Social Work

What Is a Genogram in Social Work?

What Is a Genogram in Social Work?
A genogram is a visual tool used to help a client and clinician understand the client's perceived identity, their family dynamics and their patterns of behavior. The clinician works with the client and the genogram to assess the client's needs and identify possible interventions. Image from Pexels
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Craig Hoffman February 20, 2022

In social work, a genogram is used to map an individual's family relationships to gain understanding of their family dynamics and patterns of behavior in order to formulate possible interventions.

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Every known generation of a family’s lineage can be mapped out in a family tree that visually represents their past and present—and even hints at their future. Yet family trees are more than a simple diagram of family members’ biological relationships. They represent the stories of all the interconnected individuals who comprise its branches and often reveal how a person and their descendants are shaped by living in a certain place, time, and circumstances.

For many Black Americans, the legacies of slavery and unequal treatment under the law in post-slavery America have created gaps in their family histories. An NBC News article entitled Family trees fill in the gaps for Black people seeking their ancestral roots conveys some of the experiences of Black Americans who have researched their family history.

Amber Jackson was thrilled to discover that her great-great-grandmother’s grandfather was a member of the “Cambridge 28,” a group of enslaved people in Maryland who were led to freedom along the Underground Railroad by former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman in 1857. Peter Sampson was proud to have found a relative who fought for the United States in the Civil War. Both reported that this knowledge helped instill a newfound pride in themselves and their families as well as a sense of belonging and connection to this country.

However, sometimes these genealogical searches reveal horrific tragedies. Clinical psychologist Donald Grant noted that sometimes Black Americans are forced to contend with the emotional fallout that results when they “pull up that article showing that your great-great-grandfather was lynched by a mob in South Carolina.”

In addition to revealing how external events and their environment shape individuals’ lives through the generations, family trees can be used to trace genetic traits, like a predisposition to addiction or depression. Thus, the family tree can be a useful assessment tool to study family relationships and behavioral patterns that have evolved over the ages and how they affect people in the present day.

One of the most frequently used assessment tools used in social work is the genogram (also known as a McGoldrick–Gerson study, after the therapists Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson, who developed and popularized the use of genograms in clinical settings). The genogram, which is similar to a family tree, helps the social worker assess a client’s situation and guide them toward appropriate interventions.

What is a genogram in social work?

In The New Social Worker article “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”, Natalie D. Pope, PhD, LCSW, and Jacquelyn Lee, PhD, LCSW describe a genogram as a visual tool used to help a client and clinician understand the client’s perceived identity, their family dynamics and their patterns of behavior. The clinician works with the client and the genogram to assess the client’s needs and identify possible interventions.

Genograms are particularly useful when examining multiple generations of a family. Often, one can discern family patterns that may be difficult or impossible to see with only one or two generations, Many familial traits repeat themselves over time. For example, there may be a trend of marital dysfunction within a family’s history. The use of genograms can unearth a pattern of mental health issues that may contribute to failed marriages and divorces. Genograms can also reveal patterns of family strengths and resiliency.

How is a genogram used?

The genogram is constructed with a combination of lines and genogram symbols that map how individuals are connected to their biological family as well as their associated network of friends, work connections, and even pets. These individuals are named and any relevant information about them is added, including:

  • Date of birth/date of death
  • Employment and income
  • Ethnicity, gender
  • Family secrets
  • Immigration status
  • Marital status
  • Medical, mental health, and substance abuse issues
  • Personality
  • Quality of each family relationship
  • Role in family
  • Sexual orientation
  • Trauma

Genograms can be hand-drawn or constructed with genogram computer template programs like GenoPro.

Once the genogram is completed, the social worker examines the family dynamics and patterns of behavior that affect the client and their needs and formulates any necessary interventions.

How is a genogram different from an ecomap?

Both genograms and ecomaps are useful tools for visual representations of family systems and relationships. Both gather information about a client’s life. They use the same general structure and markings but differ in the type of information requested and ultimately serve different purposes.

