Person-in-Environment (PiE) Model in Social Work

PiE theory in Social Work

The person-in-environment perspective is a central and guiding framework for social work practice. It is based on the belief that an individual can only be understood in the context of their environment (e.g. physical, familial, spiritual, social, political, societal, etc.). Thus practitioners must consider both the person and the various aspects of their environment in their assessment, planning, and intervention processes. This dual focus on the person and environment has been a distinguishing feature of social work, setting it apart from many other disciplines (Kondrat, 2008).


Although the person-in-environment perspective has guided social work for almost a century (Mattaini & Meyer, 2002), there has been a historical tension between micro/clinical practice with individuals and macro/community practise with the environment (Austin, Coombs, & Barr, 2005). Social workers did not always attend to both areas, often paying more attention to individual interventions, modelling their practice after psychiatrists and psychotherapists for professional status (Mattaini & Meyer, 2002). This focus on the individual may have also been due to a limited knowledge base about the environment compared to more extensive knowledge about human behaviour and development (Mattaini & Meyer, 2002) and because the environment is generally considered to be more difficult to change (Kemp, Whittaker, & Tracy, 1997).


Over time, the person-in-environment perspective evolved from a hyphenated structure (Mattaini & Meyer, 2002) into a more transactional one known today as the ecological-systems approach, considered to be "the most significant and most commonly accepted cohering perspective for social work" (Green & McDermott, 2010, p. 2418). Originating from ecology (DuBos, 1972) and general systems theory (Von Bertalanffy, 1967), the ecosystem's perspective views individuals and environments as constantly interacting with and adapting to one other in a series of "interconnected transactional networks" (Mattaini & Meyer, 2002, p. 16). Thus, instead of viewing the person and the environment separately, social workers "pay attention to the multiple interacting elements that are always present" (Mattaini & Meyer, 2002, p. 33)


Utilizing the Ecological Theory and the General Systems Theory, Germain (1991) developed the Person-in-Environment (PiE) Model. He strongly advocated looking at the bio-psychosocial development of individuals and families within cultural, historical, communal, and societal contexts. This perspective requires us to look at all the events in the person’s life. She characterized the nature of relationships between systems as “reciprocal exchanges between entities, or between their elements, in which each change or otherwise influences the other over time” (ibid., p. 16). 

Germain (1991) rightly identifies adaptation, life stress, coping, power, and human relatedness as important concepts for understanding the nature of the interactions of person-in-environment. Adaptation is the act/ process of changing oneself to meet environmental opportunities or demands in response to human needs, rights, goals, and capacities. 


Person-in-environment interaction leads to normal tension, also referred to as life stress. Whenever different entities interact, the ebb and flow between them create some friction. In other words, two people in precisely the same environmental situation may have different experiences owing to their differing perceptions of that situation. The next concept is coping. 

The ability to cope requires both problem-solving skills and regulating negative feelings. These factors lead to increased self-esteem, which helps diminish the negative emotions caused by a particular stressor. Power has its derivation from a source extrinsic to the individual. Dominant groups in society can influence subordinate groups through transactions in which resources are either provided or withheld. 


The abuse of power by a dominant group can also be a source of tension in person-environment interactions. These tensions affect whole segments of the population, not just one individual. How the individual experiences this tension and adapt to the tension-producing situation determines that individual’s capacity to negotiate power inequities and imbalances. Paramount in the person-in-environment concept is the individual’s ability to develop purposeful and meaningful relationships and attachments with oneself and others.

Source: Yesudhas, R. (2015). From Functional to Social Justice Stance: A Review of Social Work Approaches.

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