Allies work alongside individuals who
are marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability,


Practice Behavior: Use empathy, reflection, and 
 interpersonal skills to effectively engage diverse clients 
and constituencies.

critical thinking Question: How can social
 workers use empathy, reflection, and interpersonal skills 
in their macro activities?

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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 83

age, or other dimension of difference. advocates are persons who argue for a cause or on
another’s behalf. A number of ally and advocacy organizations have been formed to con-
front oppression and support members of oppressed groups by advocating for change.
For example, the organization PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and
Gays) is an organization that engages and develops allies to advocate for equal civil rights
and the health and well-being of sexual minorities. The National Council of La Raza is
a national civil rights and advocacy organization that seeks to improve opportunities for
Hispanic Americans. Local organizations that create opportunities for members of a tar-
get population and their allies to work together will be valuable sources of information
about a population.

If a social worker is attempting to understand a hidden population, or a popula-
tion that remains out of public view for fear of physical or psychological harm, an ally
may help arrange access to members of the population for research and participation.
For example, millions of women refugees throughout the world f lee their homelands,
searching for f reedom and safety f rom persecution, war, and torture. They are entitled
to protection under the 1951 Geneva Convention, yet the United States and Canada fre-
quently deny them protection and deport them to countries where they are in fear of
their lives. It is taking the collaborative effort of social workers, lawyers, immigration
advocates, and others to lobby for change on behalf of women refugees of color who
seek protection from rape, torture, and violence (Haynes, 2014).

table 3.5 engagement: Planning, recruitment, and group formation

Phases of engagement Potential approaches

Planning •   Collaboratively involve members of the organization or community in 
thinking about how to begin.

•   Minimize the distinction between professionals as expert and service 
users; the relationship is reciprocal.

•   View this process as consciousness raising, in which everyone will grow 
and learn.

•  Be open to surprises, allowing next steps to emerge in unexpected ways.

Recruitment •  Recognize the power dynamics surrounding group composition.

•  Obtain organizational or community support, if needed for legitimacy.

•  Recruit persons who have experienced the problem.

•  Reach out to existing groups with interests in making a change.

•   Identify strengths and resources that members bring to the group, and 
what skills and/or resources need to be sought from outside.

Group Formation •  Meet in a safe, accessible location.

•  Set a comfortable, inclusive tone for group interaction.

•   Prepare members for the group: Dialogue about expectations and goals, 
how decisions will be made, and how leadership is exercised.

•  Factor in relationship-building opportunities among group members.

•  Lift up all voices so that they can be heard.

•  Establish ground rules for how to proceed.

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84 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

If a social worker is attempting to understand a population that is underage or ex-
periencing the acute symptoms of a serious mental illness, an advocate can provide a
voice for those who cannot, at that time, speak for themselves. Social workers are famil-
iar with the advocate role and are often involved in advocating for groups that cannot
advocate for themselves (National Association of Social Workers, 2000, 2001). The role
of ally is discussed less but is a role premised on the assumptions of cultural humility—
particularly shared power and nonpaternalistic partnerships (Tervalon & Murray-
Garcia, 1998).

Nygreen, Kwon, and Sanchez (2006) discuss the role of adult allies in the youth-led or-
ganizing efforts of urban youth. Noting that “urban youth” is a euphemism for marginal-
ized, poor, minority youth, adult allies support youth efforts to engage their peers, change
their communities, and, in the process, challenge common stereotypes. Casey and Smith
(2010) describe men who become allies in efforts to end violence against women and how
they became involved in these efforts. The men indicated that becoming involved as an
ally in the fight to end violence against women was a process and that their involvement
was inf luenced by an emotional connection to the issue, by opportunities to make sense
of that exposure, and by invitations to join efforts to end violence against women.

Identifying and interviewing allies and advocates can supplement the information
gained f rom the members of the target population. These key stakeholders should aid
in understanding the history of experiences with the target population and the pressing
problems and opportunities. If there have been relevant past experiences with this popu-
lation, the change agent can compile a list of key actors and a chronology of interactions
between the target population and the community or organizational representatives
leading up to the present. These notes will help shape strategy and tactics later in the
episode of change.

Engaging individuals and groups in a change effort is an ongoing process. Building
relationships takes time, but maintaining those relationships requires ongoing communi-
cation. Walker and East (2014) detail the benefits of including engaged residents and pro-
fessionals in a planning process for low-income neighborhood redevelopment. Successful
engagement of residents was based on outreach, inclusiveness, slowing down the process
so that genuine dialogue could occur, and increasing resident knowledge as well as op-
portunities for input. Ongoing dialogue revealed past and present conf licts with the city
that had disenfranchised residents. Relationships were forged between residents and city
officials through ongoing dialogue, which was even contentious at times. These relation-
ships made it possible for residents to access other resources and allies beyond the group.

However, staff turnover made it difficult to maintain connections as some pro-
fessional staff and public officials left the group and new persons were assigned.
The importance of ongoing communication and reengagement was empha-
sized in this redevelopment process. Engagement is not simply an initial pro-
cess; it requires vigilance and attention to maintaining relationships over time.


In this chapter, we f ramed engagement with diverse and different population groups
within an overview of advancing human rights and social and economic justice. A frame-
work for engaging with diverse populations was presented. The first task was to start

assess your understanding
of a framework for

engaging with population
groups by taking this brief quiz.


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chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations 85

where the population is and involves self-ref lective practice. Although cultural competence
is extensively cited as a goal, criticism of this concept is that it assumes one can become
competent in understanding another culture. Cultural humility makes a somewhat
different assumption: It involves a continual commitment to co-learning and self- ref lection,
and recognizes the power imbalances in interactions between helping professionals and
consumers. Throughout this chapter, we emphasized the importance of listening to
population group members and recognizing that there will be different perspectives.

Task 2 focused on the impact of difference, discrimination, and oppression.
Highlighted were definitions of systems of oppression, including ableism, ageism, clas-
sism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism and trans oppression, racism, and sexism. Intersec-
tionality was introduced, along with themes of critical race theory and recognition of
the reification of whiteness.

Task 3 focused on using the professional knowledge base to gather information on
the population, noting that it is important to fully draw from insider perspectives as well
as the theories and studies that inform understandings of the population group with
which one is working. What is known about growth and development as well as social
relationships and structures was explored as a beginning step in fully accessing the pro-
fessional knowledge base.

Task 4 elaborated on methods that can be used to engage small and large groups in
change episodes. Understanding group development and stages of growth was empha-
sized, given the fact that macro practice involves an array of task-oriented groups in the
change process.

Engaging the population group is a parallel process to problem identification, the
subject of Chapter 4. Together, Chapters 3 and 4 provide change agents with sets of in-
terrelated activities that will be helpful in formulating a problem definition. In conjunc-
tion with persons who have experienced the problem, and with their full and ongoing
participation, the tasks and activities in these two chapters will assist the change agent
and others in beginning to move toward an episode of change.

Appendix: Framework for Understanding the Target Population

task 1: start Where the population is

Develop cultural humility

• What experiences has the social worker had with
members of this population group?

• What self-identities and attitudes does the social
worker bring to this situation?

• What are the power imbalances faced by this
population group?

Listen to Different perspectives from
population members

• Identify key informants from the population of

• Include diverse voices and perspectives in articulat-
ing the issues faced by this population.

task 2: assess the impact of Difference,
Discrimination, and Oppression

explore the Discriminatory and Oppressive
issues Faced by this population

• What stereotypes or generalizations confront this
population group?

• How has this population group been discriminated
against or oppressed?

• Do members of the population group feel
marginalized, and, if so, why?

assess implications of intersectionality

• What are the dimensions of intersectionality
within this population?

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86 chapter 3: engaging with Diverse Populations

Assess Your Competence

Use the scale below to rate your current level of achievement on the following concepts or skills associated with
each learning outcome listed at the beginning of this chapter:

1 2 3

I can accurately describe the concept or 
skill(s) associated with this outcome.

I can consistently identify the concept or 
skill(s) associated with this outcome when 
observing and analyzing practice activities.

I can competently implement the concept 
or skill(s) associated with this outcome in 

my own practice.

Discuss issues of discrimination and oppression faced by different population groups.

Use a framework for engaging population groups in a change episode.

• What issues of power, privilege, discrimination,
and oppression are identified by members of this

• What frameworks are useful in understanding
population dynamics?

task 3: search the professional Knowledge Base on
the target population

identity concepts and issues related to growth
and Development

• What sources of the professional knowledge base
are available on this population group?

• What theoretical frameworks are available that will
help in understanding the target population?

• What factors or characteristics gleaned from the
knowledge base on this population will be helpful
in understanding the target population?

assess social relationships and structures

• What structural and environmental forces are
affecting this population group?

• What theoretical frameworks are available that
will help in understanding the interactions between
members of the population and the larger social

task 4: Develop strategies for authentic

create Opportunities for participation

• Who has been involved in identifying the need for

• What principles can be used to guide a meanginful
engagement process?

• What methods can be used to engage diverse
population groups?

Work with groups of population members,
allies, and advocates

• Who are the allies and advocates of this population

• What can be learned from allies and advocates
about the history of experiences with the tar-
get population and the pressing problems and

• How can relationships be built and maintained?

recall what you learned in
this chapter by completing
the chapter review.


M03_NETT8523_06_SE_C03.indd 86 9/28/15 10:38 AM


Learning OutcOmes

• Define conditions, problems, issues,
needs, and opportunities.

• Provide examples of how to frame
and reframe an organizational or
community problem.

• Use a framework for assessing
community and organizational

chapter OutLine

The Social Worker’s Entry into an
Episode of Macro-Level Change 87
Conditions, Problems, Issues, Needs,

and Opportunities
Narrowing Down to the Most Useful

Data and Information

Framing and Reframing
Problems 91

A Framework for Assessing
Community and Organizational
Problems 94
Task 1: Gather Information from

Persons in the Community or

Task 2: Explore the Professional
Knowledge Base on the Condition,
Problem, Need, or Opportunity

Task 3: Frame the Problem and
Working Hypotheses

Summary 113

Appendix 114

Assessing Community
and Organizational






The Social Worker’S enTry inTo an
epiSode of Macro-level change

Chapter 3 focused on engaging diverse population groups. In that
process, a number of problems faced by different groups were
introduced. This chapter focuses on assessing problems, one of
the three domains through which social workers become involved
in community and organizational change. Just as major tasks and
sets of activities were identified in Chapter 3, in this chapter, a
f ramework will be provided to guide the change agent in assessing
problems faced by diverse population groups. These assessments
mark the social worker’s entry into an episode of macro-level

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88 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

Over the years, the image of the change agent has developed around some of the
early social change pioneers—people such as Jane Addams, a founder of the famous
Hull House in Chicago and the second woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize;
Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist, newspaper editor, and newspaper owner
who was active in the Civil Rights and the Women’s Rights movements; Dorothea
Dix, a nurse who, in the nineteenth century, became a reformer of prisons and mental
health facilities; and Susan B. Anthony, a teacher who, in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, was a champion of suff rage, abolition of slavery, and equal rights
for women. Others view change agents as super- organizers—people such as Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr., who led the fight for civil rights during the 1960s, or Cesar Chavez,
who, along with Dolores Huerta, founded the United Farm Workers to protect the
rights of migrant workers. Other, more recent organizers include Cathy Lightner,
who, in 1980, founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers; Ralph Nader, who founded
public interest groups on automotive safety, energy, the environment, global trade,

health research, congressional oversight, and legal protection of civil rights;
Desmond Tutu, the South Af rican social activist who fought apartheid and
dedicated his life to peace; and Barack Obama, the first Af rican American
president of the United States. These leaders have served as role models and
have had great success in bringing about social change throughout nations
and the world.

Most social workers have neither the resources, media exposure, experi-
ence, followers, nor power that these leaders have had available to them. Yet,
in spite of seemingly overwhelming challenges, social workers have been ef-
fective in bringing about positive changes in organizations and communities.

Effectiveness does not necessarily come from the power of personality or the ability
to mobilize thousands to a cause. It can emerge f rom careful, thoughtful, and creative
planning undertaken by a group committed to change, along with the tenacity to see
it through to completion. The change effort may be guided, led, or coordinated by a
professional social worker, but those involved may represent a broad range of interests.
Planned change is often incremental and cumulative. One particular episode of change
may appear small and insignificant in view of the scope of the problem, but it should be
recognized that others committed to positive change may be working on the same prob-
lem or need f rom different perspectives. In the practice of social work, one finds many
avenues or points of entry that lead to the use of macro-practice skills.

Recovery f rom manmade or natural disasters is a good example. When faced with
the enormity of the task, members of any one group could easily feel that their contri-
butions to recovery are insignificant. But taken together, the cleanup crews, the religious
groups that house displaced families and help them rebuild their lives, the nonprofits and
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that mobilize many thousands of volunteers
who supply needed services and support, the social workers who provide counseling and
resources, and literally thousands of others contribute to the renewal of communities
and cities that would have been impossible or much delayed if the tasks had not been
shared. Although the one-to-one response with victim families is critically important, so
too are the planning and organizing of the macro-practice role that enables large-scale
recovery from crises and allows people to get on with their lives.

go to the national association
of Social Workers homepage
and do a search on “naSW
pioneers.” choose the name of
a pioneer you don’t recognize.
What kind of change did the
pioneer help bring about?
how was the change related to
organizations and communities?

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 89

conditions, problems, issues, needs, and opportunities

In assessing problems, there are a number of terms that are often used interchangeably,
but they have subtle and important differences for the change agent. A condition is a
phenomenon that is present in a community or organization and that may be trouble-
some to a number of people but has not been formally identified, labeled, or publicly
acknowledged as a problem. It is important that social workers understand whether
a phenomenon is a condition that has not been formally recognized, or a problem
that has been acknowledged by the organization or community. This status will affect
where the social worker places her or his emphasis in early planning efforts. Ultimately,
decision makers will have to acknowledge the existence of a problem (either willingly
or reluctantly) if formal resources are to be dedicated to alleviating or eliminating the

Every organization and community is full of conditions as well as problems. So-
cial consequences of urban living—such as traffic congestion, exposure to air pollution,
dangerous neighborhoods, affordable housing, and other issues—can all be considered
social or community conditions if no efforts have been mobilized to address them or if
residents have taken them for granted as part of urban living. Similarly, in rural commu-
nities, isolation, inaccessible health care, and a declining economic base can all be con-
sidered social conditions if they remain unrecognized by any formal or informal efforts
toward resolution.

The same concept applies to organizations, where troublesome phenomena are
present but have not necessarily been formally identified or labeled as a problem. For
example, a social worker in a long-term care facility for older adults may be concerned
about what she considers to be overmedication of some of the residents, yet this has
never been labeled problematic by residents and families. Similarly, program managers
in a family service agency may recognize a trend to extend services to those who can pay
while offering only a waiting list to those who cannot. Yet, no one has complained about
this discriminatory practice.

To be defined as a problem, a condition must in some way be formally recognized
and incorporated into the action agenda of a group, organization, or community. This
may mean, for example, that an elected official proposes a study of elder suicide, or that a
group of parents concerned about methamphetamine abuse lobbies for a city ordinance
to regulate the sale of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine (an ingredient used
to make meth) within the city limits. It may mean that a task force within an organiza-
tion is officially sanctioned to explore the effects of medication on residents in long-term
care. Or it may mean that a neighborhood group experiencing high-speed traffic on their
residential streets takes steps to bring about broader recognition of the presence of the
condition and its problematic nature. Regardless of the form it takes, formal recognition
is important for legitimization.

The distinction between a condition and a problem is signif icant to a social
worker planning a macro-level intervention. If a condition has not been formally rec-
ognized in some way, the first task must be to obtain that formal recognition. For
example, for many years homelessness was dealt with as a personal employment prob-
lem, family violence as a personal matter, and AIDS as a personal health problem.

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90 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

Most communities simply viewed these as existing conditions, not as so-
cial or community problems. When these conditions began to affect greater
segments of society and reached the point at which they could no longer
be ignored, national, state, and local community leaders began to identify
them as problems and to dedicate resources toward their resolution. Once
formally recognized and acknowledged as problems (usually as a result of
persistent media attention), these conditions become candidates for orga-
nized intervention efforts. The creation of task forces for homeless people
in cities across the country, child abuse and neglect reporting laws, and fed-

eral funding for AIDS research and services are results of recognizing conditions and
defining them as problems.

In addition, we often use the terms issue, need, and opportunity when we are discuss-
ing problems and conditions. One cannot have an issue without disagreement. Even
when people agree that there is a problem and that some action needs to be taken, at is-
sue may be how to go about taking that action. There may be many issues that emerge
in any planned change process as different perspectives and opinions are shared. The
important thing is to get those issues on the table, even if there is an agreement to

Unmet needs are often described as problems. Needs assessments are conducted in
local communities in order to identify what needs are not being met. A need is some-
thing that is necessary for living a quality life. Different types of needs will be discussed in
Chapter 5, but important to problem identification is the recognition that many change
efforts are attempting to address unmet needs in an organization or community. For
example, living wage campaigns are advocating for women who need financial resources
to support their families.

Problems and needs emerge in many forms. Some are personal or family problems
that can be resolved within an individual or family context; others can be solved only by
changing something within a larger system, such as a neighborhood, an organization, or
a community. When people with problems or needs request help or are willing to accept
it, social work intervention is appropriate.

An opportunity occurs when the change agent sees a condition that could turn into
a problem and decides to act in a proactive manner. We often hear the expression window
of opportunity, and this is a good description. A window may open for a time due to
funding, advocacy, or other reasons, but the window also may close at some point. For
the majority of the time, social workers are reacting to conditions that have already been
labeled as problems by diverse population groups, but may not yet be seen as more than
a condition by persons in power. This becomes an opportunity for the social worker to
be proactive and seize the moment by bringing information to the attention of deci-
sion makers. There are many examples of how local citizens have seized an opportunity
when a crisis has happened in their lives to inform future action. For example, a child
abduction alert system started in 1996 in the United States has since been adopted in a
number of other countries. The Amber Alert was initiated by the mother of 9-year-old
Amber Rene Hagerman after Amber was murdered. Now this system is used to intercept
aductors before children can be harmed.

Watch the video on
acT Up’s advocacy for
women’s inclusion in the

cdc’s definition of aidS. Why
was it important to change the
early definition of aidS?

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 91

narrowing down to the Most Useful data and information

In preparing to engage in a change process, some team members will be gathering
information f rom interviews with people in the organization or community that is the
focus of the change effort. Others may be exploring the professional knowledge base,
attempting to locate data and information about the problem(s) that population mem-
bers are facing. The intent is to understand as much as possible about the phenomenon
itself—exploring what is known f rom a scholarly perspective, while at the same time
using information f rom those affected to help rule in or rule out various causal factors
and other considerations.

Information on the overlapping areas of population and problem will often be found
during the study. While attempting to understand teenagers, for example, you may come
across studies on teenage violence. In most cases (but not all), these studies or summa-
ries of existing knowledge about the problem and population will be more informative
than studies of the problem alone or population alone. Information and knowledge of
the greatest value to local decision makers will ultimately be found where the three cir-
cles in Figure 3.1 in Chapter 3 intersect. In other words, knowledge of how the problem,
population, and arena overlap will aid in understanding how these domains interact with
each other to create the current situation and explain how it is unique to this local com-
munity or organization.

The issues facing social workers in their daily practice are not limited to
individual client problems. If social workers are to be effective in serving their
clients, many problems must be recognized and addressed at the agency, com-
munity, and policy levels. Some of these problems require changing the nature
of services, programs, or policies. Most require an understanding of funding
issues and the complications caused by economic challenges.

fraMing and refraMing probleMS

People bring different frames of mind to thinking about conditions and problems, some
better formed than others. A basic premise behind framing theory is that any problem
can be viewed from a variety of perspectives and can encompass multiple values. Frames
help to organize data and information in meaningful ways so that they can be used to
guide action (Borah, 2011; Dewulf & Bouwen, 2012). collective frames are
negotiated shared sets of beliefs and meanings that guide and legitimate the
course of action. The process of f raming occurs when people who have par-
ticular conceptualizations of a problem begin to change their thinking about
an issue (Chong & Druckman, 2007). Social workers bring their own frames of
mind to any potential change opportunity, and as new information emerges, it
is important to be open to reframing one’s original conceptualizations of the
problem as well as potential courses of action that might be taken. Openness to
reframing requires a willingness to engage in different ways of thinking as new
information informs and updates what one knows about a problem.

assess your understanding
of the social worker’s

entry into an episode of
macro-level change by taking
this brief quiz.


go to the frameworks institute
homepage, and do a search on
“Sexual violence.” review the
resources based on the research
done by the institute. What core
set of assumptions do people
use to frame sexual violence?
how do the frames or dominant
cultural models differ from those
of researchers?

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92 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

Core f raming tasks are diagnostic (problem identification and analysis), prognostic
(determining possible ways to approach the problem), and motivational (figuring out
how to gather support for the change). Table 4.1 summarizes these tasks. In the exam-
ple provided, note that diagnostic f raming reveals a target population (caregivers) and a
problem (they are in danger of sacrificing their own health). The prognostic f rame fo-
cuses on solutions, or what might be done as an intervention. Last, motivational f ram-
ing uses words like no cure, devastating, and urgent to press for immediate action.

Jumping to prognosis before having diagnosed the problem is extremely common.
Community political and civic leaders, activists, and others are often so anxious to
make change happen that they begin at the point of proposing solutions. Increased in-
cidence of driving under the inf luence (DUI)? Hire more police and increase penalties!
More homeless families on the streets? Build a shelter! Increased numbers of teen preg-
nancies? Offer classes on the importance of sexual abstinence until marriage! These sim-
plistic solutions will inevitably emerge in any episode of change. It is the responsibility
of the social worker in a professionally guided change effort to make certain that a range
of alternative perspectives and possible causes is adequately explored before proposing a
solution. This means f raming the problem, but being open to reframing as the process

There are several reasons for exploring multiple perspectives on the problem. First,
leaping to quick solutions without adequate study is the antithesis of professional prac-
tice. In one-on-one counseling, for example, telling clients exactly how to solve their
problems after only a brief introduction to the facts violates many ethical and profes-
sional principles. Second, quick and easy solutions are usually based on the assumption
that the problem in question has one primary cause. In fact, as we will discuss in greater
detail later in this chapter, virtually no social problem has only one cause. Many dif-
ferent factors come into play in the development of a social condition, and changing

Table 4.1 core framing Tasks

core Task description example

Diagnostic Framing A process of problem identification and analysis: How is
the problem defined, and what are its causes?

The number of persons with Alzheimer’s disease
is rapidly increasing, and caregivers are sacrificing
their own health to care for loved ones.

Prognostic Framing Determining proposed solutions to a task and the
strategies that will be used to carry out the plan:
What approaches can be taken?

Support groups, information, and respite
opportunities are being offered to caregivers.
In addition, research into the treatment and
cure is needed.

Motivational Framing A “call to arms” or rationale for proceeding in the change
effort so that the group will want to move forward in
pursuing the change: How can people be motivated to
address the problem?

There is as yet no cure for this devastating
disease, and it is urgent that every effort be made
to inform the public, advocate for Alzheimer’s
research, and prevent caregivers from ignoring their
own health.

Based on Benford and Snow (2000).

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 93

that condition almost always necessitates addressing more than one of these

Take, for example, a community in which highway deaths due to alco-
hol have increased 18 percent in the past 2 years. How might the causes in
this case be defined? One group will be convinced that the cause is lack of
strict enforcement of existing laws prohibiting driving under the inf luence
of drugs or alcohol, and may want to increase the budget of the police de-
partment to crack down on those who are driving while impaired. Another
group will describe causes as easy availability of alcohol to teenagers, and
may want to see increased penalties to those who sell alcohol to minors. Oth-
ers will see alcohol abuse as a symptom of increasing stress or family breakdown, and
may propose a campaign to promote activities that strengthen families. These repre-
sent just a few of the perspectives that might be introduced in an attempt to under-
stand reasons behind driving under the inf luence of alcohol or drugs.

When a review of the knowledge base and interviews have
been completed, a profile should begin to emerge. This profile
will assist in better understanding target population members’
perceptions and responses to the presenting problem or need.
Factors relating to this population’s needs or behaviors that must
be dealt with in order to bring about needed changes should be-
gin to become evident.

For example, Ashford and LeCroy (2013) identified the fol-
lowing factors as being associated with preadolescents at risk
of delinquency: (1) low expectations for education, (2) limited
participation in school activities, (3) poor school achievement, (4) low verbal ability,
(5) truancy, (6) stealing and lying, (7) high peer inf luence, (8) nonconformity,
(9) hyperactivity and aggressive behavior, (10) limited parental bonding, (11) family
history of violence, and (12) living in high-crime, transcient communities. If the pop-
ulation being studied includes this group, some of these factors might be used in com-
piling a profile that could be used in predicting certain outcomes.

Which, if any, of these factors associated with the particular population under
study will be useful in understanding the population can only be determined within
the context of an episode of change. Much will depend on the nature of the problem
identified and the purpose of the intervention. When a list of relevant factors has been
identified, the process is at a point where speculation can begin about the etiology of
the problem, and the change agent will engage with others in f raming and ref raming
the problem.

We now focus on the parallel process of problem identification and analysis that,
combined with what is known about the population group, will lead to an episode of
change. For all three assessments (of the population, the problem, and the arena), the core
planning team will need to coordinate activities. These will include identifying various roles
and responsibilities, assigning individuals according to their abilities, monitoring progress,
and dealing with interpersonal, intergroup, and political dynamics.

We are not proposing an exhaustive exploration that goes on for years. There is
rarely time or resources for such study, and responding expeditiously is often critical
to success. However, plunging into a proposed solution without doing the necessary

Watch the video on myths
about teen drinking.
What perspectives about

adolescent drinking does this
Mothers against drunk driving
public service announcement


practice behavior: Collect and organize data, and
apply critical thinking to interpret information from
clients and constituencies.

critical Thinking Question: Why is it important
to gather information about a problem and a population
from a variety of sources?

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94 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

homework is equally risky. Our intent in the following f ramework is to lay
out a format for systematic assessment of what can be accomplished within
a reasonable amount of time (a few weeks to a few months, depending on
the people and the skills involved), beginning with a small core team of per-
haps four or five people committed to bringing about needed change, and
gradually expanding to others willing to carry out specific tasks.

a fraMeWork for aSSeSSing coMMUniTy
and organizaTional probleMS

We have attempted to break down the understanding of what needs to be changed (to
the extent that this is possible) into three interrelated tasks depicted in Figure 4.1.

We propose that change agents proceed with a set of tasks designed to gather as
much useful information about the problem as is available. These tasks involve direct
contact with those who have experienced the problem or need firsthand, as well as a
systematic exploration of the professional knowledge base, data summaries, and per-
haps a chronology of events leading to the current situation. This approach is designed
to produce as thorough an understanding of the problem and population as possible
in as short a time as possible, although there are limits to how short this time can be.
A hurried and incomplete analysis can be worse than none at all.

These tasks can and should proceed simultaneously, which is where the coordinat-
ing work of the change agent becomes important. Those participating in the change
effort who have the best credentials for entering the community or organization for the
purpose of interviewing and data collection should be assigned to such tasks. Those
who have demonstrated skill in searching and synthesizing theoretical and research re-
sources should carry out this task. Those who work well with numerical data should
plan to compile the necessary tables and charts. In the end, each of these separate
tasks will contribute to a clearer understanding of the problem, need, or opportunity
and will provide the basis for a well-designed plan of intervention leading to a positive

figure 4.1
Tasks in the Framework for Assessing Community and Organizational Problems

Task 1:

• Identify condition
• Identify historical
and contextual

• State the problem
• Understand
• Develop

Task 2: Explore

Task 3: Develop

• Locate relevant
theory and research

• Collect supporting

• Interpret data
• Select promising


assess your understanding
of framing and reframing

problems by taking this
brief quiz.


M04_NETT8523_06_SE_C04.indd 94 9/28/15 10:42 AM

chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 95

Task 1: gather information from persons within the
community or organization

A number of authors emphasize the importance of sensitivity in approaching the as-
sessment of communities or organizations (see, e.g., Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013). The
organizer or change agent cannot simply enter a community or organizational culture
without careful preparation and attention to the groups represented and to the profes-
sional knowledge base necessary to the intervention. For example, knowledge of human
behavior and the social environment will assist the change agent in recognizing the im-
portance of personal and collective identities and diversity. Contextual knowledge will
provide guidance for the change agent in recognizing the interrelationships between
organizational units and the larger organization or between diverse groups within the

Task 1 includes two sets of interconnected activities—identifying the condition and
identifying relevant historical and contextual information.

Identify the Community or Organizational Condition
Recall the difference between a condition and a problem. A condition is simply “what
is” without putting a value label on it. Although the change agent and others may have
labeled the condition a problem, it is helpful to step back and see if you can assess the
situation without coming to premature explanations of why this may be a problem.

Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What are the conditions in this community or organization that need to be

• In approaching an episode of change, how could the condition statement be

One of the first tasks in problem identification, then, is to develop a condition
statement. A condition statement includes (1) a target population, (2) a geographical
boundary, and (3) the difficulty facing the population. Statements should be descriptive,
as objective as possible, and based on findings to date.

Statements will be adapted depending on whether the condition exists within a com-
munity or in an organization. For example, a condition statement might be “Domestic
violence in Preston County is increasing.” Generally speaking, the more precise the state-
ment is, the greater likelihood of a successful intervention. This statement, for example,
could vary from extremely general to very specific, as depicted in Figure 4.2.

A similar process within an organization would begin with a general statement.
For example, an organizational condition might be that in a domestic violence shel-
ter, resources are not being used efficiently and many residents are returning to their
abusers. Quantitative data such as demographics, incidence, prevalence, or trends, and
qualitative data focused, perhaps, on reasons for returning to abusers, would then need
to be compiled to help pinpoint the condition as precisely as possible.

We now use Roby, Rotabi, and Bunkers’ (2013) work on intercountry adoptions
(ICAs) to provide an example of how conditions can be f ramed and ref ramed. Inter-
country adoptions were originally framed as charitable opportunities to rescue children

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96 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

from harmful, even life-threatening environments. The United States received more chil-
dren adopted internationally than any other country in the world, totaling over 1 million
children since World War II. Social workers in several hundred U.S.-based agencies over-
see adoption coordinators who negotiate these adoptions. Given this information, the
condition could be stated as follows: Over 1 million children have been adopted f rom
outside the United States since World War II. Framed as an opportunity to perform a
charitable service of finding children safe and caring homes, one could see this as a very
positive condition.

However, Roby, Rotabi, and Bunkers (2013) provide more information, ref raming
this condition into one fraught with “fraud, coercion, and corruption.” Obviously, they
have labeled this condition as a problem. They build their case by identifying these facts:

• ICA typically occurs between developed and developing countries.
• ICA usually occurs between resourced and impoverished families.
• Adopted children often have living biological parents.
• Children are removed from familiar cultures.

These facts and other information led the authors to reframe what was originally
viewed as benevolent acts of charity into a social justice nightmare. As they continue their
analysis of the power and social justice issues they have identified, social workers within the
field of adoption are called upon to work with others in addressing the problems posed by
these situations. Obviously, local social workers will not attempt to address this problem on
an international level, but having this information may help them examine conditions within
their own adoption agencies and propose practice changes so that they are more vigilant in
their oversight of the selection and placement of children adopted from other countries.

Condition statements are made more precise through a process of research and
documentation of the nature, size, and scope of the problem. As one proceeds with sub-
sequent tasks in problem analysis, condition statements will be refined many times as
new facts and findings emerge. As in the example above, statements may evolve into
an identified problem on which there is consensus or it may be perceived as a need or
deficit. It is possible that a change effort can be developed around an opportunity, where
there is no identified problem or need, but instead funding or resources become avail-
able. The change agent needs to recognize that consensus building is important no mat-
ter how the change effort arose.

figure 4.2 
Sample Condition Statements

Family violence is increasing.

Family violence in the town of Cedarville is increasing.

Family violence among unmarried couples who are living together in Cedarville
is increasing.

Family violence among unmarried couples who are living together in Cedarville
in census tracts 00001 and 00002 has increased by 30 percent over the last
5 years.



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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 97

Identify Relevant Historical and Contextual Information
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• Has the problem been recognized and acknowledged by any community or
organizational members?

• If so, when was this condition, problem, or opportunity first recognized in
this community or organization?

• What are the important incidents or events that have occurred from the first
recognition to the present time?

• What do earlier efforts to address this problem reveal?

The next task is to compile a chronology of significant events or milestones that pro-
motes understanding of the history of the community or organizational condition or prob-
lem. This shifts the focus to the area in Figure 3.1 where the problem and the arena overlap.

A condition or problem in any community or organization has its own history. This
history can affect the ways in which people currently perceive the condition or problem.
It is, therefore, important to understand how key people within the community or orga-
nization perceived the condition or problem in the past. If it was seen as a problem, how
was it addressed? How effective were the attempts to alleviate the problem? Who were
the major participants in any previous change efforts?

If one looks at the condition or problem merely as it is defined at present, much will be
missed. Instead, it is crucial to determine the problem’s history, particularly in terms of critical
incidents that have shaped past and current perceptions of the problem. A task force might,
for example, be concerned about a high dropout rate from the local high school. The follow-
ing chronology of critical incidents could help the group to better understand factors that
inf luenced the origin and development of important issues in the high school over the years.

2003 Riverview High School was a predominantly lower-middle-class high
school with an 82 percent graduation rate.

2005 School district boundaries were redrawn, and the student body changed.
For 30 percent of its members, English was a second language.

2007 Enrollment dropped 20 percent, and the graduation rate fell to
67 percent.

2008 Riverview High School initiated a strong vocational training program
designed to prepare high school graduates for post–high school
employment; the college preparatory curriculum was deemphasized.

2010 Enrollment increased; attendance patterns improved.
2012 Local employers hired only 32 percent of the graduates;

unemployment rates among Riverview graduates 1 year later
were as high as 37 percent.

2014 Enrollment dropped back to 2007 levels; the dropout rate reached
23 percent, its highest mark yet.

2015 Riverview High School was written up in the local newspaper as one
of the ten worst schools in the state in terms of quality of education,
retention rates of students, and post–high school employment. A
blue-ribbon panel was formed to make recommendations to
improve the quality of education.

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98 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

Tracing these historical events lends insight into some of the incidents experienced
by the faculty, staff, administration, students, and families associated with Riverview
High School. In this case, the task force should expect to encounter a discouraged and
cynical response to any sort of a “Stay in School” campaign. The critical incidents list
indicates that many of the arguments for staying in school simply did not prove true for
those who graduated.

When the employment, career, and financial incentives for remaining in high school
are removed, the challenge to keep students in school is greatly increased. This means
that the approach to organizational change needs to be tailored in a way that is relevant
and meaningful to those who are intended to be the primary beneficiaries. This has clear
implications for including in the change effort those who can, for example, positively
inf luence the employment environment for graduates.

Exploring relevant historical incidents also helps establish the credibility of the
change agent. Many people are simply not open to supporting change for their com-
munities and organizations if those organizing the change effort are perceived as being

“outsiders” who have not taken the time to become familiar
with what has gone on in the past.

The types of critical incidents just described are generally
gleaned from interviews, discussions, or social media exchanges
with long-time residents, activists, community leaders, teachers,
and social service agency employees. In tracing the history or an-
tecedent conditions of an episode of change, the change agent
hopes to discover (1) what happened in the past to call attention
to the problem or need, (2) what the community’s (neighbor-
hood, city, county, state, and private sector) response was to the
attention focused on the problem or need, and (3) how success-
ful or unsuccessful the response was and why.

Task 2: explore the professional knowledge base on the
condition, problem, need, or opportunity

In addition to interviewing local people to help f rame the condition or problem, those
involved in a change effort are also expected to immerse themselves in relevant pro-
fessional journals and other resources, including theory and research on the problem
as well as data and information. There are three types of scholarly resources to be ex-
plored here: (1) theoretical and empirical books and journal articles on the problem to be
studied; (2) statistical and qualitative data and information that can be used to document
the existence of the problem or need, and to help in understanding such factors as size,
scope, trends, and other useful information; and (3) practice-based articles and reports on
promising interventions used to address the problem. The Internet has become perhaps
the most valuable single tool for accessing information of this nature.

Locate Relevant Theoretical and Research Resources
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What body of knowledge is considered key to understanding the condition,
problem, need, or opportunity?


practice behavior: Use empathy, reflection, and
interpersonal skills to effectively engage diverse clients
and constituencies.

critical Thinking Question: What would you
consider to be effective ways to engage with clients and
constitutencies in learning about the historical context of
the problem?

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 99

• What frameworks are useful in understanding the condition, problem, need,
or opportunity?

• Where and how does one access the knowledge and information needed for this task?

The challenge to the change agent in this activity is to become as much of an expert on
the condition, problem, need, or opportunity as possible in the time available. Few experi-
ences are more embarrassing than to be making a public presentation to a decision-making
or funding body and to be exposed as less knowledgeable than the audience.

A number of journals reporting empirical testing of theoretical and practice-related
questions are available in the social sciences and can be accessed through the Internet. Some
journals are now devoted almost exclusively to reporting research in social work and related
fields (e.g., Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, Social Work Research, Journal of Social Service
Research, and Research on Social Work Practice). Others focus on special populations and/
or social problems (e.g., Child Welfare, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Journal of Child
Sexual Abuse, Journal of Poverty, and Bulletin of HIV/AIDS and Social Work). A computerized
search of journal abstracts such as Social Work Abstracts, PsychINFO, and Sociological Abstracts
should quickly produce a listing of relevant articles, and a scan of the titles will guide the
change agent toward those that appear to be most useful in understanding the condition,
problem, or opportunity. WorldCat is a major source of information about books.

Web resources include websites sponsored by advocacy groups that attend to the
needs of specific populations such as the American Association of Retired Persons
(AARP) for older adults, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) for children, the
American Cancer Society, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP). The professional change agent has a special role at this point in sep-
arating sound, credible theoretical and research knowledge f rom opinion and hearsay
available on some nonprofessional websites or blogs. Major contributions to the profes-
sional knowledge base begin with journals, then books, then web resources.

One feature that can be useful in attempting to understand a phenomenon is the way in
which the author has conceptualized the condition, problem, or opportunity. In compiling
an article for publication, it is incumbent on the author to present some framework or for-
mat for analysis that sheds light on the topic under study. In a study of isolated and neglected
older adults, for example, does the author break down the topic by the number of social
contacts? By distance from family? By participation in groups? What concepts
(and what technical terms) are presented that aid in understanding the phenome-
non? Information uncovered in exploring the professional knowledge base should
be constantly examined for its relevance to the current situation. Ultimately, a
mix of potential causal or contributing factors will be selected as a framework
for explaining the phenomenon under study. Achieving this beginning level of
understanding of the condition, problem, or opportunity under study prepares
the change agent for the next task—collecting supporting data.

Access and Collect Supporting Data
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What data are most useful in describing the condition, problem, or opportunity?
• Where can useful quantitative and qualitative data, historical records,

agency-based studies, and other types of information be found?

Watch the video about
what grey literature is and
how it can expand your

research options. Why examine
grey literature in addition to
peer-reviewed literature?

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100 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

There was a time when a community could become sensitized to a condition and rec-
ognize it as a problem based on a few incidents. Churches started orphanages and coun-
ties started poor houses with little or no data beyond personal knowledge of a few people
in need and the expectation that there would be more. In the complex communities of
today, however, with so many social and community problems competing for limited re-
sources, data must be compiled to document the size and scope of a problem or need.

Data sources. Basic to all statistical support is the knowledge of the number of people
in various demographic categories (e.g., gender, age, racial, or ethnic groups). Valuable
information of this type is available in the County and City Data Book published by the U.S.
Bureau of the Census. As with many census publications, it is available for free online at
the Bureau of the Census website. This resource includes such data categories (for both
counties and cities) as racial/ethnic breakdown, age, gender, the number of people with
less than a high school education, and the number of people in poverty. Additional statis-
tical references based on census data include USA Counties, Statistical Abstract of the United
States, and the State and Metropolitan Area Data Book, all of which can be accessed online.

State and/or county departments of social services, health, mental health, and
corrections often collect data that can be useful in documenting the existence of social
conditions or problems. Other sources include local social service agencies, the United
Way, community councils, centralized data-collection resource centers, centralized in-
formation and referral agencies, law-enforcement agencies, hospitals, and school district
offices. The process of tracking down information is often similar to a scavenger hunt,
where one clue leads to another until a point is reached where the quantity and quality
of supportive data collected are sufficient to allow the persons initiating change to make
their case.

In collecting supporting data, the change agent should think in terms of the entire
“circle” of information needed to understand the presenting problem or condition. This
means that data collection will not necessarily be limited to the local community, neigh-
borhood, or organization that is the focus of the change effort. Although data on the
smallest local units of analysis (such as the neighborhood or census tract) are certainly
powerful in terms of supporting the argument that something must be done, data on the
same conditions or problems at the county, state, or national levels can also be useful in
providing a basis of comparison against which local figures can be judged.

types of Data. Research scholars have increasingly emphasized the importance of
incorporating both quantitative and qualitative data into the understanding of social
conditions and problems. Trochim (2006) points out that using multiple types of data
(both numbers and words) can provide a rich and diverse perspective.

Tashakkori and Teddlie (2009) make an important case for using mixed methods.
By exploring both quantitative and qualitative studies, the social worker can expand and
enhance the understanding of problem, population, and arena.

To oversimplify the discussion, quantitative research tends to focus on numbers
while qualitative research focuses on words, or the capturing of any data that are non-
numerical in nature. One can readily recognize the value of incorporating both quan-
titative and qualitative data into the study of a community. For example, a quantitative
study would tend to focus on a series of questions with definitive, quantifiable answers

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 101

in addressing the question “Would you support or oppose the introduction of a pro-
gram to increase the high school graduation rate?” A qualitative study might attempt to
explore a whole range of feelings behind the same question. Qualitative research gener-
ally includes such techniques as in-depth interviewing, direct observation, or an analysis
of written documents.

Collecting data on a community social condition or problem can be a challenge. Ide-
ally, in promoting a program to educate homeless children, for example, one would hope
to find information that clearly demonstrates something similar to the following:

• There are currently 3,279 homeless children in Clifton County.
• Lack of positive early school experience can be expected to result in about 2,000

of these children being unable to read at grade level.
• Inability to read at grade level can be expected to result in 1,500 of this group

dropping out of school by the 10th grade.
• Of the 1,500 who drop out of school by the 10th grade, about 1,000 will

eventually either be in trouble with the law and become incarcerated or
otherwise be placed in a state-supported institution.

• Each person supported by the state costs, on average, $28,000 per year. The cost to the
state for 1,000 incarcerated or institutionalized dropouts will be $28 million per year.

• An early intervention program for 2,000 homeless children will cost $6.5 million.
• About 1,800 of these children can be expected to improve their reading skills

to grade level, resulting in improved opportunities for employment and

• If successful, this program offers a potential annual savings to the state of up to
$21.5 million.

• These statistics are undergirded by reports from key informants in the
community who report that community residents are aware of and concerned
about the problem, and eager for efforts to correct it.

These kinds of quantitative and qualitative data make it clear that it is a case of
paying something now for prevention or paying many times more than that amount later
for care, maintenance, or perhaps rehabilitation. However, although these kinds of sta-
tistics are much desired and preferred, it is rare to find that they have been compiled
in a usable format. Instead, individuals initiating change must rely on what is available:
census data; community needs assessments; levels of demand for service as reported by
agencies; rates of service; data generated by hospitals, schools, and police departments;
and any other reliable source available.

A few techniques can be helpful in cases in which quantitative and qualitative data
are needed. One resource is national, regional, and state studies in which a percentage
or an incidence rate (per thousand or sometimes per hundred thousand) has been estab-
lished. If, for example, it has been found that 48.5 percent of marriages performed in a
state end in divorce, one can apply this percentage to a city or town within that state to
calculate the number of divorces that can be expected to follow over time. Obviously,
the number will not be exact, but it provides at least a beginning point for projection.
When such statistics are used, they would be qualified with a statement such as “If state-
wide rates for divorce hold for Smithville, then we can expect to see almost half of the
marriages in this community end in divorce,” or something to that effect.

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102 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

Make the Data Meaningful for Interpretation
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What options can be used to display data?
• How should data be displayed in order to clearly and concisely make the

case for change?

Comparative data are generally more useful than a single statistic, and several tech-
niques can be used to collect and display comparative data. These include cross-sectional
analysis, time-series comparisons, and comparisons with other data units. In addition to
these data displays, techniques such as standards comparisons and epidemiological anal-
ysis can be useful (Kettner, Moroney, & Martin, 2013). Displays should be prepared and
presented in a way that will tell the story effectively.

A number of graphic options are available, including line graphs, bar graphs, and pie
charts. Thought should be given to which graphic display will have the greatest impact,
given the data to be presented. Most of the graphics needed for these types of displays
are a part of Microsoft Office Home Edition. This package includes Word (word process-
ing), Excel (spreadsheets), PowerPoint (presentations), and Access (relational databases).
When job descriptions include a requirement for computer skills, in most cases ability to
use these types of programs is expected.

cross-sectional analysis. This approach involves collecting data at a single point
in time and describing circumstances at the moment captured in those data. It usually
focuses on a single population or sample. For example, a survey might concentrate on
gathering information about a need experienced by a particular target population and
display the percentage of the population who report a problem in this area, as illustrated
in Table 4.2.

