Social Work Theories

Why Are Social Work Theories and Practice Important?

Humans are complex beings living complicated lives. Social work uses theories based on research and scientific evidence that help guide social workers to understand how a person may be affected by the past, how the past affects the present, and how new actions can affect the future. Social work theories and practice help keep social workers from drawing conclusions based on their own opinions or experiences, which could be limited or incorrect.

Here’s an example: A teenager is becoming a discipline problem both at home and at school: Her grades are falling; she’s hanging out with new, questionable friends; and she spends all her time at home in her room, resisting family interaction.

An untrained person might jump to the assumption that the teen has a substance use problem and is becoming a troublemaker. 

But a trained professional applying social work theories and models has more information available to them. Through informed practice, a social worker may learn or recognize that the teen is being bullied at school, she is too embarrassed to tell her teachers or parents, and the situation is causing anxiety and depression. That social worker may be able to help the teen see the situation more objectively, connect her with people who need to know about the issue and give her guidance on how to address and change the situation. 

What Are the Theories of Social Work?

There are a wide variety of practices that may appear on a social work theories list. Different sources emphasize anywhere from four to a dozen theories and practice models as being most important. But there is general agreement on several of the main theories of social work:

  • Systems theory is based on our roles in our families, places of work, and social circles and how those systems interact and affect one another.
  • Conflict theory is based on how inequities in power can affect how individuals react to conflict.
  • Psychodynamic theory is based on the premise that our behavior is in large part a result of the desires and drives of our subconscious.
  • Social learning theory is based on the fact that we also learn by observing others and modeling their behavior.
  • Family systems theory is based on learning how our role in the family affects our understanding of events and life. 
  • Rational choice theory is based on our innate habit of weighing benefits and consequences before we make a decision.
  • Psychosocial development theory is based on a premise of eight stages of development in life.

Systems Theory

Systems theory social work is based on understanding a client’s unique set of circumstances. These can include but are not limited to family, friends, school, work, religion, socioeconomic standing, and ethnicity. All of these settings — or systems — have different expectations, beliefs, and levels of influence. At its core, systems theory tries to understand an individual or circumstance as a whole of its parts, not one individual factor.  

Social workers may use systems theory to dissect how different interactions with a client’s systems influence behavior overall. Analyzing these interactions between people and their social environments can lay a foundation for planning and executing social work interventions. 

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory social work explores relationships, specifically conflict in relationships. This could be disagreements between romantic partners, siblings, or family members; conflicts at work; legal issues; or conflict between how someone sees themselves and how they are perceived externally. Conflict theory uses this knowledge to help analyze the situation and the actions most beneficial to the client. 

Conflict theory suggests that conflict is part of social life and that change, not stability, is normal. Under this theory, it is understood that conflict generates change through societal responses to oppression. Conflict theory also suggests that conflict is inevitable when resources are unevenly distributed. 

Psychodynamic Theory

Based on the work of Sigmund Freud and his followers, this theory rests in the foundational belief that our behavior is a result of our inner drives and desires, especially in the unconscious mind, and that our childhood experiences shape our personalities and affect us into adulthood. 

Freud’s theories hold that we have three main parts of our personality: the id, which is impulsive and instinctual (and present from birth); the ego, which balances the id’s desires with the realities of the outer world; and the superego, which holds a person’s conscience, values, and moral standards. 

Using psychodynamic theory in social work, a professional aims to understand the present situation partly in the context of what has come before it and can envision likely outcomes in the future from evidence in research studies.

Social Learning Theory

Also called social cognitive theory, this concept is based on our ability to learn by observing others and then repeating those behaviors in our own lives once the opportunity presents itself. The theory holds true for both positive and negative behaviors: A student may be inspired by a teacher who spends extra time cultivating their talents and decide to make teaching a career; conversely, a student may start down the path of substance abuse after witnessing peers using drugs and believing that they will be accepted if they participate. Social learning theory social work involves understanding from whom or where a behavior originated and using this knowledge in intervention or positive reinforcement techniques.

Family Systems Theory

As in general systems theory, a family systems practice is based on the premise that a family is a complicated system on its own in which family members connect in various hierarchies and influence one another’s behavior, as well as react as a unit to the world around them. In general, parents and older siblings carry more power than children or younger siblings, which affects the dynamics of everything from behavior (both inside and outside the home), interactions with others, and expectations of each other in the world. If an individual has experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse within a family, it adds extra layers of complexity. Someone practicing family social work theory would work to understand the complexities in the family and treat the client from within that context.

Rational Choice Theory

When we have decisions to make, we tend to weigh the pros and cons before we choose which way to go. This can play a role in either positive or negative acts and is present in a decision as simple as whether to paint a house in a bold color (“We like this color, but it will probably affect resale value”) or as complex as whether a person who needs money decides to rob a convenience store (“This is wrong, but I need the money and that store will never miss it”). 

In rational choice theory social work, a professional who knows the details of a client’s deliberations can better understand why they chose a certain behavior, regardless of whether the outcome was good or bad.

Psychosocial Development Theory

Created by renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, this theory is based on the concept that our personalities progress through eight stages of development as we go through life:

  • Infants (birth to 18 months) begin by learning trust versus mistrust (Can I trust this person?)
  • Early childhood (up to age 2 or 3), when children progress to understanding autonomy versus shame and doubt (I can do it by myself!) 
  • Preschool (between ages 3 and 5), when children advance to initiative vs. guilt (Am I good or bad?)
  • Older kids (between about 6 and 11) learn to understand industry versus inferiority (How do I earn approval?)
  • Adolescents (between ages 12 and 18) progress to identity versus role confusion (Who am I?)
  • Young adults (between 18 to 40) learn to understand intimacy versus isolation (Am I loved or am I alone?)
  • Middle-aged adults (between 40 and 65) advance to generativity versus stagnation (What is my purpose? How do I contribute?)
  • Mature adults (age 65 and older) can experience integrity versus despair (What did my life mean?).  

