Helen Harris Perlman and the Problem Solving Model

                                         Helen Harris Perlman and the Problem Solving Model


                                                          Allison D. Murdach LCSW

                                                                2942 Hardeman St.

                                                               Hayward, Ca. 94541



Abstract: This article examines the work of Helen Harris Perlman in developing the problem-solving model of  social work direct practice.  The origins, development and subsequent spread of this approach throughout social work practice is discussed and the various ways in which this model has been applied in the profession is briefly reviewed. The current status of the model, including concerns about its contemporary viability and usefulness, is examined at the conclusion of the article.

Key Words: Problem-Solving Model, Social Work Method, Social Work History, Direct Practice, Social

                    Work Profession

   “I do claim to be an authority on the Problem-solving model in social work, both in

               its methodological aspects and its theoretical roots.  I am the originator and developer

               of that model.”  (Perlman, p. 1, 1980)

     This article examines the work of Helen Harris Perlman (1906-2004) in the development of the problem-solving model of direct practice in social work.  As we approach the third anniversary of her death (September 18, 2004), it is important to recognize once again the importance and magnitude of her contribution to the field. Perlman, a prolific social work author as well as a distinguished clinician and educator in social work, always laid special claim to her model, which she developed in the 1950’s.  Sadly, although she asserted ownership, her model soon slipped from her hands because of its wide acceptance and became, in the latter stages of her life, often misrepresented and at times unrecognizable.

                                                            Perlman and Problem-Solving

     Perlman did not start out to be a social worker.  Her original intention was to become a college humanities professor. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with honors in 1926 with a B. A. in English literature, she was told that she was unemployable at the college level  because she was a woman and especially because she was Jewish.  She then found work as a summer caseworker for the Chicago Jewish Social Service Bureau. Later she reported that  this first exposure to social work was a revelation.  “A whole world opened up to me,” she said, a world in which she also “got a great deal of satisfaction from being able to help people.” ( News & Notes, 2004, p. 1).  She continued working in various social work capacities and assignments at increasingly responsible levels until 1933, when she got a scholarship enabling her to enroll in the New York School of Social Work, now affiliated with ColumbiaUniversity.  While completing her training in social work in New York, she was in demand as a speaker and often addressed various conferences and professional groups about new developments in social work theory and method.  In 1943 she earned her master’s degree in social work from ColumbiaUniversity.  She joined the social work faculty of the Schoolof Social Service Administrationat the Universityof Chicagoin 1945.  While at the school she became first a national and then an international social work figure because of her writing about social work issues, as well as her teaching, consulting, public speaking, and her innovative development of the problem-solving model of social work practice. She published her classic text, Social Casework, A Problem-Solving Process, in 1957.  She officially retired late in her career, but continued to work, teach, write, and do research at the school until just before her death at age 98, even though afflicted near the end of her life with blindness.

     Despite her many scholarly achievements, Perlman always remained a clinician at heart.  As a professional with broad learning and classical training, Perlman was driven to use the insights derived from her clinical work as inspiration for conjecture about social work method and training.  She said her contacts with clients gave her valuable learning opportunities because these relationships involved her in “many cases…(in which) families faced the same kinds of problems and conflicts that one encountered in the great works of literature.” (News & Notes, 2004, p. 5.)   She also stated that it was through these experiences that she came to realize that she “had learned much more of the sickness in people than of their healthiness.”  She soon recognized that she needed to look beyond client pathology to see instead the great “human potential for recuperation and aspiration” that resided in the many ordinary individuals and families who sought her care and assistance on a daily basis (Perlman, 1971, p. xviii).  It was considerations such as these that eventually led to her interest in, and championing of, the importance of processes of everyday human problem-solving in resolving the difficulties in client’s lives (Perlman, 1957).

                                                 Development of the Problem-Solving Approach

     Before discussing Perlman’s model in detail, it will be instructive to review the intellectual background of her approach to gain a better understanding of the context in which it developed.   Prior to the appearance of Perlman’s text in the 1950’s the topic of problem-solving had been, and today continues to be, an area of study in this country in many fields, particularly psychology.  In 1907 the psychologist and philosopher William James established problem solving (which he called  “ common sense”) as a field of intellectual enquiry by giving it a central place in his doctrine of Pragmatism, a philosophical approach to truth which also sought to develop methods that were “helpful in life’s practical struggles” (James, 1963, p.36).  The goal of such methods, James believed, was to help individuals to find their own truth through observation and experience (James, 1963).  In 1910 James’ fellow pragmatist John Dewey conceptualized human problem-solving (or, in his terms, “reflective thinking”)as being composed of four central elements: recognizing and formulating a problem, gathering facts that will lead to a solution, testing each proposed solution, and deciding  upon a course of action (Dewey).  Perlman was the first social work author to use the term “problem-solving” in a social work context and credits Dewey’s writings as her inspiration for the concept (Perlman, 1971).

