Theories Used in Social Work Practice

For people who want to dedicate their life to helping others in a practical way, social work can be a fulfilling career. Social work is sometimes termed as “helping people help themselves;” a social worker facilitates change in the behavior of individuals and communities, both large (e.g., a school) and small (e.g., a family). Direct social services usually address the problems of individuals, helping them enhance their capacity to meet social obligations. Social development work is aimed at correcting long-term problems in communities.

In short, social work is about empowering people. A complex endeavor, inciting this shift of others’ perspectives can benefit from the framework of the various theories used in social work practice. A theory is a logical system of concepts that helps to explain why something happens in a particular way and to predict outcomes. By grounding their practice in theory, social workers can better understand his or her own task, orient goal setting, and anticipate outcomes. Click on each theory to jump to it’s section below.

  • Orienting Theories: Describe and explain behavior, particularly when it comes to how problems develop.
  • Practice Perspectives: A particular way of viewing and thinking about the practice of social work.
  • Practice Models: Provide guidance and expectations for improving outcomes for children, youth, and families.

Orienting Theories

Orienting theories describe and explain behavior, particularly when it comes to how problems develop. Various theories draw from other disciplines, including biology, psychology, and economics, and are related to all aspects of social work, including human development, personality, family systems, and political power. Orienting theories also attempt to explain large-scale societal problems such as poverty, mental illness, crime, and racial discrimination.

General systems theory emphasizes reciprocal relationships between the elements of a system—”a holistic, organized unit of interdependent, transacting, and mutually influencing parts (individuals or collectives and their subunits) within an identifiable (social-ecological) environment” (Siporin, 1975). Systems theory draws the social worker’s attention to the various systems within which an individual functions—groups, organizations, societies, and so forth—in order to help intervene at multiple stages in an individual’s life.

By focusing on understanding the human condition and consideration of cross-cultural elements, systems theory has helped drive social work’s understanding of human behavior in the social environment.

Psychodynamic theory is informed by ego psychology and focuses on how inner energies interact with external forces to impact emotional development. That is, this theory assumes that emotions play a key role in human behavior and is thus concerned with how these internal needs, drives, and emotions motivate human behavior. It assumes that both conscious and unconscious mental activity motivate human behavior, and that internalized experiences—such as childhood experiences—shape personality development and functioning. By patterning an individual’s emotions, these early experiences are central to problems of living throughout an individual’s lifespan.

This theory is what social workers usually employ when dealing with a client who has suffered past trauma or abuse. By focusing on how the ego mediates between the individual and their environment, social workers can facilitate healing by placing attention on a client’s ego defense mechanisms to protect individuals from becoming overwhelmed by impulses and threats.

Social learning theory, also called behaviorism or behavior theory, is based on the psychology of learning. By focusing on how individuals develop cognitive functioning, social workers can understand how those cognitive structures enable adaptation and organization. So in dealing with problem behavior, social workers who employ this theory focus on changing the reinforcement that perpetuates that behavior.

Conflict theory helps explain how power structures—and power disparities—impact people’s lives. Power is unequally divided in every society, and all societies perpetuate various forms of oppression and injustice through structural inequality—from the wealth gap to racial discrimination. In short, groups and individuals advance their own interest over the interests of others. Dominant groups maintain social order through manipulation and control. But social change can be achieved through conflict—that is, interrupting periods of stability. In this theory, life is characterized by conflict (either open or through exploitation) instead of consensus. By addressing these asymmetric power relationships, social workers therefore aim to even the scales and reduce grievances between persons or groups.

Practice Perspectives

Social Work Degrees

Practice perspectives are a particular way of viewing and thinking about the practice of social work. By offering a conceptual lens of social functioning, these frameworks focus on particular, recognizable features of a situation in order to offer guidance on what might be important considerations. Two in particular are noteworthy in their common use to assess relationships between people and their environment:

Just as ecology seeks to explain the reciprocal relationship between organisms, the ecosystems perspective assumes that human needs and problems are generated by the transactions between people and their environments. To understand a client’s problems, the social worker must understand his or her environmental context:

  1. The individual exists within families,
  2. Families exist within communities and neighborhoods,
  3. Individuals, families, and neighborhoods exist in a political, economic, and cultural environment, and it follows that
  4. The environment impacts the actions, beliefs, and choices of the individual.

So the problems that people face arise from life transitions, environmental forces, and interpersonal pressures; when a social workers is faced with a client who is having trouble functioning within their environment, then emphasis is placed on adapting the client’s ability to exchange information and energy with their environment. Unlike systems theory, which takes a broad perspective on equilibrium within a system, this model emphasizes active participation with the environment.

The second primary perspective, the strengths perspective assumes that every individual, family, group, organization, and community has identifiable strengths. By focusing on these strengths, clients can grow and overcome difficulties. Given the internal nature of strength, clients are usually the best experts about what types of helping strategies will be effective or ineffective; as such, the social worker in this situation is more of a facilitator.

The third primary perspective, the feminist perspective takes into account the role of gender and the historical lack of power experienced by women in society. Social workers who employ a feminist perspective emphasize the need for equality and empowerment of women in our society.

Practice models

While theories help explain why a problem is occurring, dozens of social work practice models are used to address the problems themselves. Based on these theories (and others), these models are step-by-step guides for client sessions, much like a recipe or a blueprint for how to effect change. The social worker’s choice of perspective will influence their choice of both theory and model. A few common practice models include:

  1. Problem solving: The social worker helps the client understand the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, pick a solution, try it out, and evaluate effectiveness.
  2. Task-centered: The social worker helps the client break down the problem into achievable tasks, using rehearsals, deadlines, and contracts to maintain drive and motivation.
  3. Solution-focused: The social worker and client first identify the solution—the desired future—then work together to establish the steps that will lead to the solution.
  4. Narrative: Working off the assumption that as an individual’s life story takes shape, it emphasizes certain elements (either positive or negative) over others, social workers help clients “re-author” their own life by reexamining oft-told stories to get at a more basic truth.
  5. Crisis: The social worker and client work to reduce the impact of an immediate crisis, learn to more effectively respond to the impact of a stressful event by employing both internal and external resources, and restore the individual to a pre-crisis level of functioning.

What are the educational requirements for a social worker?

To become a Licensed Social Worker (LSW), an applicant must have at least a bachelor’s degree in social work and pass the national examination administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

When looking for programs, it’s important to keep a few factors in mind:

  • Is the program accredited?
  • Will the program prepare you for licensure and other exams?
  • Does the program offer online or hybrid courses for working and non-traditional students?

Below we’ve listed popular accredited programs in social work that meet these factors:

Boston University
Boston University

Sacred Heart University
Sacred Heart University

  • HLC
  • NCA
The Catholic University of America
The Catholic University of America

  • MSA
Ashford University
Ashford University

  • HLC
  • NCA

Click here to see more online Social Work degrees

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