6 Important Theories in Social Work (2022)

Social work theories attempt to describe, explain and predict social events based on scientific evidence, studies and research. Social work perspectives draw from psychology, philosophy, economics, education and other fields to attempt to explain what drives and motivates people at various stages of life.

Some social work students studying for abachelor’s degree in social workormaster of social workmay wonder, “Why is theory important in social work?” Social workers learn a variety of theories so they’re prepared to apply social work theory to practice. That ensures competence in social work, which can increase social worker confidence.

Why Is Theory Important in Social Work?

Social work theories help social workers analyze cases, understand clients, create interventions, predict intervention results and evaluate outcomes. While the theories are constantly evolving as new evidence is produced, referencing social work theories that have been used over time enables social workers to explore causes of behavior. They can then help their clients find the best solutions.

Learning about various social work theories helps remind social workers that their personal assumptions and beliefs should be suspended during social work practice. Social workers should use evidence-based theories to investigate issues and drive their practice, instead of applying their own attitudes, reactions and moods to client work.

Applying Social Work Theory to Practice

Social work theory provides a starting point for social workers to create interventions and plan their work. It gives social workers a way to address client problems through a research-based lens.

The theories help social workers better understand complex human behaviors and social environments, which influence their clients’ lives and problems. A good grasp of theory helps guide social workers by providing them with a sense of direction, purpose and control by using research-based scientific evidence in theory.

One challenge of applying social work theories to practice is choosing the right theory for the situation at hand. It can be difficult to assign a single theory to complex client issues. Often, it’s more practical to draw upon the knowledge of multiple theories and use that understanding to design multifaceted interventions.

List of Important Social Work Theories

The following list of social work theories includes some of the most widely referenced theories used in social work.

1. Social learning theory

Social learning theory, which is also known associal cognitive theory, was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura.This theory posits that learning occurs by observing others and modeling their behavior.

In order for social learning to occur, a person must want to emulate the person they’re watching. The individual pays close attention to the action and retains the action in memory. Then, the individual must experience a situation where the behavior can be repeated and must be motivated to repeat the behavior.

(Video) Social Work Theories and Approaches

Social learning theory relates to social work because social workers may want to understand how role models affect the behaviors and moods in those they work with. Social learning theory can also help social workers form intervention strategies that use positive modeling and reinforcement to create new positive behaviors in their clients.

2. Systems theory

Systems theoryproposes that people are products of complex systems, rather than individuals who act in isolation. In this theory, behavior is influenced by a variety of factors that work together as a system. These factors include family, friends, social settings, religious structure, economic class and home environment, which can all influence how individuals act and think.

Systems theory can be used to treat issueslike eating disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, school trauma and risky behavior. In ecological systems theory, individuals are observed in multiple environments so that behavior is fully understood. Family systems theory examines the family as a social system influencing behavior and thoughts.

Social workers using systems theory will work to understand how their clients are influenced by the systems they’re a part of. Social workers then identify where systemic breakdowns are affecting behavior.

3. Psychosocial development theory

Psychosocial development theorywas introduced by German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who believed personality develops in a series of stages. Erikson created aneight-stage theory of psychosocial development. According to the theory, the eight stages of development that people pass through in life are:

  1. Trust versus mistrust
  2. Autonomy versus shame and doubt
  3. Initiative versus guilt
  4. Industry versus inferiority
  5. Identity versus confusion
  6. Intimacy versus isolation
  7. Generativity versus stagnation
  8. Integrity versus despair

In psychosocial development theory, humans are believed to go through these stages as they age. Psychosocial development theory can influence social workers, who can look at what stage of development their clients are going through and use the theory to better understand the challenges their clients are experiencing during certain stages of psychosocial development.

4. Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theorywas introduced by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. This theory is founded on the idea that humans are biologically driven to seek gratification. The theory states that people do this based on processes that have developed outside of conscious awareness, with origins in childhood experiences. This drive influences everyday behavior, leading to actions like aggression, sex and self-preservation.

In social work,psychodynamic theory can help to explain the internal processesindividuals use to guide their behavior, some of which may be unconsciously motivated. Social workers may also examine how early childhood experiences have played a role in influencing their clients’ behavior today.

(Video) Social Work Theories 🤓

5. Social exchange theory

Social exchange theoryoriginates with Austrian sociologist George Homans. It says that relationships are based on cost-benefit analysis. Each person seeks to maximize their benefits and is expected to reciprocate for the benefits they’ve received. When risks outweigh potential rewards, relationships may be abandoned. When one person in a relationship has greater personal resources than another, that person is predicted to have greater power as well.

