Social Work and the Theories of Human Behavior in a Social Environment
The social worker who wishes to provide unbiased service to people from diverse sections of the population needs a sound knowledge of psychological and social work theory and how to apply this knowledge in practical situations.
Many of the core values that shape our characters are learned through our culture and traditions and do not necessarily align with those of other cultures. Each person is an individual, shaped by their family and social background, the environment they live in, their culture or religion, their health, their fears, and much more. The role of social workers is complex and challenging, and in-depth knowledge of human behavior is an essential part of their survival in their chosen profession.
Human behavior as the foundation of social work
Human behavior in a social environment (HBSE) is an endeavor to study all aspects of human nature: the contributing factors and characteristics of human behavior along with different levels and systems of the social environment, and the relationships between the two.
This concept, also known as “person-in-environment,” is considered by many to be the foundation of practical social work, and originators of the concept suggest that individuals and their environment share a reciprocal relationship.
The many skills of a social worker
First and foremost, social workers need to be good listeners and keen observers. They need to be sharp-witted, able to pick up on slight nuances in people’s behaviors and read their body language. In this game, people are not always truthful because it’s sometimes easier to avoid sad, unhappy facts.
Reasoning, evaluation, problem-solving, decision-making, and analysis are just some of the skills a social worker requires to help them achieve their goals.
Social workers need an awareness of the social, economic, and political factors that can affect their clients’ lives, which is a challenging but often rewarding task. To gain knowledge of the client’s social and financial circumstances, their wishes, and their values, the social worker first has to earn their respect. No matter how long it takes, the client will only open up and discuss their problems once they trust and respect the social worker.
If this sounds like a suitable challenge for your set of skills and caring nature, perhaps consider the CSWE-Accredited online Bachelor of Social Work qualification from an accredited institution like Spring Arbor University.
Theories in the social work environment
A theory consists of a set of hypotheses, principles, and concepts that are logically consistent and congruent with each other.
- A hypothesis is derived from a deduction based on limited knowledge and used as a starting point for further investigation.
- Principles are fundamental truths or propositions that are the foundation for a chain of reasoning.
- Concepts are abstract ideas based on observations that are not necessarily provable.
Some theories exist purely for classification, however, in a social work environment, theories have more concepts than what is required for classification in, say, a medical context. Theories specifically designed for social work are dynamic, comprising multiple sets of predictions and anticipated consequences.
Good theories are concise, covering the largest range of possibilities with the fewest possible principles. They should, however, be easy enough for the social worker to remember and put into practice.
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How theories can be of assistance
Over the years, academics and researchers have studied human behavior in detail and come up with numerous theories relating to people’s actions — the myriad of situations that people find themselves in and the possible reactions to their circumstances.
These theories are invaluable, as they provide a frame of reference with which social workers can conduct their interviews. The social work theory should provide ways of understanding behaviors that describe, explain, and predict.
Theories provide a systematic way of working, acting as a guideline for the social worker and serving to separate social work from personal opinion. It also enables the social worker to justify their analysis and chosen methods of intervention.
No two people are the same, and neither are their circumstances or problems. Thus, a theory is seldom going to fit an individual situation perfectly — there will always be a need to adapt or combine more than one theory in a given scenario. In addition, when taking the client’s values and beliefs into account, the whole situation could change.
The social worker who makes use of existing theories instead of starting an investigation from scratch is more assured of gaining quicker insight into the problem and is more likely to come up with a workable solution based on models that exist within the social work discipline.
Social work theory differs from medical or psychological theory, and in certain cases, it becomes necessary for the social worker to expand on their theory by incorporating theory from another discipline. In this case, medical theories and models are not always consistent with the social worker’s perspectives, and some critical analysis may be needed to determine the empirical validity and applicability of the theory in question.
Social workers’ perspectives on human behavior tend to reflect theoretical factors as well as values and ethics, along with evidence-based wisdom.
There are multiple theories within the domain of social work. Introduced by psychoanalysts such as Freud and Erikson, many theories have evolved with time and further research.
Here are some of the main categories for theoretical analysis and intervention:
Cognitive behavioral theory (CBT): Based on the premise that our emotional and behavioral responses come from certain thought processes, the social worker can help patients identify the thoughts that trigger a particular response. This theory enables the social worker to understand the consequences of the patient’s actions. An example of CBT is in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, where patients see themselves as overweight when, in fact, the opposite is true. Treatment of this condition requires a change in perception, which is not as easy as it sounds.
