Thursday, 20 March 2014

Social Work Intervention with Communities and Institutions

Social Action: Concept and
In professional social work, six methods of working
with people have been identified. Among them three
are basic or primary methods. They are: casework,
group work and community organisation. In day-today
 practice, social workers use these three methods
of working with people – casework with individual
clients, group work with small groups and community
organisation with sociologically definable communities.
In addition, there are three secondary or allied
methods of social work. They are: social action,
social work research and social welfare administration.
Social action seeks the betterment of masses through
social legislation, propaganda and appropriate action
programmes. When there is a need to bring about
some change in the social structure or to prevent
the negative change from happening, which may
influence the general population or a large number
of people, social action comes into play. Narmada
Bachao Andolan is one of the finest examples of social
action carried out for the betterment of the masses.
Let us look into the concept of social action in some
Concept of Social Action
Social action is considered an auxiliary method of
professional social work. As one of the methods of
working with people, it has remained a debatable
issue among the social work professionals. Social
action is a method of social work used for mobilizing
masses in order to bring about structural changes
in the social system or to prevent adverse changes.
It is an organised effort to change or improve social
and economic institutions. Some of the social problems
like dowry system, destruction of natural resources,
alcoholism, poor housing, health, etc. can be tackled
through social action.
As a method of professional social work, social action
has remained an issue with wide ranging of opinions
regarding its scope, strategies and tactics to be
used, its status as a method and its relevance to
social work practice. Mary Richmond was the first
social worker to use the word ‘social action’ in 1922.
She defines social action as “mass betterment through
propaganda and social legislation”. However, Sydney
Maslin (1947) limits the scope of social action by
considering it as a process of social work mainly
concerned with securing legislation to meet mass
problems. Baldwin broadens the scope of social action
by emphasizing on bringing about structural changes
in the social system through social action. Baldwin
(1966) defines social action as “an organised effort
to change social and economic institutions as
distinguished from social work or social service,
the fields which do not characteristically cover
essential changes in established institutions. Social
action covers movements of political reforms, industrial
democracy, social legislation, racial and social justice,
religious freedom and civic liberty and its techniques
include propoganda, research and lobbying”. In the
same line Friedlander (1977) defines social action
as an individual, group or community effort within
the framework of social work philosophy and practice
that aims to achieve social progress, to modify social
policies and to improve social legislation and health
and welfare services. Similar views are expressed
by Lee (1937) who says “social action seems to suggest
efforts directed towards changes in law or social
structure or towards the initiation of new movements
for the modification of the current social practices”.
According to Coyle (1937) social action is the attempt
to change the social environment in ways, which
will make life more satisfactory. It aims to affect
not individuals but social institutions, laws, customs,
communities. Fitch (1940) considers social action
as legally permissible action by a group (or by an
individual trying to promote group action) for the
purpose of furthering objectives that are both legal
and socially desirable. A broad outlook has also been
given by Hill (1951) who describes social action as
“organised group effort to solve mass social problems
or to further socially desirable objectives by attempting
to influence basic social and economic conditions
or practices”.
Further, social action is a term applied to that aspect
of organised social welfare actively directed towards
shaping, modifying or maintaining the social
institutions and policies that collectively constitute
the social environment (Wickendon, 1956). Solender
(1957) states that social action in the field of social
work is a process of individual, group or inter-group
endeavour, within the context of social work philosophy,
knowledge and skill. Its objective is to enhance the
welfare of society through modifying social policy
and the functioning of social structure, working to
obtain greater progress and better services. It is,
therefore, evident that social action has been viewed
as a method of bringing about structural changes
along with social legislation.
Let us see some of the viewpoints of Indian social
work authors about the definition and scope of social
action. Moorthy (1966) states that the scope of social
action includes work during catastrophic situations
such as fires, floods, epidemics, famines, etc., besides
securing social legislation. Nanawati (1965) views
social action as “a process of bringing about the
desired changes by deliberate group and community
efforts. Social action does not end with the enactment
of social legislation, but the execution of the policies
was the real test of success or failure of social
action”. The institute of Gandhian studies defines
social action as the term commonly applied to social
welfare activity which is directed towards shaping
or modifying the social institutions and policies that
constitute the social environment in which we live.
Similarly, Singh (1986) maintains that social action
is a process in which conscious, systematic and
organised efforts are made by some elites and/or
people themselves to bring about change in the system
which is instrumental in solving problems and
improving conditions which limit the social functioning
of weaker and vulnerable sections. It is, on the
practical plane, nearer to social reform than to social
revolution, which aims at smashing the entire existing
social structure and to build up a new social setup.