Social workers can use social exchange theory to understand the relationships their clients havewith others and why they continue to maintain certain relationships or abandon them.

Social exchange theory can also be applied to the techniques social workers use to connect with their clients. Social exchange theory can influence how social workers position the social worker-client relationship as one that benefits their clients.

6. Rational choice theory

Rational choice theoryhelps explain why people make the choices they do, as people weigh risks, costs and benefits before making decisions. This theory says that all choices are rational because people calculate the costs and benefits before making a decision. Even when a choice seems irrational, there was reasoning behind it.

This theory can help social workers understand the decision-making processes and motivations of their clients.Using rational choice theory, social workers can examine how their clients make decisionsbased on their rational preferences.

6 Practice Models in Social Work

Social work practice models are ways social workers can implement theories in their practice. Just like a social worker may use various theories to guide their interventions, social workers may also use various practice models depending on the problems their clients encounter.

1. Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapyfocuses on how thoughts and feelings influence behaviors, as well as how self-destructive behaviors can lead to psychological problems. Social workers using cognitive behavioral therapy methods help clients identify self-destructive thoughts and behaviors that influence negative emotions and behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used with individuals who are experiencing mental health issues, mental illness or depression resulting from crisis or trauma. Social workers using cognitive behavioral therapy help their clients eliminate destructive thoughts and behaviors and prevent negative outcomes from them.

2. Crisis intervention model

The crisis intervention model is used for clients who are experiencing crisis and trauma, such as victims of domestic violence, and for clients who require intervention to prevent physical harm or suicide. Albert R. Roberts, PhD, and Allen J. Ottens, PhD, developed aseven-stage crisis intervention modelwith the following stages:

  1. Take a psychosocial and lethality assessment.
  2. Rapidly establish rapport.
  3. Identify the major crisis cause(s).
  4. Enable the client to express their feelings and emotions.
  5. Generate and explore safe alternatives for coping.
  6. Create an action plan.
  7. Follow up after the intervention.
(Video) Social work theory, models, methods + approaches explained

This social work model is commonly used for clients who are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm or who have undergone an acute crisis, like rape or violence.

3. Narrative therapy

Narrative therapyis the process of removing an individual from their problem(s) and helping the individual to see that they have the power to change their life story, also known as the narrative. Narrative therapy helps individuals realize that they are not their problems, but that they’re separate from them and can fix them when they view the narrative from an outside perspective.

Using narrative therapy, a social worker would help an individual to create a new narrative with different positive actions. The social worker helps an individual understand how the broader context is contributing to their narrative, so they can be aware of things to avoid and ways to tackle their problems.

4. Problem-solving model

Theproblem-solving modelwas created by Helen Harris Perlman, a social worker and author of “Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process.” With the problem-solving model, a social worker helps an individual identify a problem, create an action plan to solve it and implement the solution. Together, the social worker and individual discuss the effectiveness of the problem-solving strategy and adjust it as necessary.

The problem-solving model enables the social worker and individual to focus on one concrete problem at a time. Perlman argued that this method is effective because long-term psychotherapy isn’t always necessary and can hinder an individual’s progress.

5. Solution-focused therapy

Solution-focused therapy involves the social worker and client identifying a problem and creating a solution based on the individual’s strengths. It’s a short-term practice model that focuses on helping clients to cope with challenges using specific behaviors. Instead of focusing on changing who a client is, solution-focused therapy concerns changing a client’s actions in certain situations to achieve more favorable outcomes.

In solution-focused therapy, the social worker and the client work together to devise solutions. This gives the client the opportunity to play an essential role in the positive changes they’re going to make and helps them to implement those changes since they had a role in suggesting them.

6. Task-centered practice

With task-centered practice, a social worker breaks down a problem into manageable tasks. The individual has deadlines to complete the tasks and agrees to meet them. Task-centered practice is a goal-setting form of social work that helps individuals make constant gains toward improving their lives.

Task-centered practice is a form of social work brief therapy, that provides time-limited treatments to move individuals closer to success as they complete tasks. Instead of focusing on the past, social workers using task-centered practice focus on the present and how the work individuals do on certain tasks will positively impact their future.

(Video) Theories in Social Work | Why is Theory Important in Social Work.

Resources to Explore Social Work Theories

Social work theories have been practiced over decades and continually evolve when new research is completed. Learn more about social work theories by exploring the resources below.


  • Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work:This journal features research on evidence-based practice in social work and evaluates social work theory, techniques and strategies.
  • Journal of Social Work Practice:This journal focuses on psychodynamic and systemic social work perspectives. It features research on theory and practice experience and includes articles offering critical analysis of systemic and psychodynamic theory.
  • Journal of Social Work:This journal includes social work research and shorter “think pieces” on social work theoretical understanding, policy and practice.
  • Social Work:This journal is the official journal of the National Association of Social Workers and features articles on social work and social welfare, including new techniques and research.
  • Clinical Social Work Journal:This journal features peer-reviewed articles on clinical social work practice with individuals, groups, families and couples. It also has articles on theory developments, practice and evidence-based clinical research.

Introductory books

Note: the links in this section on Social Work Theory all go to Google Books and are solely provided for your information. OnlineMSWPrograms.com does not receive any form of compensation for these links.

Other online resources

  • Theories of Social Work:This slideshow introduces social work theory, explains the use of social work theories in practice, covers social work theory limitations and briefly covers some specific social work theories.
  • NASW Clinical Social Work:This section of the National Association of Social Workers website covers clinical social work practice. It features content, publications and related resources for clinical social workers, like theNASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice.
  • Encyclopedia of Social Work:The Encyclopedia of Social Work by the National Association of Social Workers Press and Oxford University Press features tools for applying social work theory to practice. These resources include scholarly articles and bibliographies.
  • Social Work Today:This publication features articles on current social work trends in categories like behavioral health, addictions, children and family, aging and professional practice.
  • Social Work Helper:This website features articles and videos on various social work topics and the latest news in social work.

Science-Based Social Work Theory Helps Social Workers and Their Clients Succeed

Social work theory helps social workers ensure competence when creating interventions for clients. An understanding of the most prominent social work theories gives social workers the tools they need to provide evidence-based treatment and help their clients overcome their problems. As social work theories continue to evolve and emerge, social workers can apply their multifaceted knowledge to unique situations and clients.

(Video) Social Work Theory : an A to Z (Social Work Student Connect Webinar 52)

Want to learn more about social work or interested in becoming a social worker? See our articleWhat is Social Work?or our step-by-step guide tobecoming a social worker.

Published: February 2022


What are theories in social work? ›

Social work theories are general explanations that are supported by evidence obtained through the scientific method. A theory may explain human behavior, for example, by describing how humans interact or how humans react to certain stimuli. Social work practice models describe how social workers can implement theories.

What are the six methods of social work? ›

Social work has six methods of working with people (casework, group work, community organisation, social action, social welfare administration and social work research). These methods are the techniques of enabling the people for better social functioning.

How many theories are there in social work? ›

Social work employs six core theoretical frameworks: systems theory, transpersonal theory, psychosocial development theory; social learning theory, psychodynamic theory, and cognitive behavior theory. Each is described below.

What is the best theory to use in social work? ›

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is one of the best-known theories that provide a framework for social workers to understand human behavior. Attachment theory holds that babies have innate behaviors whose purpose is to ensure that caregivers meet their needs.

Why are theories important in social work? ›

The theories help social workers better understand complex human behaviors and social environments, which influence their clients' lives and problems. A good grasp of theory helps guide social workers by providing them with a sense of direction, purpose and control by using research-based scientific evidence in theory.

What are the 7 principles of social work? ›

The seven casework principles namely individualization, acceptance, self-determination, controlled emotional involvement, confidentiality, non-judgmental attitude and purposeful expression of feelings proposed by Felix Biestek is taken up to indigenize with Thirukural.

What are 5 methods of social work? ›

Methods of Social Work: Social work to become unique among helping professions developed distinct methods of practice. These methods are social casework, social group work, community organization, social welfare administration, and research. Social casework is the first social work method pioneered by Mary Richmond.

What are the 5 social work processes? ›

The primary sections of the social casework process are study, assessment, intervention, termination, and evaluation. They are the process threads that will be weaved together during the social casework process.

What are the 3 levels of social work intervention? ›

Currently, there are three widely recognized levels of social work practice: micro, mezzo (meso), and macro social work. Although these levels are often spoke of as if they are distinct, it is important to recognize that these 'different levels' occur in tandem and constantly influence the other levels.

How does Erikson's theory help social workers? ›

How Does Psychosocial Development Theory Apply to Social Work? Erikson's theory postulates that people advance through the stages of development based on how they adjust to social crises throughout their lives. These social crises instruct how individuals react to the surrounding world.

