Social Work Theories

What is Theory?

A theory is a general statement about the real world whose essential truth can be supported by evidence obtained through the scientific method. – Must explain in a provable way why something happens. Ex: Learning theory explains behaviour based on what organisms have learned from the environment.

Theory—interrelated sets of concepts and propositions organised into a deductive system to explain relationships about certain aspects of the world. Cottrell provides a helpful general definition: A theory is a set of ideas that helps to explain why something happens or happened in a particular way and to predict likely outcomes in the future. Theories are based on evidence and reasoning but have not yet been conclusively proved.

Commonly used social work theories

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What do we mean by theory in social work? 

Payne (1991: 52) helps us distinguish four types of theory. 

1. Theories about social work explain the nature and role of social work in society 

2. Theories of social work describe which activities constitute social work, set aims for social work activities and explain why those activities are relevant and effective in meeting the aims

3. Theories contributing to social work are the psychological, sociological and other theories that explain or describe personal and social behaviour and are used to make theories of social work systematic, related to general social science explanations and to give supporting evidence for the social work theory's prescriptions 

4. Theories of social work practice and method prescribe in detail how the other theories so far outlined may be applied in the interaction between workers and clients

Theories of Social Work

As earlier said that social welfare is a condition identified by Friedlander, rape is a social problem simply because it is a social condition that is considered to be of harm to just some person but because to the general populace. Some theories explain these conditions and why they are considered so. Some of these theories are Structural Functionalism Theory, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism. On the other hand, many social work theories guide social work practice. Here are some of the major theories that are generally accepted in the field of social work.


Structural Functionalism Theory

According to functionalist theory, every part of society – the family, the school, the economy, the government, and other social institutions and groups – performs certain functions for society. The family raises children, the school teaches the knowledge, the economy provides jobs, the government offers security, etc. Moreover, all parts of society depend on each other to bring about a stable social order. Thus the family depends on the school to educate its children, and the school, in turn, depends on the family to provide emotional support. Both the school and the family depend on the government to offer a safe environment. If some parts of society fail to perform their functions to disrupt the network of interdependence among all parts, we have dysfunctions. As dysfunction occurs, social problems such as high delinquency rates, crime, unemployment, and poverty will occur.

There are two kinds of functions. Manifest functions are intended and widely recognised, while latent functions are unintended and unrecognised. The manifest function of attending college, for example, is to acquire knowledge, but attending college also has the latent function of enabling many students to find their future spouses. Often, however, the manifest function is carried too far because some social institutions, groups, and other parts of society are too successful in performing their functions. Sometimes this may cause their latent function to become negative, popularly known as "unintended consequences". If this occurs, it is known as a social problem. 

Social work theories serve as the foundation for social work practice, understanding, explaining, and predicting human behaviour, social structures, and social interactions. Theory informs each stage of the social work process, from the initial stages of assessment to selecting and evaluating interventions to deciding when best to end services with clients. (Teater,2015) Social work, which is the professional arm aspect of social work, also has specific theories that back up its operations and conduct, as stated by Teater(2015).


Developmental Theories

Developmental theories explain the biological, psychological, social and emotional development as stages over a portion (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age) or the whole of the life span. Many developmental theories focus on the development during childhood, such as Piaget's theory of cognitive development, which describes how a child (from birth to over 11 years) moves through discrete stages of cognitive development and intellectual growth to where they learn how to think and reason (Crain, 2011). Bowlby's (1988) attachment theory explains how a child develops socially and emotionally based on their attachment to a primary caregiver and the types of relationships and attachments they will possess as an adult.

Other developmental theories focus on individuals across the whole of the life span. Erikson's theory of psychosocial development consists of eight continuous stages of life that span from birth to death and detail how a person develops based on biological, psychological and environmental factors (Crain, 2011). The eight stages consist of a type of tension or crisis that an individual needs to work through to move to the next stage. Completing each stage successfully will result in more positive and healthy psychosocial development. Maslow's (1954) hierarchy of needs is a lifespan developmental theory that explains how individuals must have certain needs met before moving to achieve a higher level of need. Maslow's theorised needs start with the basic physiological needs for survival and expand until the individual reaches the final need of self-actualisation (a term often associated with humanistic theories). Additional theories focusing on the whole lifespan have examined faith, spiritual development (Fowler, 1981), and moral and ethical understanding and reasoning (Kohlberg, 1973). Although such theories influence social work practice, they have been criticised as ethnocentric mainly through assessment. They were developed based on Western (individualistic) societies, primarily with White men or middle-class individuals/families (Cianci and Gambrel, 2003).

