Social Work Theories

If you are interested in becoming a social worker, wanting to help people won't be enough. Social work centers around care and support for those in need of assistance. But social workers are often fighting an uphill battle in their efforts to help clients and communities thrive.

Social workers who want to do right by vulnerable populations must be able to identify the true nature of the problems that their clients face and find effective solutions.

That requires a deep, informed understanding of the human psyche and human development.

In social work, best practices are built on a foundation of evidence-based theories that help explain and categorize the human experience. Even the most well-intentioned practitioners can do harm if they try to intervene in complex social problems without proper training.

Learning theory can help social workers suspend personal biases, assumptions, and beliefs in order to identify the best interventions for their clients.

If you are curious about becoming a social worker, here's a brief primer on some of the most commonly used theories in social work.

How Do I Become A Social Worker?

With a BA in social work, you can pursue entry-level positions in:

  • Child welfare
  • Social and human services
  • Health education
  • Social science research
  • Case management

With a MA in social work, you can pursue advanced or clinical positions in:

  • Healthcare
  • Schools
  • Child and family services
  • Mental health
  • Substance abuse
  • Community service management
  • Teaching

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Conflict Theory

You won't get far examining complex social systems before you run into Karl Marx, the father of conflict theory.

Marx held that conflict is inherent in society; that change — not stability — is the norm; and that conflict generates meaningful change, especially when it comes to challenging oppression.

In Practice

Conflict theory provides an explanation for how power imbalances impact people and communities. Social workers can use this theory to identify and confront both the sources and the symptoms of inequality.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory was developed by Albert Bandura in the 1960s. He performed a series of experiments collectively called "The Bobo doll experiment."

Essentially, he had a group of young children watch someone beat a blow-up doll with a hammer. The children went on to exhibit similarly aggressive behavior toward their own dolls.

Children who had observed less aggressive behavior displayed less aggressive behavior.

The main takeaway from his experiments is that people learn behavior by observation and emulate the behaviors they are exposed to. This impact is further reinforced by observing punishments and rewards in connection with certain behaviors.

In Practice

Social workers use this theory as a jumping-off point for evaluating the behavioral models a client may be emulating and to combat negative inputs with healthier ones.

Systems Theory

Systems theory was born when scientists started moving away from a reductionist approach to knowledge. Reductionism claims that the whole is best understood in relation to its parts. Reductionists believed that they could understand a complex system by isolating and examining individual elements.

By contrast, systems theorists believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They examine how individual parts relate to one another within complex systems.

In social work, that means taking a hard look at:

In Practice

Systems theory helps social workers take a holistic look at all the factors — personal, relational, and environmental — that might contribute to a client's negative behaviors and hardships.

Examining systems as a whole also helps social workers identify societal pain points and advocate for systemic changes that will improve life for individuals and communities.

Transpersonal Theory

Transpersonal theory focuses on the transcendent and spiritual aspects of the human experience. The fathers of this theory are Karl Jung and Abraham Maslow, both early pioneers of humanistic-existential psychology. They were reacting in part to the Freudian assumption that any kind of religious or spiritual experience is regressive.

Unlike other theories, transpersonal theory recognizes the important therapeutic role that spirituality, religion, and transcendent consciousness can play in the healing process.

In Practice

Social workers use this theory to help clients develop a more complex and thorough understanding of what it means to be human, to question core beliefs, and to remove self-imposed obstacles to well-being.

Psycho-social Development Theory

This theory posits that human development is greatly influenced by how people react to their environments.

Theorist Erik Erikson identified eight stages of development between infancy and adulthood. He believed that we move through these stages in response to psychological and social crises, and that reaching the final stage is necessary for healthy maturation.

In Practice

This theory can be a useful tool for analyzing behavior in light of past traumas and existing environmental crises.

Erikson's model provides a foundation for understanding what developmental issues typically stand out at each stage of growth and helps identify problems that may result in developmental stagnation.

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Family Life Cycle Theory

It's also important to understand that the family itself has stages of development. Family Life Cycle Theory provides a rough outline for the major stages:

  • Independence
  • Coupling or marriage
  • Parenting
  • Launching adult children
  • Senior years

In Practice

Family dynamics have a massive impact on individual mental health, longevity, and relationships. Client crises may be rooted in disruption of this cycle through events like death, divorce, incarceration, or abuse.

Social workers use the family life cycle theory to help clients manage trauma and successfully navigate transitions between life stages.

Empowerment Theory

Like many of these other theories, empowerment theory acknowledges how relationships, systems, and societies can harm, oppress, and otherwise influence individuals.

An empowerment approach responds to those influences by emphasizing a person or marginalized group's strength and ability to overcome environmental barriers.

In Practice

Empowerment is at the heart of social work. Empowerment theory equips social workers with strategies to guide people out of feelings of helplessness and into a sense of self-control and self-determination.

Empowerment theory is a theoretical basis for challenging the systems of oppression that prevent people from getting their needs met.

Popular Questions About Social Work

What Exactly Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers help vulnerable people and families manage problems in their everyday lives. They recommend resources and offer support that will improve outcomes for individuals and communities. Clinical social workers can also diagnose and treat mental health and behavioral issues.

Do Social Workers Get Paid Well?

In 2020, the average median pay was $51,760 per year. The lowest 10% earned less than $33,020 per year, while the highest 10% earned more than $85,820 per year.

What Are the Top 5 Social Work Practice Models?

Portrait of Meg Embry

Meg Embry

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

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