Gertrude Wilson and social group work

The picture 'Ari is facilitating' was taken by Shira Golding and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licence. It can be found on boojee/2668136741/.

Gertrude Wilson and social group work. Gertrude Wilson was a pivotal figure in the development of the theory and practice of group work during the 1940s and 1950s. Here we briefly assess her contribution.

Contents: Gertrude Wilson · on group work · conclusion · bibliography · how to cite this article.

Gertrude Wilson (1895-1984) was born in Dana, Illinois. In 1914 she entered Illinois (Women’s) College, a small denominational institution in Jacksonville, Illinois, earning an A.B. in 1918. She then joined the University of Chicago and earned a Ph.D. in 1920. At Chicago she was influenced by philosopher John Dewey and sociologist Robert E. Park. She taught in high school for a couple of years, and then joined the YWCA in 1922. (All biographical details are taken from Greenwood 1985 et al).

Within the Young Women’s Christian Association Gertrude Wilson started as a secretary (in Allentown, Pennsylvania) and later became a program director (Buffalo, New York) and then administrator of the Chicago YWCA’s program for young women in industry. She studied part-time and gained an MA in 1938 from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Janice Andrews (2001) has reported that Gertrude Wilson was attracted to the role of the group in promoting democratic ideals while a student at the University of Chicago. However, Sophinisba Breckenridge, one of her social work teachers there, argued that Wilson was “wasting” herself by being a person who worked with groups’. Gertrude Wilson retained her interest in the possibilities of the group as a milieu for problem solving. She became active in the American Association for the Study of Group Work.

In 1935 Gertrude Wilson became an Assistant Professor at Western Reserve University’s School of Applied Social Sciences. There she joined, among others, Grace Coyle, to teach social group work. In 1938 she became a Professor and later an Associate Dean. While there she wrote two of her seminal publications: Case Work and Group Work (1942) and in 1949 Social Group Work Practice, co-authored with Gladys Ryland (Ryland was a colleague at Pittsburgh and went on to work for the YWCA).

Gertrude Wilson joined School of Social Welfare at Berkeley in 1951 as Professor and Director of Social Welfare Extension. She had the task of developing a professional education program for the professionally untrained social worker. She set up the “Certificate Program in the Social Services” which consisted of four sequential courses extending over two years and culminated in a two-week seminar in residence on the Berkeley campus. She also taught a course in social group work theory and practice. While at Berkeley she conducted several nationwide surveys of social work practice. Among the latter were the survey of recreational and group work services for the 1950 White House Conference on Children and Youth (Wilson 1951), and the mid-1950’s survey of group work practice for the National Association of Social Workers (Wilson 1956). She retired in 1963 but continued to be involved in community activities. Gertrude Wilson died in 1984 after a five year battle with cancer.

On group work

Gertrude Wilson’s first major publication Case Work and Group Work (1942) gained her an enthusiastic audience among certain sectors of US social work. As Greenwood et al (1985) have noted, when she began writing, social-work practice was dominated by casework (focusing on the intra-psychic problems of individuals and was rooted in psychoanalytic theory). Wilson ‘was among the first to oppose this view, arguing that personal problems originate not only in internal, but also in external, sources. Hence, no single ameliorative method suffices’. Case Work and Group Work argued for an integrated approach. Case work and group work were presented as being aspects of the helping process. She demonstrated that they draw upon many of the same basic concepts from the behavioural sciences as well as from dynamic psychology; and that there were key common skills. As Reid (1963: 148) has commented, the book:

… led caseworkers to experiment with groups, and it resulted in the introduction of group services into agencies that had formerly provided help on a one-to-one basis. It also served as a reminder to group workers that a significant amount of time was spent working with individuals and that similarities far outweighed differences.

