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December 19, 2011

Group work bends to reality

Reuel S. Amdur

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When I was a graduate student in social work at the University of Washington in the early 1960's, we were presented with two different pictures of group work. The history of social work identified our roots as in part being in the settlement house movement.

Jane Addams was one of the heroines of the movement, working out of Hull House in Chicago, helping the poor and immigrants.  Then there was the group work curriculum offered by Professor Ed Walters.

The late Professor Walters was a follower of Robert Vinter, of the University of Michigan.  They were of the view that group workers should not be working with “normal” people.  They should be exercising their special skills in treating people who were dysfunctional or ill–the mentally deficient or mentally ill, people with other serious illness of one sort or other, delinquents, etc.  Otherwise, it was argued, their expertise was being wasted.

The medical profession and the medical model were the standard.  And while Vinter urged that group workers work “with those most in need,” he made only fleeting reference to the poor.  He did not suggest that work in public hospitals was preferable to work in private ones, though those in public hospitals would likely be in greater need.

Meanwhile, settlement houses–community centers identified with social work continued to work with poor people and immigrants, using groups to uncover their individual and collective strengths to affect their social environment and at the same time bring about personal change.  As well, some of the groups were of the sort that Vinter favored.  However, the existence of therapeutic groups in these settings did not deny the validity of what else was taking place there.

In 1961, Vinter wrote a report on programs funded by Metropolitan Detroit United Community Services, in which he argued that, under services classified as “group work and recreation,” over 90% of the efforts were for socialization, with less than one per cent for rehabilitation. 

He called for reallocating group work from socialization services to rehabilitative services.  Detroit settlement house–community center workers saw his report as an attack on their organizations, on social action, and on community organizing, while they were indeed continuing to serve “those most in need.”

A couple things happened that led to a rethinking of the pure remedial group work approach.  One was personal experience. 

Vinter and Rosemary Sarri reported in the journal Social Work on a project of work with pupils who were performing poorly.  They found that the medical approach of study-diagnosis-treatment did not apply in a direct, meaningful way because a roadblock was the way the school operated, getting in the way of treatment.  The thing, however, that really shook things up for the remedialists was the US government’s War on Poverty.

The War on Poverty, in spite of its numerous shortcomings, put money into programs, some of which used group workers, aimed at helping “those most in need,” especially the poor.  The programs did not reflect the old remedialist perspective. 

Not only that, War on Poverty programs also made extensive use of nonprofessionals.  Individual Change Through Small Groups, a book edited by Paul Glasser, Vinter, and Saari and published in 1974, served to put to rest the élitist vision of a professional future full of white-coated group workers. 

Apparently, those settlement workers may have been doing something right after all. 

One other thing happened to group work.  These days much of the work with groups in therapeutic settings is being done by caseworkers, not group workers.

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