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8 essential theories in social work and how to use them

Older female social worker speaking to younger female

This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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This article was reviewed by Christina Neider, EdD, Dean, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

At a glance

  • Social workers perform a number of people-oriented duties in a variety of areas, including child and family services, mental health and substance abuse.
  • Social work theories are the scientific frameworks that help explain how people operate and deal with problems, both internally and within society.
  • Systems theory, rational choice theory and conflict theory are just a few of the social work theories that help guide social work practice.
  • When pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Social Work, students study essential social work theories and the practice models based on them.

This article was updated on December 8, 2023.

Social workers strive to help people in need, intending to improve lives and achieve a more equitable society. Social work practice typically focuses on vulnerable populations and underserved communities, helping people with all kinds of needs. Focus areas include child and family services, financial assistance, mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and disability or illness.

Social work is a people-oriented job that prioritizes empathy and soft skills, but any approach used in a professional setting should also be rooted in scientific methods. A social worker must learn to assess objectively and overcome any personal assumptions and beliefs. Therefore, studying social work theories is essential for anyone who wants to become a social worker and provide the best possible service to every client.

What is social work theory and why is it important?

Social work theories are the scientific frameworks that help explain how people operate and deal with problems, both internally and within society. By drawing on theory in social work, practitioners can approach each case with the best possible information and a holistic understanding of the situation, helping to ensure effective and equitable treatment for every client.

When pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Social Work, students study essential social work theories and the practice models based on them. Continued education is necessary, however, because theory constantly evolves with continued research, and students can learn to improve methods with time. What’s more, if students want to enhance their social work practice, they may need a higher education degree like a master’s or PhD, which requires intensive study of theory.

8 essential social theories

Although there is a lot to learn, the following eight essential theories provide a starting point for understanding the science behind social work.

1. Systems theory

An interdisciplinary study that informs many areas of science, systems theory explains how the output of a system can be greater than the sum of its parts. A related framework, known as developmental systems theory, additionally examines how external factors can influence outcomes for any individual. Because society is understood to be a system or a collection of interrelated parts, social work is inextricably tied to these theories of systems.

By keeping a systems perspective, social workers can better understand how societal factors may affect the behavior of a person and vice versa. Family dynamics, friend circles and the social environment of one’s upbringing — to give some examples — are all interconnected systems that also nest within the greater society.

2. Rational choice theory

Commonly used in economics, rational choice theory describes a model that people use to make decisions. The theory is based on assumptions that everyone acts primarily out of self-interest and that everyone is capable of reasonably calculating costs and benefits for themselves. Therefore, according to this social work theory, our everyday decision-making processes are based on rational choices to maximize our own perceived utility.

Though rational choice does not always hold true in practice, the theory provides a basis for understanding how people attempt to make decisions. Thus, social workers may draw on the theory to more effectively analyze — and also empathize with — their clients’ thoughts and actions.

3. Conflict theory

One way of explaining the structure of society is through conflict theory, a sometimes-controversial perspective used often in sociology. The premise is that Earth’s limited resources create competition, which inevitably results in unequal distribution of power and wealth. According to the theory, those who hold the resources will do all they can to keep them, thus using their influence to construct a hierarchical social order in which the majority of people remain poor and powerless in comparison.

The theory goes on to insist that the only path to a more equitable society is with radical alteration of this structure, through sweeping reform or all-out revolt. So, while the theory is most often used to explain social unrest and geopolitical struggles, it’s a useful perspective in social work as well. Conflict theory helps to identify the socioeconomic barriers an individual may face and also explains methods a person might use in trying to overcome them.

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4. Empowerment theory

An emerging model for understanding social change, empowerment theory builds on existing explanations for inequality and describes mechanisms for improvement. The theory focuses on ways that marginalized people can work collectively within their communities to gain more control over their own lives.

Empowerment is a central goal of social work, so practitioners can gain a lot from studying this theory. An example of implementation would be identifying an individual’s or a community’s strengths, then focusing on maximizing those advantages to enact change. This approach contrasts with a more traditional method of “fixing” perceived shortcomings, which might make a person feel inadequate and therefore prove less constructive in the long run.

5. Social learning theory

A framework for explaining an individual’s values and behaviors, social learning theory is based on the idea that humans learn through observation and imitation. According to social learning theory, the dominant factors in shaping our behavior are simply the behaviors of others from whom we’ve learned.

In social work, it’s always useful to step back and consider what learned responses could be at play in a client’s behavior. Such an assessment based on social learning theory can help a social worker build empathy and establish rapport and possibly reveal the most effective solutions to the issues at hand.

6. Psychosocial development theory

Building on Freudian psychoanalysis, the psychosocial development theory proposes eight stages of personality development throughout life. Each stage is associated with a certain age range and a predominant virtue affected by life experiences within that time frame.

For example, in the middle childhood phase of “industry versus inferiority,” according to the theory, growing children may be most preoccupied with learning competence in various skills and internalizing feedback based on their efforts. So, although the theory does not claim to explain anyone’s personality comprehensively, it can provide a useful baseline for understanding a client’s emotional priorities.

7. Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic studies concern all the external influences on a person’s development. In particular, this discipline emphasizes early childhood experiences and unconscious effects the person is not readily aware of.

Though perhaps most familiar in the field of psychiatry, psychodynamic theory has many applications in social work as well. The most fundamental takeaway, however, is that personalities can be molded by experiences individuals don’t recognize as significant or that they don’t remember at all.

8. Transpersonal theory

Transpersonal psychology is the study of higher-than-self experiences in the human mind. Examples include spirituality, a sense of self-worth, the mind-body connection and altered states of consciousness. According to the theory, transcendence is a natural extension of the human psyche, meaning that people desire to feel significance beyond themselves.

For social workers, transpersonal theory provides one lens for understanding concepts like self-esteem, self-expression, spiritual health, and anxiety and depression. It also lends insight into the values of therapeutic activities like art, music, journaling, mindfulness exercise and meditation.

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Social work practice models

It’s one thing to understand frameworks in theory and another to implement them. Fortunately, sets of guidelines known as practice models can help social workers systematically integrate science into their practice. Learning the main practice models will enable social workers, especially in clinical settings, to expand their methodology and more effectively serve their clients. These models include:

  • Crisis intervention model: For clients experiencing crisis or trauma, this seven-stage process is designed for empowering them to escape and improve their circumstances.
  • Problem-solving model: An action-oriented strategy often focused on the short term, this method isolates specific problems and develops measured plans for solving them.
  • Task-centered practice: Typically focused only on the short term, but often integrated within longer-term strategies, this method defines tasks with measurable goals and deadlines.

How to learn more about social work theory

Whether you’re new to social work or a seasoned professional, it is always helpful to continue to learn about social work practices and how they can be used within the profession. Some cases will inevitably require deeper understanding or new approaches. The demands of the career can certainly make it difficult to experiment with new methods, but if you allow yourself time for education, you’ll be better equipped to plan and adapt while on the job.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Social Work and starting their career, social workers can continue their education with research journals and books, many of which are available online. They might also consider a related or higher degree in the behavioral sciences, which may help prepare them to pursue additional professional opportunities.

No matter how you choose to learn, advancing your knowledge in social practice and theory can not only help in your career but also benefit the lives of the people you serve as a social worker.

Interested in a degree in social work? Learn more about a bachelor’s degree in social work from UOPX!

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Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!

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