Entering its second century as a profession, social work is still grappling with its identity. This article argues that social work has no guiding paradigm, and hence is left to the vagaries of over 100 different approaches, frameworks, models, perspectives, and theories, most of them emanating from the social sciences. The author clarifies conceptual terms, discusses the profession’s philosophy and epistemology, gives a brief historical overview, and develops a social work classification system.

Dr. Steven Soifer is an Associate Professor, at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work, Baltimore, USA.

In 1998, the social work profession celebrated its 100th birthday. Yet, I think it is fair to say that as a profession, we really do not have a distinct paradigm (Kuhn, 1970) to guide our work.

This article seeks to address several questions. First, what do we mean by paradigm? Second, once defined, can we agree that the social work profession does not have its own unique paradigm? Third, if so, what theoretical perspective(s) inform our profession and practice? Where are they drawn from? And why have we relied on other disciplines rather than our own to develop our knowledge and method base? Fourth, what are the distinctions among theory, models, perspectives, frameworks, and approaches that we so loosely use in our profession? What exactly do we have? Practice theories? What are they? Finally, what are the prospects for our profession developing its paradigm? What are the obstacles, and why has not this happened yet?


Paradigm is a term that is used widely but often incorrectly in our profession. According to Webster’s (Webster, 1983:1298) unabridged dictionary, a paradigm is an ‘example’ or ‘pattern’. However, since Thomas Kuhn published his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), ‘paradigm’

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has come to mean a world viewpoint that is adopted by a particular scientific discipline or community that is accepted by most or all its disciplines. Until an anomaly (or anomalies) can no longer be explained by this worldview, practitioners engage in what is called ‘normal science ‘ that is, experiments to test and verify the existing world order. A ‘revolution’ takes place in a particular discipline once the old worldview is overturned and a new ‘paradigm’ takes its place, and then the process starts all over again. I would argue that the social work profession does not fit the above description.

What is theory? Again, turning to Webster’s Dictionary, (webster 1983:1893) it is a formulation of apparent relationships or underlying principles of certain observed phenomena which has been verified to some degree. Also, causation is a hallmark of theories (Evans, 1976). I think it would be fair to say that social work also does not have a systematic theory or theories of its own which our practitioners adhere to and argue about.

I think that is why we, in social work, most frequently talk about practice theories’ model models(for example, models of practice), perspective (for example, the dual perspective ), frameworks (for example, eclectic ), or approach (for example, ecological, but improperly ). But what do these terms mean?

I like Evans'(1976:179) distinction between the theory of practice’ and ‘practice theory’. By the former, he means the theories that influence and inform a social worker’s practice, which one often takes from the social sciences. The latter refers to how social workers make sense of their experience’, and how they go about the business of practicing their profession ‘. Smid and van Krieken (1984) make a similar distinction, too.

A model, says Webster (1983::1154) in its best relevant description, is a generalized, hypothetical description, often based on an analogy, used in analyzing or explaining something. Evans (1976::180) adds to this by describing models as ‘conceptually complex ways of describing social reality’. Perspective, on the other hand, is defined as ‘the relationship or proportion of the parts to the whole, regarded from a particular standpoint or point in time (Webster (1983:1339)’. Frameworks are defined as a ‘basic structure’ or ‘system’ (Webster (1983:727) and approach as ‘an approximation’ or ‘resemblance’ (Webster,1983:91).

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I have belabored these definitions for an important reason, and the relevance to social work is clear. Wicker (1985) implores his own profession (psychology) to really analyze the meaning of the ‘key concepts’ used, and we, as social workers, would do well to follow suit.

First, social work as a profession tends to use the above definition almost interchangeably, which is incorrect and imprecise. Second, since I have argued that social work does not have a legitimate paradigm that most or all practitioners adhere to, we need to be clear about what we do have. The closest resemblance we have to a paradigm is the ‘person-environment’ perspective. This is historically derived from the work of Mary Richmond (Kemp, Whittaker, and Tracy, 1997) and currently from the ecosystems perspective. It is important to note that as a profession, we are not engaged in research to support or refute this ‘worldview’; rather, most of us simply accept it as our modus operandi. No amount of experimentation will help entrench or overturn this ‘perspective’.

