Understanding The Definition Of Social Work Social Work Essay


Social work is an established professional discipline with a distinctive part to play in promoting and securing the wellbeing of children, adults, families and communities. As an established professional discipline, social work has its own theories and knowledge. The essay will begin by defining what a theory, models and method is, with reference to different authors. I shall then explain how I applied the particular model or method to practice as well as providing a critique. I will then conclude by relaying this to my practice development.

Theories in social work are often set out as a list of different approaches, including, for example, person-centred counselling, family therapy, task-centred work, cognitive-behavioural therapy, networking, group work, psychoanalytical theory, anti-discriminatory/oppressive practice and feminist theory (Davies, 1997). Alternatively: crisis intervention, the psychosocial approach, behavioural social work, working with families, etc. (Coulshed and Orme, 1998). What they have in common is that the approaches and associated theories do not originate from and are not specific to social work.

Practice theories are relatively discrete sets of ideas prescribing appropriate social work actions in particular situations. Psychological or social explanations of human behaviour are applied to social work situations, and actions are prescribed, based on the worker’s assessment of the situation. Practice theories are usually informed as separate, relatively complete and coherent sets of ideas. However, aspects of them are often used eclectically, in combination (Payne, 2000, p. 332-3).

Models describe what happens during practice in general way, in a wide range of situations and in structured form, so that they “extract certain principles and patterns of activity which give practice consistency” (Payne, 1991). Models help to structure and organise how to approach complicated situations. Methods represent the more formal written accounts about how to do the job of social work (Sibeon, 1990). This occurs when theory or a combination of theories, is made concrete and applied in practice. Pincus and Minahan (1973) argue that models should avoid conceptualizing social work practice in such terms as person-environment, clinical practice-social action. They believe that strength of the profession lies in recognizing and working with the connections between these elements. In the social sciences theoretical knowledge is highly contested because different theories offer competing explanations. Very important question here would be about the nature of the explanation, why something is as it is, according to Thompson, this is what distinguishes a theory from model. “A model seeks to describe…how certain factors interrelate, but it will no show why they do so” (Thompson, 2000, p. 22).

Case study

GC is a 43 years old man who suffers with severe learning difficulties and Autism. GC moved into residential home for people with learning disabilities in 1993. Before that he lived with his parents. For the past 13 years he attended Day Centre 5 days a week. GC has parents and a sister who he remains in contact with and family relations towards GC remains positive. GC participates in different sorts of activities in the residential home as well as in a Day Centre where I am on placement. There are times when GC is agitated, hyperactive and very vocal. He has difficulty in accepting change and demands regular routines with his lifestyle. There are lots of behavioural issues around GC. This can fluctuate in relation to the onset of epilepsy. He can become agitated and hyperactive prior to a seizure. He needs regular monitoring as seizures can be life threatening. GC lacks awareness of danger; these include road safety and strangers. Apart from seizures he also suffers from high blood pressure, asthma and insomnia. However, the last one might have been caused by the recent change of his medication to control his seizures more effectively. Recently, the local authority decided that the Day Centre GC attends will be closed and all clients, including GC, are going to be moved to different Day Centres.

I am a student on placement at this very Day Centre and during my placement I was assigned to be GC’s key worker. In order to work effectively with him I decided that the theory I would use will be systems theory. In the next part of my essay I will justify the reasons for choosing this theory.

Systems theory and implications for practice

Systems ideas in social work originated in general systems theory developed in 1940s and 50s in management and psychology, and were comprehensively formulated by Bertalanffy in 1971. This biological theory sees all organisms as systems. Bertalanffy says, that human being is part of society and is made up of, for example, circulation systems and cells, which are in turn made up with atoms, with are made up with smaller parts. The theory is applied to social system, such as groups and families, as well as biological systems. Hanson (1995) argues that the value of systems theory is that it deals with wholes rather than with parts of human or social behaviour as other theories do. Mancoske (1981) shows that important origins of systems theory in sociology lie in the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer. Systems perspectives are important to social work because they emphasise its social focus, as opposed to counselling, psychotherapy or many caring professions, whose importance is on individual patients or clients.

The “broadest possible definition of a systems is that it is ‘anything’ that is not chaos” (Boulding, 1985, p. 9). Conversely, a system could be defined as “any structure that exhibits order and pattern” (Boulding, 1985, p. 9). The common definition of a system, is that a system is “an aggregate of elements considered together with the relationships holding among them” (http://wikipedia). In this sense, a system may be considered “as any entity, conceptual or physical, which consists of independent parts”

Systems theory has been developed in to models by Germain and Goldstein, but above all by Pincus and Minahan, which is centred on the individuals systems. Preston-Shoot and Agass (1990) argue that systems theories showing how the public and private interact, how various change agents might be involved, and that workers and their agencies might themselves be targets for change. National Occupational Standards also stresses an “ecological approach”- ‘an individual must be located within the context of the family & the groups/networks to which they belong, & of the wider communities in which they live’ (Key role 1, Unit 1- Key Concept).

