Why Social Work Terms and Definitions Change

Written by Alexis Farugia, MSW

Magnifying glass over lines of randomized capital letters.

In a world that is changing by the hour, we know that what we share is always subject to change and morph with the times. We do our best to give you the most up to date knowledge from leading professionals and researchers in the Social Work industry.

Social Work is a continuously evolving industry that is based on research evidence and social theory. Just as the way prospective social workers are educated and trained to practice using the most timely and relevant evidence-based models and information, professional social workers are expected to maintain a level of knowledge and skills that includes emerging evidence and best practices; this can be achieved through internal training as well as with formal continuing education for licensed practitioners. 

Throughout the history of social work—from charitable efforts to principled professions—the socio-political landscape of America has set a precedent for the way social workers operate in their communities. 

To exemplify this evolution, we will look at the LGBTQIA+ community, the altering of definitions and terms as best fits, and how these changes in language and their everyday use is a sign of revolution and respect. 

The words “homosexual” and “queer” have had tumultuous histories as they have been used to both cast hate on an individual and also reclaim an aspect of identity [1]. In the decades following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a social and institutional commitment was made to include all those who experienced sexual and gender marginalization with the use of an acronym (LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, LGBTQIA+). “Queer,” being an umbrella term, encompasses the multitudes of identities and expressions that exist while countering the use and attitude toward it previously [1].

Pink, white, light blue, navy blue, royal blue, green, yellow, orange, red, brown, and black Lego figurines standing side by side.

Social workers may directly or indirectly address and advocate for the issues faced by individuals who identify within the LGBTQIA community. The Social Work Code of Ethics asks that social workers uphold themselves to the standards of social and political action (6.04), do not engage in discrimination of any kind (4.02), engaging in cultural competence (1.05) and committing themselves to the interests of their clients (1.01) [2].

These are just some of the competencies that social workers have an ethical obligation to demonstrate. The Code of Ethics is a self-described living document which responds to social change and the growing needs of the profession [3]. 

In an amendment to the cultural competency standard, the Code of Ethics refers to a social worker’s acknowledgement of their own personal privileges and biases and how that could contribute to a system of oppression [3]. Where this Standard had previously omitted language about self-correction and holding institutions accountable, now this is a specified activity that social workers should be engaging in [3].

The definition of dignity in the dictionary.

In the legal realm, there now exist a variety of laws and policies that support and protect the rights and interests of an individual regarding their sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression. Employees are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against sex discrimination which includes gender identity and expression [4]. 

Recently we have seen this demonstrated in the normalized use of gender pronouns in the workplace. The medical community has recognized that the mainstream acceptance of once marginalized practices in the transgender community (such as using chosen pronouns, not enforcing gendered dress codes, and offering gender neutral restrooms) is essential for the overall wellbeing of transgender people [4].

Of course, it is best practice to ask for an individual’s pronouns if you are not certain of their chosen identity, aligning with the ethical standard of self-determination and allowing the individual to be their own expert [2]. There is still work to be done in part by social workers as terms, definitions, and our working understanding of them will continue to evolve and be protected. Today there is no federally accepted protection which makes specific mention of “gender identity” and only 20 states have expressly banned gender discrimination in public and private sectors [4].

Social workers are in a unique position to use their professional skills and personal values to keep themselves informed of changes that affect their practice, and by extension, their clients' lives. While this profession is becoming increasingly challenging, it is needed now more than ever. As a reward, these dedicated professionals get to see the world move ever so closer to harmony with every successful case.


[1] Hanhardt, C. (2014). Queer history. The American Historian. Organization of American Historians: Bloomington, IL. 

[2] NASW. (2021). Code of ethics: English. The National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC.

[3] Murray, A. (2021). NASW code of ethics: Self-care and cultural competency. The National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC.

[4] Lambda Legal. (n. d.). Gender identity discrimination. New York, NY. 

Published July 11, 2022