Theoretical Approaches: Social Work Systems Theory

A solid understanding of theories and their application is critical for any aspiring social worker. Theories can help social workers to assist clients in the most appropriate way possible, deal with challenges, and achieve positive outcomes.

In general, a theory is a statement supported by evidence gathered through the scientific method that is intended to explain a phenomenon. Theoretical approaches for social work are often used to explain human behavior and serve as starting points for developing 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 assist a client.

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Systems Theory

Modern social work systems theory, and its connections with family therapy and systemic ideas that have developed from it, emerged in the 1950s as a result of a number of developments in the fields of psychology, communication theory and psychiatry.

Systems theory explains human behavior as the intersection of the influences of multiple interrelated systems. When an individual experiences issues or problems, 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 which constitute 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. 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 within the practice of social work. Talcott Parsons, an economist and sociologist at Harvard University, steered the conversation on systematic determinants of behavior with his seminal text, “The Social System”

Robert Merton further advanced systems theory with his progressive ideas on functional analysis. Merton’s functional perspective views society as a system of functioning structures which combine to create a stable whole. Merton also argued that no all functions were positive--some were in fact, dysfunctional.

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 continued 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 can be 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.

According to 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 emulated that behavior.

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 holistically.

Issues Addressed by Systems Theory

Systems Theory can be used to develop a holistic view of an individual within their social 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 subsequently 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 several 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 an individual understand their connections to family and community, and whether those connections are positive or not. 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.

Understanding and applying systems theory represents 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 provided an introduction to systems theory and a real-life examples of how it is applied. It is just one of the many theoretical approaches that social workers may apply to assist clients throughout their careers.