A Brief Overview of Integral Social Work


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This article seeks to explore Integral Social Work — its meaning and applications. This goal is achieved by exploring the nature of social service in the context of Integral Theory’s AQAL (all- quadrant, all-level) approach. The essence of Integral Social Work is to serve the whole person and the whole of society with the whole of one’s being. This requires that social workers develop themselves, while simultaneously helping others, and society, to develop in as full, complex, and healthy a way as possible.

What Is Social Work?

Social work and social service are two concepts that have undergone many transformations and permutations over time. Social work is the term used by professional organizations and state licensing boards. Social service is seen as the larger vocation of serving individuals and society, although it is also used by professional schools of social work, such as the National Catholic School of Social Service and by governmental departments of social service. Social work is also a term frequently used by non-professionals who seek to serve individuals and society. Since social work is the more commonly used term, it will be the one I use most often in this article.

A simple working definition of social work is that it seeks to promote the well-being of the individual and society. Gibelman notes that there are multiple ways of defining social work (by fields of practice, practice settings, agency-types, functions performed, clients served, methods used, practice goals, services provided, and types of presenting problems). These are highly various, and have changed over time, but underlying all definitions of social work is a focus on the person and the environment. That is, both the individual and the social setting in their interactive complexity are of interest, and the task of social work is to effect the best, most just, person-environment interactions possible.

The levels of intervention extend from the world of direct “micro” practice with individuals, couples, and families, to indirect “macro” practice, involving policy and administration at agency, local, national, and international levels. Visionary social workers such as Jane Addams and Mary Richmond have long been aware of the importance of both micro and macro practice and their interaction, although social work has veered back and forth in terms of general emphasis, a trend Richmond described and criticized as early as the 1920s.

Gibelman also emphasizes that social workers need to engage actively and consciously in the ongoing definition and redefinition of social work. This article constitutes a contribution to that ongoing discussion.