General systems theory in social work

Updated April 17, 2017

The term "systems theory" refers to a host of theoretical and methodological practices ranging across different disciplines. Those who study systems theory tend to view any system as the result of a dynamic interrelationship between its component parts and its whole. They view the parts as mutually determinate with the whole. Social workers utilising systems theory view societies and social groups as dynamic systems. They are concerned with bettering the conditions of the individuals who make up such systems.

Research Methodology

As a research methodology, systems theory can help social workers understand how systems both determine and are determined by those who make up the system. Once the dynamics of a system are understood, social workers try to figure out how best to create positive change in that system to bring about better standards of living.

Mental Health

Mental health professionals use systems theory as a way of understanding how individuals are both products of and complicit in their personal situations, as well as how these situations tend to affect the people in them. They seek to help individuals understand their situation and work to help those individuals find healthy ways to cope with their environments and help instigate change within their lives.


Systems theory can be used to understand social dynamics on a large scale. Social workers who are concerned with policymaking use systems theory to understand how public policy can be used to improve living conditions and help bring about social equality for those living within large social systems, such as cities, nations or even the world.


Advocates tend to focus on particular issues within a society and use systems theory as a means of understanding the complex dynamics surrounding those particular issues. For instance, those working to promote racial equality might use systems theory to understand how racism functions on a structural level throughout a given system and determine ways to end racism.


Family social workers and child advocates use systems theory to understand family dynamics and to educate and promote healthy family structures. They try to understand how hierarchies and parental responsibility in family structures work, and determine when those hierarchies or responsibilities are not functioning properly, as well as when physical intervention may be necessary to protect members of the family.

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About the Author

Lee Flamand holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California at Berkeley. A committed generalist, he writes on various topics. He currently resides, works and studies in Berlin, Germany.