Social work existed long before it was given an official designation. It had religious precursors dating as far back as the 4th Century, when Constantine the Great became the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, establishing the Christian Church throughout the empire and seeing to it that it provided practical help and, where necessary, shelter to the poor and vulnerable.

Even in its earliest, pre-professional years, it changed society and the law. Guided by a strong religious commitment to social justice, its devotees encouraged those who were better off to extend charitable sentiments and practical help to the less fortunate. In the Middle Ages, they successfully pushed for new laws mandating relief and shelter to the poor and destitute.

Intervening for beneficial change in social systems to benefit the less advantaged and socioeconomically neglected is not a novel development; it is actually a long tradition running through contemporary social work right back to its earliest antecedents many centuries ago.

Let’s examine how contemporary, professional social workers continue to press for social change in pursuit of more just outcomes for the disadvantaged and marginalized, both at the small scale of local familial and neighborhood networks and at the larger scale of reforming social policy.

Social workers as agents of enlightened social change

Writing in Newsweek in 2022, National Association of Social Work executive Jennifer Thompson explains that professionally trained social workers are equipped with expertise not only in analyzing problems in social systems but in crafting innovative solutions as well.

“If you approach anything by asking the questions, ‘What if…? How could this change? What might be possible?’, you’re going to accomplish some type of innovation, whether it’s a system or a policy or a program,” she says, adding, “Social workers bring that to the spaces we work in.”

Social workers wishing to deepen their influence as agents of beneficial change often decide to progress from entry-level credentials (such as a Bachelor of Social Work, or BSW, degree) to more advanced qualifications. For busy working professionals with existing work and family obligations, it’s no longer necessary to disrupt their lifestyle by physically returning to school, thanks to the growing availability of online higher-tier degrees such as the Master of Social Work (MSW).  The program can fit around existing work and family obligations, all from the comfort of one’s own home.

The fully online MSW program from Spalding University, for example, not only delivers the academic components of the degree online but provides each remote student with assistance from a Field Placement Coordinator to help them find practice placements within reach of their areas of residence.

Conclusion: People and social context

While respecting a client’s unique individuality, social workers understand that no person exists in a social vacuum. Instead, individuals, even when they are experiencing social isolation and loneliness, are always embedded in a dense matrix of social relations and forces, some of which impact their lives from afar – for example, in the form of social policies affecting their access to resources such as health, education and housing.

Through this understanding, social workers often seek to help disadvantaged and vulnerable individuals to improve their circumstances by linking them with mutual social support and collaborative assistance from within their communities, so they gradually become able to gain greater control over their lives.