Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of complex systems. Social work is the professional field concerned with applying social science insights toward improving standards of living for individuals and communities. Systems theory is valuable to social workers in that it can assist them as they identify, define and address problems in social systems.
Systems theory covers a broad range of theoretical and methodological practices across many disciplines. Generally, systems theory is concerned with the structure of complex systems, with a special emphasis about how parts relate to each other and to the whole system. In the social sciences, this usually means understanding how individuals relate to each other and to their society as a whole, and the effects that social pressures have on individuals.
Social workers can hold a variety of different roles. These roles range from policy advisors to mental health professionals. Social workers can take on the role of a direct counselor, serve as court liaisons or find further resources for clients. In addition to roles relating more directly to clients, social workers also take on the role of maintaining case records and documents for each case. What binds these roles together is a core concern for improving social conditions for individuals and promoting social justice.
Applied Systems Theory
Social workers employ systems theory in order to understand the dynamic interrelations between individuals, families, institutions and societies. Generally, they want to identify how a system functions and what aspects of that system have a negative impact on people. Further, social workers look to understand how they can cause positive change through the social work system and community. Systems theory looks at the factors that influence behavior including: family, friends, school, social class, and life atmosphere. Social workers applying this theory look to fix or improve the parts of the individual's system that don't work. They also focus on the positive attributes of their patient's lives that do have positive effects on behavior and the overall life system.
Individuals and Families
On the micro level of social work, workers use systems theory to understand the dynamics, relationships and roles within families, and how these things affect individuals therein. For instance, they want to know that parents and children are taking up their proper responsibilities, that parents are providing for the safety of their children and that these roles are stable and beneficial to everyone involved. Social workers help parents by working with them one-on-one, doing regular checks on progress, offering additional resources, referring them to other professionals as needed and by acting as court liaisons when needed.
Communities and Societies
On the macro level, social workers are concerned about the social welfare of entire communities and societies. They apply systems theory to understand the social structure of communities, and attempt to advocate for policies and programs that promote social justice, economic prosperity, equality and high standards of living within those communities. By working at the individual level and the broader level, social workers can help the overall community. As social workers first advocate for individuals and then the community at large, social changes can being to happen. When social workers interact with and analyze the behaviors and issues within that community, they are able to pinpoint those bigger issues that they can work to resolve.