The focus of social work practice is on the communication between people and systems in the social environment. People are dependent on systems for help in obtaining the material, emotional or spiritual resources and opportunities they need to realize their goals and help them cope with their daily tasks. The concept of life tasks was highly structured by Harriett Bartlett who states:

“As used in social work, the task concept is a way of describing demands made upon people by various life situations. These have to do with daily living, such as growing up in the family, learning in school, entering the world of work, marrying and rearing a family, and also with the common traumatic situations of life such as bereavement, separation, illness or financial difficulties. These tasks call for response in the form of attitude or action from people involved in the situation. They are common problems that confront many people. The responses may differ but most people must deal with the problems in some way or other” (Bartlett, 1970, p.96).

Hearn (1958) made one of the earliest contributions, applying systems theory into social work. However, the greatest impact came with two interpretations of the application of systems ideas to practice, one from Goldstein (1973), who describes his theory as unitary, and the other one from Pincus and Minahan (1973) who describe it as an integrated theory.

In my essay I will mainly discuss the model that was formulated by Pincus and Minahan (1973). They identify three kinds of resource systems. First, informal or natural system: family, friends, neighbours, fellow workers. The help given by such informal relationship includes emotional support, advice and information. Second, formal systems, consist community groups, trade unions, membership organisations. And the last one is societal system: day centres, hospitals, schools, etc.

In terms of social work and in relation to systems, social work is concerned with the interactions between people and their social environment, which affect the ability of people to accomplish their life tasks and realise their aspirations and values. Pincus and Minahan talk about the purpose of social work in this aspect, which is to enhance the problem-solving and coping capacities of people, link people with systems that provide them with resources, services and opportunities, promote the effective and humane operation of this system and contribute to the development and improvement of social policy.

As social workers we must decide on purpose and relationship, in working with various people. The activities of the social worker can be viewed in relation to four types of systems according to Pincus and Minahan: these are the change agent, client, target and action. In most cases there is a one primary change agent who carries out major responsibilities, though two change agents might share the same responsibility. According to Pincus and Minahan, the change agent is a helper who is specifically employed by the system and pays the salary for the purpose of creating planned change. This differs from view of Roland Warren (1971) who defines a change agent as “any person or group, professional or non-professional, inside or outside a social system, which is attempting to bring about change in this system”.

The client system is about people, groups, and families, communities who seek help and engage in working with the change agent system. They believe that change agent should attempt to obtain sanction and a working agreement or contract from the expected beneficiaries of his change efforts. They also say that people have the right to self-determination and participation in decision that affect them. Warren (1971, p.51) argues that “social workers not only are constrained by agency controls…they are constrained by their own attitude towards the client; they identify with him as a person who needs help and not like citizen demanding his legal rights”.

The target system talks about people whom the change agent system is trying to change to achieve its aims. An important aspect here is to establish the goals for change and then determine the specific people-the targets-that will have to be changed if the goals are to be reached. Some of the targets may agree to make changes and some of them might not or might be resistant. Pincus and Minahan discuss two important aspects in such a situation. First, the client system is not always the target to reach change goals. Second, it cannot be assumed that the target system always will be resistant to the change efforts. Client and target system often partially overlap. e.g, GC who is a target, and mother who is client’s system. The last, but not least social work system by Pincus and Minahan is the action system. It describes those whom the social worker deals in his efforts to accomplish the tasks and achieve the goals of the change effort. An action system can be used to obtain sanctions and a working agreement or contract, identify and study problem, establish goals for change or influence the major targets of change. Roland Warren was one of the first who used the term “action system” to describe new systems created to perform community action tasks. Depending on a situation, the action system could be a new system so members of that system can directly interact between each other.

When talking about a change it is very important not to forget the issue of values and ethics. It is impossible to structure an effective change effort in which an implicit or explicit imposition of values is totally absent. Thompson (2005) says that “values are an important influence in our actions and attitudes, they will encourage us to do certain things and to avoid certain others (…) they are very strong force in shaping people’s behaviour and responses to situations”. Values are beliefs, preferences or assumptions about what is desirable. Values like those that call for the worker to respect the client, maximise client’s self-determination, maintain a non-judgemental attitude, observe the confidentiality of the client’s communications and be honest in dealing with client can be seen as primary social work values. Knowledge and values serve different functions, technical and ethical issues are often complexly interrelated in practice, and separating them is a difficult job. The distinction between knowledge and values should keep social worker aware of their own values. The awareness is an important first step in coping with the value dilemmas that are inherent in the change agent role. To cope with ethical doubt of the change agent role, the social worker must maintain a balance between flexibility and integrity. Self-awareness, technical expertise and tolerance will help in this task.

Case study- Implementing Theory to Practice

As a social worker I need to decide on purpose and relationships in working with GC and his surrounding network. GC’S natural system would be his mother who lives nearby and visits him every Sunday to take him out for a day, his father who lives in Scotland comes to see GC every three months and his sister who currently lives in Australia keeps up to date with news via e-mails and post. He also has a niece, who sends him photos and cards. His societal system is a Day Centre he currently attends.

