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Social Work Theories

Omkar Phatak Oct 12, 2018
A social work theory provides an objective analysis of problems experienced by a society and the theoretical basis for various practices that are aimed towards dealing with them. These theories differ in their approach to solving social problems. Read on to get a perspective of modern theoretical models.
Social work is all about dealing with the various problems that besiege a society, inhibiting our growth as individuals and as a civilization. A society as a system is substantially complex to analyze and social problems arising out of internal interactions are even more so.
Social work theories provide a framework within which the source of a problem can be identified and an effective solution can be devised. In short, they provide a methodology for practitioners to analyze the problems and find solutions.
This is not a comprehensive list of theories but only a representative compilation of the various forms, which have their origin in different schools of thought. The problems of a society can be analyzed at various levels and through various means. Only the prime schools of thought are presented here.

Theories of Social Work

Every social worker intends to direct his efforts towards making the world a better place to live. However, good intentions do not guarantee good results. What's needed is incisive analysis and the creation of a strategy, which can be effective in neutralizing the problem. Doing it for the right reasons is not enough. It has to be done the right way.
How exactly one goes about solving a particular social problem depends on its nature, as each one is unique in itself. Sound social work theory provides the path to analyze the root cause of a problem and identifies the best course of action. Of course, there are more than one solutions to any problem and many levels at which a problem can be dealt with.
Social work theory draws on research in sociology, cognitive sciences, psychology, economics, anthropology, medicine and even political science to analyze the various aspects of a social problem.
The theories provide ways in which people can be helped on a personal and social level, to overcome their hardships. Here are some of the major schools of thought.

Psychoanalytic Theories

The psychological state of every individual in a society (the sum total of his emotions, desires, his interaction with environment and his experiences) ultimately determines the dynamics of the social sphere as a whole.
Psychodynamic theories explore the interplay of mind, body and a social ecosystem throughout various developmental stages, to understand behavior patterns, at an individual and social level.
Erikson's stages of psychosocial development and attachment theory are some ideas that belong to this class. Psychoanalytical theory forms an important part of social work, as it helps practitioners understand the inner mental universe of affected individuals and helps them come up with effective therapeutic techniques.
Today, many modern approaches like crisis intervention and cognitive-behavioral theories have evolved out of early psychodynamic explorations, that help people through individual counseling and rehabilitation methods.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory attempts to understand social problems through the lens of individual psychology. An individual and his behavior affects and is affected by society. Behavioral imitation and feedback from the environment molds habits and ultimately a personality.
Social cognitive theory endeavors to break the negative habit cycle, powered by imitation and reinforcement, through the promotion of self mastery. This theory aims at solving social problems through counseling of people at an individual level. It relies on the individual efficacy to power the change that one wants to see in a society.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory analyzes the structure of power distribution in a society and seeks to improve social condition of the marginalized sections through group unification, as well as the confrontation of oppressive forces.
Every society is split into the haves and have-nots, where one privileged section seeks to concentrate power and resources into its hands while marginalizing others.
This theory recognizes all classes in a society to be inherently in conflict due to limited resources. Conflict theory suggests that marginalized sections should unite and struggle, to achieve social equality. It is influenced by socialist theory of Karl Marx and Engels. The theory talks about social reform through shift in the distribution of power.

Social Constructivist Theory

Social constructivist theory studies how beliefs, value structure and choices of individuals model the behavior of a society and how social dynamics affect individual behavior. Through this study, social workers can devise strategies to bring about positive changes in a society.
Every socially accepted norm today, started out as an individual crusade, before being adopted by the society as a whole. This complex interrelationship of individual and society is studied by workers and the analysis is used to make a difference.

Feminist Social Work Theory

Feminist theories are aimed at studying women's problems and gender disparity in our society. Women have been traditionally treated unjustly by most of the default patriarchal family systems operational all over the world.
From dealing with female foeticide, education of the girl child, her role in today's globalized job market, to her growth as a breadwinner and homemaker, feminist social theory has evolved over time to meet all these challenges.
Theory and practice are aimed at a singular objective of empowering women to take control of their lives and restoring the gender imbalance.
So these were some of the prime theories, that serve as guiding beacons for social workers, dealing with real world problems. Of course, every problem is unique in itself and it's only through practical application that one can test the soundness of a theory.
There are direct approaches that can work temporarily to solve immediate problems and long term approaches that strike at the root of the malaise. Overall, the theory encompasses and relies on applied psychology and sociology. Solutions to social problems are never simplistic and there is no template that can be applied universally.