The data presented in Table 4.2 can be used to create a more dramatic visual effect
by translating the data into graphic formats. Figure 4.3 illustrates age distribution in the
form of a bar graph, which presents a picture of an aging population.

Table 4.2 an illustration of cross-Sectional analysis, examining the percentage of each
population experiencing a problem








0–18 11 5 N/A 5 N/A

19–30 21 14 7 9 16

31–64 28 17 11 8 19

65+ 40 19 33 15 33


Female 52 5 7 6 18

Male 48 16 24 11 17

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Chapter 4: Assessing Community and Organizational Problems 103

Figure 4.4 uses a pie chart to illustrate ethnic distribution. Side-by-side pie charts
using census data 10 years apart could be used as a cross-sectional analysis as well as a
time-series analysis.

As community or organizational conditions are identified, subpopulations can usually
be assessed by demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and racial/ ethnic group. The
most serious limitation is that a cross-sectional analysis does not reveal changes over time.

Time-Series Comparisons. When available, data from repeated observations over
time are preferred because they display trends. Assuming data were collected on an
annual basis, a time-series comparison would look at trends in the variable(s) of interest.
For example, the number of nonduplicated individuals requesting overnight stays in
homeless shelters in a given city might be displayed in a line graph, as shown in Figure 4.5.

Statistics like these can help project need and cost into the future, based on assump-
tions about changes over time identified in a series of observations. Comparisons among

Figure 4.3 
A Bar Graph Illustrating Age Distribution and Revealing an Aging Population

10 20

30 40 50






Figure 4.4 
A Pie Chart Illustrating Ethnic Distribution


Asian American

Native American

African American


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104 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

these observations can provide the change agent with valuable information. For exam-
ple, they can be used to document how client need is increasing, what the trends are for
the next few years, why additional resources are needed, and the projected dollars neces-
sary to fill anticipated need.

comparison with Other Data units. Even though cross-sectional analysis can provide
a snapshot at a point in time, and time series can depict trends over time, questions might
still be raised about the legitimacy of a problem, especially when comparisons are being
made with other communities or organizations. For example, if a change agent is able to
document a current teenage pregnancy rate of 22 percent in a community, and to show
an upward trend over 5 years, a critic might reasonably ask if this rate is considered high
or low. This is where comparison to other data units is helpful.

A wealth of both regularly and specially assembled information is available for use as
supporting data. Over the past few decades, many federal, state, and local agencies have
contributed to databases on rates per 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000 on a wide range of social,
economic, and health problems. These statistics allow for comparison regardless of the
size of the city or neighborhood in question. Studies have also identified state and local
per-capita expenditures for various social and health problems. Based on these findings,
states and cities can be ranked as to the incidence and prevalence of problems or on their
efforts to address the problems.

Comparisons are particularly useful in making a case that a disproportionate share
of resources should go to a particularly needy community. By comparing census tracts
within a county on selected variables, it becomes readily evident that problems and needs
are not always equally distributed across communities and neighborhoods within the
county, and therefore resources should not always be distributed on a per-capita basis.

standards comparisons. This technique is particularly helpful when comparative
data are not available. A standard is defined as an established specification that is widely
recognized, used, and accepted by authorities. Standards are developed by accrediting
bodies, governmental entities, and professional associations. For example, the Child Welfare

2004 2008

2012 2016







r o

f I








figure 4.5 
A Line Graph Illustrating a Time-Series Analysis of the Number of Individuals Requesting
Overnight Shelter by Homeless Persons

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 105

League of America publishes comprehensive sets of standards related to community and
agency programs for child abuse and neglect, adoption, and other child welfare services.
Similarly, the National Council on Aging has developed case management standards. The
National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has developed standards for social work
services in a wide variety of settings and with various population groups such as adolescents.

Where governmental units, accrediting bodies, and professional associations have
defined standards, conditions considered to be falling below health, educational, personal
care, housing, and other types of standards become more readily accessible as targets for
change. Community leaders do not like the negative publicity that often results when
services offered within their communities are described as being “below standard.”
These types of standards apply primarily to the quality of services being provided.

Standards of sorts may also be used to define a problem or population. For example,
some cities have developed standardized criteria to define a homeless person or a gang
member. Where such criteria have been established, they can be useful in interpreting
existing records and compiling new quantitative data or other information.

epidemiological analysis. This is a technique adapted from the field of public health,
where an analysis of factors contributing to a disease helps to establish relationships even
when a clear cause-and-effect relationship cannot be demonstrated. This approach can be
applied not only to disease but also to social problems.

For example, Sabol, Coulton, and Polousky (2004) examined variables inf luencing child
maltreatment. In this study, the authors looked at age, race, and urban versus suburban lo-
cation, and found that these factors could be used to predict the probability of a child being
reported for an incident of maltreatment before his or her 10th birthday. In another study,
Diala, Muntaner, and Walrath (2004) examined rural and urban location; demographic char-
acteristics of age, gender, and race; and social class factors of education, household income,
and wealth, and found that some relationships between and among these variables could be
useful in predicting the probability of alcohol and drug abuse and dependence.

A useful feature of epidemiological thinking is that, in analyzing problems, it can
help avoid simplistic cause-and-effect thinking. Although a single causal factor (e.g.,
poor education, poverty, or child abuse) may explain current problems faced by a small
portion of the population, multiple factors in combination f requently help explain the
problem or phenomenon for a much larger portion of the population.

Qualitative Data Displays. Qualitative data can also be presented in the form of tables
and figures, allowing word data to tell a thematic story about the problem. Table 4.3
provides an example from a qualitative study on faith-based advocacy organizations
(FBAOs). The organization was part of a study examining the activities of FBAOs in-
volved in lobbying on social welfare issues. The table illustrates the policy areas of one
FBAO, using examples from the research as exemplars of the policy area.

Search for Promising Practice Approaches to Address the Problem
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What promising practices related to this problem are identified in scholarly
sources and in reports of program/project evaluations?

• What lessons can be learned from these studies/reports that may be helpful in
intervening to address the problem?

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106 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

evidence-based practice (EBP) can be defined as application of research and clin-
ical evidence to decisions made about practice. Social work has had a long history of
assessing based on the facts surrounding the case under consideration, but introducing
research and clinical findings brings an added dimension. While the field of medicine is
credited with the earliest use of the EBP concept, many fields including mental health,
child welfare, and education are increasingly incorporating research findings into clinical
and macro-level decisions. The NASW indicates that the process of using EBP allows
practitioners to use empirically based interventions in every aspect of their practice, in-

cluding the integration of what is known about culture to inform
service delivery (NASW, n.d.).

Gitterman and Knight (2013) recommend replacing EBP
with evidence-guided practice (EGP) because the concept of
being guided is more action oriented than simply being “based
on” or “informed.” They also argue that if the change agent
looks for guidance, f lexibility is implied. Being guided does not
suggest that there is only one direction; it just provides a start-
ing point. In other words, interventions are suggested rather than
prescribed by research findings. This is a good example of how
even approaches to gathering information can be ref ramed. A
similar ref rame is using the term promising practices rather than

best practices. Promising practices leave room for f lexibility as new information emerges
in process, whereas best practice terminology implies a one-best-way approach.

Whether one embraces EBP or EGP, it is important to recognize that evaluations of
existing social service programs can be informative in gathering information about how
to address a problem. Even though these evaluations often lack the methodological rigor
of organized research, it is helpful to know what others have done in approaching similar
problems. Reports of practice findings tend to be the least formal in terms of their data
collection, analysis, and reporting of findings, yet they can be helpful and informative as

Table 4.3 an example of how to display Qualitative data

policy area description issue exemplars


•   Preserving the wall of separation 
between religion and the state

•   Preventing public policy unduly 
influenced by singular religious

•   Prayer in government-funded public 

•  School vouchers
•   Religious curriculum in public schools
•  Charitable choice

Bias and

•   Opposing legislation that promotes 
bias and intolerance

•   Supporting efforts that encourage 

•  Civil equality for same-sex couples
•  Immigration
•  Hate crimes
•  Capital punishment

Health and
Social Justice

•   Representing those in need in the 
Jewish and broader community

•  Medicaid expansion
•  Minimum wage
•  Reproductive choice
•  Stem cell research

Research-informed Practice
(or Practice-informed Research)

practice behavior: Apply critical thinking to engage
in analysis of quantitative and qualitative research 
methods and research findings.

critical Thinking Question: What are some
strategies you can use to efficiently synthesize what you
have learned from multiple sources?

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 107

long as the user is cautious in interpreting findings, forming conclusions, and deriving

For example, a rural school system in the northeastern United States identified the
following conditions: Engagement of families living in Pleasant Grove in their young chil-
dren’s elementary school experience is very low, and school administrators and teachers
do not live in the immediate vicinity. In analyzing the problem, the school social worker
reached out to children’s parents to see how they perceived the situation. She discovered
high levels of poverty within this rural community and a toxic level of stress for parents
and children. In the process, she discovered that community residents were surprised
that anyone was interested in their opinions and that they referred to themselves as liv-
ing in “trailers.” The social worker referred to their living situation as a “mobile home
community,” and soon she was intrigued to hear family members refer to their mobile
home community, positively reframing the image of their community. The change agent
worked with community residents and school staff to develop an intervention to reach
out to hard-to-reach families, reduce stress, and engage them in the educational system.
Lessons learned from piloting this engagement approach were useful to persons seeking
to engage families in their children’s education and to build a collective identity within
the school system (Blitz, Kida, Gresham, & Bronstein, 2013). From an EGP perspective,
this case study is a resource for not only understanding a problem but also determining
how to begin changing the situation. It could be useful to other school social workers
attemping to engage parents in their children’s education, and it could be viewed as a
promising practice.

Another example comes from Australia and concerns the marginalization of indig-
enous people within a cycle of violence, oppression, and dispossession associated with
colonialism. Community Arts Network Western Australia (CANWA) was formed to be-
gin a process of community cultural development, using art as a means through which
community building could begin. CANWA staff believed that strengthening networks
and raising awareness about Indigenous peoples, cultures, and lived experience could
eventually work toward more socially just policies. Participants in this change effort de-
scribed in detail the iterative process in which they worked through CANWA, only to
discover how deeply seated racism is within these communities. They outlined lessons
learned and ways in which they changed strategies, reframed problem(s) over time, and
moved to more aggressive stances (Sonn & Quayle, 2013). Like the previous example,
but on a much larger scale, these are the type of practice findings that would be helpful
in informing the design of interventions in a social change effort with diverse population
groups that face ongoing racial discrimination.

Task 3: frame the problem and develop Working hypotheses

Is it now time to pull together what was learned in Chapters 3 and 4. The purpose of
Chapter 3 was to guide the social worker through an assessment of the population group
most directly involved. In this chapter, the problem was assessed.

Etiology refers to the underlying causes of a problem. Speculating about the etiol-
ogy of a problem is an attempt to arrive at an understanding of cause-and-effect relation-
ships. As one begins to move into this territory, it is important to keep an open mind and
let results from searches of the knowledge base, quantitative data, historical information,

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108 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

and the personal experiences of target population representatives inform an understand-
ing of the problem. It is unlikely—in the analysis of social, community, and/or organi-
zational problems—that there will be simple, linear, cause-and-effect relationships. It is
more likely that there will be a variety of contributing factors, along with multiple views
on what is relevant and applicable to the current situation.

Task 3 includes three sets of activities—stating the problem, selecting factors that
help explain the underlying causes of the problem, and developing hypotheses.

State the Problem
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What are the major concepts, issues, and perspectives identified in the
population assessment?

• What are the major issues and perspectives identified in the problem assessment?
• Given what has been learned, how would you now frame the problem?

When examining conditions or problems in the human services, there is often a
strong temptation to identify lack of resources as a cause of a problem. For example, in
studies focused on an organizational problem, causes often tend to be defined in terms
of lack of operating funds, staff, adequate equipment and facilities, and so on. In defin-
ing a community problem, causes often are seen in terms of lack of resources for new
programs or expanded services, such as more child care slots, more training, and so on.
In many cases, genuine resource deficits may exist, but we caution against superficial
assessments that look to dollars as the only solution to every problem. There are several
reasons for a more thorough approach.

First, resources have to do with the intervention or the so-called solution, and they
should be considered only after a specific approach has been proposed and resource is-
sues can be addressed in detailed, not general, terms. Second, “lack of resources” is so
universal that it is relatively meaningless as a part of problem analysis. Third, “lack of
adequate resources” does not help explain underlying causal or contributing factors.
The statement simply assumes that more of whatever is already being done will solve
the problem. Additional resources in macro-level change can be critical to success, but
the issue should be addressed later in the change process.

The types of causal or contributing factors to be addressed are those fundamen-
tal factors that explain why the problem emerged and why it persists over time. They
are substantive factors that prevent progress toward solutions. Identifying these multiple
causes helps clarify the complex nature of the problem. As a greater understanding of
the population, problem, and arena is achieved, these factors will be used to develop a
working hypothesis of etiology or cause(s) and effect(s). This working hypothesis will
then be used to guide the intervention.

Identification of possible causes is intended to help those who are exploring the need
for change to focus their efforts, thereby increasing the chances of success. In most cases,
it is unlikely that all contributing factors will be addressed. Selection of a limited number
of possible causes should lead either to a narrower, more limited focus or to collabora-
tion with others, with agreement that each change effort will concentrate on different
factors. For example, faced with a problem of unsupervised children in a community,
a local church might agree to take responsibility for building mutual support systems

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 109

among single mothers and strengthening the sense of community, whereas a local school
may be willing to provide constructive, supervised after-school activities. At this point,
however, these decisions would be premature. The purpose of identifying contributing
factors is to arrive at an understanding of the problem that is as clear as possible.

Examination of history, theory, and research on the population and the problem
comes together at the point at which cause-and-effect relationships are postulated. The
change agent looks for patterns of events or factors that seem to be associated so that a
case can be made for a working hypothesis on selected causal or contributing factors. For
example, in the population assessment, the problem of unsupervised children in a com-
munity may have arisen, with the following contributing factors identified:

• There is a high percentage of single, working mothers in the community.
• There are no after-school programs available in the community.
• Children in the community from single-parent families have few male mentors or

role models.
• The community lacks a sense of cohesion; for the most part, people know few

• No community-based organizations are currently addressing this problem.

In many cases, alternative explanations of cause and effect are all logical and, in a
sense, “correct,” but they may apply to different groups within a given population. For
example, all the following statements are probably logical explanations of why some
adolescents exhibit delinquent behavior:

• Some adolescents feel neglected by parents.
• Some adolescents fail to bond with parents.
• Some adolescents are not able to succeed in school.
• Some adolescents choose peers who encourage delinquent activities.
• Some adolescents live in high-crime, high-mobility communities.

Thus, the decision that must then be made is not one of choosing the “correct”
perspective on etiology but rather selecting the subgroup(s) to be addressed. As with
most populations and problems, one understanding of etiology and one intervention do
not fit all. There are multiple rational explanations, and ultimately one or more must be
selected to serve as a framework for understanding the problem and the population.

Kettner, Moroney, and Martin (2013) recommend that the f raming of a problem
contain three statements: (1) a qualitative statement, (2) a quantiative statement, and
(3) a justification of action statement. Framed in this way, a problem statement based on
the example above might read:

Adolescents living in the high-crime, high-mobility Catawba community are engag-
ing in delinquent activities and dropping out of school. Furthermore, the dropout
and arrest rates in Catawba are three times as high as rates in adjacent communities.
Therefore, a multidimensional educational, recreational, and socialization program
will target adolescents in order to reengage them and their families in positive com-
munity building.

Note that choices have been made in f raming the problem. The primary target is
adolescents, and the action focuses on developing a program targeted to them and their

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110 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

families. How the problem is f ramed assumes that the problem and population assess-
ment led to this intervention as a viable option. But assume that the assessment process
revealed different information. An alternative problem statement might be:

Fifty percent of the households in the Catawba community are headed by single
mothers who are having difficulty economically supporting their families. Further-
more, the average income for these mothers is 125% of the country’s poverty rate.
Therefore, a comprehensive women’s center is needed in the Catawba community
that is specifically designed to build support networks, offer job-counseling and
employment services, and locate child care options.

This second problem statement is f ramed differently from the first. Its target focuses on
women rather than adolescents. Given this frame, note that the intervention is different.

When reframing the diagnosis, the prognosis changes. Framing,
then, guides the change agent into selecting options or priorities.

When those involved in the change effort have defined the
problem; reviewed important historical events; completed a re-
view of relevant journal articles, texts, and web resources; and
compiled supporting evidence, they should have at least a begin-
ning understanding of what may be causing or at least inf luencing
the problem. The next step is to determine what cause-and-effect
relationships must be dealt with in order to bring about needed
changes. Preliminary identification of these factors is a necessary
step in clarifying the change effort. Before distilling the data and
information gathered, however, it is important to understand the
types of causes or other considerations to be identified.

Select Factors That Help Explain the Underlying Causes of the Problem
Questions to be explored in this activity include the following:

• What are the causal factors that explain the problem?
• What are the results or effects of the causes identified?

Based on what was learned, a series of statements about probable effects of con-
tributing factors can be generated. For example, in exploring the question of why some
adolescents demonstrate antisocial behavior, including committing status offenses (acts
that would not be offenses if they were adults, such as truancy or running away f rom
home), a hypothesis of etiology emerges. Other factors could be added that focus on, for
example, a specific subgroup of adolescent girls, or a group of Native American boys, in
which case gender or cultural factors may be included in the hypothesis.

Another example arises f rom a growing concern about chronic homelessness
among single adults. A study of the homeless services system may lead to the follow-
ing findings:

• Permanent supportive housing is successful in ending homelessness for
chronically homeless individuals with a serious mental illness.

• The majority of the system’s programs are focused on emergency shelter.
• Affordable housing is limited.


practice behavior: Apply knowledge of human
behavior and the social environment, person- in-
environment, and other multidisciplinary theoretical
frameworks in interventions with clients and

critical Thinking Question: When do you have
enough information to write a problem statement? What
are some potential consequences of not articulating a 
clear problem statement when planning an intervention?

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 111

• Few programs provide permanent supportive housing.
• Eligibility requirements for transitional and permanent supportive housing

programs screen out a majority of chronically homeless individuals.
• Ability to remain in housing is linked to service success and program

• Mental health and substance abuse treatment services are limited.
• Trauma-informed services are rarely provided.
• Chronically homeless individuals who are not stably housed tend to overutilize

hospital emergency rooms for health and mental health treatment.

A survey of the population reveals some of the problems and needs faced by individ-
uals who are chronically homeless:

• Some believe that homeless programs do not respect them.
• Some are experiencing severe symptoms of a mental health disorder.
• Some are experiencing acute or chronic physical health conditions.
• Some have difficulty becoming clean and sober.
• Some suffer discrimination and rejection from service providers and

community members.
• Some experience trauma because of current and previous experiences on

and off the street.

Drawing on these findings f rom analysis of problem and population, relationships
may be proposed between causes and their effects.

It should be clear f rom these examples that part of the job of creating a clearly
focused macro-level intervention involves selecting some contributing factors and setting
others aside, at least for the time being, unless enough resources are available to take on
every factor within the same project. It is also possible that completely different factors
could be identified within these examples if gender or cultural issues emerge during the
course of the study. Each episode of change must find its focus within the context of the
considerations and dictates of the local situation at the time.

Develop Hypotheses
A hypothesis of etiology should identify what the participants in the change process be-
lieve to be the most important and relevant factors contributing to the problem. This
may be different f rom what was identified in the literature or may lead to a particular
part of the literature that needs reexamination.

Questions to be explored in this activity include the following:

• Based on the foregoing analysis of problem and population, what seem to be
the dominant themes in understanding cause-and-effect relationships?

• How should the hypothesis of etiology be framed?

The hypothesis of etiology frames the change effort in a way that makes it focused
and manageable. Example 1 in Box 4.1 leads to a working hypothesis such as the

When single, working mothers are unable to meet the needs of their adolescent
children for parental guidance, when adolescents lack a positive male role model,

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and when no organized after-school activities are available for adolescents, it is
likely that adolescents will feel neglected, will bond with older peers who may turn
out to be negative role models, and will participate in delinquent acts during idle
after-school hours.

Using the hypothesis for Example 1, the change agent will begin to think in terms
of f raming the intervention around identifying adolescent children of single, working
mothers who have been involved in one or more delinquent activities and (1) dealing
with their feelings of neglect, (2) finding positive male role models to serve as mentors to
the adolescents identified, and (3) providing a program of organized after-school activi-
ties for the adolescents identified.

A hypothesis for Example 2 in Box 4.2 might read as follows:

When a homeless services system focuses the majority of its efforts and resources
on emergency housing for the homeless; when existing emergency, transitional, and
permanent supportive housing programs “screen out” individuals who are chron-
ically homeless and have a serious mental illness; and when chronically homeless
individuals use and reuse hospital emergency rooms for health and mental health

112 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

Selected Factors Affecting Chronically Homeless
Adults with a Serious Mental Illness:

1. The homeless service system focuses its resources primarily
on emergency housing and services.

2. The eligibility criteria for existing permanent supportive
housing screen out most chronically homeless individuals.

3. Chronically homeless individuals tend to use and reuse
hospital emergency rooms to meet health and mental
health needs.

These Factors Appear to Lead to the Following Results:

1. Little attention and few resources are directed to
permanent supportive housing.

2.  Chronically homeless individuals who can’t qualify for 
permanent supportive housing programs live on the streets
and in shelters.

3. Chronically homeless individual’s utilization of health and
human services is fragmented and expensive.

Box 4.2 Selecting factors from analysis of problem and population: example 2

Selected Factors Affecting Adolescent First Offenders
Who Commit Status Offenses:

1. Some single working mothers have limited ability to meet
the many needs of their adolescent children for parental

2. Some adolescent children of single, working mothers lack
male role models.

3.  There are no after-school programs for adolescents in the 

These Factors Appear to Lead to the Following Results:

1. Adolescents whose needs for parental guidance are not
met by parents may feel neglected.

2. Lack of positive, male role models for some adolescents
leads to bonding with older peers who may encourage
delinquent behavior.

3.  Absence of organized after-school activities for  adolescents 
results in many hours of idle, nonproductive time every day,
which may lead to participation in delinquent activities.

Box 4.1 Selecting factors from analysis of problem and population: example 1

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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 113

services, it is likely that the homeless service system will not develop permanent
supportive housing programs, that chronically homeless individuals will not be able
to access the permanent supportive housing programs that exist, and that chron-
ically homeless individuals will overutilize expensive health and mental health

For Example 2, the intervention will focus on (1) redirecting existing resources
toward permanent supportive housing, (2) developing eligibility criteria for programs
that are more responsive to the needs of the population, and (3) coordinating immediate
and routine health and mental health services to better respond to the health and mental
health needs of chronically homeless individuals.

A hypothesis of etiology gives the change agent a beginning point f rom
which to hypothesize further about interventions. An intervention hypoth-
esis will include potential ways to address the problem, moving beyond ex-
plaining the problem to providing directions toward change. In Chapter 9,
we will return to developing intervention hypotheses after we have fully ex-
plored assessing the arenas in which change occurs.


Chapters 3 and 4 are companion pieces designed to lead the change agent through an
orderly, systematic review of existing knowledge, research, data, information, historical
perspectives, and other types of information that may be available on the population(s)
affected and the problem(s) they face. A complete study of population and population in-
volves many facets. These studies include personal interviews with local people affected
by the problem, and a compilation of quantitative and qualitative data and information
to back up the problem statement. The purpose of this compilation of knowledge and
information is so that the change agent may develop a clear understanding of the many
factors that may have led to the current situation. Based on a study and analysis of these
factors, the change agent can narrow a broad, sweeping general definition of the prob-
lem to a small number of highly specific factors that lend themselves to intervention and
problem resolution. A working hypothesis of etiology can then be framed.

In this chapter, we presented an approach to orderly, systematic, professionally as-
sisted change. Critics may say that this approach takes too long and fails to seize the
moment, and we acknowledge that part of the responsibility of a change agent is to
make judgments about how and when to act. The study process can be streamlined or
extended, depending on the complexity and duration of the problem. But simply ignor-
ing the need for current information and proceeding to action may prove to be irrespon-
sible and detrimental to the very people the change is intended to serve. A change effort
worth undertaking is worth approaching systematically and thoroughly. In the next
chapters, we will explore communities and organizations, the arenas in which change

assess your understanding
of a framework for

assessing community and
organizational problems by
taking this brief quiz.


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114 chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems

Appendix: Framework for Understanding Community and Organizational Problems

task 1: gather information from persons in the
community or Organization

identify community or Organizational

• What are the conditions in this community or
organization that need to be assessed?

• In approaching an episode of change, how could
the condition statement be framed?

identify relevant historical and contextual

• Has the problem been recognized and
acknowledged by any community or
organizational members?

• If so, when was this condition, problem, or
opportunity first recognized in this community
or organization?

• What are the important incidents or events that
have occurred from the first recognition to the
present time?

• What do earlier efforts to address this problem

task 2: explore the professional Knowledge Base on
the condition, problem, need, or Opportunity

Locate relevant theoretical and research

• What body of knowledge is considered key to
understanding the condition, problem, need, or

• What frameworks are useful in understanding the
condition, problem, need, or opportunity?

• Where and how does one access the knowledge
and information needed for this task?

access and collect supporting Data

• What data are most useful in describing the
condition, problem, or opportunity?

• Where can useful quantitative and qualitative data,
historical records, agency-based studies, and other
types of information be found?

make the Data meaningful for interpretation

• What options can be used to display data?
• How should data be displayed in order to clearly

and concisely make the case for change?

search for promising practice approaches to
address the problem

• What promising practices related to this problem
are identified in scholarly sources and in reports of
program/project evaluations?

• What lessons can be learned from these studies/
reports that may be helpful in intervening to
address the problem?

task 3: Frame the problem and Develop Working

state the problem

• What are the major concepts, issues, and perspectives
identified in the population assessment?

• What are the major issues and perspectives
identified in the problem assessment?

• Given what has been learned, how would you now
frame the problem?

select Factors that help explain the underlying
causes of the problem

• What are the causal factors that explain the

• What are the results or effects of the causes

Develop hypotheses

• Based on the foregoing analysis of problem
and population, what seem to be the domi-
nant themes in understanding cause-and-effect

• How should the hypothesis of etiology be framed?

recall what you learned in
this chapter by completing
the chapter review.


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chapter 4: assessing community and organizational problems 115

Assess Your Competence

Use the scale below to rate your current level of achievement on the following concepts or skills associated with
each learning outcome listed at the beginning of this chapter:

1 2 3

I can accurately describe the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome.

I can consistently identify the concept
or skill(s) associated with this outcome
when observing and analyzing practice


I can competently implement the concept
or skill(s) associated with this outcome in

my own practice.

Define conditions, problems, issues, needs, and opportunities.

Provide examples of how to frame and reframe an organizational or community problem.

Use a framework for assessing community and organizational problems.

M04_NETT8523_06_SE_C04.indd 115 9/28/15 10:42 AM


Learning OutcOmes

• Define community, its dimensions,
and its functions.

• Explain four theories that describe
aspects of community.

• Discuss contemporary perspectives
used in community practice.

• Identify eight types of community
practice models.

chapter OutLine

Conceptualizing Community 116
Defining Community
Dimensions of Communities
Community Functions
When Community Functions Fail

Community Theories 125
Systems Theories
Human, Population, or Social Ecology

Human Behavior Theories
Theories about Power, Politics, and


Contemporary Perspectives 140
Strengths, Empowerment, and

Resiliency Perspectives
Asset Mapping
Capacity Building

Community Practice Models 147

Summary 151

Chapter Review 152








ConCeptualizing Community

Communities are the arenas in which macro practice takes place, but
they are so diverse that no one definition, approach, or theory cap-
tures their total essence. Terms such as global, international, and world
community are used in contemporary society to refer to the complex
array of relationships among the people of the world (Weil, Reisch, &
Ohmer, 2013). Yet, when most people think about communities
that are important to them, they usually think on a smaller scale—
remembering where they grew up, identifying with where they live
today, or focusing on relationships based on affiliations or interests
rather than just geographic proximity. These relationships may be
bound by characteristics such as shared history, cultural values and
traditions, concern for common issues, or frequent communication.
Many people identify with multiple communities, thus making “the
community” a misnomer. For many, affiliation with more than one
community is an intrinsic part of who a person is.

Based on life experiences, social workers will have their own
perceptions of what a community is, along with expectations about
what it should be. These perceptions and expectations will inf luence

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 117

how they approach work in communities that are new to them, and it is important to
recognize that experiences with and feelings about community as a geographic locality
vary. Some communities will be viewed nostalgically as desirable places, evoking warm
memories. Other communities will be seen as oppressive, restrictive, or even danger-
ous to both residents and outsiders. At times, these differing views will be held about
the same community, because each person’s experience is unique. Community-based
groups, ranging f rom youth gangs to elder rights groups, represent attempts to create
specialized communities of interest within geographical communities, sometimes in
ways that intentionally run counter to the local culture.

Some observers believe that in the United States, “community” as a geographi-
cally relevant concept began to erode with the expansion of suburbs in the 1950s and
1960s (Gerloff, 1992). Others see unlimited human potential lying dormant in inner-city
communities that have been rendered dependent on social welfare organizations by an
overzealous provision of services (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). Still others take an
international perspective, revealing the tensions and even violence that can rip apart
communities around the world, turning community members into refugees in search of
asylum (Haynes, 2014).

One of the big issues we confront in this chapter is whether social workers are best
served by looking at communities as places where people’s interests are linked by geo-
graphic closeness. In an era of mobile phones, email, instant text messaging, Twitter,
Facebook, online interactive games, and any number of methods of easy long-distance
communication, the whole idea of community needs to be radically redefined.

Also, a problem confronting social workers in helping the poorest members of soci-
ety is that they are forced to remain in a world where geographic proximity does matter
because their environment is dangerous and lacks resources such as transportation, jobs,
and child care (Abramovitz & Albrecht, 2013). Conversely, proximity becomes ever less
relevant to more aff luent members of society who can afford the technologies that allow
them to transcend geography. Within a single episode of change, multiple definitions
of community may be needed to help keep commitments and relationships clear. For
example, while the target of change may be a specific neighborhood (a geographically
bounded community), those needed to support the change may be linked through con-
cern and commitment, and they may come from both the neighborhood and the larger
environment (Campbell, 2014).

Marx (2013) calls for a reconceptualization of community for professional social
work practice. He identifies 10 types of communities with which social workers may in-
tervene. These types reveal the increasing diversity of geographical and nongeographical
ways in which one can envision community. They are:

• Online communities such as or or Facebook and
Twitter inform the world about movements such as the Arab Spring or Occupy
Wall Street;

• Green communities mobilized to spread the message of global warming in which
neighborhood organizations, interested citizens, city councils, urban planners,
and environmental activists affiliate to promote healthier living;

• Gray communities in which naturally occurring retirement communities and
pockets of older adults advocate for needed services and opportunities for
meaningful engagement;

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118 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

• Devastated communities throughout the world in which hurricanes, f looding,
tornados, earthquakes, wildfires, and a number of manmade and natural disas-
ters demand mobilization of volunteer and paid personnel to address the needs
of victims;

• Hispanic communities, which comprise a growing demographic U.S. trend
in which more professional social workers will increasingly engage in
Spanish-speaking communities;

• International communities in which nonprofit and nongovenmental
organizations (NGOs) seek to address problems that transcend geographic
boundaries, joining forces with others to address issues of global poverty,
disease, war, and more;

• Innovative communities in which people come together to advance the future
through such creative efforts as social innovation, entrepreneurial activities, and
diffusion of innovation;

• Electoral communities in which local, state, and national campaigns for public
office bring people together with similar ideologies to work for change;

• Cinematic communities, including those for film and the visual arts, and even
users of smart phones who make their own videos to use when documenting the
need for and advocating for change; and

• Business communities in which the corporate sector can become collaborators
with public and nonprofit sectors to solve social problems, such
as when United Way Worldwide was formed to encourage links
between sectors.

We believe that social workers have a responsibility to rec-
ognize that community can be a powerful medium for enfran-
chisement and empowerment when its potential is understood
and skillfully brought to life. We also believe that social workers
must recognize that problems and needs can often be addressed
more effectively by dealing with them collectively than they can
by dealing with them individually.

Defining Community

One of the earliest efforts to conceptualize communities was the work of Ferdinand
Tönnies (1887/1957), who discussed the constructs of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.
Gemeinschaft, which roughly translates as community, focuses on the mutual, intimate,
and common bonds that pull people together in local units. These bonds are based on
caring about one another and valuing the relationships in the group in and of themselves.
The group is valued, regardless of whether its members are creating a product or achiev-
ing a goal. Examples are the domestic unit, the neighborhood, and groups of f riends.
The focus of Gemeinschaft is on intimacy and relationship.

In contrast, Tönnies’ Gesellschaft refers generally to society or association. Examples
of this concept are a city or government. Gesellschaft is an ideal type representing formal-
ized relationships that are task oriented. In Gesellschaft-type relationships, people orga-
nize in a more formal way to achieve a purpose, task, or goal. Although they may benefit
f rom the relationships that are established, the purpose of these social interactions is

Diversity and Difference in Practice

Behavior: Present themselves as learners, and en-
gage clients and constituencies as experts of their own

Critical thinking Question: How do the many
conceptualizations of community assist change agents in
working with diverse clients and constituencies?

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 119

more restricted to accomplishing a particular end, creating some production, or com-
pleting some task.

Sociologists in the late 1800s viewed Gesellschaft as representing all the negative
forces pulling people away f rom traditional communities built on institutions such as
the family and religion. It is important to recognize, however, that the contribution of
Tönnies’ ideal types is to call attention to the differences between informal and formal
systems and to the richness of their interactions. Social workers doing macro prac-
tice will find elements of both concepts in the communities with which they work.
Tönnies’ work is considered a foundation f rom which community theory emerged in
the 1990s.

There are many definitions of community, and we will provide only a sample here.
As early as the 1950s, one scholar identified over 90 discrete definitions of community in
use within the social science literature (Hillery, 1955). Warren characterized community
as (1) space, (2) people, (3) shared values and institutions, (4) interaction, (5) distribution of
power, and (6) social system. Conceptualizations of community may be derived from each
of these six themes. No matter what definition is selected, concepts such as space, people,
interaction, and shared identity are repeated over and over again.

One of the most cited definitions of community was provided by Warren (1978),
who viewed community as the organization of social activities that affords people access
to what is necessary for day-to-day living, such as the school, grocery store, hospital,
house of worship, and other such social units and systems. Many people customarily
think of social units as beginning with the domestic unit, extending to the neighbor-
hood or to a voluntary association, and expanding to larger spheres of human interac-
tion. Community may or may not have clear boundaries, but it is significant because it
performs important functions necessary for human survival.

Irrespective of the changes to be made in community arenas, the social worker
will want to be aware of how persons affected by change define and perceive their
communities. The social worker must understand alternative perspectives, recognize the
assumptions and values that undergird these views, and understand how differing per-
spectives inf luence change opportunities (Gamble & Weil, 2010). It is also important to
recognize that even persons within the same community will differ in their perspectives
of what that community is and what changes are needed.

Communities can be formal or informal, and the variable that usually determines
the level of formality is boundary clarity. Cities and counties have clear boundaries,
whereas neighborhoods are often less clearly defined, and a community based on com-
mon interests of its members may not have geographical boundaries at all. The bound-
aries may be based on a common interest, a cause, and even personal or professional
characteristics that transcend space. Not only does the clarity of boundaries vary across
different communities, but also, as will be seen in later chapters, the presence of a formal
boundary is often a key feature that differentiates organizations and communities.

Dimensions of Communities

Chaskin (2013) contends that community occurs around three dimensions: physical, so-
cial or relational, and political. First and most obvious is that people may come together
in common physical locations (geography, space, place, or territory). The physical di-
mension encompasses geographical, spatial, or territorial communities that vary in how

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120 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

they meet people’s needs, how social interactions are patterned, and how collective iden-
tity is perceived. Local communities are often called neighborhoods, cities, towns, boroughs,
parishes, barrios, and a host of other terms. Smaller geographical spaces are nested within
other communities, such as neighborhoods within towns or public housing develop-
ments within cities.

Warren (1978) identified the structure of internal and external patterns within
geographical communities as horizontal and vertical community linkages. The
horizontal community is geographically bounded and is represented by many link-
ages between and among organizations and neighborhoods that are located within the
area and, in most cases, serve the community. For example, the local nursing home
may work with the neighborhood school to develop an intergenerational program for
residents and children. This effort may also include a local bookstore that provides
children’s books, a bus driver who provides transportation, and a staff member f rom
the local multigenerational center. These types of collaborative efforts, which are be-
coming increasingly common, illustrate the importance of the horizontal community
as a concept.

Vertical linkages connect community units (people, groups, and organizations)
to units outside the community. These linkages are exemplified by a human service
agency with its headquarters in a different community that uses Skype to see its
members face-to-face, by local chapters virtually connected through shared infor-
mation systems with state and national umbrella organizations, and by public agen-
cies that have a central office external to the community f rom which they receive
instruction. The concept of vertical community calls attention to the fact that many
important decisions may be made by parent organizations outside the boundaries of
the local community, and these decisions may or may not be in the best interests of
the community.

In earlier times, before people were so mobile and technology transcended space,
communities were much more horizontally bound. Today, however, considerations of
space must be juxtaposed with other ways of conceptualizing community. Although one
often operates within geographical jurisdictions, the inf luence of vertical forces beyond
spatial boundaries is almost limitless.

Chaskin’s (2013) second dimension is social or relational. Communities provide op-
portunities for interaction, making cultural connections, relationship building, and sharing
common interests. Social patterns of social interaction can occur in geographical com-
munities, but can also be part of “nonplace” communities (sometimes called relational or
associational communities, communities of affiliation or affinity, or even communities of the
mind). These nongeographical communities bring people together based on a variety of
identifications and characteristics, including, for example, religion, race, or profession.

Fellin (2001) identified a collective, symbolic relationship that gives meaning to one’s
identity as a dimension of some place- and nonplace-based communities. In a complex
society, people establish constellations of relationships that give meaning to their lives.
Often viewed as networks (or webs) of formal and informal resources, it is important
for the change agent to recognize, respect, and understand these relationships and what
they mean to the person’s “sense of community.” Community, then, can be seen as those
spaces, interactions, and identifications that people share with others in both place-
specific and nonplace-specific locations.

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 121

Third, Chaskin (2013) indicates that communities can have a political dimension
that bonds members together as they engage in action for the good of the commu-
nity. Chaskin (2013) indicates that political, in this context, has a small (rather than a
capital) “p” because it is intended to broadly encompass participation, deliberation,
governance, and organizing activities that involve members in ongoing democratic
processes and in being a part of civil society. In this last dimension, it is important to
note that this coming together may be intentional or might even be facilitated by a
change agent who points out what people have in common (Knickmeyer, Hopkins, &
Meyer, 2003).

Collins (2010) argues that the concept of community should be ref ramed as a po-
litical construct because it is an arena in which systems of power interact and social
inequalities become evident. Collins contends that community is essential to group
identity that draws people together and can become the platform f rom which they
join in seeking social change. Since community is such a versatile concept, it is asso-
ciated with shared culture, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and a host of other
factors that move people to celebrate their differences (and the power differentials)
f rom other communities. The construct of community, whether imagined or real,
has the potential to elicit strong feelings and is central to moving people to action.
Thus, even though community may be seen as an apolitical term, even proclaimed
nonpolitical communities are engaged in power relations within and among diverse

The political dimension of communities is exemplified in what Gamble and Weil
(2010) describe as functional communities, which are formed when people work as a
group to jointly address social problems. For the social work practitioner, it is important
to recognize and understand communities that are formed around shared concerns, such
as AIDS, gun control, terrorism, disaster relief, and political loyalties. It is even more
critical to recognize that these communities are formed around deeply held beliefs and
values that may conf lict with those of other communities.

A functional community may exist when many disparate individuals are working
toward a goal or advocating for a cause. Those same individuals may not be aware of
the existence of organizations formed to address that goal. In some instances, there may
not yet be more formal groups formed to work in a more organized fashion. The change
agent’s task may therefore involve making members of functional communities aware of
one another and furthering the transition from functional community to formal organi-
zation. Thus, functional communities may form advocacy organizations that are more
structured, with formally stated objectives and the resources, such as volunteers and
staff, to get things done (Almog-Bar & Schmid, 2014).

It is important to note that all three dimensions can coexist. For example, persons
living in close proximity may develop strong relationships with one another and join
together for change. In nongeographical communities, two dimensions may coexist.
A professional community of social workers from around the state may develop close re-
lationships and join forces to advocate for underserved population groups, thus bonding
as a community through their commitment to change.

Table 5.1 provides a summary of the three dimensions, their definitions, and exam-
ples of each. The planned change model presented in later chapters will be applicable to
both place and nonplace communities.

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122 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

Community Functions

Communities are structured to perform certain functions for their members. Warren
(1978) identified five functions carried out by locality-relevant communities: (1) produc-
tion, distribution, and consumption; (2) socialization; (3) social control; (4) social partici-
pation; and (5) mutual support.

production, distribution, and consumption functions are community activities de-
signed to meet people’s material needs, including the most basic requirements, such as
food, clothing, and shelter. In modern communities, families seldom produce most or all
of what they consume. People are dependent on each other for these and other needs,
including medical care, sanitation, employment, transportation, and recreation. The ac-
cepted medium of exchange for these goods and services is money, which becomes an
important factor in defining the limits of consumption and comes into consideration in
almost all community-change efforts.

A second function of community is socialization to the prevailing norms, tradi-
tions, and values of community members. Socialization guides attitudinal development,
and these attitudes and perceptions inf luence how people view themselves, others, and
their interpersonal rights and responsibilities. Attitudes and values also differ from com-
munity to community, and they vary across smaller communities that are nested within
larger ones. To understand an individual or population, it is therefore critical to under-
stand the norms, traditions, and values of the community or communities in which the
person was socialized.

social control is the process by which community members ensure compliance
with norms and values. This is usually done by establishing laws, rules, and regulations,
as well as systems for their enforcement. Social control is often performed by diverse
institutions such as government, education, religion, and social services. Many social
workers serve in practice settings in which they must constantly strive to balance their
sometimes conf licting roles as helpers and agents of social control. Examples of such
settings include schools, correctional institutions, probation and parole offices, and
employment and training programs.

Communities may also exert subtle forms of social control through patterns of ser-
vice distribution and eligibility criteria that regulate access to resources on the part of
vulnerable groups. For example, case managers often find they must deny services due

Table 5.1 Dimensions of Communities

Dimension of Community Definition example

Space: A place in which one’s needs for
sustenance are met

A geographical community with defined
boundaries where one expects to meet
basic needs

A neighborhood in which families fulfill
their basic needs and raise their children

Social: Interaction with others A place or nonplace community of
identification and interest

Relationships with others of the same ethnic
group, regardless of location

Political: Participation, deliberation,
governance, and organizing activities that
involve members in a democratic process

Attaching importance to groups and
organizations as a means of coming together
to effect change

Identification with a religious group, a
profession, or a cause for which one is
willing to take action

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 123

to limited resources. Recognizing how social control can occur both overtly and covertly
can be disillusioning, but it is necessary for understanding both the impact of commu-
nity values and the process of service delivery.

social participation includes interaction with others in community groups, associ-
ations, and organizations. People are assumed to need some form of social outlet, and
communities provide opportunities for people to express this need and to build natural
helping and support networks. Some find their outlets in local religious groups, some
in civic organizations, and some in informal neighborhood groups. Understanding the
opportunities and patterns of social participation in a target population is helpful in
assessing how well a community is meeting the needs of its members.

mutual support is the function that families, f riends, partners, neighbors, volun-
teers, and professionals carry out in communities when they care for the sick, the un-
employed, and the distressed. As noted in Chapter 2, processes such as industrialization,
urbanization, and increased mobility strained the capacity of traditional community
units (e.g., families, faith groups, and civic organizations) to meet the mutual-support
needs of community members. This led to the growth of different community units,
such as helping professionals and government-sponsored programs, that took over some
of the roles previously left to informal and smaller scale units.

Building on Warren’s (1978) work, Pantoja and Perry (1998) provided a working
model of community development and restoration. Citing production, distribution, and
consumption as the economic areas on which all other functions are dependent, they
identify the remaining community functions as socialization, social control, social place-
ment (participation), mutual support, defense, and communication. Defense and com-
munication are additions to Warren’s original list.

Defense is the way in which the community takes care of and protects its members.
This function becomes important in communities that are unsafe and dangerous. Some
communities have been labeled defended communities when they have to focus un-
usual amounts of effort toward looking after their members. The defense function can
also be relevant to nonplace communities. One example is that defense is often critical
among gay or lesbian persons because there are groups within the larger society that
may seek to do them harm. Similarly, people of color in various communities have had
to support one another in defending themselves against the effects of racial hatred.

communication includes the use of a common language and symbols to express
ideas. Although communication may be assumed as part of all functions originally
identified by Warren, its identification as a separate function in contemporary society
is important. As one example, debate about whether and how forcefully English profi-
ciency should be demanded of immigrants has been a prominent aspect of the broader
controversy over immigration in the United States. Similarly, the ability to
communicate easily across the country and around the world through email
and other rapidly expanding features of the Internet has vastly expanded the
definition of community while simultaneously blurring its boundaries.