At the National Conference on Social Work in 1942 Gertrude Wilson looked to the use of group work in bring about changes in the values of individuals and society as a whole. She argued that group work was a process through which group life was influenced by a worker who directed the process toward the accomplishment of a social goal conceived in a democratic philosophy (Reid 1981: 143). She defined group work as:

[1] developmental, as it provided for normal social growth;

[2] protective or corrective, in that it could be offered to people without groups; and

[3] instrumental in achieving of socially desirable ends. By understanding the personality of each member, the worker influenced the process within the group, and participation in the process helped members use the group for their own growth and development. (op cit)

She viewed group work as a social work method rather than a movement and argued for continued research into practice.

In 1949, after a number of years work, Gertrude Wilson and Gladys Ryland published Social Group Work Practice. This book was to have a formidable effect. Dubbed the ‘Green Bible’ (after the colour of its cover) it was arguably the most influential book on group work within social work. It was also one of the most substantial. Within its 700 pages there was a detailed discussion of the social group work method; analysis of different programme media (including play and leisure activities, games, dance and music, story telling and dramatics, and arts and crafts, trips and the out-of-doors); a series of detailed case studies; and an exploration of supervisory and administrative processes. As such it provided a rich resource for social work training programmes and for social workers wanting to deepen and expand their working processes. Significantly, much of the case study material was drawn from work in ‘recreational and informal educational agencies’ as, ‘quantitatively speaking’, more social group work was practiced in these areas (Wilson and Ryland 1949: ix).

Many of the notions that are familiar today as established nostrums of practice are set out in the book including a discussion of the conscious use of self and the helping process as a generic element. Social group work is portrayed as:

… a method through which the creative use of the social process is achieved. It is a process and a method through which group life is affected by a worker who consciously directs the interaction towards the accomplishment of desirable goals, which in our country are conceived in a democratic frame of reference. And the goals for which the social group work method is used are both individual and social, in that the process of social group work is directed, first, toward helping individuals participate in a qualitative group relationship which enables them to become more effective social beings, and second toward helping the group-as-a-whole to achieve ends significant to the growth and development of a more democratic society. (Wilson and Ryland 1949: 622)

This conceptualization is interesting both in the emphasis upon intervention and direction on the part of the worker, and the extent to which individual outcomes are valued. To a significant degree these emphases derive from what might be called a social work frame of reference and contrast with more facilitative, dialogical and group-oriented perspectives of informal educators such as youth workers and community development workers. Grace Coyle had similarly looked to the impact of the group on the individual, but had retained a stronger focus on the associational power of groups. However, many subsequent writers and much practice was stubbornly individualistic in nature and continue to ignore the social (as they had done for many years as C. Wright Mills memorably pointed out in his essay on ‘The professional ideology of social pathologists’).


Gertrude Wilson’s contribution to the establishment of social group work within social work in the United States was pivotal. She was able to articulate the relationship between group work and case work, and she provided the practice text for workers (with Gladys Ryland). Her conceptualization of group work as a method of social work was influential in shifting the overarching frame of reference away from recreational and informal educational activity.


Andrews, J. (2001) ‘Group work’s place in social work: a historical analysis’, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare,

Greenwood, E., Chernin, M. and Stewart, K. (1985) ‘Gertrude Wilson, Social Welfare, Berkeley’, University of California In Memoriam, Accessed January 2, 2004.

Mills, C. W. (1943) ‘The professional ideology of social pathologists’, American Journal of Sociology 49(2).

Reid, K. E. (1981) From Character Building to Social Treatment. The history of the use of groups in social work, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Wilson, Gertrude (1941) Group work and case work, their relationship and practice, New York, Family Welfare Association of America.

Wilson, Gertrude (1945) A bibliography on group work, New York: Association Press.

Wilson, Gertrude and Ryland, Gladys (1949) Social group work practice; the creative use of the social process, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co.

Wilson, G. (1951) Recreational and informal educational service. Prepared for the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth, New York: American Association of Group Workers.

Wilson, Gertrude (1956) The Practice of Social Group Work. New York: National Association of Social Workers.

Acknowledgements: The picture ‘Ari is facilitating’ was taken by Shira Golding and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licence. It can be found on


Gertrude Wilson Group Work papers, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2004). ‘Gertrude Wilson and social group work’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2004