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Theory construction in social work as a discipline and profession grows out of (1) a theory of the individual and society and the interaction between them; (2) policy/action guidelines for changing problematic situations; and (3) clients, professionals, social services, social movements, etc. committed to carry this change through with the help of specific science-based methods.
An internationally consensual definition of social work is as follows: The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilizing theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work” (supplement, International Journal of Social Work, 2007, p. 5).
After the first period of theory-building, psycho-dynamic concepts became the base for many practice concepts, first drawing from psychoanalytic theory. Notions of a sustaining relationship and techniques to reduce anxiety, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence were developed, adding procedures to work with the social environment. The role of the social worker is an interpreter of feelings, promoter of insights, helping to develop a realistic, anxiety-free, perspective of his or her situation and adapting to it.
- Behavioral theories derive from the work of experimental behavioral psychologists which criticized the untestable conceptions of psychoanalytic theory. Clients are coping with frustration and aggression in different role settings. The main goal is adequate role behavior as parent, pupil, employee etc., by techniques of classical conditioning and social learning.
- Cognitive theories work on the assumption that people construct their own versions of reality and problems. There can be thus conflicts between self-conceptions, perceiving self through others, and intentional self. The task is to confront the client with inconsistencies and to support strategies of rational problem solving, sustained by a diary and tasks (i.e. homework).
- Task-centered social work seeks to replace psychodynamic social work based on a time-consuming” supportive relationship with a short-term therapy” that has a clear time limit and starts with a contract. Central is what the client presents or accepts as problems and what he or she wants to change.
Theories and methods of interaction or networks between individuals are mostly focused on communication patterns, i.e. in relation to stigmatizing and scapegoating, within people-processing organizations.”
An approach in family treatment is transaction analysis, focusing on the ego states of persons (as child, parent, adult) interacting with those in other persons. When transactions involve different ego states, problems and misunderstandings arise. The social worker has to change communication patterns which make the other feel bad, incompetent, powerless, i.e. by reframing, family sculpting, role-playing, videotaping, or homework.
Social work with groups bases its interventions on the structure and dynamics of groups. The role of the social worker can be task oriented, supportive/ therapeutic, or community-action oriented. He or she might construct supportive networks or organizations in a community, e.g. for the development of new jobs for minority members who have no chance of getting a job in the mainstream economy.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, neo-Marxist radical social work” developed. It was accompanied by a radical critique of the social welfare system being a servant of the ruling, capitalist class. The general hypothesis was that service users would act rationally in their own interests once they understood that the true origins of their problems lay in exploitative and oppressive capitalistic structures. Structural theory” extended the approach to all forms of overlapping and mutually reinforcing injustices in relation to class, gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, and religious and ethnic minority status. The role of social work was seen as: (1) transforming private troubles into public issues and (2) introducing human rights/social justice in the code of ethics and practice and promoting social change.
The Ecosystems perspective of Germain/Gitterman (1996) focuses on the poor fit of transactions between individuals and social systems. The main principles are partnership based on reciprocity, assessment of life stressors in passing from one system to another (family to school, school to work), and discussing with the client an ecomap” as a pictorial representation of micro, meso, and macro systems in concentric circles and their resources. The goals are reinclusion or the management of the excluded.
The systemic paradigm of social work sees systems theory as a chance for a unifying (meta)theoretical, transdisciplinary foundation of social work. The main focus is on understanding the structure and dynamics/transactions of and between biological, psychic, and social/cultural systems. Social work practitioners face individuals with needs, cognitions, wants, hopes, plans, learning and behavioral capacities who are involved in destructive interactions, discriminating and oppressive socio-cultural systems, from the family to world society.
Social work works with science-based methods for the well-being of individuals, families etc. and the social reform/change of social systems, relying on human rights, especially social justice, as regulative ideas.
- Germain, C. & Gitterman, A. (1996) The Life Model of Social Work Practice: Advances in Theory and Practice, 2nd edn. Columbia University Press, New York.
- Staub-Bernasconi, S. (1991) Social action, empowerment, and social work: an integrative theoretical frame of reference for social work. Journal of Community and Clinical Practice 14 (3/4): 35-51.