     Social work was at first slow to adopt the pragmatic idea of problem-solving as a style of intervention.   Mary Richmond, the founder of social work direct practice method, was influenced more strongly by medical methods of intervention (i.e., “study”, “diagnosis”, and “treatment”) (Richmond, 1917) than the philosophical and psychological approach taken by James and Dewey.  Although also a form of problem-solving, the medical approach was, and continues to be, practitioner-driven and assumes the pathology and passivity of the client.  The pragmatic approach, on the other hand, has always emphasized client normality and capacity for personal self-determination, which it seeks to enlist in a search for growth and positive change (Perlman, 1957). 

     The medically-oriented view of the helping relationship prevailed in social work throughout the early twentieth century, largely due toRichmond’s extensive impact on the profession’s development (Garton & Otto, 1964).  Due to the growing popularity of the pragmatic point of view in this country (Menand, 2001), the problem-solving mode of thinking began to influence direct social work practice and social work theorists in the 1920’s and social work authors increasingly began to refer to the practitioner’s efforts to involve clients in the helping interaction by engaging the client’s own problem-solving capacities.  The following list of recommended worker interventions from classic social work writers over several decades, much condensed, helps to indicate the progress of this development: 

a)   Help client acknowledge difficulty.

b)  Assist client in understanding the meaning of the situation.

c)  Aid client in making decision to change.  (Sheffield, 1922)

a)      Show sympathetic approach with client.

b)      Establish rapport.

c)      Present and discuss facts of the case.

d)      Stimulate the client to action.  (Young, 1935)

 a) Demonstrate to the client your ability to observe and listen.

b) Begin where the client is.

c) Ask only necessary questions.

d) Take leadership only when needed, otherwise use client’s own resourcefulness.

e) Offer interpretations of client’s situation, as well as resources and direction only as needed.

                                                                                                   (Garrett, 1942)

a)      Demonstrate acceptance of client.

b)      Discuss client request.

c)      Gather facts about request.

d)      Note and discuss client stresses and patterns of behavior.

e)      Offer only interpretations of the situation that can also utilize the client’s own insight and can aid the client to take action.  (Hamilton, 1951)

     In developing her problem-solving model, Perlman utilized the best features of these intervention schemes but infused them with even greater attention to client problem-solving efforts and capacities (Perlman, 1970).  First in a journal article in 1953 (Perlman, 1971b) and finally fully in her book, Social Casework, a problem-solving process (Perlman, 1957), she laid out the intervention stages required by her model.   These can be outlined briefly as follows:

a) Ascertaining and clarifying the facts of the problem.

b) Thinking through the facts.

      c) The making of some choice or decision.  (Perlman, 1957)

     Perlman’s problem-solving approach, which appears  extremely simple and derivative in bare outline, was actually sophisticated and innovative (Bunston, 1985).   Far from being just a rehash of John Dewey, her model was a synthesis derived from a number of sources: her background in the humanities, her philosophical reflections combined with her knowledge of psychodynamics and the social sciences, her extensive clinical experience, and her study of the “functional” version of social work originated by Jessie Taft, with its strong emphasis on the importance of the helping relationship in direct practice (Perlman, 1957, 1970).  Building from this foundation, she brilliantly formulated a unique cognitively-oriented and client-centered problem-solving process for social work intervention.  In doing so, she highlighted her concepts of “focus” and  “partialization”, which described ways of aiding the client to overcome difficulties by tackling small problems first and thus building confidence to move on to more challenging goals.

     Though this brief sketch of her work hardly does justice to the power and complexity of Perlman’s accomplishment, it does at least highlight the principal stages of her model: problem definition, problem analysis (including the generation and review of alternatives), and the need for specific decision about a course of action (including methods of monitoring and evaluating the results of such action) ( Perlman, 1957). This intervention method was initially controversial in the profession.  Some thought it a mere social work copy of long existent business and management intervention techniques.  Others found it too “rationalistic” and structured, and overly focused on method instead of process, while some in the “diagnostic” social work tradition complained that it was superficial and did not sufficiently address in depth issues of diagnosis, psychopathology, or treatment.  It also was buffeted by competing versions of problem-solving and by “adaptations” of her model  that both amused Perlman and caused her dismay (Perlman, 1980). However in the end, her brilliant synthesis of cognitive analysis, practicality, and psychodynamic compassion and understanding led her model to triumph over her social work critics and imitators.  So successful has the problem-solving approach become that it has now recently been enshrined in the international definition of social work practice (International Definition of the Social Work Profession, Supplement of International Social Work, p. 5, 2007).

