Social Work Theories. Introduction
Recognition of the importance of evidence and theory-based practice in social work has grown in recent years (Webb, 2001). Their importance in this field of work should be encouraged as early as possible. Students of social work should be encouraged to explore theories that can not only help them to better understand and work with service users but also help them to handle personal issues that may arise through the course of their work (Trotter and Leech, 2003). This essay will explore the advantages and disadvantages of three theories that are currently applied to social work practice and use them in the assessment, planning and intervention of a case study.
Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory was first developed by Albert Bandura and colleagues (1961, 1963, 1977) after they observed that children had a strong tendency to imitate adult role models who exhibited either aggressive or non-aggressive behaviour toward a life-sized doll known as ‘Bobo’. Furthermore, this imitation behaviour was strengthened when the role model was the same sex as the child. Bandura et al. (1961, 1963) concluded that children learn behaviour through observing the behaviour of adults around them. Since these early studies, there have been numerous other papers supporting social learning theory, especially in the arenas of crime, violence and aggression (Akers et al., 1979; Foshee, Bauman and Linder, 1999; Pratt et al., 2010). Social learning theory is applicable to social work because it provides an easy to understand theory by which social workers can understand the behaviour of service users. It is a theory to which most people can relate and can provide a relatively easy basis on which to build suitable interventions. Nevertheless, there were some concerns about the methodology of the Bobo doll study. For example, the study lacked ecological validity because the target of aggression was a toy and children may have been far less likely to have imitated aggression toward another person or an animal.
A strength of social learning theory is its high applicability to real life. It is an easy to understand theory and the concepts are clear, and it can therefore be applied by most people in a wide range of situations. It has also been found to be successful in accounting for and explaining a wide range of behaviours including binge drinking (Durkin, Wolfe and Clark, 2005), police misconduct (Chappell and Piquero, 2004) and even software piracy (Higgins, 2006). Therefore, another strength of social learning theory is that it can be tested empirically because it is possible to develop a study design that can demonstrate whether or not individuals learn behaviour through observing others carry out that behaviour. Social learning theory is able to account for the great variability of behaviour that individuals demonstrate and acknowledges that our reactions to different situations are likely to at least partly reflect the reactions displayed by significant others such as parents and friends.
One criticism of social learning theory is that it focuses too heavily on social aspects. Our social environments and the behaviour of our role models do assert some degree of influence on our own behaviour. Despite this, there are numerous other influences that can serve to influence our behaviour and the way that we react to our surroundings. These may include genetics as well as the role of reinforcement (Skinner, 1948, 1958), by which some behaviours are repeated because they produce a positive outcome whereas others are ceased because they cause a negative outcome. Social learning theory also fails to adequately account for cultural influences on an individual’s learned behaviours. The theory also tends to downplay the cognitive processes of the child. It assumes that children will automatically copy any behaviour they have observed, without taking into account that the child may use other cognitive information to make a decision as to whether the behaviour should be copied or not. In the Bobo doll study by Bandura and his colleagues, children imitated aggressively toward the toy, but would have been likely to have used knowledge about wrong or right had they observed role models being aggressive to another person or an animal. Nor does the theory give an adequate explanation as to how social learning interacts with development. The theory cannot explain at which point in a child’s development social learning may become more or less influential on their behaviour. A final criticism of social learning theory is that it cannot explain behaviour demonstrated by children that they have not observed.
Social Learning Theory: Application to Case Study One
According to the Community Care Act (1990), assessment by a social worker should be comprehensive, holistic, be needs led and include participation by both the service user and carer. Social learning theory can be applied to the assessment, planning and intervention for the family detailed in case study one in a number of different ways. The very early studies by Bandura and colleges applied social learning theory to aggression in particular. Case study one details that Jenny and Dave’s oldest child Sean exhibits aggressive behaviour at nursery. Assessment of this case using social learning theory would understand Sean’s behaviour to be a product of his environment and in particular, of the rocky and argumentative relationship that his parents have. In a study investigating the role of social learning on subsequent alcohol use and self-regulatory behaviours, Patock-Peckham et al. (2001) found that the parenting style and behaviours of the parent who is the same sex as a child, is significantly related to that child’s self-regulation skills, which are known to be protective against alcohol use and abuse. This suggests that Sean is likely to adopt his father’s maladaptive drinking behaviours through the process of social learning. The early studies by Bandura et al. (1961, 1963) also reflected this more powerful effect of same sex models.
The case study also details that Jenny was invited to attend a ‘Mother and Toddler’ group but did not take the offer up. It also appears as though neither Jenny nor Dave have integrated into their community and are not making the most of their social environment. Social learning theory can also be used to assess and understand the inharmonious relationship between Jenny and Dave, as the theory has been found to be useful in predicting intimate partner violence (Sellers, Cochran and Branch, 2005).
