A Holistic View of Social Work Using Systems Theory

Sponsored Article by Campbellsville University

Social workers help struggling individuals receive the care and resources they need to live healthy, comfortable lives. Through aiding vulnerable children at schools, assisting terminal patients with changes to their daily routines and counseling struggling families, social workers serve society in many ways. While unique tactics are required to help people with diverse medical and emotional needs, all social workers can benefit from taking a holistic approach to each case.

Examining Behavior Through a Holistic Lens

A holistic approach to social work involves examining all social factors of a person’s life, rather than focusing on one issue. Social workers who practice this approach may examine their client’s behavior by considering the following factors:

Living environment

Where someone lives and with whom can have a variety of impacts on person’s well-being. Climate conditions can contribute to medical problems. Neighborhoods can be neglected or underfunded, which could lead to medical and psychological issues. Emotional issues can arise due to the people in a living environment. In addition, the cleanliness and organization of someone’s home may reflect specific behavior patterns.


Regardless if a social worker is counseling an entire family or an individual, understanding the family dynamic is a key to understanding how one communicates and behaves. Familial relationships may provoke a person’s behavior, especially when a family has a history of physical or emotional abuse.


Cultural background can often shed light on how individuals were raised, their religious beliefs and their personal priorities. Culture may also define familial structure and dictate how family members communicate with one another and with those outside of the home.


Many people can be easily influenced by those they work and socialize with. Attitudes and ideas expressed throughout a workplace or inner circle of friends may cause people to question their beliefs and opinions, leading to significant changes in behavior.

With a holistic approach, social workers can view all major facets of a client’s life to better determine underlying issues that may cause medical problems, emotional distress or negative changes in behavior. With a strong understanding of why a person behaves a certain way, social workers can formulate an effective plan to help their client overcome challenges.

When it comes to analyzing an individual holistically, there are a variety of methods to choose from. Still, many social workers subscribe to either the ecological perspective theory or person-in-environment (PIE) theory. Each theory utilizes different methods of sociological framework, and both have proven successful in solving behavior problems through social work.

Ecological Perspective Theory

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies defines ecology as “the scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter.” As applied to social work, the ecological perspective theory approaches behavior by examining the environmental and societal processes influencing a person; their reactions to changes in their surroundings; and the transformation of their overall health, behavior and attitude.  

Ideal for individuals of all ages, the ecological perspective theory considers specific social factors of a person’s life to determine the reasoning behind their behavior. When choosing this theory, social workers examine their clients’ interactions with family members and friends, along with their willingness to adapt their identity to fit policies and changes within their environment. By gaining an understanding of these factors, social workers can pinpoint the cause of behavioral changes and determine what kind of care and resources are needed for improvement.

In “The Ecology of Human Development,” Urie Bronfenbrenner discussed four systems to consider when using the ecological perspective theory for social work. Each system describes how humans are influenced by their surroundings.

  • Microsystem: A person’s immediate surroundings, such as the location of their home and their communication with the family members they live with.
  • Mesosystem: A person is influenced by the behavior and beliefs of others, often within the family and inner circle of friends.
  • Exosystem: How the decisions and behavior of others can indirectly change the behavior of someone else, especially for children. For example, changes in a parent’s work schedule may lead to communication disruptions within the family, which can cause behavior changes for children.
  • Macrosystem: How a person reacts and adapts to changes taking place outside of their family, community and inner circle of friends. Political and economic changes are categorized in this system.

When referring to the ecological perspective theory, social workers must keep in mind the idea that behavior is ever-changing, and people are constantly reacting and adapting to their surroundings. According to Michael Unger’s article A Deeper, More Social Ecological Social Work Practice, “the social work discipline has expanded this perspective to explain that an individual is ‘constantly creating, restructuring and adapting to the environment as the environment is affecting them.”

Person-in-Environment (PIE) Theory

Developed in the early 20th century by one of the founding leaders of the social work industry, Mary Ellen Richmond, the PIE theory strives to explain an adult’s behavior based on their current and past environments. Combining all of the systems considered through the ecological perspective theory, the PIE theory views each as a component of one main system.

In her research, Richmond found that an adult’s behavior and actions often reflect the social environment of their childhood and current living situation. To determine the source of negative behavior, along with the appropriate solution for each individual and family, Richmond’s theory explores certain factors of a person’s life, including:

  • Family dynamic as a child and an adult: Many adults choose to either mirror or oppose the beliefs and practices of their parents based on their own childhood experiences.
  • Education: Advanced education leads to more career opportunities and higher income, which may lead to a more comfortable adult life. Those with less education may struggle financially and have a lower quality of life.
  • Career: A person’s career may dictate their daily routine, income, and location of residence, all of which are social factors to consider when analyzing behavior and attitude.
  • Health: Physical health can often play a role in a person’s mental health.
  • Changing political and economic policies: Disagreeing with newly elected politicians and laws may cause a person to act out and display behavior that is typically out of character.