Table 5.2 provides an overview of community functions.
Functional definitions and understandings of community can also be useful

in communities that are not geographically specific. For example, some people
may have their communication needs met by keeping in touch with persons in
different geographical areas. It is not unusual to have adult children of parents

Watch the video about
the It Gets Better project’s
mission. What type of

community has been created by
the it gets Better project? What
community functions does it

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124 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

who live miles apart calling daily to check on how their parents are doing. In professional
communities, long-distance communication is carried out via telephone, fax, email, or
text messaging on a regular basis. However, communication in this form requires access
to the technology. In many communities this access is uneven, leading to what has been
called information poverty. These communities are taking steps such as wiring whole
cities for wireless Internet (McNutt, Queiro-Tajalli, Boland, & Campbell, 2001).

When Community Functions Fail

If all functions were performed in a given community in a manner that met the needs
of all its members, the community would be considered optimally structured. However,
such an “ideal” community probably does not exist. This may be due to inadequate re-
sources for distribution and consumption or to uneven distribution. Socialization may be
tied to values imposed by some community members on others but not mutually shared.
The social control function may not operate in an evenhanded manner and may even be
oppressive. Social participation opportunities may be severely limited, or they may be
available to some but not others. Mutual support functions may be undermined by a
dominant value system that assumes individuals should be able to fend for themselves.
Communication may be limited for members who do not have access to technology.
In the case of communities caught between opposing forces in violent confrontations,
adequate defense may not be available to protect residents. In short, communities can
be considered healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional, and competent or incompe-
tent based on their ability to meet community needs. This may be particularly true for
oppressed populations within their boundaries. We hasten to say that rarely do we find
a community that can be labeled so easily one way or another. Most communities are
somewhere along a continuum between these pairs of descriptors.

Table 5.2 Functions of Community

Function Definition example

Production, distribution,
and consumption

The areas on which all other functions
are dependent

Small businesses that provide jobs and goods to
a community

Socialization Learning the prevailing norms,
traditions, and values

Understanding how community members perceive
their roles vis-à-vis local government

Social control Ensuring compliance with norms and values How law enforcement is administered

Social placement Participation in activities significant
to the life of the community

The extent to which parents participate in
school-related functions

Mutual Support Functions carried out in support
of each other

The ways in which a community cares for its homeless

Defense The way a community takes care
of and protects its members

Block watch programs

Communication Use of a common language to
express ideas

The extent to which English proficiency is demanded
of immigrant families

Source: Based on the work of Warren (1978) and Pantoja and Perry (1998).

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 125

The assumption underlying the identification of functions is that communities serve
the needs of members by performing these functions well. Conversely, when communi-
ties are dysfunctional, people suffer and change needs to occur. According to
Pantoja and Perry (1998), without a stable economic base, the other functions,
which are supportive, deteriorate or are impaired. Therefore, it is important
for the social worker to carefully assess how communities are functioning and
how the needs of people are or are not being addressed.

Community theorieS

Roland Warren’s (1978) text on community synthesized the theories that existed up
to the early 1970s and provided a valuable resource for identifying studies conducted
up to that time. theories are sets of interrelated concepts that explain how and why
something works or does not work for the purpose of enhancing one’s understanding.
Sociological theories of community often describe how communities function. These
descriptive approaches assist in analyzing what is happening within communities but
do not provide the practitioner with methods to change a situation once it has been
analyzed. Systems; human or population ecology; human behavior; and power, politics,
and change theories will be discussed as sociological theories that assist in understanding
how communities function. In contrast, a variety of community practice perspectives
and models are intended to provide direction or guidance for persons wanting to change
or intervene in a community arena. We will focus on strengths, empowerment, and resil-
iency perspectives, as well as capacity building and asset mapping, as guides to practice.
These prescriptive approaches are how-to guides for taking action.

Table 5.3 presents a general guide for distinguishing descriptive and prescriptive ap-
proaches, categorized by the use of these theories, perspectives, and models in place-
based (geographical) and nonplace-based communities. Note that some approaches are
helpful in analyzing both types of communities, whereas others are more geographically

Systems theories

Building on the work of Talcott Parsons (1971) and others, Warren (1978) applied so-
cial systems theory to communities. His description shows how the functions iden-
tified earlier are typically performed by various groups and organizations within local

assess your understanding
of conceptualizing

community by taking
this brief quiz.


Table 5.3 types of theories and perspectives by place and nonplace Communities

types of theories/perspectives place-Based (geographical) Communities nonplace-Based Communities

Descriptive (to understand communities) Systems theories
Human or population ecology
Human behavior
Power, politics, and change

Systems theories
Human behavior
Power, politics, and change

Prescriptive (to guide practice) Strengths, empowerment, and resiliency
Asset mapping and capacity building

Strengths, empowerment, and
resiliency perspectives
Capacity building

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126 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

communities. The planned change model in this book is also based predominately on
systems theory, and our discussion of organizations in Chapter 7 will also include infor-
mation on systems theory.

Boundary maintenance is part of systems theory. Establishing boundaries is critical
to system survival. If boundaries become blurred or indistinguishable, the community
as a spatial set of relationships may become less viable. For example, as religious con-
gregations in local communities contract with government agencies to provide services
to persons in need, the boundaries between what is an agency and a ministry may blur.
Moreover, boundaries between long-established, faith-related, nonprofit organizations
and congregations within the same faith may begin to overlap in unanticipated ways.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may be so subsidized by government dollars
that they become quasi-governmental more than nongovernmental in their orientation.
Macro practitioners will witness the struggle for boundary maintenance in their work
with communities and organizations. For instance, residents in a neighborhood that has
just altered school attendance boundaries may face major changes in how they view
their community. The annexation of previously unincorporated areas into the city lim-
its may bring protesters to city hall. The reconfiguration of a planning and service area
that alters agency’s boundaries may mean that clients formerly considered part of one’s
community will no longer be eligible for service.

Boundary maintenance has a number of ramifications. First, f rom a systems per-
spective, it means that communities are open rather than closed systems, and they are
dependent on their external environment for certain resources. Second, not only hor-
izontal but also vertical affiliations and interactions are critical for the community to
function properly, and both must be understood in order to have a clear grasp of how the
community operates. Third, just as certain groups or organizations play specific roles in
carrying out essential community tasks, the community must carve out a role for itself
in its larger environment that allows it to provide resources needed by other communi-
ties in return for acquiring the resources it needs.

Boundary setting and maintenance are critical to any system’s survival. As boundar-
ies become blurred or indistinguishable, the community as a spatial set of relationships
weakens and becomes less able to fulfill its core functions. Boundaries are also important
to systems within a community, and macro practitioners may often be able to witness di-
verse examples of the struggle for boundary maintenance in their work (Norlin & Chess,
1997). Youth gangs battling over neighborhood turf offer an obvious locality-based ex-
ample of boundary conf licts, but others, such as efforts by gay and lesbian residents to
secure legal recognition and benefits for their partners, may be less recognizable but are
nonetheless boundary issues (Hash & Netting, 2007).

It is important, then, to recognize that there are multiple approaches to analyzing
macro situations based on systems theory that can also be used for deeper understandings
of how communities function. These include mechanical, organismic, morphogenic, fac-
tional, and catastrophic analogies (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Martin & O’Connor, 1989).

A mechanical analogy views a social system as a machine in which all the parts
work closely together, are well coordinated, and integrate smoothly. When one part
of the system changes, it is expected that other parts will adapt to reestablish equilib-
rium. In this analogy, order is emphasized over change and conf lict. If the practitioner
approaches a community using this analogy, his or her task will be seen primarily as one

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 127

of reducing conf lict and restoring a sense of order, connectedness, and mutual purpose.
For example, a local community whose members are comfortable with their lifestyles
would be disrupted by an inf lux of immigrants f rom other cultures who represent dif-
ference. Instead of welcoming immigrants, the community members may impose strict
boundaries, not be welcoming to outsiders, and work toward maintaining the status quo.

The organismic analogy comes f rom comparing social systems to biological or-
ganisms. Communities are viewed much like the human body, with each organ having
a different function. This may sound familiar, given our discussion of community func-
tions earlier in this chapter. Assuming that each unit within the community performs
its respective role, the organismic analogy predicts that community members will work
toward a common good. Parsons’ (1971) work on structural-functionalism is primarily
grounded in this analogy. It argues that structures arise to serve particular functions, and
within the range of normal variability they should allow the community as a whole to
function effectively and for community members to agree on what needs to happen. In
practice, however, social workers often discover that consensus among diverse commu-
nity members can be elusive. For example, immigrants coming into this type of com-
munity may find that they are cautiously welcomed, but only if they behave in ways
that fully acculturate them into established community norms and maintain a sense of
stability. As long as they agree to play by the established rules, conf lict will be kept to a
minimum (at least on the surface).

This leads to the question of what happens when there is conf lict that cannot be
overlooked, when there is seemingly no articulation of the parts or performance of the
functions, or when harmony cannot be restored or perhaps never really existed. In this
case, other analogies may need to be explored.

A morphogenic analogy is applicable when change is ongoing and the structure
of the system is continually emerging. Fundamental change can occur in this type of
situation because there may be no chance of returning to a former state of homeostasis
(balance or equilibrium). This highly open approach to systems thinking means that
change may be just as likely to be unpredictable as it is to be orderly. It is this unpredict-
ability that requires the community practitioner to be open to clues about how things are
changing and to be open to new possibilities. For example, immigrants arriving in this
community can expect some conf lict as community members adjust to one another’s
differences. Expectations will be that the community will change in some ways, and that
the acceptable way to incorporate new members into the community will be through
open dialogue and recognizing that the community will be changed in the process.

Similar to the morphogenic analogy is the factional analogy in which contentious-
ness in a community system is open and obvious. Conf lict may be so basic in some
community systems that change is likely to remain disorderly and subject to instability.
Approaching this type of system with assumptions that order can be reestablished may
be a setup for failure. On the other hand, for the practitioner who can face conf lict
head-on, this type of community can be a stimulating challenge. Immigrants relocating
to a factional community will find local groups in disagreement over how to handle their
integration. Conf lict will be a normal part of this community’s operation, and groups
will be trying to convince one another about what approaches should be taken. There
will be no attempt to deny that change can be disruptive, and debates over the pros and
cons of immigration will be ongoing, sometimes heated.

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128 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

Last, a catastrophic analogy is defined by contentiousness and conf lict taken to
extremes. Such a community system will be characterized by deep fissures and distress.
Without order or predictability, there will be a sense of chaos in which no one can deter-
mine future directions. Communication may have broken down in the process, and sub-
systems are warring. Intervention in this type of community would look different than it
would from mechanical or organismic analogies. In catastrophic communities, there will
be protests about how to handle immigration and what course the country (and commu-
nities) should take with the volatile issues surrounding immigration. The volatility might
even lead to violence.

Our point is that, depending on one’s assessment of the community system and the
degree of conf lict, interventions will vary greatly, and in the case of immigration there
will be much variation—from wanting to keep immigrants from relocating to a commu-
nity all the way to full-blown conf lict over how immigration should be handled. Gallo
(2013) points out how important it is to recognize the complexity in systemic thinking,
particularly when one is witnessing conf lict. Conf licts exist in local, regional, and inter-
national contexts; change over time; and have unintended consequences. We believe that
social workers must embrace a mindset that expects complexity and is open to systemat-
ically reevaluating conditions and problems.

In addition, it is important to recognize that communities are larger systems and
that different views may coexist. Groups, organizations, and associations within the same
community may embrace different analogies. See Table 5.4 for a summary of types of
systems theory.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Warren’s work (1978) synthesized early research on communities, brought a systems
perspective to the sociology of the community in the United States, and provided a
f ramework for analyzing ways in which communities can fail in fulfilling one or more
of their key functions. There are lessons that systems theory offers to community prac-
tice. Hardina (2002) calls attention to four: (1) Changes in one aspect of a system pro-
duce alterations in other parts of the community, (2) actions in community subunits
inf luence what happens not only within the unit but also within the larger system,
(3) being able to identify how well a community functions means being able to com-
pare its effectiveness with other communities, and (4) the push to return to a steady
state in which everyone can participate in community life becomes a driving force in
systems theory (pp. 49–50).

As with any approach, systems theory has its critics, and their concerns often focus
on the use of mechanical and organismic analogies through which assumptions are made
about parts of systems working together to the benefit of the whole. Assumptions about
common purposes, it is argued, ignore the role of unexplained change, conf lict, and situ-
ations in which community members not only disagree but also are deeply divided. These
mechanical and organismic analogies are viewed as focused on preservation of the status
quo and incremental change, even in the case of unresponsive or oppressive community
structures desperately in need of correction. Applying the analogies inappropriately in
this way is seen as a refusal to recognize the role of conf lict and struggles for power inher-
ent in community life (Martin & O’Connor, 1989). However, as pointed out earlier, there
are other analogies of systems theory that do recognize conf lict and change.

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 129

Even in systems approaches that view disagreements and clashes of viewpoints
and interests as parts of human communities, on the whole, systems theory does not
focus on power and politics. It provides limited understanding for community practi-
tioners who must face uncertain dynamics among diverse participants. It also fails to
explain how to engage community members, how to communicate, or how to use
systems concepts to bring about change. Therefore, practice models derived f rom
this theory base must draw f rom other human behavior theories and perspectives in
guiding practitioners about power and politics, group dynamics, and interpersonal

Stanfield (1993) suggests that it is critical to revise sociological concepts that
view communities through the lens of structural-functionalism and processes such

Table 5.4 Summary of System analogies and assumptions

analogy assumptions

Mechanical Sees the system as a machine

Assumes all parts work well together in an integrated manner

Focuses on order over instability

Avoids conflict if possible

Maintains the status quo

Organismic Sees the system as a biological unit (e.g., the human body)

Assumes each part will perform its prescribed function

Focuses on making adjustments to maintain equilibrium

Keeps conflict to a minimum

Engages in incremental change if needed

Morphogenic Assumes system must adjust to change (morphing)

Assumes there is no chance of returning to a former state of homeostasis

Focuses on adjusting to unpredictability

Expects conflict

Is open to new possibilities

Factional Sees system as composed of competing factions

Assumes system is rapidly changing

Expects contentiousness among units within the system

Sees conflict as inevitable and ongoing

Assumes that factions will constantly be disrupting

Catastrophic Sees system as having no recognizable order

Views change as the only constant

Is characterized by deep distress

Sees no sense of order

Emphasizes chaos over stability

Sources: Adapted from Martin and O’Connor (1989) and Burrell and Morgan (1979).

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130 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

as socialization. He contends that this orientation promotes a monocultural system
perspective that treats conf lict as though it were something deviant. This leads to a
view in which communities, associations, and structures created by population groups
that do not conform to these accepted standards are seen as underdeveloped, dysfunc-
tional, and pathological rather than as novel, inventive, and understandable responses
on the part of segments of a community that have not been well served by its insti-
tutions or other members. Thus, systems theory seen f rom a strictly mechanistic or
organismic viewpoint is focused on retaining social structure and function in which
change is to be kept to a minimum. Obviously this is the antithesis of what social work
practice is all about.

Box 5.1 summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of systems theory.

human, population, or Social ecology theories

Closely aligned with systems theorists are human, population, or social ecology
theorists, who also examine structural patterns and relationships within place-based
communities. In the mid-1930s, a group of sociologists under the leadership of Robert
E. Park at the University of Chicago examined local community spatial relationships.
Human ecology theory emerged from this work, and is based on plant and animal ecol-
ogy, which in turn has roots in Darwin’s biological determinism. It was elaborated in the
work of Hawley (1950, 1968).

Early human ecologists believed that if they studied one city well enough, they
could apply principles of what they learned to most other cities. However, subsequent
studies in other metropolitan areas revealed just how difficult it is to generalize. Other
cities did not always show the same structural patterns.

Today, ecological theorists focus on the interaction of resident characteristics (e.g.,
age, gender, and race), the use of physical space (e.g., housing and land use), and the
social structures, organizations, and technology within communities. An ecological ap-
proach views communities as highly interdependent, teeming with changing relationships

Box 5.1 Systems theory

Strengths Weaknesses

Changes in one aspect of community
produce changes in others.

Assumptions about common purposes ignore many
considerations, including disagreements and deep

Actions in subunits affect the larger

Mechanical and organismic analogies are often
viewed as preserving the status quo.

Assessing community functions involves
comparisons to other communities.

Systems models provide limited understanding of
power and politics.

A push to return to a steady state becomes
a driving force.

Structural-functionalism and socialization promote
a monocultural system perspective that views newly
created structures as deviant.

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 131

among populations of people and organizations (Bessant, 2014). Thus, communities are
social systems in which there are subsystems nested within other systems in what has
been called a social ecosystem dance (Conn, 2011). For example, social workers have
long studied issues of homelessness and inadequate housing in various communities, but
research on home ownership possibilities for people with disabilities has been limited.
Quinn (2004) reported on programs designed to offer home ownership possibilities for
disabled community residents. From an ecological perspective, people with disabilities
have often been confined to institutional or group home settings, whereas people with-
out disabilities have had more f reedom to choose their housing types. Social workers,
however, can educate local communities about such possibilities as Home of Your Own
Coalitions and work to change the relationship between resident characteristics, the use
of physical space, and how the social structure of communities can integrate people who
are disabled.

Human ecologists are particularly concerned about how place-based communities
deal with the processes of competition, centralization, concentration, integration,
and succession (Fellin, 2001). For example, a social worker might need to know the his-
tory of a new immigrant group coming into a city. Initially, the group may concentrate
in a particular area and compete for particular types of jobs in order to establish an eco-
nomic foothold. At first, they may need to turn inward for mutual support and are iso-
lated due to language barriers. They may also become highly segregated, unlikely to take
advantage of existing services, and hard to engage even with diligent outreach efforts.
Gradually—often only over generations—they integrate, and a new group moves in and
succession occurs as a new cycle begins.

For a summary of human ecology characteristics and issues, see Table 5.5.
Advances in depicting these processes in geographical communities have paral-

leled the development of management information systems
in organizations. geographic information systems (GIS) use
data to develop maps and graphics as tools to analyze local
communities. Of particular relevance to social service provid-
ers, planners, and researchers is the ability to make thematic
maps of their communities, geocode addresses, and perform
spatial queries and analyses. Social workers can learn to extract
and map census variables such as race, poverty, language, ed-
ucation, and health, as well as many other demographic vari-
ables, identifying concentrations of need in their communities

Table 5.5 human ecology Characteristics and issues

human ecology Characteristics issues

Individual units of a population
are in competition, but also must
cooperate to ensure that the
community can support all its
inhabitants (including plant,
animal, and human life).

An organized population,
rooted in the soil it
occupies, and mutually
interdependent on other

•  Competition vs. cooperation

•  Centralization vs. decentralization

•  Concentration vs. dispersion

•  Segregation vs. integration

•  Succession vs. status quo


Behavior: Apply knowledge of human behavior and
the social environment, person-in- environment, and other
multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks to engage with
clients and constituencies.

Critical thinking Question: What kinds of contex-
tual factors may strongly shape an individual’s actions
within a community?

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132 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

(Case & Hawthorne, 2013; Hillier, 2007; Rine, Morales, Vanyukevych, Durand, &
Schroeder, 2012).

Strengths and Weaknesses
Human and population ecologists are cousins of systems theorists. They share the
goal of finding ways in which systems can become more harmonious and work better
together. However, unlike their systems counterparts, these theorists recognize competi-
tion as an ongoing process for which conf lict is an inevitable companion. Hardina (2002)
identified three community practice implications of ecological theory: (1) recognition
that community groups are competing for limited resources, with survival of those in
power; (2) realization that groups without power must adapt; and (3) acknowledgment
that social structures are heavily inf luenced by the physical environment, and changes in
the physical can make a difference in the social.

Salimath and Jones (2011) reviewed studies conducted on organizational populations
within communities, focusing on the convergence of population ecology theory with
sustainability practice. They pointed out that as new groups or populations of organiza-
tions are born or cease to be part of a community, population ecology theory does not
explain the nature of adaptability or fully acknowledge the diversity among population
members. Without this understanding, the theory may describe the dynamics among
populations but fail to provide direction in how to intervene as changes are occurring.
What is missing is an understanding of what to do to encourage sustainability.

The recognition of relationships and their dynamics must be translated into
guidelines for practice. Although competition is acknowledged and ecological theo-
rists recognize power dynamics, they do not provide guidance for how to gain power
for groups who do not currently have it. More importantly, assumptions that the phys-
ical environment inf luences social structures are somewhat deterministic, leaving the
practitioner to wonder if an individual or even a group has the potential to make change
within environments that are not conducive to the desired changes. Thus, like some sys-
tems theorists, human ecologists could be accused of being inherently conservative and
somewhat fatalistic in assuming that populations and sets of organizations must find
ways to adjust within resistant environments.

Box 5.2 summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of human or population ecology

Box 5.2 human or population ecology theory

Strengths Weaknesses

Recognition that community groups are
competing for limited resources

No guidance for how to gain power for groups that do not have it or
for how to encourage sustainability

Realization that groups without power
must adapt

Implication that physical environment essentially determines the social
structure, leaving little potential for change and adaptability

Recognition that the physical environment and
social structures are interrelated

Considered by some as conservative and inherently somewhat fatalistic,
assuming that there must be accommodation to existing environments

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 133

human Behavior theories

Parallel to the focus on space, structure, function, and relationships among systems are
the issues of how people behave in communities—how they understand and find mean-
ing in relationships, what values guide their actions, and how their needs are determined.
There are many ways to examine these factors, and we will address only a few here:
interactions and values, collective identity, and needs.

Human behavior theories help social workers better understand why people do
what they do, and this understanding is important to skilled practice. Whether commu-
nities are place or nonplace based, they are composed of human beings with multiple
ways of viewing the meaning of interactions. When social work practitioners interact
with community members, they are engaged in direct practice at the macro level.

Interactions and Values
Beginning with rural communities and then expanding to urban environments, early an-
thropologists and sociologists explored how people related to one another. The Lynds’
1929 study of Middletown and its 1937 follow-up provided a cultural-anthropological
view of a small U.S. city (Lynd & Lynd, 1929, 1937). A subsequent study by West (1945)
of the fictitiously named Plainville, Illinois, was similar to the Lynds’ effort. The anthro-
pological approach to community favored by the Lynds and West attempted to under-
stand the daily lives of people, their behavior patterns, and their belief systems. What
emerged f rom these and other case studies was recognition of the deeply held values
that are inherent in community life.

Cohen (1985) viewed the community as rich with values, ideologies, and symbols
that people have in common with one another but that also distinguish them from those
who hold different beliefs. For example, the colors worn by a youth may symbolize cer-
tain values not easily recognized by someone who is not part of a particular culture. But
wearing those colors into another community in which the colors are viewed as hostile
can incite gang violence.

This relational view of community implies boundaries that are not necessarily tied
to place. Boundaries may be physical, but they may also be racial, ethnic, linguistic, or
religious. Boundaries may be perceptual and may even vary among those who are part
of the same relational community, just as persons who are not part of that community
will perceive boundaries differently. Cohen (1985) explains that it is not the clarity of
boundaries that are important (for they are always changing), but it is what the boundary
symbolizes that is most crucial.

A concept that is gaining particular attention for explaining interaction is social
capital. Social capital refers to the store of beliefs, values, and practices that are adhered
to by members of a community or society and that contribute to the well-being of all.
A community with high social capital, for instance, would be expected to have low crime
rates because the majority of persons perceive the benefits of not preying on each other.
Like economic capital (e.g., investable funds) or human capital (e.g., education or exper-
tise), social capital is a measurable resource that can be considered part of the wealth of a
community. A growing body of research suggests that greater social capital is associated
with lower levels of poverty (Sun, Rehnberg, & Meng, 2009), lower mortality (Hutchinson,

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134 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

Putt, Dean, Long, Montagnet, & Armstrong, 2009), increased self-esteem and coping
ability (Wahl, Bergland, & Løyland, 2010), more negative attitudes toward violence (Kelly,
Rasu, Lesser, Oscos-Sanchez, Mancha, & Orriega, 2010), and many other variables. The
role of social workers can be seen as preserving and promoting social capital, but there is a
lack of consensus as to what it is or how it can be increased (Lohmann, 2014).

Interactional field theorists hold different assumptions from social capital theorists.
Whereas social capital theory is premised on norms of reciprocity and trust, field in-
teraction focuses on building relationships and creating structures to support collective
goals. Interactionalists view social capital as a possible by-product of community fields as
they emerge, rather than as a preexisting condition. The field-interactional perspective
is elaborated by Bessant (2014) as a significant way to analyze change dynamics in both
place and nonplace communities. A social field is an interactional process in which a
sense of unity emerges as individual efforts turn toward collective action with common
goals. In a social field, individuals’ ideas and commitment come together in concerted
efforts, and when a number of social fields overlap, a community action field emerges.
One could say that as social fields interact and explore common ground, a community
action field gains momentum. Bessant (2014) identifies several factors that contribute to
the building of a community action field: (1) a conf luence of awareness about potential
connections or links among social fields, (2) making efforts to cooperate despite different
interests, (3) developing long-term plans targeting community goals, (4) calls for partici-
pation that enhance cohesion, and (5) locating resources to move forward with a compre-
hensive agenda (Bessant, 2014). As this building process occurs, one can see how norms
of reciprocity and trust would develop, eventually tapping into participants’ social capi-
tal. Lohmann (2014) refers to this process as voluntary action, occurring when collective
action or group behavior occurs outside the confines of the market or government and
away from the privacy of the domestic unit. Voluntary action comes together within the
new commons, a term used to describe the third or voluntary sector in which collective
identity gains momentum.

Collective Identity
Clark (1973) proposes stepping back f rom the structural approaches to community and
looking at the psychological ties that bind people in community. He suggests that com-
munity may be thought of as a shared sense of solidarity based on psychological iden-
tification with others. Going beyond social interactions, community rests in a sense of
we-ness that either can be place specific or can transcend place. This approach lends itself
to evaluating a community by measuring the strength of its members’ perceived soli-
darity. This can be done whether the community is locality based, as in a neighborhood,
town, or city, or whether it is affiliation based, as in a community formed by supporters
of a political cause or members of an online chat group.

MacNair, Fowler, and Harris (2000) recognized the psychological ties characteris-
tic of communities in large social movements. Building on the work of Helms (1984),
they developed a f ramework of diversity functions common to three movements
by groups seeking greater equality in society: the Af rican American Movement, the
Women’s Movement, and the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Movement. These six functions
are assimilation, normative antidiscrimination, militant direct action, separatism,
introspective self-help, and pluralistic integration (p. 73). They represent approaches

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 135

to organized change that reveal how different people identify with nonplace communi-
ties for different purposes.

Amid these community interactions and values, community members have needs.
Abraham Maslow (1962) developed a hierarchical f ramework for understanding human
needs and factors that motivate human behavior. His hierarchy positions the most basic
survival or physiological needs (e.g., food and water) at the base of a pyramid-shaped
figure. One level above these needs are safety and security needs, followed by social or
belonging needs, esteem or ego needs, and then self-actualization needs at the highest

In Maslow’s model, lower level needs must be addressed before an individual can
move to the next level. Anytime a lower level need is not being met, the person regresses
down the hierarchy to satisfy that unmet need. Lower level needs usually require a more
immediate response and thus have higher urgency. Maslow also reminds us that a satis-
fied need is not a motivator. Later, Maslow distinguished between self-actualizers and
self-transcenders, with the later having a calling beyond themselves. This framework can
be useful in assessing the needs of a target population, which can then be used to deter-
mine the adequacy of services available to them in the community. The assessment task
is one of defining more specifically the problems faced by the target population at each
level and identifying the extent of met and unmet need in relation to each problem. In
addition, it may be helpful to engage organizers who can self-transcend in responding to
the needs of others.

In discussing a community development perspective, Pantoja and Perry (1998) offer
a slightly different view of human needs and dimensions. Their list of needs includes:

• Basic biological needs to have food, shelter, and clothing for survival and

• secondary biological needs to have love, belonging, and identity as a
human being

• social needs to engage in relationships, mutual aid, and support
• cultural needs to use language, norms, values, and customs
• historical needs to record the past and to use the past to explore the future
• political needs to gain power, order, and control
• creative/spiritual needs to use words, movements, and art to explain

the unknown
• intellectual needs to explore the nature of the environment, to investigate, and

to experiment (Pantoja & Perry, 1998, p. 227)

Theoretically, Pantoja and Perry provide a multidisciplinary typology that reveals the
complexity of human needs within a social context. Their original intent was to provide
a sociological approach to analysis that would lead to deep understandings, primarily of
minority communities. But their ultimate intent was to build on this understanding so
that these types of needs, once understood, could be addressed. Thus, their theoretical
approach, which we have described, is designed to evolve one’s understanding of diverse
needs into a working model in which each human need is evaluated in light of how well
community services and institutions function in meeting it.

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136 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

In summary, Table 5.6 provides an overview of human behavior theories, their foci,
and findings.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Human behavior theories examine how communities are formed and shaped by factors
that motivate human actions. These include the drive to meet basic needs, the drive to
affiliate, and the need to be guided by shared values once interactions reach a sufficient
level of complexity. Without insight into why people feel and act as they do, community
practitioners may see only the big picture, missing critical clues that will make the differ-
ence in whether trust and relationship can be established. For example, on one hand, the
term social capital has become so overused that it may be taken for granted that trust and
reciprocity are readily accessible. On the other hand, field interactionists would say that
it is critical to understand and study the dynamics of interaction through which trust and
reciprocity emerge to release social capital.

Human behavior theories look at the individual or the actions of individuals with
others. However, critics of these theories caution that human beings are not robots and
that actions are situational. Viewing needs, values, interactions, and relationships with-
out a contextual understanding can lead to misunderstandings about what certain be-
haviors mean. Theories that focus on individuals must be used with an eye to context so
that the person-in-environment is paramount. A related criticism concerns the unit of
analysis. Human behavior theories take the position that, if one wants to understand the
behavior of communities, one must understand what motivates the behavior of individ-
uals. If one can accurately predict how one member will behave in a given circumstance,
it is suggested that one can then predict the likely path to be taken by a collection of ac-
tors following the same rules. The argument is that the whole is greater than the sum of
the parts, so comparing whole community systems to one another and examining which
differences between them predict which actions could be seen as a better approach than
focusing on the individual’s behavior.

Box 5.3 summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of human behavior theory.

table 5.6 human Behavior theories: Foci and Findings

human Behavior theories Focus Findings

Interactions and values The daily lives of people; behavior patterns
and belief systems.

Deeply held values are inherent in some communities.

Collective action fields emerge from social fields and
tap into social capital.

Values bind people together but also
distinguish them from those who hold
different values.

It is not the clarity of boundaries that is important;
it is the symbolic aspect of the boundary created by
common values.

Collective identity The psychological ties that bind people
within a community.

People feel a sense of community and a we-ness when
there are psychological ties.

Needs Understanding needs in a hierarchy from
lower order needs to higher order needs.

Higher-order needs cannot be met until lower-order
needs are satisfied.

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 137

theories about power, politics, and Change

Given the diversity within communities, the focus of much of the literature has been on
the process by which communities create and build bonds among people. However, it
is important to recognize political and social dynamics within communities as powerful
forces that can be oppressive as well as supportive.

In her community practice work, Hardina (2002) reviews three theories related to
the acquisition of power: power dependency theory, conf lict theory, and resource mobi-
lization theory. power dependency theory marks a shift in how sociologists think about
power. Originally seen as a personal characteristic, Emerson (1962) conceived power as
characteristic of a relationship. The relationship could be between groups or individu-
als or between a group and an individual, but he shifted the unit of analysis f rom indi-
viduals to relationships. Given this relational focus, there are implications for
community practice: (1) Dependence upon others for resources determines
the distribution of power in relationships, (2) even if it is not exercised, power
is perceived and remains a motivator in relationships, and (3) change occurs
within exchange relationships in which people feel obligated to conform when
resources have been obtained. In other words, units within local communities
become “beholden” to one another and to external sources of resources.

Conf lict theory typically views the community as divided into haves and have-nots, all
competing for limited resources. A neo-Marxist view of conf lict theory is that social ser-
vices fulfill a social control function, providing just enough resources to keep the voices
of dissent from becoming louder and maintaining the status quo (Hasenfeld, 2010). This
casts social workers in the role of social control agents. Alternately, a perspective arising
from the work of Alinsky (1971, 1974) might place social workers in the role of organiz-
ers who use unexpected sources of power in the hands of the have-nots to upset those in
decision-making positions. Hardina (2002, p. 55) identifies basic assumptions of conf lict
theory: (1) There is competition for resources, (2) the haves hold power over the have-nots,
(3) oppression comes largely from the isms (e.g., racism and classism), and (4) government
as well as other vehicles of decision making are controlled by the haves. Conf lict theory
accepts the view that communities may be usefully analyzed in terms of who holds power
and how it is applied (Collins, 2010), but it goes further in stating that differences in power
and access to resources between the haves and have-nots inevitably lead to conf lict and
require an understanding of how to manage conf lict in order to effect change.

Box 5.3 human Behavior theories

Strengths Weaknesses

Examine how communities are formed and shaped
by factors that motivate human behavior

Fail to provide a contextual understanding
necessary to interpreting behaviors

Help to move past the “big picture” orientation of
other theories and pick up on critical factors in the
human interrelationships within a community

Often ignore the critical person-in-
environment perspective

Sometimes overgeneralize from the
individual to the collective

Watch the video on
Conflict Theory. What
types of questions does

conflict theory leave unanswered?

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138 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

Resource mobilization theory draws f rom both conf lict and power dependency the-
ories to address social movements and the reasons they occur (Benford & Snow, 2000).
In order to mobilize, a collective identity must develop (noted earlier in this chapter
in the “Human Behavior Theories” section). Nkomo and Taylor (1996) summarized
several theories that describe collective identity, including embedded group theory, so-
cial identity theory, race/gender research, organization demography, and ethnology
(p. 340). Identity group members have common characteristics, have shared histories,
and have even experienced some of the same environmental changes. In communities
and organizations, identity group membership precedes organizational group mem-
bership. Nkomo and Taylor contended that identity must be understood as a com-
plicated concept since individuals have multiple identities that may intersect into an
amalgamated identity. Thus, when individuals come together as a community group,
their identity (like all others) is constructed rather than something with which they
were born. Collective identity then emerges and can change as context changes (Seck &
Helton, 2014).

Table 5.7 provides a quick overview of power dependency, conf lict, and resource
mobilization theory.

Understanding the Politics of Community Diversity
In Chapter 4, we discussed a f ramework called the dual perspective, which viewed the
individual in a nurturing system that functions within the context of a larger sustaining
system. The nurturing system is made up of those traditions and informal relationships in
which the individual feels most familiar. The sustaining system is made up of traditions,

table 5.7 themes and implications of power, politics, and Change theories

power, politics, and
Change theories themes implications for Community organizing

Power dependency

Organizations and communities
are dependent on resources, often
from outside sources.

•  Consumers may limit change for fear of offending resource providers.

•   Change may be limited to boundaries established within the 

•   Funding sources and providers of other resources external to the 
community may limit change.

Conflict theory The community is divided into
haves and have-nots.

•  There is competition for resources.

•  Haves have power over have-nots.

•  People are usually oppressed because of prejudice and discrimination.

•  Decision makers, including government, are controlled by haves.

Resource mobilization

Social movements need a
collective identity.

•  Groups not represented in decision making initiate social movements.

•  Public protests bring public recognition to an issue.

•  Movements need a structure.

•  Success depends on a collective identity for those involved in protest.

•  Strength depends on the quality of the message.

•   Funding without compromising the group’s position is often a problem.

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 139

beliefs, values, and practices of the dominant society. This f ramework is important in
understanding how communities contain built-in conf licts. Persons who experience di-
vergence between nurturing and sustaining systems will be aware of community poli-
tics, power, and change as part of their daily experience. Even when there is congruence
between the nurturing and sustaining systems, it may engender a false perception that
communities are benign or supportive of all their members. Because civil society is val-
ued by dominant groups, it ref lects the values and norms of those in power; those same
groups will resist the development of civil rights associations and other organizations
that are dedicated to changing the status quo through political and economic empower-
ment (Christens, 2012).

Understanding the politics of different communities is critical to social workers as
they interact with diverse groups. For example, the meaning of volunteerism in tradi-
tional U.S. communities translates to a formalized process through which volunteers are
organized and coordinated, but that is a politically dominant view held by the sustaining
system. This type of volunteering has seen resurgence in the declining economies of
2009 and 2010, with states and cities attempting to get volunteers to help with functions
that were formerly performed by paid staff. Many states and local communities are at-
tempting to keep parks and libraries open, for example, and to supplement many staff
functions through the use of volunteers.

Stanfield (1993) contends that volunteerism in African American communities is so
much an integral part of the informal nature of caring that it becomes a way of life. Yet,
there is no calculation of in-kind contributions or records of volunteer time in this latter
definition of volunteerism. It is not captured in anyone’s log or volunteer record book.
Put simply, it does not appear to exist because it cannot be defined as “volunteerism” in
traditional U.S. communities.

Another example of communities that do not conform to dominant criteria was pro-
vided by Kayal (1991) in his study of the gay men’s health crisis in New York City. Kayal
analyzed how volunteerism among those in the gay community became necessary at a
time when government support was not forthcoming. He explained how members of
the gay community responded to the problem of AIDS, representing the way in which
groups become committed to sharing the burden when crises arise. There are many
more examples of groups that have formed locally and have responded to problems, but
whose work has often not been recognized or valued within traditional understandings
of community (e.g., Finn, 2005; Rogge, David, Maddox, & Jackson, 2005). Because so-
cial workers advocate with and for these groups, conf lict is inevitable when intervening
through macro practice.

Politics cannot be ignored as a part of understanding
community. Feminist writers have long declared the mantra
that the “personal is political,” indicating that every action
or inaction that one takes is a political statement (Lazzari,
Colarossi, & Collins, 2009). There are multiple examples of
various interest groups, some more formalized than others,
interacting within local communities. In order to fully con-
textualize their work, social workers recognize the inter-
play of interest groups competing for resources within the

Policy Practice

Behavior: Apply critical thinking to analyze, formulate
and advocate for policies that advance human rights and
social, economic, and environmental justice.

Critical thinking Question: Having assessed the
interplay of interest groups competing for resources
within a community, what strategies might be used to
prioritize community needs?

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140 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

Strengths and Weaknesses
Understanding power and politics as part of community dynamics is critical to macro
intervention. Theorists who focus on power, politics, and change are typically appeal-
ing to social work because they recognize oppression and are aware that conf lict cannot
be ignored. Their language is compatible with social work values and ethical principles,
such as autonomy and social justice, and it resonates with social workers who want to
make a difference.

Limitations within these theories are that, although they may lead to better un-
derstandings about power and politics, they do not offer guidance on how to achieve
one’s ends without radical initiatives or how to judge when to act and when not to act.
The nuances of finessing change are overwhelmed by the push to make change happen.
There is no guidance for how to develop and use professional judgment so that targets of
change are not alienated, because the assumption is that alienation will inevitably occur.
Hardina (2003) indicates that even though these theories provide some guidance for how
to deal with power and competition, they do not provide strategies for community or-

ganizers to use. Critics of resource mobilization theory argue that tangible re-
sources are overemphasized and that an individualistic, rational, and economic
perspective ignores social, cultural, and ideological aspects of advocacy efforts
(Greenspan, 2014). Box 5.4 summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of theo-
ries of power, politics, and change.

Contemporary perSpeCtiveS

In the 1950s and 1960s, sociological interest in and research on communities suffered a
decline. It was assumed that mass society had replaced the concept of community (Lyon,
1987). This was part of a broader concern expressed by many writers that community
had been lost and that there must be a search to regain, revitalize, and reinforce commu-
nity. Many political candidates also issued calls for decentralizing government, returning
control to local communities, and reestablishing family values. Finally, “community lost”

Box 5.4 theories of power, politics, and Change

Strengths Weaknesses

Introduce important human factors into the understanding
of communities and their dynamics.

Typically lack guidance on how to achieve ends without
radical initiatives.

Help in understanding the role of power and politics as
part of change.

Ignore details in favor of emphasizing the need to push to
make changes happen.

Recognize oppression, and make clear that conflict cannot
be ignored.

Provide no guidance on how to avoid alienating targets
of change.

Do not present a full range of strategic options.

Focus too much on mobilizing tangible resources to the detriment
of emphasizing social, cultural, and ideological aspects of change.

assess your understanding
of community theories by
taking this brief quiz.


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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 141

became a theme in the popular media, where people used words such as helplessness and
disempowerment to describe their feelings about what was happening to community life.

Putting this in perspective, however, these concerns have waxed and waned since the
Industrial Revolution. Hunter (1993) pointed out that social analysts have talked about the
demise of local communities for decades and social pundits have feared the social decay
of cities. He goes on to say that a number of researchers have reminded practitioners
of the resilience of the informal relationships and structures that maintained human re-
lationships long before the advent of modern society. What is hopeful about Hunter’s
reminder is that he recognized and validated what was once viewed as nonrational, short-
lived, unimportant, and invisible. The relationships that women with children formed in
local neighborhoods, the plethora of self-help groups that emerged in the last decades,
the nurturing systems of racial and ethnic minorities, the voluntary associations to which
people f locked, the efforts of natural helpers, and the human bonds that transcend time
and space all maintain the functions and roles of community even when the formal struc-
tures suffer crises in credibility, integrity, or financial viability. Essentially, Hunter declares
that those linkages that are so carefully delineated as “micro” and “macro” are intricately
interwoven so that if one works with individuals, one must, by definition, understand
community. Perhaps what has changed is that nonplace-based communities have taken on
more significance because we have the capacity to transcend geography.

Strengths, empowerment, and resiliency perspectives

In the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, community scholars regained what we believe to be
a more balanced set of perspectives, indicating that both mass society and community are
still relevant concepts. Since the turn of the 21st century, reactions to Putnam’s (2000)
bestselling book, Bowling Alone, brought new attention to the importance of community.
Eikenberry (2009) contends that the way in which people engage in their communities
and in civic activity may have changed.

We now highlight three interrelated perspectives that are particularly relevant in un-
derstanding positive attributes of communities: strengths, empowerment, and resiliency.
The strengths perspective focuses on identifying the possibilities within individuals and
communities, recognizing their assets rather than focusing on their deficits. Building on
strengths, there is the potential for empowerment. empowerment comes f rom within
the individual or community as a whole when there is an “aha” realization that there are
inherent strengths on which to build and that using those strengths can result in desired
change. resiliency is the capacity to maintain a sense of empowerment over time, to
continue to work toward community betterment, and to resist the temptation to give up
when there are conf licts, struggles, and setbacks—in other words, to bounce back time
and again.

The strengths perspective was originally presented by Saleeby (1997). Whereas com-
munities may not appear to be as functional or competent as one would wish, social work
practitioners must be careful to recognize and assess the strengths within the communi-
ties in which they work. When addressing terrible social problems such as homelessness
and violence, it can become too easy to write off entire communities as pathological
and beyond assistance. Saleeby reminds us of words such as empowerment, resilience, and

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142 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

membership that can lift and inspire. Empowerment means assisting communities in rec-
ognizing the resources they have. Resilience is the potential that comes from the energy
and skill of ongoing problem solving. Membership is a reminder that being a member of
a community carries with it civic and moral strength.

In the United States, the empowerment perspective can be traced to the concept
of citizen participation and the War on Poverty. Having citizens engaged in commu-
nity planning efforts was seen as a vehicle for social reform. Solomon (1976) refined the
empowerment perspective when she acknowledged that empowerment emerged f rom
recognizing the strengths and capabilities of individuals, groups, organizations, and
communities in gaining control over actions to change repressive social structures that
inf luenced their lives. Gutierrez and Lewis (1999, p. 11) contend that “empowerment
practice must be focused at three levels: the personal, the interpersonal, and the politi-
cal.” In other words, individuals have to feel empowered in order to link with others to
engage in change, and together the synergy of their joint efforts can make a difference.
Mondros and Wilson (1994) identified four sources in the professional knowledge base
that have contributed to the understanding of community power and empowerment:
(1) theoretical debates over social protest and discontent, when it arises, and why; (2) a
growing body of literature that attempts to classify types of community organizations;
(3) a descriptive body of knowledge describing social protest movements; and (4) an ex-
tensive literature on community-organizing skills providing practical guidance about
how to go about organizing.

Cramer, Brady, and McLeod (2013) provide an example of how an empowerment
perspective can be translated into empowerment practice through the I-CAN Acces-
sibility Project, which includes two social work and university centers of excellence
and regional Independence Living Centers (ILCs). The ILM began in the 1940s when
researchers recognized that the major difficulties imposed on persons with disabilities
rested in the negative social construction of disability. Since that time, the ILM estab-
lished centers throughout the United States, and central to their practice is that consum-
ers must make up 51 percent of their boards of directors, administrative, and service
staff. Not only has the disability community recognized the strengths of their members,
but also they are empowered to utilize those strengths through Independent Living Cen-
ters (ILC) located throughout the United States. Communities, like people, have great
resilience (Lyon, 1987), the ability to continue to be empowered even in the face of seem-
ingly overwhelming challenges.

