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IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION?: A 21ST CENTURY ANSWER TO A 20TH CENTURY QUESTION-OTTAWA, CANADA 2026
(Excerpts from a futurist paper written by Professor R. Ramsay in 1988 and theoretically delivered by one of his former students in 2026)
“I am honored to be your keynote speaker on the occasion of the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) centennial celebrations. First, let me put to rest any concerns about my intentions. All of you, I presume, are well aware of Abraham Flexner's now infamous speech delivered slightly more than a century ago to a national conference of social workers in the United States. His 20th Century answer to a similar question was a clear, No. My answer, not to keep you in any suspense, is a clear, Yes. I come, as an insider, to praise and congratulate, not to condemn or question the status of our profession. My presentation will attempt to trace the events and developments of social work that brought us to such a positive conclusion as we enter the second quarter of the 21st Century.
In its first 60 years, CASW and others like it world-round had negative critics in abundance. In fact, the profession in general was characterized by negativism, fragmentation and an embarrassing lack of unity. I need only to remind you that membership in CASW in 1986 numbered slightly less than 10,000. The fact that I am speaking to an association that is now 100,000 strong, representing over 80% of Canada's practicing social workers, is certainly proof of greater unity. We can now boast a real "critical disturbance" effect, meaning that our national and provincial presence across this vast country is now large enough to permit and sustain a pattern-like web of influence. I am here to applaud the real progress in our world since the turn of the century. In particular, I am here to acknowledge the contribution of social work to the now realizable option of planetary survival and a decent quality life for all citizens world-round.
As I drove here this fine July morning, I was struck by the sun's reflection on the magnificent stylized tetrahedral sculpture in front of the exquisite clear span structure of this beautifully constructed convention centre. This sculpture is a monument to the cohesive social functioning of all citizens of the world, and of course to you and I, it represents nature's universal coordinate system that our profession adopted as its common organizing framework just before the turn of the century. On the way in as I admired this wonderful Naturdome, I paused to smell the flowers, no longer tainted with acid rain. I took comfort in knowing that threats of resource depletion and nuclear devastation no longer hover around our heads. Large planetary regions of food shortages, poverty and human desperation, world-round are largely behind us. We human beings are finally headed in the direction of achieving our terrestrial purpose. Humankind is beginning to truly fulfill its local information gathering and problem-solving function of maintaining the integrity of eternally regenerative processes in Universe, so clearly described to us through the experiential work of Buckminster Fuller from the 1930s to the 1980s.
The fact that social workers no longer doubt their professional status has freed us to stand along side others in a collective effort to discover and maintain regenerative processes around the world. In North America, as we know, the profession of social work is barely into its second century. Much of our history has been marked by uncertainties about our professional identity and anxiety about our status as a legitimate profession. Social workers struggled for years in search of a common conceptual framework that could adequately "house" the social purpose and domain of social work; our broad-base practice paradigm; the systematic processes of our micro-macro practice methods; and our personal domains that must be integrated into our professional practice. A successful conclusion to this search emerged in the 1990s, when nature's fundamental coordinate system, discovered some years earlier by Buckminster Fuller, was accepted world-round as the profession's common practice framework. Fuller, as most now know, was one of America's most ordinary-extraordinary citizens, whose scientific discoveries and technological contributions greatly advanced the peaceful and constructive co-existive options that are now pervasive in all countries and among all peoples around the world. To capitalize on our current successes and also to remind us of valued lessons in our past, it is timely to re-examine some of the early developments that led to the emergence of social work as the profession that we know today. I have organized my remarks into a four-part presentation, in keeping with the minimum number of elements in natural systems.”
