5 Social Work Theories That Inform Practice

Female social worker in professional dress advises a female client wearing casual attire.

Learning the theories behind psychological practices can be a valuable tool for any social worker. Understanding why people act the way they do can be a step toward helping them break bad habits and exhibit behavior that helps them succeed in life.

Popular Social Work Theories

Social workers should familiarize themselves with five different psychological theories that play a role in social work practice.

Psychosocial Theory

Posited by Erik Erikson in 1959, psychosocial theory draws on and is influenced by the earlier work of Sigmund Freud. However, psychosocial theory focuses on the ways that individuals are shaped by and react to their social environment.

According to Erikson’s theory, individuals’ sense of self grows and evolves as they come into contact with a number of social crises throughout their life, each of which forces the individual to react and adapt. These social crises include trust versus mistrust, which occurs in infancy and informs how an individual trusts; industry versus inferiority, which informs qualities like work ethic, competency and self-worth; and intimacy versus isolation, which provides the basis for love.

Each of Erikson’s social crises inform how individuals see themselves, how they react to the world and people around them, and what skills they develop in life. Taken together, these crises form a “maturation timetable” that social workers can use to inform how they treat clients, what services they provide and in what ways a particular client differs from what’s expected.

Psychodynamic Theory

Started by Freud and continued in the work of Erikson and others, psychodynamic theory seeks to understand the reasons why people behave the way they behave. Unlike behavioral psychology, which uses scientific methods to determine causal relationships between people’s behavior and their environment, psychodynamic theory focuses on the individual’s inner world, which is divided into the id, the ego and the superego.

In psychodynamic theory, the id comprises the primal drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain; the superego consists of societal expectations, social mores and conscience; and the ego tries to find realistic ways to seek pleasure and avoid pain, balancing the two. The unconscious mind (the id and the superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious mind (the ego), and this creates anxiety and causes an individual to adopt defense mechanisms to better deal with the stress of inner conflict.

For social workers, it’s important to remember that this conflict does exist, and that nobody exhibits behavior without a reason. Finding that reason can help a social worker better assess the needs of  situations and clients, providing them with the services they require.

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Transpersonal Theory

Although it’s not fully recognized as a scientific field of study, transpersonal theory and its emphasis on healing and aspiration can make it useful in a social worker’s toolkit. Pioneered by Carl Jung, transpersonal theory “uses positive influences, rather than the diseased human psyche and our defenses, as a model for the realization of human potential,” GoodTherapy says. That is, the theory uses saints, artists, heroes and other similar figures — people who have strong ego identities that others can strive to emulate — as aspirational examples.

Transpersonal theory is a study of human development, and its goal is to help people develop stronger ego identities as they grow older, becoming more like the saints and heroes they aspire to be. The theory is spiritual as well as psychological and, though it lacks the credibility of other fields of psychology, it can be a useful way to help a client overcome adversity and develop good habits.

Social Learning Theory (Social Cognitive Theory)

In social learning theory, Albert Bandura builds upon B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theories. Behavioral psychology focuses on the effect of the environment and reinforcement on behavior, but Bandura adds two important distinctions: that mediating processes happen between stimulus and response, and that individuals can learn behavior through observation.

Social learning theory puts forth the idea that people often model behavior that they observe in their environment, particularly when they observe that behavior in those similar to themselves and when that behavior is reinforced in others. For example, a young boy observing behaviors in his father that are rewarded by society — earning a living, displaying little emotion, fixing things with his hands — is likely to emulate those behaviors. If those behaviors are then rewarded, they become reinforced and the individual is more likely to repeat them.

This, of course, can happen with problematic behaviors as well. An individual who observes a model treating others badly and being rewarded for it may follow the same path. Social workers can use social learning theory to discern the person a client might be using as a behavioral model and use that information to help correct destructive behavior.

Systems Theory

Systems theory states that behavior is influenced by a variety of factors that work together as a system. A person’s parents, friends, school, economic class, home environment and other factors all influence how a person thinks and acts. Seeking to help correct missing or ineffective parts of that system can have a positive impact on behavior. The reverse, of course, is also true.

In one case study, a client was engaging in risky behaviors such as drug abuse and unprotected sex. Upon examining her environment, it was found that she hadn’t had contact with her father for five years, and some of her only memories of him were of drug abuse and arguing with her mother. This led the client to self-medicate with drugs when things went poorly and also provided a poor social model for relationships and little emotional support.

In systems theory, a social worker must observe and analyze all of the systems that contribute to an individual’s behavior and welfare, and work to strengthen those systems. This may take the form of providing positive role models, therapy or other services to help create a more supportive system for the individual.

How to Become a Social Worker

Campbellsville University offers online social work degrees that teach students the skills they need to excel as social workers. Coursework for the Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work includes psychological theories, knowledge of human rights and diversity, research methods, community development, grant writing and field work. Learn in a dynamic and engaging online environment that allows you to advance your career on your schedule.