Social Work Theory for Practice

WEEK 1:   Social Work Theory for Practice



Social work as a professional activity draws upon a knowledge base and is guided by a set of ethical principles.   Throughout this course, we will have a close look at what constitutes social work knowledge. In addition, we will explore the functions or uses of social work knowledge.  All of this is underpinned by ethics and we will be constantly referring to our Code of Ethics and thinking about the challenges of ethical decision making in practice.


Social work practice is about putting together three factors: knowledge + values/ethics + skills



You will find this often referred to as our “practice framework”. Over the next 2 years, you will be working hard to develop your own distinctive “practice framework” to guide you on your initial foray into professional social work.  Of course with experience, our practice frameworks change over time, but you might find that many core factors remain the same for you.


As social workers, we are always aiming to help our client/s, often with the desire to reduce pain or suffering or hardship, and to build resilience and capacity to help themselves in the future. One of the cardinal rules is of course to make sure that whatever action we do take, we don’t make the situation worse.  In other words, DO NO HARM.  I am sure that many of you can think of examples from history where actions were taken with the best of intentions (usually) and yet had terrible consequences for many people.  (e.g. adoption practices in the past). This is why it is so important that social workers be confident about the knowledge-base that support our practice. We need to know why we do what we do, and what the likely impact (short & long term) will be.  This is where theoretical knowledge becomes so important, as it underpins our knowledge, and therefore, our actions (practice).  We need to act ethically, using interventions that are known to work or at least be beneficial.



Social Work Knowledge


There is lots of debate about the source of social work knowledge. For a start, what do we know and how do we know it?  What accounts as knowledge in social work? It is an ‘Art’ or a ‘Science’? You can ponder this question later on.  However, what will be obvious from reading your text and other sources (Chenoweth & McAuliffe, 2012; Healy, 2005; O’Connor, Wilson & Setterlund, 2003) is that social work draws its knowledge from a wide range of disciplines. Can you think of some?


Not only does social work draw from psychology, sociology, psychiatry, economics, biological sciences (including medicine, genetics, environmental science), philosophy, law, the arts and more, it also has its own ‘practice theory’, drawn from the interrelationship between theory and practice experience.



So what sorts of knowledge do Social Workers need to know? We certainly need to know something about human development (stages of life), and we also need to know about social processes and institutions (power, government, ideology, law & order, social institutions like the family, religion, bureaucracies). We also need to know a lot about interpersonal, group, community and organisational dynamics.





Types of social work knowledge



Theory – schemas that organise or explain


Empirical knowledge – gained from research


Procedural knowledge – legislative, policy, organisational


Practice wisdom – gained from experience


Personal knowledge – common sense, cultural, intuitive    (Trevithick 2012)




Defining theory


According to Chenoweth and McAuliffe (2012), a theory is a way of making sense of the world.   It is a way of viewing the world and explaining how objects, people and situations work (Howe, 1987). Trevithick (2012) talks about ‘informal and formal’ theories.  In our daily lives, we informally theorise all the time. It is how we explain things that are happening in our lives or communities.  For example, current affairs shows are full of so-called experts who theorise about why people behave the way they do, and some of the answers they come up with are a long way from scientifically valid!



There are however, many ‘formal’ theories, some of which we call Grand Theories, like Marxism, Liberalism, Feminism and Capitalism. Grand theories tend to try to explain how the world works, and are of course, open to debate, criticism and fashion. Postmodernism challenges all of these ‘grand’ theories, saying that there can be no ‘universal truth’.


Next we have ‘informal’ theories which incorporate broader ideas about the world and how it functions.  Informal theories tend to reflect our moral, or political or cultural views and are more closely related to practice wisdom and experience.



Then there is ‘practice theory’ which guides and explains social work practice. Payne (2014 p9) talks about 4 different types of practice theories


  1. Perspectives (eg Humanist, Feminist)
  2. Frameworks (eg Systems, Ecological)
  3. Models (eg Task-centred or Crisis Intervention)
  4. Explanatory (eg Cognitive Behavioural theory)



But of course, social work practice is more than the mechanical application of knowledge or theory. Social work has a purpose, which is related to its values of social justice, human rights, equity, access, respect – in other words, its values and ethics.  This is what underpins social work knowledge and practice. Our behaviour as social workers is governed by a set of principles, which are set out in the AASW Code of Ethics.  Of course, acting ethically is not always clear-cut or easy. We are challenged constantly by ethical issues in practice. Finding the balance between individual autonomy, freedom and justice, as opposed to the collective good and our responsibility to society and others – can be very challenging.  Our own values come into play and we need to be well aware of how our values affect our decision-making and practice.


Thus our knowledge about human behaviour, human rights, justice, oppression, duty, responsibility, racism and power helps us to think about right and wrong and the impact on others of how society is organised. Thus our practice is greatly determined by our knowledge, our professional ethics and our personal values.


The social construction of social work theory


Payne (2014) and others (Healy 2014, Trevithick 2012) talk about the social construction of social work theory and practice.  Many of you will be very familiar with the concept of ‘social construction’ but it is still worth noting its vital importance in our practice.  Payne highlights how theory and practice is socially constructed through the interactions between clients, practitioners, the agencies we work in, as well as the political, social and cultural contexts in which we live and practice (p 3).   The good thing about having a ‘social constructionist’ perspective is that it is founded on the idea of change; that ‘interactions’ are constantly evolving and changing.  While change is usually incremental and slow, it can also be revolutionary and sudden (eg the social revolutions in Western society during the 1960’s and 70’s).


Ideology and political views play a big part in the social construction of social work practice, particularly in the types of approaches to interventions undertaken by social work agencies.  Payne talks about “the politics of theory’ (2014 p 20) and the link between these political influences on the objectives of social work practice.  It is very important for you to understand these different perspectives because they influence the range of policy responses and programs implemented for different groups within society.


Payne (2014 pp 20-23) describes these as


  1. Empowerment (which have their political foundation in social democratic beliefs); a therapeutic approach that seeks to empower people to achieve growth and self-fulfillment.
  2. Social change (politically founded on socialist beliefs about the need for emancipatory structural change, ending oppression, promoting mutuality and reducing power imbalances). It is sometimes known as ‘transformational change’ which we focus on next semester in 7062HSV.
  • Problem-solving (based on a liberalist political viewpoint) which tends to have an individual focus on assisting those in need and providing appropriate welfare services to off-set the more negative impacts of our capitalist economic system, and to ensure social stability and order.





Now go to the Discussion Board and respond to the question posed for Week 1.


NB:   Remember that your posts will form part of your assessment.  I am looking for thoughtful, reflective and critically analytical responses that demonstrate your engagement with the text.