An Introduction to Theories, Models and Methods


Within the social work literature the word ‘theory’ is used in conjunction with a wide array of other terms, for example ‘model’, ‘approach’, ‘practice’ and ‘method’. In preparing this book I looked on Google for the phrase ‘Task Centred’ followed by ‘Model’, ‘Approach’, ‘Practice’, ‘Theory’ and ‘Method’. The results are given below.

Approach – 41,100 hits

Model – 3,600 hits

Practice – 2,160 hits

Theory – 432 hits

Method – 218 hits

From this it is probably that the most common way of describing Task-Centred social work is as an approach, but that all five terms have been used. This still leaves us with a wide range of questions: How are these words being used? Do they all mean the same thing, or do they imply different things by using different words? It is unlikely that a definitive answer can be given to these questions, but it is possible to explore some of the general themes.

The first point to make is that these terms have overlapping meanings. Although each word has its own specific meanings these meanings are sufficiently vague that at times one person’s ‘approach’ may be someone else’s ‘model’ and another person’s ‘theory’. This is a cause of confusion and uncertainty for many social work, especially those just beginning to study the subject.

Unfortunately in some ways this book does not entirely help remove that confusion. In the title, ‘Theory to Practice’, the word ‘theory’ is being used as a generic terms covering terms like model, approach and method. In the individual chapters I have tried to limit the word ‘theory’ to those ideas that include an explanatory element; in other words ideas that do not simply tell a worker what to do, they also attempt to give a coherent explanation of why problems occur and why certain actions are likely to improve the situation.

In this way both Task-Centred Practice and Crisis Intervention are not theories, but models or approaches in that both explain what a worker should do, but not really why they should do it. However Person-Centred theory, Cognitive theory and Behavioural theory all take a specific stance in relation to human nature that explains why people have problems and why a particular approach is helpful, and so are given the label ‘theory’.

In general it is best to accept that the terms do not have fixed meanings and use the terms in a way that works instead of trying to create rigid meanings for them. A personal view would be that a theory tells us why something is the way it is, but may not tell us what to do about it, a model or approach gives us an overall structure for what to do about a problem, but may not tell us why it happened in the first place or be highly specific about what to do at each step, and a method tells us exactly what to do at a given step, but needs to be linked to a theory, model or approach to form a coherent basis for on-going work.

Using Theory Forward and Backwards

It is also important to note that theories and models can be used in two quite separate ways in social work practice. In some situations a social worker may consciously and deliberately set out to apply a specific theory in a given situation with a service user. I call this using a theory forward. The social worker uses the theory to move forward in their work. Rolfe et. al. (2001) take this forward looking view of theory when they describe theory as “a way of ordering knowledge in a descriptive, explanatory or predictive framework; it enables us to employ knowledge in order to describe some aspect of the world, to explain it and to make predictions about it.” (p 3)

But a social worker can also use a theory backwards; that is having done something they can reflect upon that experience and make sense of it using theory. In most situations social workers ‘do what they do’; they do not consciously and deliberately apply theory in advance of the work. However this does not mean that theory is not being used at all. Fully effective social work practice requires the social worker to be able to give a clear rationale for their actions. Beckett (2006) refers to this form of backward, post-facto use of theory when she describes theory as “a set of idea or principles used to guide practice, which was sufficiently coherent that they could if necessary be made explicit in a form open to challenge.” (p33) This is just as much a use of theory as when it is consciously and deliberately applied in advance.

Given the complex, chaotic and contested nature of many of the situations social workers deal with on a daily basis it is unsurprising that social workers must make creative use of theory, fitting each theory to match the needs of the given situation they are in.

Goodness of Fit

It is tempting to think that social workers must always use the ‘right’ theory or model. The problem with this is that there is not a single grand theory that explains everything, solves every problem and guarantees achieving every goal. Instead of looking for the ‘right’ theory social workers must look for the theories or models that are most appropriate in a given situation. This will involve balancing four different factors. Firstly, the theories and models that are available to the social worker. Secondly, the service user’s personal preferences and views. Thirdly, the specific situation in which the service user and service user meet. Finally, the personal preferences and views of the social worker.

This is illustrated in the following diagram.