The PIE theory combines these factors to help social workers understand the roots of an individual’s behavior through an illustration of their childhood and adaptation into adulthood. By providing a large-scale view of an individual’s life experiences and social status, the PIE theory offers social workers the vital insight necessary to determine the best plan of action to make positive changes in the lives of their clients.

Use a Holistic Approach to Social Work in Your Career

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted the field of social work will expand 16 percent by 2026, making this industry one of the fastest growing in the country. The Bureau also lists Kentucky as one of the most popular nonmetropolitan areas for social work professionals, and the industry expansion will lead to thousands of new careers in the state.

Campbellsville University serves aspiring social workers in Kentucky and all over the world with its online Bachelor of Social Work and online Master of Social Work degrees. Available fully online through an interactive learning platform, both degrees deliver evidence-based instruction, the expertise you need to succeed as a social worker, and the flexible course options your busy schedule demands.

5 Social Work Theories That Inform Practice

Learning the theories behind psychological practices can be a valuable tool for any social worker. Understanding why people act the way they do can be a step toward helping them break bad habits and exhibit behavior that helps them succeed in life.

Popular Social Work Theories

Social workers should familiarize themselves with five different psychological theories that play a role in social work practice.


Posited by Erik Erikson in 1959, psychosocial theory draws on and is influenced by the earlier work of Sigmund Freud. However, psychosocial theory focuses on the ways that individuals are shaped by and react to their social environment.

According to Erikson’s theory, individuals’ sense of self grows and evolves as they come into contact with a number of social crises throughout their life, each of which forces the individual to react and adapt. These social crises include trust versus mistrust, which occurs in infancy and informs how an individual trusts; industry versus inferiority, which informs qualities like work ethic, competency and self-worth; and intimacy versus isolation, which provides the basis for love.

Each of Erikson’s social crises inform how individuals see themselves, how they react to the world and people around them, and what skills they develop in life. Taken together, these crises form a “maturation timetable” that social workers can use to inform how they treat clients, what services they provide and in what ways a particular client differs from what’s expected.


Started by Freud and continued in the work of Erikson and others, psychodynamic theory seeks to understand the reasons why people behave the way they behave. Unlike behavioral psychology, which uses scientific methods to determine causal relationships between people’s behavior and their environment, psychodynamic theory focuses on the individual’s inner world, which is divided into the id, the ego and the superego.

In psychodynamic theory, the id comprises the primal drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain; the superego consists of societal expectations, social mores and conscience; and the ego tries to find realistic ways to seek pleasure and avoid pain, balancing the two. The unconscious mind (the id and the superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious mind (the ego), and this creates anxiety and causes an individual to adopt defense mechanisms to better deal with the stress of inner conflict.

For social workers, it’s important to remember that this conflict does exist, and that nobody exhibits behavior without a reason. Finding that reason can help a social worker better assess the needs of  situations and clients, providing them with the services they require.


Although it’s not fully recognized as a scientific field of study, transpersonal theory and its emphasis on healing and aspiration can make it useful in a social worker’s toolkit. Pioneered by Carl Jung, transpersonal theory “uses positive influences, rather than the diseased human psyche and our defenses, as a model for the realization of human potential,” GoodTherapy says. That is, the theory uses saints, artists, heroes and other similar figures — people who have strong ego identities that others can strive to emulate — as aspirational examples.

Transpersonal theory is a study of human development, and its goal is to help people develop stronger ego identities as they grow older, becoming more like the saints and heroes they aspire to be. The theory is spiritual as well as psychological and, though it lacks the credibility of other fields of psychology, it can be a useful way to help a client overcome adversity and develop good habits.


In social learning theory, Albert Bandura builds upon B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theories. Behavioral psychology focuses on the effect of the environment and reinforcement on behavior, but Bandura adds two important distinctions: that mediating processes happen between stimulus and response, and that individuals can learn behavior through observation.

Social learning theory puts forth the idea that people often model behavior that they observe in their environment, particularly when they observe that behavior in those similar to themselves and when that behavior is reinforced in others. For example, a young boy observing behaviors in his father that are rewarded by society — earning a living, displaying little emotion, fixing things with his hands — is likely to emulate those behaviors. If those behaviors are then rewarded, they become reinforced and the individual is more likely to repeat them.

