We know where we have been, where we are now and where we need to go – but how do we get there? A map. Theory is a map. It notes any number of known landmarks (previously achieved or applied solutions) and obstacles (issues or problems) and gives us direction so that we are able to navigate intelligently and arrive safely (minimal discomfort to all) at our destination (desired outcome/s).
Theory is an attempt to explain the unexplained, to give title to the untitled and to give reason to the unreasonable. It is a combination of existing knowledge and newly acquired knowledge that allows us to make assumptions in order to realise reasonably foreseeable outcomes.
It is only in the realms of science, physics and mathematics that the repeated application of a single theory will return a consistent result indefinitely. However, in the social work disciplines, the repeated application of a single theory may very well result in chaos and mayhem due simply to the addition of the vagaries and subjectiveness of human behaviour – individual realism and personality.
Mix society with the individual then add a third ingredient – power (political, economic, etc) and you end up with a chameleonic and metamorphosis-like result, what I refer to as the ‘lava lamp effect’ – constant change, confusion, tangentiality, shifts in personal, political and societal values and meanings. Theory is the vehicle of bringing order and making sense of all these things.
That an individual on one occasion might respond to certain stimuli in a particular fashion, is no predictor of the individual’s (micro level) responses to the same or like stimuli on subsequent occasions and is certainly not an indication that the ‘collective’ (macro level) will respond in the same manner.
It is not possible for one person to comprehend the world as perceived by another person. The absolute closest we can come to this is to use our own imagination and compare our own experiences as a guide – empathy. Enter theory. Theory gives us the launching pad for action. It is a single starting point for all social work practitioners regardless of their individual methodological preferences. Howe (1987, p48) states, “The loud claim is that practice is saturated with theory no matter how much the social worker speaks of [their] simple reliance on commonsense or intuition. Each theory and its associated practice holds assumptions about people and their society …….”. However, theory still remains our most valuable agent in facilitating acceptable if not positive outcomes.
The nature of social work is in a constant state of flux and what was suitable or successful yesterday may not be today although past theories still have a valid place in our reckoning. There is a constant flow of new and more complex issues introducing themselves to society every day and more often than not, theory will be the only tools available to us as a means of sourcing solutions.
When discussing how theories are used in practice, Payne (1997, p48) states; “There are three approaches to this task: using theories to interrogate, clarify and criticise each other, using theories selectively, and using theories together to modify each other” and Lemert (1999, p20) states “Social theory is what we do when we find ourselves able to put into words what nobody seems to want to talk about”.
Further, Mullaly (2002, p3) cites Reynolds (1971) “Theory carries out four basic functions: description; explanation; prediction; and control and management of events or changes ………it describes phenomena; it attempts to explain what causes them; it predicts future events, including what will happen if certain interventions occur (or do not occur); and attempts to control and manage events or changes at all levels of human activity”. Theory also has its place in supplementing existing knowledge – filling in the blanks as it were.
There is no divorcing theory from experience nor from assumption as these two things are the interminably prime ingredients of theory. In order to create a theory we must draw upon our own or others’ knowledge bases, experiences and assumptions – no other source/s exist/s. Whilst most would agree that theory is generally the basis for experiment, quite often the reverse is true – experiment as the basis of theory!
There once existed a theory that technological advancements would eventually result in a reduction of the number of skilled tradesmen required. This theory therefore required that there be a reduction in the numbers of (government subsidised) trade apprenticeship places – a huge cost saving exercise, an economic positive!
However, we have since learned that this theory was implemented without a great deal of thought as to the possible negatives – those of higher youth unemployment (increased welfare bill), a much sharper decline in the number of skilled tradesmen to adequately service the community (have you ever tried to get hold of a plumber or electrician in an emergency?), and a steep increase in the cost to the consumer (community) in utilising those affected trade services. Some would also argue that the reduction in apprenticeship places would have contributed to increases in various crimes and therefore further unnecessary cost to the community and taxpayers.
A more recent theory is that of children in detention centres. Some schools of thought insisted that keeping children in detention was senseless and cruel and that they should be settled into local communities. Others viewed this train of thought as being reminiscent of the ‘stolen generation’ and further theorised that it was wrong to separate the children from their parents and therefore the mother and children should be settled into the community with regular visits to the father who should remain in detention. There was still further argument that cultural matters had not been considered in that further or other yet foreseen problems may result by isolating the father from the family unit. Each discourse here is based only on theory but it encourages discourse that seeks resolutions. A good thing.
Not all theory is good and nor is it all bad, it is simply a helpful step towards finding resolutions where none has previously existed to address issues and problems in society be they real or perceived.
As can be ascertained from just a small collection of readings, even theorists differ widely in their interpretations and applications of theory. Every ‘-ist’ of every ‘-ism’ believes that their approach is more beneficial than those of the others. Whether they are aware of it or not, even those social work practitioners who would underrate the benefits of the use of theory in their practice, preferring instead to rely on their own intuition and experience, are still employing theory – empirically.
Howe, D., 1987, An Introduction to Social Work Theory; Making Sense in Practice, Wildwood House.
Lemert, C., 1999, Social Theory, Second Edition; The Multicultural and Classic Readings, MacMillan Press Ltd, Victoria.
Mullaly, B., 2002, Challenging Oppression; A Critical Social Work Approach, Oxford University Press.
Payne, M., 1997, Modern Social Work Theory, Second Edition, PALGRAVE, N.Y.