Breton (2001) focuses on resiliency in neighborhoods, noting that resilient neigh-
borhoods have a number of characteristics, such as (1) trusting neighborhood net-
works, (2) residents that spring to action through voluntary associations, (3) stable
local organizational networks, and (4) a social inf rastructure with needed services
available. Of particular relevance is the rapidly increasing literature on the communal
nature of people and the resiliency of “the new commons,” even in times of great
change (see, e.g., Lohmann, 2014). Since the 1990s, the concept of social capital has
become a means of exploring power, privilege, and oppression in community set-
tings (Portes, 2000) and is seen as helpful for community practitioners interested in
better understanding human behavior within an environmental context (Aguilar &
Sen, 2009). Table 5.8 provides an overview of themes in strengths, empowerment, and
resiliency perspectives.

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 143

asset mapping

Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) have studied resilient communities for years. They use
a strengths perspective to develop a model of practice that focuses on community assets
rather than limitations. They advocate for strengthening and empowering local commu-
nity networks and provide detailed guidance for how to do what they call asset mapping.
Green and Haines (2002) note that assets have always been available in local communi-
ties, but the focus has often been on problems. An assets approach is congru-
ent with a strengths perspective and reframes community development as an
empowering process rather than as a problem that needs to be fixed. Focusing
on problems, rather than assets, reinforces perceptions that community resi-
dents are disempowered and need outside experts, directs funding to services
rather than residents, looks to resources outside the community to intervene,
emphasizes a client rather than a citizen mentality, forces community lead-
ers to denigrate their own communities, and deepens cycles of dependency
(Donaldson & Daughtery, 2011).

Yeneabat and Butterfield (2012) provide an example of building on
strengths and assets in their description of “We Can’t Eat a Road” in the
Gedam Sefer Community Partnership in Ethiopia. This statement was
made by a woman who was surprised that a new road was being built when her pover-
ty-stricken community was desperate for food. A top-down approach by decision makers
outside the local community had determined priorities, whereas a strengths and assets
development effort would have engaged residents in identifying and prioritizing needs.
Asset mapping can be used to identify services, programs, resources, staff capabilities,
values, and other factors that can be compared with risk factors in determining how to
approach a community (Crozier & Melchoior, 2013).

Note that assets can be tangible and intangible. Whereas services and programs are
specific intervention assets, values and human interaction are equally important assets

Table 5.8 Contemporary perspectives

perspectives themes Characteristics

Strengths Communities are assessed in
terms of their strengths rather
than their deficits.

•  Community intervention may emerge around a problem or need.

•  Assessments identify community strengths (asset mapping).

•  Solutions come from within the community rather than from “services.”

Empowerment Communities can gain control
over decisions that affect them.

•  People excluded from decisions gain their voice.

•  Resources go to the more powerful.

•   Leadership emerges and promotes an understanding of how decisions 
can be controlled locally.

Resiliency Communities have great potential
to rebound and to cope.

•  Neighbor networks and trust are apparent.

•  Active voluntary associations participate in community life.

•  Stable organizational networks are maintained.

•  Adequate services are provided.

Watch the video where
Angela Blanchard, a
pioneer in the work

of asset-based community
development, speaks about
vulnerable populations. What
new questions does the speaker
suggest should be asked of
communities typically labeled as

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144 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

within a community. Donaldson and Daughtery (2011) identify guiding principles and
values undergirding an asset-mapping approach:

• All communities have strengths, assets, and resources on which to build.
• It is socially just that community members participate in decisions that affect

their lives.
• The central importance of human relationships, which is an ethical principle in

the NASW code of ethics, reinforces a collaborative process.
• Before bringing in outside resources, first look toward applying the community’s

strengths to address the situation.
• Whatever the intervention, it should ref lect the input and priorities of

community members.
• Cultural humility must guide social workers as they collaborate with community

• All participants in the asset-mapping process communicate in the spirit of

collegiality, mutual respect, and support.

In the next chapter the community assessment f ramework will include
the identification of assets and reinforce a collaborative approach. Now, we
focus on the multiple types of units within communities that may be capable
of building capacity and may be seen as assets.

Capacity Building

Delgado (2000), Yenebat and Butterfield (2012), and others remind community practi-
tioners that the strength of informal networks within ethnic communities is critical to
capacity-building efforts. Capacity building is often used interchangeably with terms such
as community building, locality development, and community empowerment. All of these terms
imply that a process occurs in which persons sharing an identified problem join together
to address their own needs as well as the needs of others in a community. Capacity build-
ing therefore is an empowerment process at the individual, interpersonal, and commu-
nity levels as participants gain knowledge and skills to effect action (Cramer, Brady, &
McLeod, 2013).

informal units are those that are not publicly incorporated as legal entities to de-
liver health and human services. Often, these units have not been recognized for their
importance in the service delivery system, whereas they actually perform a vast assort-
ment of mutual support tasks. They include the household unit, natural support sys-
tems and social networks, self-help groups, and voluntary or grassroots associations. We
brief ly examine each now.

Household or Domestic Units
The household unit consists of those persons who share a common dwelling, whether
they consider themselves families, significant others, f riends, partners, or roommates.
In the past, family was often seen as the same as household, but as more and more peo-
ple live together without being related, the concept of household unit is a more helpful
term (Smith, 1991). Service provision in this unit generally takes the form of caregiving

go to the asset Based Community
Development institute
homepage, and do a search for
“toolkits.” What resources are
available to guide asset-based
community mapping?

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 145

and tends to fall heavily on women. For example, informal caregivers provide the vast
majority of care for persons with disabilities and chronic conditions (Cramer, Brady, &
McLeod, 2013). The potential for caregiver burden or strain suggests that mutual sup-
port provided by the informal system may require assistance f rom others within the
community. Respite services are often needed in the interest of sustaining the physical
and mental well-being of the caregiver.

In assessing the extent of service provided in household units within a given com-
munity, one should look for indicators of what is happening within private dwellings
of members of the target population. For example, are identified caregivers within the
community overburdened? Is there an identified need for respite services for caregivers
of physically disabled, developmentally disabled persons and older adults, and/or of
young children? Are requests for live-ins and shared housing increasing?

Of particular concern is identifying the importance of the household unit for the
target population. For example, if the target population is f rail widows living alone, the
household unit does not contain others who can assist. Not only are caregivers not avail-
able, but also formerly active older women may suddenly find themselves alone after
years of providing care to children and spouses. On the other hand, target populations
such as inner-city children, who often live in crowded households where privacy is lim-
ited and tension is high, may draw support from siblings, peers, and parents. Respite for
single mothers may be difficult to locate, and poverty may have reduced opportunities
and life choices. Yet the household unit can be a critical source of support for these chil-
dren, f ragile as it may be. Recognizing the household unit as a source of community
strength and developing services to support this unit can produce a double benefit in
strengthening families and reducing the need for other support services.

Natural Support Systems and Social Networks
Often an unstructured, informal approach to mutual support will evolve as natu-
ral or social support systems develop. Most people are part of social networks, but
this in itself does not constitute a natural support system. A natural support system,
according to McIntyre (1986), exists when resources have actually been exchanged.
The existence of natural support systems has been recognized for years. Recent stud-
ies and an emphasis on informal support have prompted a more intense examina-
tion, particularly in communities with high poverty rates (Saegert, Thompson, &
Warren, 2001).

Because networks do not have established boundaries and depend on interaction be-
tween informal individuals and groups, they are likely to extend beyond the local com-
munity. Mutual support tasks may be provided by geographically dispersed, as well as
geographically close, network members. Dispersed networks will depend on linkages
such as transportation systems and telephones, and may therefore be vulnerable in times
of crisis. Social networks are important because relatives, f riends, and colleagues form a
support system and respond when there are crises. Social networks are emotionally sus-
taining and often assist with child care or looking out for neighbors.

Within the local community, there are indicators of the extent of informal neigh-
borhood groups and support systems. Neighborhood associations, child care exchanges,
and neighbor-to-neighbor interactions are indicators of the extent of support available
within this unit.

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146 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

Self-Help Groups
Self-help groups are one of the fastest growing elements of community support. They
have been formed to deal with a variety of personal and social problems and needs, in-
cluding substance abuse, bereavement and loss, depression, parenting, and many other
issues. A number of self-help groups (of which Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the
best known) have formed national and international chapters and are recognized vehicles
of service delivery. For example, Weng and Netting (2014) focus on the importance of
self-help groups to Asian American populations and their hesitancy in seeking services
offered by members of the dominant culture. Because language and cultural barriers can
arise in these and other ethnic populations, self-help groups assist in maintaining com-
munity identity and involvement.

Self-help groups are often viewed as being compatible with a feminist perspective.
Such groups are directed at widows, women who have been exploited or abused, and
caregivers. Mutual support provided through self-help groups may assist in protecting
the mental and physical health of caregivers.

Depending on the target population identified, self-help groups may be of critical or
only modest importance. For example, populations that already have access to the ser-
vice system and its resources may find such groups less necessary, whereas populations
struggling to have their needs recognized may find them extremely helpful.

Voluntary Associations
Smith (2000) identifies what he calls grassroots associations that form an interface between
informal support groups and more structured service organizations. These associations
are typically local in nature, autonomous, and composed of volunteers. Voluntary as-
sociations serve as a bridge between informal and formal components of a human
service system, and they have been described as very closely tied to the values held by
their members and to the causes about which they are concerned (Wollebaek, 2009).
A voluntary association is defined as “a structured group whose members have united
for the purpose of advancing an interest or achieving some social purpose. Theirs is a
clear aim toward a chosen form of ‘social betterment’” (Van Til, 1988, p. 8). Community
groups such as neighborhood associations or local congregations fall within this cate-
gory. Similar to self-help groups, voluntary associations vary in their degree of formal-
ization. Because they are membership groups, a dues structure will often be in place.
Therefore, their boundaries become more clearly defined than informal groups because
there is a formal process for joining and providing financial support.

Voluntary associations have several characteristics. Members share a sense of com-
munity, which provides a collective identity. Social status may be enhanced by member-
ship, and social control may be exercised over members. A function of the association
may be to enhance the well-being of its members in a supportive manner. If the asso-
ciation is strong, it may have a prominent profile f rom the perspective of nonmem-
bers, even though its inf luence may be positive or negative. For example, associations
such as white supremacist groups can be powerful yet destructive forces within certain

Voluntary associations are a study in both inclusiveness and exclusiveness. Ethnic
groups, lesbians and gays, and other oppressed people may use informal and mediating
units to a larger degree than other populations. Neighborhood groups, self-help groups,

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 147

and voluntary associations serve as a means of mutual support, as a place for clarifying
perspectives, and as a focal point for action. In some cases, these activities lead to recog-
nition and wider support and to improved access to the existing formal units of human
service delivery in a community.

Churches, unions, and professional groups are all potential sources of support for
the target population. They may not be listed in human service directories, yet they may
be the first source to which some people turn when in need (Wineberg, 1992). Trends in
the development of what are called giving circles illustrate how community members
form associations for the purpose of pooling their money and other resources for im-
portant causes. These types of fundraising ventures are particularly growing in commu-
nities of color and among women (Eikenberry, 2009).

Table 5.9 provides an overview of informal community units. Household units, nat-
ural support systems and social networks, self-help groups, and voluntary associations
are all community units that interact in informal and sometimes more formalized ways.
Capacity building and asset mapping are theoretical concepts that recognize the impor-
tance of understanding how these informal units are constructed, the ways in which they
are viewed by community members, and the strengths they can bring to community in-
terventions (Chaskin, Brown, Venkatesh, & Vidal, 2001; Hannah, 2006; Nye &
Glickman, 2000). Communities rich in informal units have strong capacity,
sometimes not previously recognized by community members. Macro practi-
tioners are often engaged in pointing out just how many assets and strengths a
community has so that mobilization efforts can occur.

Community praCtiCe moDelS

Whereas theories of community provide an understanding for why communities do
what they do, community action and community development writers seek to prescribe
how change can occur in communities. Numerous community practice models have
been and are being used by social workers to effect community change. These models
are heavily grounded in the concepts and language of systems and ecological theories.
A summary of the theories that inf luence many of the community practice models
appears in Table 5.10.

Table 5.9 overview of informal Community units

informal Community units Composition examples of Support provided

Household or domestic units Persons who reside within the
same dwelling

Informal caregivers of older adults and
small children

Natural support systems and
social networks

People within a community who
exchange resources

People (natural helpers) who provide for a
neighbor’s need during a crisis

Self-help groups People who come together to help each other
with a problem or need that they share

Parents whose children have been killed by drunk
drivers who provide mutual support to one another

Voluntary associations People who unite for the purpose of
advancing an interest

Neighborhood associations and resident

assess your understand-
ing of contemporary

perspectives by taking this
brief quiz.


M05_NETT8523_06_SE_C05.indd 147 9/25/15 5:46 PM

148 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

There are many ways to approach community and social work practice models. As
a beginning, Mondros and Wilson (1994) identify components typically found in practice
models: (1) a change goal; (2) roles for staff, leaders, and members; (3) a process for selecting
issues; (4) the target of the change effort; (5) an assessment of how cooperative or adversar-
ial the target will be; (6) a change strategy; (7) an understanding of resources needed to pro-
duce change; and (8) an understanding of the role of an organization in the change process
(p. 240). In this book we present a comprehensive practice model, that includes all eight of
these elements. This planned change model is elaborated in Chapters 9, 10, 11, and 12 and is
somewhat unique in that it can be used in both community and organizational arenas. Best
known among community practice models are those by Rothman (2008), who proposed a
multimodal approach that builds on the three intervention approaches he originally devel-
oped in 1968. These are (1) planning and policy, (2) community capacity development, and
(3) social advocacy. Each type has three modes. Policy/planning includes rationalistic plan-
ning, participatory planning, and policy advocacy. Capacity development’s three modes are
capacity-centered development, planned capacity development, and identity activism. So-
cial advocacy’s three modes are social action, social reform, and solidarity organizing (p. 14).

The planning and policy approach is task oriented, a data-driven approach in which
persuasion with the “facts” prevails. It seeks to address and resolve substantive commu-
nity problems through careful study of those problems and the applications of rational
planning techniques. This approach also seeks to engage community members in the
process by hearing their needs and limiting the role of social planners to that of assisting
the change process rather than imposing independently determined directives. In its pur-
est form, the model assumes that logic will prevail over political bias. However, planners

Table 5.10 Summary of Contributions of theories to Community practice

theories Contributions to Community practice

Social systems •  Reveals that changes in one community unit will impact other units

•  Indicates that changes in subunits also influence the larger community

•  Allows comparisons between how different communities function

•  Recognizes that the push to return to a steady state will depend on the analogy used

Human or population

•  Is particularly helpful with geographic communities intent on understanding relationships among units

•  Recognizes that community groups are competing for limited resources, with survival of those in power

•  Recognizes that groups without power have to adapt to community norms

•  Acknowledges the influences of the interconnections and mutual shaping of physical and social structures

Human behavior •  Focuses on the individual within the context of community as the unit of analysis

•  Provides insight into relationships, interactions, values, and needs of individuals

•   Provides community practitioners with critical clues about the difference that trust and relationships can make in 
community interaction

Power, change, and

•  Reveals the influence of external sources of resources on local communities

•  Views the community as divided into haves and have-nots

•  Focuses heavily on the isms

•  Recognizes the dynamics of social movements and their influence on community change

•  Acknowledges the role of power in all interpersonal transactions

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 149

do not have to be politically naïve, and modifications can be made in the rational plan-
ning approach to include political considerations and advocacy.

The goal of capacity development is to develop the community’s ability to become more
integrated and cohesive through self-help, based on the assumption that broad cross-sections
of the community need to engage in problem solving. Empowerment in this mode occurs
through collaborative efforts and informed decision making by community residents. The
focus is on process, building relationships, and solving problems so that groups can work
together. Capacity development fits well with approaches such as asset mapping, capacity
building, strengths, resiliency, and empowerment. Its limitations are its time-consuming na-
ture and its assumption that change can occur through consensus rather than confrontation.
Thus, theoretical roots fit well with mechanical and organismic analogies of social systems.

The goal of social advocacy is both process and task oriented in that participants seek
to shift power relationships and resources in order to effect institutional change. In this
approach, pressure is applied and conf lict is expected. Beneficiaries of this type of inter-
vention are often perceived to be victims of an oppressive power
structure. Empowerment is achieved when beneficiaries feel a
sense of mastery in inf luencing community decision making. Al-
though the language of social action is often espoused by social
workers, it is important to realize that this approach to commu-
nity practice is based in conf lict, power dependency, and resource
mobilization theories of power and politics. The confrontation re-
quired in this model is energy draining and time consuming, and
sometimes the focus on task becomes so important that process
is forgotten. Because the outcome usually involves a win-or-lose
scenario, social advocacy is difficult to complete without creating
some enemies. We recommend that it be used when other ap-
proaches have failed to be effective.

Rothman is quick to point out that there are multiple ways in which
these three modes can interrelate and overlap. Other writers have expanded
on Rothman’s work. For example, Mondros and Wilson (1994) identify three
practice approaches that come under the rubric of the social action model:
grassroots practice, lobbying practice, and a mobilizing approach. Political
practice is added by Haynes and Mickelson (2006).

Weil, Gamble, and Ohmer (2013) categorize a larger range of commu-
nity practice models (eight in all) that incorporate finer distinctions in meth-
ods and assumptions. These eight approaches are:

• Neighborhood and community organizing
• Organizing functional communities
• Social, economic, and sustainable development
• Inclusive program development
• Social planning
• Coalitions
• Political and social action
• Movements for progressive change

These models ref lect the many different ways in which social workers engage in com-
munity work. They range from locality-based grassroots community organizing in which


Behavior: Apply knowledge of human behavior and the
social environment, person- in- environment, and other mul-
tidisciplinary theoretical frameworks in interventions with
clients and constituencies.

Critical thinking Question: How are some
community practice models more culturally humble
than others? Why or why not?

Watch the video of
Kane Smego, Spo-
ken Word Poet, speaking

at the 2014 naSW national
Conference. What rothman
model best describes Kane
Smego’s work in his community?

M05_NETT8523_06_SE_C05.indd 149 9/25/15 5:46 PM

150 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

social workers participate with indigenous groups to make change, to social movements
that occur across geographical boundaries within countries and even across countries. For
example, Broadbent and Brockman (2011) elaborate on social movements in Japan, South

Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore, including a range of fields
such as environmental issues, women’s rights, and political issues. In the United
States, social movements such as the Disability Movement (O’Brien & Leneave,
2008), the Gay and Lesbian Movement (Adam, 1995), and the Alzheimer’s Dis-
ease Movement (Chaufan, Hollister, Nazareno, & Fox, 2012) are usually broad
based and include a wide range of people and perspectives (Meyer, 2010). Social
movements remind practitioners of Warren’s (1978) distinction between vertical
and horizontal relationships because they often connect people from multiple
communities (vertical) as well as develop local chapters (horizontal).

Our major caution is that readers recognize the absence of any “right” way
to categorize community practice models, strategies, and tactics. Planned com-
munity change is a mixture of various approaches, based on a careful assessment

of the situation to be changed. It is critical also to recognize that because situations and
problems are constantly evolving, social workers must be f lexible in altering their direction
as new information emerges and reassessment occurs. Table 5.11 provides an overview of
community practice models (Gamble, Weil & Olmer, 2013; Kettner, Moroney, & Martin,
2013; Rothman, 2008).

go to the association for
Community organization and
Social administration (aCoSa)
website, and read about the
history of this membership
organization. how might
aCoSa be used as a resource
for keeping up-to-date on
community practice models in
social work?

Table 5.11 overview of Community practice models

model Basic premise reference

Capacity development or
neighborhood and community

Focuses on development of community capacity and integration
through self-help; very process oriented. Asset mapping and capacity
building are used.

Rothman (2008)

Organizing functional

Brings together people focused on a particular cause to change people’s
behaviors and attitudes; not necessarily place based; focus designed to
facilitate empowerment.

Weil, Gamble, & 
Olmer (2013)

Social, economic, and sustainable

Prepares citizens at the grassroots level to focus on economic and social
development that will last; uses intensive asset mapping, particularly
in the economic arena, and builds capacity.

Weil, Gamble, &
Olmer (2013)

Planning/policy Engages participants in an interaction designed to address substantive
social problems; uses skills of expert planners to guide process.

Rothman (2008)

Program development Uses organizational base in which programs are designed to address community
needs; uses skills of professionals in program design and intervention.

Kettner, Moroney, & 
Martin (2013)

Political and social action Attempts to shift power relationships and resources in order to effect
institutional change; strengths and empowerment perspectives dominate here.

Rothman (2008)

Coalitions Joins multiple community units (e.g., organizations, groups) to build a power
base from which change can occur.

Weil, Gamble, & 
Olmer (2013)

Movements for progressive

Works outside existing structures toward social justice goals that will change
existing societal structures; oriented toward broad-scale, structural
(even radical) change.

Weil, Gamble, & 
Olmer (2013)

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Chapter 5: understanding Communities 151

Keep in mind that we have quickly introduced numerous models that are
well developed in the professional knowledge base and can easily be accessed
by the reader. You will be reminded of these community practice models and
the concepts brief ly introduced here when you get to Chapters 9, 10, 11, and
12 and are asked to focus on planned change interventions.


It should be clear at this point that all professionally assisted change in communi-
ties begins with an understanding of definitions, functions, theoretical f rameworks,
and practice models. These areas of knowledge help to establish the standards by
which communities and their problems and needs can be understood. This chapter
provided an overview of community theory, perspectives, and practice models used
by social workers. There are multiple definitions and types of communities. Three
dimensions were brief ly examined: (1) geographical, spatial, or territorial communi-
ties; (2) social or relational communities that provide opportunities for interaction,
making cultural connections, relationship building, and sharing common interests;
and (3) political dimensions that bond members together as they engage in action for
the good of the community. Geographical communities are obviously place based,
but social/relational communities of identification as well as communities bound
together by political action may be both place and nonplace based. The planned
change model presented in later chapters will be applicable to both place and non-
place communities.

One feature common to many community theories is their attention to structure
and function. Five community functions were identified by Warren (1978): (1) produc-
tion, distribution, and consumption; (2) socialization; (3) social control; (4) social partici-
pation; and (5) mutual support. Pantoja and Perry (1998) added two additional functions:
(6) defense and (7) communication. Communities are seen as dysfunctional or incompe-
tent when these functions are not adequately performed, especially the economic func-
tion. Approaches to community that employ systems theory also have their roots in the
analysis of community structure and function.

Human ecology theories, originating with the work of Robert E. Park, view com-
munities as highly interdependent and changing. People, their values, and their interac-
tions were elements of the ecology of communities studied by early anthropologists and
sociologists. This work also showed that communities ref lect a collective identity rich
with symbols, values, and ideologies that people hold in common.

Theories of community that focus on power, politics, and change are important for
social work practice. The person-in-environment perspective tends to lead social workers
to view communities as political arenas in which the power of dominant groups neces-
sitates a change so that underserved population needs can be addressed. Understanding
the politics of different communities is critical to social workers seeking to assist under-
served groups.

Last, contemporary community theory and practice reveal a new interest in rethink-
ing the value of community as an arena for future study. Strengths, empowerment, and
resiliency perspectives were followed by asset-mapping and capacity-building approaches

assess your understanding
of community practice
models by taking this

brief quiz.


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152 Chapter 5: understanding Communities

to community practice. A brief overview of community practice models was
presented as a way to introduce the reader to the multiple strategies used to
foster community change and to prepare the reader for thinking about the
planned change model in this book.

recall what you learned in
this chapter by completing

the Chapter review.


Assess Your Competence

Use the scale below to rate your current level of achievement on the following concepts or skills associated with
each learning outcome listed at the beginning of this chapter:

1 2 3

I can accurately describe the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome.

I can consistently identify the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome when
observing and analyzing practice activities.

I can competently implement the concept
or skill(s) associated with this outcome in

my own practice.

Define community, its dimensions, and its functions.

Explain four theories that describe aspects of community.

Discuss contemporary perspectives used in community practice.

Identify eight types of community practice models.

M05_NETT8523_06_SE_C05.indd 152 9/25/15 5:46 PM



Engaging CommunitiEs

There is no single, universally accepted method for understanding
all the elements that make up a community. The major focus of this
chapter is on engaging communities in an assessment process de-
signed to lead to an informed and skillful community-level interven-
tion. Weil, Reisch, and Ohmer (2013) identify four approaches used
by change agents to engage in community practice and to revitalize
communities and societies: (1) community development, (2) orga-
nizing, (3) planning, and (4) progressive change (p. 11). In Box 6.1,
we brief ly describe intervention approaches that practitioners use
in community work, all of which begin with an assessment process.

There are three reasons why macro practitioners need a system-
atic approach to conceptualizing and assessing communities and their
strengths and social problems. First, the person-in-environment view,
which is central to social work practice, requires consideration of how
individuals function within larger systems. A person’s community has
much to do with his or her values, beliefs, problems to be faced, and
resources available, so it is difficult to see how social workers can be
effective without understanding community inf luences. The frame-
work for community assessment presented here is designed to assist
in conceptualizing the arena within which people experience hope

Assessing Communities Learning OutcOmes

• Discuss ways in which to engage
communities in an assessment

• Use a framework to assess a

chapter OutLine

Engaging Communities 153
Two Community Vignettes
Implications of the Vignettes

Framework for Community
Assessment 159
Task 1: Identify Focal Community
Task 2: Locate Data and Information

on Community Needs, Issues, and

Task 3: Assess Community Social and
Political Assets

Task 4: Assess Community Structure
and Capacity

Summary 184

Appendix 185

Chapter Review 187






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154 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

and draw strength, as well as face oppression and frustration. Note the word assist, which
means that this framework does not have to be used in lockstep fashion. Instead, it is a ver-
satile tool that can be adapted to the circumstances at hand.

Second, community-level macro change requires an understanding of the significant
events in the history and development of a community that inf luence the ways in which
people view contemporary issues. Without this knowledge, the practitioner will have
a deficient understanding of important factors such as values, attitudes, and traditions,
along with their significance in either maintaining the status quo or allowing for change.

Third, communities constantly change. Individuals and groups move into power.
Economic structures and political environments change, as do sources of funding as well
as citizens’ roles and expectations. A framework for assessing communities can be help-
ful in recognizing and interpreting these changes.

two Community Vignettes
Vignette 1 Canyon City

Located in the western United States, Canyon City had a population of 60,000 people in 1975.
The most recent data indicated that it had now exceeded 300,000 residents and was con-
tinuing to grow rapidly at a time when many older cities were suffering population declines.
Because the city was inhabited by many people who had moved to the western Sun Belt to
follow job opportunities, most of its residents were not native to the area. Census data in-
dicated that 20 percent of Canyon City’s residents were Latino, 60 percent were non-Latino
white, 10 percent were Native American, 5 percent were African American, and another
5  percent were Asian American.

Box 6.1 approaches to Community Change

approach Description


Community development connects people to existing structures to engage in activities such as community
building, economic development, neighborhood improvement, and developing affordable housing
(Staples, 2012). This type of work can include social and economic development as well as strategies
of sustainable development (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013).


Community organizing (CO) is defined in many different ways and can be used for conservative, liberal,
and radical purposes (Brady & O’Connor, 2014). In social work, it involves working with multiple indigenous
community residents and using their strength in numbers to participate in empowering the collective to
pursue social change (Staples, 2012).


Community planning can include program development, coordination and evaluation as well as
processes to design projects, programs, and services. The planning focus may be local neighborhoods,
states, regions, and even international efforts (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013).

Progressive change Progressive change involves the pursuit of community change through political activism and even
radical forms of advocacy (Almog-Bar & Schmid, 2014; Dudziak & Profitt, 2012). Efforts may involve
policy practice targeting legislative change, coalition building, and participation in social movements,
and it may range from local to global in scope (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013).

M06_NETT8523_06_SE_C06.indd 154 9/25/15 5:48 PM

Chapter 6: assessing Communities 155

Encountering the Community. A recent social work graduate took a position in a multiser-
vice agency in Canyon City. One of her tasks was to develop a program to address the needs
of victims of domestic violence in the community. Data from the police department and var-
ious other sources revealed a high incidence of domestic violence within the community rel-
ative to other communities of similar size. The social worker was new to Canyon City, having
lived in another part of the country most of her life. She viewed this chance to assess and
understand the community with great anticipation.

She began her work by talking with a number of police officers, social workers, and others
who had expertise in domestic violence. Through these contacts, she was able to locate a few
women who were willing to talk with her confidentially about their situations. She learned that
each woman perceived the situation somewhat differently. Based on numerous conversations, the
social worker found that there was a general sense of isolation within the community. Neighbors
often did not know one another, and newcomers felt it was hard to form friendships or to feel they
were part of a community. Given both the growth and the rapid turnover of Canyon City’s popula-
tion, this was not surprising. It appeared to the social worker that people tended to focus on their
own problems and dwell on them within a narrow range of family or friends. The social worker
soon found herself looking hard for evidence of any community strengths on which to build.

However, when she got beyond individual interviews and reached out to organizations, she
found that Canyon City had many strengths. First, community members seemed willing to ac-
knowledge the problem and were anxious to address it. The social worker encountered few
people who denied that something needed to be done. Second, there was diversity within the
community that made for a rich mix of customs, traditions, and values. Third, there were several
women’s groups in Canyon City willing to volunteer their efforts to whatever intervention was
developed. Fourth, a local foundation was willing to fund a project if it was well designed.

Narrowing the Focus. In the course of collecting data and defining boundaries, the social
worker determined that the problem of domestic violence was being addressed in some
parts of the community but not others. Although there were three battered women’s shelters
within the city, each tended to serve only a limited area. A counseling service for domestic
violence victims was available, but only to those who could afford the service. In particular,
few Latinas were served by either the shelters or the counseling service. This led the social
worker to narrow her focus toward the needs of these women.

The social worker knew she had to take care to recognize the diverse cultural traditions and
beliefs of this target population. A number of models were available for developing shelters, safe
homes, and services for white middle-class women, but few focused on women of color. The so-
cial worker also learned that Latinas in the community often provided shelter for one another,
but this often imposed great financial burdens on the host and guest. She began to talk with the
women about how to design a program that would be sensitive and relevant to identified needs.

In the process, she discovered additional community strengths. There was a strong sense
of community among many Latinas who had lived in the area most of their lives. There
were associations of women that were not identified in any listings of services or programs
because they were not as formalized as other groups. This informal network was a source of
pride in the community, yet these relationships were not known or understood in the larger
community. Two Latino churches had identified domestic violence as their focus of concern
for the coming year and were willing to work with the social worker and her agency. Also, a
support group for women of color had been meeting in one of the churches for several years.


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156 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

Mobilizing Resources. After a few weeks, the social worker realized that there were more
resources in the community than she had originally anticipated. However, she also discov-
ered that there were definite locations of power. Community leaders among the women
of color were not visible in the larger community and were often left out of any local deci-
sion-making processes. Within her own agency, the social worker found that members of
the board of directors were not certain they wanted to focus on women of color because
the board hoped to serve the needs of all women in the community. The foundation was
willing to fund a project that would focus on Latinas’ needs, but its board members wanted
to be assured that the funds would be used to do something innovative rather than du-
plicating an existing model. Also, the foundation was willing to fund the project only if it
would be self-sufficient within three years. The women’s shelters that were already open
were cautious about supporting the new program concept for fear that it might call atten-
tion to their failure to serve many women of color in the past. The women’s support group
in the local church was concerned that the group would lose its focus and become part of a
bigger project that would take members away from their feeling of closeness and intimacy.

It was the social worker’s job to continue to collect information and to determine the project’s
feasibility. Although this was time consuming, she continued to hear the perspectives of various
women who had been battered and to include them in the development of a community project.

Vignette 2 Lakeside

Lakeside was a planned community developed in the 1930s. The downtown area was built
around a small lake, surrounded by weeping willow trees. The Baptist, United Methodist,
and Presbyterian churches sat side by side along the lake front, forming what was known as
“church circle.” Each of the Protestant denominations had a children’s home, and the Method-
ist Home for Orphaned Children, built in 1902, was a local landmark.

The population in Lakeside during the 1930s was approximately 20,000 people. The major-
ity of employees worked for a company manufacturing major office products, making Lake-
side “a company town.” Other businesses in town manufactured paper, building supplies, and
various other products.

Assessing Major Changes. By the 1990s, Lakeside had grown to 75,000 persons, and the com-
munity was going through a number of changes. Many residents had moved to the outskirts
of town and had taken jobs in a larger city nearby, creating problems for the economic base of
Lakeside. The various manufacturing companies had experienced layoffs, which made commu-
nity residents feel uncertain about job security and advancement. One company had closed its
doors completely. As manufacturing technologies changed, needed skill sets also shifted. Front-
page news in the Lakeside Gazette focused on how local persons were being laid off, whereas
new employees with different skills were being recruited to come to the local plants. Both the
paper company and the chemical plant had been bought by Canadian companies that were
bringing in their own executives. Job competition was becoming much more intense.

Three housing developments for older and disabled persons had been built downtown.
Two assisted-living facilities had been completed, and two more were in process. The Methodist
Children’s Home began providing services to older adults as well as to children, because orphans
were few in number but the number of older persons was increasing.

Vignette 1 Canyon City (Continued)

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 157

Although Lakeside had been a haven for Protestant families and diversity had been limited,
the population was changing. In 1930, the only religious groups other than the Protestant con-
gregations were one Catholic church and one synagogue. By 2005, there was a mosque, two
African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches, and a number of new groups that had split off from
the original mainline churches. The population was also more racially and ethnically diverse.
Whereas in 1930 only 20 percent of the downtown population was African American, by 2005
this figure had grown to 60 percent. The church circle remained a centerpiece in the community
around the lake, but many of the members commuted to church from outside the city limits.

Witnessing the Impact of Change. A social worker at the Methodist Home was assigned to
work with older persons and persons with disabilities in Lakeside. Her role was to build com-
munity and to develop strong support networks for clients. She found that many of her clients
lived in the three housing developments in Lakeside, and several more were residents in the
assisted-living facilities. The two target populations of older and disabled persons were di-
verse. With respect to age, for example, residents ranged from 60 to 105 years, and persons
with disabilities ranged in age from 25 to 95 years. The housing developments were 55 per-
cent African American, 2 percent Latino, and 43 percent white, whereas the assisted-living
facilities were predominantly non-Latino whites.

The majority of the residents had lived in Lakeside all their lives and knew many of the other
residents, but this was changing as new employees came to Lakeside and relocated their ag-
ing parents to their new community. There was a large senior citizens’ center housed in an old
department store that had moved to the mall, and the center was trying to reach out to newly
relocated older adults who had moved to Lakeside.

The social worker was pleased to learn about these strengths, but she was also aware of the
problems that had emerged in Lakeside. There was a definite sense of racial tension in the town.
There was also tension between the old and the young persons with disabilities who were living
in the same apartment buildings. Older clients complained about loud music and partying at
all hours of the night. Younger persons were frustrated by “being forced” to live with old people.
Most major stores in the downtown area had relocated, and although mobile community mem-
bers tended to shop at the mall, persons without transportation were forced to walk to the few re-
maining downtown stores, where prices were high and bargains were few. Getting Social Security
checks cashed at the one downtown grocery store meant paying a $5.00 fee for cashing privileges.

Amid these tensions and concerns, widespread fear of crime had also emerged.
Two older women who lived alone had had their purses snatched. In a small commu-
nity, this was the “talk of the town,” and no one felt safe anymore. Older women who lived
in the downtown area were being cautioned to keep their doors locked at all times, not
to let strangers in, and to call 911 if they had any reason to be suspicious of anyone.
A neighborhood crime watch association had been organized, and volunteer escorts were
available in the evening hours for anyone having to go out alone. The police department had
contacted the social worker so that they could work together, and the senior center was hold-
ing self-defense classes. The social worker heard older residents complain over and over again
that Lakeside just wasn’t the community they had known.

implications of the Vignettes

Communities change, and it is not unusual for residents to grieve over the loss of what has
been. Some changes are planned, such as the deliberate attempts in Vignette 1 to develop a

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158 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

project that would address the needs of Latinas who have been abused. Other changes are
unplanned, such as the way in which the “planned” community of Lakeside’s downtown
area changed. Canyon City addresses a substantive problem (violence against Latinas), and
Lakeside faces issues of how to meet the needs of an increasing number of older people
and persons with disabilities, as well as how to remain viable as an economic center.

The two vignettes offer a glimpse at what social workers in community practice
arenas experience. In Canyon City, the social worker encountered a growing city with
much diversity. In Lakeside, the social worker found a city that was changing in differ-
ent ways. However, both practitioners discovered strengths and problems, tensions and
f rustrations. Both found that the inclusion of multiple perspectives was important but
also complicated the analysis. For example, in Vignette 1, the social worker had to deal
with the power dynamics between a possible funding source, local women’s shelters that
were already established, and Latinas whose voices were not always heard. In Vignette
2, the social worker encountered interracial and intergenerational tensions among resi-

dents of a changing downtown neighborhood.
In Chapter 5, we identified three dimensions of communities: (1) geo-

graphical, spatial, or territorial; (2) social or relational; and (3) political.
Although both vignettes are geographically based, they include elements
of all three types of community. They also illustrate how place and non-
place communities can overlap. Canyon City is a “place” or geographical
community. Yet bonds of identification within ethnic groups in this com-
munity require special consideration. The Latino community has connec-
tions that are stronger than geography, and much of the tension in creating
a special shelter is tied to nonplace social and relational communities of
identification and interest, as well as political collections of relationships

that provide meaning and identity. Similarly, Lakeside is a place or geographical com-
munity, but within its domain are persons who are moving in f rom the outside. Their
collective relationships that give meaning to their lives may be scattered across other
locations f rom which they have come. These nonplace community ties will not cease
when employees and their aging parents move to Lakeside, even though geography
separates them f rom others. In addition, within Lakeside there are communities of
symbolic identification that are different, yet at times overlapping, for older and dis-
abled persons. These two groups are tied to differing, and sometimes competing, com-

munities of interest that are much more broadly based than the
town of Lakeside. For example, persons with disabilities have
formed national networks that advocate for consumer-directed
care, whereas older adults are connected by a national political
movement calling for civic engagement that is part of the “Age
Wave” in a graying society.

Each vignette requires asking many questions in order to
know how to intervene. This chapter provides a systematic ap-
proach to questions with which one might begin to assess com-
munities like Canyon City and Lakeside f rom the perspectives
of the target populations served. Keep in mind that some ques-
tions in this f ramework may be useful in some communities

Watch the video on how
older adults are leading
community change. How

might the strategies that older
adults are using in the video be
useful in examining the needs of
the Lakeside Community?

Diversity and Difference in Practice

Behavior: Apply and communicate understanding of
the importance of diversity and difference in shaping
life eriences in practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro

Critical thinking Question: How would you go
about engaging two diverse population groups simul-
taneously (older adults and disabled persons) who live
in the same geographical community, but have very
different interests and agendas?

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 159

and not as useful in others. The identified tasks do not have to be used in
the order presented. The point is to find a way to begin to assess a commu-
nity and to generate additional questions that will provide further direction.

FramEWork For Community assEssmEnt

In any situation in which an assessment is called for, whether for an individual, family, or
entire community, it is helpful to use a framework that can help guide the process. With
respect to assessing communities, the work of Roland Warren (1978) again provides a
useful starting point. He proposes that communities can be better understood if selected
community variables are analyzed. Of particular interest are variables that represent
characteristics that can be used to differentiate one community f rom another. For ex-
ample, some communities are larger than most, some have greater diversity or different
kinds of diversity or racial/ethnic mixes, some are wealthier than others, and some are
more technologically advanced than others. Each community will have a unique histori-
cal context. Thus, a first step in assessing a community can be to create or adapt a frame-
work that will help make comparisons on variables such as these f rom one community
to another.

The following framework builds on Warren’s work, and draws on community theories
and perspectives introduced in Chapter 5. In Figure 6 we have identified four tasks that incor-
porate 11 activities to be used in assessing place-based and nonplace-based communities. The
process of analyzing a community requires the social worker to go back and forth, returning
to refine previous tasks as new data are gathered. Accordingly, the social worker is urged to
employ the framework as an interactive guide rather than a rigid formula for community as-
sessment. In subsequent chapters, we will present methods for planning changes based on this

assess your understanding
of engaging communities
by taking this brief quiz.


Task 1:
Identify focal

• Learn history
and population
• Collaborate
with target
• Determine

• Identify data
• Gather info on
target population

• Focus on
strengths, values,
and differences
• Locate sources
of power and

• Examine
service delivery
• Identify influence,
control, services
• Determine

Task 2:
Locate Data
and Information

Task 3:

Task 4:
structure and

Figure 6.1 
Tasks in the Framework for Assessing a Community

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160 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

task 1: identify Focal Community

Many approaches to community assessment contend that the community must be
understood in its totality to the greatest extent possible before intervention is planned,
and this would be ideal if one had unlimited time. The first activity within this task is
to learn as much as possible about the community’s history. The task usually begins
by gathering basic information on demographics of the community as a whole in or-
der to set a context f rom which to focus the assessment. However, in order to avoid
being overwhelmed with information, the second activity within this task narrows the
assessment by identifying a target population. This allows the social worker to collabo-
rate with target population members in gaining their perspectives and concerns in the
assessment process.

Learn about Historical Context and Population Characteristics
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What is known about the history of this community?
• How many persons are members of this community, and what are their

demographic characteristics?
• What social indicator data are available about this and similar communities?

historical context Gaining an historical perspective is important because it is the
foundation on which the community is built. The significance of earlier events and the
rootedness of some groups within the community will be seen differently by community
members. It is helpful to ask if there are written histories of the community as well as
persons who consider themselves to be community historians.

In place-based communities, there may be resources in local libraries, historical
societies, or any archival source. Understanding this context of tradition and tension, a
change agent can expect to encounter roadblocks to change, but may also gain insight
into how to navigate the process in this deeply rooted community. In addition to gather-
ing data-based information about the community, it is necessary to talk with people who
understand the history of different population groups as perceived by its own members.

In nonplace communities, there may be someone who recorded a brief history or
list of critical dates in the community’s development or professionals who have studied
that particular community. For example, consider the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in Africa,
which affected not only the countries where the disease was concentrated but also the
entire world because of international travel, the extreme ease of transmission, and the
seriousness of the consequences. Knowing the background of how this global commu-
nity developed provides context for understanding the complex social and political di-
mensions of community building.

People may define themselves as part of a geographical or place community based
on location (e.g., the town where we live), but ethnicity (e.g., the Latino community),
religion (e.g., the Jewish community), commitment to a position (e.g., the pro-choice
community), profession (e.g., the social work community), avocation (e.g., the environ-
mental movement community), and many other designations may be nonplace com-
munities with which they strongly identify. Also, as this list suggests, each individual
may simultaneously be part of many different communities (both place and nonplace).

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 161

Websites can be very useful sources of information about these very different types of

For example, the Latina women in the Canyon City vignette at the beginning of
this chapter may view their history differently than the women who are cur-
rently being served in domestic violence shelters. Hearing directly from them
may raise the possibilities of alternative interventions that are more sensitive
to cultural differences (e.g., working through a local Latino Catholic church,
where trust has already been established). Similarly, in Lakeside, the older per-
sons who have lived there all their lives and the newly arrived older adults who
moved to be near their children will have different historical experiences. The
sensitive practitioner will take the time to understand how different character-
istics of target population members and their life experiences may contribute
to a variety of attitudes and values.

It is also important to note that there are critical differences between ur-
ban, suburban, and rural communities. This approach may be particularly dif-
ficult in a rural community where community members are geographically dispersed.
We also caution the reader not to assume that the target populations can be disengaged
or isolated from the larger community, even though one may focus on specific subgroups
for the purpose of the change episode. Members of the target population may already
feel isolated from the larger community, so the actions of the social worker should avoid
reinforcing this perception, while working to strengthen ties and reduce isolation.

Viewed graphically, a community might appear as a series of overlapping circles,
representing important elements or reference groups within the community. A given in-
dividual could then be represented in a space formed f rom the overlap of the unique
combination of elements relevant to that person, as illustrated in Figure 6.2. It is import-
ant to note that within these overlapping circles there are also attitudinal differences,
assumptions, and worldviews that may be harder to identify within and between target
population groups but need to be taken into consideration.

target population characteristics Identifying characteristics of the population begins
with an examination of available demographic data, which refers to variables such as
socioeconomic status, age, race, and gender. Information of this sort can be found on-
line from the U.S. Census Bureau, which within cities break down the information by
geographic units called tracts. Such divisions are relatively small and often incorporate
as few as 3,000–8,000 people, making it possible to categorize community units as small
as an individual neighborhood. Using this type of source, it is important to identify areas
of poverty and high need, as well as to determine whether target populations are heavily
concentrated in certain areas or are spread across an entire city or county.

Social indicator data may be helpful in gaining a broad overview of social problems
at the international, national, regional, state, and local levels. These data are import-
ant sources of information about changes in social and economic trends in communi-
ties around the world. Direct measures of phenomena such as infant mortality rates or
educational levels may be available for the community. Similarly, indirect measures of
complex situations such as the use of divorce rates to indicate family stability or school
dropout rates as an indicator of increasing gang membership may provide insight into
target population concerns (Estes, 2013). For example, if dropout rates are much higher

Watch the video where
panelists address the bar-
riers that have been put

in the way of black males and
strategies for how to overcome
them. Why do the panelists sug-
gest it is important to address
the historical context of black
male achievement in order to
move toward solutions?

