The Social Workers' Study Conference, Dunedin, 1962.

In 1962 John F. Kennedy was the US President, the Berlin Wall was under construction, and the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the world to the edge of a nuclear catastrophe. Bob Dylan released his debut album.

In Aoteroa New Zealand Keith Holyoake led the second National Government (a government that was to retain power for almost twelve years). The exodus of Māori from rural areas to the cities was in full swing (one of the most rapid movements of a people in world history) and the Government passed the Māori Welfare Act 1962 establishing the New Zealand Māori Council, Māori Wardens and Community Officers.

Across New Zealand local associations of social workers had formed and were making plans for a national association.  As Mary Nash (1998) tells us:

“Between 1957 and 1960 regional groups of social workers began to emerge. The Otago Branch began in 1957/8, through the energies of Merv Hancock, who was working in Dunedin at the time, while the Central Districts started a group in 1961, also due to the organising abilities of Merv Hancock. In 1962, the Otago Social Workers’ Association hosted the Social Workers’ Study Conference in Dunedin.  It was attended by 56 people, many of whom were Reverends, Religious Sisters, Members of the Salvation Army, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic Social Services. The theme of the conference was, aptly, the definition of social work. The definition chosen was:

‘Social work is the process of helping people with the aid of appropriate social services, to resolve or mitigate a wide range of personal social problems which they are unable to meet successfully without such help. This process calls for both knowledge and skills.'” (p. 228)

The item from the ANZASW archive we are releasing today is an account of the Social Worker’s Study Conference held in Dunedin in 1962 and edited by Margaret Wildman (Otago Social Workers’ Association, 1962).  It is a carefully typed manuscript with a hand-crafted front cover containing an editorial and eight short accounts of conference presentations. Contents include:

  • Editorial Comment (Margaret Wildman)
  • Voluntary and Statutory Social Work (Mr. Anderson)
  • Integration of Approach (Joyce Burrell)
  • The Need for Professional Ethics in Social Work (Ephra Garrett)
  • Social Work Skills (Professor Ironside)
  • Statutory and Voluntary Social Work (June Kendrick)
  • Fields and Function of Social Work (Dr. Robb)
  • Integration of Approach (Jean Robertson)
  • Integration of Approach (Thelma Smith)
Social Workers Study Conference 1962
Social Workers Study Conference 1962

As with all historical documents, we must be careful how we interpret this one. Historical artefacts can offer a unique insight into issues that dominated the thinking of the day, the prevailing discourse, but they do not offer an undistorted window onto events as they were. As Manoff (2004) puts it “Whatever the archive contains is already a reconstruction — a recording of history from a particular perspective; it thus cannot provide transparent access to the events themselves.” (p.14) This is signalled in the editorial where Wildman states that “We apologise that this collection of papers given at the Conference is incomplete and much shortened”. In other words some presentations are not included, and those that are included are not transcripts of what was actually said but abbreviated accounts drafted by the presenters after the event.  In the absence of a conference programme it is difficult to know which presentations are missing, although Nash (1998) informs us that “The conference was addressed by…Ephra Garrett, Merv Hancock, Professor Robb and Professor Minn” (p.229).  So the accounts by Hancock and Minn seem to be missing from the archived document.

The content of the document touches on themes that are still highly relevant to social work today: the influence of different practice settings (voluntary and statutory), the need for interagency collaboration, the burden of case recording, and the value of client self-determination. There are also issues of relevance today that are conspicuously absent: issues of race, gender, inequality and social justice. As Dugald McDonald mentions in his reflections on the first decade the influence of psychodynamic thinking was evident, perhaps influenced by the writing of Helen Harris Perlman (1957) on social casework (an author cited by Robertson ). The language used by some of the authors is decidedly less gender aware or culturally sensitive than we would expect from written accounts today. There is only one reference to the value of cultural understanding, expressed by Major Thelma Smith (Salvation Army) when she states that “Some knowledge of cultural background aids the worker, and yet we should not be dogmatic about this. Not every Māori has no time sense, as far as work is concerned”. (p. 3)

Another way to interpret historical documents apart from their content, is to consider their function, what they seek to do. It could certainly be argued that one of the primary purposes of this document is to assert the case for a national association as part of a wider project for the professionalisation of social work in New Zealand. This is articulated most clearly in the contribution by Ephra Garrett.  (Ephra would go on to be one of the founder members of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at Massey University, for many years the only Māori woman academic at the university.) At the Dunedin conference she argued for a code of ethics:

“Such a code of ethics could and should be a charter of clients’ rights and should ensure a proper discharge of duty to the public. It should demonstrate the ideals of the profession, so creating public confidence and giving the social worker a professional standing in the eyes of the public. It should also bind social workers together, and give them a feeling of mutual confidence and respect.”

One important practical consequence of the study conference (not mentioned in the document) was the setting up of an Interim Steering Committee that set about planning the Inaugural Conference to establish the New Zealand Association of Social Workers in 1964.  There is so much more that could be said about the Social Worker’s Study Conference  document.  We hope that by releasing it here we will encourage further reflection on the direction of travel of the ANZASW. Please feel free to post your comments. Click the image of the document above (or the link below) to download it.


Manoff, M. (2004). Theories of the archive from across the disciplines. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 4(1), 9–25. Retrieved from

Nash, M. (1998). People, policies and practice: Social work education in Aotearoa/New Zealand from 1949 – 1995. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Massey University, North Palmerston, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Otago Social Workers’ Association (1962). Social workers’ study conference. Dunedin: Otago Social Workers’ Association.