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Social Work Theory and Methods Comparison Table

Theory Key Concepts Advantages Limitations Situations where this

may be useful
Systems Theory  People are not isolated  Emphasis on changing  Does not explain why
individuals but operate environments rather things happen or give
as part of wider than individuals. guidance about how to
networks or "systems"  Focus on patterns act to bring about
 Systems may be rather than "cause and change.
informal (e.g. family or effect" – allows for  May overemphasise
friends), formal (e.g. different ways of "bigger picture" at the
clubs, support groups) getting to the desired expense of details.
or public (schools, outcome.  Values maintenance
hospitals)  Sees worker as part of and integration over
 Difficulties may arise if a system of change conflict – may not
there is a lack of fit rather than solely explicitly challenge
between the person responsible – may inequality. Does not
and the systems they lend itself to multi- encourage challenge
operate within. disciplinary work. of oppressive systems.
 Systems can be
employed to support
the service user to
achieve change.
Ecological Approach  Germain and  Acknowledgement of  As above.
Gitterman – "Life interrelationship
model" (1980 / 1996) between person and
-people are environment.
interdependent with  Consideration of a
each other and their range of resources to
environment – each support people – both
influences the other internal and external.
over time.
 People move through
their own unique life
course and may
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  Clear and  Not effective where
explicit time limits straightforward there are longer-term
 Collaborative  Short timescale may psychological issues
approach between help people feel more  Not effective where
worker and service committed service user doesn’t
user – based on a  Well supported by accept the right of the
contract. research agency to be involved.
 Systematic work  Service users  May oversimplify
 Includes some supported to take issues people face
behavioural ideas but control of own life.  Some people may be
mainly a cognitive  Can increase service too overwhelmed by
approach user's coping skills to the issues they face to
 Usual to take action to deal with issues in the have the energy to
get what you want future. address them.
 Action guided by  Strengths based  Does not really
beliefs about self and approach which address power
world assumes that service differentials between
 Time-limits help users can overcome service user and
motivate service users problems with the right worker.
 People may “get stuck” support.  May not address
if they have to deal structural issues of
with a certain issue power and oppression
over and over
 Problems defined as
“unsatisfied wants"
Crisis Intervention  Brief intervention –  Help people to deal  May not help people
deals with immediate with major events or who experience
issues rather than life transitions “continual crises”
longer term problems  Can incorporate other  Does not address
 Based on ego- theories – solution- issues around poverty
psychology and focussed / cognitive- or social exclusion
cognitive-behavioural behavioural
models – serious  Time-limited and task-
events have an impact focussed.
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

Cognitive-behavioural  Rather than being an  Many empirical studies  Directive approach

approach / Rational "insight based therapy" to suggest  Starts from the
Emotive Behaviour it uses techniques effectiveness (although assumption of deficit,
Therapy from behaviourism, evidence around ie the service user is
social learning theory degree of lacking something.
and cognitive theory. effectiveness is  Requires a high level
 Based on the disputed.) of knowledge and skill
assumption that our  Can be used to to apply.
thoughts, beliefs, support service users  Focussed on the
images and attitudes to increase their presenting issues
influence our problem solving skills rather than addressing
behaviour and if these and coping skills. causes.
are changed, our  Effective over a wide  "Much behaviour may
behaviour will change. range of issues. be perceived to be
 "Self-talk" reinforces emotionally driven and
irrational thinking. irrational, when it
 Involves identifying represents.. a rational
and reframing response to very
unhelpful beliefs. upsetting and
Worker teaches disturbing
service user to experiences. (Lindsay,
challenge own beliefs. 2009)
 Can involve modifying  Doesn't take account
behaviour using a of socio-economic
system of rewards. factors.
 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.
Motivational  Applied form of CBT,  Accepts change must  Usage and research
Interviewing developed by Miller come from intrinsic around effectiveness
and Rollnick (1991, motivation and cannot have been largely
2002) defined as "a be forced upon people. around addictive
person-centred  Supports people to behaviours
directive method for explore their
enhancing an intrinsic ambivalence around
motivation to change change.
by exploring and  Accepts that people
resolving may "lapse" but this is
ambivalence." part of learning
 Worker adopts an process.
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
understanding of the
cycle of change
(Prochaska and
DiClemente 1986)
[Pre-contemplation /
contemplation /
decision / active
changes /
maintenance / lapse.
Solution-Focussed  Cognitive approach  Co-operative therapy  May not fit with
Approach  Focus on with a wide application agency's own
understanding  Emphasis on listening procedures
solutions rather than to the service user’s  May not be suitable for
on problems story people who have
 Originates from  Seek solutions with the difficulty responding to
Milwaukee Centre for service user’s life questions
Brief Therapy  Can fit with anti-  Feminist critique of
 Post-modern therapy oppressive practice language being
based on theories of and be empowering. constructed by men
language and  Least intrusive – takes therefore language not
meaning. easiest route to reflecting women’s
 Uses knowledge of solutions experience.
service users  Reduces risk of  Approach of
 Avoids diagnostic "dependency" on understanding solution
labelling – considers worker. without understanding
this disempowering  Optimistic approach problem could be
 Focus on difference which assumes misunderstood
and exceptions change is possible.  Focus on behaviour
 Person is not the  Time limited. and perception rather
problem than feelings may limit
 Assessment based on efficacy.
strengths not deficits  May not be effective
 Talking can construct with people in crisis or
experience people with very low
self-esteem who may
 Distinction between not accept that they
“problems” and have strengths and
“unhappy situations.” skills.
Problems can be
addressed, “unhappy
situations” have to be
coped with.
 Encourages sense of
“personal agency.”

