History of Social Work


Social Service based on humanitarian ground is an age old phenomenon for India and for West. We could see it from the historical perspective throughout the ages. Age old epics across the religions taught the whole world the lessons of life, service to mankind and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged. Since the ancient time the social fabric of the society has changed immensely, the simple and uncomplicated societies are now changed into complex and complicated one. This complexity of the society has given the rise to many personal and social problems which in turn made social service activities in to organized social work profession. Undoubtedly social work in India is an alien subject borrowed during British colonial period yet it has made a significant contribution in the country in a very short period of time. Before getting into the history of social work in India we have to trace its roots in the United Kingdom and United States of America from where it has originated. Evolution of Social Work Profession in United Kingdom and United States of America

The discipline of social work has a long history of evolution from charity based tradition to the full fledged profession of today. We can trace the evolution of social work from the following way:

  • 1215: King John of England signs the Magna Carta, which establishes some human rights (for the privileged class). It is considered a forerunner of modern civil rights.
  • 1531: The first State regulation of relief is found in a 1531 statue concerning the punishment of beggars and vagabonds.
  • 1560: Churches provided hospitals, infirmaries and alms houses for the old and the sick in United Kingdom.
  • 1601: The Elizabethan poor law was enacted, basically it was collection of laws meant to formalized earlier practices of poor relief. The law authorized the raising of taxes to pay for services to those who were poor, needy and had no family support. It classified poor’s in three categories, the impotent poor, the able bodied poor and the idle poor.
  • 1624: Based on the contribution of disabled soldiers and sailors Virginia colony passed the legislation recognizing their problems and needs.
  • 1642: Based on the Elizabethan Poor Law the Plymouth colony also approved a poor law that directs that relief cases must be discussed at meetings held in towns.
  • 1650: The “protestant work ethics”, emphasizing self discipline, frugality and hardship becomes prominent, justifying those who adopted its views to look down upon people who are unemployed or dependent on others.
  • 1657: Scots Charitable Society, The first American society founded in Boston. It represents the beginning of voluntary societies to meet the need of poor and disadvantaged.
  • 1776: The United States declaration of independence is signed promoting freedom for everyone but not for the slaves.
  • 1812: The First American textbook on psychiatry written by Dr. Benjamin Rugh is published.
  • 1813: The first labor legislation was enacted which directs factory owner to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to their child laborers.
  • 1834: The poor law amendment act of 1834 divided the poor in England and Wales into two groups: i.e. the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.
  • 1837: The First State institution for blind people is established in Ohio.
  • 1843: The New York Association for improving the condition of the poor is established.
  • 1844: The first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was organized by Drapery Clerk George in London.
  • 1848: The first Minimum Wages law of United States was enacted in Pennsylvania.
  • 1886: The first settlement house in the United States named the Neighborhood Guild was established with a objective of eliminating the distance between socio economic classes by locating housing for the poor in working class neighborhood.
  • 1877: The first Charity Organization Society was founded in Buffalo. The society operates on four principles
    • Detailed investigation of applicants
    • A central system of registration to avoid duplication.
    • Cooperation between the various relief agencies.
    • Use of the volunteers in the form of ‘Friendly Visitors’.
  • 1898: The first Social Work training institute was established by the New York Charity Organization Society, which in 1904 becomes the New York School of Philanthropy.
  • 1900: The term ‘Social Workers’ was coined by Simon Pattern.
  • 1900: Abraham Flexner issued a report declaring that social work is not yet a profession because it lacks a written body of knowledge and educationally communicable techniques.
  • 1917: The first text book on Social Case Work named Social Diagnosis written by Marry Richmond known to be the first important contribution in the social work body of knowledge.
  • 1933: US president Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaims a ‘New Deal’ for Americans establishing major social development program responding to poverty and unemployment.
  • 1950: The social security Act of 1935 amended to include children and relatives with whom needy children are living, and to aid permanently and totally disabled people.
  • 1952: The Council on Social Work Education was established.
  • 1955: The National Associations of social workers was established.
  • 1960: The National Associations of social workers adopts its first code of ethics.
  • 1964: US President Lyndon B. Johnson establishes the “Great Society” programs and made racial discrimination in public places illegal.
  • 1965: More “Great Society” programs, providing for medical case, the needs of older Americans, and children education are established.
  • 1990: The American with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against disabled people.
  • 1990: The Ryan white comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency Act provides funding for prevention, Intervention, treatment and commends planning in relation the HIV/AIDS.
  • 1996: US president Clinton signs into law the personal responsibility and work opportunity, Reconciliation Act, restricting or eliminating many entitlement programs and replacing them with more temporary aid designed to promote independence.


