Applying Theory to Generalist Social Work Practice
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Applying Theory to Generalist Social Work Practice

Carol L. Langer, Cynthia Lietz

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eBook - ePub

Applying Theory to Generalist Social Work Practice

Carol L. Langer, Cynthia Lietz

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The social worker's guide to integrating theory and practice

Applying Theory to Generalist Social Work Practice teaches aspiring social workers how to apply theory in real world practice. Fully aligned with the Council on Social Work Education's 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, the book links theory to practice with clear, concise instruction including a discussion of evidence-based practice. Twelve commonly-used theories are thoroughly explained, with discussion of the strengths and limitations of each, and applied to real work with individuals, groups, families, communities, and organizations. The book includes case studies and first-person contributions from practicing social workers to illustrate the real-world scenarios in which different concepts apply. Critical thinking questions help students strengthen their understanding of the ideas presented. Tools including a test bank, PowerPoint slides, and an instructor's manual are available to facilitate classroom use, providing a single-volume guide to the entire helping process, from engagement to termination.

Practice is a core foundational course for future social workers, but many practice texts focus on skills while neglecting the theoretical basis for social work. Applying Theory to Generalist Social Work Practice fills that gap by covering both skills and theory in a single text.

  • Examines the applications of prevailing social theories
  • Covers the most common theories used in micro, mezzo, and macro practice
  • Helps readers understand well-established approaches like strengths perspective, humanistic and client-centered, task-centered, and solution-focused brief therapy
  • Shows how to apply major theories including ecological/system, cognitive/behavioral, conflict, empowerment, narrative, crisis, critical, and feminist

An effective social worker recognizes the link between theory and practice, and how the two inform each other to culminate in the most effective intervention and most positive outcome for the client. Applying Theory to Generalist Social Work Practice provides students with a roadmap to the full integration of philosophy and application in social work.

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Chapter 1
The Role of Theories in Social Work Practice

Chapter One Core Competencies

  • Students will understand the process of evidence-based decision making and learn the importance of thinking critically about theories.
  • Students will understand the importance of developing therapeutic, professional relationships with clients regardless of the theoretical approach chosen.
  • Students will be able to define the common elements that are essential to a practice regardless of the theory that is used to inform practice.
  • Students will be able to identify various models used when integrating theories in practice.
  • Students will be able to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of taking an eclectic approach.
  • Students will be able to define basic and advanced microskills and understand how microskills are used to implement interventions on micro-, mezzo-, and macrosystem practice levels.


The purpose of this book is to show a range of practice theories that inform social work practice. In the past, you may have taken a class regarding human behavior. If so, you have already been exposed to a variety of developmental theories that describe how humans progress through the life cycle. This book instead focuses on practice theories that affect the way social workers assess, plan, and intervene with children, adults, families, and communities. Although there may be some overlap between human behavior theories and those covered in this book, our intention here is to offer an array of theories that can guide social work practice. To get you started in this exploration of theoretical foundations to practice, this chapter defines what theory is, discusses how theory can be applied to social work practice, and closes with a review of approaches social workers can use when integrating multiple theories at one time.

What Is Theory?

