Sponsored Program

Theoretical Approaches: Social Work Systems Theory


Social workers can encounter many different obstacles in their line of work. Each obstacle faced represents a different kind of challenge. However, there are a few theories that can help social workers deal with some of the challenges they are facing, and how they can be utilized to achieve positive solutions.

In general, a theory is a statement backed by evidence gathered through the scientific method intended to explain something. Theoretical approaches for social work are often used to explain human behavior and serve as starting points for practice models and treatments. For example, Psychodynamic Theory explains how internal and external forces interact to influence emotional development. Conflict Theory explains how power structures and disparities affect people’s lives. This post concentrates on how Systems Theory was developed and how it can be applied to assisting a client.


Featured Online MSW Programs
Fordham University
  • Four main areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy
  • GRE scores are not required for admission to the program.
Baylor University
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Specialize in clinical practice or community practice
University of Denver
  • Research-driven faculty dedicated to making an impact on social problems
  • Prepares you to apply social work skills across practice settings
University of Southern California (USC)
  • Offered by USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck Shool of Social Work, a top-ranked graduate school by U.S. News and World Report
  • Features virtual and in-person field education in or near student's own communities
Simmons University
  • Four Clinical Specializations: Child and Family, Trauma and Interpersonal Violence, Mental Health and Addictions, and Health and Aging
  • Three program tracks: Traditional, Accelerated, and Extended
These schools offer online MSW programs with 100% online instruction - no campus visits required

Sponsored MSW Programs

Systems Theory

Systems Theory explains human behavior as the intersection of the influences of multiple interrelated systems. Even for individual issues, families, organizations, societies, and other systems are inherently involved and must be considered when attempting to understand and assist the individual. According to this theory, all systems are interrelated parts constituting an ordered whole and each subsystem influences other parts of the whole.

There have been dozens of unofficial iterations of Systems Theory over the past few hundred years, applied to society, science, and many other areas. In the 20th century, multiple scientists, philosophers, and academicsbegan to outline and define the structure of Systems Theory in their various disciplines; there are now systems theories for biology, cybernetics, and for social work. While the applications obviously vary depending on the discipline, all systems theories follow the concept of interrelated parts influencing one another as part of an ordered whole.

Several prominent thinkers advanced Systems Theory in social work. Talcott Parsons was an economist and sociologist at Harvard University, whose book “Social System” helped steer the conversation on systematic determinants of behavior. Robert Merton is considered one of the founding fathers of modern sociology and significantly advanced Systems Theory through his progressive theories on functional analysis. Merton also coined the now ubiquitous terms “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “role model.” Carel Germain is internationally recognized for her work on explaining human behavior in a social environment. She mentored and worked extensively with Alex Gitterman, who continues to develop Systems Theory through the Life Model.

Case Study in Systems Theory

The Pruett case study provides a concrete, real-world example of how Systems Theory is applied to understand how interrelated factors contribute to unhealthy actions. In this case, the client was engaging in risky behaviors (drug abuse and unprotected sex) and not attending school. She had not had contact with her father for five years, and some of her only memories of him involved him abusing drugs and arguing with her mother at home.

In the Family Systems Theory, individuals must not be evaluated in isolation, but in the context of the family, as the family operates as a unit. One of the core concepts of this theory is the triangle, whose most common form is a parent-parent-child relationship — aka “two helping one”). Clearly, the client was missing one of the corners of the triangle and thus one of the pillars of healthy emotional development.

Another concept is the family projection process, wherein the client suffers from the emotional dysfunction of the family unit. In this case, the client witnessed her father abusing drugs to self-medicate, so she imitated that behavior, thinking it might help her.

The full complexities of this case go beyond the scope of this post, but it serves as an example of how a social worker must understand interrelated systems (e.g., school-family-individual) in order to assist the client.

Issues Addressed by Systems Theory

Systems Theory is used to develop a holistic view of individuals within an environment and is best applied to situations where several systems inextricably connect and influence one another. It can be employed in cases where contextual understandings of behavior will lead to the most appropriate practice interventions.

In the Pruett case, for example, the client’s school and family environment heavily influenced her individual actions, and her actions influenced the way she interacted with others at school and in the home. The recommended interventions thus involved strengthening the missing part of her family unit, referring her to counseling services, and connecting her with academic support.

There are many practice interventions available to social workers and their applications vary greatly depending on the context, but following are a few common interventions used as part of Systems Theory.

Strengthen one part of the system to improve the whole. In the Pruett case, the social worker recommended finding a healthy father figure for the client, to strengthen the missing component of the family system.

Networking and referrals. A critical part of any social worker’s job is to help clients navigate between systems. This often means referring clients to specialists, or connecting them with resources or organizations that can help their situation. In the Pruett case, this meant referral to a counselor and connection to an after school tutor.

Ecomaps. An ecomap is a flow diagram that helps someone understand a family’s and community’s interrelated progression over time. It allows social workers and clients to capture and organize the complexity of a system.

Genograms. A genogram is a graphic representation of a family tree, constructed with symbols that describe relationships and connections between an extended family. Social workers typically construct them along with clients in order to better understand relationships and identify patterns in the medical history.

Understanding and applying Systems Theory is a critical part of any social worker’s career. One of the most important functions of a social worker is helping clients navigate the various systems that affect their lives, which requires a deep understanding of how subsystems are interrelated and influence one another. This post provides an introduction to Systems Theory and some real life examples of how it is applied. It is just one of the many theoretical approaches that social workers will apply throughout their careers.

Sponsored Program