My role was to link GC with systems that would provide him with resources, services and opportunities. GC is a very active person and there are days when he can hardly sit down. He likes to walk around the unit. My idea was to find him some sort of walking club where he could go out for a day and do some walking. Luckily, there was a local club, which organizes “walking activity” every other week. I thought it could be a good idea to sign him in and link him with a new formal system in order to help him with a new experience. I then discussed this with GC as well as his mother and we all decided that it would be a good idea for someone from his current network system to join him for the first session. It was thought that this might minimise stress and anxiety of being in a new environment. In this task I acted as a change agent, as a person inside a social system, who attempts to bring about change in this system. I deliberately described myself as a person “inside” the system, because immediately when I started to work with GC, his family and other professionals, I became a part of GC’s system.

About a month ago I found out that the Day Centre GC attends will be closing this summer. It will be a very stressful experience for GC as well as his natural system, which will be disturbed. I contacted GC’s mother and father and informed them about this matter. We had spoken about different possibilities and other day centres that may be available for their son. New informal systems may not provide the help that GC needs. After being moved to the new Day Centre, he may lack an informal helping system e.g. being new in a community and not to having any friends around him. Also, societal systems might be disrupted. GC might stop going to the walking club because of the location of the new day centre and distance between those two resources.

In general informal, formal and societal systems may not provide resources or services or opportunities, because the needed resource might not exist or may not provide appropriate help. People also might be unaware that such a resource exists or might hesitate to turn for help. The question was: what tasks GC will face in making the transition from one environment to another? In an attempt to answer this I note that he has informal helpers, such as family, who can support him throughout the process. Major change in GC’s societal system (Day Centre) is largely influenced by his natural, informal system. There will be a significant change to GC’s existing system and the new Day centre will become his new system, a system where members are not engaged in direct interaction with one another but whom a worker will coordinate and work with to change a target on behalf of a client. Therefore change agents may work with a number of different types of action systems at different steps in their change efforts. I advocated on behalf of GC to keep him in a current walking club, he attends and enjoys the most (formal system). Therefore, the first dimension of the social work frame of reference directs attention to the tasks people are confronted with, within social situations and the resources and conditions necessary for facilitating the performance of these tasks. This is the reason I used systems theory for GC. I also mentioned above about the target and client system overlapping. GC’s medication has been recently changed and his behaviour dramatically altered. He started showing aggressiveness and indifference towards his mother. Ms C asked me to somehow help GC to deal with the changes in his medication. I discovered that her behaviour contributes to GC’s problem. She was very sad and anxious recently and GC clearly noticed that. Before starting to work with GC I had to explain to Ms C that her negative emotions have a negative impact on GC’s behaviour and possibly she could use some help as well. In this case she became a target. It is also important to work with GC’s GP and community nurse who are part of his system. I urged medical professional to work closely with the family and myself to ensure everything is going well.

There is also number of criticism around systems theory. In social work interpretations of systems theory, however, and particularly that of Pincus and Minahan, Evans (1976) argues that there is a hidden assumption that all systems are independent. Devore (1983) argues that the life model is better at dealing with social class, ethnic and cultural differences and lifestyle than many other theories, but still lacks specificity in dealing with issues affecting black people.

Siporin (1980) criticise systems theory for not taking into account incompatibilities of class interest in capitalist societies and how these prevent any integration in such a society. The theory itself was also criticised for providing a framework of understanding that does not specify clearly the level and type of interventions required in particular circumstances.

System theory tends to assume that conflict is less desirable than maintenance and integration, which may not be true in practice (Leghninger, 1978). He also says that not everything is relevant and many things may not fit into a general plan, deciding on boundaries could be complex or even impossible, and it may be assumed that things are related in a system without checking to see if they actually are.

Nevertheless, Mancoske argues that in its social work formulations, the criticisms of systems theory as ‘static’ are weak, because usually considerable attention is given to change both individual and social.


I have to admit, that at the very beginning of my work with GC I was very apprehensive about using systems theory. After reading Pincus and Minahan’s “Social work practice: model and method” I found some of the aspects very complex and terminology used by them, difficult to remember and sometimes to understand. Surprisingly, Germain (1979) shares my anxiety and thinks that systems theory and technical language very often alienates social workers from using this theory as a result.

Payne (2005) argued that systems concepts were brought into social work as a reaction against psychodynamic theory, which focused on the human mind. In my opinion systems theory is very holistic framework, which helps social workers to view their workplace, agency in much wider concept. I think that out of all concepts that constitute general systems theory, the concept of boundaries is the most useful for social work practitioners. Boundaries are defining limits within this theory. They signify what is inside and what is outside system. GC has lots of emotional issues which could have been much more resolved with different approach, e.g. like task centred approach. I also observed that system theory has a number of limitations, for example it does not adequately deal with things like class, race, gender, power relations or conflict. I learnt that no single theory can explain a person’s situation. System approach also helped me to understand how families act and what the dynamics within the family are. On GC’s case I also learnt how important environmental changes can affect family dynamic. Social work is about having knowledge of a wide range of theories which gave me a more holistic understanding and how to be eclectic in my approach. I am finding very important drawing upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories in particular cases. Applying systems theory into practice has also added dimension to my personal and professional values and have had a major impact on my work within my practice placement.

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