Social work practice approaches are highly influenced by theory. Theory is something that helps us explain and predict human behavior. In social work practice, social systems theories shape many practices and programs. Social systems theory helps us understand that a person is a product of his or her social environment, at multiple levels of that environment. Social work students learn early on in their studies about the centrality of social systems theories in social work practice including in assessment and treatment. Social work is unique, compared to other behavioral sciences, in its emphasis on social systems theories and the person in environment perspective.

History of Social Systems Theories

Social systems theories emerged from general systems theory which rose to prominence within the psychological and natural sciences in the early twentieth century. General systems theory considered the whole (of whatever was being examined) as more than the sum of its parts. General systems theory looked at how component parts of a system affect the whole system or organism. Scientists in fields as diverse as physics and psychology began using systems theories to understand the world around them. There was great interest in the stability of systems as well as input, output, and feedback loops in systems.

By the mid-twentieth century, general systems theory and systems thinking were widely being used by social scientists, psychologists, and social workers to develop more specific theories for understanding and addressing individual and social problems. Social systems theories were a rebuttal to the prevailing belief (e.g. psychodynamic theory) that individual dysfunction and psychological problems originate mainly within the individual. Social systems theories held that individuals could not be viewed as islands; rather they must be viewed as component parts of groups, organizations, societies and families. Furthermore, individual problems came were viewed as shaped and influenced at many levels of an individual’s social ecology.

Specific Social Systems Theories Used in Social Work

Social systems theories help social workers understand a wide array of social problems including family problems, child abuse, community dysfunction, as well as problems affecting individuals such as anxiety, low self-esteem, and relationship problems. Specific social work practice theories based on systems theory have emerged to help social workers understand and address individual and social problems. For example, family systems theory, developed by Bowen (1946), views the family as a complex system with its own component parts and feedback loops. Bowen developed eight interlocking concepts of family systems that could be used by practitioners to enhance family functioning.

The life model of social work practice (Germain & Gitterman, 1980) was also highly influenced by social systems thinking. The original model emphasized practice with individuals, groups, families, and neighborhoods but was later revised to increase its emphasis on policy practice and policy advocacy. Ecological theory also influenced the life model of social work practice by emphasizing the “continuous exchanges between people and their environments” (Gitterman, 2017).

The life model requires the practitioner to examine a person’s fit with their environment and how they adapt to and cope with limitations and toxicity in one’s environment. The life model may be applied to looking at people in organizational environments or communities. The life model requires clinicians to examine key events in an individual’s life that may have impacted his development and attitudes such as major life transitions, periods of increased environmental stress, or changes in relationships. Groups and organizations, such as family at the micro-level or schools at the mezzo-level, may be seen as supporting or hindering a person during these key transition periods. The model also looks at how generational cohorts are influenced by key historical events and societal changes.

Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) socio-ecological model of development is another specific social work practice theory based on social systems thinking. This model looks at how multiple social systems and levels of the social environments (individual, micro, meso, exo, and macro-systems) impact individuals’ experiences and behavior. The micro level is the location of intimate and family relationships, the meso-level is the location of institutions and organizations, and the macro-level is the location of society-wide factors such as culture or laws, all of which shape who we are and how we develop.

Social Work Approaches Informed by Social Systems Theories

The socio-ecological model can be used to understand challenges faced by individuals at multiple levels of their social ecosystem and to develop therapeutic interventions and programs that address these problems. Consider the problem of child abuse and neglect for example; child outcomes will be greatly influenced by risk and protective factors at each level of the social ecosystem. Understanding the risk (e.g. poverty, mental illness) and protective factors (e.g. strong extended family bonds, positive school environment) at each level of a family’s social ecosystem is critical to treating the child and working with the family.

The social-ecological model of development can also be used to understand why parents abuse or neglect their children. Socio-ecological theories of why child maltreatment is perpetrated acknowledge the complexity of the social problem in a way that cognitive behavior theories may not. To address a parent’s abusive or neglectful behaviors, a social worker might provide individual and/or family counseling (micro) or parenting classes (mezzo). He might also advocate for increasing government spending on afterschool programs, daycare, or mental health clinics as a preventive measure.

Social systems theories can also be used to understand and address violence. The United States Centers for Disease Control has officially endorsed a socio-ecological model of violence prevention. The four levels of the model the CDC uses are: individual, relationship, community, societal. This framework is endorsed by the CDC for the design of both community, interpersonal, and family violence prevention programs. According to the CDC, “in order to prevent violence, it is necessary to act across multiple levels of the model at the same time. This approach is more likely to sustain prevention efforts over time than any single intervention” (CDC, 2019).

Multisystemic Therapy is another treatment approach informed by social systems theory which has been used to address child and youth mental health problems, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse. MST requires therapists to treat the whole family system and to treat the child at multiple levels of his and his family’s social system (e.g., school, family members, peers, school, social support system) in the home and other community locations.

Finally, work with underserved and marginalized communities may also be informed by the life model of social work practice which, as noted above, looks at, among other things, the effects of community problems and governmental policies on individuals and communities. A social worker using the life course model might lobby the government to enact social policies and programs that help underserved communities, mobilize organizations and stakeholders in addressing community-wide problems, and garner resources needed by the community (Gitterman, 2017).

Strengths and Weakness of Social Systems Theory

Social systems practice approaches are at the heart of social work. Social systems theories help social workers look beyond the individual to understand factors at multiple levels of clients’ social systems that may be contributing to their struggles. Social systems approaches empower practitioners to address challenges at multiples levels of client’s social environments. Policy advocacy and community work are important facets of social practices informed by social systems thinking.

A drawback of social systems theory as used in social work is that sometimes mainly a psychological approach is needed for treatment; for example, an individual with severe mental illness may primarily need individualized psychotherapeutic counseling and perhaps medication.

Furthermore, interventions and programs informed by social systems theories are not always easy to evaluate. There are many moving parts to a systems treatment approach and it may be difficult to identify which components of treatment are working. Furthermore, social workers are supposed to consider an individual’s mezzo and macro environment when using social systems approaches, but some social workers may lack the cultural competency needed to understand a client’s social and cultural environment.

Taken altogether, social systems theories and approaches are central to social work. There is enough evidence that many programs and interventions using systems theory approaches are effective in addressing various presenting problems and challenges in the lives of our clients; therefore, social work students should be well versed in social systems theories and practice approaches.

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

Social Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

October  2019

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