Theoretical Approaches in Social Work: Systems Theory

Social work involves taking into account many factors of an individual’s life. While there are many theories in social work, systems theory is a unique way of addressing human behavior in terms of these multi-layered relationships and environments. The theory is premised on the idea that an effective system is based on individual needs, rewards, expectations, and attributes of the people living in the system.

What is Systems Theory in Social Work?

Systems theory in social work is based on the idea that behavior is influenced by a variety of factors that work together as a system. These factors include family, friends, social settings, economic class, and the environment at home. The theory posits that these and other factors influence how individuals think and act, and therefore examining these social structures to find ways to correct ineffective parts or adapt for missing elements of a given system can positively impact behavior. The fields of psychology, communication theory and psychiatry influence modern social work systems theory.

In this particular theoretical approach to social work, professionals observe and analyze the many systems that contribute to the subject’s behavior and welfare. They then work to improve those systems according to the individual’s unique situation.

What Issues Are Addressed by Systems Theory?

Systems theory offers a more complete view of a person’s situation within his or her social environment. It is often applied to situations where many issues connect intricately, influencing one another in various ways. Systems theory in social work is used in cases where contextual understandings of behavior will lead to the most appropriate practice interventions. Examples of issues that can be addressed include:

Intervention with Systems Theory

According to Systems Theory and Social Work by Steven Walker, in 2019,, there are three broad schools of interventions that can be identified. They are:

Structural approaches: This type of intervention stems from the technique of observing the interactive patterns in a family or system, and then a structural approach would be taken to highlight problematic situations, find problem-solving solutions to interrupt them when they are happening, and then get the individual or family to try different ways of acting that lead to better outcomes.

Strategic approaches: The focus with strategic interventions is on the everyday problematic interactions and solving them with properly applied cognitive thinking. Often, perceptions people have about their problems influence how those issues are handled. This type of approach allows for a culturally relevant solution that focuses on a family’s or individual’s perceptions within a system, rather than trying to impose perceptions strictly from the outside.

Systemic approaches: This approach (also called the Milan systemic model) works with the whole family or system, rather than just the individual. The focus of this approach is to discover rules and ideologies that are sustaining dysfunctional patterns, then to encourage change in a way that avoids being perceived as blaming others within the system.

Elements in Systems Theory

According to Systems Theory and Social Work, while there are several approaches that can be taken to meet the needs of individual clients, there are a few elements that can are generally part of every implementation. It is important not to take theoretical elements and concepts to level of abstraction, where they can cease to be useful. That said, several regular elements to systems theory implementation include:


Having a trained, licensed professional supervising therapy sessions is important. Social workers, family therapists, or registered therapists can offer feedback and suggestions, and screened observation to gain a different perspective to the social worker involved with the case.

Context of Problems

Considered by some to be the most defining characteristic of social work practice, this element of system theory is an ecological approach to the problems presented. The social worker asks a series of questions that are linked to the context of the presenting problem as defined in familial, professional, public, socio-economic and cultural dynamics. The focus is on looking at difficulties from other angles in order to understand unhealthy patterns, and then change or avoid them.

Circularity and Patterns

This characteristic of systems-theory-based work assumes that problematic behavior is part of a reflexive, circular motion of events and actions. Spotting and addressing these circular processes effectively can provide a positive way to move forward. This can help people get beyond the blaming or scapegoating behaviors that often stagger progress.

Systems Theory Case Study

Case studies for systems theory applications in social work provide valuable insight into professional findings that can help others exponentially. Case studies provide real-world examples of how interventions can be applied, and help us better understand the interrelated factors that contribute to unhealthy actions.

Professionals can learn a lot from case studies and their valuable documentation. Take for instance, the case of “Jennifer,” a 15-year-old adolescent who showed signs of depression at school. Academically excelling and generally a “good kid,” her teachers and guidance counselor noticed that she frequently appeared ‘‘down’’ and rarely happy. She had difficulty relating to many of her classmates and had trouble creating meaningful friendships.

Jennifer shared with her counselor that she often felt rejected by other kids, and she wondered what was so wrong with her. The counselor and Jennifer identified patterns in her life events that contributed to her feelings of sadness and anxiety. She saw her mother as frequently wanting Jennifer by her side, often complaining about her marriage. Jennifer felt sorry for her mother, and frustrated with having to spend so much time with her too. There were blowups. Jennifer’s mother would then cry and leave, her father would then yell at her for disrespecting her mother. Then Jennifer would withdraw at school.

Even though her parents were not willing to be involved, Jennifer made progress with her counselor anyway. Her enhanced perspective regarding her familial relationships was possible, in part, due to the systems approach employed by her counselor. She was able to develop a healthier level of self-awareness and insight.

Through case studies like this one, family systems theory interventions and practices give a view into the context of the family unit. Deep dive examination of family triangulation, projection and emotional dysfunction allow others in the field of social work to better understand the various interrelated systems they may face in their own professional practice.

Why is Social Work Systems Theory Important?

It is valuable for a social worker to be able to piece together a family’s story by accessing or understanding all the separate parts of that family, or system. By doing this, they may gain a better understanding of the whole system in which the client lives. This is critical to enable professionals to think about the dynamics facing the individual in daily life, both inside and outside the family.

Understanding and applying systems theory is critical in most forms of social work, because it can offer insights that can help people break harmful habits and stop behaviors that keep them from having a fuller in life. With better insight and tools, clients can better navigate through the systems in which they live. This can be one of the most rewarding aspects of a social worker’s job.

If you’re interested in working in the field of social work, and would like to help make a positive impact in your community, view our list of masters in social work programs online to start your career.