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162 Chapter 6: Assessing Communities

for the target population than for other community members, these data may reinforce
the need to focus on this group as a high priority.

In this way, the community’s social problems can be comparatively assessed using
various data displays such as cross-sectional analysis, time-series comparisons, compar-
ison with other data units, and other displays, as discussed in Chapter 4. Other profes-
sionals in the community, or at the county or state level, can also be valuable sources of
information. They may have firsthand experience with target populations, or their orga-
nizations may have conducted surveys or collected statistics of specific social problems.
Accessing the websites of these organizations may reveal valuable and useful informa-
tion. In a global world, there are sources of data about social and economic inequities
that transcend national borders and provide regional perspectives for comparison pur-
poses (International Social Work, 2014). In short, in today’s world, almost any place or
nonplace community has ready access to comparative data that provide a broader con-
textual perspective than was possible even a decade ago.

Identify and Collaborate with the Target Population
Questions to be explored for this activity include:

• Which community group or subgroup will be the target population of this

• What are the value and political implications of focusing on a specific group, and
how will they be involved in the assessment process?















Figure 6.2 
The Individual in the Community

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 163

• Is this target population primarily part of a geographical, social, or political
community or a combination?

• What priority is given to the needs of this target population in the community?
• What percentage of the target population is represented by people at risk of

being underserved due to their race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age,
disabilities, or other factors?

identifying a target population Population identification can be a difficult task be-
cause populations are varied and often have indistinct boundaries. Individual communi-
ties will have their own definitions of target populations, and they may not be congruent
with how the target population defines itself. A target population can be narrowly or
broadly defined, but the more precise its definition, the more feasible an understanding
of its members becomes. Oftentimes, the target population is obvious because it is a
group that is already designated as a part of a social worker’s workload, or that the work-
er’s agency wants to serve better.

The target population for a particular community assessment could be “people with
domestic violence problems who live in Canyon City,” or it could be “Latina women who
have been the victims of physical abuse by spouses or significant others within the past
two years in Canyon City.” One is more inclusive, and the other more focused. It is prob-
ably advisable, at early stages of the analysis, that a broader definition be adopted, with
the expectation that it may be narrowed as a clearer understanding of needed change

One note of caution is in order here when it comes to nonplace communities.
Target population groups may not define their community according to the geographi-
cal lines established by planners and designated boundaries. For example, a person who
self- identifies as transgender may have a strong symbolic relationship with other trans-
gender persons who are scattered across multiple geographical communities. Yet, the
community of transgender persons is as strong and collectively connected as that of per-
sons who live in local neighborhoods, perhaps even more so. Thus, the practitioner who
is working with the transgender community will be engaged with a population group
that is more vertically connected than horizontally based, as are other groups within
geographical communities.

One distinction that may be helpful in this process is offered by Rossi, Lipsey, and
Freeman (2004), who distinguish between populations at risk and populations at need.
A population at risk is one in danger of developing a particular problem, whereas a pop-
ulation at need is one in which the problem already exists. In a population at risk, change
efforts may be oriented toward prevention; in a population at need, the change may be
more focused on intervention or treatment. In the case of a neighborhood plagued by
youth gangs, for example, the social worker may identify the target population as those
youth who are at risk of being pressured to join a gang, in which case the goal may be
to stop this f rom happening. Alternatively, youth already in gangs may be identified as
the target population, in which case efforts might be focused on ways to free them from
these gangs or divert the gangs from criminal activity.

A further task facing the social worker in selecting a target population is establishing
criteria for deciding which community members are inside or outside this population. In
the youth gang example, the social worker may decide to focus on kids at risk of joining

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164 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

a gang. After some study, he or she might propose that the criteria for being considered
part of the target population would be to attend one of seven schools serving the neigh-
borhood, to be between 10 and 14 years of age, and to belong to a particular ethnic
group that has established gangs in the community. These criteria establish what Rossi
and colleagues (2004) call the boundary of the target population.

Individual communities will have their own definitions of target populations. The
social worker should determine how the community categorizes client groups for plan-
ning purposes. Local and regional planning agencies, United Ways, community coun-
cils, and associations of agencies often produce agreed-on classification schemes for data
collection and planning purposes, and the social worker will need to decide whether to
keep these definitions in establishing boundaries or to establish new definitions. Each
approach can be expected to have certain advantages and disadvantages.

collaborating with the target population The choice of a particular target population
is a choice of values. In every community there can be multitudes of groups with vary-
ing needs, but in most community change episodes it may only be possible to effectively
address one group at a time. In many cases, the target population will be determined by
a worker’s work assignments or volunteer interests. However, in focusing on a single tar-
get, the social worker should think through and understand the implications of examining
the community from a limited perspective. The kinds of questions that need to be asked
include: How do people in this target population (and others close to them) perceive their
concerns, problems, issues, and/or needs? Do they tend to see them in terms of a need for
empowerment, freedom from oppression, access to opportunity, the removal of barriers,
resources or services, and/or protection? These types of questions focus on the perceptions
that target population members have about themselves in the context of their community.

All communities suffer some degree of inequitable distribution of income, op-
portunity, political representation, personal safety, or other social resources. This

means that multiple underserved populations can be expected
to exist, and not all can be addressed by a single effort. The
initial task facing a social worker when assessing a community
is to collaborate with the target population, recognizing that
a large variety of populations might be in need of his or her
efforts. Once recognized, the social worker is ethically bound
to include members of the target population in the assessment
process in whatever way is possible so that this becomes a col-
laborative effort.

Determine Community Boundaries
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What are the designated boundaries of this community?
• How do members of the target population view community boundaries?
• Where are members of the target population located within the boundaries?

Are they highly concentrated or scattered? Or are they a subgroup of a larger

• How compatible are jurisdictional boundaries of health and human service
programs that serve the target population?


Behavior: Use empathy, reflection, and interpersonal
skills to effectively engage diverse clients and

Critical thinking Question: How would you
compare and contrast the engagement process in
place and nonplace communities?

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 165

Boundaries are established in many different ways. A community may have legal
boundaries, where one town ends and another begins, but if one views communities
as systems with multiple overlapping subsystems, there will be social and psychological
boundaries in addition to physical demarcations. In nonplace communities, boundaries
are defined by who is in and who is out, regardless of physical location. These commu-
nities are likely connected in cyberspace and based on relationships or political purposes
rather than tethered to a geographical space. Some nonplace communities may have
very porous boundaries with limited membership criteria, whereas others may be highly

The practitioner may find that there are a small number of members of the tar-
get population concentrated in a particular area, yet if one expands the reach, there are
many more persons in the target population across multiple geographical communities.
Knowing how geographically contained or dispersed a target population is becomes im-
portant when one plans an intervention. For example, it may be hard to convince a fund-
ing source that enough people will be served if one defines boundaries too tightly, but
if one joins with agencies in other communities across the city, county, or state, or even
internationally, then the scope of the problem may be evident.

Earlier in this chapter, we discussed the establishment of criteria for inclusion of
individuals in a target population, a process sometimes referred to as boundary setting.
Another, more common use of the term boundary refers to the lines determining the
geographical area occupied by a community. For a social worker involved in a mac-
ro-level intervention, one important consideration has to do with the extent of the area
to be included. If resources are available to focus on the entire city or county, then these
may be appropriate boundaries in that instance. If, however, the effort is to be under-
taken by a small committee of volunteers who have limited time and resources, it may
be better to focus the encounter on the part of a city or even a neighborhood in which
there appears to be the greatest need for intervention. In nonplace communities, bound-
ary setting may be around the numbers of members of the target population who can be
served rather than their geographical location.

Establishing boundaries for a macro-level intervention is done by determining the
characteristics (e.g., age, year in school, and presence of a problem), the geographical
area of residence, or the shared interests of a target population. For most interventions
in which boundaries involve geographic space, we recommend beginning with clearly
recognizable units, such as a city or county, and then narrowing the focus to smaller
areas if appropriate. It may be useful at this point to get a map of the geographical area
and identify in some ways the areas of high concentrations of the target population. This
is not intended to indicate that an intervention at the state, regional, or national level is
inappropriate, but for the vast majority of interventions a level of county or smaller will
be most relevant and practical. For nonplace interventions, establishing a manageable
number of persons who can be served in a pilot approach may be a way to begin.

Figure 6.3 illustrates the boundary-setting process. Knowing that one cannot address
all target population needs within large arenas, the encounter focuses on the target pop-
ulation within a manageable part of the broader community.

A target population or community defined by the area its members occupy may
be a small section of the inner city or a large rural area containing scattered farms. The
notion of community as space is usually applicable to Latino barrios, for example, since

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166 Chapter 6: Assessing Communities

they typically have reasonably well-defined boundaries within a large metropolitan area.
Spatial concepts of community are also applicable in less densely populated areas, but
they may be more difficult to determine. This was noted by a Navajo social worker who
explained how difficult it can be to determine spatial boundaries on a reservation where
there may be no street systems, property information, or signs indicating county lines or
well-defined human service areas. In a way, this student was experiencing the overlap of
place and nonplace communities. The reservation was so dispersed that the major con-
sideration needed to be identification as a tribal member rather than where each person
actually lived.

Another characteristic important to understanding community as space are the juris-
dictional units established by various government agencies for planning and service provi-
sion purposes (e.g., school districts or mental health catchment areas). Because the macro
practitioner’s focus is frequently limited to a designated geographical area, mapping over-
lapping jurisdictional units can be important and useful. For example, a change agent may
be working with residents of a particular county to establish a prenatal healthcare cam-
paign for pregnant teens, only to discover that he or she is dealing with representatives from
multiple city and county governments as well as several school districts. Determining who
is responsible within what geographical domain can be extremely important politically.
Similarly, a practitioner hired by a mental health clinic may find that the clinic’s catchment
area overlaps parts of three school districts, requiring letters of agreement with multiple
school boards. Being able to anticipate and adjust to these circumstances will aid in both
planning and implementation of the change episode. When possible, it may be helpful to
set boundaries congruent with established jurisdictional units because data and informa-
tion will be organized within these boundaries, whereas working across existing boundar-
ies may limit one’s ability to compile the necessary information.

In nonplace communities, establishing boundaries will vary depending on how or-
ganized the nonplace community is. For example, if one is trying to address the needs
of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, many of whom may not want other
community members to know who they are, locating the target population may be diffi-
cult without assurances of confidentiality. Chances are that the target population will not
conform to geographical parameters, and boundaries will have to remain somewhat f luid


(e.g., low-income
children and poor





(e.g., neighborhood,
city, and county)

Figure 6.3 
Setting Parameters for the Community Encounter

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 167

depending on who feels comfortable making their sexual orientation known. Conversely,
in a community of interest based on getting the word out about a devastating disease such
as Alzheimer’s, the practitioner may have a ready cadre of advocates f rom the ranks of
persons who have had experience with the disease in their families. They may be willing
to join forces to work toward change and relieved to tell their stories to the larger public.
These boundaries may also be f luid, expanding as more people join the cause from differ-
ent locations. In both cases, neither community conforms to strict geographical boundar-
ies, but they are held together by the boundaries of shared identities.

In their study of neighborhoods, Coulton and Mikelbank (2011) make an important
point. When boundaries are fuzzy or arbitrarily defined, rather than based on a deep un-
derstanding of how community members construct meaningful relationships, the change
process may unintentionally undermine target population involvement and control.
Thus, boundary setting is critical to authentic collaboration with the target population.

task 2: Locate Data and information on Community needs,
issues, and Problems

In communities with severe and/or urgent social problems, the scope of intervention
may have to be narrowed in order to address problems in depth. Keeping strengths in
mind, as issues and problems are recognized, may help the practitioner maintain a sense
of balance (Green & Haines, 2002). In addition, it is important to recognize that there is
much criticism of focusing on deficits to the neglect of assessing assets. Therefore, even
though Task 2 involves the assessment of needs, issues, and problems, in Task 3 and 4 the
focus moves to identifying strengths in the community’s assets and capacity.

Identify Community Data Sources
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What data sources are available about community needs, issues, and problems?
• What methods are used to collect these data, and is this an ongoing process?
• What are the major issues and social problems in this community as perceived by

their spokespersons?
• To what extent are these problems interconnected, and must some be solved

before others can be addressed?

Ideally, services provided are designed to meet community needs. However,
it is important to recognize that people’s needs are always changing. This
requires a human service system that has f lexibility to respond to changing
needs. Because the characteristics of community residents vary, there may be
subgroups that require special attention. For example, if a community has a
high proportion of retirees, one can expect that many of the services will ad-
dress the needs of older people. If services are not available, the delivery sys-
tem may not be adequately meeting community needs.

needs assessment Meenaghan, Gibbons, and McNutt (2005) identified various meth-
ods of approaching a needs assessment. A summary of the advantages and disadvantages
of these methods are reviewed in Table 6.1.

go to the Community toolbox
homepage, and locate the
toolkit on assessing community
needs and resources. What
resources does the site suggest
you access to understand
the history and makeup of a

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168 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

Given limited time, practitioners often have to rely on existing data. Original data
collection is expensive and time consuming, and is usually beyond the scope of the
macro practitioner unless a particular change effort has widespread community and fi-
nancial backing. Ideally, the macro practitioner would like to know (1) the number of
people who are experiencing each problem and (2) the number of people who are being
served by existing resources. The first number minus the second number represents un-
met need. Unmet needs, inadequately met needs, or inappropriately met needs are typi-
cally the focus of macro-level change.

With special population groups that require multiple services, classification schemes
are often based on the concept of a continuum of care. A continuum of care consists of a
broad menu of services f rom which items can be selected to address the specific needs
of certain individuals or groups. Ideally, each menu will vary based on what is needed for
the target population served. Table 6.2 provides one way of classifying continuum-of-care
services for those persons requiring long-term care, with in-home services being the least
restrictive care environment and institutional services being the most restrictive.

understanding collective needs As we discussed in Chapter 5, need is an elusive and
complex concept that must be understood from a variety of perspectives. What we have
discussed thus far are individual needs experienced by many people. When one person is
hungry, it is an individual problem; when hundreds of people are hungry and the com-
munity is not prepared to assist, it is a social problem. When needs outstrip resources, it is
a communitywide problem and may require a human service response. More food banks,
more homeless shelters, or more employment training services may be needed.

Social problems are negatively labeled “conditions” recognized by community
residents. Identified social problems will vary by community and target population.

table 6.1 needs assessment methods: advantages and Disadvantages

method Description advantages Disadvantages

Gathering opinions
and judgments from
key informants

Community forums
Public hearings
Face-to-face interaction
Focus groups

Provides opportunities to
hear directly from the target

Often difficult to locate people
who fully understand the
issues; also time consuming

Collecting service

Utilization and rates
Waiting lists
Caseload data

Provides information from
those who serve the target

Is limited by what is collected
and how well data are

Locating epidemiological
studies (of the origins
of problems)

Analyzing existing data Data are already collected
and usually accessible.

Analysis is restricted by what data
were collected

Finding studies of the
incidence and prevalence
of problems

Reporting what previous
studies have found

Studies have already been
conducted and findings are

Generalizability of findings
may be limited

Accessing social indicators Reviews of data such as
income, age, and occupation

Data are available and provide
broad overview of community

Indicators do not provide detailed

Conducting and locating

Interviews with community

Provides broad overview
of needs

Requires great time and

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 169

Sometimes there are conditions that have not been labeled as problems. It may be the
social worker’s task to bring these conditions to the attention of people in power so that
they are recognized as social problems. This is not always easy because community resi-
dents may have a great deal invested in denying that there is a problem. Issues are points
over which there are disagreements. Community members may disagree over whether
something is a problem, over how resources are to be used to address a problem, or a
host of other points. It is helpful to know what the points of disagreement are.

Once major social problems defined by community members have been identified,
one can begin to determine their incidence and prevalence. incidence is defined as a
phenomenon actually occurring over a period of time (Kettner, Daley, & Nichols, 1985,
p. 72). For example, 15 students may have been arrested for drug use in the local high
school in the most recent academic year. prevalence is tied to the number of cases of
the phenomenon that exist within a community at any one time (Kettner et al., 1985,
p. 72). For example, current estimates indicate that drug use among teenagers is as high
as 50 percent.

Healthy communities need to ensure adequately functioning systems of service
and sufficient support to enable their citizens to achieve basic standards for quality
of life. This includes an economic base that produces jobs and income, affordable
housing, adequate transportation, sound public health practices, quality education for
children, public safety, and f reedom to pursue obligations and interests without fear.
When these conditions are absent, a service response (more money, or more resources

table 6.2 Continuum of Long-term Care services by Category

in-Home services Community-Based services institutional services

Outreach Case management Alcohol and drug treatment

Information and referral Transportation Rehabilitation

Comprehensive geriatric assessment Senior centers Psychiatric care

Emergency response system Senior discount programs Swing beds or step-down units

Companionship/friendly visiting Recreational activities Skilled nursing care

Telephone reassurance Caregiver support groups Extended care

Caregiver respite services Self-help groups Assisted living

Homemaker and chore services Counseling

Household repair services Foster homes

Personal care Adult care homes

Home-delivered meals Shared housing

Home health Congregate housing

In-home high-technology therapy Wellness and health promotion clinics

Hospice Geriatric assessment clinics

Physician services

Adult day care

Mental health clinics

Outpatient clinics

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170 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

of any kind) may provide temporary relief without dealing with fundamental struc-
tural problems.

The long-term need may be for group empowerment, a collective sense of dig-
nity, full participation in decisions that affect the lives of people in the community, self-
direction, or self-control. Assessing collective need requires understanding the history
and development of the community, an ability to compare economic and social problem
data to those of other communities, and sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of those
who are part of the community.

Gather Information Specific to Target Population Needs
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What needs assessment data and other relevant information are available about
the target population?

• How do persons in the target population perceive their community’s
responsiveness to their needs?

• Do some members of the target population experience greater unmet needs
due to their race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, or other

• Are there subgroups of the target population that are experiencing oppressive
conditions and discrimination?

People who are identified as being in a target population may be consumers of services
or persons in need of services. Macro-level interventions tend to be conceptualized and
organized around a selected population and a specific problem they are experiencing. For
example, a social worker might discover a lack of child care options for teenaged parents
who wish to return to school.

The purpose of establishing a profile of issues and problems in the community is to
understand the conditions affecting the target population in context of the broader whole.

This requires both direct contact and searching the professional
knowledge base. Direct contact with people who can articulate
the problems and needs of the target population gives the prac-
titioner a different interpretation of the issues. The professional
knowledge base adds theoretical background as well as practice
and research findings based on the experiences of others with the
same or similar populations and problems. This is helpful informa-
tion, but it does not replace gathering information directly from
persons affected by the problem.

We cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of
primary sources in understanding a target population. Popula-

tions must be understood in terms of their diversity. In family practice, for example,
the meaning of family and accompanying role expectations may differ f rom one cul-
ture to the next. Similarly, the ways in which members of the gay and lesbian commu-
nity define family may differ radically f rom traditional community values. In border
states, many people are expressing strong opinions on illegal immigration. People who
live on the border (mayors, law enforcement people, and citizens) are vocal and critical

Research-Informed Practice (or Practice-
Informed Research)

Behavior: Use and translate research evidence to in-
form and improve practice, policy, and service delivery.

Critical thinking Question: Why does the
professional knowledge base (including practice and
research findings) not replace gathering information
directly from persons affected by the problem?

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 171

of those who do not take the time to consult with persons who live with the problem
every day and have important insights into how immigration should be addressed. A
target population will not be adequately understood if these potentially widely diver-
gent views are not respected and taken into consideration.

Identifying needs, issues, and problems helps in two ways: (1) It enables the macro
practitioner to appreciate the full range of possibilities as well as difficulties experienced
by the target population, thereby helping to prioritize needs; and (2) it should help in pro-
posing more realistic solutions. For example, sometimes there are resources to address
a transportation need, and in doing so, a bigger problem of access to services can be

Some people are uncomfortable with differences, and because they assume that one
way must be better than another way, they look on differences as a problem to be solved.
An alternative perspective is that differences ref lect a variety of ways to view the world,
to believe, and to behave. Social workers can employ differences as potential strengths
within a target population, but they must remember that differences often include alter-
native definitions of a successful outcome.

Areas around which oppression often occurs are gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orien-
tation, age, and ability. Depending on the target population, all of the resulting “isms” or
selected ones may be relevant. For example, older minority women who live in poverty
face triple jeopardy—they are old, female, and poor. Their experience points to genera-
tions of blocked opportunities, discrimination, and neglect. Serious damage is done to
the fabric of the country, and therefore to the fabric of its communities, when any group
of people is discriminated against as a whole category, when an individual is treated only
as a member of a group, and when individual differences are disregarded. Thus, recog-
nizing discriminatory behavior f rom the target population’s perspectives is essential in
assessing the community.

task 3: assess Community social and Political assets

In Chapter 5, three dimensions of community have been identified: (1) geographical or
place, (2) social/relational, and (3) political (with a little “p”). In this task, we focus pri-
marily on the latter two because both are relevant in both place and nonplace commu-
nities. In addition, asset mapping was described in the previous chapter as a process in
which change agents engage with community members in identifying both tangible and
intangible assets. In this task, activities primarily focus on intangible assets: strengths and
values, as well as power and resource availability.

Focus on Community Strengths, Values, and Differences
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What strengths and resiliencies are evident in this community?
• Are there opportunities (e.g., organizations, rules, procedures, and policies) to

engage community members in open communication?
• To what extent are the perspectives of people of color; women; gay men,

lesbians, and transgender persons; older persons; and persons with disabilities
sought in decisions affecting the target population?

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172 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

• What cultural values, traditions, and beliefs are important to the target
population as individuals or as a whole?

• What are the predominant values (and potential value conf licts) that affect
the target population within this community?

Often overlooked are the strengths (assets) of a community. Community strengths are
assets f rom which one can draw (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). In addition, under-
standing dominant values is important in determining community expectations and the
“fit” of various population groups with one another. Value characteristics will provide
clues to the practitioner about what is important to community members. Clearly, these
intangible assets will affect the nature of the macro-level analysis and, ultimately, the

Values as assets For example, the social worker who has discovered a lack of child care
options may also discover a strong kinship network and that grandparents are active in
their grandchildren’s lives. The increasing problem of malnutrition may overshadow the
fact that a number of area congregations are ready and willing to provide meals to older
people. And African Americans and Latino groups who feel that the city council is willing
to be responsive to their issues may have strong motivations to have their voices heard,
have a strong sense of community identity, and be eager to mobilize. It is important for
the practitioner to identify strengths that may make the difference in determining wheth-
er a community can address its issues and problems.

In the previous chapter, we discussed the importance of values in gaining a basic
understanding of community. community values are beliefs that are strongly held by
persons who make up the community. The idea of shared values requires refinement
in today’s changing world. At one time, communities without divisions of labor (e.g.,
farming communities) were more likely to have shared value systems. Early community
values had a great deal to do with such issues as self-sufficiency, taking care of one’s own
family needs, and minimal reliance on government services. Even today, political differ-
ences are often defined in terms of one set of beliefs being f ramed around minimum
standards of care for all versus an alternative set of beliefs focused on individuals and
families receiving only the standards of care they can afford. These values are often rein-
forced by the associations and organizations with which community residents affiliate.

One must take care not to assume a single, common, shared value system in con-
temporary communities or among members of a target population. For example, if the
target population comprises persons who have been abused, members of that group
will cut across all socioeconomic levels and a host of other differences. They may have
completely different perspectives on how abuse is defined and how they define healthy

Depending on the selected target population, practitioners will find a host of value
perspectives. For example, if the target population is people with AIDS, some persons
in the community will feel strongly that such people deserve the best possible care and
comfort, whereas others will react in fear, not wanting people with AIDS in their local
acute and long-term care facilities. Similarly, if the target population is pregnant teenag-
ers, value conf licts may arise between community residents who believe that teenagers
should be given contraceptive information and those who believe that this information
will only encourage sexual activity.

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 173

Jansson (2015) sees value clarification as critically important in asking questions
about social welfare responses to various target population groups. He poses questions
such as the following:

• Should the target population receive services, and on what terms?
• For what needs and problems is a community responsible, and what target

population needs should receive priority?
• What strategies should be used to address specific target

population strengths, issues, and problems?
• Should the community give preferential assistance or

treatment to the target population?

These value clarification questions may be answered differ-
ently depending on the population targeted within the commu-
nity. This series of questions implies that some populations may
be valued more than others; that is, some may be perceived as
“deserving,” and others as “undeserving.”

Depending on the target population group, there may be subgroups within the
larger whole that are viewed differently. Recognition of the importance of diversity will
lead the macro practitioner to check carefully the values of each ethnic or racial group
affected; the possible different perspectives of women and men in the target population;
and the perspectives of representatives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups
if they are affected by the change. It is wiser to take the time to be inclusive of a wide
range of values than to find out, too late, that a change effort is not working because
differing perspectives were overlooked.

Dynamics of Difference As one begins to form an understanding of major commu-
nity value perspectives, one must take care to recognize the fit (or lack of fit) between
target population perspectives and dominant community perspectives. Are target popu-
lation perspectives taken into consideration when decisions are made that affect them?
Recognizing value differences and power discrepancies is an important part of the com-
munity assessment process.

Regardless of the target population identified, there will be differences between this
population and other groups within the community. There will also be differences within
the target population. Potential differences include gender, social class, spiritual and reli-
gious beliefs, sexual orientation, age, and physical and mental ability.

The “dynamics of difference” (Cross, Bazron, Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989, p. 20) may
involve cross-cultural exchanges where groups with diverse histories and values interact.
There is always the possibility of misunderstanding and misinterpretation when this oc-
curs. “Both will bring culturally-prescribed patterns of communication, etiquette, and
problem-solving. Both may bring stereotypes or underlying feelings about serving or
being served by someone who is different” (Cross et al., 1989, p. 20). For example, pro-
fessionals who serve older adults may rationalize why they do not serve many Latino
clients by stereotyping Latino families as taking care of their own and therefore needing
few formal services. This oversimplification may ignore the fact that one-fourth of the
Latino families in a local community are poor, and caring for an older family member is a
tremendous financial burden. It also ignores the fact that not all Latino older adults have
other family members residing in the community.

Policy Practice

Behavior: Assess how social welfare and economic
policies impact the delivery of and access to social

Critical thinking Question: Why are value clarifi-
cation questions so important to assessing how policies
impact the delivery of and access to social services?

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174 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

Differences may be subtle or taken for granted, yet they may inf luence the way in
which members of the target population communicate with one another and with other
groups. For example, feminist scholars encourage the recognition of gender differences
(e.g., O’Connor & Netting, 2009), and Tannen’s research indicates that men and women
speak in “genderlects” that comprise “cross cultural communication” (1990, p. 18). For ex-
ample, a male social worker was assessing a community’s responsiveness to single mothers
with young children. He attended several support groups for the target population and was
frustrated that all they did was talk without coming to a consensus on what they wanted
from the larger community. He assessed part of the problem as an unwillingness on the
part of the target population to face up to their problems and to work on solutions. The
women in the support group, however, felt that this was an opportunity to process their
thoughts and feelings. They did not view the group as a place to immediately resolve prob-
lems. The group was a place to make connections and to achieve intimacy. Note how the
support group performed a nurturing function in light of the larger demands of the sus-
taining community system. Also, observe how important it is to be culturally sensitive to
gender, recognizing the strengths of this nurturing system in supporting the women.

Identifying value conf licts is critical to recognizing oppression and discrimination.
Values may be based on prejudices, those prejudgments that community residents have
about the target group that are not grounded in systematic evidence. The issue of sys-
tematic evidence is one that needs to be treated with care and sensitivity. Many people
still believe that every individual essentially controls his or her own destiny and that hard
work and persistence will overcome any barrier or limitation. This belief is reinforced
when severely disabled persons accomplish incredible physical feats or severely deprived
persons make it to the top. These accomplishments become “evidence” for local, state,
and national leaders that those who need help are simply not trying hard enough. People
who hold this belief look at what they consider to be systematic evidence and deny that
their beliefs are prejudices. What is overlooked here, however, is generations of differen-
tial treatment that have made it difficult for people of color, women, persons with physi-
cal and developmental disabilities, and others to have equal access to economic resources
and self-sufficiency.

An alternative view is the capabilities perspective (Sen & Williams, 1982) in which it
is recognized that not all people have the opportunity to start at the same place and that
consideration must be given to what it takes to get to the place where they can compete
with others (Nussbaum, 2006). So, for example, when a job is available and a homeless
person chooses not to take it, one person will see that as evidence that he is lazy, whereas
another will recognize it as a response to a lifetime of hopeless, discouraging, dead-end
jobs in which skill development was never a possibility. For some, the pain of life on the
street is less than the pain of hopelessness in their share of the workplace. In this situation,
a practitioner using the capabilities perspective will know to start from where the client is
and design a change effort that respects the homeless person within his or her context.

Locate Sources of Power and Resource Availability
Questions to be explored in this activity include the following:

• What funding sources are subsidizing services for the target population, and
through what groups, associations, organizations, and agencies?

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 175

• How would you describe the power structure (including both formal and infor-
mal leaders) and resource availability within this community?

• How accessible are services for the target population?

As local (horizontal) and extracommunity (vertical) ties have expanded in commu-
nities, so have bureaucratization and its accompanying impersonalization. Bureaucratic
structures are usually adopted by government, businesses, and voluntary organizations
as size of population increases. Funding patterns can lead to power brokers external to
the community. Being the major source of funding for local service efforts implies the
ability to inf luence and direct provider decisions regarding target population needs. For
example, the specialized volunteer-run, community-based agency that once served the
neighborhood may have been transformed into a multiservice agency with many paid
staff members. This means that there may be a number of leaders within the health and
human service system, all representing different sectors (e.g., government, nonprofit,
and for-profit). In addition, the larger multiservice organization may have multiple fund-
ing sources, including federal, state, and local government funds; the United Way; private
contributions; and fees. Each source must be satisfied that its expectations are being met.

power and resources Viewing the community from a power perspective requires
identifying the formal and informal leaders within a community. It also means examining
their effectiveness. Assessing the political climate requires reading the local newspaper
and talking with local community leaders to determine the top-priority issues competing
for funding. If a legislative change is needed, it is necessary to identify who may be willing
to take the lead on issues affecting the target population.

Community power has been viewed from three perspectives: (1) an elitist structure,
(2) a pluralist structure, and (3) an amorphous structure. An elitist approach assumes
that a small number of people have disproportionate power in various community sectors
and that this power remains constant regardless of the issue. A pluralist perspective implies
that, as issues change, various interest groups and shifting coalitions arise. This perspec-
tive increases as more special-interest groups develop within the local community. The
amorphous structure implies no persistent pattern of power relationships within the com-
munity (Meenaghan, Gibbons, & McNutt, 2005). Understanding the community’s power
dynamics will enable the practitioner to evaluate the community for this task.

Related to community structure is the issue of available resources. Communities
can be described as resource rich or resource poor when it comes to providing for the needs
of the target population. Although it is important to consider resources in connection
with power, it is also important to compile information on resources so that appropriate
sources will be targeted in pursuit of community change.

There are many types of resources to consider. Resources may be tangible, such as
a welfare check, or symbolic, such as caring or social support. Resources can include sta-
tus, information, money, goods, or services. Most early community encounters will focus
heavily on the more concrete resources that are exchanged (money, goods, and services)
because tangible resources are easier to define and observe. However, as the professional
becomes more actively engaged in community practice, there will be more opportunities
to learn about symbolic exchanges (status and information) that are equally important to
members of the target population.

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176 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

Resources may be available from a variety of domains. King and Mayers (1984) have
developed Guidelines for Community Assessment designed for use in analyzing com-
munity resources. They suggest that when assessing community resources available to
a particular population, a number of domains should be explored. Within each domain,
questions of policy, practice, eligibility, location, and participation must be addressed in
order to determine how available each resource is to the target population. Their do-
mains are as follows:

• Health
• Welfare
• Education
• Housing
• Recreation
• Employment
• Business
• Religion

For example, if the target population is low-income children, resources to be ex-
plored would include Medicaid (health), child welfare services (welfare), school pro-
grams (education), public housing, child care programs provided by parents’ places of
employment, corporate community service initiatives (business), and faith-based groups
involved in serving their communities (religion). One would want to ask: How effective
are these systems in meeting the needs of the community’s children and satisfying the
expectations of the community? How do programs within each of these domains relate
to one another?

service accessibility Access is affected by a number of variables, including population
density, the distribution of service need, the ability of area residents to pay for services,
the existence of competition among service providers, and transportation options avail-
able to consumers. Population density is important because service sites tend to arise
where enough prospective service recipients are available to ensure steady demand. This
is why accessibility is often dramatically more limited in rural areas and thinly populated
suburbs than in cities. Similarly, services tend to gravitate toward areas of need; thus,
child care centers will be more common where there are concentrations of families with
children, whereas senior centers will be more common where more older adults congre-
gate. Gaps arise when no single group predominates, when demographic characteristics
are changing rapidly, or when information is scarce regarding population characteristics
and needs.

Services also tend to be located where consumers can pay, even if the service is
offered by nonprofit organizations. For example, in recent years, many cities have experi-
enced high rates of hospital closures in low-income neighborhoods. These hospitals may
be run by charitable organizations and may have existed for many years, but the com-
bination of high costs, lack of health insurance or other resources on the part of local
residents, and high demand for costly emergency care may render it financially impos-
sible for the hospital to remain open. Nonprofit organizations must also compete with
for-profits for paying customers, and this often leads to steering services and service loca-
tions away from those most in need. Finally, low-income residents of a community who

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 177

require a particular service may still be able to reach it if public transit or other transpor-
tation resources are in place. However, transit systems are usually better developed in
the most densely populated parts of a community and increasingly scarce in suburbs or
newly developed areas. The social worker will need to be aware of these dynamics and
the ways they interact in order to understand variations in service accessibility from one
part of a community to another.

Having examined the resources available to the target population, those involved in
community assessment should examine the structure and capacity of the human service
delivery system. This is addressed in Task 4.

task 4: assess Community structure and Capacity

The fourth task in the community assessment is to map its tangible assets and its capac-
ity to effect action. Different structural domains will be important, depending on the de-
fined problem and the needs of the target population. Recall that in Chapter 5 a variety
of models were identified, each depicting different organizing structures. For example,
one might focus on the city if the problem is homelessness or focus on the school district
if the problem is a high dropout rate. The domain may be a mental health catchment
area or the planning and service area (PSA) of an Area Agency on Aging. The goal is for
the macro practitioner to recognize the units that deliver service; the patterns of inf lu-
ence, control, and service delivery; and the linkages between units that affect the capacity
to address target population needs. The practitioner will need to know how community
groups advocate for, participate in, and engage in service provision.

Examine service Delivery units

Questions to be explored in this activity include the following:

• What informal units (e.g., household, natural, and social networks) are actively
engaged in service delivery to the target population?

• What mediating units (e.g., self-help groups and voluntary or grassroots associa-
tions) are actively engaged in service delivery to the target population?

• What formal service delivery units (e.g., nonprofit, public, and/or for-profit) are
actively engaged in service delivery?

• Are there differences in service delivery that appear to be based on race or ethnic-
ity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, or religion?

Part of the community’s structure is its human service system and the programs it
offers persons in need. Table 6.3 identifies the types of units that should be considered
when assessing service provision in a community. These units, taken together, comprise
the total health and human service delivery system within the community, and they op-
erate interdependently. A community, depending on the availability of resources, may
emphasize the provision of services through one set of units more than another. For ex-
ample, in a resource-poor community, reliance on informal units may be a necessity until
publicly funded formal services can be obtained. However, elements of informal, medi-
ating, and formal service units will be found in each community. The astute practitioner
will carefully assess all avenues of service delivery for the target population.

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178 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

In Chapter 5, we discussed the importance of informal and mediating units in under-
standing communities. Household units consist of persons who reside within a common
dwelling, whether they consider themselves families, significant others, f riends, partners,
or roommates. Natural support systems evolve around mutual support, going beyond
purely social networks, and engaging in resource exchange. Assessing these informal and
mediating units is somewhat difficult simply because they are “informal,” and therefore
less accessible. Yet, any information that can be gathered will be helpful because it is of-
ten these less visible activities that make a quality difference for people in need.

Formal vehicles of health and human service delivery are interconnected in numerous
ways. For example, one might become a member of the Alliance of Information and Re-
ferral Systems (AIRS), which is an umbrella organization for providers of information and
referral programs and seeks to enhance the capacity of local service networks (AIRS, 2015).
The AIRS program might put you in touch with other communities and how they orga-
nize their service-delivery units. We will brief ly examine service-delivery units according
to three types of auspice: nonprofit, public (governmental), and for-profit (commercial).

Nonprofit Agencies As voluntary associations become more formal, they may be-
come incorporated as nonprofit agencies, recognized as publicly chartered tax-f ree
organizations. There are many types of nonprofit agencies, but we will focus on non-
profit human service agencies. Nonprofit agencies are formal vehicles of health and hu-
man service delivery. They are often viewed within local communities as the agency of
choice—a voluntary initiative that targets a specialized clientele.

Nonprofit agencies provide many different services within local communities.
Although all nonprofit agencies using government funding serve clients without regard
to race or gender, a growing number of agencies are specifically designed to serve the
special needs of ethnic communities and families, women who are victims of discrimina-
tion and/or violence, and other groups underserved by more traditional agencies. The
macro practitioner should identify which nonprofit agencies serve the target population
and whether they have particular service emphases.

Public Agencies The public sector consists of federal, state, regional, county, and city
government entities. When the mutual support function is performed by government, it
is referred to as social welfare. The U.S. social welfare system has been described as a scat-
tered, unpatterned mixture of programs and policies that does not work in a systematic
way and is not easy to understand (Karger & Stoesz, 2013).

By the time federal programs are operating within the local community, they have
usually gone through several levels of bureaucracy. Depending on the structure, which

table 6.3 units Comprising the Health and Human service Delivery system

informal units mediating units Formal units

Household units Self-help groups Voluntary nonprofit agencies

Neighborhood groups Grassroots associations
Voluntary associations

Public agencies
For-profit agencies

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 179

will vary by program type, there may be several extracommunity levels through which
dollars have f lowed. There may be regional as well as state mandates, rules, regulations,
and procedures that instruct local providers regarding what they can and cannot do. Lo-
cal decision making and autonomy will vary depending on the policies that drive a par-
ticular program. In short, extracommunity sources have a definite inf luence on the local
delivery of public services.

Understanding the political system within the community is a challenge. In the
United States, jurisdiction over health and human service programs is distributed across
cities, counties, and states. Social workers must contend with federal statutes, regula-
tions, administrative rules, and funding formulas, as well as identify state and local laws
and funding procedures ( Jansson, 2011).

Professional colleagues, however, can provide perspectives on types of services
and whether government is truly addressing the needs of the target population. For ex-
ample, for macro practitioners working in a public housing development, social work-
ers in other developments will be helpful in interpreting how regulations assist as well
as constrain their efforts. Locating colleagues in similar settings is important to devel-
oping a professional support system to aid in coping with public policies, procedures,
and rules.

For-Profit Agencies For-profit firms also provide human services, especially in arenas
such as hospital and nursing-home care. As of 2015, at least 17 health-related companies
(not including pharmaceutical manufacturers) were on the Fortune 500 list of the largest
commercial firms in the United States (, 2015), and all of these had annual
revenues exceeding the $3.9 billion in charitable donations raised by United Way nation-
ally in its 2012 campaign (Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2013). Other areas in which large
human service corporations have developed include child care, home-based nursing care,
and corrections. Private counseling firms, though traditionally small in scale, are also a
part of this sector. All these organizations share a principal reliance on fee-for-service

If all these entities making up the structure of a community’s social welfare system
present a somewhat confusing picture to the student or new practitioner, that confusion
is understandable and shared by many. If one looks at structure as a continuum, at one
extreme might be the public education system and at the other the entrepreneurial or
business system. Education is highly organized with increasingly more challenging cur-
ricula at each level from kindergarten through graduate education. In any community, if
a parent wishes to have the educational needs of his or her child met, the appropriate ed-
ucational services can usually be located in relatively short order. The business sector, on
the other hand, is made up of large and small organizations where someone perceived
a need and proceeded to design some sort of a procurement and delivery system. There
is not necessarily any order to it, and finding a particular product or service to meet a
need may be a very lengthy process. Human services is somewhere in the middle. Every
community includes certain services mandated by some level of government, but there
is nothing to prevent an individual f rom perceiving a need and providing a service as a
volunteer, nonprofit, or for-profit organization. The result is often a very complex web
or network of services designed to meet the needs of a given population, and a begin-
ning exploration of agencies’ websites may be time well spent.

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180 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

identify Patterns of influence, Control, and service Delivery

Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What groups, associations, and organizations (both extracommunity and in the
local community) advocate for and provide assistance to the target population?

• How is resource distribution to the target population inf luenced by interaction
(both electronic and face-to-face) within the community?

• What limits are placed on services to the target population, and who establishes
these limits?

• What roles do citizens and consumers play in the control of services to the target

When assessing patterns and levels of participation, it is important that the macro
practitioner distinguish between citizen and consumer-client participation. There are
many citizens who, for reasons of altruism and conviction, are committed to fighting for
the rights of the poor and oppressed. They bring a certain perspective to the discussion
and make a contribution to constructive change in communities. However, it should not
be assumed that interested citizen advocates represent the same perspective as those per-
sons directly affected by the problem. Representatives of the target population should,
whenever possible, be sought out to represent themselves in their own words; it should
not be left to professionals and other concerned citizens to speak for them.

When dealing with the question of control over service availability to a tar-
get population, there can be both intracommunity and extracommunity sources of
control— referring to whether the organization’s headquarters are within or outside the
community. In practice, external and internal patterned interactions tend to develop
as community units work together. Examples of extracommunity sources of control are
state and federal government funding of community-based health clinics. Resources
are typically allocated through contracts that include regulations and performance
expectations. Thus, various human service agencies within the local community interact
with these extracommunity public entities. Relationships internal to a community have
an important part in linking community subsystems together. Organizations with sim-
ilar interests often form loosely knit federations to accomplish certain functions where
there are common interests. For example, several women’s groups may form a coalition
to establish a battered women’s shelter or a political action committee.

There are not only horizontal relationships that tie one to local informal and for-
mal groups and organizations within the community but also numerous vertical ties that
transcend geographical boundaries. Local community autonomy may be reduced as ex-
tracommunity forces inf luence what one does and how one thinks. The importance of extra-
community forces on the target population within the local community must be considered
in order to understand service distribution patterns. On the other hand, extracommunity
forces may actually strengthen communities by providing more options and additional re-
sources as well as requiring performance expectations so important to accountability.

How powerful the controlling entities become in a community often depends on
the extent of citizen involvement. Before the Internet, citizen participation was primarily
a face-to-face proposition, but today entire webs of relationships can develop sight un-
seen given multiple forms of electronic access. Citizen participation can take the form

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 181

of a number of roles, including reviewing and commenting on various materials such as
reports and proposals. This review process may be carried out electronically, in commit-
tee meetings, through requests for feedback from selected individuals, or through public
hearings. Advising and consulting involve giving opinions about what needs to be done,
whereas an advisory role usually involves a more formal ongoing mechanism such as a
United Way advisory council or planning committee. Although advisory committees do
not have the power of policy boards, they can have a strong voice because of their access
to decision makers. In addition, their opinions may proactively affect proposals rather
than simply reacting to programs designed by others. Governance occurs
when citizens and consumers are placed in positions of control over decisions,
such as policy statements, or become members on boards of directors. These
types of positions allow for the greatest amount of control by citizens and
consumers. For example, a consumer who serves on the governing board of
a family service agency may convince other board members that quality child
care services for single mothers should be a top agency priority.

One cannot assume that citizen participation automatically goes hand-in-
hand with changes practitioners initiate within the community. The concept of citizen
participation is essential to democracy, but it will often involve groups who disagree with
one another. Just as citizens may comprise the local board of planned parenthood, there
are citizens who believe that some of the services offered by this agency are morally
wrong. Whenever interested citizens and consumers participate in community activities,
these types of clashes should be expected.

Simply knowing what groups and agencies are available is not enough. It is import-
ant for the macro practitioner to know whether they actually work together so that tar-
get groups do not fall through gaps in the service delivery system. Thus, the last task in
the assessment process examines the linkages evident to the practitioner and requires a
judgment as to whether these interacting units truly comprise a system that is responsive
to multiple needs.

Determine Linkages between units

Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• How are the various types of service units generally connected?
• What are the established linkages between units that serve the target population

within this community?
• Where are linkages between service units obviously needed but not currently

• Are the interests of people of color, women, gay men, lesbians, transgender per-

sons, and other oppressed groups represented in the network established through
linkages between units?

If there are multiple agencies with overlapping relationships and numerous types of
services, is there a glue that holds the community’s delivery system together? Certainly
there may be competition among units, but there will also be connections. Just as the in-
dividual is embedded in a social network, group and organizational units are embedded
within a service community. These relational patterns may change over time.

go to the Boardsource
homepage and locate the free
community resources section.
What publications might be
useful in understanding and
assessing nonprofit boards?