Natural Systems Theory
In the 1980s, Ramsay (1986) identified a third systems perspective, the natural systems discoveries of the multidisciplined R. Buckminster Fuller (1963, 1969, 1975, 1979, 1981, 1982). Fuller had discovered a universal coordinate system, which he named "synergetics", that cut across and undergirded all scientific disciplines. Synergetics is a triangular and tetrahedral system that employs 60-degree coordination, which is nature's way of physically packing elements together (1975, pp. 22-23). Synergetics rejects all axioms as "self-evident"; every thing must be experientially verifiable. Fuller's discovery was based on the empirical findings of physicists who found that nature is always most economical and therefore did not function according to man's 90-degree angle (x, y, z) coordinate system (Fuller, 1969, p. 95). Nature's way was to use very economical and fundamental 60-degree coordination, best illustrated by Van't Hoff's "proof of the tetrahedral configuration of carbon, the combining master of organic chemistry" (p. 100-101). In chemistry, it was discovered that tetraderal chemically bonded in different ways . When single bonded together by one vertex, they form a very flexible linkage. Double bonding is a hinge-like linkage, still flexible but more compact. Triple bonding is rigid, lacking flexibility but capable of differentiation. Quadra bonding is enmeshed, lacking flexibility and differentialness.
Fuller's synergetic coordinate system proved to be the unifying framework that social workers had been searching for. For the first time social workers could conceptually organize all the different components -domain (of self and those they serve), paradigm and method- in the common base of their profession. Synergetics is the exploratory approach of starting with the whole (Fuller, 1975, p. 13). It is based on a generalized principle of synergy that the behavior of whole systems are unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. A corollary of synergy is once you start dealing with the known behavior of the whole and the known behavior of some of the parts, you will quite possibly be able to discover the presence of other parts and their behaviors (pp. 9 & 12). The strategy of a synergic approach is radically different from the traditional strategies of differentiating out parts of a system to study their behaviors in isolation from the whole system.
Constructing a Common Conceptual Framework
Holism: In constructing the common conceptual framework, Ramsay integrated our historical developments, and borrowed from the insights and previous work of several social workers before him, who realized that a conceptual framework adequate enough to address broad and complex problems had to encompass all possible interrelationships in several different components of the discipline (Bartlett, 1970; Meyer, 1970; Goldstein, 1973; Pincus & Minahan, 1973; Middleman & Goldberg, 1974; Siporin, 1975; Compton & Galaway, 1975; Shulman, 1979; Anderson, 1981; O'Neil,1985). They all shared the belief that the domain of social work could not focus solely on the individual or on the environment, but had to focus on the interdependence of the two. They all believed that one had to "see" the many interrelationships involved, whether they were associated with a individual problem, a group problem, or one of even larger scope. They knew that problems did not exist in a vacuum. To start with a whole picture, social workers needed to see how every element in a system can affect every other element. A systems perspective, they argued, let social workers connect multiple variables to their cases, and at the same time see the possibility of a wide range of intervention methods and skills. As Meyer so often used to state, "it is more professionally accountable to see cases in their true complexity, and then to select the appropriate methods and skills" (Meyer, 1983, p.27).
Science of Social Work
The natural systems perspective, combined with selected characteristics of general systems and ecological perspectives, served as a conceptual framework for constructing and "seeing" the common base of social work in its entirety. Using this perspective Ramsay found a way to objectively employ systems theory in social work, almost twenty-five years after Von Bertalanffy and Fuller were brought together on several panels at a World Affairs Conference in 1963 and agreed that they had discovered the same natural coordinate system through completely different circumstances (Fuller, 1963, p. 69). This practical application of systems theory turned out to be a big breakthrough in establishing social work as a legitimate science. Science as referred to earlier could be defined any way one wished as long as consistency was present. Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the great theoretical physicists in the first half of the 20th century, defined science simply as "the conscientious attempt to set in order the facts of experience" (Fuller, 1976, p. 7). A similar definition was provided by the highly acclaimed Viennese physicist, Ernst Mach who said "Physics is experience arranged in the most economical order" (Fuller, p. 7). Mach's definition incorporated the discoveries of physicists that nature always works in the most economical way possible. These definitions were used by Ramsay to define "social work as the conscientious attempt to set the facts of experience in the most economical socialization order." Social work was recognized as part of "design science" (Gabel, 1979), a new paradigm for viewing our world that emerged out of Fuller's work. Gabel explained that "design science sees the environment and the human condition as being ever improvable . . . [which] involves understanding the critical interrelated nature of our problems and their global scope; the inability of present , locally focused planning methods to deal effectively with these problems; and new systematic alternative approaches for recognizing, resolving, and preventing our present and anticipated problems through the development of artifacts" (pp.10-11). We learned that design science unlike "pure" science which often claims to be value-free is value-laden. Design involves the structuring of environments in preferred directions; where we want to go is determined by our values (Gabel, p. 11). Most importantly for social work, Gabel pointed out that: One of the underlying tenents of design science is that we are all in 'this' together; 'this' being the Earth, humanity, and our innumerable problems. Problems are all interconnected just as is our ecology. Problems are parts; design science seeks to deal with wholes, with systems; The method of design science is one of always starting with the whole and working toward the particular (p. 11).