This, of course, can happen with problematic behaviors as well. An individual who observes a model treating others badly and being rewarded for it may follow the same path. Social workers can use social learning theory to discern the person a client might be using as a behavioral model and use that information to help correct destructive behavior.


Systems theory states that behavior is influenced by a variety of factors that work together as a system. A person’s parents, friends, school, economic class, home environment and other factors all influence how a person thinks and acts. Seeking to help correct missing or ineffective parts of that system can have a positive impact on behavior. The reverse, of course, is also true.

In one case study, a client was engaging in risky behaviors such as drug abuse and unprotected sex. Upon examining her environment, it was found that she hadn’t had contact with her father for five years, and some of her only memories of him were of drug abuse and arguing with her mother. This led the client to self-medicate with drugs when things went poorly and also provided a poor social model for relationships and little emotional support.

In systems theory, a social worker must observe and analyze all of the systems that contribute to an individual’s behavior and welfare, and work to strengthen those systems. This may take the form of providing positive role models, therapy or other services to help create a more supportive system for the individual.

The Trouble with Mentors & Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

President Obama Announcing his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

On May 30, 2014, President Barack Obama met with the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force to hear their 90-day report after launching the initiative. The report had all of the usual suspects as it outlined topics across the life-span from school readiness to elimination of structural barriers. Mentoring will figure as  an important part of the White House initiative, and t is my hope that we begin to get mentoring right. President Obama seems to have it about right when he stated,

 so that these young men, young boys, know somebody cares about them, somebody is thinking about them, and that they can succeed, and making America stronger as a consequence.

The President seems to recognize the need for a community of caring, but I hope the “somebody” mentioned in his quote is cumulative. For mentors, I hope it is somebody who cares and who is thinking about the mentee while figuring out how to help them succeed. Only through implementing a structure of multiple mentors can we model and sustain success through mentoring.

President Obama’s initiative for Black boys has renewed a discussion on the plight and structural barriers to success faced by minority males in the United States. Let me first clear up the only criticism that pundits have been able to advance to date: What about women and girls? The fact is The White House Council on Women and Girls was created March 11, 2009 through an executive order from the President in addition to host a White House Summit for Working Families later this month. Now, let’s get down to the work at hand.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Freshman at Tennessee State University giving a symposium on financial literacy. In all my presentations, I remind audiences that I know the best mentor alive: me. A student came up afterward and stated, “I have a mentor, but do you think I can get some help from you as well?” The question reminded me that many people still feel that having more than one person helping you out is the opposite of loyalty. The truth is successful people have many people who support them…in many and varied ways.

My experience is that when you come from a background where loyalty, privacy, and ability to defend against invaders from outside the household is prized, you tend toward a view that “only mom” or “only dad” has my best interests at heart. If the target of the White House initiative are Black boys that grew up like me, it will be important to structure a system that educates the young person on what few adults have put into practice. I present the outline of the education here in 3 points: training mentors and mentees, systems navigation, and the power of networks.

Training Mentors and Mentees

I have news for would-be mentors. Your motivation for participation as a mentor may be detrimental to the sustainability of the mentee and the mentor-mentee relationship. Often, the motivation to become a mentor is to give back to another. What is implicit in that motivation is a possessiveness. As well, there is an insidious quid-pro-quo: If I give of my time and mentoring, you will do what I say and praise me as the person who was there for you. This is a natural human need–to be rewarded or at least appreciated for the contribution you have made. The problem with this is that it is not consistent with the realities of the world. If mentors and mentees are not taught another way, mentors will burn out attempting to be everything to their mentees. Mentees will focus on a single mentor as a matter of loyalty missing the lesson of network development.

Instead of the simple pairing of mentor to mentee, a more sustainable process would be to build a network of mentors. Each with specific expertise and access. Sponsor open events that allow mentors to set up booths and pitch their expertise and networks to the mentees. Allow mentees to collect multiple business cards based on their interests. Have a life coach sit with the mentees later and map out a life plan listing each of the mentors and how they fit with the plan. The map would also identify areas that still need to a mentor assigned. This approach communicates to the mentee that mentoring is not about a one-person, focused sense of loyalty. It is about utilizing and honoring the multiple relationships needed for success.

