Differences Between Residual & Institutional in Social Work

by Natalie Andrews
Social worker interviewing a man at table.

Social work is a profession designed to help people receive the help and services they need to be functional members of society. The large framework of social work has evolved to use a combination of two approaches: residual and institutional. The paths provide either preventive or responsive support to the members of society. The mechanism of their differences is based on many factors.

Residual Social Work

Social work becomes "residual" when its nature is reactive or gap-filling. This approach deals with needs as they come; it attends to visible needs that can't be addressed by other societal means. As a prerequisite, this system first ensures that all other efforts and measures have been depleted -- support from family, market economy and religious institutions -- before assistance measures are given. It is short-term in that it is withdrawn when the person in need of aid becomes capable of independence from the system.

Institutional Social Work

Institutional social work takes the approach that everyone deserves to be supported by the community and the government, even without an obvious and direct request for help, so each person can become self-sufficient. It’s also preventive in nature, because it anticipates problems that may arise and resolves them as early as possible. For example, if one of the main social problems in a community is lack of education, social workers focus on giving free education to everyone, regardless of their personal circumstance.

Residual Social Work Applications

Since residual social work is reactive, it only acts when the problem is obvious and already needs immediate attention. Residual social work often caters to poor and underprivileged members of society and it’s often funded by philanthropic individuals belonging to the middle and upper class. Examples of residual social work include services for battered women and children, mental institutions, orphanages, emergency evacuation and housing, food stamps and rent subsidies. All these examples cater to problems already faced by the individual. Residual social workers also often provide people with jobs and other sources of income so that these individuals can survive on their own in the future.

Institutional Social Work Applications

Institutional social work focuses on giving each person equal opportunity to be supported, whatever their circumstance. Government-funded social services are some of the best examples of this type, as it is offered to everyone without the need for application or justification. Examples of institutional social services include free daycare programs, free education, and social security programs. These services do not distinguish the need of one individual from another and it can be availed by anyone who wants it. Some other examples of institutional social work include free medical services, government-funded scholarship programs and housing subsidies.

About the Author

Natalie Andrews has been writing since 2003. She has created content for print newsletters and blogs in the flower, transportation and entertainment industries. Her expertise lies in travel and home-decorating. Andrews graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Houston in 2008.

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