What is cognitive theory in social work? ›

Cognitive theory uncovers how a person's thinking influences behavior. This theory places emphasis on dysfunctional thought patterns that influence problematic behaviors — what we tell ourselves after an event.

What is conflict theory social work? ›

Conflict theory focuses on the competition among groups within society over limited resources. Conflict theory views social and economic institutions as tools of the struggle among groups or classes, used to maintain inequality and the dominance of the ruling class.

What is importance of theory? ›

Theories are vital: They guide and give meaning to what we see. When a researcher investigates and collects information through observation, the investigator needs a clear idea of what information is important to collect. Thus, valid theories are validated by research and are a sound basis for practical action.

What are the major theories of human behavior? ›

The most-often used theories of health behavior are Social Cognitive Theory, The Transtheoretical Model/Stages of Change, the Health Belief Model, and the Theory of Planned Behavior.

What are the purposes of theory? ›

Theories are formulated to explain, predict, and understand phenomena and, in many cases, to challenge and extend existing knowledge within the limits of critical bounding assumptions.

What are the 6 NASW Code of Ethics? ›

These standards concern (1) social workers' ethical responsibilities to clients, (2) social workers' ethical responsibilities to colleagues, (3) social workers' ethical responsibilities in practice settings, (4) social workers' ethical responsibilities as professionals, (5) social workers' ethical responsibilities to ...

Why are the six core values of social work important? ›

Ethics and values in social work encompass far more than compliance with regulations and requirements. The core beliefs that guide social workers ensure that while they work on behalf of their clients, they also work with clients, constantly learning as they empower others.

What are the 7 codes of Ethics? ›

Seven golden ethical principles
  • Be an ethical leader.
  • Use moral courage.
  • Consider personal and professional reputation.
  • Set the right tone at the top.
  • Maintain an enquiring mindset.
  • Consider the public interest.
  • Consider 'the right, the good and the virtuous' actions"
20 Feb 2019

What is the philosophy of social work? ›

At the core of social work practice is respect for the dignity, rights and worth of individuals as they realize their potential to become fulfilled, contributing members of society.

What are techniques of social work? ›

Active listening is necessary for social workers to understand and identify a client's needs. Listening carefully, concentrating, asking the right questions, and utilizing techniques such as paraphrasing and summarizing also helps social workers to engage and establish trust with clients.

What is Cswe stands for? ›

Founded in 1952, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the national association representing social work education in the United States.

What are the 7 helping process in case work? ›

The phases of the casework process, the study, assessment, intervention, termination and evaluation are considered as the threads interwoven throughout the process. In the study phase the worker makes the initial contact constructively and fruitfully.

What are social work values? ›

Six core values of the social work profession

Service. Social justice. Dignity and worth of the person. Importance of human relationships. Integrity.

What is the highest social work degree? ›

Doctoral Degree in Social Work. The highest degree in the field, doctoral social work degrees prepare graduates for high-level social work positions and for academic jobs. Most students require about five years to earn a doctorate, including the time necessary to complete a dissertation.

Is person in environment a theory? ›

The most basic systems theory of generalist social work practice is Person-In-Environment or “PIE.” By considering the various relationships and communities that a person has (e.g., school, family, church, etc.), social workers gain an understanding of how the person and his or her environments affect each other ...

What is micro approach in social work? ›

1) Micro-Level

This is the most common type of social work, and involves direct interaction with clients to address individual problems. Common examples of micro-level work include helping people find housing, health care and social services.

What are the 5 theories of development? ›

They are (1) maturationist, (2) constructivist, (3) behaviorist, (4) psychoanalytic, and (5) ecological. Each theory offers interpretations on the meaning of the children's development and behavior. Although the theories are clustered collectively into schools of thought, they differ within each school.

How is psychodynamic theory used in social work? ›

Psychodynamic theory, also known as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, helps clients understand their emotions and unconscious patterns of behavior. By talking through these emotions and behaviors with a social worker, clients come to know themselves better and make better decisions for themselves.

Why is Erikson's theory the best? ›

Why is Erikson's theory of psychosocial development important? Its importance lies in the fact that it provides a holistic view of development throughout the entire lifespan. It also stresses on the influence of social relationships on development.

How does social exchange theory apply to social work? ›

According to social exchange theory, a person will weigh the cost of a social interaction (negative outcome) against the reward of that social interaction (positive outcome). These costs and rewards can be material, like money, time or a service.