                                                             Concerns about Problem-Solving

     It is ironic that the wide-spread influence, success, and acceptance of Perlman’s model makes her achievement appear today to be almost commonplace and banal.  This has even led some to question the method’s apparent efficiency and effectiveness and to seek more in-depth explanations of what actually constitutes problem-solving activity (DeRoos, 1990).  The easy accessibility of the problem-solving approach        has also caused others to question the accuracy of its empirical foundations (Bunston, 1985).  Perlman herself, reflecting on her model’s lack of adornment, was to complain in her later years that many social workers seemed to talk as if the problem-solving method in social work had always existed and “just happened”, that it seemed to have no author or source, and was not even inspired by her work (Perlman, p. 1, 1980).  The popularity and appeal of her approach, it seems, did indeed have its price.

     In addition to the above, other theorists have raised objections that question the whole notion of using a  problem-solving model in helping interventions.  In essence, these objections can be boiled down to the following four general statements:

1)      In reality problem “solving” doesn’t often happen– Some have claimed that in real life social workers and their clients deal with tremendous uncertainty and rarely with well-identified problems, therefore problem “solving” does not often happens and the most that can be hoped for is problem reduction and management—goals that are more realistic and far easier for clients and workers to achieve (Schon, 1983).

2)      Problem-solving is only one form of thought—Authors in the narrative tradition of social work and therapuetic intervention have worried that fixation on the problem-solving mode of interaction can constrict the client’s ability to freely tell his or her “story” and thus fail to tap into alternate styles of thought and reflection ( Anderson, 1997).

3)      The problem-solving model is culture-bound—Since the social work problem-solving approach was developed initially in social work in the context of white, middle-class culture in the United States (though Perlman did have extensive clinical experience working with minority populations, Perlman, 1971a), some have raised concerns that the approach may be unsuitable for clients from other cultures or social groups.  It is held this model may be especially inappropriate for individuals from cultures that rely on less organized and  less focused methods to address difficulties in social life (such as Native Americans and Mexican-Americans) (Sue, 1981; Galan, 2001).

4)      The model is based on non-experimental (i. e., “soft”) evidence—Since Perlman developed her model when social work research was in its infancy, most of her supporting documentation was drawn from clinical and anecdotal sources, plus her own extensive clinical experience.  In other words, when developing her approach Perlman made extensive use of the now discredited “argument from authority” in her research (Gambrill, 1999).  Although this may put her model on shaky ground in our current social work world of evidence-based practice, it is also true that her problem-solving approach today stands out as a final tribute to the power of “practice wisdom” (DeRoos, 1990) especially as used by a practitioner like Perlman, who possessed a solid liberal arts background as well as infinite discretion and finesse.


     Although today no social work author who today used Perlman’s model-building procedures exclusively would be readily considered for academic advancement, the fact that her conceptualizations were generally successful in actual practice appears to bear out psychologist Kurt Lewin’s famous adage that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.”  However, it still needs to be asked how the model measures up today in our current research-heavy climate in social work practice?  In general one can answer: pretty well.  A number of evaluation research studies done over the past several decades have documented that problem-solving approaches and their variants, such as task-centered treatment and problem-solving therapy, have an impressive record of effectiveness in work with diverse different populations, cultural groups, treatment methodologies, and diagnostic categories (Reid, 1988; Reid & Fortune 2002; Dobson, Backs-Dermott, &

Dozois, 2000).  Indeed these research efforts have, for the most part, laid to rest the objections to Perlman’s problem-solving approach mentioned in the previous section.  One issue remain still remains, however.  As mentioned above, though the many current variants of  Perlman’s approach have been demonstrated to have proven efficacy and effectiveness, Perlman’s model itself is based on theory which has never been empirically tested.  Although some have tried to develop ways to accomplish this goal (Bunston, 1985), many of her sources now go back as far as seventy or eighty years, and it may never be possible to fully validate Perlman’s claims empirically. However as Perlman, who loved proverbs, would probably note: “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Thus it appears that it is now in the proof offered by actual practice success that we can best find the final validation of her method.


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  • Erika Anear  On August 2, 2011 at 7:34 am

    I’m a social worker writing a paper on Corrective Action but have been influenced by Helen Harris Perlmans Problem solving process so I love this page.

    • allisonmurdach  On August 2, 2011 at 7:52 am

      Erika–Thanks for your comment. As a student social worker and later as a professional social worker I have always been deeply influenced by H. H. Perlman’s pioneering work. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
      Allison D. Murdach

  • ASHOK  On May 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    i m doing presentation on problem solving in social work, this is very usful article for students. Ashok.k. MPHIL IN PSW, NIMHANS, BANGALORE.

    • allisonmurdach  On May 30, 2012 at 6:55 am

      Dear Ashok–I am glad you find my article interesting and useful for students. I believe Perlman’s work on problem solving has helped to give social work intervention a firmer foundation in practical and effective helping approaches. Thanks for your comment. Allison Murdach

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