Psychodynamic theory: Originated by Freud, this theory suggests that the conscious and unconscious mind impact all human thoughts and behavior, and that we are driven to seek gratification. This drive influences our daily behavior. In treating a social disorder, social workers may delve into early childhood experiences to explain the client’s current behavior.
Behavioral theory: People learn behavior through conditioning. Learning where problematic behavior stems from is a source of information for the social worker; however, conditioning behavior techniques can also be used to modify undesirable behavior in clients.
Transpersonal theory: This encompasses the spiritual, social, emotional, intellectual, physical, and creative natures of the client, and seeks to treat each element separately. The thinking is that we all experience a desire to find meaning in our lives beyond our ego, and a lack of spirituality or healthy ego can lead to mental illness.
Social learning theory: This theory is based on the idea that individuals learn behavior through observation and model their behavior accordingly. It highlights the effects of the lack of a good role model or responsible parenting in the client’s life. A child who witnesses abuse as a way of life is likely to emulate that behavior in adolescence and adulthood.
Psychosocial theory: Also referred to as person-in-environment (PIE) theory, this theory postulates that people develop their personalities in stages according to their environment and relationships with family, friends, and community.
Systems theory: This theory advocates a thorough investigation into all factors that impact or have impacted the client in order to establish why they act the way they do. For example, a victim of constant abuse in childhood may well inflict the same abusive behavior in adulthood.
The above theories form the basis of social work. There are many other theories, some of them falling into sub-categories of the above.
Social workers can use different approaches, and depending on the preferred approach, the intervention could be different as well. For example, a social worker who uses a system-based approach will obtain different results from someone who prefers to use psychodynamic theories.
Once the social worker has identified and analyzed the problems, they are able to decide what kind of intervention to apply based on a series of models that are available.
Some of the theories above can be used as part of the intervention; for example, by using cognitive-behavioral questioning to establish the problem, the social worker is simultaneously helping the patient identify the thoughts that are responsible for their actions. These theories are known as practice theories.
Explanatory theories, on the other hand, provide a means of establishing the reason for particular behaviors but require the application of a separate model to remedy the situation.
In using the theories above, the social worker is able to use time more productively and with confidence. It also ensures that the client is not subjected to an inappropriate or inadequate assessment.
Approaches are not as specific as theories, and they generally embrace two or more factors that share some sort of compatibility.
The role of the social worker involves a range of skills, from those of a clinician providing therapeutic counseling to those of an administrator who helps the client apply for social grant benefits. These skills are referred to as micro, macro, and mezzo approaches.
A micro-level approach concerns the biological and psychological characteristics of the individual in their immediate environment.
A mezzo-level approach considers the networks and services immediately surrounding the individual, such as their home and neighborhood environments, social networks, friends, neighbors, and medical and social services.
A macro-level approach considers the larger contributors that have an impact on the individual, such as economic and political regulations and effects and natural disaster-type occurrences like tornadoes or earthquakes.
Following the theories is a set of models that facilitate decision-making and provide the information necessary to follow the correct intervention procedures.
As with the theories, the models are generally applicable to a wide range of situations. They are flexible and can be merged with other models to suit particular circumstances.
In most cases, there are models that guide social workers in their decisions on how to intervene.
HBSE in a clinical environment
Disease and medical models provide useful ways for clinicians to approach patient care; however, the traditional biomedical view often ignores the psychosocial components that contribute to the triggering and continuation of disease.
An article titled “Human behavior in a social environment” by Naveen Sharma and Vikas Gupta suggests that clinicians’ understanding of mental health and disorders is moving toward a more dimensional approach. However, there is no real consensus as to how this should be incorporated into clinical practice. HBSE concepts can provide a sound framework for interprofessional teams in the healthcare process, resulting in optimal patient outcomes.
HBSE gives an important insight into the patient’s life and the barriers that present themselves when consulting with and treating patients: personality structures, adherence to medical treatment, interaction with the clinician, and no-shows for appointments. By obtaining a broader view of the individual’s lifestyle challenges and limitations, the clinician is able to assess the health aspect and possibly help put measures in place to alleviate some of the challenges the patient is facing.
Sharma and Gupta suggest healthcare professionals identify a social worker who can work with them to identify the detrimental factors hindering the patient’s care and expectations from the treatment being administered. These factors can be communicated to the specialized nurse practitioner, who in turn can educate the patient, thus improving compliance with treatment.
For the social worker starting out in the profession, a wealth of knowledge and practical help can be found in the theories and models that have been researched, tried, and tested over the years. With additional insight and wisdom, the more experienced social worker is able to form opinions and make decisions considerably faster; however, the basics are still there, in the theory.
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