Developmental theories influence social work practice by providing a basis for assessing and understanding a client's physiological, psychological, and emotional development. Such theories are primarily used in the assessment stage of social work practice. A social worker assesses the current level of development and functioning and uses this information to explain the client's situation, determine the most appropriate form of intervention, and hypothesise about future outcomes. Developmental theories are also helpful during the evaluation and endings stages to determine any shifts or changes in levels of development. 


Psychodynamic Theories

Psychodynamic theory was developed by Freud, and it explains personality in terms of conscious and unconscious forces. This social work theory describes the personality as consisting of the id (responsible for following basic instincts), the superego (attempts to follow the rules and behave morally), and the ego (mediates between the id and the ego).

Psychodynamic theories focus on individuals' psychological drives and forces that explain human behaviour and personality. The theories originate from Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis, which focused on the unconscious mind as the source of psychological distress and dysfunction. A psychoanalytic theory proposed the need for psychoanalytic therapy where the aim is to bring the unresolved issues developed during childhood or repressed trauma buried within the unconscious to the conscious mind for the client to begin to address these unresolved and underlying problems (Sharf, 2012). 

Psychodynamic theories primarily deal with the unconscious motives that underpin an individual's personality and behaviour. Childhood experiences are critical in developing an individual's personality, behaviour, and psychological thinking in later life, particularly psychological distress and dysfunction. Freud's Drive Theory, involving the three states of being (id, ego, and superego), are seen as vital in understanding the role of the unconscious. The id is the unconscious that seeks self-gratification and fuels instincts, the superego is the conscious moral reasoning based on one's moral values and society's values, and the ego is the mediator between the id and the superego and seeks to make decisions based on the id's instincts and need for self-gratification and the superego's call for decisions based on moral values (Sharf, 2012).

Defence mechanisms, transference, and counter-transference are often used when considering psychodynamic theories. Defence mechanisms are the tools used by the unconscious mind to prevent anxiety caused by unresolved issues and trauma. The mechanisms distort reality and are used to protect oneself by distancing from reality. Common defence mechanisms include denial, disassociation, regression, projection, or displacement (Sharf, 2012). Transference explains the act of a client unconsciously projecting thoughts, feelings and experiences of relationships or interactions with previous significant figures onto a social worker. Counter-transference is where the social worker's unconscious responds to signals received from the client, and the social worker acts out a particular role (e.g., taking a parenting role) (Ruch, 2010).

Additional theorists have expanded on the ideas of the role of the unconscious. They have shifted the attention in psychodynamic thought from one that focused on conflict to one that focused more on relationships. Jungian analysis and therapy explores the conscious and unconscious but is equally interested in extroverted and introverted personalities, archetypes, symbols and dreams (Sharf, 2012). Adler's individual psychology, more commonly referred to as differential psychology, explores the ideas of inferiority, superiority, birth order, and individual differences (Sharf, 2012). Klein's object relations theory explores how relationships developed in infancy and childhood are embedded in the unconscious mind and form the focus of individuals'" drives, views of themselves and others, influences their personality in adulthood, and dictates how they interact in interpersonal relationships (Sharf, 2012). Kohut's self-psychology expanded on object relations theory and aimed to focus more on the self and the deficits within the self (Sharf, 2012). Crisis theory is also classified as a psychodynamic theory as it explains how people cope with stressful situations and how they can grow, develop and change based on the crisis. The theory holds that individuals reach a state of emergency when their existing coping skills cannot deal with stressful or traumatic situations resulting in psychological and physiological distress (Caplan, 1964).

Psychodynamic theories are helpful in social work assessments to explore a client's past experiences, hypothesise about how such experiences contribute to the presenting problem and how to address the problem (or crisis). In this sense, psychodynamic theories influence social work assessments and interventions, such as psychotherapy, crisis intervention, or transactional analysis. Acknowledgements and understandings of defence mechanisms can assist a social worker in explaining a client's behaviour, interpersonal relationships or reactions to information. Considering the role of transference and counter-transference can help the social worker build the social work-client relationship (Ruch, 2010). 

  1. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is concerned with how internal processes such as needs, drives, and emotions motivate human behaviour. 
  1. Emotions have a central place in human behaviour. 
  1. Unconscious, as well as conscious mental activity, serves as the motivating force in human behaviour.
  1. Early childhood experiences are central in the patterning of an individual's emotions and, therefore, central to problems of living throughout life.
  1. Individuals may become overwhelmed by internal and/or external demands. 
  1. Individuals frequently use ego defence mechanisms to avoid becoming overwhelmed by internal and/or external demands.