Healthy ethical and spiritual traditions were part of the Indian tradition since early Vedic period. The seeds of human development were served since the origin of Indian society.

The Vedic Period provides life’s highest order, which is found in the Indian scriptures entitled ‘Veda’ i.e. Regveda, ‘Samaveda’, ‘Yazurveda’, ‘Atharvavada’. It emphasized that the religions hymns and music, sacrifices and knowledge are the soul of human life. The learning of Veda was called ‘shruti; which was memorizing through listening. One of the finest skills of case work is listening which war practiced in Pathshala mode of education where the ‘Guru’ used to recite and disciples practiced the listening and oratory skills and learns the lessons. Charities in Vedic era were considered as morality. Helping the needy and beggar were praised as moral behavior.

We have many examples in Indian literature on ‘Dana’ (charity) we have example of ‘ ‘Ram Rajya’ of Rama as a example of ‘welfare state’, ‘Danveer Karna’, as ‘Donor’ and ‘Philanthropist’ Raja Harishchandra as ‘Satyavadi’ Raja Bhoj as an advocate whose justice mechanism was based on human values. All these characters can be quoted as an example while we study the roots of social work in India. In the early vedic era women were enjoying equal positions. There is a reference of ‘Women Rishis’like ‘Apala’, ‘Maitreyi’ etc. Which indicates the status of women in the ancient India.

The Asharama systems of ancient time delegated duties associated with relationship to provide discipline in human life. The four age-based life stages are: Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation).

The great emperor Smrat Ashok adopted Buddhism and devoted his life to humanistic values after conquering all countries of that time.The Eight fold ‘Paths’ of Buddhism finds its relevance in social work principles that is peace, dignity and right to livelihood, acceptance etc ‘Charaka’ in the regime of Krishna developed indigenous medical treatment of known as :

Bhaisajyagraha – a medical store and kautilya mentioned about the veterinary surgeons that were the in charge of cattle’s. There was a provision of Samsthudyaska (Controller of establishment who looked after public health) The ancient books such as Manu Smriti by Manu, Aarthshastitra by Kautilya, Mahabharata by Vedvyas and Ramcharit Manas by Tulsidas mentioned the political institutions as examples of scientific governance. Welfare state was an ideal feature of ancient India as the king was custodian of law and trustee of public property emerged from Dharma. We can trace the present time popular concept of ‘Corporate Social Responsibilities’ through it.

The concept of welfare state has been beautifully summarized by ‘Apastamba’. According to this text the state had to provide food clothing, shelter and medical treatment to people. No one in the Kingdom shall suffer from hunger, sickness, and cold or heat either through want or otherwise, royal guest house at the capital was to be made open and accessible to all. The issue of morality and ethics lies in the story of ‘Panchtantra’ and the issue of animal protection and their dignity finds space in ‘Hitopadesha’ Mughal emperor Akabar acted as social reformer and prohibited child marriage introduced law against slavery and alcoholism. He founded a new cultural order Called ‘Din-e-ilahi’. (Divine faith)- A collection of moral from all religions. We find reference of high orders practiced by Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Laxmi Bai. Who Fought for people and Nation. No example of social welfare found during the early days of British rule in India.As they were the invaders and intruders for the Indian society. Whatever glimpses of welfare we get in the history during that period was insufficient and inadequate. Due to the regular occurrence of famine Colonial state appointed famine commission in 1880. Further Famine code was developed in 1883.By the charter act of 1813 the company administration had accept the responsibility of education in India.

