5 Social Work Theories to Understand Before You Graduate


Social work involves a holistic evidence-driven practice that takes into consideration the individual and his or her environment.

Social Work theories and Why They Are Important in the Profession

One of the profession’s essential practices is the ability to understand human behaviour.

Therefore, knowledge of social work theories and practice helps social workers to a more informed approach, ensuring effectiveness in client interactions.

Also, the international definition of social work clarifies that social work is buttressed by a wide range of theory, and should underpin every aspect of social work practice.

In addition, in relation to social work practice, the HCPC Standards of Proficiency require social worker to understand social theory, models and interventions.

So, what is a theory in social work?

social work theories

Theory is something social workers use each day in practice, and it has a clear link to what works or real-life scenarios.

A social work theory explains “what is happening and why”.

Beckett (2006) has categorised theory into formal and informal.

Example of an informal theory

  • practice wisdom
  • common knowledge
  • professional views.

Example of formal theory

What is a social work model?

social work theories and models

Models help social workers to plan how to intervene and influence change.

Unlike theories, a model doesn’t tell us what is happening or why a scenario happened.

There are social work models for understanding people’s situations such as the Recovery Model, Attachment Theory and the PCS Model.

In this post, we share a set of social work theories and practice models.

Keep reading to discover the various theories used in the practice of social work.

1. Systems Theory

Systems theory refers to an interdisciplinary study of systems, explaining how the systems relate to one another within a larger and complex system.

Ideally, the key concept of systems theory is that the whole is greater than its elements. This notion holds regardless of the discipline where systems theory is applied.

Applied in the practice of social work, systems theory refers to the practice that enables social workers to look holistically at client’s conditions and environmental factors, in order to gain a better understanding of why the individual is facing issues or hardships.

Ideally, understanding the human’s behaviour as it relates to the factors within their life can be overwhelming.

However, the systems theory enables the social workers to put together the puzzle pieces that have influenced the greater picture of their client’s behaviour and choices.

2. Psychosocial Theory

Developed by Erik Erikson, psychosocial theory concerns the interrelation between individual subjectivities and identities, along with historical and contemporary social and political formations.

According to Erikson, the personality is developed in stages.

The theory explains how social interactions and relationships play a role in the development and growth of human beings.

Therefore, each stage builds on the preceding stage and paves way for the following periods of development.

Therefore, the conflicts in different development stages are centred on developing a psychological quality or failing to develop quality.

At the different stages, the potential for personal growth is high, and likewise is the potential for failure.

Therefore, if the individual dealing with the conflict in each stage successfully, he emerges from the stage with psychological strengths that serve him well for life.

social work theories and methods

3. Psychodynamic theory

Developed by Sigmund Freud, the psychodynamic theory includes the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person.

According to the theory, the unconscious mind comprises the mental processes inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgment, feelings, or behaviour.

4. Social Exchange Theory

Defined by George Homans, an American Sociologist, the social exchange theory is a concept based on the notion that a relationship between two people is created through a process of cost-benefit analysis.

Therefore, the measurements of the pluses and the minuses of a relationship may produce data that can determine if someone is putting too much effort into a relationship.

The social exchange theory is based on the assumption that individuals seek rewards and avoid punishments.

Another assumption is that individuals begin an interaction to gain maximum profit at a minimal cost.

5. Rational Choice Theory

The theory explains why we make the choices that we do.

According to the rational choice theory, all choices are rational because we calculate the costs and benefits before reaching the decision.

The theory helps social workers to understand the decision-making process, and the motivations of humans.

Why Are theories Important in Social Work?

social work theories and methods

We have covered the five important theories in social work.

So, why are these theories important in the practice of social work?

Here are some reasons why the theories are so important in the practice of social work.

1. They Provide a Basis of Understanding Individuals’ Mind and Behaviour

The theories of social work provide a framework for understanding human behaviour, thoughts along development.

As illustrated above, each theory provides a contest for understanding various aspects of human behaviour.

2. They Inspire Social Workers into Future Research

The theories of social work motivate us as social workers to keep researching to understand human behaviour.

As we make new discoveries, we incorporate them into the respective theory.

