The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Social Work's Urban Legacy and Future

Nicole MarwellUrban universities across the country recently have witnessed an outpouring of interest in deploying the insights of scholarship to improve life in cities. The University of Chicago, supported by a major gift that last year established the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, is pursuing a leadership role in this emerging domain. We at SSA herald this development, for we are heirs to a more than century-long legacy of urban engagement at the intersection of scholarship and impact. 

The nineteenth-century city was the cradle of social work in the United States. Urban centers grew rapidly as industrialization pulled in migrants from rural areas as well as immigrants from other nations. The early social workers –among them SSA’s Founding Mothers Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, and Sophonisba Breckenridge—took up the task of making cities more hospitable and humane for the many newcomers struggling to make ends meet, build new forms of community, and take up the promise of upward mobility. 

From the beginning, social work sought to balance improving people’s lives in the near term with developing a science of social change to guide policy and practice in the future. Now, as then, faculty at SSA confront an array of urban challenges requiring rigorous analysis and the development of solutions deeply attuned to the lives of the individuals, families, and communities most affected by these challenges. Borrowing language from another discipline, SSA scholars are engaged in “design thinking”—we solve problems by focusing on the experiences of “end users.” What do the people, families, communities, and organizations we study think is most important to helping them thrive? Taking this perspective, faculty at SSA define questions for investigation, draw on multiple research techniques, and help shape intervention, service, and policy solutions. This is SSA’s unique expertise: scholarship grounded in deep knowledge of realities in the field; research findings built upon both our own expertise and that of community members; and solutions whose implementation creates impact.

From this engaged approach to understanding the promise and perils of city life, SSA faculty command knowledge across a wide range of substantive areas, including challenges to the democratic functioning of cities, social inequalities in urban family life, programs to support the most vulnerable, urban education, and criminal justice. We produce and connect insights at multiple levels of analysis: individual behavior, community social relations, institutional practices, and social structures. Our research also propels today’s urgent work by advocates, activists, nonprofit social service providers, government agencies, and policymakers to create more just cities. This special issue of SSA Magazine showcases SSA’s deep and ongoing connection to social work’s urban legacy, and offers a beacon for the University’s newly expanded efforts to improve the lives of city dwellers in Chicago, the United States, and around the world.

Nicole P. Marwell, Associate Professor, Special Issue Faculty Editor