Social Work Theory and Methods

Social Work Theory and Methods Comparison Table

Theory Key Concepts Advantages Limitations Situations where this
may be useful
Systems Theory People are not isolated
individuals but operate
as part of wider
networks or “systems”
Systems may be
informal (e.g. family or
friends), formal (e.g.
clubs, support groups)
or public (schools,
Difficulties may arise if
there is a lack of fit
between the person
and the systems they
operate within.
Systems can be
employed to support
the service user to
achieve change.
Emphasis on changing
environments rather
than individuals.
Focus on patterns
rather than “cause and
effect” – allows for
different ways of
getting to the desired
Sees worker as part of
a system of change
rather than solely
responsible – may
lend itself to multi
disciplinary work.
Does not explain why
things happen or give
guidance about how to
act to bring about
May overemphasise
“bigger picture” at the
expense of details.
Values maintenance
and integration over
conflict – may not
explicitly challenge
inequality. Does not
encourage challenge
of oppressive systems.
Ecological Approach Germain and
Gitterman – “Life
model” (1980 / 1996) –
people are
interdependent with
each other and their
environment – each
influences the other
over time.
People move through
their own unique life
course and may
Acknowledgement of
between person and
Consideration of a
range of resources to
support people – both
internal and external.
As above.


encounter “stressors”
– some of which may
make them feel they
cannot cope.
People employ coping
mechanisms and draw
on resources in the
environment, social
networks and inner
Task Centred Approach Brief work within
explicit time limits
approach between
worker and service
user – based on a
Systematic work
Includes some
behavioural ideas but
mainly a cognitive
Usual to take action to
get what you want
Action guided by
beliefs about self and
Time-limits help
motivate service users
People may “get stuck”
if they have to deal
with a certain issue
over and over
Problems defined as
“unsatisfied wants”
Clear and
Short timescale may
help people feel more
Well supported by
Service users
supported to take
control of own life.
Can increase service
user’s coping skills to
deal with issues in the
Strengths based
approach which
assumes that service
users can overcome
problems with the right
Not effective where
there are longer-term
psychological issues
Not effective where
service user doesn’t
accept the right of the
agency to be involved.
May oversimplify
issues people face
Some people may be
too overwhelmed by
the issues they face to
have the energy to
address them.
Does not really
address power
differentials between
service user and
May not address
structural issues of
power and oppression


Crisis Intervention Brief intervention –
deals with immediate
issues rather than
longer term problems
Based on ego
psychology and
models – serious
events have an impact
on the way people
think about themselves
and their emotional
Assumes we live in
“steady state” – able to
cope with change
Crises upset the
steady state and
provide opportunity to
improve skills / risk of
Period of disorganised
thinking / behaving
Crises can reawaken
unresolved issues
from the past but offer
a chance to correct
non-adjustment to past
Help people to deal
with major events or
life transitions
Can incorporate other
theories – solution
focussed / cognitive
Time-limited and task
May not help people
who experience
“continual crises”
Does not address
issues around poverty
or social exclusion
approach / Rational
Emotive Behaviour
Rather than being an
“insight based therapy”
it uses techniques
from behaviourism,
Many empirical studies
to suggest
(although evidence
Directive approach
Starts from the
assumption of deficit,
ie the service user is


social learning theory
and cognitive theory.
Based on the
assumption that our
thoughts, beliefs,
images and attitudes
influence our
behaviour and if these
are changed, our
behaviour will change.
“Self-talk” reinforces
irrational thinking.
Involves identifying
and reframing
unhelpful beliefs.
Worker teaches
service user to
challenge own beliefs.
Can involve modifying
behaviour using a
system of rewards.
Use of ABC system –
activating event –
belief – consequence
and Ellis (1962)
extends to DEF –
Dispute beliefs,
replace beliefs with
Effective rational
belief, describe the
Feelings which will be
the result.
around degree of
effectiveness is
Can be used to
support service users
to increase their
problem solving skills
and coping skills.
Effective over a wide
range of issues.
lacking something.
Requires a high level
of knowledge and skill
to apply.
Focussed on the
presenting issues
rather than addressing
“Much behaviour may
be perceived to be
emotionally driven and
irrational, when it
represents.. a rational
response to very
upsetting and
experiences. (Lindsay,
Doesn’t take account
of socio-economic
Applied form of CBT,
developed by Miller
and Rollnick (1991,
Accepts change must
come from intrinsic
motivation and cannot
Usage and research
around effectiveness
have been largely


