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Theories Used in Social Work

Reviewed By Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Social workers are employed throughout a variety of settings and guide people from all walks of life. Regardless of their context, social workers can leverage some core theories and practice models to help clients throughout the industry.

Each of the social work theories we outline below apply to micro, mezzo, and macro practice spheres; in other words, social work professionals working with individuals, groups, or entire systems can apply these theories to their practice. Additionally, many of these theories are rooted in psychological and sociological research. This guide introduces some of the most common theories and models practiced in the field.

Common Theories and Practice Models in Social Work

In many ways, social work is a science. Social workers can guide their clients, but they don't carry out their practice based on their own opinion and/or style. Instead, social workers study specific clinical theories that are grounded in research to inform how they implement clinical practice in a methodological manner. In fact, clinical social workers need to obtain both a bachelor's and master's degree in order to fully understand these theories and master therapeutic practice models.

At its core, social work focuses on "person-in-environment" (PIE) theory. This considers clients within their psychosocial contexts, and it connects to micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice. This guide explores how each theory and practice model functions within the PIE theory.

Social workers learn about these theories during their education. You can learn more about these academic programs with these resources: a guide to social work bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and online master's degrees.

Why is Theory Important in Social Work?

As any social work professor can tell you, understanding clinical theories are an essential part of a social worker's job. It allows social workers to explore certain origins of behavior with evidence-based approaches. Social workers also lean on these theories and practices to address client problems with research to back up their practice. This is especially important, as social workers need to avoid personal assumptions or biases from interfering with effective treatment plans.

Learning about these theories can also help social workers implement effective solutions rather than grasping at straws. If a certain therapeutic approach does not work, social workers can examine the reasons and use what they've learned to try a different approach.

Common Social Work Theories

Social workers can incorporate components of several different clinical theories in their work with clients. Some popular approaches for social workers include theories of systems, social learning, psychosocial development, psychodynamic, transpersonal, and rational choice.

Many of these theories have been developed within the past century, and several draw upon Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis. Some of these theories encompass a broad outlook (such as systems theory), while others focus on specific conflicts (like psychosocial theory). Not every social worker uses every theory, while some social workers might use elements of each one. You can read more information about the most common social work theories below.

Systems Theory

Systems theory assumes that human behavior is the result of a larger system comprised of several elements, including the relationships between these elements, as well as external factors like their environment. These factors could involve a person's family, peers, school, work, or community. Sociologists have identified many different types of systems, including microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and macrosystems.

Social work professionals examine how the systems in which their clients live affect their behaviors. For instance, living in a system of poverty can have a significant impact on how a person makes decisions. Social workers can devise strategies based on these systems in order to provide a more concise treatment plan for their client.

Social Learning Theory

Developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, social learning theory accounts for how the behavior of other people can affect somebody's behavior. Bandura argued that individuals pick up behaviors by observing and imitating the people around them. Unlike behavioral theories, social learning theory proposes that people actively and mentally process other people's behaviors before imitating them.

Social workers may take into account social learning theory when working with children who take on aggressive or violent behaviors, for example. The children may mimic their parents or other significant adults in their lives. When social workers are able to identify the origin of a child's behaviors, they are able to effectively create a treatment approach.

Psychosocial Development Theory

Influenced by the seminal work of Freud, psychologist Erik Erikson proposes several stages of development relating to a person's ego identity, personal identity, and social and cultural identity. Erikson's theory argues that humans struggle with specific conflicts throughout different stages of their life. Those conflicts include:

  • Trust vs. mistrust in infancy
  • Autonomy vs. shame and doubt in early childhood
  • Initiative vs. guilt in preschool age
  • Industry vs. inferiority in school age
  • Identity vs. role confusion in adolescence
  • Intimacy vs. isolation in young adulthood
  • Generativity vs. stagnation in middle adulthood
  • Ego integrity vs. despair in maturity

Erikson's theory suggests that if humans effectively navigate these tensions at each stage of their life, they can develop a healthy ego. Social workers may consider these conflicts when working with their clients. It is important to note that each stage correlates with an emotional stage which could also be in conflict with a developmental stage.

Psychodynamic Theory

Introduced by Freud at the turn of the 20th century -- and popularized by Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and Anna Freud -- psychodynamic theory argues that our personalities develop because of various internal forces. Freud wrote that our personalities are largely shaped during our early childhood, and our personality consists of three main parts: id (impulse), ego (decision-making), and superego (conscience). Psychodynamic theory also prioritizes a person's unconscious thought process as the root of their behaviors.