Systems Navigation

Winning strategies for human development are centered in the idea of multiple mentors. The idea is that individual interaction with each system is enhanced when the individual is guided intentionally by another person. My hope is that the programs created or bolstered through the president’s initiative understand that the goal is to create communities of support, not just mentoring relationships. The goal is a community where we ALL have structural methods and opportunities to care for each young person. The goal is that no child feels that they have to succeed alone.

The idea of mentoring is best centered, not in the individual mentor, but in the community-mindedness and structural safety of the systems that touch a child each day. For example:

  • Family mentors: These are effective resources for food security, funders from which to borrow money, and sponsors for activities and trips.
  • High School/college mentors: These are system guides for successful progression, references recommending for internships and employment, and instructors on how-to do tasks.
  • Career Mentors: These offer system guides in employment, collaborators for product creation and brainstorming, and advocates for promotion or social redress.
  • Friends as Mentors: These offer sustainable ways to blow off steam, connections to new networks, and a varied pool of  ideas.

Power of Networks

I hope for a two-fold understanding of networks in the White House Initiative: technology as connector for mentoring AND recognition of the “who you know.” My brother’s keeper, like the Council on Women and Girls before it, is slated to have two key technological interventions. The first is an

Administration-wide ‘What Works’ online portal to disseminate successful programs and practices that improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.

The second is

comprehensive public website, to be maintained by the Department of Education, that will assess, on an ongoing basis, critical indicators of life outcomes for boys and young men of color in absolute and relative terms.

These two are critical to the success and sustainability of the initiative. I am happy to see Annie E. Casey as a major partner on this initiative. They have recently produced a major report on racial disparities among youth in the United States.

The second understanding of Networks will sustainably be implementation of my expanded view of the cliche, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” I state,

It’s not what you know or who you know. It’s who knows you and is willing to risk their reputation to develop yours. – Michael A. Wright

What I communicate here is mentors have the task of launching the careers of their mentees. Mentees have the task to discern the relationships that will support, propel, and sustain their success. The task of the larger community is to structure a world that makes these tasks not just possible, but probable. In order to accomplish this, we have to retrain some of our fundamental assumptions about how mentoring works. We must organize around a community of caring. This organization will show through even in the ways that we solicit and engage mentors.

You can also view the Presidents February 27th 2014 Fact Sheet by clicking here, and you can also sign up to be a mentor.

Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Visualizing Human Systems

Our ability to understand human systems was bolstered by the work of many scholars. Bertalanffy introduced what is now known as General Systems Theory (GST) in 1934. We now accept that human systems are organic seeking purpose and order. Weiner explained cybernetics in 1969. His work clarified the control system that is the interaction among humans and between humans and the environment.

We now understand that human systems are dynamic. Bronfenbenner offered Ecological Systems Theory in 1979. His work provided a way to view the multiple interactions that occur within, among, and between human systems. We now interpret that human systems are complex.

At the conclusion of this section, you will be able to:

  1. Articulate the origins of human systems knowledge.
  2. Trace the development of human systems knowledge from 1934 through 1979.
  3. Define human systems as organic, dynamic, and complex.

Organic Systems

The earliest of these specifically employing the term “system theory” is Ludwig von Bertalanffy originally in 1934. His General System Theory (1969) describes the structures and processes of closed versus open systems explaining how the tendency toward entropy (disorder) in closed systems is a tendency toward steady state (order) in open systems. Closed systems are characterized by isolation from their environments. Open systems receive input and provide output to their environment. Open systems or organic systems evidence “a transition towards higher order, heterogeneity, and organization” (p.41).

Bertalanffy enabled us to state with certainty, “Humans are organic systems.” Human systems evolve in the context of specifically identifiable environments. Human behavior is real and observable. The maintenance of a steady state (akin to equilibrium in biology) depends on a constant inflow and outflow of resources. From his work, we also understand the concept of equifinality. The same outcome can be achieved with various inputs.

These concepts are important to visualizing human systems because, prior to this, closed systems were considered as the only reliable way to study organic occurrences. That would have left human systems researchers attempting to control environments rather than explain their impact on human systems. Because of the inflow and outflow, human systems do not violate physical laws. They tend to naturally dissipate chaotic energy and evolve order motivated toward steady states.

Practically, this means that people tend to identify social roles, meaningful and useful relationships, comfortable transactions and routines, and new information. Crisis, trauma, or unsustainable choice may trigger isolation and an inability to continue the above traits. This isolation disrupts the steady state or equilibrium of the person and necessitates an intervention to restore insight into purpose and expulsion of chaos and stress.

