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The Social Work Dictionary

6th Edition

The language of social work, like the profession itself, continues to grow and become more complex. This is the result of both increased social work knowledge and the profession’s desire to communicate with greater precision. It is also the product of closer relationships with other professions and segments of society, each of which has its own jargon and terminology.

A dynamic vocabulary is healthy but represents a formidable challenge. To express themselves effectively and to comprehend the words of their colleagues and members of other professions, social workers must be familiar with an extensive body of complex terms. They also are expected to have ready access to a variety of resources, organizations, and services that can help meet the needs of their clients.

Another challenge to clear communication arises from the divergent specialties and conceptual orientations within the profession itself. For example, social workers who are policymakers or social advocates do not usually share identical vocabularies with their colleagues in clinical work. Even within a single social work practice specialty, there is risk of misunderstanding because of the variety of theoretical perspectives in current use. Clinical social workers with psychodynamic orientations, for example, may have different interpretations of terms used by their colleagues from behaviorist, psychosocial systems, existential, or cognitive perspectives, and vice versa.

Although these trends increase the potential for communication problems, social workers face mounting pressure to minimize such difficulties. Malpractice law suits and other legal actions have become more frequent. So too are sanctions against professionals who misinterpret or improperly disseminate information. Society demands that professionals prove they are competent and current, usually through licensing and certification exams. To a great extent, passing these exams requires that the social worker understand the terms and concepts used in the profession.

The Social Work Dictionary was developed to address these challenges. The idea for it originated in the early 1980s when I participated on a panel to write questions for social work state licensing exams. All the panelists often debated about how the profession generally understood certain terms that it used. All the test writers bemoaned social work’s lack of a glossary of its language to use in arbitrating these disputes. I decided to try to write The Social Work Dictionary.

I began by compiling a long list of entries that have appeared in the indexes of the major social work journals and textbooks of the past three decades. The journals and texts were those in most general use in graduate and undergraduate schools of social work and in the larger social agencies. I added to this list by going through the indexes of the journals, manuals, and textbooks of disciplines related to social work, especially in psychiatry, law, sociology, economics, anthropology, and psychology. Over time, I presented the list to hundreds of my colleagues in social work education and clinical practice as well as students and members of related professions. On the basis of their suggestions, hundreds of additional terms were added to this list.

In defining the terms, I found it necessary to review how they were used by different writers. All too frequently, I found slight differences in the interpretations various writers gave to certain terms. I tried to provide a definition that was closest to the majority view and to the mainstream of social work thinking. I also tried to make each definition original for this project, a policy I have maintained through all editions of the published work. No definitions are deliberately quoted from any known published sources.

Once I finished writing the definitions, they were critiqued, edited, and revised by several hundred col- leagues and students. I began the evaluations by presenting two or three pages of definitions to my students at the Catholic University of America. Then I gave short glossaries to students, through their professors, at several other schools of social work in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Students and faculty at Howard University, Gallaudet University, and the University of Maryland, as well as Catholic, were the original participants. The definitions were thus subjected to heavy scrutiny for two years before I felt ready to consider publication of a dictionary of our profession’s terminology.

After the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and NASW Press agreed to publish the work, I assembled a panel of colleagues who were widely considered to be among the preeminent scholars and practitioners in their respective fields. The members of the editorial review board were chosen for their considerable expertise in at least one area of social work knowledge or a related field such as medicine, law, administration, or economics. To each member, I sent approximately 50 to 100 definitions that were understood to be within the panelist’s realm of special expertise. I asked them to review their definitions as to accuracy, clarity, conciseness, and relevance of examples. Typically, three different experts reviewed each definition.

The experts did not always agree with one another on how a term should be defined or on what parts of it should be emphasized, so compromises had to be made. Some reviewers believed certain words were offensive or outdated and recommended their exclusion. However, I chose to retain most of those terms that are still in common, perhaps improper, use and to indicate why they are considered improper for use by competent professionals. This reflects my view that the purpose of a dictionary is to explain the mean- ing of terms, not judge whether people should use the terms or pretend they do not exist.

