Professional social workers require detailed knowledge of social, mental, and interpersonal difficulties and the skills to work with the most vulnerable people in society.
As a result, social work’s interest and involvement in family, community welfare, and social justice have contributed significantly to mental health practice and social policy (Bland, Drake, & Drayton, 2021).
Working in child, adolescent, and adult mental health and care settings, social workers must become familiar with psychological and social work theories and their practical challenges.
This article looks at some of the fascinating theories and models underpinning and supporting social work.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
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A Brief History of Social Work
“Social work, social problems, and the organizations that were developed in an attempt to cope with those problems have an almost parallel history” (Glicken, 2011, p. 23). As a result, it’s neither possible nor sensible to separate the social worker’s role from the changing trends within social policy.
Indeed, social work is a vital health profession deeply connected to contemporary public health development in the United States and beyond (Ruth & Marshall, 2017).
And while it is not possible to cover all the essential social and political changes that have led to the modern social worker’s role, we cover many in brief below.
So, how did social policy and social work develop?
Modern social welfare in the US and UK originated in the English Poor Laws that controlled conditions in the workhouses and impoverished communities between 1601 and 1834.
These harsh and unfair laws offered little support to the poorest in the community. In the 19th century, they were replaced by new legislation and social policy, including the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and the 1889 Prevention of Cruelty and Protection of Cruelty Act, which began to provide some degree of protection (Glicken, 2011; Cree, 2013).
Around this time, there was an “explosion of voluntary activity […] with the creation of hundreds of new philanthropic agencies,” including charity caseworkers, housing associations, and church missionaries (Cree, 2013, p. 8).
Benevolent societies formed in North America to provide relief throughout the towns and countryside, forming the predecessors of modern social service agencies.
In the late 1800s, the settlement house movement formed to help immigrants arriving in the country, and organizations such as the Charity Organization Society began to carry out casework with individuals, families, and groups. By 1927, social workers were employed in the community and helped populations struggling with problems related to the First World War (Glicken, 2011).
By 1932, during the Great Depression, one in four Americans were unemployed. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which together provided fairer wages and improved working conditions. He also brought in the Social Security Act to offer “a safety net in the form of a small pension for workers who contributed to the program” (Glicken, 2011, p. 31).
While in the 1950s, “programs shifted from the poor to programs serving middle-income White workers,” the 1960s reversed the trend, with several new types of social service organizations and social workers playing more significant roles in antipoverty and community-action programs (Glicken, 2011, p. 33).
In the decades that followed, social welfare received limited focus and investment, and by the 1990s, there were 36 million people officially listed as ‘poor’ in the US (Glicken, 2011). President Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House in 2009 brought progressive social welfare policies that focused on “extended unemployment benefits, more money to education,” and the goal of universal healthcare (Glicken, 2011, p. 36).
While not everyone welcomed the changes, President Obama pushed hard for social policies and programs to help poor and middle-class citizens (Glicken, 2011).
But what of the role of social workers?
While social policy and accompanying legislation have gained or lost popularity over the decades – typically along political lines – social workers continue to offer protection to society’s most vulnerable.
In the US, 600,000 social workers practice in public health and other settings, drawing on decades of experience with an ever-increasing impact on society (Ruth & Marshall, 2017).
Social workers focus on improving human wellbeing by balancing ecological, clinical, and biopsychosocial approaches at multiple levels of society, including individuals, families, organizations, neighborhoods, and governments (Ruth & Marshall, 2017).
5 Interesting Social Work Theories
Unfortunately, the theory underpinning social work practice is complex and unstable (Davies, 2013); it involves the interplay between people and dynamic social situations.
At present, there is no clear consensus regarding “human nature, individual development and social interaction,” leading to countless theories arising from both psychology and sociology that influence decision making in social work (Howe, 2013a, p. 401).
Perhaps the most significant division in social work theories is between structural and psychological explanations for problems (Howe, 2013a):
- Structural explanations
Focus on the political, economic, and material environment in which people find themselves. Poverty, inequality, social injustice, and lack of opportunity are disadvantages that lead to anxiety, stress, and poor social functioning.
Society is regarded as the problem for the individual, not the individual for society (Howe, 2013a).
- Psychological explanations
Pay more attention to the client’s emotional condition and their capacity for rational action.
Psychological explanations suggest we can solve people’s problems through the “use of rational thought, cognitive understanding and behavioral advice” (Howe, 2013a, p. 402).
Ultimately, the perspective social workers adopt influences how the problem is defined, what type of assessment is made, and the methods employed.
Social workers make use of many theories. These theories fall in and out of fashion and appeal to different standpoints on human nature, human development, and society.
The following list is a selection of several fascinating theories used by social workers to understand the intricacy and complexity of the human condition.
1. Anti-oppressive practice
“Social divisions such as those based on ethnicity, class, gender, disability, sexuality and age are constructed and legitimized within political, economic and cultural structure” (Burke, 2013, p. 415).
Therefore, oppression is typically less about the lack of justice and more about the denial of the humanity of individuals and groups.
