Six 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?” Studying theory ensures that aspiring professionals are both competent and confident when the time comes to apply social work theories to practice.

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 and identify potential solutions.

A crucial objective of learning social work theories is to train and encourage social workers to set aside personal assumptions and beliefs when engaging in social work practice. Social workers should use evidence-based theories to investigate issues and drive their decision making.

University of Denver

Graduate School of Social Work


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

Graduate School of Social Service


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.


Applying social work theory to practice

Social work theory provides a starting point for social workers 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 the challenges they face. A good grasp of theory that is backed by research-based scientific evidence helps guide social workers by providing them with a sense of direction and purpose.

One challenge when applying social work theories to practice is choosing the right theory for the situation. 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 workers can use this theory to better understand how role models affect the behaviors and emotions of their clients. Social learning theory can also help social workers form intervention strategies that use positive modeling and reinforcement to encourage their clients to engage in new positive behaviors.

2. Systems theory

Systems theory proposes that people are products of complex systems, rather than individuals who act in isolation. According to 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.

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

Psychosocial development theory explains that humans pass through these stages as they age. By identifying which stage of development their clients are experiencing, social workers can better understand the challenges their clients face.

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’ current behavior.

5. Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory suggests 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 their clients’ relationships,  including 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. This 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, by weighing risks, costs and benefits. This theory suggests that all choices are rational because people calculate the costs and benefits before making a decision. Even when a choice seems irrational, there is reasoning behind it.

This theory can help social workers understand the decision-making processes and motivations of their clients.

Six practice models in social work

Social work practice models enable social workers to implement theories in their day-to-day work. 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, which can sometimes lead to psychological problems. Social workers using cognitive behavioral therapy methods help clients identify self-destructive thoughts that influence negative emotions and behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used for 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 negative thoughts to prevent destructive behaviors and adverse outcomes.

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:

  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 can be 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 helping the individual recognize that they have the power to change their life story, also known as the narrative. Narrative therapy helps individuals realize that they are separate from their problems and can fix them when they view the narrative from an outside perspective.

Using narrative therapy, a social worker can help an individual create a new narrative with different positive actions. The social worker enables the individual to understand how the broader context is contributing to their narrative, so that they can be aware of pitfalls to avoid and can utilize various strategies 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.” Using 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.

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 cope with challenges using specific behaviors. Instead of focusing on changing who a client is, solution-focused therapy attempts to change a client’s actions in certain situations to achieve more favorable outcomes.

Collaborating to create solutions allows the client to play an active role in implementing necessary actions and achieving positive change.

6. Task-centered practice

Using 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 consistent steps toward improving their lives.

Instead of focusing on the past, this type of practice encourages clients to live in the present and think about how completing 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 and includes articles offering critical analysis of systemic and psychodynamic theory.
  • Journal of Social Work: This journal includes social work research and short “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. edX does not receive any form of compensation for these links.

Other online resources

  • 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 (PDF, 135 KB).”
  • 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.

Science-based social work theory helps social workers and their clients succeed

Social work theory helps professionals in the field identify and implement effective 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.

Are you considering a career in social work? Read more about the field of social work and the steps to becoming a social worker, which can vary by location. 

Last updated: November 2023