The Transpersonal Theory 

The transpersonal theory proposes additional stages beyond the adult ego. These stages contribute to creativity, wisdom, and altruism in healthy individuals. In people lacking healthy ego development, experiences can lead to psychosis.

Transpersonal psychology enhances the study of mind-body relations, spirituality, consciousness, and human transformation. Experts disagree on the specific model and margins of this form of therapy. However, the three key areas that are considered through transpersonal psychotherapy are 

  1. Combined/holistic and natural psychology 
  1. Transformative psychology 
  1. Ego-transcended psychology 

Transpersonal psychology uses positive influences, rather than the diseased human psyche and our defences, as a model for realising human potential. Saints, artists, prophets and heroes are all revered and examined as embodying the true nature of our human psyche. This technique encourages a person to see their inner capabilities and view themselves as in the process of reaching that state that has been achieved by the models represented.

Transpersonal psychology is the study of human growth and development. Psychologists who subscribe to transpersonal psychology believe that continuum begins with people who lack ego identity and are essentially at the bottom of the developmental structure of humanity. Psychotic and borderline personality afflicted would be classified in this category. As we move toward functionality, people with stronger ego states and concise and definitive object relations are represented as "normals." Moving even further into human development are the mystics and meditators who are seen as transcending the conscious state and identifying a supreme being, God or universal force. 

Transpersonal psychology does not view an end to human personality. Instead, it sees each character trait and attributes as a garment that shrouds our true essence. Our beings are merely vehicles used to transport our spirit and soul throughout our world. We are but a window to the transpersonal being. 

The transpersonal psychology model integrates the spiritual, social, emotional, intellectual, physical and creative being into one complete element and addresses the six components equally for treatment. It strives to discover divinity through our own humanity and is a by-product of a person's growth and development.


Systems Theories

Those concepts emphasise reciprocal relationships between the elements that constitute a whole. These concepts also emphasise the relationships among individuals, groups, organisations, or communities and mutually influencing factors in the environment. Systems theories focus on the interrelationships of elements in nature, encompassing physics, chemistry, biology, and social relationships (general systems theory, ecological perspective, life model, and ecosystems perspective).

Systems theories are based on the belief that individuals do not operate in isolation but instead grow and develop in interaction with their physical and social environment. Systems theories derive from general systems theory, which explores the parts of a system that interconnect and interact to make a complete whole (Teater, 2010). Systems can constitute individuals, couples, families, communities, organisations, society, and the world within social work. Systems theories hold that each system should consist of several elements that make the system a functional whole. Each system should consider the other systems that can cause a change or reaction within the main system. For example, when working with clients, social workers should consider the bio-psycho-social aspects of the client by looking at physical and psychological functioning, social relationships, and community or societal structures that impact the client. 

Systems theory describes human behaviour in terms of complex systems. It is premised on the idea that an effective strategy is based on individual needs, rewards, expectations, and attributes of the people living in the system. According to this theory, families, couples, and organisation members are directly involved in resolving a problem, even if it is an individual issue.

The life model (Gitterman and Germain, 2008) of social work practice was greatly influenced by system theories as well as the person-in-environment perspective (Karls and Wandrei, 1994), both of which examine how social work is a unique discipline in that it focuses on the point where individuals interact with their environment. Such systems theories aim to move social work practice away from focusing solely on the individual, such as development theories, psychodynamic theories and behavioural theories. Instead, they focus holistically on the individual within their environment (often referred to as human behaviour in the social environment). Consideration of the environment includes the physical space, the social context, and the individual's culture and history. The aim of systems theories is to create homeostasis or a favourable person-environment fit. The individual interacts and responds to their environment where interactions and change contribute to positive growth, development, and social functioning. Family systems theory adapted the main concepts of general systems theory in understanding and working with families. The family is viewed as a system, with each family member playing a critical part. Family systems theory holds that a change in one part of the family system will create a change in other parts of the family system, yet this is often variable depending on the boundaries of the family, the patterns, messages and rules of the family, and the family's responsiveness to change (Sharf, 2012).

Systems theories are helpful in social work practice as they provide a theoretical basis for assessing a client holistically by examining all the systems within their environment. Such theories are primarily used in assessment and intervention stages of social work practice where the social worker assesses the client holistically by considering psychological, biological and social functioning, as well as assessing the interaction of other systems within the client's environment, particularly those that could be contributing to the presenting problem. Based on the assessment, underpinned by systems theory, the social worker determines which system needs the intervention. Although the client may be an individual, the social worker may deem the family system, community system, or even political systems the focus for intervention. Interventions most commonly used in social work practice include couple and family therapy, family systems therapy, community development, and community practice.


