20 May 2022


Social Work Practice Theories

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Academic level: Master’s

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Social workers aim to be agents of change. Social work theories provide overall explanations supported with evidence that social work scientists obtain through scientific methods. For instance, theories may explain how human beings behave or how they react when exposed to a particular stimuli. Social work theories provide ways that the social work profession has sought to define and implement its professional purpose (Walsh, 2014). According to Walsh (2014), practice theories represent a subset of theories and show viewpoints on intervention with people, families, and groups. One useful definition of a practice theory is a comprehensible set of concepts about human nature, incorporating concepts of health, infection, normalcy, and deviance, which provide provable or established clarifications for behavior and grounds for intervention. There are several social work theories that guide social work practice.

To begin with, systems theory explains human behavior in relation to complex systems. It stems from the idea that an effective system focusses on specific needs, rewards, expectations, and characteristic of the people living in the system. This theory suggests that the people involved such as families, companies or group members should directly participate in resolving an issue even when it is an individual issue (Walsh, 2014). When considering this theory a person should bear in mind that social systems vary in the degree to which they are open and closed to new information or feedback. Closed systems include relatively rigid boundaries that inhibit input or output of information. Open systems, on the other hand, have relatively permeable barriers that allow more free exchange. For example, families or groups may differ ranging from predominantly closed to new information to being extremely open.

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Second, the social learning theory stems from Albert Bandura’s standpoint that learning happens through observation and imitation. Additionally, the theory states that a new habit will continue to flourish if reinforced. This theory suggests that instead of simply hearing a new concept and practicing it, a person can make the new learning process more efficient if he models the new behavior as well. Social learning theory bases its concept on the principle that human behavior comprises of what we do in addition to the premise that people acquire behavior through life experiences (Walsh, 2014).

In addition, psychosocial development theory, developed by Erik Erikson, is an eight-phase theory of identity and psychosocial development. According to Erikson, all individuals must go through the eight phases of development over the life cycle. These stages include hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom. Erikson divided each phase into age brackets from infancy to adulthood.

Likewise, the fourth social work theory explains a person’s personality depending on conscious and unconscious forces (Walsh, 2014). This psychodynamic theory claims that the personality consists of the id, the superego, and the ego. The id helps in following of a person’s intrinsic instincts while the superego tries to adhere to guidelines and behave morally. Finally, the ego is responsible for mediating between the id and the superego. The theory emphasizes the significance of early childhood experiences in shaping a person’s personality (Walsh, 2014).

On the other hand, transpersonal theory focuses on additional phases beyond the adult ego. For instance, in healthy people, these phases would significantly contribute to wisdom, creativity, and selflessness. Individuals who lack healthy ego development can be victims of psychosis when facing difficult experiences. Similarly, the theory emphasizes on positive influences as a model for realization of human potential. Transpersonal theory can complement and enhance social work practice that focuses on the empowerment and justice at work with ostracized and oppressed populations (Walsh, 2014). Finally, rational choice theory is premised on the concept that all activities are rational in nature, and people estimate the risks and benefits of their activities before deciding.

In conclusion, none of these theories is perfect. A person can apply these theories in varying degrees. For instance, social workers have applied psychodynamic practice for approximately a century enhancing it over that time. Additionally, people have found object relations theory to be useful because of its emphasis on the role of relationships in people’s lives (Walsh, 2014). This could be one of the most significant theories developed on the subject because human relations are the backbones of social work settings.  


Walsh, J. (2014). Theories for direct social work practice . Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 16). Social Work Practice Theories.


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