Theoretical Approaches: Social Work Systems Theory
Social workers can encounter many different obstacles in their line of work. Each obstacle faced represents a different kind of challenge. However, there are a few theories that can help social workers deal with some of the challenges they are facing, and how they can be utilized to achieve positive solutions.
In general, a theory is a statement backed by evidence gathered through the scientific method intended to explain something. Theoretical approaches for social work are often used to explain human behavior and serve as starting points for practice models and treatments. For example, Psychodynamic Theory explains how internal and external forces interact to influence emotional development. Conflict Theory explains how power structures and disparities affect people’s lives. This post concentrates on how Systems Theory was developed and how it can be applied to assisting a client.
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Systems Theory explains human behavior as the intersection of the influences of multiple interrelated systems. Even for individual issues, families, organizations, societies, and other systems are inherently involved and must be considered when attempting to understand and assist the individual. According to this theory, all systems are interrelated parts constituting an ordered whole and each subsystem influences other parts of the whole.
There have been dozens of unofficial iterations of Systems Theory over the past few hundred years, applied to society, science, and many other areas. In the 20th century, multiple scientists, philosophers, and academicsbegan to outline and define the structure of Systems Theory in their various disciplines; there are now systems theories for biology, cybernetics, and for social work. While the applications obviously vary depending on the discipline, all systems theories follow the concept of interrelated parts influencing one another as part of an ordered whole.
Several prominent thinkers advanced Systems Theory in social work. Talcott Parsons was an economist and sociologist at Harvard University, whose book “Social System” helped steer the conversation on systematic determinants of behavior. Robert Merton is considered one of the founding fathers of modern sociology and significantly advanced Systems Theory through his progressive theories on functional analysis. Merton also coined the now ubiquitous terms “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “role model.” Carel Germain is internationally recognized for her work on explaining human behavior in a social environment. She mentored and worked extensively with Alex Gitterman, who continues to develop Systems Theory through the Life Model.
Case Study in Systems Theory
The Pruett case study provides a concrete, real-world example of how Systems Theory is applied to understand how interrelated factors contribute to unhealthy actions. In this case, the client was engaging in risky behaviors (drug abuse and unprotected sex) and not attending school. She had not had contact with her father for five years, and some of her only memories of him involved him abusing drugs and arguing with her mother at home.
In the Family Systems Theory, individuals must not be evaluated in isolation, but in the context of the family, as the family operates as a unit. One of the core concepts of this theory is the triangle, whose most common form is a parent-parent-child relationship — aka “two helping one”). Clearly, the client was missing one of the corners of the triangle and thus one of the pillars of healthy emotional development.
Another concept is the family projection process, wherein the client suffers from the emotional dysfunction of the family unit. In this case, the client witnessed her father abusing drugs to self-medicate, so she imitated that behavior, thinking it might help her.
The full complexities of this case go beyond the scope of this post, but it serves as an example of how a social worker must understand interrelated systems (e.g., school-family-individual) in order to assist the client.
Issues Addressed by Systems Theory
Systems Theory is used to develop a holistic view of individuals within an environment and is best applied to situations where several systems inextricably connect and influence one another. It can be employed in cases where contextual understandings of behavior will lead to the most appropriate practice interventions.
In the Pruett case, for example, the client’s school and family environment heavily influenced her individual actions, and her actions influenced the way she interacted with others at school and in the home. The recommended interventions thus involved strengthening the missing part of her family unit, referring her to counseling services, and connecting her with academic support.
There are many practice interventions available to social workers and their applications vary greatly depending on the context, but following are a few common interventions used as part of Systems Theory.
Strengthen one part of the system to improve the whole. In the Pruett case, the social worker recommended finding a healthy father figure for the client, to strengthen the missing component of the family system.
Networking and referrals. A critical part of any social worker’s job is to help clients navigate between systems. This often means referring clients to specialists, or connecting them with resources or organizations that can help their situation. In the Pruett case, this meant referral to a counselor and connection to an after school tutor.
Ecomaps. An ecomap is a flow diagram that helps someone understand a family’s and community’s interrelated progression over time. It allows social workers and clients to capture and organize the complexity of a system.
Genograms. A genogram is a graphic representation of a family tree, constructed with symbols that describe relationships and connections between an extended family. Social workers typically construct them along with clients in order to better understand relationships and identify patterns in the medical history.
Understanding and applying Systems Theory is a critical part of any social worker’s career. One of the most important functions of a social worker is helping clients navigate the various systems that affect their lives, which requires a deep understanding of how subsystems are interrelated and influence one another. This post provides an introduction to Systems Theory and some real life examples of how it is applied. It is just one of the many theoretical approaches that social workers will apply throughout their careers.