This really leads to the heart of the matter. Social work, as a discipline and profession, is not like the ‘hard’ sciences. As stated earlier, we do not have our own theories, which we go about trying to support or refute through the collection of data and empirical experiments, from which testable propositions and empirical constructs are derived. We are not even like the ‘soft’ sciences, which are desperately trying to emulate their distant cousins in the hard sciences by using similar ‘methodologies. What we do as a profession is to borrow ‘theories’ from our friends in the ‘soft’ sciences to help guide our work. Social work applies the social and behavioral sciences to its practice like medicine applies the biological sciences to its practice.

The Philosophical and Epistemological
Underpinnings of SocialWork

For at least several decades now, there has been an ongoing controversy in our profession concerning the nature of our profession and its epistemological groundings. That is, how do we as a profession derive our knowledge base? Where do our ideas come from, and how do we view the process of the acquisition of knowledge in social work? (Imre, 1991; Reamer, 1993).
This debate is important because it influences what we are about, the kind of research that we conduct, what we accept as the standards in the profession, our value base, and the practice skills we utilize. In the social sciences in general, this debate has raged on

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longer than it has in social work. Winch (1973:94) cogently argues that the central concepts that belong to our understanding of social life are incompatible with concepts central to the activity of scientific prediction’. He goes on to say that ‘the conceptions according to which we normally think of social events are logically incompatible with the concepts belonging to scientific explanation’ (1973:95).

One of the implications of this viewpoint is that much of what we debate in the social sciences, in general, and our own professors.s, in particular, is wrongly framed. That is, to use a phrase coined by Ryle (1949:16), we are engaged in a category -mistake’. Thus, when we talk about philosophy for the social sciences in general (or social work in particular), Winch (1973:17) states that ‘many of the more important theoretical issues which have been raised in those studies belong to philosophy rather than to science and are, therefore, to be settled by a priori conceptual analysis rather than empirical research’.

There are essentially three camps in this debate in our own profession. One is the so-called ‘positivist’ school, which derives its positions from philosophers of the early twentieth century who went by this name. They believe in what is called the ‘hypotheticodeductive’ or ‘logical empiricism’ method. This is typified by Bloorh (1 969), Fischer (1981; 1984), Hudson (1982), Orcutt (1990), and Thyer (1987; 1988; 1994). The second school is called the ‘post-positivist’ or ‘heuristic’ school, which believes in the inductive or intuitive method and is driven by the search for meaning. Exemplars of this position would be Canda (1991), Davis (1986), Dean and Fenby (1989), Haworth (1984; 1991), Heineman (1981), Heineman-Pieper (1985), Nagel (1988), Saleebey (1990; 1991; 1992; 1993), Sherman (1991), Tyson (1992), and Weick (1986; 1987), Weick, Rapp, Sullivan and Krishardt (1991). The critiques of the post-positivists vary, but essentially this school argues that human experience cannot be ignored, that feelings and experiences are important data, and that research methods need to reflect these facts of life.

Finally, we have what I would call the middle-ground school, one which seeks the center of this debate, and which does not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I would put articles by Atherton (1993), Caspi (1992), Gordon (1983), Gottschalk and Witkin (1991), Haworth, (1984; 1991), Wallace (1988), Witkin and Gottschalk (1988), and Zimmerman (1989) within this school. The reason Idoso is that these articles try to take a balanced, more ‘objective’ view of the situation, and essentially argue that both

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approaches are important and have validity. That is, it is not an either/or proposition, but an ‘and’ perspective.

It appears to this author that indeed both schools have important points to make. Without seeming glib, the recognition of the contribution of the so-called scientific method to the social sciences, in general, and social work, in particular, cannot be overlooked. On the other hand, to say that this is the only view or research methodology to use borders on hubris if not outright foolhardiness. After all, it is hard to deny the importance of cognitions, emotions, feelings, and thoughts to human behavior. Just because it is not observable to a third party (and therefore not empirically verifiable, according to the positivists), is not sufficient grounds for eliminating the study of it! In fact, the very act of knowing is based on these ‘facts’ of human experience. Moreover, each of us is an observer, albeit a subjective one, of this realm of ‘unverifiable’ experience.