 It is conflictual in nature but at the same time
The objective of social action is the proper shaping
and development of socio-cultural environment in
which a richer and fuller life may be possible for
all the citizens. Mishra (1992) has identified following
goals of social action:
1) Prevention of needs;
2) Solution of mass problems;
3) Improvement in mass conditions;
4) Influencing institutions, policies and practices;
5) Introduction of new mechanisms or programmes;
6) Redistribution of power and resources (human,
material and moral);
7) Decision-making;
8) Effect on thought and action structure; and
9) Improvement in health, education and welfare.
Thus, we see that social action is seen as a method
of professional social work to be used to bring about
or prevent changes in the social system through
the process of making people aware of the
sociopolitical and economic realities that influence or
condition their lives. This is done by mobilising them
to organise themselves for bringing about the desired
results through the use of appropriately worked out
strategies, with the exception of violence. Some
examples of social action are socio-religious movements
in the medieval period targeted against superstition,
orthodox religious practices and various other social
evils. The underlying philosophy of these social actions
was humanitarian in nature based on the principles
of justice, equality and fraternity.
Principles of Social Action
Considering Gandhian principle of mobilisation as
a typical example of the direct mobilisation model
of social action Britto (1984) brings out the following
principles of social action:
The principle of Credibility Building: It is the task
of creating public image of leadership, the organisation
and the participants of the movement as champions
of justice, rectitude and truth. It helps in securing
due recognition from the opponent, the referencepublic
and the peripheral participants of the movement.
Credibility can be built through one or many of the
following ways:
1) Gestures of goodwill towards the opponent: To
exemplify, when Gandhiji was in England, World
War I broke out. He recruited students for service
in a British Ambulance Corps on the Western
Front. These gestures of goodwill towards the
opponents projected the image of Gandhiji as a
true humanitarian personality. His philosophy
of non-violence facilitated the credibility-building
process among his opponents, the British.
2) Example setting: Dr. Rajendra Singh, the Magsaysay
award winner of 2001, had set examples of water
conservation in many villages of Rajasthan, by
making check-dams, through mobilisation of village
resources (manpower, cash and kind) before
starting water-conservation movement at a much
larger scale.
3) Selection of typical, urgently felt problems for struggles:
The leaders gain credibility if they stress on
the felt-needs of the people. Scarcity of water
has remained one of the pressing problems of
the people of Rajasthan. When Dr. R. Singh
initiated his intervention on this issue, his
credibility was automatically established.
4) Success: Successful efforts help in setting up
credibility of the leader and the philosophy he/
she is preaching. Seeing the successful work of
Singh in certain villages of Rajasthan, State
government also came forward to extend its support.
Local leaders from various other villages and
NGO professionals also approached him for help.
Principle of Legitimisation: Legitimisation is the
process of convincing the target group and the general
public that the movement-objectives are morally right.
The ideal would be making a case for the movement
as a moral imperative. Leaders of the movement
might use theological, philosophical, legal-technical,
public opinion paths to establish the tenability of
the movement’s objectives. Legitimisation is a
continuous process. Before launching the programme,
the leaders justify their action. Subsequently, as
the conflict exhilarates to higher stages and as the
leader adds new dimension to their programme,
further justification is added and fresh arguments
are put forth. Such justification is not done by leaders
alone. In the course of their participation, followers
too, contribute to the legitimisation process. Following
are the three approaches to legitimisation:
1) Theological and religious approach to legitimisation:
Gandhiji, used this approach during freedom
movement. He appealed to serve dharma by revolting
against injustice of Britishers.
2) Moral approach to legitimisation: People associated
in the Campaign Against Child Labour, through
peaceful rallies, persuasive speeches, use of media,
organising, drawing competition among school
children, have helped to create an environment
against child abuse in the country. As a result
employing children in any occupation is considered
morally wrong and it becomes moral obligation
to all conscious citizens to make sure that all
children below the age of 14 years go to school
instead of earning a livelihood.
3) Legal-technical approach to legitimization: People
engaged with the ‘Campaign for People’s Right
to Health’ have based their argument on the
human rights issues, fundamental rights and
government’s commitment to ‘Health for All’. It
gives credibility to the movement.
Principle of Dramatisation: Dramatisation is the
principle of mass mobilisation by which the leaders
of a movement galvanize the population into action
by emotional appeals to heroism, sensational
 newsmanagement, novel procedures, pungent slogans and
such other techniques. Almost every leader mobilising
the masses, uses this principle of dramatisation.
