Internationally renowned proponent of social group work
Gisela Konopka was a German-born social work professor who became renowned for her contributions to social group work which she disseminated internationally.
Gisela Konopka was born as Gisela Peiper in Berlin on February 11, 1910. During secondary school she got involved in extracurricular activities with Jewish and later socialist youth groups. After graduation she spent a year working in a bottle factory in Hamburg to bring in some money for her education and to gain some first-hand experience of the workers’ labor and struggle.Still in Hamburg, she studied education, history, psychology, and philosophy from 1929 to 1933, with, among others, William Stern and Ernst Cassirer. In 1933 she graduated from Hamburg University with a Staatsexamen in Education, History, and Psychology. This was also the year of the National Socialists’ takeover in Germany. The Nazis withdrew Konopka’s German citizenship and banned her from working as a teacher as she had intended.
In the following years, she was active in the political resistance movement; in 1936 she was arrested and spent some time in the concentration camp Fuhlsbüttel. After her release in 1937, she went to Vienna, Austria, where she worked with children and studied nursery school and Kindergarten work. Shortly thereafter, in 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and she had to flee again. She went to Marseille, France, and three years later, in 1941, arrived in the U.S., where she would spend the rest of her life, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1944.
For Konopka’s subsequent career, the experiences during her time in the resistance movement, in the concentration camp, and during her escapes proved crucial. She realized the importance of human connection, the significance of groups for the individual. Also, she reported how, during her stay in Vienna, she learned the basics of what would become a crucial part of her scholarly approach: Socialist educational reforms in Vienna had included and combined various pedagogical approaches. Konopka’s lesson from her experience of the new methods for educating children in former “Red Vienna” was the insight that approaches sometimes are more powerful if they are combined in meaningful ways than if they are kept pure within the boundaries of intellectual traditions and theories.
In the U.S., Konopka attended the University of Pittsburgh and graduated in 1943 with a Master in Social Service Administration, MSSA, for which she specialized in social group work. Still in Pittsburgh, she put her education into practice and, from 1943 to 1947, worked as a psychiatric group worker at the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Clinic; in addition, she held several positions as lecturer and field instructor during that time.
In 1947 she joined the faculty of the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota, first as assistant professor and from 1956 as full professor of social group work. She spent the academic year 1954/55 at Columbia University in New York to work on her doctorate. In 1957 she received the Doctor of Social Welfare (DSW) with a dissertation on Eduard C. Lindeman and Social Work Philosophy, which was published by the University of Minnesota Press the following year.
Gisela Konopka was a very active and prolific scholar and teacher. She published widely and traveled and lectured in the United States and internationally. Starting in the 1950s, she repeatedly visited Germany to give lectures and to introduce group work to German social workers, a contribution for which she was honored by the Federal Republic of Germany with its highest merit award in 1979. She served as consultant for state and federal departments for issues such as youth, delinquency, child welfare, and mental health. Her main research interests focused on institutional settings and the process of group work, philosophy and history of social work, history of social welfare, history of correctional reforms, adolescence (especially girls), and delinquency, specifically with regard to institutions and delinquency of girls.
Konopka became internationally renowned for her activities in social group work, a “method of social work directed toward specific social services. … Group work is a professional method involving conscious use of the interaction between the group worker and the group members and the interaction among members to achieve the goal of individual satisfaction for each group member as well as participation in community life in so far as this is within the capacity of the group members.” (Konopka 1956, 300) Group work was based on social scientific theory and research, and evaluated with respect to the utility in practical work. Konopka tirelessly emphasized that social group work was a serious social scientific approach, which interacted with “related research in psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, and social psychology” and therefore was best seen as an interdisciplinary, social-scientific endeavor (Konopka 1956, 301). In doing so, Konopka was an important figure in promoting the academic character of social work in the United States, as well as in post-war Europe.