If this is true, then it seems to this author that the so-called misnamed ‘heuristic paradigm’ (again, it really would not be a paradigm, as argued above) is the essentially correct position. This approach to research, I would argue, is more defensible since it allows various ways of knowing, including but not limited to the scientific approach to knowing. However, it also allows for other seemingly important data for the social work ‘theorist’ and practitioner. Thus, we need a methodology, or as Rubin and Babbie (1993:6) would say, a ‘science of finding out’, about such phenomena.

Too often, it seems that scientific researchers rely too heavily on the deductive path, That is, they will have a theory, develop hypotheses, and then seek observations to support or refute these hypotheses. However, the inductive process, which starts from observations, develops some tentative hypotheses or generalizations, and then perhaps leads to some theory later on, is often underutilized and appreciated. Say Rubin and Babbie (1993:43-44):

Scientific inquiry in practice typically involves an alternation between deduction and induction. During the deductive phase, we reason toward observations; during the inductive phase, we reason ‘from observations..In practice, both deduction and induction are routes to the construction of social theories.

At least in sociology. Glaser and Strauss (1967) have championed the inductive approach and called it grounded theory. Also, Merton (1968) talked about middle-range theories, which would seem to be a much more appropriate target for the social work profession.

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what we see so far in our field are unclear definitional terms about important concepts and arguments concerning the research frameworks to use in social work practice. As Mohan (1996:68) states: ‘social work’s epistemological foundations are based on academic parasitism, unreflective view of social reality and uncritical self-awareness ‘. What led up to this state of affairs? And where are we today?

How We Got Where We Are: A Brief Historical Overview

1890s to 1920s

During the formative period of social work, the Charity organization societies and the settlement house movement defined our emerging profession. From the former came the focus on casework; from the latter the emphasis on group and community work. Psychoanalysis dominated the former; informal education, self-determination, early advocacy, legislative work, and community organizing sprang forth from the latter.

1920s to 1940s

In this period, we see the consolidation of social work as at least a ‘semi-professional’ (Frumkin and O’Connor,1985), psychoanalysis as the predominant form of doing casework is solidified; advocacy and community organizing emerge as the way to do macro community work. We see the formal addition of group work to the professional agenda, too.

1940s to 1960s

Slowly, the psychoanalytic model of casework is challenged and whittled away, eventually being replaced in many private settings and agencies by more diversified forms of therapy. Group work is further refined. Community work becomes more radicalized by the movements of the 60s and is given true legitimacy, finally being officially accepted as a modality of social work practice.

1960s to 1980s

During this period, we see the development of many different therapeutic modalities, plus the addition of several social work models of direct practice (for example, task-centered therapy). Family therapy begins its ascendancy during this time.

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Group work also expands its model base, drawing on different social science disciplines to do so. Community organizing grows due to the acceptance of the Alinsky style of organizing within the profession, with replicable models being created.

Also, there are several attempts to bring the different strains of social work together under what is called a generalist model. Incorporation of ideas from sociology and biology also creates the systems of ecological perspective, which greatly influences direct social work practice, and, to a lesser degree, indirect practice.

1980s to Present

The number of therapeutic modalities used by social workers continues to proliferate, with just about all psychological theories (or some combination of them) being used by ‘micro practice’ clinical social workers. There appears to be no real consistency in their application, other than the practitioners’ preference. However, it would be fair to say that this area is governed by a systems perspective and significant appreciation for the impact of the environment on clients.

Group. work, in most cases, is subsumed under the micro practice framework, along with couple and family work. Some schools consider group work to be ‘mezzo practice’.

In the ‘macro practice’ area, administration, community organizing, and legislative advocacy become the leitmotifs. Several different models of practice are utilized, but there does not appear to be any real theoretical grounding to them.