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182 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

A number of writers have created typologies of how organizations relate to one
another. Tobin, Ellor, and Anderson-Ray (1986) have identified five levels of interaction
between human service agencies within the community: communication, cooperation,
coordination, collaboration, and confederation. Bailey and Koney (2000) identify four
levels: affiliation; federation, association, or coalition; consortium, network, or joint ven-
ture; and merger, acquisition, or consolidation. Table 6.4 provides an adaptation of these
various categories, each of which are discussed next.

Communication Communication can be formal or informal. Information and refer-
ral exemplifies formal communication that happens between units on a daily basis.
Communication designed to increase interagency information and understanding may
be enhanced through the use of websites such as social networking sites like Facebook,
brochures, pamphlets, and media. In this sense, it is an affiliation process. Informal com-
munication occurs between units as groups meet to discuss community issues, and as
staff engage in email exchanges and text messaging, or even talk about their programs at
conferences. Although communication is assumed to occur, breakdowns in the delivery
system often happen because this process of sharing information across units is not nur-
tured, and there are so many ways to communicate that it may be hard to track these re-
lationships. Often, written agreements are developed as a reminder of the importance
of constant communication as staff change within organizations and new groups are
formed within the community.

Cooperation Cooperation occurs when units within the community agree to work
toward similar goals. A local private child care center may work closely with a public
human service agency. Both want to provide support for single parents with young chil-
dren, yet these units provide different resources. Social workers at the child care center
meet with staff at the human service agency once a month to discuss common concerns
and to maintain a sense of continuity for parents who are clients of both agencies. The

table 6.4 Five Levels of interaction among service Providers

Level of

type of
relationship Characteristics

Level of Provider

Communication Friendly, cordial Sharing of ideas between units, including


Cooperation May be defined as an affiliation Working together to plan and implement
independent programs


Coordination Could be a federation-, association-,
or coalition-type relationship

Working together to avoid duplication
and to assist one another in sharing information,
advertising for one another, and making referrals


Collaboration Could be a consortium, network, or
joint venture

Joining together to provide a single program or
service, with shared resources


Confederation Merging into one entity Autonomy

Sources: Adapted from the works of Tobin, Ellor, and Anderson-Ray (1986); and Bailey and Koney (2000).

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 183

practitioner needs to know that these linkages are established and should also be actively
involved in establishing them.

Corporate volunteerism represents a cooperative linkage between the for-profit and
nonprofit sectors. The concept of corporate volunteerism is manifested in a number of
ways (Brudney, 2005). A business may subsidize its employees by giving them release
time to do community service work. Other companies will loan employees to human
service agencies for a specified period of time so that the expertise required for a project
can be provided at no cost to the agency. As employees near retirement, the for-profit
sector often provides preretirement training in which postretirement volunteer oppor-
tunities are presented. In this way, the for-profit sector actually performs a recruitment
function for the nonprofit service delivery system.

The interchange between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors also occurs in the
form of corporate cash and in-kind contributions. Computer manufacturers may donate
hardware to a local service agency, assisting in computerizing its information system.
Restaurants donate food to homeless shelters. A local for-profit nursing home may open
its doors to older community residents who live alone in a large metropolitan area during
a time of anxiety over a crime wave.

Coordination Coordination implies a concerted effort to work together. Often, separate
units will draft agreements, outlining ways in which coordination will occur. Federations,
associations, and coalitions may be formed.

In a continuum of care system that attempts to address the needs of such popu-
lations as older persons, those with disabilities, or people with AIDS within the com-
munity, coordination is necessary. As consumers exit the acute-care hospital, discharge
planners work to develop a care plan. This requires knowledge of and close coordination
with local service providers. Service plans often include a package to support the exiting
client’s needs—mobile meals, visiting nurses, and homemaker services. Depending on
the level of disability and the length of time expected for recovery, this service plan may
make the difference between returning home or convalescing in a long-term care facility.
Extensive coordination is required.

The growth of case management within local communities ref lects the need for
interunit oversight as consumers receive services f rom multiple units. Case manage-
ment programs attempt to provide a coordination function so that service delivery f lows
across informal and formal providers of care. Where there are case managers serving the
target population, it is useful to learn how they view the relationships between service
units that serve the target population and where they see gaps.

Collaboration Collaboration implies the concept of a joint venture. Joint ventures are
agreements in which two or more units within the community agree to set up a new
program or service. This usually occurs when no one separate unit within the commu-
nity is able or willing to establish the new venture alone. Consortia and networks are
typically established for collaborative purposes.

Coalition building is another form of collaboration. A coalition is a loosely de-
veloped association of constituent groups and organizations, each of whose primary
identification is outside the coalition. For example, state coalitions have been formed
in efforts to prevent child abuse. Community organizations, voluntary associations,

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184 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

public agencies, and interested individuals have joined forces to work toward a common
goal—a safe environment for the nation’s children. In coming together, a new volun-
tary association is formed. Even though the diverse members of this coalition represent
various interests across community units, their collaboration on child welfare concerns
provides a strong and focused network for change.

In some communities, agencies created to serve the needs of a special population
collaborate to assess need, to examine the fit between needs and services, and to pres-
ent a united front and a stronger voice in pursuing funding for programs. Many federal
and state contracts require active collaboration or partnerships, even encouraging the
sharing of staff and hiring of coordinators in order to ensure full participation. requests
for proposals (RFPs) f rom private foundations typically require grantees to be specific
about how they will collaborate with others.

Confederation Units within the community may actually merge, often when one or both
units become unable to function autonomously. A horizontal merger occurs, for example,
when two mental health centers consolidate into a single organization. A vertical merger
occurs when a hospital absorbs a home health provider. A conglomerate merger occurs
when units within the community form a confederation of multiple smaller units under a
large umbrella agency. These actions are generally limited to nongovernmental agencies.

Agency interaction inevitably involves competition and conf lict. Change agents
learn to cope with competition and conf lict on a regular basis. These types of interac-
tions will be discussed in Chapters 7 and 8 of this book.

Overall, the preceding tasks may be approached as a series of general questions to
be applied to the task of assessing services in a community. Having looked at the com-
munity, consider these overriding concerns:

• Is the community generally sensitive to the needs of the target population?
• Are target population needs adequately assessed in this community?
• Is there a “continuum of care” concept or framework that guides service plan-

ning and funding for target population needs?
• How adequate is funding to meet target population needs in the community?
• Are services appropriately located for target group accessibility?
• What is the degree of cooperation, collaboration, and competition in providing

services to the target population?
• What gaps in services and problems affecting the target population have

been identified in the process of conducting this assessment?
• How does the race or ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation of the target

population, or some people in the population, affect the need for and provi-
sion of services?


We began this chapter by discussing three reasons why macro practitioners need a
f ramework for assessing communities. First, social work in general and macro prac-
tice in particular require an orientation toward the person-in-environment perspective.
In this chapter, the community in which the target population functions comprises the

assess your understanding
of framework for commu-
nity assessment by taking

this brief quiz.


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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 185

environment. Second, communities change and professionals need a framework for un-
derstanding these changes. We have discussed four tasks that provide insight into how
the target population is served within a changing community. Third, macro-level change
requires an understanding of the history and development of a community as well as an
assessment of its current status.

The assessment process begins with identifying the focal community within which
the target population is located. Learning about the community’s history and the char-
acteristics of the population is done in collaboration with members of the target pop-
ulation. Once community boundaries have been identified, a second set of activities
focus on the sources of data and information available in understanding the commu-
nity. Following this, the human service response is explored, and collective needs are

Since assets are both tangible and intangible, Tasks 3 and 4 lead the practitioner
into asset mapping, beginning with values, strengths, and differences as well as sources
of power and resource availability. A systematic examination of the service delivery
units, patterns and inf luences, as well as linkages among units provides the practitioner
with a picture of community capacity. Sources of help can then be addressed, includ-
ing informal sources such as households and social networks and mediating sources
such as self-help groups and voluntary associations. Formal sources of services in-
clude nonprofit, public, and for-profit providers, and both the nature and orientation
of services may differ in important ways across these auspices. Determining the com-
petence of these systems in combining to meet needs in an effective way is the final

Based on data and information accumulated in the process of assessing a commu-
nity’s human service system, the macro practitioner must finally exercise professional
judgment in evaluating the adequacy of resources devoted to the target population
within the community. If the assessment has been thorough and productive,
the practitioner will have gained enough understanding of what occurs within
the community to identify and begin assessing needed change on behalf of the
target population.

recall what you learned in
this chapter by completing

the Chapter review.


Appendix: Framework for Assessing Community

task 1: identify Focal community

Learn about historical context and population

• What is known about the history of this

• How many persons are members of this
community, and what are their demographic

• What social indicator data are available about this
and similar communities?

identify and collaborate with the
target population

• Which community group or subgroup will be the
target population of this assessment?

• What are the value and political implications of
focusing on a specific group, and how will they be
involved in the assessment process?

• Is this target population primarily part of a
geographical, social, or political community, or a

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186 Chapter 6: assessing Communities

• What priority is given to the needs of this target
population in the community?

• What percentage of the target population is
represented by people at risk of being under-
served due to their race/ethnicity, gender, sexual
orientation, age, disabilities, or other factors?

Determine community Boundaries

• What are the designated boundaries of this

• How do members of the target population view
community boundaries?

• Where are members of the target population
located within the boundaries? Are they highly
concentrated or scattered? Or they a subgroup of a
larger community?

• How compatible are jurisdictional boundaries of
health and human service programs that serve the
target population?

task 2: Locate Data and information on community
needs, issues, and problems

identify community Data sources

• What data sources are available about community
needs, issues, and problems?

• What methods are used to collect these data, and is
this an ongoing process?

• What are the major issues and social problems
in this community as perceived by their

• To what extent are these problems interconnected,
and must some be solved before others can be

gather information specific to target
population needs

• What needs assessment data and other relevant
information are available about the target

• How do persons in the target population
perceive their community’s responsiveness to
their needs?

• Do some members of the target population
experience greater unmet needs due to their
race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age,
disabilities, or other factors?

• Are there subgroups of the target population
that are experiencing oppressive conditions and

task 3: assess community social and
political assets

Focus on community strengths, Values,
and Differences

• What strengths and resiliencies are evident in this

• Are there opportunities (e.g., organizations, rules,
procedures, and policies) to engage community
members in open communication?

• To what extent are the perspectives of people
of color; women; gay men, lesbians, and trans-
gender persons; older persons; and persons with
disabilities sought in decisions affecting the target

• What cultural values, traditions, and beliefs are
important to the target population as individuals or
as a whole?

• What are the predominant values (and potential
value conf licts) that affect the target population
within this community?

Locate sources of power and resource

• What funding sources are subsidizing services for
the target population, and through what groups,
associations, organizations, and agencies?

• How would you describe the power structure
(including both formal and informal leaders) and
resource availability within this community?

• How accessible are services for the target

task 4: assess community structure and capacity

examine service Delivery units

• What informal units (e.g., household, natural, and
social networks) are actively engaged in service
delivery to the target population?

• What mediating units (e.g., self-help groups
and voluntary or grassroots associations) are
actively engaged in service delivery to the target

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Chapter 6: assessing Communities 187

• What formal service delivery units (e.g., nonprofit,
public, and/or for-profit) are actively engaged in
service delivery?

• Are there differences in service delivery that appear
to be based on race or ethnicity, gender, sexual
orientation, disability, age, or religion?

identify patterns of inf luence, control,
and service Delivery

• What groups, associations, and organizations (both
extracommunity and intracommunity) advocate
for and provide assistance to the target population?

• How is resource distribution to the target popula-
tion inf luenced by interaction (both electronic and
face-to-face) within the community?

• What limits are placed on services to the target
population, and who establishes these limits?

• What roles do citizens and consumers play in the
control of services to the target population?

Determine Linkages between units

• How are the various types of service units
generally connected?

• What are the established linkages between units
that serve the target population within this

• Where are linkages between service units
obviously needed but not currently

• Are the interests of people of color, women,
gay men, lesbians, transgender persons, and
other oppressed groups represented in the
network established through linkages
between units?

Assess Your Competence

Use the scale below to rate your current level of achievement on the following concepts or skills associated with
each learning outcome listed at the beginning of this chapter:

1 2 3

I can accurately describe the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome.

I can consistently identify the concept or skill(s)
associated with this outcome when observing

and analyzing practice activities.

I can competently implement the
concept or skill(s) associated with this

outcome in my own practice.

Discuss ways in which to engage communities in an assessment process.

Use a framework to assess a community.

M06_NETT8523_06_SE_C06.indd 187 9/25/15 5:49 PM


Learning OutcOmes

• Define organizations, their
characteristics, and their functions.

• Discuss at least three theories that
focus on organizational structure.

• Discuss at least two theories that
frame organizations from a human
resource perspective.

• Explain the importance of
examining organizations from a
critical perspective.

• Discuss the importance of using
symbolic theories in understanding
the values and underlying assump-
tions in the cultures of human
service organizations.

chapter OutLine

Organizations 188
Using Theories as Frames and Filters

Structural Theories and
Perspectives 192
Bureaucratic Theory
Scientific and Universalistic

Organizational Goals and the

Natural-System Perspective
Management by Objectives (MBO)
Organizations as Open Systems
Contingency Theory

Human Resource Theories and
Perspectives 205
Human Relations Theory
Theory X and Theory Y
Quality-Oriented Management

Political Theories and
Perspectives 211
Decision Making








ConCeptualizing organizations

We live in a society of organizations. Whether they are large or
small, or formally or informally structured, organizations carry out
the core functions of our social order. In many communities, peo-
ple’s needs are met by specialized organizations, such as voluntary
associations, shops, markets, restaurants, religious congregations,
municipal utilities, construction companies, schools, hospitals,
social welfare institutions, and nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs). As we discussed in Chapter 2, today’s society was made
possible in large measure by the rise of an “organizationalized”
structure. From birth (typically in a hospital) to death (under the
care of a hospital or hospice, followed by services handled by a fu-
neral home) and at almost all points in between (schools, churches,
employers, etc.), people interact with and depend upon organiza-
tions throughout our lives.

Organizations also comprise the building blocks of larger
macro systems, and individuals engage society through these or-
ganizations. Communities are critical societal units, yet individuals

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 189

Resource Dependency and
Political-Economy Theories

Critical and Feminist Theories

Symbolic Theories and
Perspectives 216
Organizational Culture Theory
Organizational Learning Theory

Summary 224

Chapter Review 225

tend not to interact directly with their community but with organiza-
tions that make up the community. In fact, communities often can be
understood not just as masses of individuals but also as networks of
organizations. Communities provide the superstructure within which
organizations interact, but it is organizations that carry out most ba-
sic community functions (see Chapter 5). Macro practice that involves
working with communities therefore inevitably requires an under-
standing of organizations as well.

Of still further importance is the fact that most social workers,
as well as most members of society, carry out their jobs f rom within
organizations. In organizations other than the workplace, social work-
ers usually have a consumer–provider relationship, and they are f ree
to turn to alternative organizations if the relationship is unsatisfactory.
Workplace environments, however, involve a different type of relationship that is not as
easily terminated, and the need for a paycheck may force the social worker to persevere in a
less-than- satisfactory relationship with the organization.

The organization may also be one that does not function well. Over time, agencies can
stagnate, lose sight of their mission and goals, and begin to provide services that are unhelp-
ful or even harmful to clients. This can occur because of inadequate resources, poor lead-
ership, poor planning, inappropriate procedures or structures, or a combination of these
factors. Social workers in these situations may have the option to leave, but doing so can
create other dilemmas. We believe that professional social workers have an obligation to
attempt to correct problems in their organizations for the benefit of both their clients and
themselves. Just as agencies can lose a sense of mission and direction, so too can they regain
it. The path to change begins with an understanding of the organization itself—its history,
underlying theoretical principles and assumptions, and causes of current problems. The
major focus of this chapter will be on understanding organizations in general.

Organizations will be defined here as collectives of individuals gath-
ered together to serve a particular purpose. The key word in this definition
is purpose. Parsons (1960) contended that organizations are both defined and
differentiated f rom other social constructions by their focus on achieving a
particular objective or outcome. As noted in previous chapters, the goals that
people organize themselves to accomplish span the full range of human needs,
from obtaining food, water, and shelter to achieving personal growth.

using theories as Frames and Filters

Understanding organizations requires reviewing theories that seek to explain them. Note
that the majority of organizational theories were not developed for understanding hu-
man service organizations or nonprofit organizations in general. Organizational theories
address how organizations arise, why they take certain forms, and how they operate. As
with all theories, their value is judged by the accuracy with which they describe things
(organizations) and predict events (organizational behavior).

As will become apparent, there are many different organization theories (see, e.g.,
Shafritz, Ott, & Jang, 2011), and each emphasizes certain variables (e.g., organizational
type or managerial style) or explanatory principles (e.g., organizations as open systems

Watch this video that
conveys the value of
human service organiza-

tions. Why are human service
organizations considered to be
so important?

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190 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

or organizations as cultures). By the end of the review, readers may feel overwhelmed
by the number of different theories, unsure of how they are applied, or uncertain about
which one(s) to choose. Thus, it may be helpful to keep in mind a few basic questions
that serve as reminders of what the theories are intended to accomplish:

• What variables emphasized by different theories are of greatest importance in
my organization?

• Does my organization resemble or differ from those used as examples in the
theories being discussed?

• Does my organization deliberately structure itself or operate in ways promoted
by certain theories?

• Which theory best describes the structure of my organization? Which seems
best able to predict its actions or decisions?

• Which theories help me understand how my organization differs from others?

Bolman and Deal (2013) discuss the importance of “framing” in making sense of or-
ganizations. The picture captured within a frame offers one view of reality, but no frame
captures everything, and understanding grows as multiple frames are examined. Each the-
ory we will review frames organizations in a certain way, and the frames themselves fall
into larger groups. Bolman and Deal identify four such frames to describe organizations:

• the structural Frame: describes the role of structural architecture in
determining roles and relationships and assigning tasks within the organization;

• the human resource Frame: examines the relationships among people and
how people relate to the organization;

• the political Frame: sees organizations as arenas in which power and politics
play out among individuals and groups; and

• the symbolic Frame: views the organization as an interplay of artifacts, values,
and underlying beliefs.

We have loosely organized the sections of this chapter by f rame, keeping in mind
that theories in each frame have something to offer in understanding organizations. Our
review is by no means complete, as there is such a large body of theory and research that
full coverage is beyond the scope of this book. Instead, we will present a brief review
of the most important schools of thought about organizations, their main tenets, and
their strengths and weaknesses, starting with some of the earliest theories and moving to
more contemporary perspectives.

Another distinction we will offer is between descriptive and prescriptive schools of
thought. Descriptive approaches are intended to provide a means of analyzing organiza-
tions in terms of certain characteristics or procedures. They often ref lect a sociological
approach to organizations, which seeks to understand organizations as social phenom-
ena. In contrast, prescriptive approaches are designed as how-to guides, and their goal
is to help build better organizations. Not surprisingly, because managers play important
roles in deciding how to build and operate an organization, most prescriptive theories are
part of the literature on management and leadership.

Table 7.1 illustrates these and other distinctions among various schools of thought
about organizations. Primary theorists associated with each school are shown in the left
column, after which the date of the first published work in each area appears. Also shown

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 191

table 7.1 Comparative Dimensions of Key organizational theories (in order of appearance)


theory (theorist)
Date Frame* approach Key Concepts

Conception of
organization in

Bureaucracy (Weber) 1894

Structural Descriptive Structure



Scientific and
(Taylor; Fayol)

1911 Structural Prescriptive Efficiency




1915 Structural Descriptive Goal displacement

Natural systems


Management by objectives

1954 Structural Prescriptive Setting goals and


Open systems
(Katz & Kahn)

1966 Structural Descriptive Systems theory


Contingency theory (Burns &
Stalker; Morse & Lorsch;

1961 Structural Varies Environmental constraints

Task environment


Human relations (Mayo) 1933 Human

Prescriptive Social rewards

Informal structure


Theory X and Theory Y

1960 Human

Prescriptive Higher order rewards Closed

Quality-oriented management

1951 Human

Prescriptive Consumer/quality

Process focus


Decision making
(Simon; March)

1957 Political Descriptive Bounded rationality


Resource Dependency and
Political-Economy Theories
(Pfeffer; Wamsley & Zald)

1981 Political (Varies) Power



Critical and Feminist
Theories (Acker, 1990;
Habermas, 1971)

1960 Political Descriptive Inequity

Social construction



Organizational culture
(Schein, Cross, Weick, &

1985 Symbolic Descriptive and

Values, beliefs,
assumptions, diversity,
sensemaking, and


Organizational learning
(Argyris & Schön; Senge)

1990 Symbolic Prescriptive Learning organization
Systemic understanding


*Bolman and Deal (2013).

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192 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

are the key concepts associated with each school, along with distinctions
relating to whether each theory approaches organizations as open systems
or closed systems. Open-system perspectives are concerned with how orga-
nizations are inf luenced by interactions with their environments, whereas
closed-system approaches are more concerned with internal structures and

Theories offer views of organizations f rom different perspectives,
and any given view may sharpen the focus on one part of an organization
while blurring others. We suggest that readers return to Table 7.1 regu-
larly to help keep track of the distinctions between different schools of
thought, especially with respect to the key concepts that each theory

struCtural theories anD perspeCtives

Organizational structure refers to the way relationships are constituted among
persons within an organization. As we discussed earlier, one of the advantages of or-
ganizations is that individuals working in concert can accomplish much more than the
same number of individuals working independently. This occurs when the activities of
members of a group are coordinated in such a way that the work of one supports or
enhances that of the others. Organizational structure is the means by which this coor-
dination is achieved.

Even in informal task groups, members usually do not all attempt to do the same ac-
tivities. Instead, they divide the responsibilities for tasks among themselves. Recognizing
that members also have varying skills and interests, efforts are usually made to match
individuals with tasks. Finally, to help ensure that everyone is working toward the com-
mon goal and supporting others’ efforts, some individuals in the organization may take
on management roles. These aspects of organizational functioning—including task spe-
cialization, matching of person and position, and leadership—are examples of structural
characteristics that are common to virtually all organizations and that provide a means
by which they may be analyzed and understood.

Bureaucratic theory

Among the earliest and most important conceptual work on organizational structure
was that of German sociologist Max Weber. Weber coined the term bureaucracy and ap-
plied it to a particular form of organization. The bureaucracy is an ideal type, meaning
that it is unlikely that any organization fits perfectly with all the characteristics described
by Weber. The bureaucracy typifies descriptive organizational theories in that it provides
a model against which organizations can be compared, after which they can be described
in terms of the extent to which they fit this model. Also, the organizations Weber de-
scribed were factories, the military, and the Catholic church, not human service organi-
zations. It should be noted that Weber did not conceptualize the bureaucratic model as a
goal toward which organizations should strive, but as a way to understand organizational
structure and variation among organizations.

go to the network for social
Work Management website, and
read about the development
of this network. What journal
does this association publish and
what topics have recently been

assess your understanding
of conceptualizing orga-
nizations by taking this

brief quiz.


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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 193

The following characteristics of a bureaucracy are adapted from Weber (1924/1947)
and subsequent summaries of his work (Rogers, 1975). They include:

1. Positions in the organization are grouped into a hierarchy.

2. Job candidates are selected for their technical qualifications.

3. Each position has a defined sphere of competence. For example, in a mental
health agency, a licensed social worker provides therapy.

4. Positions ref lect a high degree of education and specialization.

5. Positions typically demand the full working capacity (in other words, full-time
employment) of their holders.

6. Positions are career oriented. There is a system of promotion according to
seniority or achievement, and promotion is dependent on the judgment of

7. Rules of procedure are outlined for rational coordination of activities.

8. A central system of records is maintained to summarize the activities of the

9. Impersonality governs relationships between organizational members.

10. Distinctions are drawn between the private and public lives and positions of

In organizations with these characteristics, there may be a single executive selected
for his or her technical competence, and the organization is divided into sections by tasks
such as client services, budgeting and accounting, and legal services. The organizational
structure resembles a wide, f lat pyramid in which there are many people at the line level
and few at the administrative level, graphically drawn as a hierarchical organizational chart.

Weber was interested in this organizational model because he believed it ref lected a
change in the values of society as a whole. In fact, his work began with a more general
concern about the way power is legitimized in social relations—why people consent to
do the will of others. He used authority as the term for power wielded with the consent
of those being led, and he identified three major forms:

1. traditional authority: The right to govern bestowed on kings, emperors,
popes, and other patrimonial leaders. This type of authority rests in the ruler’s
claim to historic or ancestral rights of control. It is associated with long-lasting
systems and can be passed from generation to generation of rulers.

2. charismatic authority: Dominance exercised by an individual through extraor-
dinary personal heroism, piety, fanaticism, martial skill, or other traits. Systems
based on this type of authority tend to be unstable and transitional because the
authority is tied to an individual rather than to a position.

3. rational/Legal authority: Power assigned on the basis of the ability to achieve
instrumental goals. This type of authority derives from the legitimacy given to
rational rules and processes and from expertise rather than hereditary claims.

Bureaucracies are the embodiment of rational/legal authority, and the fact that they
have become a dominant organizational model ref lects societal movement away f rom
systems based on traditional or charismatic authority.

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194 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

Bureaucratic structure is designed to help an organization complete its tasks by
maximizing efficiency. As bureaucracies evolved, they provided a blueprint for vast gov-
ernmental institutions to serve far more people than before. For example, tens of millions
receive Social Security payments, Medicare, and other benefits from large bureaucracies.

The machinelike qualities to which Weber called attention can be perfectly suited to
manufacturing firms but disastrous in organizations in which the goal is to respond to
human needs. One example of the ways that bureaucracies can go wrong was offered by
Merton (1952) in his study of employees of bureaucratic organizations. Over time, work-
ers’ concern for doing their job well became secondary to meeting procedural and paper-
work requirements. Merton called this mindset the bureaucratic personality and coined
the term trained incapacity to describe the ways in which bureaucratic personalities lose
focus on the needs of those they serve. He saw the problem as an inevitable consequence
of tightly structured chains of command and pressures for rule compliance that eventu-
ally forced on all workers the realization that their interests were best served not by doing
the job well but by doing it “by the book.”

Questions have also been raised about whether racial or ethnic minorities and
women are disadvantaged in bureaucratic organizations and whether the bureaucratic
model privileges male dominance (Gorman & Kmec, 2009). As employees are promoted
through lower and middle levels to upper-level administrative positions, white males
have often dominated the highest levels and denied access to others. This phenomenon
has been referred to as the glass ceiling. Women and minorities can reach a level at
which they have a view of functioning at the top but cannot get there because those who
select persons for top positions often value sameness and fear diversity.

Box 7.1 provides an overview of bureaucratic theory.

scientific and universalistic Management

Some of the earliest writings on managing tasks and functions in the workplace were
by Frederick Taylor, a U.S. industrialist and educator whose principal works appeared
in the first two decades of the 1900s. Taylor had been both a laborer and a mechan-
ical engineer, and he wanted to identify management techniques that would lead to
increased productivity. He also believed many organizational problems were tied to mis-
understandings between managers and workers. Managers thought workers were lazy
and unmotivated, and they mistakenly believed they understood workers’ jobs. Workers
thought that managers cared only about exploiting workers, not about productivity.

Box 7.1 Weber’s theory of Bureaucratic structure

• Purpose. Descriptive.
• Key Features. Bureaucracies emphasize efficiency of oper-

ation. Decision making is done at the top, and authority to
do so is based on expertise rather than inheritance. Tasks are
specialized, organizational relationships are impersonal, and
a “by-the-book” orientation restricts individual discretion.

• Strengths and Weaknesses. Organizations with
bureaucratic structures are efficient at repetitive tasks

such as mass production of material goods, but they can
be dehumanizing. Also, they are less efficient at variable
tasks, in unpredictable environments, and with staff who
must exercise professional judgment.

• Fit with Social Work. The profession encourages
job specialization based on expertise and the
promotion of individuals as they accumulate skills
and seniority.

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 195

To solve these problems, Taylor (1911) developed what came to be known as
scientific management. One of the first steps to scientifically analyzing a job was to
complete a careful study of the work itself, usually by identifying the best worker and
studying that person. The goal was to find the one best way—to develop the best tools
for completing the tasks, fitting workers’ abilities and interests to particular assignments,
and finding the level of production the average worker could sustain.

The next step was to provide incentives to increase productivity. Taylor’s favorite
tool for this was the piece-rate wage, in which workers were paid for each unit they pro-
duced. In this manner, more units were produced, unit cost was reduced, organizational
productivity and profitability were enhanced, and workers earned more.

Taylor was seeking an industrial workplace in which the traditional animosity be-
tween management and labor could be overcome by recognition of the mutual aims of
each. His points in this regard were summarized by George (1968) and paraphrased below:

1. Good management seeks to pay high wages and keep production costs low.

2. To do this, management has to apply scientific methods of research.

3. Workers are scientifically assigned to jobs, and standards are scientifically set.

4. A standard of output means that employees are precisely trained to improve
their skill in performing a job.

5. Close, friendly cooperation between management and workers is critical in
creating a psychological environment that would make possible the application
of the other principles. (p. 89)

As can be seen from these principles, Taylor’s interests were as much in the area of
organizational psychology as in traditional management theory. Subsequent to his work,
other writers focused more narrowly on Taylor’s concern with maximizing organiza-
tional productivity, and they began to ask whether broader principles could be identified
that encapsulated the ideals of rational management. These writers eventually became
known as the universalistic management theorists. A prominent member of this group was
French industrialist Henri Fayol, who focused on specifying the structural attributes of
organizations that managers should develop and promote. Scott (1981) and others have
suggested ways in which Fayol’s ideas can be condensed into a few characteristics that
describe organizations that adopt his management principles:

1. pyramidal shape: Hierarchical management advocated by Fayol produces a
structure that has a single decision maker at the top and a gradually widening
chain of command.

2. single supervisor: Each person reports to only one immediate superior.

3. restricted span of supervision: No supervisor is responsible for more than a
moderate number of subordinates, usually six to eight.

4. autonomy in routine performance: Subordinates are responsible for routine
matters covered by standard rules; supervisors are responsible for unusual
circumstances not covered by those rules.

5. specialization by task: A division of labor exists within the organization
through which similar functions are grouped together (e.g., those that are
similar in terms of purpose, process, clientele, or location).

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196 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

6. Differentiation of Line and support Functions: Line functions are those that
are central to the completion of core organizational tasks; staff functions are
supportive or advisory.

Although it clearly is not a manufacturing enterprise, social work has adopted a
number of “scientific” approaches to practice. For example, many social workers have
specialized roles, and within these they follow procedures and protocols for serving
certain types of cases. Also, as part of the profession’s commitment to research-based
practice, individual social workers are expected to study the progress of clients in their
caseloads by using methods such as single-subject designs. In a similar way, requirements
for outcome evaluation have placed more rigorous demands on the design of interven-
tions and the measurement of success. Although these trends do not embrace the most
mechanistic aspects of Taylor’s notions, they echo his concern for operations based on
careful analysis of the work itself. The evidence-based management (EBM) movement
offers a contemporary example of Tayloristic attention to science.

Evidence-Based Management
EBM focuses on the tendency of people to make decisions based on personal experience,
overall impressions, and “instinct” or “gut feelings.” Managers and administrators often
operate this way, and experienced leaders can be in great demand because they are as-
sumed to have gained good “instincts” through years of on-the-job training. Proponents
of EBM do not deny that experience has merit, but they caution against assuming that
managers can make good decisions based on “practice wisdom” alone (Bolman & Deal,
2013). EBM can trace its roots to scientific management in which the practice of social
work is based on the best available scientific research.

In defining EBM, Rousseau (2006) emphasized its goal of improving results by com-
bining three elements: findings from empirical research, the expertise of administrators,
and information regarding the preferences of service users. Problems usually arise, she
contended, because decision makers typically rely only on their own experiences and
fail to systematically collect and use information f rom the other two sources. Briggs
and McBeath (2009) traced the origins of this approach to the accountability movement
that appeared first in the health-care arena and then spread to other sectors, and they
and other advocates of EBM acknowledged that in many ways this returns to ideas put
forth by Frederick Taylor and the scientific management school 100 years ago. However,
Pfeffer and Sutton (2006) noted that Taylor called for decisions to be made by managers
and then imposed on workers, whereas EBM calls for the entire organization and all staff
within it to adopt an orientation toward more informed decision making. The process
is also seen as not merely collecting data for its own sake but also gathering it systemat-
ically, evaluating it carefully, using it to choose a course of action, and reexamining the
decision once its results are known.

Results f rom studies of EBM principles have provided some empirical support for
this approach. Collins-Camargo and Royse (2010) found that the presence of an orga-
nizational culture that promotes evidence-based practice, combined with effective su-
pervision, positively inf luences workers’ perception of their self-efficacy. In the health
arena, Friedmann, Lan, and Alexander (2010) found that an orientation on the part of
managers toward EBM principles was positively associated with their willingness to
adopt new techniques for drug-abuse intervention that had received strong support in

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 197

empirical studies. Findings such as these appear promising with
respect to the ongoing diffusion of EBM practices, but whether
the approach will prove to be a lasting addition or a short-lived
repackaging of old ideas may not be known for some time. It
is worth noting, however, that evidence-based practice continues
to be an important trend in micro-level social work, and the par-
allel aims of EBM suggest that the two approaches may prove to
be mutually reinforcing.

Box 7.2 provides an overview of scientific management.

organizational goals and the natural-systems perspective

In the early 1900s, Robert Michels (1915/1949) examined political parties as examples
of large modern organizations. Noting the rise of oligarchies or small groups of key
decision makers within the parties, he suggested that these and other organizations have
identifiable life cycles that proceed through the following steps:

1. The organization develops a formal structure.

2. The original leaders move into positions at the upper levels of the hierarchy.

3. These individuals discover the personal advantages of having such positions.

4. They begin to make more conservative decisions that might not advance their
original cause as forcefully as before but that are less likely to jeopardize their
own security or that of the organization.

5. The organization’s original goals are pushed aside, and it becomes mostly a
means for achieving the personal goals of upper-level administrators. Examples
of this phenomenon abound in political systems at local, state, national, and
international levels. Many begin their political careers with lofty aspirations and
steadily move toward advancing their own security in office.

Michels called this the “Iron Rule of Oligarchy,” concluding that it is an unavoidable
fate of large organizations that adopt bureaucratic approaches to structuring themselves.

Writers such as Etzioni (1964) developed a concept which they called goal
displacement. The formal goals of the organization—stated goals—and those of decision
makers—real goals—may be very different, but through mechanisms such as cooptation,

Box 7.2 scientific and universalistic Management theories

• Purpose: Prescriptive.
• Key Features: Although not influenced by Weber, these

theories essentially describe how to create a bureau-
cracy from the management side. Again, the emphasis
is on efficiency, top-down control, and specialized work.
Managers are also responsible for studying the work itself
and teaching staff the “one best way” of doing each job.

• Strengths and Weaknesses: Organizations managed
by these principles can achieve the original goals of

stability, predictability, and efficient production, but, as
with bureaucracies, the result can be an oppressive and
monotonous workplace.

• Fit with Social Work: The emphasis on “best practices”
and EBM reflect a “one best way” approach out of the
scientific management tradition. The use of flow charting in
designing social programs is derived from time and motion

Research-Informed Practice (or
Practice-Informed Research)

Behavior: Use and translate research evidence
to inform and improve practice, policy, and
service delivery.

Critical thinking Question: What strategies
may make it easier for managers in human service
organizations to use evidence-based management?

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198 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

the growth of oligarchies, and the development of the bureaucratic personality, it is
usually stated goals that are displaced by real goals representing the interests of decision
makers. Selznick (1957) saw this as part of a larger process he called institutionalization.
An institutionalized organization takes on a life of its own that may have more to do
with the interests of its own participants than with the instrumental goals it is suppos-
edly serving.

Recognition of the importance of organizational goals, particularly survival goals,
became an important contribution to the development of organizational and manage-
ment theory. These views have also had considerable inf luence on the study of human
service organizations, such as a well-known analysis of the March of Dimes (Sills, 1957).
Organized originally to unify the efforts of volunteers attempting to raise money for po-
lio research, the March of Dimes became one of the vanguard organizations in the fight
against polio nationwide. These efforts were eventually successful in that funding from
the March of Dimes helped lead to Jonas Salk’s development of the first polio vaccine.
This and subsequent vaccines proved to be so effective that polio quickly became a rare
problem, which meant that the activities of the March of Dimes were no longer needed.
Having successfully achieved its goal, the organization could simply have disbanded, but
it did not. Instead, it took on a whole new cause—birth defects—and its efforts shifted
toward solving this new problem.

Box 7.3 provides an overview of organizational goals and the natural-systems

Management by objectives (MBo)

Peter Drucker (1954) proposed that purpose was often assumed by theorists to be
clearer than it actually was; thus, a key function of management was to establish what
it is that an organization seeks to accomplish. He suggested that organizational goals
and objectives should be made the central construct around which organizational life
revolves. Instead of focusing on structure, precision, or efficiency and hoping for an
increase in productivity and profit, Drucker proposed beginning with the desired out-
come and working backward to create an organizational design to achieve that outcome.
Termed management by objectives (MBO), this approach involves both short-range and

Box 7.3 organizational goals and goal Displacement

• Purpose: Descriptive.
• Key Features: Writers in this school point out that

organizational actors tend to be driven more by personal
than organizational goals. Organizations can thus be
redirected to serve the self-interests of administrators or
others. Also, because organizations are made up of many
individuals, they act less like rational systems than organic
(natural) ones, seeking to protect themselves just as
individuals do.

• Strengths and Weaknesses: Viewing organizations as
organic systems helped draw theoretical attention away

from its earlier focus on internal factors, such as structure
or management style, and reorient it toward issues of
how organizations interact with their environments. Still,
some findings showed that goal displacement and the
rise of self-serving administrations are not inevitable in

• Fit with Social Work: This theory made organizational
behavior a new focus of attention, and it called attention
to the potential for goal displacement in human
service organizations that function in highly uncertain

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 199

long-range planning, and it is through the planning process that organizational struc-
tures and procedures necessary to achieve an outcome are established.

Drucker identif ied several elements of MBO’s strategic planning process.
expectations are the hoped-for outcomes; an example might be the addition of a new
service or client population in an agency, or it might be an improvement in the number
of clients served or results of their services (e.g., an increase of 25 percent in client sat-
isfaction over current levels). Objectives are means of achieving expectations, such as
the steps that must be taken to add or improve programs. assumptions ref lect what is
presumed about how meeting the objectives will achieve expectations (e.g., that the use
of better service techniques will improve outcomes).

Other elements in the process include consideration of alternative courses of action,
such as the costs and benefits of making no changes. Also, the plan must take into account
what Drucker terms the “decision structure,” which represents the constraints that exist
on how much the plan can do, and the “impact stage,” which addresses costs associated
with implementing the plan and limitations it may place on other initiatives or operations.
Finally, once implemented, a plan will have results, and the result of an MBO process is
measured by the extent to which actual outcomes match the original expectations.

One theme made explicit in Drucker’s MBO model is the assumption that organi-
zations should be directed by rational actions designed to achieve certain goals. This
assumption began to be questioned by writers concerned about whether rational,
goal-directed, formalized structures are the best way of serving organizational goals, and
whether these goals provide a clear direction. In fact, the idea that the goals of an or-
ganization and its members could gradually change had been present in organizational
literature for some time.

One major advantage of MBO is its emphasis on producing clear statements, made
available to all employees, about expectations for the coming year. Techniques are also
developed for breaking goals and objectives into tasks, and for monitoring progress
throughout the year. An organization that follows MBO principles tends to improve col-
laboration and cooperative activity.

Many modern approaches to management include various aspects of MBO in their
model. For example, organizations often require the development of an annual plan in
which goals and objectives in each programmatic area are made explicit. Also significant
has been the growth of attention paid to outcomes, in both commercial and human ser-
vice organizations. Social work as a profession was for many years primarily concerned
with process in the development of its practice approaches. Management by objectives,
together with the accountability movement, establishes program outcomes as the major
criteria for determining funding and program continuation.

Management by objectives adopts a particularistic approach to leadership in which,
according to some critics, the attention of managers is concentrated on the trees rather
than on the forest. In other words, management requires large-scale strategic thinking in
addition to small-scale tactical thinking, yet MBO focuses mostly on the latter. Another
criticism is that, although it is sometimes admirable to be clear and direct about organi-
zational expectations, the concept of building organizational life around goals and objec-
tives has its drawbacks. Objectives can serve simply to reinforce existing power structures
within an organization (Dirsmith, Heian, & Covaleski, 1997).

Box 7.4 provides an overview of management by objectives.

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200 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

organizations as open systems

In learning about practice with individual clients, most social workers are introduced to
systems theory. This approach is based on the work of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy
(1950), who believed that lessons learned in fields such as ecology, which concerns or-
ganisms’ interdependence with their surroundings, provide a way to conceptualize other
phenomena as systems engaged in environmental interactions. In this light, individual
clients are viewed not as isolated entities driven by internal processes but as social be-
ings whose personalities and behaviors emerge from constant interaction with the world
around them. As open systems, clients both give to and draw from elements external to
themselves. Understanding this ongoing process of exchange with critical elements of
their personal environment (e.g., culture, community, and family) is key to understand-
ing clients. In Chapter 5, we discussed how this organismic analogy has been extended to
communities, and in the 1960s, various writers began to argue that it applies to organiza-
tions as well.

One inf luential example was the work of Katz and Kahn (1966), who noted that
earlier theorists approached organizations as though they were closed systems that could
be understood simply by studying their internal structure and processes. This approach
corresponds to the mechanical analogy also mentioned in Chapter 5, and Katz and Kahn
considered it naïve. They argued that organizations must be understood as open sys-
tems surviving through a constant exchange of resources with organizations and other
entities surrounding them. The design and functioning of the system are shaped by the
exchanges through which it acts on and responds to its environment.

As illustrated in Figure 7.1, systems are made up of collections of constituent parts
(whether cells comprising an organism or people comprising an organization) that re-
ceive inputs, operate on them through some sort of process called the throughput, and
produce outputs. In human service agencies, inputs include resources such as funding,
staff, and facilities. Clients who request services are also important inputs, as are the
types and severity of the problems for which they seek help. More subtle but also vital
are inputs such as values, expectations, and opinions about the agency that are held by
community members, funding agencies, regulatory bodies, and other segments of the

Box 7.4 Management by objectives (MBo)

• Purpose: Prescriptive.
• Key Features: MBO argues that management must en-

sure the continuing presence of clear goals and objectives
for the organization. Once these are in place, the task of
management becomes one of decision making regarding
how best to achieve each objective. Success is measured
by the extent to which objectives were achieved.

• Strengths and Weaknesses: MBO focuses attention on
results and reorients management toward the question

of how to accomplish desired outcomes. On a day-to-day
basis, however, consideration is given mostly to the small
steps necessary for reaching intermediate objectives, which
may lead to a loss of awareness of eventual end goals.

• Fit with Social Work: The accountability structures
within human service organizations have become
increasingly oriented to outcomes-based approaches, and
social workers must be vigilant in engaging service-users in
determining appropriate outcomes.

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Chapter 7: Understanding Organizations 201

Throughput involves the services provided by the agency—often referred to as its
technology—and the way it is structured to apply this technology to inputs it receives.
Output refers to the organization’s products. In industrial firms, this is usually some
sort of material object; in human service agencies, it is the completion of a service to a
client. As we will discuss, the important aspect of service output is often defined as an
outcome, which is a measure of a quality-of-life change (improvement, stasis, or deteri-
oration) for a client.

Theorists prior to Katz and Kahn implicitly assumed that the key to understanding an
organization lies within, and that is where they directed their attention. The open- systems
view dramatically redirected attention to external environments and the way
organizations must be viewed as dynamic entities constantly involved in ex-
changes with those environments. Although both organizations and organisms
exist within a larger environment, and both engage in exchanges with that en-
vironment, organizations are themselves composed of individuals whose goals
may differ from those of their organization. The throughput phase of environ-
mental interactions in an organization thus involves the interactions of many
organizational members, which adds a new layer of complexity to the model.

Box 7.5 provides an overview of organizations as open systems.

Contingency Theory

Partly in response to the new perspectives offered by open-systems thinking and partly
because of doubts about one-size-fits-all management theories, a new outlook began to
take shape in the 1960s. Its basic premise was that different organizations face different
circumstances, so they may need to structure themselves in different ways. Known gen-
erally as contingency theory, this approach can be boiled down to three basic tenets. Two
were proposed by Galbraith (1973), and the first of these, which directly disagreed with
Taylor, suggested that there are many ways to organize rather than just a single “best way.”
The second acknowledged that some ways of organizing are better than others, so effort
must be expended to find at least an acceptable approach. Scott (1981) added a third, open-
systems principle, which stated that the organization’s environment determines which way
of organizing works best under present conditions. The unifying theme across all three
principles is that the nature of the organization and its management scheme depend on
many factors unique to that organization, so expecting to be able to manage a human ser-
vice agency in the same way as an auto assembly plant, for example, would be naïve.


Inputs Outputs




Figure 7.1 
The Open-Systems Model

Watch this video on open
systems. What are the
seven definitions of open

systems in this video, and how
are they relevant to human
service organizations?