Person Centred  Based on the work of  Allows people to find  Role of SW may not
Approach Carl Rogers their own way in their allow for non-directive
(nb different to Person-  Sets out the principles own time. approach. Not a time-
Centred Care) of empathy,  Values all forms of limited approach.
congruence and experience.  Difficult to apply if
unconditional positive  Resists temptation to service user not
regard as necessary in criticise people. motivated to engage.
the helping  Emphasis on building  Focuses on individual
relationship. an equal and change rather than
 Non-directive meaningful working societal factors,
approach relationship with although allows
 Based on the idea that service users. individuals to express
everyone has the  Widely applicable their own goals which
capacity to develop across service user may not be the agenda
and grow. groups. of mainstream society.
 Affirms the dignity and
worth of all people
Psychosocial Model  Based on the idea that  Can help with  Focussed on a
people have inner recurring emotional medical model of
worlds and outer problems individual pathology.
realities.  Way of understanding Tends to ignore issues
 Certain events remind seemingly "irrational"
us of past events we behaviour of power and
have tried to block out.  Emphasises the oppression.
 Events can take on importance of self-  Social workers act as
greater emotional awareness. "mini-psychoanalysts"
significance.  Influenced a listening, – use of clinical jargon.
 People develop in a accepting attitude in  Tendency to focus on
series of stages and social workers cause and effect.
"faulty personality  People can be  Can lead to service
development" in empowered by insight users being labelled –
childhood can affect into what is going on "inadequate",
our responses later in within themselves and "narcissistic",
life. between themselves "manipulative",
 Draws on "personality and the outside world. "resistant" and can
theory" – id, ego, lead to victim blaming.
superego and looks at  May not be culturally
defence mechanisms. appropriate – based
 Considers "defence on valuing self-growth
mechanisms" we and self-awareness
deploy to protect the which are not norms
ego. shared across all
Recovery Model  Model used in Mental  Individuals viewed as  Can challenge
Health services which experts in their own authority of medical
emphasises recovery situation. profession and thus
rather than illness.  Positive approach not be accepted /
 Recovery does not which attempts to give implemented in some
necessarily mean control back to the MH services.
being "symptom-free" person.  Currently mainly used
but regaining a sense in MH services – but
of control and purpose could have broader
 Not being defined by a applicability.
label or diagnosis.
 Recognises strengths
of the individual.
 Open to possibilities
for the future – return
to employment or
Narrative Approach  SW encourages the  Can help people  SWs may see the
person to describe understand the discussion as
their life in their own pressures they have "rambling" or "off the
words. faced and the impact point" and try to cut off
 Opportunity to tell their of discrimination and the person's narrative.
story, an in the process oppression.  The person or their
define identity.  Can help people make family may ask for a
 SW can support the sense of change and "solution" and not see
person to feel in adjust to new the value in the
control of the narrative situations. approach.
and draw their
attention to the
possibility of a different
narrative for the future.

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