Tilak, Marx, Guevara, Periyar and the Assam agitation
leaders, resorted to this principle. Some of the
mechanisms of dramatisation could be:
1) Use of songs: Catchy songs, which put forth the
cause of a movement, create a dramatic effect.
During freedom struggle, at Bardoli, local talent
was tapped to compose songs to stimulate the
enthusiasm of the people. Several choirs were
trained and they travelled from village to village
in a bullock cart to sing satyagrahic hymns at
numerous meetings.
2) Powerful speeches: This is also a crucial way of
motivating the masses and creating drama-effect.
Gandhiji’s appeal to sacrifice and martyrdom was
thrilling and it had a special appeal for the youth
to work for this cause.
3) Role of women: Making prominent women lead
marchers was a technique which gave a dramatic
effect to the movement. At Rajkot, Kasturba Gandhi
herself inaugurated the civil disobedience
movement by courting arrest first.
4) Boycott: Boycott is also an effective way of
influencing public opinion both when the effort
is successful and when it is crushed. Picketing
and ‘hartals’– voluntary closure of shops and other
organisations, were used by Gandhiji to dramatise
the issue.
5) Slogans: Bharat chodo, Jal hi Jeevan, Say no to
Drugs, HIV/AIDS– knowledge is prevention, etc.
are some of the slogans used to give dramatic
effect to various social movements.
Principle of Multiple Strategies: There are two basic
approaches to development: conflictual and nonconflictual.
 Taking the main thrust of a programme,
one can classify it as political, economic or social.
The basket principle indicates the adoption of a
multiple strategy, using combined approaches and
also a combination of different types of programmes.
Zeltman and Duncan have identified four development
strategies from their experience of community
development. These have been framed for use in
social action. They are:
1) Educational strategy: In this strategy, the prospective
participants are educated at the individual, group
and mass level. This is one of the basic
requirements of social action. People or target
groups are given necessary information about
the issue. By creating awareness people are
motivated and persuaded to participate in the
movement. During campaign against child labour,
a network of NGOs working with children was
developed and these NGOs in tune created
awareness in their respective areas through
educational strategy. Education by demonstration
is an important aspect of this principle.
Demonstration has deep impact on the knowledge
retention of the target population.
2) Persuasive strategy: Persuasive strategy is the
adoption of a set of actions/procedures to bring
about changes by reasoning, urging and inducing
others to accept a particular viewpoint. Gandhiji
used this strategy by constantly seeking
opportunities for dialogue with his opponents. At
every rally, stress was laid on winning new
converts by oratory and gentle presentation of
3) Facilitative strategy: This refers to a set of procedures
and activities to facilitate the participation of
all sections of society in the mass movement.
The programme Gandhians devised was often so
simple and devoid of any risk that even illiterate
children could imitate them and participate in
the National Liberation Movement. In salt-
satyagraha, Gandhiji did not go into the
technicalities of salt making. He simply asked
the followers to make consumable salt by boiling
the sea-water. Its simplicity did facilitate greater
4) Power strategy: It involves the use of coercion to
obtain the desired objectives. The forms of coercion
may vary. Gandhiji used social ostracism as one
of the techniques of power strategy.
Principle of Dual Approach: Any activist has to build
counter-systems or revive some unused system, which
is thought to be beneficial to the mobilised public
on a self-help basis without involving the opponent.
This is a natural requirement consequent upon the
attempt to destroy the system established/maintained
by the opponents. Gandhian constructive work
programme performed such a function, in a small
measure, together with conflictual programmes of
satyagrahis. This cooperative effort indicates that
Gandhians adopted or attempted to a dual approach
in their mobilization.
Principle of Manifold Programmes: It means developing
a variety of programmes with the ultimate objective
of mass mobilization. These can be broadly categorized
into three parts: Social, Economic and Political
programme. Dr. Rajendra Singh has taken up the
issue of water conservation as a composite of manifold
programmes. His water conservation helped the
villagers, particularly women, who had to go miles
to fetch water. It helped in better development of
crops, better animal husbandry, implying more
economic benefits. During the movement, there were
direct and indirect conflict resolutions with the local
leaders, panchayat bodies and state government.
Skills Involved in Social Action
After understanding the concept and principles of
social action, let us take a look at the skills needed
by social workers for social action. These skills are
no different from the general skills; professional
social worker uses these skills by combining the
ethics and principles of professional social work.