Social Work: A Practice Profession

Social work has always been concerned with helping people improve their lives, individually or collectively. The traditions that have developed out of this can be labeled different things, but today they are most commonly called micro, mezzo, and macro practice.

Practice is defined as ‘a frequent or usual action’ or ‘habit’; ‘a usual method, custom, or convention’; ‘proficiency or skill acquired through this’; the ‘application of knowledge’; or ‘the exercise of a profession or occupation’ (Webster, 1983:1413). This is an excellent description of what we do. We sometimes modify this term, and speak of ‘practice models’ or ‘practice theory’. Thus, we apply certain ideas derived from various theories or models, that is, ways of seeing the world, to the practice of social work.

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Sometimes, our practice actually leads to the development of new professional models, as in the development of the task-centered model.

As a practice profession, over the years we have borrowed from various disciplines, mostly psychology, sociology, and political science — and to a lesser degree biology, anthropology, economics, and a few other fields. If you look at any of the theories that have been in vogue within social work for the last hundred years, almost all of them, without exception, can be traced back to one of these disciplines. The -popularity of different theories within the profession comes and goes with regularity. The current rage in social work is ecological systems theory and the ecosystems perspective. If you go back a couple of decades, the rage was the systems theory. From the 1920s to the 1950s, psychoanalysis was the preeminent theoretical orientation for many, if not most, clinically oriented social workers.

According to Simon (1994:144), ‘theory makes possible both the framing and screening of knowledge for practice. Theory constitutes a conceptual frame that anchors and structures relationships among kinds of knowledge crucial to social work. I would argue that while this is an ideal, unfortunately translating theory into practice is not that easy. Moreover, there does not seem to be any real accepted criteria in our profession for choosing one theoretical lens over another, and hence the kind of knowledge that guides our practice. As Paley (1987:178), drawing on the work of German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, notes: :

(i) that rule-following only makes sense in the context of a community able to monitor applications of the rule;
(ii) that successful rule-following just is what the community says it is— there is no independent court of appeal;
(iii) that our knowledge of (and confidence in) rules depends on general agreement about what counts as ‘getting it right’; and
(iv) that rules are grounded in practices, instead of practices being justified by rules.

So, no outsider is going to rescue our profession from the dilemma that we find ourselves in. If we look at the medical profession as an example, while most doctors specialize in a particular area (with the exception, of course, of general practitioners!), their primary identity is still as a doctor. The reason? All doctors share a solid common grounding in the knowledge base, basic skills, and core values of their profession, This appears less true for our profession (or semi-profession).

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A Social Work Classification System

There is a bifurcation in the field between micro and macro practitioners, who while calling themselves social workers, are almost operating as if there are two (or more) different professions. Some try to bridge the gap with the generalist model, borrowed from the systems theory and applied to social work, but few really seem to adhere to it in practice.

I would argue that not having a paradigm and the lack of theoretical clarity contribute to the feeling of two different disciplines. There is an uneasy alliance between these groups. Micro, mezzo, and macro practitioners pay lip service to person-in-environment, but almost all have a bias as to which area to emphasize.

What is needed is a classification of what knowledge base we have had and currently have, where it originates, and what direction we are headed as a profession. Only then would it make sense to begin a discussion of a future social work ‘paradigm’.

I will now classify the different approaches used in social work. This is an incomplete list of theories. Furthermore, I would expect that there might be disagreement as to both the classification of certain items as well as their origins. However, this is an attempt on the part of one author to identify the current epistemological status of our professions.

Many items are taken from Turner (1986; 1995) and Payne (1997). Dozens more are added from other sources (Anderson and Carter, 1984; Canda, 1991; Coulton, 1981; Cowley, 1993; DiNitto and McNeece, 1990; Dorfman, 1988; Hardcastle, Wenocur, and Powers, 1997: Krist-Ashman and Hull, 1997; Martin and O’Connor, 1989; McMahon, 1990; Midgley & Livermore, 1997; Norton, 1993; Pardeck, 1988; Ritzer, 1992; Rosenau, 1992; Shulman, 1993; Siporin, 1983; Specht, 1988; Stoesz, 1989; Weick et al, 1989; and Zey-Ferrell, 1979). All told I have identified over 100 approaches, frameworks, models, perspectives, practice theories, and theories/metatheories currently influencing social work (See the end of this section for key).


