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    Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Expanding the Social Work Mandate

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    If you have read my prior writings on social work, you have become aware of my insistence that social work is the only profession that has both a mandate and an evidence-based approach to individual change and social change. Others have advanced a view that psychology has these elements because of their awareness or consideration of the environment as an important influence on behavior (Bandura, 2001; Elder, 1995). These points of view made me further examine the ecological systems theory and practice perspective. My resulting revelation rebutts assertions of a similar mandate in other behavioral sciences through an articulation of the expansion of the social work mandate.

    EST_MandateIn presenting the expansion, I trace the historical origins of the social work mandate demonstrating the robustness of its theoretical frame.

    The addition of a mandate for environmental practice clarifies why other behavioral sciences believe they include social change in their considerations. The difference with social work is that the environmental practice provides context, but the social change mandate require actual action to change the status quo.

    Allow me first to introduce the original social work mandate. Next, I will introduce the expansion of the mandate to include environmental practice, and at the conclusion of this section, you will be able to:

    1. Articulate the expanded, three-phase social work mandate.
    2. Outline and define the elements of the three-phase social work mandate.
    3. Visualize the assessment and intervention domains indicated by the expanded, three-phase social work mandate.

    The Big Picture

    Consider that any assessment of the individual will necessarily include a review of the individual specifically and internally, awareness of the groups the individual interacts with, and review of the environment that constrains them both. Individual assessment in social work involves a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach to identity and behavior. This means that individual assessment asks questions about the biology and physiological characteristics, psychological and cognitive characteristics, social and relational influences, and the spiritual and faith impacts on the person.

    “Groups” refers to the fact that groups, organizations and communities are made up of individuals. In order to communicate purpose and maintain order (as well as conceptualize a creed that is bigger than any one individual) groups, organizations and communities order themselves by a set of commonly agreed upon rules. That is, they create institutions of governance. Consider that the most universal of institutions include marriage, family, education, business, faith organization, and health system. Social workers are mandated through the social work code of ethics to ACTIVELY ensure that the institutions of society provide for the self-determination, justice, and well-being of individuals as well as the protection of vulnerable populations.

    Groups have a number of variable characteristics due to their origin as collaboration between two or more people. The variability of each individual is multiplied by interactions with others, interactions with the environment, and interactive effects—responses based on the knowledge that an interaction caused a change in behavior. These variable characteristics result in increased complexity when attempting to predict the behavior of individuals within groups. But, the prediction is not impossible. Complex adaptive systems, Sociocybernetics, and Operational modeling are just a few of the approaches to exploring the complexity of individuals within groups.

    “Environmental practice” refers to the social, political, technological, and economic impacts on behavior. This component is important to any assessment because it outlines an evaluation of social role, culture, access, and capacity that any behavioral scientist would agree has a bearing on behavior choice. This is the component that other behavioral sciences include.

    “Social” is the historical context of environmental practice. It may be defined as the social role accepted by the individual based on his/her socialization over time. It is influenced by trauma, experience, risk, resilience, attributions, and expectations. Trauma can refer to physical harm or emotional longing. Experience refers to the expectation of a negative outcome based on prior outcomes. Risk describes the ability of the individual to take chances. Resilience describes the ability of the individual to make choices beyond (not supported by) his/her current state or prior experience. Attribution refers to conclusions and sense-making of the individual. Expectation describes the expectation of positive outcomes that break a pattern of negative outcomes.

    “Political” is the value context of environmental practice. It can be defined as the culture informing the norms, beliefs and affiliation of the individual. It is influenced by authority figures, in-group initiation and at least three dichotomies. The first is creativity versus conformity. The second dichotomy is autonomy versus dependence. The third dichotomy is pragmatism versus idealism.

    “Technological” is the learning context of environmental practice. It can be defined as the level of access experienced by the individual. It is influenced by the level of access to education, markets, infrastructure, and relationships. Think of education as the ability to gain needed knowledge. “Markets” refers to the ability to engage with others and sell products resulting in new resources to the system. “Infrastructure” refers to the ability to utilize knowledge to build products. “Relationships” describes the ability to connect with others for barter of knowledge, education, and infrastructure transactions.

    “Economic” is the capability context of environmental practice. It is the capacity of the individual to engage in group discourse and benefit financially. It is influenced by intelligence, goals, legacy, and support. Intelligence is measured in the ability to delay gratification and save resources for later use. “Goals” refers to the capacity to plan for a future state of being. “Legacy” is the awareness of the progressive nature of economic development—the fact that choices now impact future states and choices. “Support” describes a system which provides financial and emotional resources in a way that encourages sustainable choices.

    [EST&P stands for Ecological Systems Theory and Practice. ]

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    Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

    5 Comments

    5 Comments

    1. Camelia Birsan

      October 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm

      A holistic approach and very useful in working with clients…

    2. Jim Cosenza, LCSW

      May 7, 2013 at 11:53 am

      #Ecological #Systems #socialwork #theory

    3. John Blundell

      May 4, 2013 at 6:29 am

      RT @swhelpercom: Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Expanding the Social … – #SWUnited #socialwork

    4. Inés S. Endrina

      May 1, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Teoría de sistemas en trabajo social.

    5. Michael A. Wright

      May 1, 2013 at 10:06 am

      SWH Contribution: Expanding the Social Work Mandate #SWUnited…

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