Planning and Intervention
A suitable intervention based on social learning theory would include educating both Jenny and Dave on the impact that their behaviour is likely to have on their children. Bearing in mind the finding that children tend to be more influenced by the behaviour of the parent of the same sex, Dave should be encouraged to model positive behaviours around Sean in particular and Jenny should be encouraged to attend the ‘Mother and Toddler’ group with Sarah to increase the number of positive interactions and behaviours Sarah is exposed to around other mothers and female role models. Secondly, Jenny and Dave must be encouraged to widen their social interactions in order to foster more positive social experiences, which in return should have a positive impact on their behaviours. Although her mother lives some miles away, Jenny should be encouraged to maintain contact with her in order maximise positive social interactions. It may also be advantageous to help Jenny and Dave explore how they may have learnt to deal with their marital problems using maladaptive behaviours such as verbal aggression, and to help them toward the realisation that although they may have observed significant others using these coping mechanisms, there are more adaptive techniques available to them.
Social Conflict Theory
Social conflict theory is based strongly on the philosophy of the famous communist Karl Marx and holds that inequality within society is the product of some individuals holding and actively defending a disproportionate share of society’s resources. As a result, those without many resources are controlled by those with the lion’s share. Therefore, social conflict theory sees society as greatly unequal and views social problems as the product of society’s issues, not the issues of the individual. One of the most famous empirical demonstrations of social conflict theory was by Sherif et al. (1961). A group of boys unknown to each other were randomly assigned to one of two groups and attended a summer camp. In the initial phase of the experiment, the two groups did not know of the others existence and were encouraged to bond as individual groups. Once an element of competition was introduced, each group became fiercely protective of their own group and both prejudiced and discriminatory behaviour was observed. The study demonstrated that when two groups are put in contest with each other over resources this can trigger negative behaviours and attempts by competing groups to sabotage each other.
Social conflict theory is applicable to social work because it captures the social injustices and inequalities that are often observed in this line of work. It can provide a framework for understanding why some individuals find themselves in constant financial and economic struggles and gives the social worker a better understanding of how they may change this and make a difference in people’s lives.
Unlike many other theories, social conflict theory acknowledges the role of economics. This is especially useful for the field of social work because it avoids social workers from putting too much emphasis on the power held by the service user to make a change. It acknowledges that some elements cannot be controlled by the service user and may avoid frustration on behalf of the service user at the social worker not taking into that due to the social standing of the service user they will struggle to find employment opportunities that can change their financial situations.
Social conflict theory is somewhat reductionist and does not account for the impact of individual thinking or behaviours. The theory sees individuals as a product of their socio-economic standing and cannot explain why many people from poor and deprived backgrounds go on to be successful and wealthy through hard work and determination, overcoming economic obstacles. There is empirical support for social conflict theory supporting its usefulness in aiding understanding of a number of different social constructs, including racial profiling by law-enforcement agencies (Petrocelli, Piquero and Smith, 2003). However, the theory is complex and is thus difficult to measure empirically. This is a key criticism of the theory because complexity adversely affects applicability in the real world.
Social Conflict Theory: Application to Case Study One
Jenny and Dave’s situation can be assessed in the context of social conflict theory. Living in a housing estate, they are likely to be considered as belonging to the lower or working class. As a result, conflict theory would argue that their financial difficulties are due to only owning or having access to a small share of society’s resources. Dave’s employment status appears to be intermittent, which social conflict theory would argue is the result of opportunities being withheld from him by those higher up the economic ladder. The family’s lack of resources are clearly having a knock-on effect on the marriage, with Dave’s spending of the house money on gambling and drinking being a common source of arguments.
Social conflict theory can also be applied to understand internal as well as external conflict. For example, high levels of parent-child conflict have been associated with child behavioural problems (El-Sheikh and Flanagan, 2001; El-Sheikh and Elmore-Stanton, 2004). Therefore, Sean’s aggressive behaviour at nursery could be a product of a perceived conflict between himself and his parents. Although Sean is young, his parents’ preoccupation with trying to cope with their poor financial situation may be interpreted by Sean as a lack of attention. This could explain why he acts poorly at nursery.
Planning and Intervention
Bearing the principles of conflict theory in mind, intervention should take the form of enabling the family to increase their resources and the opportunities available to them. Dave should be encouraged to join some government funded courses to increase his skills and employability status. The family should be made aware of the huge number charities that offer free and impartial advice on both debt and rent arrears. The family’s social worker should be sensitive to their economic standing and take it into account when working with them.