We also learned that the parameters of social work, as a design science, could be objectified by using the natural systems perspective to establish
Fuller provided empirical evidence that there is no known experience which is less than a system. A system is the simplest experience any human can have and it must always have insideness and outsideness. Only after there are four events/elements of an experience can we have insideness and outsideness differentiating guide points. Identification of a system begins first with the discovery of self or of "otherness." A living system begins with awareness. If there is no otherness there can be no awareness. If there is no insideness and outsideness, there can be no life or thought. Systems, Fuller proved to us, always divide all the universe into three principle parts (Fuller and Dil, 1983):
1. The system itself;
2. All the universe otherness outside the system - macrocosms; and
3. All the otherness inside the system - microcosms.
The above listed divisions also, as discovered by Fuller, can be expanded into several zones of micro and macro relevancy. These are a) the clearly irrelevant, b) the twilight (could be) relevant, and c) the clearly relevant elements of the system . Thought systems, for example, consist only of clearly relevant considerations. Therefore, they have micro- and macro-relevant limits. There are some experiences to small or of too high a frequency to be considered. Other experiences are too large and too infrequent to be considered. A system does not exist unless it has boundary and structure. Fuller empirically discovered the simplest whole system experience of the universe to be geometrically tetrahedral; a unique system-defining set of interdependent and related parts consisting of four (4) elements, four (4) faces, and six (6) connecting linear interrelationships. A tetrahedral system (natural system) is nature's minimum "set of elements standing in interaction" that constitute a whole experience. Anything less than a tetrahedron is not whole. A tetrahedral system provided us with a topologically-systemic way of thinking; a geometric way of thinking in which basic properties of the system were invariant (did not change) when undergoing transformations. It was a thought system that could be programmed within the human mind, or systemically programmed into a computer. Users of this system could be taught to recognize, quantify, qualify and evaluate any topological discrepancies, in the elements and interrelationships of a system, however, the system was limited to only giving answers to specific system questions. It could answer: "Which is the most advantageous way - this way or that way?" after all relevant information was known or gathered. Like all other systems perspectives before it, the tetrahedral system could not answer professional judgment, "What do I do?" questions, but it did bring social workers closer to understanding roles and functions in the social assignment management of dependency.