Theories and Goodness of Fit

Practice is most likely to be effective when a worker uses a theory that is appropriate for the situation, matches the service user’s own theories about what causes problems, and is consistent with their own values and ways of thinking. This may be called ‘goodness of fit.’ Some service users are not ‘psychologically minded’. If a worker uses a psychological theory (such as psychodynamic theory) with such a service user they are likely to confuse or frustrate the service user. At the same time if a service user is highly psychologically minded and a social worker insists on focusing solely on observable behaviours the service user is again likely to become confused or frustrated.

Balancing the theories and beliefs of service users with the theories and beliefs of social workers to create a unique understanding that is appropriate for the situation is as much an art as a science. No book or course can provide all that is needed to develop this scientific art to high degree of competence. This book however aims to provide a solid base from which to develop that competence and to strive for excellence.

Theory in Practice

The reality of social work practice is that it takes place in the messy world of human relationships. Whilst TV programmes like Cracker, Lie to Me and The Mentalist create the impression that trained professionals using clever theories and complex techniques can uncover with absolute truth about human behaviour, this is a fantasy and not a reality.

Having a sound theory base is not about being ‘clever’ or being ‘the expert’. It is about having the knowledge and skills to use a range of ways of seeing people’s behaviour and circumstances in a way that lets the social worker form relationships with people and collaborate with them to solve problems. This requires concentrated effort and a commitment on the part of the social worker to broaden and deepen their knowledge base. This base is then used alongside the knowledge and skills of the service user and others to help service users achieve their goals and to enhance individual and social well-being.

The ability to think clearly and creatively about people’s situations and behaviour is not the same as mere ‘cleverness’. Social workers need the qualities of curiosity, integrity, compassion, humility and personal resilience. Without these qualities theoretical knowledge is useless.

Beyond these things social workers need the skills to use their knowledge base in order to work with service users and others and not as a way of imposing their view onto service users. Exploring someone else’s understanding and then using your own understand to co-create a model of change is as much an art as a science.

Social workers cannot practice safely without a broad and rigorous theory base. They also cannot assume that a broad and rigorous theory base is enough for them to practice safely. Therefore this section must end with some key words of warning.

Some Words of Warning

Although this book aims to provide a range of theories and models to develop social work practice it is highly limited. There has been no space for Social Role Valorisation, Transactional Analysis, Neuro-linguistic programming, post-modernism, neo-liberalism, Marxism, Discourse Analysis and literally hundreds of other potentially useful theories and models. This book also does not cover the legal and social policy base for social work practice. In developing competence these areas must be considered alongside social work theories, models and methods.

This book is only a platform to build from, it is not sufficient in itself. Learning to use theory well is hard, it takes time.

Many social workers who claim to be using a particular theory are only applying a limited version of the theory they claim. When starting out on the journey to excellence in social work practice it is necessary to become aware of and learn to use a wide range of theories. But a social worker must not leave things there.

It is impossible to develop a high degree of competence in more than a handful of theories. It is however possible to be employed as a social worker with a small amount of knowledge about a large number of theories. To develop high level competence a social worker must find a range of theories that work for them, including a small number of theories, no more than about three or four in most cases, which they know extremely well and can use confidently and effectively.

There is evidence that high competence in a skill requires at least 1,000 hours of practice (Syed, 2011). For the knowledge and skills required to become highly competent at a theory this does not mean 1,000 hours of working life, (about six months full time work) but 1,000 hours of actually using the theory, something that even in an ideal situation is unlikely to be achieved in much less than two years. As a result it is likely to take years of post-qualifying professional practice to achieve high competence in more than two or three methods, however if a worker settles for anything else they will be cheating themselves and the people they work with the chance to benefit from all they can be as a social worker.

At the same time it is important to recognise that social workers work with people and not with theoretical concepts. There is a serious danger when using a theory, especially a favourite theory, of making the person fit the theory rather than the theory fit the person. An over adherence to a preferred theory can lead to a social worker systematically failing to notice details in service users’ stories that do not fit the theory. This is something to be avoided.  Even when using a theory that has proved effective in the past a social worker must look for a way of understanding and working that is right for the unique individual they are working with at that moment.

It is therefore important for social workers to strive for excellence in their knowledge and use of effective theoretical frameworks, but they must be able to connect with service users as people if they are to apply this excellence in knowledge to produce excellence in practice.