Social Work Needs to Identify a Framework to Define and Measure the Term "Well-Being"

The term “well-being” is ubiquitous in social work codes, values, and literature. What does it really mean to social work and how do social workers know they are making progress in human well-being? The United Nations Development Program, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, the Institute for Economics and Peace, Max-Neef’s Human Scale Development classification, and Freedom House all have developed particular models and indices that measure some aspects of well-being. Economists, psychologists, and political philosophers have all studied dimensions of well-being. Keys (1998), and Diener (2009), have contributed psychological perspectives. Nussbaum (2003), and Sen (2008) have contributed perspectives on the role of capabilities in defining how people can reach their full human n potential. Social workers have contributed their own perspectives to the meaning of well-being including Richard Estes Weighted Index of Social Progress (WISP, 2009); Reisch (2002) and Banerjee’s (2011) call for a clearer understanding of social justice; Van Soest’s discussion on how all forms of violence diminish the potential for human progress; discussion of how to incorporate human rights in measuring well-being by Dominelli (2007), Mapp (2008), Reichert (2007), Staub-Bernasconi (2012), and Wronka (2008); and, Estes (1993), Hoff (1994), Rogge (1995), Besthorn (2008), Gamble & Hoff (2012), and Peeters (2012) writing on the rapid deterioration of global natural resources necessary for human survival.


The question remains, is there a general framework that could incorporate specific aspects of “well-being” that would be applicable in culturally diverse settings but could help direct social workers to actual measurement of progress they are making toward human well-being? The Person-in-environment framework is criticized as too narrow, or at least too narrow in its application to the broad influences (e.g. psychological, physical, social, emotional, cultural, economic, civic, political, and environmental) that shape opportunities for individuals, groups, institutions, and communities to reach their full potential. Jordan (2007), suggests social work must “define and assert its value in the emotional, social and communal spheres of life” (p. ix). Obviously we can already draw upon the wisdom of many disciplines as well as our own to struggle with an appropriate framework for social work. But, we need to work on the framework and the definition in order to use the term “well-being” with an understanding of social work’s commitment to specific outcomes and its ability to achieve them.


Jordan, B. (2007). Social work and well-being. Lyme Regis, UK: Russell House Publishers. Keyes, C. L. M. (1998). Social well-being. Social Psychology Quarterly, 61(2), 121–140.


Please refer to the following article for a full list of references:


D. N. Gamble, (2012). Well-being in a Globalized World: Does Social Work Know How to Make it Happen? Journal of Social Work Education, Vol. 48 (4), pp. 669-689.


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