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Social Workers support and assist people in every walk of life, protect the vulnerable, help at times of crisis, respect as individuals those they care for, challenge injustice, and promote the well being of others.

Social Work Stuff
Guide to linking theory with practice.

Nowadays we are all expected to write about our practice in a coherent way, and to justify it using theory and research. This is an attempt to put into plain English some basic ideas that will help you do this difficult task, and convince you that "There's no such thing as theoryless practice."

The above comment is often heard in social work teaching circles. If you regard theory as an idea or concept about how something works, or how something should work, then this is certainly true. There is enough written about things relevant to social work to provide us with an almost endless source of theoretical background. Theory that is applicable to social work is extremely broad - it obviously includes psychology, sociology and social policy, but there are many other sorts of writing that can be considered to be 'theory' if you think broadly enough.

Here are two general statements about theory which you might like to consider:

  1. Theory can help you do something, or it can help you understand a situation or person.

  2. Theory is basically anything that has got itself into print!

Let's take the first statement: the theories that help you 'do' are the ones, for instance, like the stages of Task-centred theory, which identify a series of tasks that a worker might go through in their intervention with a client. If you apply this theory to a piece of work, you will go through some version of these stages; you will know that once you have identified what the 'problems' are, you will then agree tasks or goals aimed towards resolving some problems, and you will then implement the plan and work towards an ending. It could be said that this helps you do this set of tasks, and that if you do it, you will be doing a 'good social work job' as far as Task-centred theory goes.

Theories that help you to 'understand' are fundamental to social work and it's values. Our job is to be as non-judgemental as possible towards our clients, their behaviours and their situations. Some theories are helpful to us in this, for instance the basic idea in psychodynamic theory that says that past experiences or emotional traumas affect present behaviour; when faced with an angry and uncooperative young person it is easy to condemn his behaviour, but when we know that he/she was abused as a child and that this is likely to be the reason he is behaving like this, then it is easier to work with him positively.

"Theory is anything that has got itself into print"? Yes, this is slightly tongue in cheek, but the point is that theory is not just about the main concepts behind the subject. It is not just about 'Task-centred', 'crisis intervention', 'cognitive-behavioural', etc. and neither it is just about stuff you'll find in books and journals. I think that theory can be any idea or explanation that has a bearing on the things that social workers do, so it can cover anything from big philosophical ideas down to detailed instructions about procedure.

The difficulty, then, is not about whether there is a theory to match your practice, but rather it is about how to decide which of many things you want to write about. Here's an idea about how to make this decision:


Here's the 'BROAD' bit - look at this in terms of theories that are in a huge range of categories or hierarchies (various typologies have been put forward in books - these are my own):

GRAND THEORIES: broad, overarching ideas.

THINGS LIKE: Marxism, Feminism, philosophies, values.


FUNDAMENTAL SOCIAL WORK THINGS LIKE: psychology, sociology and social policy.


THINGS LIKE: crisis intervention, cognitive behavioural therapy, task-centred work.


THINGS LIKE: Equal Ops policies, clients' access to records, assessment procedures, complaints procedures. Of course, also, any laws that affect our practice

That's the 'BROAD' bit - in my opinon all of these can be validly used when writing about practice and relating it to theory. For more academic documents it's probably better to stick to the first three categories.

The next stage is to think small - you need to decide which of the many options, out of all the categories above, might be relevant or interesting or useful to apply to the practice you are writing about.

Make a decision about one theory you will use as your link. Most people can do this - they put down a word, such as 'Crisis Intervention' or 'Person-Centred'. GOOD - but now you need to fine it down even further. Ask youself 'What does Person-Centred theory (for instance) actually say that would be helpful in relation to the practice I am writing about?', and therefore 'Which part of Person-Centred theory should I be thinking about?'

The final stage is to think tiny - for this you need an actual idea or concept that comes from the theory. Go to your books and read up about it; if you have chosen a relevant one it doesn't take long to find an aspect of it that is applicable to your practice, and it is then easy to pull out a quote that illustrates the point you are making. You are now ready to make your link.


  1. QUOTATION - write down your quotation (with a reference).

  2. INTERPRETATION - next put down what you consider this idea/concept means to you - your interpretation of it. A quotation is no good if you have not shown that you understand it.