Casework (Micro Practice)
Model — Diagnostic (P), *Functionalist (P, S)
Theory — Freudian or psychoanalytic (P)

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Group Work (Mezzo Practice)
Model — Social goals (SP, S), *Functionalist P, S)
Theory — Field (SP)

Community Work (Macro Practice)
Model — *Functionalist (P, S)
Theory — Field


Micro or Direct Practice (Therapy, Case management)

Approach—*Advocacy(PS, SW), *Atheoretical (none),*Cluster (SW), *Empowerment(SW),*Generalist/Advanced generalist [form system theory](SW) *Interlocking (SW), Problem-solving (P, SW).

Framework—*Eclectic(mixed), Humanist(P, R)

Models—Imago (P),*Integrated [from closed system theory](SW),Life [from general system theory](SW), Task-centred(SW),*Unitary [from open system theory](SW)

Perspective—Anti-discriminatory/anti-oppressive (S, SW), Dual (SW), *Ecosystems [from ecological theory and general system theory] (B, Ph, P), *Holistic, * Person-environment (SW), *Strengths (SW)

Practice Theory — Interactional (P, SW)

Theories/Metatheories— Attachment, Behavioural or learning (P), Biopsychosocial (B, P, S), Client-centered (P), Cognitive (P), Cognitive-Behavioural

Theories/Metatheories— Attachment, Behavioural or learning (P), Biopsychosocial (B, P, S), Client-centered (P), Cognitive (P), Cognitive-Behavioural (P), Communication/information (A, P, SP), Crisis intervention (B, Ph, P), Developmental (P), Existential (P, Ph), *Feminist (E, P Ph, S), Gestalt (P), Learned helplessness(P), Meditation (P, R), Networking (S), Neurolinguistic Programming (B, P), Object relations (P), Personal construct (P), Personality(P), Psychodrama (P, S), Psychodynamic/Psychoanalytic(P), psychosocial(P, S), Radical (E, PS, S), Role/Socialisation/labeling (SP, S), Social leaning (P, SP), *System: General systems [closed and open]/Ecological systems [open] (B, Ph, P, S), Transpersonal (P, R) Transactional analysis (P)

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Mezzo (Couples, Families, Groups)

Approaches — *Advocacy, *Atheoretical, *Cluster, Conjoint family (P), *Empowerment, Family-centred [from systems theory] (B, Ph, P), *Generalist/Advanced generalist, Intake/Assessment/Induction (P), *Interlocking, Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Programme[PREP], Problem-solving, Structural family (P), Task-centred

Framework — *Eclectic, *Humanist

Models — Conflict resolution (L), Guided group interaction (P), *Integrated, Remedial (P), Reciprocal/mediating (SP), Self-help/mutual support (P), Social network analysis (SP, S), Task-centered, Traditional (P, SP), Time-limited mainstream (P, SP, S), *Unitary

Prospectives —*Anti-racist/anti-oppressive, *Ecosytems, *Holistic, *Person-environment, *Strengths

Theory — Cognitive/behavioral, Communication (P, SP), Crisis intervention, Developmental, Emotionally-focused (P), *Feminist, Gestalt, Group-centered/process (P), Object relations, Organisational (S), Psychodynamic/psychoanalytical,, Psychosocial, Role/socialization/labeling, Social goals/social interactional (P, 8), Social skills (P, S), Symbolic interactionism (P, S), *Systems, Transactional analysis

Macro (Administration, Community Economic Development, Community organization, Lobbying, Politics, Social action, Social justice, Social planning, Social policy)

Approaches — *Advocacy, *Atheoretical, *Cluster, *Empowerment, *Generalist/Advanced generalist, *Interlocking, *Problem-solving