Psychoanalytic Theory
Originally developed by the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic theory seeks to explain how external struggles can impact upon an individual or their family to such a degree that they become internalised (Bower, 2005). The theory focuses on uniting both the strengths of an individual’s personality and available resources in order to optimise both their personal and interpersonal functioning (Hollis, 1977). Psychoanalytic theory can also be differentiated from other theories because of its inclusion of Freudian concepts such as the influence of unconscious mental processes and defence mechanisms (Brearley, 2007). One of the main principles of psychoanalytic theory is believing that our unconscious is largely responsible for our conscious actions, thought and feelings, and that awareness of these processes is rare (Greene and Uebel, 2008) Defence mechanisms can be either conscious or unconscious but are always deployed in order to help an individual avoid facing facts about themselves they perceive to be threatening (Jacobs, 2010). Contemporary psychoanalytic theory use in social work has tended to be based on ego psychology (Corey, 2000; Greene and Uebel, 2008), which emphasises the impact of our environment and the role of the ego’s problem-solving capacity in maximising adaptive behaviour.
Psychoanalytic theory is applicable to social work and the assessment of service users because it embraces the social work ideal of acknowledging that both individual differences and the environment can have a negative impact on the individual. It may also help social workers to cope with difficult to manage or difficult to understand behaviour by acknowledging that some processes are unconscious on behalf of the service user.
Unlike conflict theory that focuses on economic influences and social learning theory that focuses on social influences, psychoanalytic theory is far less reductionist meaning that it can be applied to a wider range of situations and individuals. The theory is somewhat more holistic than both social learning and conflict theory because it emphasises the importance of both internal and external factors and the influence these have on an individual’s ability to cope with everyday stresses. Indeed, early theorists argued that ego psychology in particular struck an advantageous balance between acknowledging both individual and situational factors (Hamilton, 1958; Wood, 1971).
Psychoanalytical theory has been the root of many other useful and currently practised social work models, such as transactional analysis, group therapy and crisis intervention (Trevithick, 2012). Therefore, it has had positive real-world and social work applications.
Psychoanalytic theory can be hard to test empirically, meaning that scientific evidence for both its validity and its effectiveness is lacking. However, it is not completely without evidence. For example, through observational methods, Beebe and Lachmann (2002) found that in support of psychoanalytic theory, infants learn much about their own emotional lives through empathically fuelled caregiver interactions. Nevertheless, Fonagy (2003) has argued that psychoanalytic theory has recently become too fragmented to be supported empirically and this fragmentation makes it a difficult theory to apply in a clinical or social work setting. This highlights another issue with psychoanalytic theory in that it is a complex theory, which limits both its applicability and usefulness. Psychoanalytic theory is also considered to be quite controversial, although it has come a long way since the overt sexual themes pioneered by Freud.
Despite being a more holistic theory, it could be argued that psychoanalytic theory does not adequately acknowledge the role of social influences in how individuals cope with their everyday life stresses.
Psychoanalytic Theory: Application to Case Study One
There are a number of behaviours exhibited by Jenny and Dave that could be interpreted as defence mechanisms. Firstly, Dave both gambles and drinks, which causes friction between him and Jenny. Both of these behaviours could be interpreted as coping mechanisms that Dave uses to deal with the family’s financial and economic worries. Dave has said that the only thing wrong with their marriage is the “lack of intimacy” since their youngest was born. However, from an outside perspective, this is clearly an example of denial and a defence mechanism that Dave is using to avoid facing up to reality. Jenny’s spending of the household income on mail order catalogues is also a likely example of a maladaptive coping mechanism because the family cannot afford to spend money on luxuries.
Planning and Intervention
The helping of others through the use of psychoanalytic theory has been described as “a corrective emotional experience,” (Greene and Uebel, 2008, p. 64). Therefore, Jenny and Dave should be supported in developing adaptive emotional responses to the difficulties that their environment presents. They should be encouraged to externalise their financial troubles so that they do not control their emotions, which is likely to result in a continuation of negative behaviours, such as drinking, arguing and gambling.
Psychoanalytic theory could be applied to this case study by helping Dave to optimise internal and more adaptive external forces to help him cope with the family’s stresses rather than turning to maladaptive behaviours, such as drinking and gambling. Dave should be encouraged to face up to the reality of the family’s situation and to explore ways in which he can cope in healthier ways. If Dave feels the need to escape now and again, he may be encouraged to take up a hobby or sport, which will give him time away from the family but avoid isolation.
Jenny and Dave’s situation can be interpreted through the use of various theories. A holistic approach in which the most applicable elements of each theory are used to help the family improve their financial and emotional well-being is recommended.
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Social Work Theories