This process of reviewing my definitions has been followed throughout all six editions of The Social Work Dictionary. Every term and definition that I have written has been evaluated, edited, and sometimes modified by at least three experts and two editors. With each revision and updating of the dictionary, I asked many new reviewers to join the editorial review board. Some members are new to this edition, whereas others have served on the board through all five editions. With each new edition, all the defined terms were rereviewed and, when appropriate, updated or revised. Some definitions were deleted with each new edition. But mostly the dictionary has grown. The first edition contained approximately 4,000 definitions; the current sixth edition contains more than 10,000 defined terms.

The first edition of The Social Work Dictionary was published in early 1987. Subsequent editions appeared in 1991, 1995, 1999, and 2003, and were all well received. Colleagues from around the world expressed approval and indicated where the dictionary was being used—in schools of social work, in social agency libraries, in licensing exam preparation centers, and in the offices of experienced and novice social work practitioners.

The terms defined here are used in social work administration, research, policy development, and planning; community organization; human growth and development; health and mental health; macro and micro social work; and clinical theory and practice. They are the terms that relate to social work’s values and ethics and to its historical development. The definitions include descriptions of some of the organizations, trends, people, philosophies, and legislation that have played major roles in the development of social work and social welfare.

The biographical entries are reminders of the rich lives of people who have made significant contributions to the profession and to social welfare. The criteria for including these small biographies are that the person is now deceased and is identified as a member of the social work profession or is primarily known for significant work in social welfare.

The organizations identified here are those that have particular significance to social work practitioners. Each now has a Web site that provides extensive information about the organization’s function, methods, history, and mission. In the dictionary’s previous edition the Web site addresses were included. This has become unnecessary with the advent of effective search engines. No one would type the full uniform resource locator address when simply typing in the name of the organization is more convenient.

The section titled “Milestones in the Development of Social Work and Social Welfare” represents a chronology of the significant developments in the United States and the world toward social welfare policies and practices and the betterment of humanity.

The terms are those that have been developed within the profession as well as those that social workers have adopted for their own use from sociology, anthropology, medicine, law, psychology, and economics. The symptoms and diagnostic labels for various forms of mental disorders are defined as they are understood by social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. All the diagnostic terms and criteria found here are consistent with those in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM–5), the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Edition; and the Person-in-Environment (PIE) System. Many terms are derived from the theoretical orientations of psychodynamic, cognitive–behavioral, and existential, as well as systemic and linear, approaches. Also included are concepts in social work practice with individuals, groups, families, and communities.

As before, this sixth edition of The Social Work Dictionary uses the standard format for professional dictionaries and glossaries. The terms are listed in strict alphabetical order. Many terms are cross-referenced, and words that appear in italics within definitions are themselves defined elsewhere in the publication. This dictionary does not purport to present all the words a social worker could ever use, or provide “official” definitions of terms. The development of new knowledge and changing perspectives will necessitate commensurate revisions of the publication. The Social Work Dictionary strives to give the social worker an abbreviated interpretation of the words, concepts, organizations, historical events, and values that are relevant to the profession. As such, it is designed to provide a concise overview of social work’s terminology, not encyclopedic detail. Naturally, it is hoped that any omissions, discrepancies, and errors are minimal. But in a dynamic field populated by intelligent professionals with divergent views and experiences, it is inevitable that some discrepancies will occur. As the author of this work, I assume full responsibility for the terms that have been included and excluded as well as for the way they are defined.

NASW plans to produce subsequent editions of The Social Work Dictionary every few years. Anyone who has suggestions, recommended changes, additions, deletions, or corrections should notify us at NASW Press. Your suggestions will be given close consideration and possible inclusion in the next edition of the dictionary. In this way the dictionary will remain a living, ever-improving document—the product of input from the widest possible range of social workers and members of related professions. I hope that this edition of The Social Work Dictionary will continue to be a useful tool for social workers in their efforts to communicate clearly and achieve better professional understanding.

—Robert L. Barker
June 2013