Social Constructivist Theories 

Social constructivist theories focus on creating real and how individuals view the world. The theories are related to the humanistic theories discussed above. They were influenced by phenomenology and philosophical ideas of what is real and socially constructed. The basis of the modern social constructivist theories stems from Berger and Luckman (1966). They explored reality creation and the influence of particular meaning based on life experiences, societal and cultural expectations, rules and norms, which they termed social constructionism. Since then, several theorists have refined social constructionism into three more specific theories, which emphasise either individual or social forces in reality construction (Teater, 2010). Social constructionism holds that reality is constructed through language in interactions with others and is primarily influenced by history, society and culture. Constructivism holds that reality is built more through one's biological forces through developmental processes, cognitive structures and the human mind. Social constructivism combines both social constructionism and constructivism by emphasising reality construction on both societal and biological factors. There is a joint focus on reality construction being influenced by nature and nurture.

Social constructivist theories have underpinned several theories often used within social work practice. Symbolic interactionism focuses on three core principles of meaning, language and thought. The theory proposed that people use symbols (words, rules, roles) to give meaning and make sense of the world. The meanings are transmitted to others through language. People are believed to interact with others and society and assign meaning and symbols to these interactions and relationships (DeLamater and Myers, 2011). Therefore, future interactions are dependent on the types of meanings and symbols one has attributed to that relationship or situation. Thus, individuals act on what they believe versus what is objectively true. Communication theory holds that people can NOT communicate and that all behaviour is communication, and all communication affects behaviour (Watzlawick et al., 1967). Role theory examines how people play out socially defined roles (e.g. mother, sister, wife, manager, teacher) and their ability to adhere to society's expectations of acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour for the particular role (DeLamater and Myers, 2011).

Social constructivist theories are helpful in social work practice as they provide a theoretical basis for understanding how realities and views of the world are individual specific and created through a combination of interactions with society, the societal structures of history, culture, rules and norms, and the meanings that individuals attribute to such interactions. Such theories are primarily used in social work practice's assessment and intervention stages. Using social constructivist theories in assessment involves a social worker taking a position of curiosity with the client, using language to attempt to understand the client's reality and view of the world, and acknowledging that no two clients have the same reality of view of the world despite living through similar experiences.  

The intervention stage involves a social worker employing interventions that would explore the client's experiences and meanings and attempt to reframe thoughts or views that contribute to the presenting problem into more acceptable ones. Interventions also include the social worker challenging societal assumptions or social constructs that prevent the client from growing and developing. Such interventions often used in social work practice are narrative therapy; social constructivist approach; solution-focused brief therapy; anti-oppressive, anti-racist and anti-discriminatory techniques, cultural competency and advocacy. 


Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is based on Albert Bandura's idea that learning occurs through observation and imitation. New behaviour will continue if it is reinforced. According to this theory, learning is more efficient if the new behaviour is modelled rather than simply hearing a new concept and applying it.

  1. Social learning theory suggests that human behaviour is learned as individuals interact with their environment. 
  1. Problem behaviour is maintained by positive or negative reinforcement. 
  1. Cognitive-behavioural therapy looks at what role thoughts play in maintaining the problem. Emphasis is on changing dysfunctional thoughts which influence behaviour. 
  1. Methods that stem from this theory are the gradual shaping of new behaviour through positive and negative reinforcement, modelling, stress management: biofeedback, relaxation techniques, cognitive restructuring, imagery and systematic desensitisation.

Critical Theories

Critical theories in social work aim to examine and critique social and political structures and functioning and their effects on individuals, families and communities (Payne, 2005). Such critiques and understanding of social and political structures will assist in social work's aims of tackling inequalities and disadvantages and promoting social justice. Conflict theory is a form of critical theory, based on the works of Karl Marx and Max Weber, which focus on inequalities within society, such as wealth, power, class, and how such imbalances impact individual life experiences and chances creating conflict between and within social groups (see Hier, 2005 for a review of critical theories). Numerous critical theories have been applied to social work practice to acknowledge the inequalities and disadvantages that clients can and do experience within the current social and political structures and encourage courses of action and interventions to challenge such disparities. 