3. They Help the Social Workers To Adapt and Evolve

Following continued research, the theories of social work are dynamic and always changing.

Therefore, as new discoveries are made, the existing theory is modified and adapted to account for additional information.

How is Systems Theory Applied in Social Work?

social work theories chart

The systems theory in social work enables the social workers to look at the client’s conditions and the environmental factors, helping him to gain a better understanding of why they face the issues or the hardships they are facing.

Ideally, evaluating the individual’s behaviour as it relates to various factors within his life can be a complicated process.

However, through social systems theory, social workers can put different factors within the life of an individual to gain a bigger picture of why the individual makes the choices they do.

The systems theory seeks to explain and develop hypotheses around characteristics that arise within complex systems that seemingly could not arise in any single system within the whole.

Therefore, systems theory provides a powerful approach for describing homeostatic systems.

The homeostatic systems are the systems in which the feedback-controlled regulation processes occur. Ideally, such processes regulate the human goal.

What is Attachment Theory in Social Work?

The attachment theory is a familiar concept to the social workers who work with children.

The attachment provides a model for understanding how past experiences of care influence the child’s strategies for gaining protection and comfort.


At first glance, the attachment theory provides a simple psychologically appealing way to understand the intense nature of relationships between parents and children.

However, attachment strategies as defined under the attachment theory continue across the whole course of a person’s life.

Therefore, through the strategies defined under the theory of attachment, social workers can make assessments and plans that are more likely to help the individual make changes and access support.

What is Conflict Theory in Social Work?

The conflict theory helps in explaining how the power structures and the power disparities impact the lives of people.

According to the conflict theory, in every society power is divided unequally.

Therefore, all societies perpetuate various forms of oppression and injustice through structural inequality.

In that regard, groups and individuals advance their own interests over the interests of others.

Further, the dominant groups in society maintain the social order through manipulation and control.

However, social change occurs through a conflict that interrupts the periods of stability.

According to conflict theory, life is characterised by conflict instead of consensus.

What are the three Levels of social Work Intervention?

social work theories and models

Because of the complexities of social work, professions are sometimes required to engage in social work practice at three different levels.

The three levels of social work intervention are Micro, Mezzo, and Macro.

Here is a brief overview of each of the three levels of social work intervention.

Micro Social Work

Ideally, the micro-level of social work practice is the most common type of social work practice.

In micro social work, the social worker engages with the individuals and families to help in solving intrapersonal and interpersonal issues.

Examples of micro-social work include working at counselling stations, hospitals, and other social service agencies where the professions help their clients to find access to social services.

Mezzo Social Work

This is a level of social work, dealing with small and medium-sized groups.

These can include schools or local organisations.

A good example is women groups and other organisations at the community level.

The social workers at the mezzo level engage in micro and or macro-social work.

Macro Social Work

The macro-level of social work handles large and high-level societal systems.

Good examples include state-wide activist groups, and larger associations formed to advocate for policy change at the state level.

What are Social Work Best Practices?

8 Best Practices in Social Work

  • Collaborative working relationship with service users, clients or other professionals.
  • Stay committed.
  • Show empathy and respect.
  • Excellent report writing ability.
  • Communicate clearly.
  • Understand your role and responsibilities.
  • Reliability.
  • Form trusting relationships.
  • Seek clarity when unsure of what to do.
  • Work within the legal and policy framework.

Popular Social Work Theories

  • Psychosocial Theory.
  • Social Learning Theory.
  • Systems Theory.
  • Crisis Intervention.
  • Task Centred Practice.
  • Person Centred Theory.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Theory.
  • Group Work Theory.
  • Brief Solution-Focused Therapy.
  • Attachment Theory.
  • Empowerment Theory.
  • Karpman’s Drama Triangle
  • Eclecticism

Social work theories chart

social work theories chart



Social workers help relieve people suffering and in fighting social injustices in order to improve their lives.

For social workers to understand the ecosystem they work in, they need to relate to situations they handle every day to the various social work theories.

Through social work theories, the professions can understand human behaviour better, hence handle different situations accordingly.

Also remember that no single theory can explain everything and an eclectic approach is usually required.

A lot of theories may complement each other, but others may also clash.


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