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202 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

Morse and Lorsch (1970) took issue with views such that decentralized, humanistic
management models should be the preferred approach across most organizations. Their
research showed that high organizational effectiveness and a strong sense of personal
competence can be found in organizations with relatively rigid rules and structure. Sim-
ilarly, some organizations with a loose structure and high individual autonomy were not
always effective or satisfying to their workers. The key variable to which results pointed
was the nature of organizational tasks. Organizations with predictable tasks, such as
manufacturing firms, fared best with a tightly controlled structure. Those with less pre-
dictable tasks (such as in a human service agency) appeared much better suited to a loose
structure and management style.

A typology of these differences was proposed by Burns and Stalker (1961), who
distinguished between two forms of management that they labeled “mechanistic” and
“organic.” Mechanistic systems, which ref lect characteristics of bureaucracies, are
commonly found in organizations with relatively stable environments. Organic forms
occur in unstable environments in which the inputs are unpredictable and the organiza-
tion’s viability depends on responding in ways that are less bound by formal rules and
structures. Table 7.2 compares and contrasts characteristics of organic and mechanistic

Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) also noted that the stability of the environment is a crit-
ical contingency on which an analysis of organizational structure and leadership should
rest. Models such as Weber’s bureaucratic system are better at explaining circumstances in
stable organizational environments, whereas the human relations model (to be discussed
in the next section) appears to work better in situations of environmental turbulence.
They also called attention to the importance of certainty versus uncertainty in determin-
ing organizational actions. Stable environments allow for greater certainty in structuring
operations; thus, a human service agency that deals mostly with clients who have a

Box 7.5 organizations as open systems

• Purpose: Descriptive.
• Key Features: This theory broadened and extended

the natural-systems perspective by showing that all
organizations, like all organisms, are open systems. Open
systems acquire resources (inputs) from their environments,
such as funds, staff, and clients, and they return products
or services (outputs) to the environment. Understanding
organizational actions thus requires viewing them as part
of a larger environment in which and with which they carry
out these exchanges.

• Strengths and Weaknesses: Organizational behavior
can be explained as efforts to make beneficial environ-
mental exchanges, and organizations act in ways that
seek to reduce uncertainty and make their environments
as predictable as possible. This makes organizations
themselves more predictable. Still, there are limits to

how far the comparisons between organizations and
organisms can be extended. A full understanding of
how organizations act requires examining both their
interactions with their environments and the interactions
among their members.

• Fit with Social Work: This view is a natural fit for
social workers who understand clients from a person-in-
environment perspective. It also echoes the profession’s
focus on research-based practice, which is necessary to
ensure that services remain relevant. For example, in
response to a given problem in a community, the social
worker might conduct a needs assessment, use the data to
design a program to address the problem, implement the
program, then gather new data to evaluate and refine it.
This meshes well with the input–throughput–output model
elaborated in the open-systems view.

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 203

particular problem (e.g., a food bank) is expected to have fairly routinized operations and
formal structure. Conversely, organizations that deal with a wide variety of clients and
unpredictable client problems (e.g., a disaster relief organization) can be expected to be
structured loosely and have a much less “by-the-book” approach to operational rules.

James Thompson (1967) agreed that a key issue in organization–environment inter-
actions is the degree of uncertainty in the environment, and he noted that organizations
seek predictability because this allows the creation of rational (logically planned) struc-
tures. However, because environments are never perfectly predictable, an organization
that structures itself too rigidly will not survive long. Understanding how an organiza-
tion has structured itself to respond to environmental uncertainty is therefore critical to
understanding it as a whole.

Similar to Morse and Lorsch, Thompson focused on organizations’ technology. As
illustrated in Figure 7.2, he described three levels of functioning: (1) the technical core,
(2) the managerial system, and (3) the institutional system. The technical core includes
the structures and processes within an organization’s boundaries that allow it to carry
out the principal functions for which it was created (e.g., the manufacture of an object
or the delivery of a service). Theoretically, the technical core works best when environ-
mental inputs never vary and the same work can be done in the same way repeatedly.
But because environments are constantly changing, the rational organization seeks to
accommodate such variations without endangering its most vital elements (the technical
core). The managerial system includes those structures and processes that manage the
work of the technical core. The institutional system deals with interactions between
the organization and the environment.

Adaptive responses to environmental change are crucial in Thompson’s analyti-
cal model, and he hypothesized that these fall into a three-part sequence: (1) actions

table 7.2 elements of Mechanistic versus organic organizations

variable Mechanistic organization organic organization

Focus of work Completion of discrete tasks Contribution to overall result

Responsibility for integrating work Supervisor of each level Shared within level and across units

Responsibility for problem solving Limited to precise obligations set out
for each position

Owned by affected individual; cannot be
shirked as “out of my area”

Structure of control and authority Hierarchic Networked

Location of knowledge, information Concentrated at top Expertise and need for information
assumed to exist at various levels

Character of organizational structure Rigid; accountability rests with

Fluid; accountability is shared
by group

Content of communication Instructions and decisions Information and advice

Direction of communication Vertical; between supervisor
and subordinate

Lateral and also across ranks

Expected loyalty To supervisor and unit To technology and outcome

Source: Adapted from Burns and Stalker (1961).

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204 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

to protect the technical core, (2) actions to acquire power over the task environment,
and (3) actions to absorb key elements of the environment by altering organizational
boundaries. Actions to protect the technical core involve responses that allow the
organization to contain necessary changes within itself, such as by increasing or
decreasing output, hiring or laying off staff, or shifting resources among different
internal units.

The task environment is the term Thompson used to describe external organiza-
tions on which an organization depends, either as providers of needed input (money,
raw materials, and client referrals) or as consumers of its output. If internal responses
are unsuccessful in adjusting to change, the organization will attempt to alter its rela-
tionships with members of the task environment to gain more control over the change.
Examples of this might include negotiating long-term funding agreements or arrang-
ing for regular referral of clients (e.g., a residential treatment center may become the
exclusive provider of treatment for a particular school district).

Finally, if the organization cannot adapt to change by any of these methods,
Thompson predicted that it would seek to incorporate into itself parts of the environ-
ment that relate to the change. For example, a human service organization that serves
substance-abusing clients whose costs are paid by contracts with a public agency would
be endangered if funding priorities shifted toward prevention rather than treatment. If a
smaller agency in the area appears to be in line for much of this funding, the older, larger

agency may seek to acquire the smaller one in an effort to main-
tain its funding base. But because such a move involves changing
at least part of the older agency’s technical core, this response
would likely occur only after other tactics were tried and proved

Contingency theorists accepted the premise of the
open-systems model that the environment is critical in un-
derstanding how organizations behave. They argued that or-
ganizations develop their structures not so much through the
application of management principles as by being forced to
react to ever-changing environmental conditions. These ideas




Figure 7.2 
Thompson’s Organizational Model


Behavior: Apply knowledge of human behavior and
the social environment, person-in- environment, and
other multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks to
engage with clients and constituencies.

Critical thinking Question:How would
contingency theory be helpful in analyzing
organizational behavior?

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 205

continue to have considerable inf luence on organizational analysis, and re-
search continues to demonstrate the applicability of contingency theory

Box 7.6 provides an overview of contingency theory.

huMan resourCe theories anD perspeCtives

As the field of organizational management and analysis grew, the works of Taylor,
Weber, and others were criticized for their focus on rational, structural approaches to
understanding organizations. The earliest of these criticisms addressed Taylor’s assump-
tions about factors that motivate organizational actors. Critics took issue with the no-
tion that workers are oriented to the instrumental goals of the organization and respond
most readily to material rewards (e.g., piece-rate wages) designed to further those goals.
One such group sought to test Taylor’s principles concerning productivity enhancement.
Its members eventually concluded that organizations must be viewed as social institu-
tions, and it is social factors—friendship, belongingness, and group solidarity—that are
most important in understanding how organizational actors behave.

human relations theory

Often referred to as the human relations school, this view had its origins in the so-called
Hawthorne studies conducted in the 1920s. Experimenters placed a group of workers in
a special room and varied the intensity of the lighting and other environmental factors
to observe the effect on productivity. Initially they found that the greater the intensity of
lighting, the more productivity rose. However, when they reduced the lighting, expect-
ing to find reduced productivity, they found that productivity continued to grow even
in dim lighting. The researchers concluded that increased productivity was caused by

Box 7.6 Contingency theory

• Purpose. Descriptive.
• Key Features. A one-size-fits-all approach to organiza-

tional analysis or management is doomed to fail because
organizations have different purposes and exist in different
environments. The question is not how closely an organi-
zation adheres to a particular form (e.g., the bureaucratic
model) but how well it structures itself to accommodate
to its unique environment. Also, contingency theory calls
attention to an organization’s technology, referring to the
ways it carries out its tasks. Predictable environmental
input and routine tasks are amenable to more traditional,
hierarchical structure, whereas unpredictable environments
and nonroutine technology require less rigid structure.

• Strengths and Weaknesses. Contingency theory has
influenced many subsequent works, and its contention

that organizations must be understood in terms of how
they structure themselves in response to their environ-
ments remains widely accepted. Most concerns about this
approach address the role of decision makers. Although
proponents argue that their response to the environment
tends to be planned, predictable, and based on the
ration al application of management principles, critics
contend that the evidence for this is scarce and that
responses to environmental change are often unstruc-
tured and reactive.

• Fit with Social Work. Since human service organizations
are typically more organic than mechanistic, contingency
theory offers alternative ways of thinking about how to
structure agencies to be more responsive to diverse groups
within the larger environment.

assess your understanding
of structural theories and
perspectives by taking this

brief quiz.


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206 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

social factors. Workers appeared not to respond to the lighting but instead to the fact that
they were members of a group for which they wanted to do their part, and it was this
sense of social responsibility that prompted better performance.

Subsequent experiments on the effect of social factors on organizations, including
many from the field of industrial psychology, examined broader questions about the be-
havior of groups. The basic tenets of the human relations approach that developed from
these findings are listed below (adapted from Etzioni, 1964):

1. It is not the physical limits of workers that determine output levels but
expectations among workers themselves regarding what levels are reasonable
and sustainable.

2. The approval or disapproval of coworkers is more important than monetary
rewards or penalties in determining how workers act, and coworker approval
or disapproval can negate or enhance monetary rewards.

3. Individual employees’ behaviors or motivations tend to be less important
than those of employees as a group. Attempts by management to inf luence
workers’ behavior are more successful if aimed at the whole group rather than at
individuals because the latter may be unwilling to change unless accompanied by

4. The role of leadership is important in understanding social forces in
organizations, and this leadership may be either formal or informal.

Important implications of these tenets were that individuals were equally or more
likely to draw satisfaction from social relationships in the organization than from its in-
strumental activities. Also important was the notion that workers’ willingness to follow
management came f rom their willingness to follow members of the work group. The
key to making effective changes in organizational operations was not in rules and formal
structure but in the quality of personal affiliations and the coherence of informal struc-
tures. Managers who succeeded in increasing productivity were most likely to have been
responsive to workers’ social needs.

Another writer associated with this school, Mary Parker Follett (1926/2005), noted
that social relations also came into play with regard to how managers treated their subor-
dinates. Arguing that “probably more industrial trouble has been caused by the manner
in which orders are given than in any other way” (p. 153), she urged managers to recog-
nize that workers remained people rather than parts of a machine, and retaining basic
standards of interpersonal communication ultimately facilitated productive functioning.

Human relations theory has had an important effect on organizational thinking.
With respect to management practice, its tenets have provided a counterbalance to the
formalized and often rigid approaches of other management theories. It has also inf lu-
enced descriptive approaches by serving as a reminder of how the needs and interests
of individual employees can be critical determinants of organizational behavior. Later
theories would develop around genuine empowerment for employees, but human rela-
tions management eventually died out as an approach to running an organization when
it was recognized that a happy workforce was not necessarily a productive one, and other
variables began to enter the equation. Nevertheless, human relations called attention to
factors such as teamwork, cooperation, leadership, and positive attention from manage-
ment that remain relevant today. Its emphasis on these aspects of interpersonal relations

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 207

made it the first of several schools of thought to employ what Bolman and Deal (2013)
term the “family” metaphor of organizations.

A number of writers have raised concerns about the methodological soundness of the
studies on which these views are based. For example, the original Hawthorne experiments
have earned an infamous place in the history of research methodology. The term hawthorne
effect refers to the fact that experimental subjects may perform in certain ways simply be-
cause they know they are being studied. In this case, workers in the Hawthorne plant may
have raised production not because of lighting or a sense of group solidarity but because of
self-consciousness about being observed. Other critics have argued that the design of these
studies was such that expectations about economic incentives might still have inf luenced the
subjects, further undermining the supposed effect of social factors (Sykes, 1965).

A second line of criticism argues that it is possible to overestimate the importance of
social factors in organizations. For example, various studies have indicated that informal
organizational structures may not be as prevalent or powerful as human relations writers
suggest, that democratic leadership is not always associated with greater productivity
or worker satisfaction, and that economic benefits are important to many employees.
Also, Landsberger (1958) argued that emphasizing worker contentedness at the expense
of economic rewards could foster an administrative model that is even more manipula-
tive and paternalistic than might be the case with scientific management. This is because
human relations theory, like other management approaches of the time, concentrated
power and decision making at the top and was never intended to empower employees or
assist them in gaining genuine participation in the running of the organization. If people
were treated more humanely under human relations management, it was because pro-
ponents believed this would lead to greater productivity, not because of a desire to create
a more democratic workplace. Finally, an emphasis on strengthening personal and social
relationships within the workplace may also have disadvantaged some groups of employ-
ees over the years. Social relationships within organizations play a role in identifying and
securing jobs and promotions for people, but women and ethnic minorities have often
been excluded from personal networks that control these rewards.

theory X and theory Y

Later writers drew on the work of human relations theorists but incorporated them
into more general f rameworks addressing human motivation. One example is the work
of Douglas McGregor (1960), who adopted Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as
a f ramework for understanding workers’ actions. To McGregor, organizational actors
were not just social creatures but also self-actualizing beings whose ultimate goal in
organizations is to meet higher order needs. To illustrate this point, he identified two
contrasting approaches to management that he labeled “Theory X” and “Theory Y.”
theory X includes traditional views of management and organizational structure such
as those of Taylor, Weber, and others, which, McGregor argued, make the following
assumptions about human nature:

1. Human beings try to avoid work at all costs (p. 33).

2. Since they dislike working, human beings must be pressured into working
toward organizational goals.

3. Because they have little initiative, human beings need close supervision (p. 34).

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208 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

These assumptions led to what McGregor saw as the domineering, oppressive aspects of
Theory X management.

In contrast, theory Y assumes that the task of management is to recognize work-
ers’ higher order needs and design organizations that allow them to achieve these needs.
Its assumptions are as follows:

1. People naturally like to work.

2. Human beings like to take initiative and enjoy working toward goals to which
they are committed.

3. Human beings typically seek responsibility and can be trusted to get a job done.

4. Most human beings have the capacity to be creative in solving organizational

5. People do not normally require close supervision. (McGregor, 1960, pp. 47–48)

The critical feature of this approach is its break f rom the management-dominated
orientation of previous theories in favor of placing decision-making power with lower
level actors. Such loosely structured organizations are seen as best for promoting produc-
tivity by allowing employees to meet higher order needs through their work.

McGregor’s analysis was supported by the research of Frederick Herzberg (1966).
Herzberg studied motivation among employees, dividing motivational elements into
two categories: extrinsic factors and intrinsic factors. Factors extrinsic to the job in-
clude wages, hours, working conditions, and benefits. Intrinsic factors have to do with
motivators that lie within the work itself, such as satisfaction with successful task com-
pletion. Herzberg discovered that, in the long run, extrinsic factors tended to keep down

the levels of dissatisfaction with the job, but they do not motivate workers
to work harder. Only intrinsic factors, such as the ability to use one’s own
creativity and problem-solving skills, motivate employees to become more
productive. Herzberg’s work helped foster ongoing interest in job redesign,
which, broadly defined, seeks to increase the intrinsic rewardingness of work.
Research has shown that appropriate job design positively inf luences effec-
tiveness in service-related realms (Hakanen, Schaufeli, & Ahola, 2008; Leana,
Appelbaum, & Shevchuk, 2009). In addition, better job design has been linked
with decreased absenteeism (Pfeiffer, 2010), decreased turnover (Simons &
Jankowski, 2008), and increased job satisfaction (Chang, Chiu, & Chen, 2010).

Box 7.7 provides an overview of human relations and Theory Y.

Quality-oriented Management

Shortly after World War II, U.S. college professor W. Edwards Deming traveled to Japan
to assist with a proposed national census there. He stayed to help Japanese managers,
who were working to rebuild the country’s industries and learn new ideas for control of
the manufacturing process as a means of improving the quality of goods produced. Two
important outcomes arose f rom this work. First, within only 30 years, Japanese man-
agement techniques had gained such a reputation for effectiveness that they were being
reimported to the United States and touted as a model for improving U.S. management.
Second, Deming and others realized that principles being used to improve manufactured
goods could be applied to service organizations as well. These were the earliest stirrings

Watch this video that
explores the puzzle
of motivation. What

organizational theory do you
think Dan pink’s discussion on
motivation reflects? how do you
think his discussion applies to
human service organizations?

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 209

of a set of related movements that featured a focus by management on quality and on-
going quality improvement. Two of the most inf luential schools of thought associated
with this approach are Theory Z and Total Quality Management.

Theory Z
Due in part to the quality-control procedures they had perfected, Japanese firms in the
late 1970s and early 1980s began capturing markets long dominated by U.S. businesses.
This aroused curiosity about how Japanese companies had overcome their prior reputa-
tion for poor products and were now setting worldwide standards of quality.

William Ouchi attempted to capture Japanese-style management in his 1981 book,
Theory Z. The message of the title was that the philosophical and theoretical principles
underlying Japanese management went beyond McGregor’s conceptualization of The-
ory Y. An organization in Japan, said Ouchi, was more than a structural or goal-oriented
entity—it was a way of life. It provided career-long employment; intermeshed with the
social, political, and economic systems of the country; and inf luenced organizations
such as universities and public schools, even to the lowest grades.

The basic premise of Japanese-style management was that involved workers are the
key to increased productivity. Although this may sound similar to the human relations
school, that was only partly so. The Japanese were concerned about more than whether
workers felt that their social needs were met in the workplace. They wanted workers to
become a demonstrable part of the process through which the organization was run.
Ideas and suggestions about how to improve the organization were regularly solicited
and, where feasible, implemented. One example was the quality circle, where employ-
ees set aside time to brainstorm ways to improve quality and productivity.

In contrast to U.S. organizations, Japanese organizations at the time tended to have
neither organizational charts nor written objectives. Most work was done in teams, and
consensus was achieved without a designated leader. Cooperation rather than compe-
tition was sought between units. Loyalty to the organization was extremely important,
and it was rewarded with loyalty to the employee.

These approaches had considerable inf luence, and among the organizations that
were early adopters of these principles were several research and development offices in
the U.S. military (Chenhall, 2003). Even more interesting is the fact that, although Ouchi

Box 7.7 human relations and theory Y

• Purpose. Prescriptive.
• Key Features. These theories assume that workers are

motivated by factors other than wages. Social relations
among staff can enhance production, and they seek to en-
hance performance by promoting group cohesion and add-
ing social rewards to the range of reinforcements available
in the workplace. Others added needs such as self-
actualization to the list of additional motivating factors.

• Strengths and Weaknesses. Managers are more likely
to recognize workers’ higher order needs (beyond merely
a paycheck) and expand their awareness of potential

motivating factors. Flawed early research overestimated
the effect of social influences on production, and the
model continued to place discretion and authority solely
in the hands of administrators. Later writers argued that
increased worker participation would enhance both
productivity and workers’ ability to meet their needs.

• Fit with Social Work. The importance of human rela-
tions theory is that social factors are recognized. Workers’
tasks are often loosely defined and seemingly well
suited to Theory Y management, yet many human service
organizations are still operated with a Theory X mentality.

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210 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

and others were promoting Japanese adaptations of quality-oriented management, a par-
allel movement in the United States that also had roots in Deming’s work was beginning
to gain attention: total quality management.

Total Quality Management
A U.S. writer, Armand Feigenbaum, coined the term “total quality” to describe man-
agement practices designed to direct all aspects of an organization’s operations toward
achieving and maintaining maximum quality in goods or services. Feigenbaum (1951)
developed many of the principles of this approach independent of Deming’s work and
at about the same time, beginning with a book published in 1951. But it was not until
the 1980s that the work of these and other writers gained prominence and began to be
known under the general title of total quality management or tQm.

In its definition of TQM, the American Society for Quality (2006) emphasizes that
the fundamental orientation of TQM is toward maximizing customer satisfaction. This
definition is useful in two ways. First, it highlights the breadth of applicability of the con-
cept of quality, which is intended to apply not only to, for example, a machine that holds
up under years of use but also to services that are accurately targeted toward meeting
the needs of the purchaser. The second way the definition is useful is in its reference to
customer satisfaction. Defining quality as satisfaction imposes a requirement that orga-
nizations stay in touch with their customers, use the information gleaned from them to
assess performance, and fine-tune their operations based on this input.

Although some principles are unique to TQM, others ref lect earlier schools of
thought. For example, TQM adopts McGregor’s view that workers are more produc-
tive if they are allowed discretion in determining how the job is to be done. The model
also favors using quality circles and other team-building approaches described by Ouchi.
In other cases, though, TQM explicitly rejects prior theoretical views. Among these are
bureaucratic (rule-oriented) structures, which TQM adherents view as a threat to the
f lexibility needed to respond to consumer input and engage in ongoing quality improve-
ment. Saylor (1996) also notes that TQM is incompatible with Drucker’s management
by objective (MBO) guidelines, because TQM considers customer satisfaction a moving
target. This again demands a continual process orientation designed to anticipate and
adapt to new customer needs, whereas MBO, Saylor argues, focuses on achieving static
outcomes that may ignore the changing needs of customers.

Because TQM has its origins in commercial manufacturing firms, its applicabil-
ity to human service organizations in the public or private sectors may be questioned.
However, results of studies in which TQM principles were applied in human service
agencies suggest that this concern is unfounded (Kelly & Lauderdale, 2001; Williams,
2004). In addition, Moore and Kelly (1996) have suggested that TQM principles can be
useful if tailored to the unique needs of the organization when implemented.

Box 7.8 provides an overview of Theory Z and TQM.
Advocates of quality-oriented management argue that it represents truly new ideas

due to its emphasis on process rather than exclusively on outcomes. Through this pro-
cess orientation, they contend, fundamental changes can occur in the way
organizations work. Such changes may include increased involvement by line
staff in the design of procedures and services. They might also include a defi-
nition of quality operations that effectively incorporates workforce diversity as
an organizational resource.

assess your understanding
of human resource theo-
ries and perspectives by

taking this brief quiz.


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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 211

politiCal theories anD perspeCtives

Recall that in Chapter 5, we examined community politics with a little p (denoting infor-
mal relationships as opposed to a capital P, denoting electoral political systems) because
we were referring to those multitudes of interactions in which people engage that are
not always related to government or legislative activities. Thus, organizational theories
and perspectives within the political f rame are inclusive of internal as well as external
politics with a little p. Even though decision-making theory originally described a very
closed system, focusing on internal decision making, theorists were clear f rom the be-
ginning that decisions are inherently political because they involve human dynamics and
power differentials (the politics that occur within organizations). Thus, in this section,
we begin with decision-making theory and move on to more open-systems perspectives.

Decision-making theory

During the time that natural-system perspectives were gaining prominence, other writ-
ers continued to explain organizations as rational systems by exploring the process of
decision making. One of these, Herbert Simon (1957), began by changing the unit of anal-
ysis f rom the organization to individual actors and focusing on their decision making.
A strong inf luence on his thinking was the work of psychologists who studied the im-
portance of stimulus–response connections as explanations for human behavior. He be-
lieved organizations can be conceptualized as aggregations of individual decisions within
them, and organizational behavior as decisions made about how to respond to certain
stimuli. Because every decision carries some risk, decision making in organizations was
thought of as a risk management process within the context of organizational politics.

March and Simon (1958) argued that the key to understanding organizational decisions
is to recognize that there are constraints that limit decision making. They termed this phe-
nomenon bounded rationality and identified three major categories of constraints:

1. Habits, abilities, and other personal characteristics that individuals bring with
them into the decision-making process and that inf luence their actions in
certain ways, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding a specific decision;

Box 7.8 theory z and total Quality Management (tQM)

• Purpose. Prescriptive.
• Key Features. These theories underscore quality as the

primary organizational goal and customers as determining
what quality is. Change is ongoing and requires teamwork,
and communication is top-down, down-up, and sideways
(Martin, 1993).

• Strengths and Weaknesses. Focusing on quality
and consumer input is empowering, and the principles
of Theory Z and TQM are aligned with social work
values. However, these approaches are paradoxical to
other approaches such as MBO in which objectives
are set from the top down and organizational charts

are hierarchical. Thus, quality management requires a
paradigm shift that challenges deeply held underlying

• Fit with Social Work. Quality management principles
that can benefit human service organizations are (1) using
quality circles to improve staff involvement and make
services more relevant, (2) carefully monitoring whether
consumer needs are being met, (3) hiring and training
staff in ways that ensure front-line staff have both the
skills and interests necessary for their jobs, and (4) having
management staff who can define a quality orientation
and move the organization toward that goal.

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212 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

2. Loyalties toward a certain group (inside or outside the organization) that has
values that conf lict with the values of the organization as a whole; and

3. The inability of the decision maker to know all the variables that might
inf luence the decision or all possible consequences of the decision.

The goal of the decision maker is not necessarily to achieve a perfect outcome,
because this may never be possible. Instead, the decision maker seeks to reduce uncertainty
as much as possible in order to make a decision that has a reasonable likelihood of produc-
ing an acceptable outcome. In this way, key decisions are computed to handle uncertainty
and inherently political in how to obtain cooperation. March and Simon called this process
satisficing, and they argued that understanding how satisfactory outcomes are pursued via
decisions made in the context of bounded rationality is key to understanding organizations.

Subsequent works expanded on these ideas. Cyert and March (1963) suggested that
decision making in aggregate is a process of bargaining between individuals and units
that have different views and goals (a political process). The eventual actions of the or-
ganization can be understood as the outcome of these ongoing negotiations among
organizational members. March and Olsen (1976) proposed a garbage can analogy to
describe the rather chaotic process in which decisions emerge from a mixture of people,
problems, ideas, and “choice opportunities” that are unique to every organization and

As a means of understanding organizations, the decision-making approach has
a number of limitations. For example, in a critique of March and Simon’s work, Blau
and Scott (1962) argued that the model focuses too narrowly on formal decision mak-
ing, ignoring the interpersonal aspects of organizations and the inf luence that informal
structures can have on decisions that are made. Champion (1975) noted that little atten-
tion is paid to situations in which a particular individual may not seek overall rationality
but personal or local-unit gain. Most important, the decision-making model has been
criticized for its focus on internal factors that lead to particular decisions. This emphasis
ignores the fact that, often, inf luences external to the organization are the most import-
ant to eliciting and determining a decision.

Box 7.9 provides an overview of decision-making theory.

resource Dependency and political-economy theories

Jeff rey Pfeffer (1981) argued that organizational actions are best understood in terms of
power relationships and political forces. He defined power as the ability to inf luence
actions, and politics as the process through which this inf luence is used. Asked where
power originates, Pfeffer would contend that it arises from an individual’s position within
the organization, meaning that power and organizational structure are closely tied.

To illustrate the relationship of power and structure, Pfeffer compared three models
of organizational analysis: (1) the bureaucratic model, (2) the rational-choice model, and
(3) the political model. The bureaucratic model is based on the classic Weberian approach that
assumes an organization both acts and is structured in a manner that maximizes its produc-
tion efficiency. Pfeffer’s criticisms of this model were essentially the same as those detailed
earlier in this chapter. The rational-choice model derives from the work of decision-making
theorists such as Simon. Pfeffer agreed with their points concerning constraints on rational

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 213

decision making, but he noted that these models still assumed that decision making is
oriented toward a clear organizational goal, whereas in most organizations a range of goals
and motivations may exist. Pfeffer urged the use of a political model of structural analysis,
which calls attention to the manner in which organizational actions may be either instru-
mental (serving the presumed goals of the organization as a whole) or parochial (serving
the perceived self-interest of a particular individual or organizational unit). These goals may
differ, as does the power of the decision maker to effect his or her choice of action. Pfeffer
thus believed that organizational actions must be understood in terms of the complex in-
terplay of individuals working together—sometimes toward mutual goals and sometimes
toward personal goals—in a manner analogous to what happens in the political arena.

All organizations rely on elements in their environment f rom which they can ob-
tain resources needed for survival. In the terminology of systems theory, this is called
resource dependence. Because of it, organizations try to form relationships with other
organizations that can provide needed resources reliably and predictably. Cash and non-
cash funds represent one type of resource, but human service organizations need other
types such as services (e.g., accounting), skilled staff, and clients.

Wamsley and Zald (1976) argued that structure and process in organizations are best
understood in terms of the interplay of political and economic interests, both internal
and external to the organization. Political means the processes by which the organization
obtains power and legitimacy. Economic means the processes by which the organization
gets resources such as clients, staff, and funding.

The goal of this political-economy perspective was to incorporate much of the
work of previous schools into a more general conceptual model. Within this model,
elements such as individual interests and goals, the power wielded by the holders of
these interests, and environmental resources and the relative inf luence of those who
control them are all seen to interact in a way that creates the unique character of an
organization. This character is not static but changes as the political economy of the
organization changes. With respect to the metaphors proposed by Bolman and Deal

Box 7.9 Decision Making

• Purpose. Descriptive.
• Key Features. Much of what organizations are and do is

the product of decisions made by individuals throughout
the hierarchy, but especially at the administrative level.
These decisions are only as good as the information on
which they are based, however, and complete information
needed to make informed decisions is seldom, if ever,
present. Because of this lack of information, organizations
can never be fully rational. Decision makers thus learn to
satisfice, meaning they do not expect optimal outcomes
but merely acceptable ones.

• Strengths and Weaknesses. These writers showed
that the quality of other aspects of management is ir-
relevant if the quality of decision making is poor. They

also accurately anticipated the computer age, which
demonstrated the importance of information as an
organizational commodity. The better the quality (though
not necessarily quantity) of information available, the
better the decisions and, eventually, the outcomes. The
drawback to this approach was that it remained focused
on the politics of internal decision making and failed
to give sufficient attention to the larger environment in
which an organization operates.

• Fit with Social Work. Discretion and professional
judgment are trademarks of human service work, and
decision-making theory provides insight into the nature of
satisficing, the myth of rationality, and the political nature
of internal dynamics.

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214 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

(2013), this fits the “jungle” model, in that the organization is seen as an environment
of competing interests where those holding the power determine whose interests are
given priority.

The topic of power has also been discussed with respect to its effect on ethnic minori-
ties and women in organizations. For example, evidence suggests that the gap in pay be-
tween white males and others does not arise solely from the fact that white males typically
occupy better paid positions. Instead, it also appears to result f rom white males holding
power that allows them to protect their earnings advantage. Castilla (2008) demonstrated
that merit pay systems designed to award salary adjustments on the basis of job perfor-
mance could be manipulated to benefit those in power. Cohen (2007) found that having a
higher proportion of women in an organization had little effect on correcting the male–fe-
male wage gap. What did begin to narrow the gap was having at least a few women in po-
sitions with high prestige and inf luence. This supports Pfeffer’s contention that power and
inf luence—rather than procedures or numbers—determine how organizations behave.

In Chapter 5, we discussed theories about power, politics, and change that pertain to
communities (see Table 5.7). Note that because political-economy and resource depen-
dency theories view organizations as open systems, they focus on understanding organi-
zations within their communities. Box 7.10 provides an overview of political-economy
and resource dependency theories.

Critical and Feminist theories

Political-economists recognize the politics surrounding organizational-environmental
relationships and attempt to identify strategies used to negotiate and reconcile differ-
ences among diverse organizational interests. Critical theorists, on the other hand, not
only recognize these politics but also see organizations as instruments of exploitation in
capitalist economies in which powerful, elite political systems carry out social injustices.
Since organizations are seen as institutionalizing political exploitation, critical theorists
call into question their social construction as vehicles in which discrimination and ineq-
uity marginalize certain interests (primarily women and minorities) (Hasenfeld, 2010).

Inspired by Karl Marx, as opposed to Max Weber, critical theorists question the as-
sumptions held by traditional organizational theorists. Critical philosopher Habermas
(1971), sociologist Giddens (1984), and planners Forrester (1980) and Bolen (1980) have
all inf luenced the development of this perspective. The goal of critical theory is to create

Box 7.10 political-economy and resource Dependency theories

• Purpose. Descriptive.
• Key Features. These theories underscore how

important it is to recognize that organizations are influ-
enced by external and internal political and economic
dynamics. Since the environment is constantly changing,
organizations must develop adaptive strategies.

• Strengths and Weaknesses. Power and politics
perspectives affirm the highly complex nature of
organizational survival, and illustrate how important

it is to recognize the multiple forces within the
environment. However, they tend not to focus on values
and ideologies that may transcend power and money in
shaping behavior (Hasenfeld, 2010).

• Fit with Social Work. Because human service
organizations are highly dependent on external resources,
it is incumbent upon social workers to be aware of the
political and economic forces that impact internal behavior
and service delivery.

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 215

workplaces (and whole societies) f ree f rom oppression and in which all members have
equal opportunities. Recognizing that client–worker relationships are based on power
differentials, workers are seen as instruments of discrimination even with the
best of motives. Since a leader, manager, practitioner, or worker represents
a system that has structure, processes, and services designed with dominant
assumptions, critical theory points out that each party may be carrying out
assumptions that can do harm. An example is bureaucractic disentitlement, a
term coined by Michael Lipsky (1984) to describe situations in which workers
within social welfare agencies neglect to take action or to inform clients about
what they are qualified to receive, thus disempowering the very persons they
are there to serve.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminist scholars joined with
critical theorists in criticizing traditional organizational theory and research that ignored
the relevance of gender in the working world. Terms such as gendered and gendering en-
tered the literature, and a focus on gender inequalities emerged (Acker, 2012). Acker
(1990) argued that both traditional and critical approaches to organizations emanate
from male conceptualizations and therefore view reality f rom a male standpoint. These
conceptualizations are often assumed to be gender neutral, when in fact women and
men are differently affected by organizations. She further argued that traditional organi-
zational theory assumes an ideal worker and divides the world of work into productive
and reproductive activities, privileging work within organizations over domestic work
that occurs outside formal organizations. Thus, organizations are gendered structures
built on dominant logics, and they inherently oppress any group that does not conform
to male privilege. Building on Acker’s argument, other feminist writers have examined
the ways in which organizations inherently oppress women as well as any other non-
dominant population group (Britton & Logan, 2008). Fenby (1991) contended that femi-
nist ways of knowing could be combined with critical theory and “used as an alternative
theoretical base for management” (p. 21).

Theorizing about gender has become more complicated with the recognition of
intersectionality (introduced in Chapter 3), acknowledging that gender does not stand
alone but intersects with other forms of inequality and exclusion. Acker (2012) called
for a critical review of organizational change related to gender, race, and class. She
asked what counts as part of an organization. For example, are outsourced functions
part of the organization, such as having young female workers in China produce a
product for an American company? In other words, if one organization contracts with
another one that exploits women or minorities in some way, is the original organiza-
tion responsible? She asked about what positions are part of the workforce of a par-
ticular organization. In other words, are part-time workers or even volunteers who do
not receive benefits considered employees? It is these groups that may be exploited
and treated differently, yet they may be invisible in employment statistics. Acker (2012)
considered the schism between the paid work sector and the domestic (unpaid) work
sectors as the “most enduring gender, race, and class substructures” (p. 222) because
it reinforces the differential between the masculine and the feminine. The masculine
is carried out in formal organizations as legitimate settings for paid work, whereas
the domestic sector in which many women work is often informal, unpaid, and thus

Watch this video where
Michael lipsky discusses
street-level bureaucracy.

Who are the “street-level
bureaucrats,” and why are they
significant to social welfare

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216 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

In the social work literature, Fenby (1991) used critical and feminist theories to ques-
tion management’s “romance with the technical.” She used an action theory approach
to encourage managers to be more self-ref lective, paying attention to the use of self and
forming networks in which alternative ways of looking at managerial actions can take

In order to expose dominant systems, Hasenfeld (2010) proposes undertaking an
ideological critique of four ways in which ideologies are integrated into human services

1. The ways in which human service clients are morally constructed (how clients
are viewed within the organization);

2. How desired ends (outcomes) are defined (and who defines them);

3. What technologies are used to deliver services (how sensitive or insensitive they
are); and

4. How and by whom organizational staff are socialized and controlled. (p. 47)

If, for example, a human service organization adopts more and more business-like
practices based on efficiency and accountability, values of social justice and the culture

of care may become subjugated. In short, these theories question everything
about the status quo in organizations and call for critical thinking about the
unintended consequences and potential ethical conf licts that may be over-
looked in every aspect of organizational work.

Box 7.11 provides an overview of critical and feminist theories.

sYMBoliC theories anD perspeCtives

The symbolic frame primarily focuses on theories that address artifacts, values, underly-
ing assumptions, and organizational culture and identity. Although we have placed crit-
ical and feminist theories within a political f rame, they straddle a line between political
and symbolic. Similarly, symbolic theories recognize the political nature of organizations

Box 7.11 Critical and Feminist theories

• Purpose. Descriptive.
• Key Features. These theories question dominant theories

of organizations, asking who controls organizations and
who benefits. Organizations are seen as instruments of
domination in a society that exploits women, minorities, and
lower level employees.

• Strengths and Weaknesses. These theories raise
important issues about power, control, domination,
marginalization, and subjugation. Their intent is to expose
inequalities and to press for progressive change. They serve to
raise consciousness, but are less helpful in prescribing ways

to move from theory to practice. Whereas liberal feminism
does not challenge mainstream ways of thinking about or-
ganizations and attempts to work within existing structures,
radical feminists push for alternative organizations.

• Fit with Social Work. These theories fit well with
the social justice orientation of social work. They
pose questions that raise consciousness and require
self-awareness, facilitating human service practitioners
to recognize when they may have unintentionally be-
come part of systems that control and exploit rather than
emancipate and empower.

assess your understanding
of political theories and
perspectives by taking this

brief quiz.


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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 217

(both internally and externally). For example, organizational culture works as a political
blanket in organizations and can be constraining (and even comforting) in that it shapes
virtually every move an employee makes.

organizational Culture theory

The concept of organizational culture has shaped the development of many other
contemporary theories and perspectives. To describe this concept, different writers have
used familiar expressions such as “the way we do things around here” and the “unwritten
rules” that constitute intelligent behavior in an organization. A prominent writer on the
subject, Edgar Schein (2010), explains that an organizational culture develops through
shared experiences. Newly formed organizations are heavily inf luenced by leaders who
bring their perspectives to the organization and around whom assumptions and beliefs
emerge. Thus, leadership and culture are intimately related, and understanding what
assumptions leaders bring to organizations is central to analyzing how change occurs.

Schein (2010) defines organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assump-
tions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal
integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be
taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those
problems” (p. 18). In his definition, Schein starts with “shared basic assumptions.” Yet,
most practitioners first enter organizations in which those basic assumptions are so in-
grained that persons who have been there for a while no longer consciously recognize
them. Entering a new organization, you may have had a sense that you had said or done
something wrong. You were surprised at the reaction you received, but you didn’t have
a clue about what it meant. Chances are that you tripped over a basic underlying as-
sumption that everyone else held as the correct way of behaving in that culture. Have
you ever tried to change an organization and wondered why you met resistance, when
the change seemed so logical to you? Perhaps what you considered valid was not what
others considered valid. Perhaps the espoused values were not the same as the norms
guiding behavior in that organization.

When entering an organization, one quickly perceives that established patterns
occur within that system even if they are not explicitly stated. The social worker who
assumes a new place in an organization must be aware that these patterns may be cen-
tral to organizational functioning. When violated, members may respond
emotionally because they are so invested in the “way things have always been

Schein (2010) identified three levels of culture. artifacts ref lect the
climate of the organization and are the most visible structures, processes,
and behaviors. The term “artifacts” is particularly appropriate here. Merriam-
Webster’s (2015) first definition is “something created by humans usually for a
particular purpose,” and the second is “something characteristic of or result-
ing f rom a particular human institution, period, trend, or individual.” Both
definitions are applicable here.

espoused beliefs and values are what members of the organization say are
important and are typically ref lected in mission or vision statements. They are embedded
in the culture when a leader convinces others that certain beliefs and values are important

Watch this video featur-
ing a slideshow presen-
tation by Bill strickland.

What cultural artifacts do you
observe in the video? What do
you think they say about the

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218 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

to embrace. Last, over time, these values become validated (if they seem to be working)
and become basic underlying assumptions, which are often taken for granted as how the
organization should go about its work. Examples of each level are found in Box 7.12.

Solving problems of external adaptation and internal integration refer to the ways
in which organizational members go about working on their relationship with the larger
external environment and dealing with issues internal to the organization. Schein (1992)
contended that adapting externally includes gaining consensus on the following ele-
ments: (1) mission and strategy, (2) goals, (3) means to attaining goals, (4) measurement
criteria to document how the work is going, and (5) corrections in the form of strategies
to keep focusing on goals. According to Schein, these five areas are minimally necessary
for an organization to structure itself to survive in its environment without misunder-
standings when persons from different backgrounds enter the organization.

Schein also elucidated the factors required for internal integration of an organiza-
tion’s culture. These include (1) developing a common language and means of com-
munication, (2) establishing group/unit boundaries, (3) recognizing power and status
dimensions, (4) establishing norms of appropriate interaction among members, (5) de-
termining how to award success and discipline inappropriate behavior, and (6) finding
ways to explain uncontrollable events (Schein, 2010, p. 94). Schein explains that cultural
assumptions provide a filter for how workers view the world and that, if stripped of that
filter, anxiety and overload will be experienced. Cultural solutions offer routine answers
to what would normally be complex problems. The major reason why organizational
members resist cultural change is because it challenges deeply held assumptions that sta-
bilize one’s world—it questions the status quo. This is why members of a dysfunctional
culture might choose to retain current assumptions rather than risk having their cultural
roots challenged.

Box 7.12 levels of organization Culture

Level 1: Artifacts (the climate of the

• The organization’s constructed physical and social en-
vironment (e.g., signage, building or office space, stairs,
and elevators)

• Use of physical space (e.g., location and condition of
waiting rooms, and private spaces or lack thereof)

• Organizational outputs (e.g., reports, statistics, treat-
ment plans, etc.)

• Written & spoken language (e.g., jargon used, key
phrases, code words, and metaphors used)

• Items on the wall (e.g., artwork, photos, signs, and

• Members’ behavior (how people interact [or not]
among themselves and with clients)

Level 2: Values and Beliefs

• Cognitively transformed into a belief when holding that
value works

• Ultimately, some values will be transformed into

• “Espoused values” are what people say they believe,
but they don’t always act in accordance with them. This
would be a separation of culture from behavior.

Level 3: Basic Underlying Assumptions

• So taken for granted that one finds little variation in a unit
• Theories-in-use
• Often hard to assess whether one is dealing with or-

ganizational culture or professional culture, disciplinary
culture, regional variations, ethnic or gender differ-
ences, or group subcultures within the organization

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 219

Glisson, Williams, Green, Hemmelgarn and Hoagwood (2014) developed the
Organizational Social Context (OSC) scale focusing on three dimensions of culture:
proficiency, rigidity, and resistance. In organizations with proficient cultures, a con-
cern for client well-being predominates, and employees are evaluated on two elements
relating to their ability to improve client well-being. The first is competency, which
has to do with the quality of their professional skills and their commitment to keeping
those skills at a high level. The second is responsiveness, which refers to employees’
attention to clients’ individual needs and ability to adapt service to address them. Their
research has also shown important differences in the quality of client services provided
by human service organizations in the proficient category as compared to those in
other types.

Organizations with rigid cultures tend to be averse to change and oriented toward
maintenance of the familiar and predictable. Because of this, they tend to be more
bureaucratically structured and have an array of rules and policies governing how em-
ployees are supposed to do their jobs. Similarly, decisions tend to be made by one or a
small number of administrators, and opportunities for employee input into decisions is
limited. Finally, resistant organizational cultures are those in which employees are ex-
pected to be apathetic toward change or actively antagonistic to it. Training and other
service-improvement efforts are seen as futile because staff members oppose trying new
things or are pessimistic that different approaches will achieve useful results.

Diversity as an Element of Culture
In many organizations, the culture was dominated by a particular gender group (usually
men), a particular racial/ethnic group (usually whites), and a particular socioeconomic
class (usually wealthy elites). As with much of the rest of society, organizations were far
from level playing fields, and, to an even greater degree than in the rest of society, those
in power were able to shape rules, structures, and operations in ways that preserved their
privileges. As Brazell (2003) notes, change came about only as social action and large-
scale social movements began to change society as a whole. The Civil Rights Movement,
the Women’s Movement, and the Disability Rights Movement are examples of efforts
that heightened awareness of discrimination and made it less likely to go unchallenged.
The movements also helped establish antidiscrimination laws that extended new legal
protections into the workplace. In addition to these forces, changing economic condi-
tions and better access to education sent women into the workforce in unprecedented
numbers, whereas changing demographics, such as the rapid growth of the Latino popu-
lation, made the workforce more heterogeneous.