Critical social work theory does not hold one single definition; rather it refers to an expansive range of theories that a share similar orientation. Critical social work is committed to working with and for oppressed populations to achieve social transformation. Critical social work recognizes that large scale social processes - namely those associated with class, race and gender - fundamentally contribute to the personal and social issues social workers encounter in practice (Healy, 2001). The core mission of critical social work is to promote social justice through social work practice and policy making. Critical social work draws on structural and postmodern approaches. Similarities and differences exist between these approaches in terms of purpose, principles of practice, underlying assumptions and values and the relationship between the social worker and service user. Both of these approaches possess strengths and limitations - which will be discussed in this essay - and have contributed to the development of critical practices in social work.
Structural and postmodern theories differ in many respects. However, there are also commonalities between the two. Both stand against domination and oppression, with alternative visions of society. Structural critical theory seeks a society based on socialist or collectivist principles, and although post-modernism allows for many alternative visions only those concerned with human liberation are legitimate, given its emancipatory intent (Mullaly, 1997).
The purpose of structural social work is to move away from traditional approaches to social work that were based upon a medical and disease model that places people in a passive position, with the focus of attention on the individual rather than their situation (Rossiter, 1996, p.24). This approach provides a critical framework for analysis of social work knowledge and practice. It is based on an analysis of how economic, social, political and legislative contexts shape individual and societal problems. The ultimate goal of structural social work is to contribute to the transformation of liberal capitalist society to one that is more congruent with socialist principles (Mullaly, 1997). Likewise, the purpose of the postmodern approach is to challenge the grand narrative of modernism. Postmodernism draws attention to analysis of how organisational discourses shape critical practice possibilities and limits (Chambon and Irving, 1994). Postmodernism is a critique of totalizing theories, like structural approaches that set out to explain everything. Postmodernism challenges the idea that there is one universal truth or reality, but rather multiple realities. Postmodernism is concerned with social transformation, with multiple and diverse social realities which are constructed by factors both internal and external to the individual with the importance of local contexts of practice and with the role of discourse in maintaining power (Allan, 2003, p.42). By drawing attention to the productive power of discourse, postmodern approaches invite critical social workers to locate their understandings not only in the material structures of oppression, but also, within the historical and local discourses of practice (Howe, 1994).
A commitment to working alongside oppressed and marginalized populations is common to both structural and postmodern approaches. An orientation towards emancipatory personal and social change, social justice and social equality is also shared by the two approaches. Practice within structural social work includes exploring the socio-political and economic context of individual difficulties and to help collectivize personal troubles (Moreau, 1979). Additionally, structural social work aims to change the client's consciousness in order to reverse the process of internalized oppression (Moreau, 1990, p.54). Empowerment is also a major goal of practice within the structural approach. It is seen to be achieved through political education and through consciousness-raising dialogues within an egalitarian relationship between the Social Worker and the service user. Through collective action and emphasizing solidarity among the oppressed, a structural approach links the personal with the political, making it possible for people to consider their personal experience of oppression within a broader political understanding (Mullaly, 1997).
Alternatively, Postmodern approaches focus on discourse analysis and discursive processes (Chambon and Irving, 1994). Postmodern critical social work approaches tend to focus less on targeting change at the broader political/structural level (Allan, 2003, p.57). The language of dominant discourses is analyzed for its potential to marginalize individuals and groups and prevent their rights and needs from being met (Allan, 2003, p.60).
The difference in emphasis between the structural and postmodern approaches on where social workers should focus their attention and actions to bring about change illustrate the tension between diversity and solidarity, or mutual interdependence (Allan, 2003, p.58). Both approaches are committed to change-oriented ways of working, holding particular attention to the socio-political and cultural contexts in which people or issues are situated, and to workings of power through ideologies or discourses (Allan, 2003, p.58).
Structural social work views social problems as arising from a specific societal context, that being liberal/neo-conservative capitalism, rather than from the failings of individuals (Mullaly, 1997). Structural social work is based on socialist ideologies, located within the radical social work camp, and grounded in critical theory. Inequality is viewed as a natural, inherent part of capitalism that falls along the lines of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, ability and geographic region. Inequality excludes these groups from opportunities, meaningful participation in society, and a satisfactory quality of life. An assumption in this approach is that prevailing ideology - policies, practices and procedures - of most social organisations maintain the power of workers and reduce the power of the users of their services (Allan, 2003, p.33). The concern of structural social work is with groups in society who are marginalized by an ideology that supports, maintains and legitimates the present social order (Moreau, 1979).
Within postmodernism, there is an emphasis on difference and diversity, attention to language and discourse; and a rethinking of the notions of power and knowledge. Postmodern theories challenge the negative view of power, as it is regarded as being both productive and coercive (Gorman, 1993). Rather than seek to reduce or avoid power, as structural theorists have often done, postmodernists challenge social workers to articulate how such power