In 1835 the cleverer general William Bentinck had decided to impart western education in India on the recommendation of Mr.Mcaley. In 1844 English become official language and it was declared those people having the knowledge of English would be preferred for public employment. The colonial state appointed the Sanitation Commissioners in 1880 in the five British provinces. The plague commission was also appointed in 1896. In the year 1905 Gopal Krishna Gokhle established ‘Servants of India Society’. It was first attempt by an Indian in the form of organized social work.The beginning of the twentieth century there was an adequate public opinion against the colonization of Britishers in India, and the role of Britain in the first and the second world war made it difficult for the rulers to invest in the interest of the general public in India. The only significant contribution during that period was from Christian missionaries who were came here during that period and gave different outlook to religion by establishing schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions of social importance.In this regard the first school of social work in India was also established by the help of Christian missionary named Clifford Manshardt in the year 1936 named Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work now popularly known as TISS. In the mean time social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Ram Krishan Paramhans, Swami Vivekananda also created an atmosphere which made British government to pass important social legislation. Due to industrial expansion many Acts were passed in India such as the Apprentice Act 1850, The Fatal Accident Act 1853, and The Merchant Shipping Act 1859, the Reformatory School Act of 1870, First Factory Act 1881.

Series of Labor legislations were also passed by government such as factory commission was appointed in 1890; Indian Factory Act was passed in 1891. The Factory Act was amended in 1912, 1923 and 1934. The Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1923 (Now Employees Compensation Act), Payment of wages Act. 1936, Bombay Industrial Disputes Act of 1938. Some social legislations were also enacted like Children Act in 1920, Control Prevention and Treatment of Beggary Act was passed in 1945, Abolition of Sati in 1829, the Abolition of slavery in 1843, the Abolition of female Infanticide and Human Sacrifice in 1802 and Widow Remarriage Act in 1856. After independence several initiatives has been taken by the Government for the social progress of the weaker society. The factory Act 1948, Plantation Labour Act 1951, The Mines Act 1952, embodying the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution, Maternity Benefit Act 1961, The Payment of Bonus Act 1965, The Contract Labour (prohibition and Regular) Act 1970, Payment of Gratuity Act 1972, Equal Remuneration Act 1972, Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 amended in 1976, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, Nilokhedi projects in 1948 as the refugee rehabilitation project, in 1952 Firka development scheme in Madras province, Etowah Pilot project was launched 1948 for rural development in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The national extension service was launched in 1953 and the 73rd, 74th constitutional Amendment in 1992-93.


  • 1601 Poor Law (Elizabeth 43) England (UK)
  • 1657 Scot Charitable Society – Boston (USA)
  • 1700 Enclosure Movement – England
  • 1832 Royal commission
  • 1844 First Young Men Christian Association Landon (UK) YMCA
  • 1855 Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) Emma Roberts, Mrs. Arthur Kinnaid.
  • 1869 Charity Organization society (COS) (UK) / London.
  • 1877 Charity Organization society / (COS) Buffalo (USA)
  • 1878 Charity Organization society Philadelphia, Boston (USA)
  • 1884 Settlement House (Toynabee Hall) London, UK
  • 1886 Neighborhood guild
  • 1889 Hull House Chicago (USA)
  • 1895 Almoners – (UK) Outside Visitor – Charles Poch.
  • 1898 First Social work braining Institute (New York) COS
  • 1899 Social Work training (UK)
  • 1900 Dream psychology – All frund Written work(1900-1920)
  • 1913 Community chest (Cleveland, Ohiyvo)
  • 1917 First Book – social diagnosis (Marry Richmond)
  • 1919 American Association of school of social work
  • 1936 Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work Clifford, Mumbai
  • 1940 Indian Journal of Social Work (TISS) Mumbai
  • 1941 The beverage report
  • 1946 Medical social work courses in Tata School.
  • 1960 UGC appointed first review committee
  • 1962 Contemporary social work, Department of social work Lucknow University
  • 1963 Social work from – Indian Association of Trained Social Workers (IAISW)
  • 1975 Second Review committee, 1978 submitted report
  • 1984 Perspective in social work – Nirmala Niketan
  • 2000 National Journal of Professional Social work – Indian Society of Prof. Social work.