Social Work Theory and Practice – Making the Links

Nancy B. Alston

Our experience is that many students on the social work degree can be intimidated by the word ‘theory’. This immediately inhibits effective learning about theory. Theory in social work is about how we relate to others and how we make sure that we are providing effective services. It is important that theory is not seen as the preserve of academics or senior social workers. Through understanding and applying theory to social work practice our work with service users can become far more effective and person centred.

Lots of people think that theory is something purely academic, with no link to “real life”. Many social work students cover theory at university, but begin their practice learning experience intimidated by the idea of how to apply theory to their practice and especially concerned about how to demonstrate the links they have made in their assignments and reflective accounts..

Practice learning is about relating the ideas learned in University to the practice setting. However, in order to link theoretical knowledge to practice, students need a firm grasp of the fact that theory is something everybody uses every day in social work and that theory has a clear link to common sense/what works/real life or whatever the phrase of choice is. Without this, theory can become something which seems abstract and this develops the idea that theory is something you learn at University and then forget when you enter the “real world” of work.

The Requirements for Social Work Training state that all social work programmes must:

“Ensure that the teaching of theoretical knowledge, skills and values is based on their application to practice.” (Department of Health 2002)

Whilst the basic aspects of social work theory will be taught in the University setting, practice learning is about you transferring your knowledge and applying theory to your practice, and you will need to demonstrate that you can make the links in your written work.

What is theory?

It is our view that social workers in the field and social work students on placement are applying theory every day. However, they may not realise it, and they may not be able to describe the theory or name it.

Theories in social work are nothing more than an attempt to explain situations and social relationships. Theories have been developed since it became clear that there were similar patterns or repeating cycles of behaviour both in an individual’s life and in the lives of lots of different people. Since theories have been expressed by academics and social scientists, they often use an academic language. Don’t let that put you off. Theories are life dressed up! Many theories actually have a very straightforward, accessible message even if you sometimes have to look beyond the jargon.

There has been some debate about what actually constitutes a theory. Generally, a theory helps to explain a situation and perhaps how it came about. In science, a theory is seen as helping to:

** describe (eg: what is happening?)
** explain (eg: why is it happening?)
** predict (eg: what is likely to happen next?)

Sometimes theories are also seen as helping to control a situation and bring about changes.

Social Work Theory and Practice Learning

In supervision discussion, placement assignments, portfolios etc you need to be able to describe the situation you are working with, explain why you think this came about, what you can do to bring about change etc. In doing so, you will be drawing upon some form of theory. You may, however, not always be aware of this.

Whenever you are considering theory, we would urge you to:

1. Recognise that no single theory can explain everything: When a person engages in an action (or inaction) the reason for their behaviour can be rooted in a range of causes or motives.

2. Related to the first point, recognise that some theoretical approaches just don’t work with some people. Applying Brief Solution Focused Therapy can be really effective with some people. For other people, it leaves them cold.

3. Take a critical approach to theory. If it doesn’t “work”, why not? Can you adapt aspects such that it is helpful?

4. Always apply the value base to theory – much of the theory used in social care practice and social work is drawn from outside of the profession. Theory may have its roots in education, psychology or management. As such, it may not incorporate social work values and you should take responsibility for applying these

5. And finally, never be intimidated by theory. You use it every day.

Why do we need to apply social work theory to practice?

Whilst individual social work theories have different purposes, using all kinds of theory in our work offers us, as social workers, some important things.

** Theories can help us to make sense of a situation. Using theory, we can generate ideas about what is going on, why things are as they are etc. For example the information obtained as part of an assessment can seem like a jumble of information – applying theory can help “make sense” of the information.

** Using theory can help to justify actions and explain practice to service users, carers and society in general. The aim is that this will lead to social work becoming more widely accountable and ultimately more respected.

** In work with individuals, making use of the theories which may relate to their specific situation will give us more direction in our work with them.

** Using theory can give an explanation about why an action resulted in a particular consequence. This can help us review and possibly change our practice in an attempt to make the consequences more effective.

It is clear then, that theory is important in practice – both for work with service users and for social work to be more valued in society.

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