In This Article Human Needs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Social Work Practice
  • Social Policy

Social Work Human Needs
Michael A. Dover
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0067


Social work has long been concerned with the respective roles of the social work profession and the social welfare system in addressing human needs. Social workers engage in needs assessment together with client systems. They provide and advocate for the needs of clients, as well enabling and empowering clients and communities to address their needs. They also advocate for social welfare benefits and services and overall social policies that take human needs into account. Recognizing the centrality of human needs, the preamble of the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (see National Association of Social Workers 1996 cited under General Overviews) states: “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” However, explicit ethical content was not present in earlier Codes of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Furthermore, until very recently, little published literature in peer-reviewed journals has human needs theories to guide models of social work practice or inform social work research. Universalistic assumptions about human needs have long been found within social work’s literature on human development (see Jani and Reisch 2011, under General Overviews). However, these assumptions were often inexplicit. They did not fully utilize theories of human need, which have long recognized that although human needs may be universal, they are addressed in culturally and environmentally specific manners. Also, in practice, social workers have often conflated human needs with the need for the services or benefits available at any one time. This bibliography will explore the history and evolution of the interdisciplinary body of human needs theory and research on which social work has drawn historically, with special attention to the recent surge in interest in human needs theories. In doing so, the entry will discuss a number of key debates that have arisen regarding needs, including whether they are universal or specific to particular cultures; what the relationship is between human needs, human rights, and social justice; and how to reconcile theories of human needs and of human capabilities.

General Overviews

Common Human Needs (Towle 1945) was the title of one of social work’s foundational books, although the work’s primary focus was on human development rather than human needs. The inclusion of ethics content on human needs was first proposed by a committee chaired by Frederic G. Reamer, who contended elsewhere that human needs concepts reinforced social work’s long-standing practice commitment to meeting basic needs (Reamer 1998). Other than James Ife’s dissertation (Ife 1980) and the extensive early work of David G. Gil (Gil 1992), it was not until the 21st century that literature began to more fully discuss human needs. The first entry on human needs in the Encyclopedia of Social Work relied primarily upon an interdisciplinary literature base (Dover and Joseph 2008). In more recent work, Ife 2013 expanded upon previous recognition of the value of discourse on the relationship of needs and rights (2002). Jani and Reisch 2011, the first peer-reviewed article on human needs to appear in a major social work journal, critiqued implicit universalist assumptions about human needs found in the social work literature. The authors also, however, set the stage for future debates in social work by presenting a model for incorporating critical thinking about human needs into theories of social work practice and human development.

  • Dover, Michael A., and Barbara Hunter Randall Joseph. 2008. Human needs: Overview. In Encyclopedia of social work, 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrahi and Larry E. Davis, 398–406. New York: Oxford Univ. Press and National Association of Social Workers.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors provide an overview of needs concepts in social work. They cover theories of human needs that have been used in social work education, practice, and research and in social welfare policy. They discuss the relevance of human needs for social work values and ethics and for social and political action.

  • Gil, David. 1992. Foreword. In Human rights and social policy in the 21st century. By Joseph Wronka. New York: Univ. Press of America.

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    Explains that universal human needs are products of biology but also of affect and are affected by cultural and social evolution, ensuring change over time in their nature. Human rights have evolved in response to needs. Human rights are socially constructed and vary among human groups.

  • Ife, James. 1980. The determination of social need. Australian Journal of Social Issues 15.2: 92–107.

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    This dissertation-based article contends services are often designed based upon a needs assessment of human needs, with the nature of human needs themselves being relatively undefined and requiring further conceptual development.

  • Ife, James. 2013. Community development in an uncertain world: Vision, analysis and practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Points out that social justice is often discussed in terms of need, and that this is fundamental for social policy and planning. Presents a new approach to need definition, using normative and descriptive needs statements. Stresses the centrality of discourse on needs for defining and articulating rights.

  • Jani, Jayshree, and Michael Reisch. 2011. Common human needs, uncommon solutions: Applying a critical framework to perspectives on human behavior. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 92.1: 13–20.

    DOI: 10.1606/1044-3894.4065E-mail Citation »

    Notes that Towle’s Common Human Needs (Towle 1945) posited both universal needs and culturally specific social contexts. Contends there have been underlying universalistic assumptions about human needs within human behavior theory. Draws on psychoanalytic and ego psychology to posit six aspects of human need that can inform social work practice.

  • National Association of Social Workers. 1996. Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

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    The primary mission of social work as a profession is to “enhance human well-being” and also to “help meet the basic human needs of all people.”

  • Reamer, Frederic G. 1998. The evolution of social work ethics. Social Work 43.6: 488–500.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/43.6.488E-mail Citation »

    Identifies common human needs as a well-established concept that reinforces social work’s historical commitments to meeting basic needs and enhancing well-being.

  • Towle, Charlotte. 1945. Common human needs: An interpretation for staff in public assistance agencies. Public Assistance Report 8. Washington, DC: Social Security Board, Federal Security Agency.

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    This text for public sector human service workers stresses the interrelatedness of various human needs, such as food, clothing, and housing, required for physical health and mental health. Adopts a hierarchical perspective, in which dependency needs vary across the life course and are necessary to achieve independence.

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