However, a social worker using social action, as a
method of social work, requires certain skills; the
more important among these are briefly described
Relational Skills: The social worker should have
skills for building rapport with individuals and groups
and skills for maintaining these relations. He/she
should be able to develop and maintain professional
relationship with the clients. The social worker should
have the ability to identify the leadership qualities
among the clientele and should be skillful to harness
these qualities for social action. Along with this
working harmoniously with the established local
leaders is also needed. He/she should be able to
deal with intra-group and inter-group conflicts
effectively. The ability to diagnose problematic
behaviour among the clients and providing counselling
is needed to develop and maintain integration within
the community. The social worker should identify
tension-producing situations and diffuse them before
they become serious. Developing and maintaining
cordial relations with other agencies and NGOs working
in the same geographical area and those working
for similar causes is also required.
Analytical and Research Skills: The social worker
should have the ability to objectively study the
sociocultural and economic characteristics of the
community. He/she should be able to find out the
pressing problems and needs of the clientele. He/
she should be able to analyze the social problems,
the factors contributing to the social problems and
its ramifications on the social, economic, political,
ideological, cultural, ecological aspects of life. He/
she should be able to conduct research and/or
understand the likely impact of research studies
in a functional sense. Added to this, the social
worker should be able to facilitate the community
people to speak out their own felt needs and prioritize
them. The social worker should never try to impose
his/her own understanding of the social situation
and problems on the community.
Intervention Skills: After need identification, the
social worker should have the ability to help the
clientele chalk out practical intervention strategies
to deal with the problem. The social worker should
provide various options to the clientele and help
them in analyzing pros and cons of each option for
taking up proper steps. Social action may require
‘confrontation’ with authorities. The social worker
must inform the community about the consequences
of taking up hard steps like sit-ins, boycotts, strikes,
etc. The social worker should be able to maintain
the desired level of feeling of discontent and emotional
surcharge to bring about the necessary change,
enthusiasm and courage among the community people
for a fairly long time so as to minimize the possibility
of failure of mass mobilization before the set objectives
are achieved. The social worker should be able to
maintain patience and composed behaviour as he/
she has to deal with emotional balance of the clientele
in a rational way.
Added to this, the social worker should have the
ability to create the environment wherein individuals
and groups can actively participate. The interventions
should be developed keeping in mind the pressing
need, resources (human and material) and
 sociocultural milieu of the community. He/she should
be able to improvise situations for targeted
Managerial Skills: The social worker also needs
the knowledge and ability to handle organisation,
which may be the outcome of the institutionalization
of people’s participation. He/she should be able to
coordinate and collaborate with various groups and
local leaders so as to unite the clientele for the
required intervention. He/she should be skillful
enough to make policies and programmes, programme
planning, coordinating, recording, budgeting and
elementary accounting and maintenance of various
records. He/she should be able to mobilize internal/
external resources in terms of money, men, materials,
equipment, etc. The social worker also requires the
skills of supervising human and material resources
and its effective utilization for the welfare and
development of the targeted community.
Communication Skills: These skills are highly crucial
for social action. The social worker should have the
ability to develop effective public relations with local
organisations and leaders. He/she should be able
to effectively communicate verbally (including public
speaking) and in writing as well. The social worker
should be able to deliver or identify people who can
deliver powerful speeches. He/she should be able
to devise indoor/outdoor media for effectively
communicating with the target audiences. The social
worker should be able to evaluate and use folk and
mass media suited to diverse groups. These skills
are used for developing slogans and motivational
songs, speeches and IEC materials for mass
mobilization. The social worker should have skills
to educate, facilitate, negotiate and persuade for
necessary actions at needed places.
Training Skills: The social worker should be able
to train local leaders and identified leaders for taking
up the charge of mass mobilization and confrontation
with the authorities. He/she should be able to train
selected people at the local level aimed at imparting
knowledge about the social issue taken up for action
and the modalities of carrying out the intervention
including the ‘confrontation process’. These people
should be trained for creating public opinion for or
against the social issue taken up and identify and
involve people in social action. They should also be
trained to utilize social action strategies and tactics
(confrontation, persuasion, negotiation, boycott, etc.)
without the use of violence.
Critical Issues
Let us now take a look at some of the critical issues,
which influence the success of mass mobilization
and in turn, the achievement of set goals through
social action. As mentioned earlier social action
uses a number of strategies and tactics (details of
these would be given in subsequent units) and
envisages the active role of many of stakeholders.