Empowerment theory acknowledges that oppression is present within society and affects individuals and communities, yet individuals and communities have strengths and resources and can combat such societal oppression (Adams, 2008). Individuals need to have power and control over their lives to obtain and use the resources necessary for positive growth and development, which can be achieved through individual and collective strategies. The feminist theory explains the inequalities between women and men, the oppression of women, the development and consequences of socially defined gender roles and seeks to explain how development and life experiences differ for women and men (Enns, 2004; Hyde and Else-Quest, 2003). Anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory and anti-racist theories acknowledge the structural oppression and discrimination that impacts clients and seeks to promote social work practice that challenges such structures by working individually with clients and participating and joining in social movements that challenge oppression and discrimination within larger structures (see Dalrymple and Burke, 2006; Dominelli, 2008; Robbins, 2011; Thompson, 2006). 

Environmental and green social work applies a social work perspective to how environmental issues and crises can lead to disadvantage and limit resources and focuses on targeting the social-political forces that impact the individual, community and global well-being to promote social and ecological justice (Dominelli, 2012; Gray et al., 2013) 

Critical theories are useful to social work practice. They provide a theoretical basis for assessing a client within their environment by acknowledging how societal and political structures and processes can be oppressive or discriminatory. Such theories focus on blaming the client and examining other factors much larger than the client contributing to the presenting problem. Such theories are primarily used in social work's assessment and intervention stages. Assessment strategies involve the social worker examining societal and political structures and how these are impacting the client (e.g. individual, family, community). Intervention strategies involve the social worker providing direct work with the client or participating in social movements and advocacy to eliminate structural oppression and discrimination. Such interventions commonly used in social work practice include advocacy, the empowerment approach, anti-oppressive, anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice, consciousness-raising, crisis intervention, community practice and community development.


Conflict Theory 

Conflict theory uses balances of power and resources to explain human behaviour. This theory maintains that individuals and groups of people will always compete for resources and opportunities—those who have power and resources will try to keep them, according to this theory, and those who do not will try to attain them.

  1. This theory draws attention to conflict, dominance, and oppression in social life. 
  1. Groups and individuals try to advance their own interests over the interests of others. 
  1. Power is unequally divided, and some social groups dominate others. 
  1. Social order is based on the dominant groups' manipulation and control of nondominant groups. 
  1. Lack of open conflict is a sign of exploitation. 
  1. Social change is driven by conflict, with periods of change interrupting long periods of stability.

The Importance and Use of Theory within Social Work

The social work process involves stages of assessment, intervention, evaluation, and endings to promote human growth and development and social justice (Teater, 2010; Turner, 2011). To initiate each of these stages, social workers must first understand how best to proceed with each stage given the particular situation, circumstances and setting in which the practice is taking place. Social workers are working with vulnerable people in situations that are variable. A single approach to social work practice will not fit all. Social workers must tailor their practice to fit the specific needs of the client given their circumstances and given consideration of the environment in which the client is interacting. The theory is the critical factor in assisting social workers' understanding of a situation, hypothesising about how to intervene and speculating and predicting what might happen in the future (Teater, 2010; Turner, 2011). 

Theory guides social work practice at every stage. During the assessment stage, theories help to explain what is happening with a client, what could have contributed to the presenting problem, and what is needed or required to alleviate the problem. During the assessment process, consideration of biological, psychological and sociological theories during the assessment process assists in explaining the presenting problem and helps structure and organise the social worker's thinking toward the next step of intervention. The intervention stage is based on theories of why the intervention will work given the particular situation and setting. Finally, theories will guide a social worker in the evaluation stage of the social work process by re-assessing a client's biological, psychological and sociological functioning and explaining the best time to end services. 

Social workers assess for risk and needs and then recommend the best course of action for the client. The outcome is positive by alleviating or diminishing a presenting problem. However, it could equally lead to adverse outcomes due to negligent practice. Therefore, social workers should be held accountable for their work. One way to ensure accountability is to work within established theoretical frameworks, justifying the choice of theories and methods used based on evidence and continually reflecting upon and evaluating the theories and methods used with the client.

How might theory be of use to social workers? 

Social work, like all professions, uses theory to guide practice. 

1. Observation: theory provides guidance on what a social worker might need to look out for when meeting people who use services or carers and their families. 

2. Description: theory provides a generally understood and shared language in which these observations can be organised and recorded. 

3. Explanation: theory can suggest how different observations might be linked in a framework that explains them. 

4. Prediction: theory can indicate what might happen in the future. 

5. Intervention: theory can provide ideas about what might bring about a change in the situation.

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