Professionals who understand the stages of psychosocial theory in social work can better understand where their client is and help with their challenges.

Social Work Practice Models

So, how does a social worker know how to implement the theories above? They do this by understanding social work practice models, which illustrate different types of therapy based on what’s appropriate for each client. Think of them as guides or blueprints. Practice models help a social worker take a theory (or multiple theories) and apply methods specific to a client’s needs. The most common social work practice models are:

  • Narrative therapy, in which a social worker helps a client narrate his or her own story from a distance, rewriting the script in ways that will benefit their psychological state.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, in which a social worker or therapist helps a client actively challenge and change thoughts that may be distorted.
  • Crisis intervention therapy, used for clients who have experienced trauma and/or are still in crisis.
  • Problem-solving therapy, in which the focus tends to be on action plans for one problem at a time.
  • Solution-focused therapy, in which the focus is on improving the client’s current and future worlds, rather than on the past.
  • Task-centered therapy, an even more streamlined approach — perhaps eight to 12 sessions — focused on achieving measurable goals with specific action plans. 

Narrative Therapy

Narrative theory social work focuses on the therapist and the client having conversations in which problems or negative events are “stories” for which you can rewrite the script in more positive ways without blame. Instead of simply focusing on an event that caused anxiety, for instance, the client would be encouraged to see other times in which he or she acted with confidence and rewrite the script. 

The basis behind narrative therapy is the idea of experiences. The people and experiences in your life have shaped you in many ways, resulting in narratives that intersect in your psyche and tell you who you are. Narrative therapy seeks to help you see problems with some distance, empowering you to understand and change your thoughts about them.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Distorted, negative, or inaccurate thought patterns affect our behavior in challenging situations. Professionals using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seek to identify and change those thought patterns, thereby helping you to better manage those situations. CBT may be used in clients who are experiencing depression, anxiety, grief, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, substance-use disorders, bipolar disorders, and other mental disorders that affect behavior. 

Cognitive behavioral theory social work allows clients to explore why they feel the way they do and where painful or negative emotions are based. Because CBT can deal with stressful emotions, it can be a difficult process and is typically short-term therapy, lasting between five and 20 sessions. 

Crisis Theory Model 

A psychological crisis occurs when a person’s normal abilities to manage stress and life events is insufficient to manage a difficult situation. The crisis may be a singular event — the death of a loved one, an accident, a trauma — or from layers of challenges that seem insurmountable, such as the loss of a job with its resulting loss of health insurance and inability to pay bills. Even a person who normally has good coping skills can be overwhelmed by an unexpected situation and may experience depression, anxiety, anger, feelings of defeat, or thoughts of suicide. 

Using crisis theory social work — also called a crisis-intervention model — social workers attempt to turn the crisis situation into an opportunity for healing by responding quickly; analyzing and stabilizing the situation; and helping the client reframe the circumstances, reestablish equilibrium, and regain access to their coping skills.

Problem-Solving Theory

Problem-solving theory involves working constructively and effectively through the process a person takes while attempting to solve a problem. They first encounter the problem, then decide to try to solve it, then work to understand it, then figure out the possibilities for solutions, and then choose the actions that will mitigate or solve the problem. 

In problem-solving theory social work — also called problem-solving therapy or emotion-centered problem-solving therapy — the social worker focuses on identifying tools and skills that will help the client work through the situation. This entails making sure that the client’s thinking about the problem is not distorted, that they are attacking the problem in a constructive way, and that they follow through on actions that will begin to solve the problem instead of getting stuck and overwhelmed. 

Solution-Focused Model 

Rather than focus on a client’s past experiences, solution-focused therapy (also called solution-focused brief therapy, or SFBT) focuses on the problem at hand with an emphasis on immediate thoughts and actions to help manage the problem in the present and improve the situation for the future. 

In solution-focused theory social work, a social worker asks a series of questions to lead the client down a path of dissecting the situation and setting goals that lead to solutions. Some of the techniques include asking the so-called “miracle question” in order to get a client thinking creatively and in a positive direction (“If a miracle were to occur and this problem was solved while you were asleep tonight, what would your life look like tomorrow?”) and guiding the discussion to help a client see that they have managed difficult situations in the past and can use the same skills to manage this one.

Task-Centered Theory

The task-centered theory of social work focuses on just that: finding and performing specific actions, or tasks, that will help reduce or resolve a client’s problems. It is short-term therapy, so success rests in large part on the social worker’s questioning techniques and the client’s honesty. A person with a substance-use problem, for example, may hesitate to admit it, instead focusing on smaller problems that may be a result of the large one. Once the problems have been correctly identified, the therapist and client work together to set goals and create a detailed action plan of measurable tasks to work toward those goals and resolve the problems.  

Earn Your Master of Social Work Degree Online With Baylor University

Baylor University offered its first course in social work in 1936 and has offered a fully online master’s of social work degree (MSW) program since 2019, the same year the university celebrated the 50th anniversary of its School of Social Work. 

The school offers two specializations: clinical practice, which focuses on direct social work practice in health-care settings, and community practice, which focuses on working with nonprofit or public agencies and groups. 

In addition, Baylor offers two online program tracks: Its standard MSW, a 60-credit program for students with a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university, can be completed in 16 to 36 months, depending on whether students choose the part-time, full-time, or accelerated option. Baylor’s advanced standing MSW is a 32-credit program for students who have earned a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a college or university accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) within the last five years. It can be completed in as few as 12 months. The school has been accredited by CSWE since 1977.

Request more information about the MSW Online Program at Baylor University

Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program.