A theory is an organized set of ideas that seek to explain a particular phenomenon (see Table 1.2). Theories are typically formulated when there is no empirical evidence, something that can be observed through the five senses, to draw a definitive conclusion. A lack of observable evidence leads people to wonder about a particular experience, prompting the development of a theory or tentative conclusion. When possible, a theory is tested through the scientific method to determine the degree to which its assumptions are supported by observable evidence.
Considering recent technological advances, it is hard to imagine that people once believed the earth was flat. Lacking the ability to perceive beyond what the eye could see, people developed this assumption because that was what they were capable of observing at that time. The idea that the earth is round was originally only a theory. This tentative conclusion was eventually proved through irrefutable physical evidence.
Theories are used in the natural sciences to explain various phenomena, including changes in weather patterns or causes of various diseases. Following a similar procedure, social scientists develop theories to explain social phenomena, such as how patterns of violence get repeated across multiple generations or what factors lead to poverty. The challenge within the social sciences is that the ability to scientifically test theoretical assumptions through irrefutable physical evidence is limited because of their complexity and the considerations when conducting research on human subjects. Therefore, social scientists must be satisfied with evidence that lends support to their conclusions because there is little in the social sciences that can be discerned to the degree of knowing the earth is round.
As a result of the challenges facing social science researchers, the social work knowledge base is grounded in a multitude of theoretical ideas that come together to inform practice. There are varying levels of abstractions when considering theoretical material in social work (Coady & Lehman, 2008; Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 2006). Some theoretical ideas can be quite broad, as is the case with a theoretical perspective or framework. These practice perspectives offer general, widely applicable ideas. In contrast, Coady and Lehman (2008) describe midlevel practice theories as providing more specificity. These theories provide more detail than perspectives, and they offer theoretical explanations regarding the nature of human behavior. Finally, practice models offer the greatest degree of direction. However, practice models may not be applicable across problems areas or populations. Table 1.1 provides a description of the strengths and limitations of each level of theoretical material informing social work practice.
Table 1.1 Levels of Theoretical Influences on Practice
Source: Coady & Lehman, 2008.
Level Strengths Limitations Examples
Practice Perspectives
  1. -Applicable across multiple practice settings
  1. -Difficult to measure
  2. -Difficult to implement consistently
  3. -Difficult to evaluate effectiveness
  1. -Person-in-environment perspective
  2. -Problem-centered practice
  3. -Strengths perspective
Practice Theories
  1. -More specific than larger perspectives, offering greater direction for practice
  2. -Easier to define and measure than perspectives
  1. -Perhaps not applicable across practice settings
  1. -Cognitive theory
  2. -Behaviorism
  3. -Crisis theory
Practice Models
  1. -Can foster the creation of a manual that supports consistent implementation and measurement
  2. -Easiest to evaluate the practice
  1. -Can be narrowly focused to work with one population and/or presenting problem
  2. -Typically not applicable across practice settings
  1. -Solution-focused brief therapy
  2. -Motivational interviewing
Table 1.2 Key Concepts
Theory An organized set of ideas that seek to explain a particular phenomenon
Empirical Evidence Evidence based on what can be observed through the five senses
Mechanism for Change An explanation regarding the process for making positive improvements regarding a particular problem
Evidence-Based Practice A process of choosing an intervention based on the best available research evidence, a social worker’s judgment, and a client’s personal and cultural preferences
Microskills Elements in communication such as asking questions or reflecting feelings that help a professional to facilitate a social work interview
The person-in-environment perspective, problem-centered practice, and strengths perspective represent larger viewpoints that can be applied across social work practice. They are theoretical in that they offer an organized set of ideas that can be used to guide practice. However, they are not as clearly defined as some lower level theories. These three perspectives are in many ways the foundation to social work practice. Whereas social workers choose theories to add on to these larger perspectives, person-in-environment perspective, problem-centered practice, and strengths perspective inform all parts of social work practice.
Theories, in contrast, are more clearly defined than these larger perspectives and lend themselves more readily to testing. Cognitive theory and family systems theory represent midlevel theories. Theories are more specific than perspectives and therefore offer more direction regarding social work practice. However, their increase in specificity may leave them irrelevant for certain practice settings.
Finally, the most narrow and specified theoretical guides to practice are models. Practice models such as solution-focused brief therapy offer almost a how-to manual for social workers regarding what to say and do in specified client situations. When these models are put into manual form, also known as manualized treatment, they are the easiest of the levels to implement and measure. However, treatment manuals are often set up to offer one intervention chosen to affect one identified problem. Because social workers need to remain responsive to diverse client populations and specific cultural preferences, having one narrow model of practice is not always prac...

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