This article introduces the reader to the profession of social work and its evolution over time. By simultaneously attending to both the person and the environment, social work has been a more comprehensive profession. Although social work has been inherently striving for a more integrative approach from the beginning, it has lacked a meta-theory that could address people, their environments, and integrate previously competing theories. Integral Theory is that meta-theory. Social workers are invited to consider this meta-theoretical approach to the service they provide.
The profession of social work emerged through the effort to address the person-environment interaction in the service of improving peoples’ lives and facilitating transformation and growth through skillful interventions. Social work is geared toward helping underprivileged members of society, enhancing the well-being of people within their social context, and addressing the welfare of society as a whole.1 By simultaneously attending to both the person and the environment, social work has actually been more comprehensive in its approach. It is this degree of inclusiveness that has made it challenging to explicate. Although social work inherently strove for a more integrative approach from the beginning, it has lacked a theory that could address both people and their environments by integrating the various theories drawn upon by social workers.
One result of this lack of theoretical cohesion has been a division in the profession between social workers who emphasize the person and those who focus on environmental interventions. In order to adhere to its comprehensive vision, social workers have made various attempts throughout the history of the profession to integrate theories and create integrative models of practice. The purpose of this article is to 1) introduce the reader to the profession of social work, especially as it has evolved through history to have a dual focus (the person or the environment); 2) to critique previous attempts to conceptualize social work in an integrated manner; and 3) to propose Integral Theory as a more appropriate conceptual framework than previous attempts to integrate these two aspects into a single focus of social work.