Social Work Technology in Social Work
Dale Fitch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0248


Understanding the role of technology in social work is a complex task. Most people refer to the way they use technology in their personal lives and then generalize out an understanding of what technology entails from that perspective. However, in doing so we invariably shape a picture that is entirely context dependent. For example, if we think back to the technology devices we used as recently as ten years ago, then our formulation of the topic might appear quite different from one based on today’s technology. Two, the technology industry of 2015 was seeking “ubiquitous” computing that strives to be independent of platform and device—personal computer (PC or Mac), laptop, smartphone, or tablet—and accessible via wireless networks leveraging cloud computing. As a result, the tasks we accomplish on our devices are framed as “applications” that are designed to perform very specific functions. As a result, even if we purchase a new PC, tablet, or other device, we expect it to perform within the scope of applications. How we have gotten to this point has not been broadly examined in social work. However, several notable authors have been addressing this issue for decades and their work needs to be revisited and updated from a broader conceptual perspective. This entry will do so by addressing the following topics: the history of information technology in the human services, a conceptual framework that will provide a context to understand information technology such that our framing is not entirely based on personal experience, technology in interagency networks, the Internet as a shaper of technology use in social work, critical perspectives on technology, and emerging issues.

Introductory Works

Due to the rapid rise of the use of technology since the late 1990s, Parker-Oliver and Demiris 2006 argued the case for a new professional practice specialty social work informatics. In addition, the basis for this argument can be clearly seen by reviewing some of the older texts in this area. Interesting to note with all of them is how they envisioned “future” uses of technology. Some of those predictions are remarkably on target, e.g., those of Schoech 1999 about the impact of the Internet, but some never materialized because they extrapolated future uses based on currently available technologies. For example, Rafferty, et al. 1996 included articles claiming that the speed of acquisition of welfare services would improve due to “networked” organizations. Perhaps unforeseen was the way that organizational bureaucracies created new rules and regulations regarding networked services. Since information technology development lies on an exponential curve due to Moore’s Law, even a slight misconceptualization can lead to quite divergent outcomes. This point is best illustrated by the concluding chapter in Steyaert, et al. 1996, in which the authors provide their own predictions for the future of technology in human services.

  • Parker-Oliver, D., and G. Demiris. 2006. Social work informatics: A new specialty. Social Work 51.2: 127–134.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/51.2.127E-mail Citation »

    The National Association of Social Work has continually advocated the need for social work to develop practice standards related to the use of technology in social work practice. Due to the complex nature of the technology/social work interface, the authors argue that a specialized skill set is required to ethically oversee such efforts, hence the need for social work informatics specialists.

  • Rafferty, J., J. Steyaert, and D. Colombi. 1996. Human services in the information age. New York: Haworth.

    E-mail Citation »

    While providing a comprehensive overview of the use of technology in basic services, health care, and child welfare, this text discusses these innovations from a critical perspective mindful of economic issues, culture, and the effects of power and privilege by those implementing such changes.

  • Schoech, D. 1999. Human services technology: Understanding, designing, and implementing computer and Internet applications in the social services. New York: Haworth.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based upon one of the first books on the use of technology in human services, this updated text from his first book in 1982, Computer Use in Human Services (New York: Human Sciences), is the most comprehensive text focused solely on technology in the human services. This text covers the full range of social work from direct practice, to supervision, through administration, policy work, and community organization.

  • Steyaert, J., D. Colombi, and J. Rafferty. 1996. Human services and information technology: An international perspective. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the first texts to provide an international perspective on the emerging role of technology in the human services, with articles representing this work across seventeen countries. Their organizing framework included human services and information technology, information for citizens, vocational education and training, provision of services, and future development.

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