Social Work Theories

Social work theories help explain human behavior and treat issues and concerns. A social work theory helps guide the practice of social work and the structure of study toward a social work degree. This article will consider seven different social work theories and their impact on social work study and practice.

The theories come from social work research and study; other sources include related fields like psychology, sociology, law, criminology, and education. The seven theories described below form the core of modern social work.

1. Person in the Environment 

Person in the Environment (PIE) is a foundation for using any social work theory. PIE is the framework because it sets the context for examining a person’s life situation. In social work practice, PIE is the attention to the person’s environment and the forces that impact his or her life. A PIE analysis might provide a baseline and set the stage for the application of one or more core theories to help patients and improve their lives.

2. Systems Theory

This theory takes a holistic view of the person and approaches the situation from the individual’s perspective. The individual exists in a set of complex and intertwined systems. System theory considers the motivations, needs, and experiences of individuals acting within the system. The social worker assesses the factors in the system that affect the individual and works to make them healthier and more favorable.

3. Transpersonal Theory

This theory was first advanced by Carl Jung and it considers the spiritual aspect of human experience and development. This theory uses six aspects or components of the human experience and combines them to treatment. The components are creativity, intellect, emotions, social interaction, emotions, and the physical aspect. The goal is to align the spiritual nature of people to create meaning in life. The absence of a healthy sense of self and spiritual alignment can cause mental illness.

4. Psychodynamic Theory

This theory may also be called Freudian theory after its inventor, Sigmund Freud. The basic idea is that the conscious and unconscious mind affects all behavior and emotions. The unconscious consisted of ego, id, and superego. The id is the primal part of the personality. This part seeks pleasure, avoids pain, and has no filter. The superego is the acquired part that reflects social upbringing and limits. In this theory, the id and superego are dynamic forces that the ego must moderate and balance. The psychodynamic theory seeks to offer insights into behavior that can explain and correct issues.

5. Psychosocial Development Theory

This theory evolved from the work of Erik Erikson. It uses a life cycle model with eight interconnected stages. Beginning at infancy and proceeding through old age, people pass through stages of development. They include hope, will, purpose, competency, and fidelity. The late stages are love, care, and wisdom. Wisdom is a culmination of development and acceptance. In practice, this theory can provide reference points to the stages of maturity and as a way to assess issues and concerns.

6. Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is also known as social cognitive theory. This approach came from the work of Albert Bandura and built on the pioneering efforts of B.F. Skinner. This broad approach may prove helpful to many patients. Social learning theory comes from the field of psychology. The basic concept is that people learn behaviors by observing and imitating the behaviors of other people. This overall process involves observation, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

Social learning theory is useful in a broad range of situations because it is flexible. The environment can affect and change an individual’s behavior. This idea means that people can learn from many different sources including observation, imitation, and direct experiences.

7. Cognitive Behavioral Theory and Therapy

This theory connects perception to the individual’s emotional state. The model suggests that the way people perceive and interpret events affects their psychological functions and emotions. For example, people who experience distorted thinking can develop behaviors that cause psychological stress and physical consequences. One example might be people with an eating disorder. No matter the weight loss, they continue to perceive themselves as tragically overweight. Changing the perception is the key to helping the patient.

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