Social Work Theories

Social Work Theories

Dec, 20 2020
Social Skills /

There are tons of social work theories out there. Whether you're a social worker or just striving for a little more knowledge, learning a few of them is beneficial.

Below we've broken down the 12 most common theories and how you can practically apply them.

Common Social Work Theories

If you're looking for a quick breakdown of different social work theories, you've found it. The key takeaway highlights a basic understanding of each theory, while the subsequent text breaks everything down a bit more.

Conflict Theory

Key takeaway – Conflict theory is about accepting that all societies have inequalities.

Conflict theory highlights the power differences in society. It dictates that all societies have elements of inequality, and these elements lead to differences in an individual's quality of life.

For social workers, this means that you recognize that there are power disparities in society, and these power disparities affect the options and decisions of those subjected to them. Conflict theory highlights inequalities in society.

Family Life Cycle Theory

Key takeaway – Family life cycle theory recognizes that individuals have different roles and responsibilities depending on their current stage in life.

There are transitional steps in life, including independence, marriage, parenting, senior years, and more. When a person transitions to a new portion of their life, relationships are realigned, and they reconsider their personal roles.

Social work is involved with family life cycle theory for two reasons. First, the social worker needs to understand the current stage in a person's life to recognize the appropriate way to respond. From there, the social worker needs to identify normal behaviors for each life cycle to identify dysfunction and work to remedy the situation.

Rational Choice Theory

Key takeaway – Rational individuals make decisions, and people make these decisions using information available to develop the best course of action.

Social workers can utilize rational choice theory to try and understand why individuals are making specific decisions with the information that they have. It states that people are trying to make the best decisions with the knowledge that they have available.

With more information and options, dysfunctional relationships and decisions will make less sense, and people will be less likely to pursue them.

Developmental Theory

Key takeaway – Developmental theory is about reducing inequalities found in society.

While conflict theory recognizes inherent inequities in all societies, the developmental theory states that societies can advance towards positive change to eliminate or reduce those inequities.

Developmental social work understands that the world has inequities and works with the affected individuals to reduce the inequalities. Whether that is through material support by helping clients access public services or resources or teaching them how to make the most out of economic opportunities.

Humanistic Theory

Key takeaway – All people are trying to achieve personal goals to provide a purpose in their life.

The humanistic theory states that everyone is continuously striving to achieve personal objectives. How we seek to achieve these objectives may vary, and that's where social workers step in.

Social workers can benefit from humanistic theory by understanding that their clients are trying to achieve personal goals and seek meaning and a purpose in their lives.

Social workers can offer support to help individuals reach these goals, which allows the clients to develop a more substantial personal identity and healthier relationships.

Furthermore, social workers can help their clients understand their underlying objectives and find the purpose or meaning that they are looking for.

Psychodynamic Theory

Key takeaway – People's behavior comes from both conscious and unconscious psychological processes.

Psychodynamic theory gets its roots from Sigmund Freud, who championed the idea that many of our decisions and behaviors come from unconscious psychological processes. By understanding the basis for the unconscious behaviors, it is easier to identify dysfunctional actions' roots.

Social workers need to understand conscious decisions do not cause all behavior, and if they want to get to the root of the dysfunction, they need to understand what caused the unconscious dysfunction.

Often, this means getting a client the psychological help they need to become productive members of society, families, or themselves.

Psychosocial Development Theory

Key takeaway – People develop according to specific developmental patterns and external factors.

Psychosocial development theory builds off Erik Erikson's identified stages of development. Erikson proposed that people have set stages of development, but he proposed that we transition through each stage due to a social crisis.

Social workers apply psychosocial development theory by understanding that how a person responds to specific situations depends on how they transitioned through developmental stages in their life.

They understand that growth and development can become stunted or dysfunctional by interrupted or incomplete transitions.

Grounded Theory

Key takeaway – All theories need data and analysis to back them up.

Grounded theory is the social work equivalent of the scientific method. However, in the scientific method, you start with a hypothesis and run experiments to test it. In grounded theory, you only reach a conclusion after you analyze the data.

Grounded theory has many practical applications for social work. It primarily comes into play when identifying problems and ways to potentially remedy them. If you need to allocate resources to try and fix a problem, the grounded theory provides a framework for identifying the issues that need addressing.

Transpersonal Theory

Key takeaway – People can become connected to things greater than themselves through spiritual and transcendent aspects.

The transpersonal theory states that consciousness extends past just the boundaries of personal identity. Humans strive for a connection to something bigger than themselves, whether that's through religion or a connection to their community or family.

Social workers can use this to establish an end goal for their clients and develop a path to reach it.

Systems Theory

Key takeaway – Everything is connected, and one event has effects on another.

Systems theory states that both natural and human-made events occur, and these events of ripple effects change and influence future behavior and events. Systems theory applies to social workers because every part of a client's life affects the rest of their life.

You can't take a single event and isolate it because everything is interconnected.

Social Constructionist Theory

Key takeaway – People construct reality from both objective and subjective views.

The social constructionist theory states that reality comes from objective facts and shared meanings within a community. What might make sense and be the best course of action in one community might not make any sense in another.

Social workers need to understand that shared meanings and potential outcomes change according to the community the client is in. What might work for one client might not work for another – and both approaches can be entirely valid.

Social Learning Theory

Key takeaway – The behavior of those around us affects the way we think and what we find acceptable.

Social learning theory states that we observe and emulate the behaviors around us, especially during our formative years. The more we see people behaving a certain way, the more likely we'll find that behavior to be acceptable.

This is important for social workers as if you can identify where dysfunctional behavior comes from. It's more likely that they will be able to develop and implement effective corrective strategies.


Whether you're looking to become a social worker or just want a little more information on the human experience, social work theories are a great way to think about things from a different perspective.

Some of these theories contradict a bit but applied to different situations, but they all help the world make a bit more sense.

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