2002) defined as “a
directive method for
enhancing an intrinsic
motivation to change
by exploring and
Worker adopts an
empathic and non
approach but worker is
Worker is alert to
language person uses
and looks for language
of change.
Worker provides
education / information
about situation the
service user is in (e.g.
effects of smoking /
drinking alcohol /
taking drugs etc)
Worker encourages
service user to list
benefits and costs of
lifestyle and alternative
Explore barriers to
Reframe past events –
focus on more positive
Supported by an
be forced upon people.
Supports people to
explore their
ambivalence around
Accepts that people
may “lapse” but this is
part of learning
around addictive


understanding of the
cycle of change
(Prochaska and
DiClemente 1986)
[Pre-contemplation /
contemplation /
decision / active
changes /
maintenance / lapse.
Cognitive approach
Focus on
solutions rather than
on problems
Originates from
Milwaukee Centre for
Brief Therapy
Post-modern therapy
based on theories of
language and
Uses knowledge of
service users
Avoids diagnostic
labelling – considers
this disempowering
Focus on difference
and exceptions
Person is not the
Assessment based on
strengths not deficits
Talking can construct
Distinction between
Co-operative therapy
with a wide application
Emphasis on listening
to the service user’s
Seek solutions with the
service user’s life
Can fit with anti
oppressive practice
and be empowering.
Least intrusive – takes
easiest route to
Reduces risk of
“dependency” on
Optimistic approach
which assumes
change is possible.
Time limited.
May not fit with
agency’s own
May not be suitable for
people who have
difficulty responding to
Feminist critique of
language being
constructed by men
therefore language not
reflecting women’s
Approach of
understanding solution
without understanding
problem could be
Focus on behaviour
and perception rather
than feelings may limit
May not be effective
with people in crisis or
people with very low
self-esteem who may


“problems” and
“unhappy situations.”
Problems can be
addressed, “unhappy
situations” have to be
coped with.
Encourages sense of
“personal agency.”
not accept that they
have strengths and
Person Centred
(nb different to Person
Centred Care)
Based on the work of
Carl Rogers
Sets out the principles
of empathy,
congruence and
unconditional positive
regard as necessary in
the helping
Based on the idea that
everyone has the
capacity to develop
and grow.
Allows people to find
their own way in their
own time.
Values all forms of
Resists temptation to
criticise people.
Emphasis on building
an equal and
meaningful working
relationship with
service users.
Widely applicable
across service user
Affirms the dignity and
worth of all people
Role of SW may not
allow for non-directive
approach. Not a time
limited approach.
Difficult to apply if
service user not
motivated to engage.
Focuses on individual
change rather than
societal factors,
although allows
individuals to express
their own goals which
may not be the agenda
of mainstream society.
Psychosocial Model Based on the idea that
people have inner
worlds and outer
Certain events remind
us of past events we
Can help with
recurring emotional
Way of understanding
seemingly “irrational”
Focussed on a
medical model of
individual pathology.
Tends to ignore issues
of power and


have tried to block out.
Events can take on
greater emotional
People develop in a
series of stages and
“faulty personality
development” in
childhood can affect
our responses later in
Draws on “personality
theory” – id, ego,
superego and looks at
defence mechanisms.
Considers “defence
mechanisms” we
deploy to protect the
Emphasises the
importance of self
Influenced a listening,
accepting attitude in
social workers
People can be
empowered by insight
into what is going on
within themselves and
between themselves
and the outside world.
Social workers act as
– use of clinical jargon.
Tendency to focus on
cause and effect.
Can lead to service
users being labelled –
“resistant” and can
lead to victim blaming.
May not be culturally
appropriate – based
on valuing self-growth
and self-awareness
which are not norms
shared across all
Recovery Model Model used in Mental
Health services which
emphasises recovery
rather than illness.
Recovery does not
necessarily mean
being “symptom-free”
but regaining a sense
of control and purpose
Not being defined by a
label or diagnosis.
Recognises strengths
of the individual.
Open to possibilities
for the future – return
to employment or
Individuals viewed as
experts in their own
Positive approach
which attempts to give
control back to the
Can challenge
authority of medical
profession and thus
not be accepted /
implemented in some
MH services.
Currently mainly used
in MH services – but
could have broader


Narrative Approach SW encourages the
person to describe
their life in their own
Opportunity to tell their
story, an in the
process define identity.
SW can support the
person to feel in
control of the narrative
and draw their
attention to the
possibility of a different
narrative for the future.
Can help people
understand the
pressures they have
faced and the impact
of discrimination and
Can help people make
sense of change and
adjust to new
SWs may see the
discussion as
“rambling” or “off the
point” and try to cut off
the person’s narrative.
The person or their
family may ask for a
“solution” and not see
the value in the

Key References
Coulshed, V;
Social Work Practice; 2nd ed (1991) Macmillan, Basingstoke and London.
Lindsay, T (ed) ;
Social Work Intervention; (2009) Learning Matters Ltd, Exeter.
Maclean, S and Harrison, R:
Social Work Theory;(2008); Kirwan Maclean Associates, Rugeley.
Milner, J and O’Byrne; P:
Assessment in Social Work; (1998) Macmillan; London and Basingstoke.
Payne, M;
Modern Social Work Theory; 3rd ed (2005) Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke & New York.
Trevithick, P;
Social Work Skills, A Practice Handbook; 1st ed (2000) OU Press, Buckingham & Philadelphia