  3. APPLICATION - say how this idea or concept applies to the piece of practice you are writing about. Be as specific as you can, showing how the theory has helped you to 'do' something or to 'understand' a person or situation.

Here are some examples of what I mean:
EXAMPLE 1: "A young mother had been referred by the Health Visitor who felt that she was unable to provide appropriate care for her young child. It was important to find out about the quality of the the mothers' relationship with her child. In 'Assessing Children in Need and their Families (DOH, 2000) we are told: 'What happens to children in the first years of life is the foundation of later development and will affect their outcomes. The significance of this must be taken into account in the assessment process'. [There's the first quote! Add a reference too!] This was a very important part of the interview because delays in any decisions about childcare can have future effects on the child. This is supported further by the DOH document, which also states that; 'Where these attachments are absent or broken, decisions to provide children with new attachments must be taken as quickly as possible to avoid developmental damage.' [There's a second quote!] . Making judgements about people's parenting abilities, as they appear in a visit, is not easy but an important consideration is to look at the possible long-term effects on the child's future development. [There goes the interpretation!] I encouraged her to talk about her parenting, and about the experiences and activities of her child in the last 6 months - for instance how much time she spent with him on various activities, and whether there were toys and other learning aids around the house. The purpose of this line of discussion was to establish the quality of the child's experience so far so that I could assess the effect on the child's development of any possible neglect."[That was the application!]"

Here's another:
EXAMPLE 2: "I had to follow-up on a phone call from a Mrs. J, who had asked social services to visit her mother, client Y, in her own home; her daughter had contacted social services because her mother was now needing more help than she, the daughter, could offer. I took a Task-centred approach to this; an important aspect of the Preparation stage of the Task-centred approach is to ensure that there is a genuine mandate for a social work intervention. This was particularly applicable to client Y because the referral had come from the daughter and it was not clear whether the client herself had agreed to it or even whether she was aware of it. 'The mandate is a shorthand way of saying 'what justifies social work at this time, in this situation?' (Hanvey & Philpot 1994) [There goes the quote!]. This means that any social work intervention must be justified explicitly, both from the point of view of the rights of the client and bearing in mind the limitations of resources. When a referral comes from an authorized person the mandate is clear, but this was not the case here. [There goes the interpretation!] For this reason I decided to find out more about the situation by contacting Mrs. J, and she told me that she had had full discussions with her mother about this and that she, her mother, was in full agreement. I then decided to follow this up with a letter to client Y confirming this. [That was the application!]"

EXAMPLE 3: Here's a real example taken from a student who was working in a residential unit for people with a disability. I wanted to include it because it is a good example of a simple task having a theoretical background to it, and because although it does not follow the formula slavishly, all the elements are there:
"I helped client M with his food and used this opportunity to encourage him to talk about his life in institutional care. He explained that he had never been allowed to grow up and so he had remained a child within his behaviour patterns for much longer. Although John Bowlby wrote in many of his books about the subject of attachment to the mother figure and the subsequent element of loss exhibited by the child's behaviour if this bonding did not occur, Schaffer (1991 pp. 107-115) asks the question 'Does separation from parents cause psychological trauma'? He maintains that separation is not a 'pure' experience, i.e. loss of the mother figure; 'on the contrary it is accompanied by a host of other circumstances that may account for subsequent pathology, i.e. the loss of a parent, the disruption of routine and removal to strange environments and the imposition of unpleasant procedures'. Resident M had experienced all these things when he was placed in care at the age of 12. When I actively listened, encouraging him to talk about himself, he explained that during his time in the instutition for the elderly he was sent to many psychologists who did not understand that his 'bad' behaviour was due to the fact that he wanted to be himself. He wanted to be free to express his opinions, but due to the regimentation of life in the institution if an individual was to speak his/her mind it was viewed as deviant behaviour. It was only when he saw a psychologist at the Leonard Cheshire that this explanation of his behaviour was examined and discussed. He had felt very upset and homesick when he had been placed in care, and missed his parents and siblings. He had also had one or two close friends who he never saw again, and sometimes he felt so angry that he couldn't control his behaviour....."

Once you've done all this, remember another point about theories - they often compete against each other. This is a good thing! The on-going task is to evaluate different theories and compare them. The more we do this the more we will develop our critical thinking skills. A critical thinker is likely to be a good practitioner.

GOOD LUCK! E-mail me if you have any comments.

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