Man's Function in the Universe
After he discovered nature's coordinate system, Fuller asked himself the question, "Did man have a particular function in the universe and if he did what might it be?" From the astronomers, he found evidence that indicated an expanding universe, supported "by the law of entropy or increase of random elements which must ever fill more space" (Fuller, 1969, p. 145). Empirical evidence told him that unique behaviors were usually countered by opposite behaviors of some kind; therefore, he concluded that an expanding universe would have a concurrently contracting universe. He found proof of this in the discovery that our planet earth serves as a contracting agent in universe. Earth like the sun is not radiant. Our planet receives energy from the sun, but doesn't lose it at the same rate; therefore, we are a collecting or concentrating center, possibly one of thousands like us in universe. This sets the conditions for ecological balance to become operative at the surface of the earth. He found that all species in biological systems are genetically and environmentally programmed to alter their environment, which in turn alters the species behaviors (p. 146). Thus he correctly concluded that biological life on earth is antientropic. "Earth is acting as an antientropic [syntropic] center as may all planets in universe" (p. 146). Of all the antientropic/syntropic species, none compares with brain-directed humans. Humankind constantly differentiates and sorts out their experiences in their thoughts. As a consequence we are always rearranging our environments so that we may eat, be clean, move about and communicate with others in more orderly, swifter and satisfying ways. Through the work of Penfield, a well known Canadian neurologist, humankind discovered that it is much easier to explain all the data in the memory banks of the brain if we assume the existence of the "mind" than if we assume only the existence of the brain. From this, Fuller helped us understand the function of the mind in relation to generalizations in science. The scientific meaning of generalization is precise: "the discovery and statement of a principle that holds true without exception" (p. 147). We were shown experimentally that tension is never independent of compression. They only coexist. He showed us proof of many other coexistent behaviors that resulted in the well known generalization "that there is a plurality of coexistent behaviors in nature which are the complementary behaviors" (p. 147). He, also, showed us that functions only coexist with other functions, which led to a further generalization that "unity is plural and at minimum two" (p.147). What is meant by the mind as opposed to the brain, he concluded, is man's ability to generalize. The ability to generalize, also, gives humankind the tendency to moralize from semi- or axiom based generalizations. The ability to generalize allows us to orderly simplify enormous amounts of special case experiences. The mind searches for the patterns between experiences to help us accomplish things with fewer and fewer words. This orderly simplification is exactly opposite of entropy and the Law of the Increase of the Random Element. It is the decrease of the random element. Fuller gave us evidence of the mind being the most advanced phase of antientropy/syntropy in universe; therefore, he concluded: "man's mind and his generalizations, which weigh nothing, operate at the most exquisite stage of universe contraction. Metaphysics balances physics. The physical portion of universe expands entropically. The metaphysical contracts antientropically" (p. 147).
This explanation of the mind was later supported independently when Norbert Weiner, a renowned mathematician and communications scientist, published that "Man is the ultimate antientropy." From this Fuller declared that the function of man in universe had been discovered: "Man seems essential to the complementary functioning of universe." Therefore, he concluded the probability of humanity annihilating itself and thus eliminating the antientropic function from universe is approximately zero (p. 150). This is not to say that humankind on earth may not destroy itself; it simply means that there are probably thousands other planets like us in universe with humans living on them. What is important is for all humankind to consciously behave in a manner that will protect our function in universe and thereby contribute to the maintenance of a eternally regenerative universe. It should be our goal to ensure an adequate standard of living support for all humanity and rid ourselves of political systems and self-serving ideologies that protect the privileged few and exploit the poor and less able. Fuller was a strong advocate of a world-round livingry policy that would "make it possible for anybody and everybody in the human family to enjoy total earth without any human interfering with any other human and without any human gaining advantage at the expense of another" (1981, p. 169). he was against the accumulation of "material wealth", which he believed to be self-serving and Malthusian. He argued for the dominance of "real" wealth, defined as "organized human capability and know-how to employ planetary assets and energy to provide protection, comfort, nurturing, developmental opportunities minimum restraints, and an increasing range and depth of experience for human lives" (p. 199). We should seek these outcomes because, as Fuller experimentally demonstrated, that although there is nothing in our human experiences that shows when there is not enough to go around, it is not illogical to expect humans to fight to the death, because they are going to die anyway; there is also nothing illogical in the concept that when there is enough to go around humans will not even think of fighting.
Why Did We Adopt a Holistic Systems Perspective?