Social workers may use psychodynamic theory to help clients examine the underlying causes of certain behaviors -- often considering the clients' childhood -- to help explain why they act a certain way. Social workers may offer different types of therapies based on psychodynamic theory, including transference and dream analysis.

Transpersonal Theory

Transpersonal theory approaches humans with a holistic philosophy, and considers factors like spirituality, the relationship between the body and the mind, and consciousness. Psychologists generally do not consider transpersonal theory to be scientific, but many therapists or mental health professionals integrate elements of transpersonal theory into their practice. They might use meditation, mindfulness practices, or hypnotherapy on their patients.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory argues that people make decisions and carry out behaviors based on their own rational thought processes, especially if those decisions ultimately benefit the individual. This theory directly opposes some other clinical theories that suggest people make decisions on unconscious thought processes.

Although rational choice theory is often found within economic theory, social workers can also apply these principles to their job. To understand why clients make certain decisions, social workers can examine how those clients believed their choices would benefit them. Social workers also can develop solutions and suggest resources to assist clients with achieving their goals.

Common Practice Models in Social Work

While social workers integrate various clinical theories into their practice, they can also implement specific therapeutic models. The theories above may explain the causes of a person's struggles; however, practice models allow social workers to carry out specific approaches to treat those struggles.

The section below outlines some of the most common practice models, including cognitive behavioral therapy, crisis intervention model, narrative therapy, problem-solving model, solution-focused therapy, and task-centered therapy. Some of these methods overlap or share characteristics with each other, but each serves a purpose for specific clients and circumstances.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) identifies unhealthy patterns of thinking and attempts to rewrite these patterns.

People often convince themselves that their frequently distorted thoughts are true. CBT forces individuals to question and confront these distortions. For instance, somebody might find themselves in fear of social situations, because they imagine a worst-case scenario that they will humiliate themselves. CBT pushes that person to examine these assumptions and instead consider new scenarios and outlooks.

People who struggle with anxiety and depression often find CBT helpful, and many clinical social workers incorporate CBT into their therapeutic practice.

Crisis Intervention Model

Crisis intervention model is much what it sounds like: in times of acute psychological strain or distress, social workers and mental health professionals intervene before that crisis turns into harm. Albert Roberts and Allen Ottens propose seven steps to crisis intervention. These include conducting a safety assessment, establishing psychological contact, identifying the major problems, helping the patient explore their feelings, looking for new coping mechanisms, creating an action plan, and planning follow-ups.

Social workers can use the crisis intervention model for clients suffering from major trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, or suicidal thoughts, among others. This model of crisis intervention works in a voluntary manner, which means that clients must be open to the process.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy is based on the theory that individuals turn their personal experiences into stories. In other words, they create narratives of their own lives. This type of therapy relies on four major principles: "objective truth" does not exist; reality is a social construct; language can influence how we view reality; and narratives help us organize our personal realities.

Narrative therapy encourages clients to distance themselves from their personal experiences by taking on the role of a narrator and rewriting the script. This can help them change harmful and disruptive thinking patterns, especially those shaped by trauma.

Problem-Solving Model

Helen Harris Perlman proposed the problem-solving model in the 1950s specifically for the field of social work. At the time, many social work theories and therapies relied on psychotherapy; Perlman instead argued that social workers could more effectively help clients by focusing on one problem at a time.

Focusing on smaller problems allows clients to develop and follow through with action plans to confront those issues in a manageable way. This method -- also called "partializing" -- would make therapies more manageable for social workers and clients alike, and professionals still use Perlman's proposals.

Solution-Focused Therapy

Solution-focused therapy, or solution focused brief therapy, concentrates on an individual's present and future situations. This therapy involves a departure from psychodynamic-influenced theories that focus on a person's past and childhood.

Solution-focused therapy proposes immediate, manageable solutions that allow patients to better cope with their problems. A mental health professional or social worker employing this type of therapy might challenge a client to imagine their future life without their problem, or they might help individuals recognize and better harness copy mechanisms that they already use. Social workers might implement solution-focused therapy for adolescents with behavioral problems or families with conflicts, to name a couple of examples.

Task-Centered Practice

Task-centered practice shares many principles with the problem-solving model and solution-focused therapy, but it tends to follow an even more focused and quick approach. Task-centered practice usually only lasts 8-12 sessions, and clients concentrate on achieving measurable goals. Clients and social workers create action plans with specific tasks, and then clients carry out those tasks.

Social workers can integrate this type of therapy into many different types of settings. They might work with students with disruptive behavioral issues, soon-to-be-discharged hospital patients, or older clients at nursing homes.


Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Melissa Russiano is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty working with helping professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Additionally, Russiano is a professor imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to future social workers in a graduate program through Simmons University online.