The anti-oppressive stance is sometimes criticized for its moral and political idealism and its appropriation by people for use within social justice. However, its value is in encouraging social workers’ awareness of power relationships, politics, and oppressive solution relations, while remaining open to challenging others and being challenged.
2. Attachment theory
“[T]he quality of relationships in the early years affects gene expression, psychosocial development, and brain growth and organization” (Howe, 2013b, p. 417).
Attachment theory suggests that because of babies’ reliance on stronger and wiser adults, they have several ‘programmed’ behaviors (known as attachment behaviors) that kick in when hungry, scared, or unwell. According to attachment theory, the goal of crying, eye contact, clinging, and smiling is to get and stay close to the caregiver.
When caregivers lack mental attunement, children develop additional behavioral and adaptive strategies and lack emotional regulation. Such habits can negatively affect psychosocial development, leading to behavioral and mental health problems in later life (Howe, 2013b).
Attachment theory can help social workers focus their attention on early relationships, development, and behavior.
Behaviorists argue that our behavior originates in the environment, not the mind. According to this theory, when behavior is successful, it is reinforced, increasing its frequency and intensity. When it is unsuccessful, behavior becomes extinct.
For behaviorists, behavioral change comes from reinforcing the desired behavior. Under a behaviorist framework, social workers can reinforce the behaviors they are trying to encourage.
However, it is possible to reinforce the wrong behaviors. For example, increasing home visits for someone with agoraphobia could support their staying-at-home behavior. Not only that, social workers must also encourage the behavior they want, rather than punish the behavioral pattern they wish to stop (Jordan, 2013).
Behaviorism has been met with its challengers, not least because of ethical considerations. Indeed, behavioral modification techniques used with vulnerable populations can be inappropriate and risk doing more harm than good.
4. Motivational interviewing (MI)
“Change can be difficult for service users [i.e., clients] when they are ambivalent about the extent to which the change will be beneficial” (Teater, 2013b, p. 451).
Motivational theory is a goal-directed approach that identifies clients’ intrinsic motivation for change, overcomes their ambivalence, and moves them through the stages of change according to the Stages of Change model (Teater, 2013b).
Social workers should show a genuine interest in the service user’s perspectives, feelings, and experiences while listening for discrepancies between their current values, behavior, and future goals. Avoiding arguing for change, social workers deploying MI support self-efficacy, believing in the client’s ability to change.
MI is beneficial for working with clients that want or need to make behavioral changes to overcome difficulties or health problems, such as adopting a healthy lifestyle and stopping drinking.
5. Theories of empowerment
Rather than “seeking to rescue or control people who are in vulnerable or risky situations,” empowerment attempts to encourage “individuals, families, or groups to take power for themselves” (Tew, 2013, p. 439).
Empowerment theory aims to deploy power to open up opportunities and, together with others, take action to improve their situations, encouraging:
- Personal efficacy
Unlearning negative beliefs of powerlessness and gaining a sense of agency and influence.
- Empowering relationships
Emphasizing “the importance of cooperative relationships” to create opportunities for change and development (Tew, 2013 p. 440).
- Enabling social contexts
Identifying potential resources for support and forming connections across boundaries.
In time, it is possible for individuals, families, and groups to reclaim power and responsibilities for themselves.
Note that these theories are seldom used in isolation but contribute to the overall understanding of human situations, including environmental and psychological factors.
5 Useful Models of the Field
Practice models have proven valuable to social workers across the many settings they encounter, helping individuals and groups overcome their difficulties.
Models used include the following (Social Work License Map, n.d.):
1. Solution-Focused Therapy
“Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) aims to identify and build on service users’ strengths, abilities and solutions to problems in order to achieve their preferred future” (Teater, 2013c, p. 480).
Rather than focus on the problem itself, social workers adopting SFBT are interested in the exceptions; they explore why problems do not occur. In turn, social workers assume solution-oriented talk rather than problem-oriented talk and are aware that people typically have all they need to solve their problems.
Positive language and questioning strategies are crucial to using a client’s existing strengths and abilities to solve their own problems and reach their goals.
2. Task-centered model
“A task-centered social worker helps service users move from problems to goals” (Marsh, 2013, p. 492).
The shift takes the client’s attention from where things are going wrong in their life to what can make them better or even resolve them.
The social worker and service user agree on the set of tasks required to move from the problem to the goal, “based on expertise, need, and sometimes an element of expediency” (Marsh, 2013, p. 493). Tasks are essential elements of motivation, encourage reflection, and take place either within or outside sessions.
Because of its understandability, the approach works particularly well when services are combined with those of other professionals.
3. Narrative Therapy
“The practice of narrative therapy is primarily concerned with questioning the politics of identity making and who has the story telling right to the story being told in therapy” (Madigan, 2013, p. 455).
The practice externalizes the problem on the basis that the person is not the problem. The problem is the problem. It assumes that our lives and how we live them are mediated by how and if we tell our stories. The surrounding dominant culture can shape our lives and our stories, liberating or constraining us.
Narrative therapy recognizes that the stories we tell and hold onto about our lives determine the meaning we give them. Appropriate questioning can help people re-author their stories and relationships, contradicting the dominance of problem stories and generating new possible futures.