This multiplicity of strategies and involvement of
different stakeholders demand meticulous planning
and careful implementation. If not addressed
beforehand, these issues may lead to disruption of
the process and sometimes failure of planned
interventions. The issues that a professional social
worker needs to keep in mind are:
Empowerment of the Clientele: The central theme
behind any social issue for which social action is
being carried out is the ‘empowerment of the client
group or the community’. In the process of social
action, the group whose cause is being advocated
must get empowered and develop the skills and
strengths to gain access to common resources for
the development of the community. The end result
of the social action should be equitable partnerships
between the interested stakeholders, allowing
democratic decision-making and actual access and
usage of denied resources. The social worker must,
from time to time, evaluate and monitor the progress
of social action in relation to the overall goal of
empowerment. Any deviation from this goal may lead
to failure of the philosophy of social action and
accumulation of power and resources in the hands
of a few selfish people. It would mean injustice to
the entire group or community for whose cause social
action is being carried out.
Dealing with Groupism: Social action questions the
unjust power equations and unfair distribution of
resources. It implies confrontation with those having
power and resources. In the process, certain groups
may develop having members with vested interests
which might not be apparent. These groups may try
to take lead and influence the social worker to be
on their side. Any opposition may raise inter-group
tensions and conflicts. Depending upon the situation,
the counter attack can be very fierce and challenging.
At the level of planning itself, the social workers
must foreseen this possibility and handle the situation
very judiciously and tactfully.
Accountability: The professional social worker has
to ensure that there is consistent and continued
communication amongst all stakeholders and a process
of clear accountability and transparency is maintained
in order to give the cause positive legitimacy. Any
miscommunication or negative communication may
result in losing the credibility, and in turn, may
affect the entire social action process.
Building Right Alliances: Social action process calls
for participation of various stakeholders for the cause
or issue. It is essential that the social worker uses
skills to understand the perceptions of these
stakeholders and their levels of interests in social
action. Only then the social worker will be able to
utilize their capabilities and skills in the social
action process effectively. While doing so the social
worker may have to form alliances and partnerships
with several people and organisations to further
the cause. Therefore, he/she needs to be careful
in guarding against those who may use the activities
for their own gain and may even dilute the cause
and thereby defeat the goal of social action. Indeed
giving chance to those who may jeopardize the cause
may legitimate them as genuine social actionists,
when in reality, they would be fostering their personal
rather than the group cause.
Balancing Micro-Macro Issues: Social action often
entails a shift from the micro to macro in addressing
policy change and also legislative alterations. This
can be illustrated by the example of an organisation,
which has been working with street children providing
them with education. However, as the work progresses
the organisation shifts towards developing coalitions
with several such organisations with regard to
formulation of and change in child related policies.
Remaining Apolitical: Social action entails a clarity
and understanding of political environment. However,
politics does not mean party politics or formal politics.
Any kind of political affiliations of the social worker
will on the one delegitimize the activities and at
the same time jeopardize the real cause by ensuring
the selling out of the cause for the promotion of
one party interest rather than group interest.
Social action is a secondary method of professional
social work. It is used for mobilizing masses in order
to bring about structural changes in the social system
or to prevent negative changes. Certain social problems
like ecological balancing, bonded labour, child labour,
women empowerment, substance abuse, etc., can
be tackled through social action.
The primary objective of social action is to bring
about solutions to mass problems, improve mass
conditions and redistribute power and resources
(human, material and moral).
Principles of social action are: a) principle of credibility
building; b) principle of legitimization; c) principle
of dramatization; d) principle of multiple strategies;
e) principle of dual approach; and f) principle of
manifold programmes.
A social worker using social action, as a method
of social work, requires certain skills. They are: a)
relational skills i.e. to relate effectively with the
people to build rapport and credibility building; b)
analytical skills i.e. ability to analyze the social
situation and social problem objectively and
scientifically; c) intervention skills are needed to
help the clientele chalk out practical intervention
strategies to deal with the social problem; d) managerial
skills are required to coordinate and collaborate
with various groups and local leaders so as to unite
the clientele for the required intervention; e)
communication skills to educate, facilitate, negotiate
and persuade for necessary actions at needed places;
f) training skills i.e. the social worker should be
able to train leaders for taking up the charge of
mass mobilization and confrontation with the
Some critical issues which influence the success
of social action are: empowerment of the clientele
which is the inherent goal of any social action,
dealing with intra and inter group conflicts,
accountability and transparency, building alliances
with the ‘right’ people and organisations, shifting
vision from micro to macro problems and avoiding
political involvement.