Dynamic Systems

With its first publication in 1948 and a second edition in 1961, Weiner advanced the field of “cybernetics.” Cybernetics expands our understanding of the interactions that occur within the human system. It is based on a modeling of the human central nervous system applied to the building of machines for the repetition of elementary processes. This was the 1940s. We have come to know these repetition machines as computers.

Weiner enabled us to state with certainty, “Human systems are dynamic.” Human systems serve a phylogenetic learning purpose, which may have “been devoted to establishing the possibility of good ontogenetic learning” (Weiner, 1961, p. 170). Human systems are characterized by interactive and feedback structures. They process information. They construct meaning and refine that meaning over time.

Practically, this means that people can reproduce themselves in their image. That is, they communicate their lessons learned, rules, norms, and acceptable behaviors to others. Appropriate behaviors are reinforced while inappropriate behaviors are reduced. Individuals and groups engage in this exchange.

Complex Systems

Ecological systems theory is credited to Bronfenbrenner (1979). The theory allows us to speak of relationships within individual systems and between systems. This perspective introduces the fact that systems can be nested and interdependent.

Bronfenbrenner enabled us to state with certainty, “Human systems are complex.” We can speak of the systems we focus on as the micro systems. They are nested within larger mezzo systems. These are nested within still larger macro systems. Bronfenbrenner introduced exo systems to describe those systems that are not nested with our system of focus. The chronosystem is Bronfenbrenner’s term to model the interactions over time.

Practically, this means that the “learning” within the individual and between the systems has nested effects that result in complexity. That is, the effects of individual meaning construction impact the group. We are able to identify the groups and determine the extent of the impact based on membership, diffusion, relationships, and historical factors.

As Consultant: What the Social Worker Already Knows (2nd in Series)

Social work professional education includes in its core curriculum some important constructs that are also vital to the social worker as consultant. In addition to reinforcing the mantra of individual change and social change, the constructs provide us with a vocabulary for discussing human behavior in the social environment.  Perhaps the most foundational of these is General Systems Theory. This theory organizes humans into individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities or IFGOC for short. Next, is Ecological Systems Perspective.

This perspective places IFGOC in an environment that we can describe. These lead logically to Sociocybernetics. This construct emphasizes behavior as the determinant of outcomes. The social worker as consultant will do well to use mastery of these toward the development of competence in Operational Research–a discipline useful in predicting outcomes.

Systems Simplified

Even if you are a social worker, systems talk can get abstract. But, that is the point, to map the complexity. Here it is as simply as drawing. General Systems Theory started by drawing circles on a sheet of paper. Ecological systems perspective drew lines connecting the circles. Sociocybernetics suggested that the connection lines were made intentionally, not by mistake. Operational research has the idea that we can predict what and how connection lines will be made.

General Systems Theory was advanced by Bertalanffy. The theory allows us to talk about the interactions between IFGOC. For the social worker as consultant, focus on the concept of holism. Each system is not simply defined by the sum of its parts. The interactions between the component parts form something different from the simple sum of parts. The social workers as consultant must master manipulation of this holism effect to define the expected outcome and manage the components to achieve that outcome.

Ecological systems perspective is credited to Bronfenbrenner. The theory allows us to talk about the relationships in and among systems. This includes the idea of individual complexity. This perspective introduces the fact that systems can be nested and interdependent. We can speak of the systems we focus on as the micro systems. They are nested within larger mezzo systems.

These are nested within still larger macro systems. Bronfenbrenner also introduced exo systems to describe those systems that are not nested with our system of focus. Systems can also be energy enhancing and energy-draining. The social worker as consultant is a functional intervention with awareness of multiple systems levels. The social worker as consultant does not see these ecological systems levels as dividing practice areas. He/she sees them as a reminder to review the potential and unintended consequences of a proposed intervention at multiple systems levels.

Sociocybernetics allows us to talk about the social contracts that provide priority to the interactions and complexity to the relationships in which humans participate. The social worker as consultant utilizes sociocybernetics to map the complexity that results when individuals relate in families, participate in groups, form organizations, and build communities. This mapping can take the form of a diagram of nested and individual circles connected by lines that denote strength of relationship, direction, and energy. Social workers typically refer to these diagrams as ecomaps.

Operational Research: The Next Step

General systems theory, ecological systems perspective, and sociocybernetics form the basic skills that the social worker as consultant will have mastered already after having completed a social work education. The social worker as consultant can combine these constructs to aid in comprehending operational research. Operational research employs systems knowledge to predict the behavior of individuals in specific environments. He/she makes predictions by specifically noting the inputs, interventions of the system, its outputs, and the feedback produced from systems operation.

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