6 Important Theories in Social Work

Social work theories attempt to describe, explain and predict social events based on scientific evidence, studies and research. Social work perspectives draw from psychology, philosophy, economics, education and other fields to attempt to explain what drives and motivates people at various stages of life.

Some social work students studying for a bachelor’s degree in social work or master of social work may wonder, “Why is theory important in social work?” Social workers learn a variety of theories so they’re prepared to apply social work theory to practice. That ensures competence in social work, which can increase social worker confidence.

Why Is Theory Important in Social Work?

Social work theories help social workers analyze cases, understand clients, create interventions, predict intervention results and evaluate outcomes. While the theories are constantly evolving as new evidence is produced, referencing social work theories that have been used over time enables social workers to explore causes of behavior. They can then help their clients find the best solutions.

Learning about various social work theories helps remind social workers that their personal assumptions and beliefs should be suspended during social work practice. Social workers should use evidence-based theories to investigate issues and drive their practice, instead of applying their own attitudes, reactions and moods to client work.

Applying Social Work Theory to Practice

Social work theory provides a starting point for social workers to create interventions and plan their work. It gives social workers a way to address client problems through a research-based lens.

The theories help social workers better understand complex human behaviors and social environments, which influence their clients’ lives and problems. A good grasp of theory helps guide social workers by providing them with a sense of direction, purpose and control by using research-based scientific evidence in theory.

One challenge of applying social work theories to practice is choosing the right theory for the situation at hand. It can be difficult to assign a single theory to complex client issues. Often, it’s more practical to draw upon the knowledge of multiple theories and use that understanding to design multifaceted interventions.

List of Important Social Work Theories

The following list of social work theories includes some of the most widely referenced theories used in social work.

1. Social learning theory

Social learning theory, which is also known as social cognitive theory, was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura. This theory posits that learning occurs by observing others and modeling their behavior.

In order for social learning to occur, a person must want to emulate the person they’re watching. The individual pays close attention to the action and retains the action in memory. Then, the individual must experience a situation where the behavior can be repeated and must be motivated to repeat the behavior.

Social learning theory relates to social work because social workers may want to understand how role models affect the behaviors and moods in those they work with. Social learning theory can also help social workers form intervention strategies that use positive modeling and reinforcement to create new positive behaviors in their clients.

2. Systems theory

Systems theory proposes that people are products of complex systems, rather than individuals who act in isolation. In this theory, behavior is influenced by a variety of factors that work together as a system. These factors include family, friends, social settings, religious structure, economic class and home environment, which can all influence how individuals act and think.

Systems theory can be used to treat issues like eating disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, school trauma and risky behavior. In ecological systems theory, individuals are observed in multiple environments so that behavior is fully understood. Family systems theory examines the family as a social system influencing behavior and thoughts.

Social workers using systems theory will work to understand how their clients are influenced by the systems they’re a part of. Social workers then identify where systemic breakdowns are affecting behavior.

3. Psychosocial development theory

Psychosocial development theory was introduced by German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who believed personality develops in a series of stages. Erikson created an eight-stage theory of psychosocial development. According to the theory, the eight stages of development that people pass through in life are:

  1. Trust versus mistrust
  2. Autonomy versus shame and doubt
  3. Initiative versus guilt
  4. Industry versus inferiority
  5. Identity versus confusion
  6. Intimacy versus isolation
  7. Generativity versus stagnation
  8. Integrity versus despair

In psychosocial development theory, humans are believed to go through these stages as they age. Psychosocial development theory can influence social workers, who can look at what stage of development their clients are going through and use the theory to better understand the challenges their clients are experiencing during certain stages of psychosocial development.

4. Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theory was introduced by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. This theory is founded on the idea that humans are biologically driven to seek gratification. The theory states that people do this based on processes that have developed outside of conscious awareness, with origins in childhood experiences. This drive influences everyday behavior, leading to actions like aggression, sex and self-preservation.

In social work, psychodynamic theory can help to explain the internal processes individuals use to guide their behavior, some of which may be unconsciously motivated. Social workers may also examine how early childhood experiences have played a role in influencing their clients’ behavior today.

5. Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory originates with Austrian sociologist George Homans. It says that relationships are based on cost-benefit analysis. Each person seeks to maximize their benefits and is expected to reciprocate for the benefits they’ve received. When risks outweigh potential rewards, relationships may be abandoned. When one person in a relationship has greater personal resources than another, that person is predicted to have greater power as well.

Social workers can use social exchange theory to understand the relationships their clients have with others and why they continue to maintain certain relationships or abandon them.

Social exchange theory can also be applied to the techniques social workers use to connect with their clients. Social exchange theory can influence how social workers position the social worker-client relationship as one that benefits their clients.

6. Rational choice theory

Rational choice theory helps explain why people make the choices they do, as people weigh risks, costs and benefits before making decisions. This theory says that all choices are rational because people calculate the costs and benefits before making a decision. Even when a choice seems irrational, there was reasoning behind it.

This theory can help social workers understand the decision-making processes and motivations of their clients. Using rational choice theory, social workers can examine how their clients make decisions based on their rational preferences.

6 Practice Models in Social Work

Social work practice models are ways social workers can implement theories in their practice. Just like a social worker may use various theories to guide their interventions, social workers may also use various practice models depending on the problems their clients encounter.

1. Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on how thoughts and feelings influence behaviors, as well as how self-destructive behaviors can lead to psychological problems. Social workers using cognitive behavioral therapy methods help clients identify self-destructive thoughts and behaviors that influence negative emotions and behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used with individuals who are experiencing mental health issues, mental illness or depression resulting from crisis or trauma. Social workers using cognitive behavioral therapy help their clients eliminate destructive thoughts and behaviors and prevent negative outcomes from them.

2. Crisis intervention model

The crisis intervention model is used for clients who are experiencing crisis and trauma, such as victims of domestic violence, and for clients who require intervention to prevent physical harm or suicide. Albert R. Roberts, PhD, and Allen J. Ottens, PhD, developed a seven-stage crisis intervention model with the following stages:

  1. Take a psychosocial and lethality assessment.
  2. Rapidly establish rapport.
  3. Identify the major crisis cause(s).
  4. Enable the client to express their feelings and emotions.
  5. Generate and explore safe alternatives for coping.
  6. Create an action plan.
  7. Follow up after the intervention.

This social work model is commonly used for clients who are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm or who have undergone an acute crisis, like rape or violence.

3. Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy is the process of removing an individual from their problem(s) and helping the individual to see that they have the power to change their life story, also known as the narrative. Narrative therapy helps individuals realize that they are not their problems, but that they’re separate from them and can fix them when they view the narrative from an outside perspective.

Using narrative therapy, a social worker would help an individual to create a new narrative with different positive actions. The social worker helps an individual understand how the broader context is contributing to their narrative, so they can be aware of things to avoid and ways to tackle their problems.

4. Problem-solving model

The problem-solving model  was created by Helen Harris Perlman, a social worker and author of “Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process.” With the problem-solving model, a social worker helps an individual identify a problem, create an action plan to solve it and implement the solution. Together, the social worker and individual discuss the effectiveness of the problem-solving strategy and adjust it as necessary.

The problem-solving model enables the social worker and individual to focus on one concrete problem at a time. Perlman argued that this method is effective because long-term psychotherapy isn’t always necessary and can hinder an individual’s progress.

5. Solution-focused therapy

Solution-focused therapy involves the social worker and client identifying a problem and creating a solution based on the individual’s strengths. It’s a short-term practice model that focuses on helping clients to cope with challenges using specific behaviors. Instead of focusing on changing who a client is, solution-focused therapy concerns changing a client’s actions in certain situations to achieve more favorable outcomes.

In solution-focused therapy, the social worker and the client work together to devise solutions. This gives the client the opportunity to play an essential role in the positive changes they’re going to make and helps them to implement those changes since they had a role in suggesting them.

6. Task-centered practice

With task-centered practice, a social worker breaks down a problem into manageable tasks. The individual has deadlines to complete the tasks and agrees to meet them. Task-centered practice is a goal-setting form of social work that helps individuals make constant gains toward improving their lives.

Task-centered practice is a form of social work brief therapy, that provides time-limited treatments to move individuals closer to success as they complete tasks. Instead of focusing on the past, social workers using task-centered practice focus on the present and how the work individuals do on certain tasks will positively impact their future.

Resources to Explore Social Work Theories

Social work theories have been practiced over decades and continually evolve when new research is completed. Learn more about social work theories by exploring the resources below.


  • Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work: This journal features research on evidence-based practice in social work and evaluates social work theory, techniques and strategies.
  • Journal of Social Work Practice: This journal focuses on psychodynamic and systemic social work perspectives. It features research on theory and practice experience and includes articles offering critical analysis of systemic and psychodynamic theory.
  • Journal of Social Work: This journal includes social work research and shorter “think pieces” on social work theoretical understanding, policy and practice.
  • Social Work: This journal is the official journal of the National Association of Social Workers and features articles on social work and social welfare, including new techniques and research.
  • Clinical Social Work Journal: This journal features peer-reviewed articles on clinical social work practice with individuals, groups, families and couples. It also has articles on theory developments, practice and evidence-based clinical research.

Introductory books

Note: the links in this section on Social Work Theory all go to Google Books and are solely provided for your information. OnlineMSWPrograms.com does not receive any form of compensation for these links.

Other online resources

  • Theories of Social Work: This slideshow introduces social work theory, explains the use of social work theories in practice, covers social work theory limitations and briefly covers some specific social work theories.
  • NASW Clinical Social Work: This section of the National Association of Social Workers website covers clinical social work practice. It features content, publications and related resources for clinical social workers, like the NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice.
  • Encyclopedia of Social Work: The Encyclopedia of Social Work by the National Association of Social Workers Press and Oxford University Press features tools for applying social work theory to practice. These resources include scholarly articles and bibliographies.
  • Social Work Today: This publication features articles on current social work trends in categories like behavioral health, addictions, children and family, aging and professional practice.
  • Social Work Helper: This website features articles and videos on various social work topics and the latest news in social work.

Science-Based Social Work Theory Helps Social Workers and Their Clients Succeed

Social work theory helps social workers ensure competence when creating interventions for clients. An understanding of the most prominent social work theories gives social workers the tools they need to provide evidence-based treatment and help their clients overcome their problems. As social work theories continue to evolve and emerge, social workers can apply their multifaceted knowledge to unique situations and clients.

Want to learn more about social work or interested in becoming a social worker? See our article What is Social Work? or our step-by-step guide to becoming a social worker.

Published: February 2022