In an early work on diversity in organizations, Roosevelt Thomas Jr. (1991) identified
three forces acting on organizations in the United States:

1. The need for corporations to do business in an increasingly competitive global

2. Rapid changes in the United States that are increasing the diversity of its

3. The demise of the “melting pot” concept in favor of a recognition that diversity
is a strength rather than a weakness

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220 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

Thomas believed that effective management of diversity is cru-
cial to improving productivity. This is because, in a global economy,
organizations with a diverse workforce are more likely to be those
with novel ideas and adroit responses to changing circumstances.

Cross (2000) noted the usefulness of the organizational cul-
ture approach for developing methods of harnessing and manag-
ing diversity. To the extent that culture in organizations involves
shared understandings about “how things are done,” those un-
derstandings must incorporate the differing f rames of reference
that diversity entails. Carr-Ruffino (2002) sums up many of the

key points of diversity management by arguing that administrators must take the lead
in changing an organization’s culture toward one that embraces diversity. To accomplish
this, she proposed seven strategies or responsibilities that administrators must assume:

1. Promote tolerance.

2. Be a role model of respect and appreciation.

3. Value empathy (e.g., by training oneself to see things through others’ eyes).

4. Promote trust and goodwill.

5. Encourage collaboration (to break through cliques and promote interaction
among organizational members).

6. Work toward synthesis (seek to benefit f rom new insights offered by bringing
diverse perspectives to bear on an issue).

7. Create synergy (use diversity to achieve as a team more than the sum of what
could be achieved by individuals working alone). (pp. 118–119)

The framework in Chapter 8 includes analyzing the culture of an organization with re-
spect to its friendliness toward diversity and addresses many of the elements in Carr-Ruffi-
no’s list, among others. These include culture-reinforcing elements such as mission
statements that embrace diversity and participatory approaches to decision making.

Pursuing Excellence
Another important management theme linked to organizational culture was the “excel-
lence” theme, pioneered by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman (1982). Both authors,
after working at a management consulting firm, became leaders of a project on organi-
zational effectiveness. They created a definition for what they considered excellent com-
panies, then selected 62 for study. They also immersed themselves in the philosophies and
practices of excellent companies, and they discovered that the dominant themes were ele-
ments of organizational culture such as a family feeling among employees, a preference for
smallness, a preference for simplicity rather than complexity, and attention to individuals.
In effect, they found that management practices in these organizations focused on personal
elements such as those noted by human relations theorists and McGregor’s Theory Y.

Their findings were organized into eight basic principles that have become the focal
point of the “excellence approach” to management:

1. a Bias for action. A preference for doing something—anything—rather than
sending a question through cycles and cycles of analyses and committee reports

2. staying close to the customer. Learning preferences and catering to them

Diversity and Difference in Practice

Behavior: Apply self-awareness and self-regulation
to manage the influence of personal biases and
values in working with diverse clients and

Critical thinking Question: How might diversity
management help strengthen social workers’ abilities to
work with diverse client populations?

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 221

3. autonomy and entrepreneurship. Breaking the corporation into small compa-
nies, and encouraging them to think independently and competitively

4. productivity through people. Creating in all employees a belief that their
best efforts are essential and that they will share the rewards of the company’s

5. hands-On, Value Driven. Insisting that executives keep in touch with the
firm’s essential mission

6. stick to the Knitting. Remaining with the business the company knows best

7. simple Form, Lean staff. Few administrative layers, few people at the
upper levels

8. simultaneous Loose/tight properties. Fostering a climate where there is
dedication to the central values of the company, combined with tolerance
for all employees who accept those values

Sensemaking Theory
In addition to the “excellence” theme, another body of work that meshes well with or-
ganizational culture theory is the analytical approach termed “sensemaking.” Proposed
by Karl Weick (1995), this approach is based in part on communications theory, which
is concerned with how people process information and make sense of what they see
around them. Its relevance to organizations and its connection to organizational culture
come from the assumption that individuals draw clues from their environments, engage
in internal conversations designed to make sense of these clues, then form conclusions
about what they have seen and heard.

Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld (2005) described various aspects of this process. First,
sensemaking arises as a natural effort by individuals to process what is going on around
them, which at first may seem random and disordered. Events are “bracketed” (differ-
entiated f rom others and categorized), after which the category into which they are
placed is labeled, again using some form of internal shorthand. Sensemaking is retro-
spective (meaning that it requires interpreting events after they occur), and the necessity
to act typically precedes sensemaking done to gauge the results of the action. Although
sensemaking may appear to be individualistic, it is actually a social process for it is
contingent on interactions and relationships with others (Mikkelsen, 2012).

To understand the value of the sensemaking approach, it is helpful to keep in
mind that organizations may be seen as collections of individuals who are constantly
engaged in sensemaking to allow them to meet the expectation that they work to-
gether toward mutual goals. We noted earlier the definition of organizational culture
as “the way things are done around here,” and people’s understanding of how things
are done arise f rom their sensemaking processes within the organization. Weick and
colleagues (2005) describe sensemaking as small-scale mechanisms that in time can
lead to large-scale changes, meaning that the shared understandings and modes of op-
eration comprising organizational culture develop f rom ongoing thought processes on
the part of each individual. At a larger level, leaders of an organization engage in sen-
semaking processes to evaluate the position of the organization as a whole within its

A theme related to sensemaking is offered by Gareth Morgan (1986), who em-
phasizes the value of metaphor in understanding organizations. Morgan notes that

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222 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

metaphor was often used (explicitly or implicitly) by earlier organizational theories, and
he considers it a valid heuristic tool (that is, a device or method used to help understand
something). Weber deliberately compared bureaucracies to machines, Morgan notes,
and this metaphor was also used by Weber’s critics to decry the mechanistic and imper-
sonal aspects of bureaucracies. For open-systems theorists, the metaphor of choice was
organization-as-organism, and it was f rom this metaphor that descriptions and studies of
the “survival instinct” of organizations arose.

Morgan’s ideas fit comfortably with the use of “culture” as a metaphor to describe
how organizations work. The concept of culture is used by anthropologists seeking to
differentiate societies of people on the basis of their shared beliefs, values, and histories,
and Morgan considers this a similarly valid tool for differentiating organizations. This
view has been supported by studies showing that the metaphor of organizational culture
can be used by managers to reinforce shared perceptions among members of organiza-
tions (Gibson & Zellmer-Bruhn, 2001) and to promote team building (Kang, Yang, &
Rowley, 2006).

organizational learning theory

An open-systems approach views organizations as cybernetic systems, meaning they
gather information f rom their environments and use it to decide on their next actions.
Acting on input in this way involves single-loop learning, whereas taking action and then
monitoring its effect to alter later actions are termed double-loop learning. For organisms,
the action–feedback–learning process tends to be immediate and comparatively straight-
forward: a small hand extending to a countertop and encountering a cookie yields one
lesson; the same small hand encountering a hot stove yields another. Argyris and Schön,
in two books on organizational learning (1978; 1996), called attention to the constant
way in which organizations receive feedback from their environment and attempt to cor-
rectly interpret it. They also noted that this feedback is often less immediate and more
ambiguous than in the case of organisms. As Senge (1990) explains, organisms receive
feedback directly, whereas in an organization it may be one division that takes an action
(e.g., a decision by the case management department to engage in more outreach) but a
different division that encounters the feedback (such as the administrative team).

In addition to horizontal (department-to-department) distance between decision
and effect, there is also vertical distance. Most of us have been in situations where we or
others around us have bemoaned being the lowly “grunts” suffering the consequences of
decisions made by higher-ups. This dynamic leads to two serious problems. First, deci-
sions gone wrong cause deterioration of morale, which in turn initiates a “blame game”
cycle in which everyone in the organization thinks everyone else is responsible for things
that go bad. Second, because the effects of a decision—good or bad—tend to be out of
sight of the decision maker, more and more decisions are made in the absence of infor-
mation about their effects. Bolman and Deal (2013) refer to this as “system blindness.” Its
key characteristics are a delayed feedback loop in which information about decisions fil-
ters back to management only slowly, and short-term thinking, in which managers begin
to favor decisions that make them look good at the moment even if they have long-term
negative consequences.

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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 223

Peter Senge is most closely associated with the concept
of the “learning organization,” because in his 1990 book he
proposed that the solution to the above dynamic is to build
organizations that mirror the learning process of a single or-
ganism. Organisms have nerve pathways that rush information
quickly f rom one part of the body to another, and body sys-
tems work in tandem to, for example, quickly withdraw the
small hand f rom the hot stove. Senge’s learning organization
has similar capacities. It is oriented toward gathering, process-
ing, and sharing information both vertically and horizontally.
It also places responsibility for creating the learning organi-
zation on leaders. They must provide guidelines, incentives, and examples to staff
members to help develop the pathways and procedures needed for rapid movement
and absorption of information. They must also become fully familiar with the orga-
nization that results f rom this process— replacing system blindness with “systemic

The concept of the “learning organization” seems to mesh well with the out-
look of many administrators and staff members in human service organizations, and
Senge’s work continues to be cited f requently in this literature. In addition, findings
tend to confirm that Senge’s ideas are well received when implemented. Latting et
al. (2004) found that the problems of mistrust across vertical levels of a human ser-
vice organization can be overcome if administrators begin with efforts to create a
learning- and innovation-oriented climate within the organization and then move to
employee-empowerment efforts supported by supervisors. In their study, these efforts
were rewarded with increased organizational commitment on the part of employ-
ees. This is consistent with results f rom a study by Beddoe (2009), who found that
even in a time of relatively high environmental turmoil, social workers in a human
service agency were receptive to efforts to adopt the learning-organization model.
Receptiveness was diminished, however, to the extent that the change was perceived
as a top-down mandate rather than a grassroots-led innovation. Finally, Bowen, Ware,
Rose, and Powers (2007) examined educational settings and developed a measure of a
school’s capacity to function as a learning organization. Results validated the ability of
the instrument to measure theoretically predicted organizational performance. This
offers empirical support not only for the validity of the measure but also for Senge’s
conceptualization of how learning organizations operate.

Box 7.13 provides an overview of the symbolic theories.
The perspectives discussed here come together in interesting ways. Clearly, one

trend coming out of the 1980s was the move toward a better, more thorough under-
standing of organizational culture. Often this begins with an identification of the locus
of power and an understanding of the effectiveness of various individuals or groups in
exercising political and leadership skills. These factors, together with the development
of an organization-wide sense of shared purpose and ways of operating, make up what
has come to be understood as organizational culture. As Morgan (1986) points out, “cul-
ture” can in turn be used as a powerful metaphor for understanding how people come
together in an organization to define and pursue mutual goals.

Ethical and Professional Behavior

Behavior: Use reflection and self-regulation to
manage personal values and maintain professionalism
in practice situations.

Critical thinking Question: How might the
concept of the learning organization assist you in
using reflection and self-regulation in managing your
personal values and maintaining professionalism in the

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224 Chapter 7: understanding organizations

An increasingly important factor in the development and evolution of orga-
nizational culture is the diversity of the workforce. Organizations of the future
will continue to grow more diverse, and this means they will need to continu-
ously address the question of whether their culture embraces this diversity and
uses it in ways that benefit the organization, individual members, and clientele.


As with Chapter 5 on community theory, it should be clear at this point that all profes-
sionally assisted change in organizations begins with an understanding of organizations
including theoretical f rameworks, structure, worker motivation, management–worker
relationships, diversity, organizational culture, and other variables. The goal of this chap-
ter has been to introduce theories about organizations that may help social workers
make sense of the organizations in which and with which they work. These theories can
be understood partly in terms of how they differ among themselves (Table 7.1). Some
(such as scientific management and human relations) are prescriptive, meaning that they
provide guidelines on how to organize. Others, such as bureaucracy and decision-mak-
ing, offer conceptual strategies for analyzing organizations and their operations.

Theories can also be differentiated in terms of their approach to explaining organi-
zational behavior. Some adopt a rational approach in which behavior is seen as the result
of logical decision making about how to achieve instrumental goals. Others employ a
natural-systems approach, in which the organization is seen as analogous to a biological
organism and its behavior as responding to survival and self-maintenance needs. Yet both
theories are focused on understanding structure.

Theories also differ as to whether they adopt a closed- or open-systems perspective
regarding the role of the organization’s environment. Closed-systems approaches im-
plicitly focus on internal structure and processes within organizations and tend to pay
little or no attention to the role of the environment. Open-systems models emphasize

Box 7.13 symbolic theories

• Purpose. Most approaches are prescriptive and offering
guidance for deeper understanding of organizations.

• Key Features. These theories often build on ideas from
earlier works that have been generally accepted. All
assume, for example, that environmental circumstances
are critical to understanding organizational behavior, that
no one structure works equally well for all organizations,
and that the personal interests of individuals within
organizations powerfully influence how they operate.
Contemporary theories tend to differ in their choice of
variables that have been ignored or underestimated in
prior work. Examples of these include culture (Schein),
sensemaking (Weick), diversity and the increasing
heterogeneity of the workforce (Cross), quality (Peters

and Waterman), and the fostering of an organizational
orientation toward learning from and responding to the
environment (Senge).

• Fit with Social Work. Organizational theory continues
to evolve, as new theories either supplant older ones or
build on their strong points and extend them in new di-
rections. As in the past, many contemporary ideas arose
first in studies of commercial firms, and some are easier
to adapt to social work organizations than others. Also
of note is the fact that work from fields as diverse as
political science, biology, and engineering have influenced
contemporary organizational theories. Given the increas-
ingly interdisciplinary nature of scientific work, this trend is
likely to continue.

assess your understanding
of symbolic theories and
perspectives by taking this

brief quiz.


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Chapter 7: understanding organizations 225

organizations’ dependence on their environment and adopt analytical strategies that
view internal structure and process as the product of interactions with the environment.

Each theory can also be understood in terms of one or a small group of organiza-
tional variables toward which it directs attention. We have used four f rames developed
by Bolman and Deal (2013) to loosely categorize theories (structural, human resource,
political, and symbolic). Together, all these factors are important because understanding
structure, people, politics, and values make for a more complete picture of organiza-
tional life.

The history of organizational and management theory has been, in many ways, the
history of a search for insights into the best ways to organize and manage—a search for
the theory that will unlock the secrets of productivity. It could be said that each theorist
examined organizations through an eyepiece with a different filter than others.

Recent decades have witnessed the introduction of a number of alterna-
tive perspectives. Although none has dominated the field, each contributes to
one’s ability to analyze and understand organizations.

recall what you learned in
this chapter by completing
the Chapter review.


Assess Your Competence

Use the scale below to rate your current level of achievement on the following concepts or skills associated with
each learning outcome listed at the beginning of this chapter:

1 2 3

I can accurately describe the concept or
skill(s) associated with this outcome.

I can consistently identify the concept or skill(s)
associated with this outcome when observing

and analyzing practice activities.

I can competently implement the
concept or skill(s) associated with
this outcome in my own practice.

Define organizations, their characteristics, and their functions.

Discuss at least three theories that focus on organizational structure.

Discuss at least two theories that frame organizations from a human resource perspective.

Explain the importance of examining organizations from a critical perspective.

Discuss the importance of using symbolic theories in understanding the values and underlying
assumptions in the cultures of human service organizations

M07_NETT8523_06_SE_C07.indd 225 9/25/15 5:50 PM



Engaging Human SErvicE

Having reviewed in Chapter 7 a variety of approaches to under-
standing organizations, we now focus on engaging and assessing
human service organizations (HSOs), where most social work-
ers are employed. Regardless of which approach one takes in an
organizational change effort, it is important to understand that
HSOs can be conceptualized in many ways and to have a work-
able knowledge of organizational theories and perspectives. The
major focus of this chapter is on engaging organizations in an
assessment process designed to lead to an informed and skillful

HSOs have goals to improve the quality of life of persons out-
side the organization (e.g., helping someone resolve a drinking
problem, or providing in-home services to help older adults prolong
independent living). In each case, the organization exists because, as

Assessing Human
Service Organizations

Learning OutcOmeS

• Define human service organizations,
their functions, and their attributes.

• Use a framework to assess a human
service organization.

cHapter OutLine

Engaging Human Service
Organizations 226
Two Vignettes of Human Service

Implications of the Vignettes

Framework for Organizational
Assessment 232
Task 1: Identify Focal Organization
Task 2: Assess the Organization’s

Environmental Relationships
Task 3: Assess Internal Organizational

Task 4: Assess the Cultural

Competency of This Organization

Summary 263

Appendix 264

Chapter Review 266







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chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations 227

a collective, it makes possible the accomplishment of tasks that could not be completed
as well or at all by a single individual.

Hasenfeld (2010) identified attributes of HSOs:

• In HSOs, people are the raw material to be worked with in a transformational
process, as opposed to organizations that process inanimate materials.

• In HSOs, moral values guide the process of service intervention in which great
discretion must be exercised.

• Because HSOs engage in moral work with people, they must be legitimized by
their environment. In other words, they may be highly regulated, and workers
may be credentialed in order to assure humane treatment of clientele.

• Practice technologies (e.g., counseling, therapy, and macro interventions) must
be institutionalized and vetted so that no harm is done to clientele.

• HSOs must manage indeterminacy as their technologies are subject to change,
and workers must use considerable discretion and judgment in working with
diverse human beings.

• At the core of human service work are client–worker relationships. Thus, practi-
tioners in HSOs are engaged in emotional work.

HSO clients often seek help because they have been unable to obtain education,
employment, assistance, or other resources f rom organizations in their community. In
turn, the services that social workers provide often involve interacting with these same
organizations on clients’ behalf or helping clients improve their own ability to interact
with these organizations. Doing this well requires considerable effort spanning a range
of agencies and service systems. Social workers with little or no idea of how organiza-
tions operate, how they relate to each other, or how they can be inf luenced and changed
f rom both outside and inside are likely to be severely limited in their effectiveness and
disempowered to make changes in their workplaces.

Although HSOs have characteristics that distinguish them from other organizations,
these are not always clear-cut. Hasenfeld (2010) indicates that HSOs operate in some way
on the people they serve. They may distribute or even produce certain goods (as do food
banks or workshops for people with disabilities), but they focus on improving the quality
of life of their constituents, consumers, or clients. The problem in defining HSOs, how-
ever, is that organizations from barber shops to bistros work with or on people and seek
to enhance at least their perceived well-being. But, in Hasenfeld’s definition, the defining
feature of HSOs is that they are designed to promote human welfare. In particular, they
must conform to societal expectations that the services they provide both assist clients
and enhance the overall welfare of the public.

Many different types of organizations still fall within this definition, and to make
sense of such variety, one important issue is the sector in which the organization
operates. As discussed in Chapter 6, the three major sectors of the economy are public,
nonprofit, or for-profit. These categories are important because the mission, service
orientation, and nature of practice in HSOs often vary substantially across sectors.
However, distinctions between sectors are not always clear-cut, either. For example,
some public agencies now pay private agencies to perform services that were once
exclusively governmental, such as child protection and corrections (Xu & Morgan,

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228 chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations

2012). Similarly, some private agencies have created for-profit subsidiaries or launched
joint ventures with for-profit organizations in different sectors (Levitt & Chiodini,
2014; Reeves, 2013). While the concept of “sector” remains a variable worth consider-
ing when assessing HSOs, it also demonstrates the difficulty of neatly fitting organiza-
tions into any single category.

two vignettes of Human Service Organizations

The following vignettes illustrate the issues and problems encountered by social workers
in governmental and nonprofit settings in the Canyon City and Lakeside communities
we introduced in Chapter 6. Vignette 1 focuses on a large public child welfare agency
and its development within Canyon City. The concerns the agency encounters involve
factors such as the growth of bureaucracy and a hierarchical organizational structure,
the role of elected officials, f rustrations concerning slow change processes, constrained
creativity, and barriers to client services.

The second vignette describes a medium-sized, nonprofit, faith-related agency
established in the 1930s at the time the Lakeside community was first developed. As times
change, the organization grows through the receipt of government grants and contracts.
Issues related to working with boards of directors and sponsoring groups, attempts to
address the needs of multiple constituencies in an increasingly regulated environment,
and the use of volunteers are illustrated.

We hope these vignettes will show how social workers can begin to analyze circum-
stances in their own agencies or others with which they interact. Immediately following
the vignettes, we will discuss some of the issues raised and then present a framework for
assessing HSOs.

Vignette 1: canyon county Department of child Welfare

Canyon City is the seat of Canyon County. The Canyon County Department of Child Welfare
(CCDCW) had long considered itself a unique and innovative organization. Created in the
early 1960s, its initial years of development came during a time when national attention
was focused on the creation of high-quality human service programs designed to address
both client needs and community problems. The department’s director was hired after an
extensive national search. She built a strong reputation as a person who ran successful
programs and was well liked by the community, her staff, and clients.

Creating a Dynamic Organization. The director took the job at CCDCW because she was
excited by the challenge of building a department from scratch with resources made avail-
able from federal, state, and county governments. She hired staff members who, like herself,
were committed to teamwork, collaboration, and problem solving. Middle managers and su-
pervisors were professionals with many years of experience, most of whom had master’s of
social work (MSW) degrees, and many line workers were recent graduates of MSW programs.
In selecting among job applicants, the director stressed high energy, enthusiasm, collective
effort, mutual support, esprit de corps, and competence.

From the 1960s through most of the 1990s, CCDCW built a reputation for high-quality ser-
vices, a high rate of success, and a positive work environment. It was an organization other
counties looked to for leadership in dealing with prominent problems of the time—not only
child abuse and neglect but also domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and other fami-
ly-related problems.

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chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations 229

Dismantling a Dynamic Organization. Toward the end of the 1990s, two things happened
that changed the direction of the department. First, as a county in a state with one of the
fastest growing populations in the country, Canyon County doubled its population between
1985 and 2000. Increasing fiscal and political conservatism influenced decisions of the county
board of supervisors, and the child welfare budget became the focus of a major budget re-
duction effort. Second, the original director reached retirement age.

The board of supervisors used this opportunity to appoint a person who had spent his
career in the insurance industry. They saw this as an opportunity to introduce “hard-nosed
business practices” into the running of human service programs. At the same time, state and
federal regulations governing child welfare services became increasingly more extensive and
strict. Because of CCDCW’s strong reputation, employment there served as a solid reference
and helped make staff members more marketable in other counties and states. Many man-
agers and supervisors took advantage of this to accept other employment offers, and some
of their positions were filled by individuals who had political connections to the board or to
the director. The team approach that had dominated for two decades was replaced by a more
rigid bureaucratic structure, and collegial practices were replaced by strictly enforced admin-
istrative policies.

Within about five years, CCDCW bore little resemblance to its original form. The most
noticeable change was in its structure. Its organizational chart reflected clearly defined work
units, with reporting lines from entry level all the way to the director. Standardized workloads
were assigned regardless of the difficulty or complexity of cases, and standardized performance
criteria were used to judge success. Individual discretion in decision making was curtailed, and
employee-oriented efforts such as job rotation, job sharing, and flex-time were eliminated.

Involvement of the County Board. Members of the county board of supervisors began to
receive complaints about CCDCW. Although most child maltreatment reports were investi-
gated, many children for whom an initial report was judged invalid were later re-reported as
victims of recurring abuse or neglect. Also, annual reports revealed a steady decline in the
successful resolution of problems for families served by the department. Eventually, a con-
sultant was hired to do an organizational assessment and to make recommendations to the
board of supervisors.

The consultant found that staff expressed low levels of commitment to the organization
and its objectives. Line-level workers felt their opinions did not matter, so most either kept
comments to themselves or complained to colleagues. When problems were identified, few
visible efforts were made to analyze them or to propose solutions. Most staff members be-
lieved that success was defined in terms of adherence to policies and procedures rather than
achievement of appropriate case outcomes. Ambitious staff members who sought upward
mobility in the department became experts on internal policies, not on family problems or
service provision.

Among those in management positions, the consultant found
that most emphasized control. Virtually all decisions about cases
had to pass through and be signed by a supervisor and admin-
istrator. Managers felt that staff ignored their efforts to adhere
to policies and procedures, especially when it came to keeping
paperwork up to date. Compliance with rules and completion of
required reports and forms were the main criteria by which staff
members’ performance was judged. Also, although managers
expressed a desire to achieve successful client outcomes, such
criteria were not part of the internal system by which managers
and caseworkers were evaluated.

Ethical and Professional Behavior

Behavior: Use supervision and consultation to guide
professional judgment and behavior.

critical thinking Question: What effects to you
think rigid bureaucracy and limited autonomy have on
supervision, consultation, and professional judgment
and behavior?

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230 chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations

Vignette 2: Lakeside Family Services

Historical Development. The Lakeside Family Services agency was originally incorporated as
the Methodist Home for Orphaned Children in Lakeside in 1935. Begun by the United Meth-
odist Church, the home served children with no living relatives. Because it was situated on a
large parcel of donated land on the outskirts of a metropolitan area, the home became the
site of many church gatherings as well as fundraising events over the years. Volunteers from
the church and community were part of almost every activity at the home.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the home was the recipient of generous contributions
from wealthy church and civic leaders, and it was also helped by the Red Feather fund-
raising campaign, a forerunner of what is now the United Way. As donations increased, so
did the scope of the home. By the mid-1950s, it had expanded to include family counsel-
ing and services for unwed mothers, and it had hired several professionally trained social
workers. Originally, the 15-member voluntary board of directors was elected by the An-
nual Conference of the Methodist Church. The bylaws specified that the executive direc-
tor and at least 75 percent of board members had to be members of the church. Although
it was not required, most staff were also church members, and there was an active volun-
teer auxiliary of over 100 persons.

Major Changes Occur. During the 1970s, the board held a number of controversial meetings
to determine the future of the home. In addition to changing service needs, fewer and fewer
orphans were present and in need of placement. The United Way was putting pressure on the
home to merge with two other family service agencies in the same city, and the percentage
of the home’s budget that came from the United Methodist Church dwindled each year, even
though actual dollar amounts increased. Several board members encouraged the home to
rethink its mission and seek state and federal funding. By 1980, after a decade of controversy,
the home changed its name to Lakeside Family Services (LFS), disaffiliated with the United
Methodist Church, and became a nonprofit provider of government contract services to
children, families, and the aged. The agency relocated, and the property on which the home
stood reverted to the church, which owned the land. LFS remained a United Way agency, and
its funding from them increased yearly, but by the mid-1990s almost 70 percent of the agen-
cy’s budget came from government contracts and grants.

Board members who had supported these changes in the agency’s mission, funding, and
structure were joined by others carefully selected for their expertise in fundraising and poli-
tics. They chose an executive director with an MSW and hired a director of development to
search for new funds.

The agency was composed of three main program components: (1) children’s services,
(2) family services, and (3) aging services. Each component received funds from govern-
ment contracts, along with United Way funds and private contributions, and within each
component there was service diversification. For example, aging services included home-
maker/chore services, home health, and adult day care.

Program directors began complaining that contract dollars never covered the full cost of
services and that state and federal regulations were restricting their ability to provide ade-
quate care to their respective clientele. The executive director searched for strategies to deal
with these complaints and spent considerable time conferring with directors of other non-
profit organizations.

The Search for Strategies. When the recession of the late 2000s hit, LFS experienced
major cutbacks in two of its program areas. In talking with other providers, the executive
director detected a new sense of competitiveness she had not noticed before. When staff

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chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations 231

suggested using volunteers to help keep services in place, the executive director realized
that the active volunteer pool of earlier days had not been nurtured and maintained. In
fact, only the aging services program was using volunteers, who did home visits to frail
adults. Even this was limited, because the volunteers’ activities were carefully structured
and greatly restricted by state regulations. At the executive director’s request, the board
approved a fee-for-service schedule and instructed the director of development to create
a plan for recruiting fee-paying clients. Staff were angered by the agency’s new focus on
private fee payers, fearing this meant that the poorest clients, who were often those in
greatest need, would go unserved. By 2014, the agency was in serious financial difficulty,
and in desperation the executive director approached United Methodist Church officials
about taking the agency back under the church’s wing.

implications of the vignettes

It is not unusual for organizations, over time, to display inconsistent or counterpro-
ductive behavior such as that described in the vignettes. When this happens, it is
tempting to opt for seemingly simple solutions such as changing directors (Vignette 1)
or competing for high-paying clients (Vignette 2). However, changes in organizational
culture do not occur rapidly, and prevailing attitudes and behaviors tend to permeate
all levels of staff. Efforts to solve problems through sudden and dramatic change are
thus seldom successful, especially if the changes conf lict with the mission (perceived
or actual) of the agency.

The two vignettes differ in that one organization is public and exists because of a
government mandate, whereas the other evolved in the private, nonprofit sector. There
are also many parallels. Both organizations developed in growth climates, only to face
severe financial and political constraints in later years. Whereas CCDCW became more
bureaucratic, LFS became more professionalized. Just as rigid rules developed within
CCDCW, LFS experienced the constraints of state and federal regulations when it began
receiving more and more governmental funds. Both organizations searched
for answers to complex problems that could not be easily solved.

Both vignettes illustrate the importance of learning about the history
of human service organizations and the development of their cultures so
that changes they have made can be viewed in context. As described in
Chapter 7, organizational culture is a concept that seeks to capture the fact
that each organization has a character and ways of operating that embody
its unique qualities and differentiate it f rom others. Another way of thinking
about organizational culture is that it is a way of conceptualizing the often
unwritten rules within a workplace that new staff members learn gradually
over time. In both vignettes, staff, board, and administrators experienced what
happens when the norms within their workplaces change.

In this chapter, we propose a method of conducting organizational
assessments that will enable practitioners to understand more fully what
is happening in agencies such as CCDCW and LFS. The f ramework we
propose for assessing organizations is presented in the form of tasks to
be completed and questions to be asked within each task. No listing of

Watch this video
that discusses how
organizational assessment

can be an important starting
point for nonprofit planning.
What did Operational Fuel learn
about its board of directors by
engaging an outside consultant
to conduct an organizational

assess your engaging
human service
organizations practice by

taking this brief quiz.


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232 chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations

tasks and activities can be comprehensive for every type of organization, so we will
address the major elements and considerations as they relate to HSOs.

FramEWOrK FOr OrganizatiOnaL aSSESSmEnt

As discussed in Chapter 7, contingency theorists propose that organizations are best un-
derstood by examining both external and internal forces that inf luence their functioning.
Similarly, Schein (2010) explains that organizational culture develops in response to two
archetypical problems faced by any collective—how to adapt to and survive in the exter-
nal environment, and how to create internal processes that will ensure capacity to adapt
and survive. Beginning in Task 1 by gathering contextual information, we then move to
Task 2 (external) and Task 3 (internal) aspects of the focal organization. Having learned
about the external and internal work of the organization, one is better able to assess the
organization’s cultural competency in Task 4. See Figure 8.1 for an overview of the tasks
in the framework for assessing an organization.

task1: identify Focal Organization

It may be that you work in a particular organization and are knowledgeable about its
background. Or you may be approaching an organization from the outside in an attempt
to effect change. Regardless, it is important to identify the history, cultural artifacts, and
domain of the organization.

Search for Cultural Artifacts
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What is the history of this organization?
• How would you describe the organization’s identity, and is it congruent

with its image?

Task 1:
Identify focal

• Search for
cultural artifacts
• Learn about

• Identify revenue
• Identify referral
• Identify
with task

• Organizational
and program
• Management
and leadership
• Programs and
• Personnel
• Adequacy of

• External
• Diversity-
of internal
including access,
diversity of staff,
and cultural
of services

Task 2:

Task 3:
Assess internal

Task 4:
Assess cultural

Figure 8.1 
Tasks in the Framework for Assessing an Organization

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chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations 233

• What are the basis for and extent of the organization’s corporate authority?
• What is its mission?
• What physical, social, and behavioral artifacts are observed?

History Every organization has a history, some much longer than others. A chronolo-
gy of events in the life of the agency may be listed on the agency’s website. Older agen-
cies may have donated their historical records to archives in a local library or historical
society. Others may have had a staff member, former leader, volunteer, or scholar write
an historical monograph. Whatever form that history takes, it is an important cultur-
al artifact that provides clues to cultural values and assumptions and how they have
changed over time.

Equally important are the historical narratives that organizational members tell.
Chen (2013) asserts that these stories promote organizational memory and change.
Stories provide information on past events and the persons involved as well as interpre-
tations of what happened. They reveal the symbolic meaning in challenges faced and
in relational conf licts. Chen goes on to say that sharing historical perspectives is part
of relationship building in that organizational members engage newcomers (e.g. new
staff, consumers, or other groups and organizations in the community) in communicat-
ing about the organization’s narrative. Some organizations will have grand narratives
vetted as their dominant stories, and others will focus on pivotal events that symbolize
the organization’s legacy.

Founders f rame and shape the beginnings of organizational cultures. They, too,
become cultural artifacts and icons either through continued participation or through
legend. Their actions may become the touchstone with a set of values to which
newcomers are oriented even after the culture has changed (Netting, O’Connor, &
Singletary, 2007).

identity and image Organizational identity refers to a co-constructed vision for the
agency shared by people who play founding, development, staff, and leadership roles
(Gioia & Thomas, 1996). Identity is what is unique, core, and enduring to the organi-
zation and to which organizational members cling when faced with major challenges
(Schmid, 2013). In HSOs, identity may be tied to serving the needs of various popu-
lation groups, to advocating for system-wide change, or both, depending on how pro-
grams are designed and implemented (Almog-Bar & Schmid, 2014). Identity pertains
to what insiders want to believe about their organizations or their programs, which
becomes particularly important in holding people together in times of change or great

Whereas identity is how organizational members see themselves, image is
constructed by persons beyond an organization’s boundaries. Images shift as pub-
lic perceptions change. For example, a health care organization may be proud of its
identity as a leader in the field, but when incoming patients feel they are not well
treated, image will not align with identity. Also, as many child welfare organizations
have discovered, years of building up a positive reputation for protecting vulnerable
children can be damaged literally overnight when one case of a child’s death hits the
media. Thus, as organizational identity emerges and changes, so do the images held by
multiple constituencies who hear about or come in contact with an organization and
the programs it sponsors.

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234 chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations

Projecting an organizational identity is often done through branding, selling the or-
ganization. Some organizations are iconic, such as the American Red Cross or UNICEF,
in that images immediately come to mind. Artifacts that project identity and impact im-
age include documents such as strategic plans, public relations materials, websites, Face-
book postings, tweets, and other social media postings. In preparation for a revisioning
or strategic planning process, organizations may have conducted an analysis of strengths,
weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOt analysis). SWOT analyses reveal a great
deal about organizational identity.

corporate authority and mission An agency’s corporate authority forms the legal
basis for its operations, and this represents one of the ways it defines its domain. If the
organization is public (governmental), its legal basis rests in a statute or executive order.
If it is private, its legal basis is in its articles of incorporation. It may be important to
examine these documents firsthand, since organizations that are incorporated for one
purpose, such as operating the orphanage from which LFS arose, may gradually add new
populations and services, such as help for pregnant teens. The changes may be reasonable
and well intentioned, but may still result in the agency operating outside its legal author-
ization. Important sources of information for analyzing corporate authority and mission
include the following:

1. Articles of incorporation, statutes, or executive orders

2. Mission statement

3. Bylaws of the organization

4. Minutes of selected board meetings

5. Interviews with selected administrators, managers, and staff

A good statement of mission specifies the problems, needs, and/or populations the
agency serves, along with client outcomes to be expected. It also states the reason for
the agency’s existence, which should not change in fundamental ways unless the reason
for existence also changes. Lack of clarity in a mission statement or disparities between
the mission and current activities can be signs of a problem. For example, LFS is a prime
candidate for reexamining its original mission, which was established when orphanages
were both necessary and commonplace. If LFS has not revised this mission, it is unlikely
that its current work has any connection to its stated reason for existence. Revisiting
and, if necessary, reconceptualizing the mission can begin the process of redirecting
operations or sharpening their focus. Box 8.1 illustrates what the wording for the mission
statement for LFS might be.

Evidence suggests that clear mission statements can have beneficial effects on
employees. For example, results f rom a study by Clark (2007) showed that famil-
iarity with an organization’s mission statement was positively associated with job
satisfaction and with behaviors that tend to strengthen relationships among employ-
ees. Table 8.1 depicts a tool for use in assessing agencies’ corporate authority and

Multiple physical artifacts become part of organizational functioning, and they
will become evident as one moves through the assessment process. These include

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chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations 235

organizational products such as annual reports, organizational
charts, job descriptions, case records, and a host of others.
The physical environment, pictures on the wall, the language
used, the clothing staff wear, rituals and events, and the so-
cial interactions between staff and with clients are all cultural
artifacts. The question to ask about these artifacts is do they
ref lect the espoused values within the organization’s mission
statement or are there potential discontinuities in what is es-
poused and actual behavior. Many times, change is needed be-
cause there are disconnects. For example, an organization with
a mission to serve the neediest clients may have begun focusing primarily on market-
ing to clients who can pay. Similarly, an organization with a well-written diversity plan
may not be serving diverse clients.

Learn about Organizational Domain
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What is the organization’s domain (e.g., the populations served, the technology
employed, and services provided)?

• What target populations are recruited or mandated to participate?

Box 8.1 Example mission Statement for Lakeside Family Services

The mission of Lakeside Family Services is to help
members of our community solve problems facing

them. This includes a special concern for families, children,
and older adults. Our goal for families is to strengthen
relationships and help each family support and care for its

members. For children, we work to promote good parent-
ing, quality education, safety, and growth. In collaboration
with older adults, we seek to support continued growth
and to ensure basic standards for health, health care,
housing, and income.

table 8.1 assessing corporate authority and mission

checklist Yes no

1. Are articles of incorporation on file? —— ——

2. Is there a written set of bylaws? —— ——

3. Are board members and agency director familiar with bylaws? —— ——

4. Is there a mission statement? —— ——

5. Is the mission one paragraph or less? —— ——

6. Does the mission make a statement about expected client outcomes? —— ——

7. Are staff aware of, and do they practice in accordance with, the mission statement? —— ——


Behavior: Collect and organize date, and apply
critical thinking to interpret information from clients
and constituencies.

critical thinking Question: What ethical
responsibility does a social worker have when she or he
discovers discontinuities between espoused values and
organizational behavior?

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236 chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations

• How are the costs of client services covered, and how does the organization deal
with those clients who cannot pay?

• Are there defined legal, geographical, or service areas that establish organiza-
tional boundaries?

Without consumers of its services, an organization has no reason to exist. However,
some clients are a good fit with an organization’s services while others are not, so most
agencies establish definitions of the types of clients they serve. These often take the
form of eligibility criteria that clients must meet in order to be considered a fit. Clients
who meet the criteria are said to be within the organization’s domain (Levine & White,
1961). An organization’s domain may be understood as a boundary it draws around itself
to define what it does and whom it serves.

Domain setting refers to the process by which organizations create a niche for
themselves and establish their roles among others within their environment. One part
of the process is domain legitimation, in which the organization gains acknowledgment
of claims it makes as to its sphere of activities and expertise. Legitimation is not always
immediately forthcoming, and there may be gaps between what an organization says are
its boundaries, the claimed domain, and what these boundaries actually are, the de facto
domain (Greenley & Kirk, 1973).

Consistent with the resource dependency theory, organizations seek to attract cli-
ents who fall within their domain, while referring or rejecting those who don’t. This
improves operational efficiency but can result in some client groups being systematically
disadvantaged by certain criteria or the manner in which they are applied. When assess-
ing organizations, therefore, it is important to address questions such as whether enough
clients apply to fill the capacity available, whether many applicants are declared ineligible
and turned away, and whether, even after services commence, the number of unserved
clients in the community remains large.

Also important in understanding which clients an organization views as resources
and which it does not is the financial relationship it has with its clients. In commer-
cial firms, consumers usually pay directly for goods or services they receive, and the
organizations carefully design their outputs to meet consumer needs. In human service
organizations, however, those who consume the services may be different than those
who pay for them. For our purposes, we will define the clients of HSOs as those who re-
ceive services, not necessarily those who pay. Clients who cover the cost of their services,
either personally or through third-party reimbursement, will be termed full-pay clients.
These clients are important resources that agencies seek to attract and are most likely
to serve, because the revenues they provide can be used to offset the cost of serving

other clients.
Clients who pay less than the cost of their services or who pay

nothing at all are termed non-full-pay clients (Netting, McMurtry,
Kettner, & Jones-McClintic, 1990). Because revenues for serving
these clients must be generated f rom other sources (e.g., chari-
table donations or profits earned from full-pay clients), agencies
often do little to attract these clients and may erect eligibility bar-
riers to restrict their numbers. A prominent example of this is the
tendency of health-care providers to restrict or refuse services to

Human Rights and Justice

Behavior: Engage in practices that advance social,
economic, and environmental justice.

critical thinking Question: When contracting
with private agencies, what are some strategies that
may help to ensure that vulnerable populations still
are served?

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chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations 237

Medicare or Medicaid recipients because of reimbursement rates viewed as insufficient to
cover service costs (Bisgaier, Polsky, & Rhodes, 2012). Restrictions or refusals can also occur
with clients who seek relatively costly services or services the agency does not provide.

A complete agency assessment should include a determination of whether the
organization makes appropriate efforts to direct clients it rejects to organizations that
may be able to serve them. It should also identify formal and informal arrangements
among agencies for exchange of clients, whereby those that do not fall within one
agency’s domain are referred to others, and vice versa. This increases the likelihood
that clients will receive services and that agencies will receive clients they need.
Interorganizational relationships of this sort are often viewed as being of equal
importance as those with funding sources. Table 8.2 depicts a tool that may be helpful
in identifying client populations.

Organizational boundaries may not be as clear-cut as one might think, and bound-
aries may change over time. Like communities, organizations may have geographical or
nonplace parameters. For example, an international advocacy organization has the goal
to assist victims of human trafficking (Hodge, 2014). Since this is a global problem and
victims are likely to be identified anywhere there is illegal activity, the target popula-
tion transcends geographical boundaries. Thus, the agency’s domain is geographically
broad in scope, even though it is more narrow in terms of whom it targets. In contrast,

table 8.2 identifying client Populations

client groups Served

1. Couples or individuals relinquishing children

2. Couples wanting to adopt

3. Foster parent applications

4. Foster parents

5. Individuals in need of personal counseling

6. Families in need of counseling

7. Drug abusers

Demographic makeup of client Population

age (years) Percentage Ethnicity Percentage gender Percentage Fees Percentage

Under 20 5 American

3 Female 64 Full pay 26

20–29 15 African

14 Male 36 Some pay 38

30–39 22 Asian

4 No pay 15

40–49 29 Hispanic 19 Contract 21

50–59 19 White 60

60–69 8

70+ 2

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238 chapter 8: assessing Human Service Organizations

agencies may have defined geographical boundaries (e.g. jurisdictional boundaries,
school districts, planning and service areas, and catchment areas) within which they are
mandated to provide services.

Agencies seek to take advantage of available resources, and most are constantly
adjusting their domains in order to do so. Trends in the availability of funds from charita-
ble or governmental sources are usually closely watched, and in order to ensure resource
f low some agencies may attempt to compete for funds in areas where they have little
experience or expertise.

task 2: assess the Organization’s Environmental relationships

As mentioned, organizations have to be able to navigate the external environment
beyond their domains and build internal capacity to adapt and survive within that
environment. Thus, Tasks 2 and 3 may be thought of as collecting information about
organizations’ environments, how they behave in those environments, and how they
internally structure themselves (see Figure 8.2).

To understand considerations external to the organization, we use the concept
of an organization’s task environment. As noted in our review of the work of James
Thompson (1967) in Chapter 7, the task environment consists of elements outside an
organization that enable it to operate and that set the basic context for these operations.
Thompson notes that, as originally defined by Dill (1958), the task environment includes
four key components: consumers, suppliers, competitors, and regulators (pp. 27–28).
These are illustrated in Figure 8.3.

Task Environment


Figure 8.2 
Organization, Task Environment, and Interface

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Chapter 8: Assessing Human Service Organizations 239

Identify and Assess Relationships with Revenue Sources
Questions to be explored for this activity include the following:

• What are the agency’s funding sources?
• How much and what percentage of the agency’s total funds are received from

each source?
• What are the nature and quality of the relationship between funding sources and

the agency?
• Does the organization use volunteers? If yes, how many, and for what purposes?
• What in-kind resources (e.g., food, clothing, physical facilities) does the

organization receive?
• What tax benefits does the organization receive?

In a study of nonprofit agencies’ involvement in political lobbying, Twombly (2002)
compared more than 2,000 secular and faith-based organizations and found that the lat-
ter tended to have a lower diversity of services and slower rates of service expansion.
This appeared to be a result of these organizations’ greater dependency on private con-
tributions, which offers less predictable funding than the more diversified funding base
typical of secular organizations. Ruggiano and Taliaferro (2012) found that lobbying oc-
curred in ways that allowed agencies to maintain access to resources while not endan-
gering relationships with other key elements in the environment by appearing to be too
aggressive in seeking them. Table 8.3 summarizes these and other points, and it can be
helpful in assessing agencies’ relationships with revenue sources.

Task Environment