It was Ramsay's belief that a framework that included all four components would provide the best training for an effective social worker. He recognized that a common organizing framework must be broad and comprehensive, and the time necessary to teach the details of an unifying conceptual framework would limit the time available to deal with students' interest in different theories and specialized methods of practice. To minimize this problem, social work education curricula adopted the tetrahedral system as their common conceptual framework and made instruction about the framework an introductory course requirement for all students. This paved the way for students to concentrate in other courses on scientific theories, unique methods and the scientific basis of research in social work. The important point that Ramsay seemed to be making was that with a sound knowledge and understanding of a common organizing framework, every social worker, whether they chose to be a generalist or specialist, would have the ability to see dependency problems from similar systemic and systematic perspectives. Such an approach would, therefore, remove the blinders that have historically prevented practitioners from seeing social work in its entirety. In addition, it would provide the profession with the much needed unified identity that it spent most of the last century searching for.
So there you have it . . . Richmond gave us the systematic method and Addams brought to fore our responsibilities as the conscience of society. Boehm brought us back to our interface focus and Bartlett carried the torch for us to find the common base of our profession. Pincus and Minahan gave us the criteria to develop a model for professional practice and O'Neil helped us develop a general method model. Austin exorcised us from the ghost of Flexner and Popple led us to a new way of looking at our domain. And, Ramsay ended our search for an unifying conceptual framework that would embrace all parts of the profession and still leave us with a discipline that was clearly greater than the sum of all of its parts. However, support for all of these developments did not happen out of thin air.
All of the factors I have reviewed for you were extremely influential in the birth of the natural systems perspective as we know it today. It introduction did not mean the demise of specializations, but it did mean that every social worker was first a social worker . . .. everybody worked from the same conceptual framework. Widespread acceptance of the natural systems perspective has been a long, hard and slow process; social workers respond to new developments with the same degree of hesitancy and caution as ordinary citizens. For a long time colleague social workers believed that systems theories (GST and ecological systems in the beginning) were too idealistic, that they didn't address the practical day-to-day issues of social work. To this criticism, I ask you to review some of Fuller's original concepts and his urging that we accept ambiguity while searching for the truth. How can anyone define what is "too idealistic" when Fuller and others have shown that "life continually alters the environment and the altered environment in turn alters the potentials, realities, and challenges of life" (Fuller, 1981, p. 130). Fuller's concept of precession also presents a good argument against the cries of idealism. Precession refers to to the "integrated effect of bodies in motion upon other bodies in motion" (cited in Ramsay, 1984, p. 15). His concept of synergy (or ephemeralization - doing more for less) illustrates how a combination of experiences can turn out far stronger than their combined/summed strengths. The old axiom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link was proven to be wrong and very misleading. We now know that a when the parts of a chain, for example, the the separate tensile strength of iron, chromium, nickel and other minor constituent parts in the chrome-nickel-steel used in jet engines) are summed, the total is far less than the actual strength of the whole system. Whatever you call the effect, precession or synergy, the end result is more for less. Can we really claim the practical outcomes of these combinations, idealistic? I call it foolish to ignore empirically proven systems generalizations. Our practice experiences reinforce these truths. We know that results achieved by working through the natural systems perspective can be far more profound than initially anticipated and it is not until systems experiences are combined that one can even begin to predict what the outcome might be.
Another argument against the use of systems models was that they were too general and abstract, lacking specific guides for intervention. We now know the opposite to be true. Natural systems frameworks demand the formation of such a detailed whole picture that we are able to decide which interventions are appropriate for our clients. However, I must admit that we haven't as yet produced a model that will tell the social worker exactly what to do or how to do it. And, I not sure such a goal is worth pursing. The argument that they are too abstract was also wrong. It would be difficult to convince this audience who automatically have a mental picture of the chemical bonding effect of one tetrahedron balanced gracefully joined with another that these models are too abstract. Abstract these models are not!
One of the biggest slams against systems theories was their lack of sensitivity to deal with destructive power differentials within society. Cloward and Fox Piven said: The systems theory approach invites social workers to view clients as "interacting" with a variety of "systems" in which we should ostensibly "intervene". We learn that inmates "interact" with prisons; . . . that recipients "interact" with welfare departments; . . . that slum and ghetto dwellers "interact" with urban renewal authorities. But most clients do not "interact" with these systems, they are oppressed by them (cited in Carniol, 1987, p. 40).
