Social Work and Theories

Social Work Theories

What Is Social Work Theory?

Social work theory refers to various systems created to help understand and explain human behavior. They were developed over time, incorporating knowledge from professionals within a variety of disciplines including psychology and sociology. Additional contributions to social work theories and models come from other fields such as psychoanalysis, economics and philosophy. 

Social work theories provide social workers with unified methods for understanding and describing the motivations, impulses, personalities and forces that affect how a person behaves. The theories are based on research and observation and are supported by scientific evidence. By applying social work theories and perspectives to their work, social work professionals may help clients overcome challenges and improve the quality of their lives. 

List of Social Work Theories 

Social work is referred to as a helping profession, as one of the main focuses is improving clients’ well-being. There is also an aspect of social justice in social work, given that this field often specializes in helping people who are vulnerable or oppressed. 

There are multiple social work theories of human behavior that professionals can apply in their daily work. Some common social work theories in use today include the following: 

  • Social learning theory
  • Systems theory
  • Psychosocial development theory
  • Psychodynamic theory
  • Social exchange theory
  • Rational choice theory

Social Learning Theory

This concept revolves around the idea that people learn by observing and repeating the behaviors they see around them. The social learning theory—also called social cognitive theory—came from psychologist Albert Bandura, who demonstrated that children can learn behaviors they see modeled by adults. 

For social learning to take place, some conditions need to be met. A child must see the action, want to emulate it, remember it and have a similar opportunity to act out the behavior.

Systems Theory 

Systems theory looks at complex systems that influence human behavior. The idea is that no single force completely encompasses or explains human behavior—instead, individuals are influenced by multiple factors that work together. 

Systems theory considers factors like family and social interactions, religious and cultural influences and economic forces. Within systems theory, individual problems are often addressed collectively because of the interconnected nature of the theory. You may see this type of social work theory used in the treatment of eating disorders, depression or similar struggles.

Psychosocial Development Theory

The psychosocial development theory is based on psychologist Erik Erikson’s idea that individuals move through eight different stages of psychosocial development in their life. According to this theory, stages from infancy through maturity include the following:

  1. Trust vs. mistrust
  2. Autonomy vs. shame and doubt
  3. Initiative vs. guilt
  4. Industry vs. inferiority
  5. Identity vs. confusion
  6. Intimacy vs. isolation
  7. Generativity vs. stagnation
  8. Integrity vs. despair

In addition to being useful for studying early childhood development, this is one of the social work theories used in hospice, as it touches on end-of-life conflicts. 

Psychodynamic Theory

The psychodynamic theory was developed by Sigmund Freud, who is often considered the founder of psychoanalysis. The idea behind the theory is that the conscious and unconscious mind have an effect on how people behave and react. Some of these forces are driven by biology and human nature—like the tendency to seek gratification. Other driving forces come from specific situations, such as early childhood experiences. 

This social work theory of human behavior may be helpful in understanding internal processes that shape personality.

Social Exchange Theory

The social exchange theory was developed by sociologist George Homans. The theory suggests that every relationship a person has is based on a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, everyone evaluates the rewards of a relationship and weighs them against any costs or risks. When the potential for rewards seems high, people tend to keep the relationship. When the potential for reward seems low, people tend to leave. 

The social exchange theory may be used to help understand how clients function within their relationships.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory suggests that every decision is rational from the perspective of the decision maker. This is because humans naturally weigh the costs, risks and rewards of every decision before they take action. Even if it may not be apparent to onlookers, rational choice theory shows that every decision someone makes is supported by thought and reasoning. 

How Is Theory Applied in Social Work? 

In addition to social work theories, there are practice models. These are roadmaps that help social workers apply social work theories into their daily work. There are multiple practice models that are common within social work, each one providing a different approach for understanding behavior, resolving issues and improving outcomes. Your line of work and what you are trying to accomplish may determine which social work models you use most frequently. For example, some practice models focus on goal setting while other models are focused on the connection between emotions and actions. 

Together, social work theories and models function as valuable tools for putting theory into action. Since each client’s problems, motivations and issues are unique, no single practice method works for every situation. As a social worker, you may need to assess the client’s individual needs to determine which approach is most likely to provide a positive outcome.

Problem Solving 

Problem solving is a practice model that focuses on identifying and solving specific problems in a client’s life. Using this model, the social worker and client work together to clearly define a problem and create an action plan to solve it. They then evaluate how effective the problem-solving strategy is at resolving the problem. 

Task-Centered Practice

Task-centered practice is a method of guiding clients through resolving issues and achieving goals one task at a time. Within this practice model, the social worker creates small, manageable tasks for their client to focus on. With each task the client completes, they are closer to reaching their larger goal. 

Instead of digging into the past, the focus of task-centered practice is to find solutions that can help clients address their current problems.

Narrative Therapy 

Narrative therapy encourages the separation of the person from their problems. The idea is to help clients externalize problems and realize that they are whole and separate from whatever issues they may be experiencing. By helping a client explore their life as if it were a story, social workers guide them to create a new, positive narrative. This approach can help clients gain perspective on issues and feel more empowered to create change.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The idea behind cognitive behavioral therapy is that people can benefit from understanding the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By making this connection, people can work to remove self-destructive behaviors and recover from depression or other types of trauma. Social workers use cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients identify problems and eliminate thoughts and behaviors that may be leading to negative outcomes.

Crisis Intervention Model

The crisis intervention model is used when clients are experiencing an acute crisis situation. To help social workers evaluate and mitigate the crisis, this model breaks down crisis intervention into seven stages: 

  1. Conduct a psychosocial and lethality assessment.
  2. Work to quickly build rapport.
  3. Identify what created the crisis.
  4. Allow the client to express their thoughts and emotions.
  5. Offer the client alternative ways to cope. 
  6. Develop an action plan for coping with the crisis. 
  7. Follow up with the client after initial intervention. 

This model is often used for clients that need immediate intervention to prevent self-harm.

Request information about the online Master of Social Work (MSW) program from Syracuse University.