the origins of social workers


The 1920s saw the birth of the first social services in France. Driven mainly by private initiatives, they must “modernize the methods of charity”. Their initiators have great ambitions: “The answer to the ills of the working classes must go, according to them, through individual support for families in difficulty”in order to “to morally straighten out” the affected workers.

A figure will embody this revival of social action in the interwar period: the social worker. It is to her, and to relations with the French followed by their services, that Lola Zappi devotes a book, The Faces of the Welfare State (Les Presses de Sciences Po). Lecturer at the University of Paris-I, the historian meticulously describes the work of these women from the bourgeoisie, “new institutional actors”who invite themselves into the intimacy of families from working-class backgrounds.

They form a “small contingent”but constantly increasing: “Limited to promotions of a few dozen students per year in the 1920s, there are now some 1,500 to practice in the Paris region. [dans les années 1930] », says the author. These are essentially “young girls from good families concerned with ‘going to the people'”, “the profession to which they aspire enjoi[gnant] to a social “mission” close to the religious mission”. Among this new category of workers, the desire to improve the living conditions of the working class is combined with an ambition to “moral re-education” families.

It’s a tough job, in many ways – the study of child social work is a concrete dive into the daily life of assistants. They know the “physical strain of field work”, in particular during the surveys that they must carry out with families and those around them. A physical hardship that can be mixed with moral pain: the “face-to-face with misery confronts social workers with one of the limits of their profession: the impossibility, in certain cases, of hoping on their own scale to be able to solve it”.

Diploma in 1932

At the same time, the profession is, for young women wishing to become social workers, an open path to independence. It allows them to earn a living and, for some, to free themselves from their family environment. A medal that can have its reverse: “Their exhausting working days leave them little time to lead a personal life, especially a family life. » Reconciling this job with life as a couple and, even more so, motherhood, is not easy, which leads some professionals to give up their activity.

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