It was also argued that systems theories were not able to accommodate radical, fundamental change in society. Instead, we were accused of changing only specific subsystems in our society, and only those subsystems that would maintain the status quo. It was even suggested that by teaching systems theories our schools of social work would just be "turning out people who will be able to fit well into the social agencies . . . [and be able] to carry out assignments with a minimum of conflict and dissatisfaction" (Carniol, 1987, p. 32).
Well, no doubt these were legitimate concerns, but . . . I wish the critics could see us now. We did create fundamental changes in the political, social and economic structures of our society and we did it with our natural systems models. We live in a society where economic planners and social planners are no longer designing programs at the expense of the other. The economic and social forces are in-sync for the first time in history. We have moved away from the mind restricting social control policies of "blind" punishment for all those who make mistakes. We have discovered the growth limitations in the anti-mistake-making laws and customs identified by Fuller in the last century (Fuller & Dil, 1983, pp. 129-130). We are rapidly beginning to transcend the "blood clotting" restrictiveness of sovereign nation-states and are finding ourselves being integrated into one world pattern. We no longer think charitably of underdeveloped nations that need help and superior rich ones that must help them. We are well on the way of providing abundant life support and accommodation for all humans, a world-round goal related exam, Fuller predicted, midway through the last century, that had to be passed if our human civilization was to survive into the twenty-first century. In fact, I would hazard to say that these optimistic changes have occurred because of our understanding and application of nature's fundamental coordinate system. The combined efforts of all professions and scientific disciplines using their discipline-relevant natural coordinate system models and design-science technologies have allowed our society to identify and work with the human life elements and human relationships that needed to be changed to create the egalitarian society that we now live in. And , not surprisingly, after making the necessary radical changes, we still live in a societal structure that consists of four elements and six fundamental interrelationships - the foundation basis of our natural systems perspective.
In spite of our remarkable advances in the last forty years, we cannot lose sight of the lessons from history. Like the constant vigilance we have waged against the return of fatality guaranteed epidemic diseases, we must prevent pockets of inadequacy from occurring that would again incite people to the logic of fighting to the death. We must continue to promote the logic of an egalitarian society and the benefits of elevating the bottom and all others to the highest standard of living world-around that humankind has ever experienced, in place of the blood letting illogic of pulling down the privileged few. We must not only learn from the lessons of mistakes in our past, but model after the examples set by our predecessors. In spite of our somewhat troubled past, one of our past presidents reminded us forty years ago of social work's many faces in Canada (James,1986, pp. 410-411).
"It is the past dean of a school of social work and the president of a provincial association of social workers representing Canadian social workers before a House of Commons Select Committee. It is a deputy minister social worker lobbying for alcohol consumption revenues to be invested in the support of dependent spouses affected by the abuse of alcohol. It is the military social worker bargaining with the commanding officer for a sergeant and his family with a retarded child to be transferred, on compassionate grounds, to an area with appropriate services for the child. It is the social workers in northern Canada who pack survival gear in the winter as they make their appointed rounds."
All of these colleagues were trying to give their best to themselves and to their country for the purpose, as frankly summed by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., "to hammer out as compact and solid a piece of work as one can, to try to make it first rate, and to leave it unadvertised" (James, p. 411). The natural systems framework took humankind a long time to discover. Few people know that Fuller, convinced of his personal unworthiness, stood on the shore of Lake Michigan contemplating the option of suicide, almost a century ago. Like Fuller, all of humankind was on the brink of destroying itself and the Planet Earth that we live on for almost all of the last half of the 20th century. Fortunately, just as Fuller finally found some insight into the "rightness' of his human function, our profession and others have discovered the "rightness' of our collective local problem-solving functions in the universe.
Let me close this rather extended account of lessons from our history with the words of an ordinary artist from the last century:
"Evolution provides answers as to where we are going; a future prediction based on previous phenomena. The universe contains systems, systems contain patterns. The purpose of the mind is to locate these patterns and to seek the inherent potential for new systems of thought and behavior." (artist, Agnes Denes, d.n.k).
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