4. Crisis intervention model
“Some situations may present such a challenge that those affected are unable to draw on their usual coping mechanisms” and result in a crisis reaction (Skinner, 2013, p. 428).
The crisis intervention model uses a seven-stage approach (Skinner, 2013):
- Assess the imminent danger to the client.
- Establish rapport and build a collaborative relationship.
- Identify the major problems.
- Encourage exploration of emotions.
- Generate and explore alternative strategies.
- Implement an action plan.
- Plan follow-up contact.
The crisis intervention model comes with a risk that the social worker may unintentionally move toward a more authoritative role that disempowers the client.
5. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
“CBT seeks to modify and replace existing faulty or distorted thoughts, feelings and behaviors with more positive acceptable ones” that will resolve the problem presented (Teater, 2013a, p. 423).
Implementing CBT requires three phases:
- Assessment of clients’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the problem.
- Intervention based on the assessment, such as cognitive restructuring, relaxation, social skill training, and role-play.
- Evaluation to identify the changes that have taken place, including their frequency and intensity.
Social workers can apply CBT in individual or group settings where there is psychological distress or dysfunction.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
We have plenty of worksheets and tools that help improve communication and build stronger social relationships between people.
Check out some of the following to get you started:
- What is Working Within the Family
When working with families, it can be helpful to begin with a positive focus on that family’s strengths. This activity helps family members identify and share what they feel goes well within the family or household as a means to celebrate and build on successes.
- Anger Exit and Re-Entry Routines
Social workers often face anger and conflict in family situations. This worksheet helps clients recognize when best to disengage from conflict or difficult conversations, cool down, and re-engage later to facilitate greater insight and joint problem-solving.
- The Win–Win Waltz Worksheet
Finding a way to address the concerns of more than one party can be a difficult balance and requires empathy and a good understanding of their underlying concerns. This worksheet can help two people arrive at a win-win outcome by exploring each person’s concerns and co-creating possible solutions.
- Preventing Relapse
Social work can often involve supporting those with addictions or substance abuse issues. This three-step worksheet helps clients create a plan to support addiction or substance abuse recovery with the aim of preventing relapse.
- Social Problem Solving: Step by Step
When working with clients on interpersonal or group challenges, it can be helpful to follow a framework. This worksheet presents a streamlined template to help clients define a social problem, generate possible courses of action, and evaluate the effectiveness of an implemented solution.
- 17 Positive Psychology Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Lived experience, environmental factors, and healthy relationships are crucial to our mental health, capacity for growth, and ability to make positive changes.
Social workers can better understand this complex interplay and help individuals, families, or groups through a thorough grounding in psychology and sociology (Bland et al., 2021).
While there are multiple theories and models available to social workers, the lack of consensus regarding which is the most appropriate is unsurprising (Davies, 2013).
The human mind, the relationships we form (good and bad), and the social contexts we find ourselves in are limitless. It would be unlikely that one model could solve the problems encountered in every context.
Instead, each theory and model forms part of a toolkit for the informed social worker to draw on and utilize for the service user.
Social workers have the potential to make significant differences in people’s lives but must make tough decisions regarding their work while balancing the ethics of being both a supporter and an agent of social change (Bland et al., 2021).
This article introduces several of the theories and models used within social work and points toward further study for students or practicing social workers.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Bland, R., Drake, G., & Drayton, J. (2021). Social work practice in mental health: An introduction (3rd ed.). Routledge.
- Burke, B. (2013). Anti-oppressive practice. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 415–416). Wiley Blackwell.
- Cree, V. (2013). Social work and society. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 4–18). Wiley Blackwell.
- Davies, M. (2013). The Blackwell companion to social work. Wiley Blackwell.
- Glicken, M. D. (2011). Social work in the 21st century: An introduction to social welfare, social issues, and the profession. Sage.
- Howe, D. (2013a). Relating theory to practice. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 399–406). Wiley Blackwell.
- Howe, D. (2013b). Attachment theory. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 417–419). Wiley Blackwell.
- Jordan, R. (2013). Behaviorism. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 399–406). Wiley Blackwell.
- Madigan, S.(2013). Narrative therapy. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 455–458). Wiley Blackwell.
- Marsh, P. (2013). Task-centered practice. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 492–495). Wiley Blackwell.
- Ruth, B. J., & Marshall, J. W. (2017). A history of social work in public health. American Journal of Public Health, 107(S3).
- Skinner, J. (2013). Crisis theory. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 428–431). Wiley Blackwell.
- Teater, B. (2013a). Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 423–427). Wiley Blackwell.
- Teater, B. (2013b). Motivational interviewing (MI). In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 451-454). Wiley Blackwell.
- Teater, B. (2013c). Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT). In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 480–483). Wiley Blackwell.
- Tew, J. (2013). Theories of empowerment. In M. Davies (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to social work (4th ed.) (pp. 439–442). Wiley Blackwell.
- Social Work License Map. (n.d.). Theories & practice models used in social work. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-resources/theories-and-practice-models/