6 Important Theories Social Workers Need to Know

 A smiling social worker conducts a home visit
A smiling social worker conducts a home visit

In the late 1800s, advocates for reform and social justice began to shine a light on important issues: infant mortality, factory working conditions, poor housing and sanitation conditions, child labor and truancy. By World War I, these early social workers recognized the need to address these unique problems. Their work further expanded to treat victims of abuse and those affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis. 

As a result of this important work, cultural attitudes about poverty and adversity changed and society evolved to recognize the impact of a person’s environment on their physical and mental health. With this shift came a focus on determining the impact of human behavior in the social environment and the development of effective and consistent theories in social work. A study of these theories is essential to those who become social work practitioners by earning a degree in social work.

How the Study of Human Behavior in the Social Environment (HBSE) Impacts Social Work

Human behavior in the social environment (HBSE) is a broad area of study comprising multiple fields of medicine and foundational aspects of social work. Its goal is to understand what contributes to characteristics of and variations in human behavior, the levels and systems of social environment and how these two concepts connect and influence each other. 

When designing a plan of treatment for each client, social workers consider many HBSE issues, from their personality, interactional style and family life to physical and work-related challenges. They also refer to psychological developmental theories to establish patterns of behavior as people age and move from one social environment to another. Other issues that inform treatment choices are as varied as client access to green space, housing and healthcare legislation and evidence of discrimination and prejudice. 

6 Theories in Social Work

By using HBSE to assess the needs of each client, social workers can select the most appropriate theory in social work to create an effective and personalized plan of treatment. Here are six tested theories social workers often choose.

Conflict Theory

According to the conflict theory of social work, economic, social or political groups inevitably compete for resources and control. This conflict will occur whenever there is a disparity of wealth and power, frequently resulting in repression or marginalization. Social workers use this theory when working with groups to establish goals for reducing tension and animosity. 

Family Systems Theory

An advocate and practitioner of family therapy in the mid-1950s, Dr. Murray Bowen believed that grown people are products of family interactions during their youth. As an emotional unit, Brown said, the family is an integral part of human development. Social workers in many public and private sector human services positions use this social work theory to determine how early development and the emotions of a family system affect the way a current client responds to family, work and societal systems. 

Psychodynamic Theory

Sigmund Freud originated the psychodynamic theory, suggesting that both the conscious and the unconscious minds affect the way all humans act and feel. By offering clients a view of their internal conflicts, social workers provide strategies to find, confront and resolve troubling personal and interpersonal issues.

Psychosocial Theory

Developed by Erik Erikson, the psychosocial theory of social work describes eight stages of life through which every individual must pass. As people mature, they should experience each of these developmental steps that target a specific outcome:

  1. Infancy: Hope
  2. Toddler: Will
  3. Preschool: Purpose
  4. Elementary school: Confidence
  5. Middle and high school: Fidelity
  6. Young adult: Love
  7. Middle Age: Care
  8. Older Adult: Wisdom

This developmental timeline specifies how healthy individuals should mature over time, a resource that social workers use as reference points when treating clients.

Social Exchange Theory

The social exchange theory of social work, first developed by American sociologists George C. Homans and Peter Blau, views relationships as a kind of cost-benefit issue. In this theoretical discussion, the success or failure of human relationships is determined using economic principles in which the people involved want to maximize their investment or profit and minimize their risk or cost. Social workers use social exchange theory to help their clients understand why some relationships, either personal or professional, survive while others fail. 

Social Learning Theory

When working with clients who exhibit destructive behaviors, social workers often begin with social learning theory. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s theory is that children’s behavior is learned by observation. When they see an adult abusing a spouse or child, they are likely to emulate that behavior as they develop. If kind and respectful behavior is modeled by their caregivers, children grow up to be kind and respectful. Even a client’s simple observations of social worker self-care and interactions with co-workers can lead to positive social learning.

The client’s goal when using this theory is to change behaviors by paying attention to behaviors and their consequences, retaining the memories of these observations and reproducing the acceptable behavior whenever an occasion arises.

Become an Agent of Change in the Face of Human Challenges

In the field of social work, the study of HBSE and knowledge of social work theories drive professional decisions regarding appropriate treatments for many personal and social concerns. By understanding how humans and their environments are interrelated, social workers can identify the challenges clients face and discover what may be the source of each problem. Then, pulling from the list of well-respected treatment theories, they formulate a plan of action that can support those experiencing social and economic injustices and discrimination.

To learn more about the rewarding and challenging world of social work, explore the Online Bachelor of Social Work degree offered by Spring Arbor University. Find out how you can have a meaningful impact on the lives of others. 

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