Framework — *Eclectic

Models — Community Education (PH), Decision-making (S), Goals (8), Human relations (8S), *Integrated, Locality (community and social) development E, S), Programme development (S), Programme management (S), Social/political action (E, PS, S), Social planning (S), Structural (S), Technological (S), *Unitary

Perspectives — *Anti-racist/anti-oppressive, *Ecosystems, *Holistic, *Person-environment, *Strengths

Theory — Client-centred (P), Conflict (E, S), Constructionism (E, Ph), Constructivism/Social constructivism (E, Ph), Contingency (P, S), Critical (Ph, E), Dependency (E, S), Ethnocentric (E, S),

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Evolutionary/Incrementalism (B, S), Exchange (P, S), *Feminist, Grand(Ph, S), Group (P, SP), Interorganisational (S), Marxist (E, Ph, PS, S), Modernism/Postmodernism (I), MOdernisation (E), Network (S), Nonviolence (Ph, PS), Organisational (S), Phenomenological (Ph), Pluralism (PS), Power Elite (PS, P), Radical (E, Ph, S), Rational choice/utility(A, Ph, S), Resource mobilisation (PS, S), Social capital (E, S), Social learning (P, SP), Social movement (PS, S), Structural/Poststructuralism(A, E,S), Structural-functionalism (S), Structuration (S), Symbolic Interactionism, *Systems

*= cuts across all three categories

A – anthropology

B – biology

E – economics

I – interdisciplinary

L – law

P – psychology

Ph – philosophy

PH – public health

PS – political science

R – Religion

S – sociology

SP – social psychology


What does the above exploratory classification Scheme tell us? First and foremost, the proliferation of theories influencing social work is astonishing. Since we as a profession have no criteria for saying that x theory is ‘valid’ and y theory is ‘invalid’, it really is a matter of picking and choosing based on personal preferences. This is particularly true for those specializing in one of the three major branches of social work, that is, micro, mezzo, or macro practice.

Second, the gamut of different social science disciplines affecting social work today is certainly greater than a generation’s ego. With the explosion of knowledge in the last few decades, it is hard to keep up with all the diverse fields and their derivative theories that affect our profession. However, all it takes is for one social worker to make known a particular ‘new area of knowledge ( for example, chaos theory) through a journal article,

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and all of a sudden we will discuss the impact of that ‘new’ theory on the profession.

Third, few theories (in particular behavioral, feminist, and systems) cut across the diversity of social work practice. More approaches, frameworks, models, and perspectives (many of them derived from various social sciences) seem to span the practice spectrum. This points us in a few directions that might help unify the social work field.

I would argue that any organizing principle(s) of the profession must cut across the micro, mezzo, and macro categories in order to really be considered social work. That is someone with an MSW who uses transactional analysis (for example) as the sole or major focus of their private practice is really not a social worker. Likewise, someone doing community organizing who mostly or only utilizes the social action model is not truly a social worker (though either one of these people might be a good practitioner).

Thus, the approach, framework, perspective, and/or model a social worker utilizes, in conjunction with the theoretical or knowledge base that informs that practice, becomes the litmus test for defining a ‘true’ social worker (along, of course, with adherence to the profession’s code of ethics, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this paper). Having said this, what does this mean regarding the current status of our profession and its future?

One implication is that we need to look carefully at the theories, approaches, frameworks, models, and perspectives that inform our practice, and ask ourselves why. From the above classification scheme, likely candidates for social work practitioners to choose from are the advocacy, empowerment, and generalist/advanced generalist approaches, the integrated and unitary models, and the anti-racist/anti-oppressive, ecosystems, holistic, person-environment, and strengths perspectives. Note that one can really say that the integrated and unitary models are different forms of the generalist/advanced generalist approach and that this approach is informed by general systems theory. Furthermore, the person-environment and ecosystems perspectives clearly derive from general systems theory, too.

