, , , , , ,


The view of social work as a means of social control presented by McLaughlin in the article “Social Work’s Legacy: Irreconcilable Differences?”  is an eye-opener to those new to the field of social work. According to the author, critics affirm that the mission of social work is no longer to help the poor and oppressed, but to control them, utilizing psychotherapy as a method of intervention (p.188). Interestingly, if one compares social work in the United States and social work in Brazil, one will realize that in Brazil the scope of social work does not include the clinical aspect. In other words, psychologists and psychiatrists will work in the mental health field, while social workers will address social justice issues at collective and individual levels. Perhaps, the Brazilian approach to social work would be more in alignment with scholars such as Spechat and Courtney, however, McLaughlin (2002), urges social workers to think reflectively about the betterment of the individual and the betterment of society as complementing each other (p.196-197).

Day (1981) in the article “Social Welfare: Context for Social Control”, shed some light on how social workers and human services organizations might control vulnerable communities and individuals. The author explains that “social workers are generally unaware of the extent of their control and most of them enter the human service field from feelings of caring” (p.30). Day (1981) corroborate McLaughlin’s thoughts on the importance of developing critical thinking about social work as a means of social control, so that social workers don’t become agents of such control, supporting and legitimating it (p.31). Historically, some of the ways social welfare exerted control over society was through the Statute of Laborer in 1349, in which people were kept in certain areas of work to economically benefit others; The War on Poverty in 1965, aiming at controlling civil disorder started by the disadvantaged; and the expansion of Community Mental Health Acts, which had the objective of quieting political unrest in the 1960s (p.32). The author does not deny the usefulness of such programs nor the unselfish feelings of people working for them, however, he emphasizes what he calls “the programs’ latent functions; public intrusion into private lives, expanding definitions of deviance and new pressures for and legitimation of conformity” (p.33).

Other important ways in which social workers and human services agencies exert control over society are through values, attitudes and the power relations. Day (1981) exemplifies human services organizations as symbols of power, in which the social worker is the expert and the client is the one seeking for help. One can imply that the client is inadequate and needs to be taught how to meet society’s standards of functioning (p.34). If not carefully observed, the power relation might translate into social workers adopting the position of experts and disregarding the client’s abilities, knowledge and rights.


Day, P. (1981). Social Welfare: Context for Social Control. The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare,8(1), 29-44. Retrieved January 6, 2016.

McLaughlin, A. (2002). Social work’s legacy: Irreconcilable differences? Clinical Social Work Journal, 30(2), 187-198.