The genogram and ecomap show patterns of relationships. A family genogram is used as a starting point for developing an ecomap as it illustrates the basic family structure and relationships that are included in ecomaps. However, the ecomap is more detailed; it diagrams a person’s most crucial relationships with the resources in their community—people, groups, and organizations/institutions—and how they positively or negatively impact that individual.


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Do I need a master’s in social work?

Social work typically requires at least an undergraduate degree. However, those looking for a clinical social worker position must have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting. MSW students receive the advanced social work education needed for licensed clinical social worker certification. Bachelor degree-holders can find entry-level and direct-services positions, but an MSW often leads to more advanced positions and higher salaries.

Among the more than 700,000 social workers employed in the US, the majority find positions in child, family, and school social work, followed by healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse fields. As the value of social work training expands, MSW degree-holders may also enter nontraditional careers, such as conflict mediators, human resources counselors, and labor relations specialists. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts strong demand for social workers over the next decade.

What is a social work master’s?

Social work is divided into three categories: micro, macro, and mezzo. You’ll explore all in an MSW program, although your specialization will likely focus on just one. While coursework in any of these areas can overlap, you will need to decide which type of social support work you are interested in practicing. Each has a particular set of goals and populations/institutions they serve. Determining your career goals will help you choose the course of study that is right for you.

Micro social work focuses on one-on-one or family therapist work. It suits social workers who have strong interpersonal skills and seek direct interaction with clients. Social workers in this area work with individuals in schools, hospitals, and other institutional settings and healthcare providers to deliver social support services, mental health evaluations, and counseling to students, patients, or employees. They may provide support to patients being discharged from a hospital, family therapy in courthouses, substance abuse counseling for homeless populations. or child welfare support for incarcerated parents.

Macro-level social workers provide guidance and a framework for a wider focus on social support. This large-scale approach can help shape government social policy and community support systems and advocate for at-risk communities. This type of work helps influence how government and healthcare institutions meet the needs of specific populations and set standards for how policy is implemented.

The mezzo focus of social work exists in the intersection between macro and micro, mixing work with individuals as well as the institutions that serve their communities. This type of social work might include collaboration with religious organizations within a city or in the shelter system of a community, or within a school district to ensure that the individual needs of people within the larger care systems are met.

All MSW students participate in internships or a field practicum to graduate and clock many hours in practice as well as in theory. Field education is one of the most important aspects of your training in preparing to become a social worker.

How long does it take to earn this degree?

Typically, it takes two years to complete an MSW, although some schools offer accelerated programs that allow you to reach your goal more quickly. If you already have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), you should look into advanced standing programs, in which you can apply credits from your BSW toward your master’s degree—and save some time and money in the process. Tulane University’s online advanced standing MSW program takes 12 months to complete full-time or 24 months part-time.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

Applications often need to include undergraduate transcripts with a minimum 3.0 GPA, letters of recommendation, a resume/CV, and a personal statement expressing how their course of study will help you meet your career goals. Some programs also require Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test scores.


Master of Social Work programs begin with foundational courses covering social work theory and the basic principles of practice. Students are introduced to individual, family, and group practice, then continue to advanced levels in chosen concentrations.

Foundational courses focus on psychotherapy, the history and philosophy of social welfare and social work, systems theory, human behavior, ethics in practice, racism in social work practice, and research. Advanced courses explore issues of race and gender and the impact of the environment on social systems.


In their second year of study, students in many programs may select an area of specialization. These choices are specific to each school and should be part of your research into social work master’s programs.

For example, at the Stony Brook University, second-year students may choose among three areas of specialization: community, policy, and political social action; families, youth and transition to adulthood; and integrated health.

Top schools that offer a master’s in social work

There are many more excellent programs to choose from, so make sure to look into the offerings of others like the University of Texas at Austin,Washington University in St. Louis, and Case Western Reserve University.

Online/hybrid options

If you’re currently working full-time or need a more flexible course of study, you may want to consider some of the competitive online and hybrid MSW programs, like those at Tulane University of Louisiana , Rutgers University, Simmons University, or Virginia Commonwealth University.

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