The preceding approaches, models, and perspectives are unique to social work, that is, they have been developed within our profession. I can envision these further evolving into a practice theory or theories, ‘primarily using the grounded theory or inductive approach to theory building. Some might argue that one R(or more) already is or is a practice theory or theory, but I would not. In fact, I have only identified one ‘true’ practice theory

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in our profession, that is, the international ‘perspective’.

However, developing more practice theories will require a degree of integration, synthesis,, and testing not yet achieved in our profession. Recent attacks on the ecosystems perspective. (Wakefield, 1996a; 1996b) will apparently make this task even harder. However, Souflee (1993) presents the profession with a very complicated. Metatheoriestical framework or model based on the systems theory to guide our practice which is worth examining in more detail.

There are two things, I believe, that we need to reject as a profession: atheoretical and eclectic. These two viewpoints do a disservice to social work, allowing a no-holds-barred attitude to permeate. A cluster or interlocking approach is not much better, either. While Wakefield’s (1996a:27) call for domain-specific theories’ seems attractive, it will do nothing to bring coherence to social work practice nor will it lessen the bifurcation that exists in our profession.


What are the prospects for social work developing its own paradigm in the next century? Probably not very good, unless a concept effort is made to focus on theory building and paradigm construction. What would this mean?

First, social work would need to develop a unifying approach, framework, model, and/or perspective for understanding its practice. Several attempts have been made, but they are not very satisfying. As a profession, we would need to develop something that is distinctly social work in nature, while of course continuing to draw heavily on social science theories.

Second, given the diversity of perspectives, framework models, and theories floating around the profession, how do we sort them out and discard some and adopt something else? There are a few, if any norms in our profession for doing so.

Third, how would we agree as a professional to adopt such a paradigm, By vote? Certainly, we do not have the processes that the hard sciences(that is rigorous empirical testing of theory)do for coming up with the paradigm. We do not even have the ability, as the social sciences, to at least come up with middle-range or grounded theories.

Fourth, what is truly unique about our profession in the way of ideas? Given that we are most interested in the application of theory that is useful in practice to help individuals, groups, communication, and

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society, we have not paid much attention to theoretical rigor in our profession. We have been content to borrow the ideas and theories of others, as they suit us. But is this the best way to build a consistent world vision or paradigm for a profession? Would it not it behoove us to develop a distinct social work worldview or paradigm to inform our practice? Is what we have sufficient?

Should the goal of social work be, as Turner (1995:2260) rejects, ‘a unitary theory of person-in-situation that will comprehensively address the plethora of situations encountered in contemporary practice’? Or are we stuck in a situation in which a variety of theories from different disciplines, some better supported than others, some more applicable to a wider range of social work practice situations than others, is acceptable?

Perhaps one way out is to change our degree requirements in the next century. If we had a three-year program, it could be structured more along the generalist (1st year), advanced generalist (2nd year), specialization area (3rd year) model. Given the proliferation of BSW programs today, this might also be useful. In this way, graduates with an MSW would share more of a common grounding in the knowledge, skills, and value bases before specializing in a particular area.

While this is not a new debate in the profession, it has particular poignancy now, with the advent of the profession’s hundredth birthday and the wild proliferation of theories infiltrating the profession. I would argue that the direction for the next century lies in elaborating on current social work models that cut across the practice spectrum while incorporating various approaches and perspectives, too. Besides, to strengthen our professional knowledge and skills base, I would

argue for making the MSW a three-year program. If we do not strive to solidify our conceptual framework and unify the disparate contingencies within our profession, I can foresee an eventual split between the strictly micro practitioners and macro practitioners, and in turn both these groups from those who will continue to practice a generalist form of social work (and who, by definition, will be those left calling’ themselves social workers).


Anderson, R.E. and
Carter, I.
: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: A Social
Systems Approach
(3rd edition), New York: Aldine de

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Atherton, C, R,
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Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Service,
74(10), 617-624,
Bloom, M.
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and its Integration into Social Work Circular.
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Caspi, Y.
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: Person-Environment Fit at the focus in Health care,
Social work, 26(1), 26-35.
Cowley, A.S
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Social work 38(5), 527-534.
Davis, L.V.
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