Building the Liberal State: Social Workers, Lawyers, and Rights from the Progressive Era to the Great Society

AHA Session 111
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Felicia Kornbluh, University of Vermont
Felicia Kornbluh, University of Vermont

Session Abstract

Lawyers and social workers were major participants in building the American liberal state from the  Progressive Era through the Great Society.  Yet the interactions, networks, and professional communities built by and between these two professions have not been fully explored by historians.  Each of the panelists examines how in a different time period, and in a different historical setting,  the two professions interacted  and how these interactions shaped each of the professions, professional identities, and the structure of benefits, entitlements, and rights that each supported.  Moreover similarities and distinctions between the professions also reflected shifting ideas of gender, power, expertise, and authority.  As the panelists show, throughout the twentieth century, disciplinary boundaries between law and social work were often deeply porous and many of the leading women social workers such as Sophinisba Breckenridge, who shaped both the profession of social work and the curriculum that would be taught in schools of social work, were trained as lawyers.

At times, however, lawyers’ and social workers’ methodologies significantly differed as did their understandings of rights and entitlements.  The presenters explore why and how this was the case.  For example, in its broadest contours, social workers defined the family and then the community as its basic unit of inquiry, where lawyers’ primary focus was on the individual.  Related to this, social workers perceived justice as requiring a form of social justice, where lawyers understand justice to be a constellation of individual rights. Moreover, social workers understood rights as grounded in social context, specific situations, and human need where lawyers often saw a more abstract and process oriented quality to rights.  Law also was coded as a masculine profession, where social work was coded as a female profession. These differences as well as others would have profound affects in terms of the reforms that lawyers and social workers envisioned, the bureaucratic structures that they built, and how they worked with one another.

 Legal historians often primarily have been concerned with those actors clearly defined as formally trained lawyers, where historians of women have produced a rich literature on social workers. Each of the panelists attempts to create a new history by analyzing the interactions, criticisms, and overlapping communities and networks between these two professions.  In doing so, they seek to explore the significant continuities as well as ruptures between the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society.  

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