What is Max Weber conflict theory? ›

Max Weber's conflict theory posits that there are three main sources of conflict: economic, social, and political. This theory focuses on the competition between social groups, rather than individuals, and attempts to explain social change and stability as a result of group conflict (Marx & Engels, 1847).

What are 5 types of social interaction? ›

There are five common forms of social interaction— exchange, competition, conflict, cooperation, and accommodation.

What are the 4 types of conflict? ›

The opposing force created, the conflict within the story generally comes in four basic types: Conflict with the self, Conflict with others, Conflict with the environment and Conflict with the supernatural. Conflict with the self, the internal battle a lead character has within, is often the most powerful.

What is theory short answer? ›

A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts. The theory of gravitation, for instance, explains why apples fall from trees and astronauts float in space.

What are the 5 methods of social work? ›

Social work has six methods of working with people (casework, group work, community organisation, social action, social welfare administration and social work research). These methods are the techniques of enabling the people for better social functioning.

What are the different research theories? ›

In this paper, I will discuss the four types of research theories – deductive, inductive, grounded, and axiomatic.

What are the 3 methods of social work? ›

These three methods are:
  • Social Casework.
  • Social Groupwork.
  • Community Organization.

What are the five types of theory? ›

At a glance. There are five primary educational learning theories: behaviorism, cognitive, constructivism, humanism, and connectivism.

What are the four types of theory? ›

Sociologists (Zetterberg, 1965) refer to at least four types of theory: theory as classical literature in sociology, theory as sociological criticism, taxonomic theory, and scientific theory. These types of theory have at least rough parallels in social education.

What are examples of theory? ›

Examples include: Physics: the big bang theory, atomic theory, theory of relativity, quantum field theory. Biology: the theory of evolution, cell theory, dual inheritance theory. Chemistry: the kinetic theory of gases, valence bond theory, Lewis theory, molecular orbital theory.

How many code of ethics are there in social work? ›

The following is an outline of the six core values on which the code of ethics is based and associated broad ethical principles social workers should use as a guide in their work. It is paraphrased from the NASW Code of Ethics.

What is the philosophy of social work? ›

At the core of social work practice is respect for the dignity, rights and worth of individuals as they realize their potential to become fulfilled, contributing members of society.

What are techniques of social work? ›

Active listening is necessary for social workers to understand and identify a client's needs. Listening carefully, concentrating, asking the right questions, and utilizing techniques such as paraphrasing and summarizing also helps social workers to engage and establish trust with clients.

What are the 3 types of theory? ›

Although there are many different approaches to learning, there are three basic types of learning theory: behaviorist, cognitive constructivist, and social constructivist. This section provides a brief introduction to each type of learning theory.

What are the importance of theories? ›

Theories are vital: They guide and give meaning to what we see. When a researcher investigates and collects information through observation, the investigator needs a clear idea of what information is important to collect. Thus, valid theories are validated by research and are a sound basis for practical action.

What are the basic research theory? ›

Basic research is a research approach that is entirely theoretical and aimed at improving or expanding the knowledge-base of a particular field of study. It focuses on “knowledge for its own sake” and it is primarily driven by curiosity and the need to explore the unknown.

What is modern concept of social work? ›

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.

What are the objectives of social work? ›

Social Work aims to maximize the development of human potential and the fulfillment of human needs, through an equal commitment to: Working with and enabling people to achieve the best possible levels of personal and social well-being. Working to achieve social justice through social development and social change.

What are the functions of social work? ›

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.


1. SWK 386 Role of Theory in Social Work Practice
2. The 10 Most Important Theories in Social Science | Part 1
(Armchair Academics)
3. What is the difference between a theory, model, method and approach in social work?
(Siobhan Maclean)
4. Chapter-5_Unit-1|| 🔥🔥Important Theories in Social Work Practice || Social Work ||UGC NET/JRF 2021||
(C.P. Yadav Classes (Social Work))
5. 8 Stages of Development by Erik Erikson
6. 6 Social Work Principles
(Social Work Updates)

Top Articles

You might also like

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Catherine Tremblay

Last Updated: 10/25/2022

Views: 6439

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (47 voted)

Reviews: 94% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Catherine Tremblay

Birthday: 1999-09-23

Address: Suite 461 73643 Sherril Loaf, Dickinsonland, AZ 47941-2379

Phone: +2678139151039

Job: International Administration Supervisor

Hobby: Dowsing, Snowboarding, Rowing, Beekeeping, Calligraphy, Shooting, Air sports

Introduction: My name is Catherine Tremblay, I am a precious, perfect, tasty, enthusiastic, inexpensive, vast, kind person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.