Social Work Theories, Models and Methods


A social work theory attempts to explain why a problem exists, and a practice model attempts to provide a method for solving the problem. The four major theories are systems theory, psychodynamic theory, social learning theory and conflict theory. Each suggests a different set of causes for a problem and leads logically to a different prescription for its solution. Let's consider how each theory might explain why a client is having a hard time in the workplace.

Systems Theory

  • Systems theory grew from study of biology and ecology, and attempts to analyze and understand social problems through the lens of an individual's place in an interconnected society. It is believed that to comprehend an individual's issues, it's important to understand her role in and interactions with the established order. Systems theory might suggest that a struggling employee ended up in a role she is ill-suited for due to economic and societal pressure and is experiencing stress due to a poor fit. Systems theory can be helpful in assessing a client's stressors and support networks.

Psychodynamic Theory

  • Psychodynamic theory examines the emotional and internal forces that shape human behavior. Both conscious emotions and subconscious forces are thought to play a part in why we do what we do. Psychodynamic theory has roots in the Freudian concepts of the id, eg, and superego, and the interactions between the three. Psychodynamic theorists attach a great deal of importance to early childhood experiences and their effects on the development of personality. A psychodynamic analysis of that same troubled employee might reveal that her immediate supervisor has a voice similar to her father's, stirring difficult memories.

Social Learning Theory

  • Social learning theory seeks to understand human behavior in the context of how we learn from observing and interacting with the others around us. Children and adults observe, copy and model the behavior they see, learning from their observations of others' actions and the results they see others getting. According to the theory's originator, Albert Bandura, the degree to which such modeling takes place depends on attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

    Social learning theory is related to behaviorism, but with a twist: It's not just that environment affects behavior, but also that behavior affects the environment. Social learning theory might suggest that the troubled employee watched a parent get his own way through whining or bullying and learned those behaviors.

Conflict Theory

  • To a conflict theorist, human behavior can be explained in terms of competition between groups that have unequal power. The best-known conflict theorist was Karl Marx. The struggle for control over limited resources is believed to explain crime, poverty, unequal education and the oppression of women, among other aspects of social structure and human behavior. A conflict theorist would say that the troubled employee was experiencing the inevitable effects of her oppressed status within the power structure.


  • Photo Credit Lisa F. Young/iStock/Getty Images
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