Social Work

What Is Systems Theory in Social Work?

What Is Systems Theory in Social Work?
Social workers use systems theory to examine the social systems in a person's life as an ecosystem. The individual's social environment is considered with all of its influences to understand how these complex systems contribute to either dysfunction or to an individual's mental health and well-being. Image from Pexels
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Lucy Davies January 29, 2022

Systems theory explores the impact of systems including family, school, work, and government on individual behavior, particularly as it relates to social dysfunction and self-destructive behavior.

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Several core social work theories inform social work practice: systems theory, psychosocial development theory, transpersonal theory, psychodynamic theory, cognitive behavioral theory, and social learning theory are among the most prominent. Each of these theoretical frameworks help explain human behavior and how their environments impact their behavior.

This diversity of approaches should come as no surprise. Indeed, it is a natural result of social work’s complexity. As Steven Walker writes on systems theory and social work for Essex University, “Because society is in constant flux, it is inevitable that social work should be unsettled and theoretically promiscuous. It is not a problem but a reflection of how social work must evolve to respond to new challenges, and constant change.”

So, what space does systems theory occupy in the social work universe? What is systems theory in social work and how does this theory relate to the greater spectrum of social sciences and physical sciences? This article discusses these issues by examining:

  • What is systems theory in social work?
  • How is systems theory applied in social work?
  • Why is systems theory important?
  • Who needs a master’s in social work?
  • What is a social work master’s?
  • What are the top schools that offer social work master’s?

What is systems theory in social work?

Systems theory focuses on the impact of the various systems—family, school, work, religion, government—on individual behavior. Systems theory employs a gestalt approach—that is, it recognizes that the whole created by various systems and their interactions is greater than the sum of the parts.

Social workers use systems theory to examine the social systems in a person’s life as an ecosystem. The individual’s social environment is considered with all of its influences to understand how these complex systems contribute to either dysfunction or to an individual’s mental health and well-being.

The impact of family relationships (micro level), schools or work (mezzo level), and larger community and society (macro level) can all help clinicians in understanding the positive and negative feedback loops created by the ways in which individuals influence and are influenced by their environment. This, in turn, can drive problem solving and remedial approaches.

What are the components of systems theory?

General systems theory assumes that there are universal organizational principles which hold for all systems—physical, biological, or social. This basic organization contains certain elements—including input and output, processing, feedback—all separated by boundaries.

This interdisciplinary approach to understanding social problems examines the individual within the complex systems that influence their lives, allowing social workers to use a systems model to examine, explain, and treat the whole system of influence on an individual in a holistic way instead of in a contained or closed system.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

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How is systems theory applied in social work?

Systems theory is used in clinical practice to help with advocacy and treatment for individual clients and to help design programs to better serve families and communities. A systems approach can help improve the education system by helping to identify and redesign curricula or address cultural competency. It can improve family relationships through greater awareness and healthier communication.

Social workers can help expand or protect boundaries with clients to better connect them to—or protect them from—environmental influences. Connecting clients to social services and support systems can positively impact their mental health while defining and practicing protective boundaries with other clients may help reduce negative impacts they experience from their social environment.

For example, a case study might describe a high school student acting out at school and at home, presenting angry behavior, and engaging in drug and alcohol use. While earlier approaches to care may have focused solely on the individual’s behavior, a systems model of treatment takes a longer and more complex look at the stressors of family, school, and culture to help explain why the student’s behavior has become problematic. Are they facing bullying at school? Is there a parent at home who uses drugs and alcohol? Is there an absent parent or an abusive adult in the home? Are there any opportunities to get involved in structured afterschool programs or to find jobs in the community?

Answers to these questions can help identify resources to best help the individual and address the design and impact of the larger societal influences.

Why is systems theory important?

Systems theory is extremely useful to social workers as a way to holistically treat clients by helping assemble the complete picture of the individual’s thoughts, behavior, and choices within their larger ecosystem of influence. The systems approach not only helps the client but also helps the social work profession recognize the common complex systems that positively or negatively influence people—the larger macrosystems of community and culture.

This methodology provides data and a scientific approach for improving design in mental health care and societal support systems by providing clear evidence-based conclusions. By focusing on the larger systems of influence, changes can be made to improve social welfare systems and treatment plans that can evolve and develop as those external pressures change.

Who needs a master’s in social work?

Not everyone going into social services needs a master’s degree in social work. Many positions in social work are open to people with a bachelor’s degree and a few years of experience in the field. However, if you are interested in advanced positions that come with more responsibility, utilize complex concepts like systems theory to make policy, and deliver a bigger paycheck, an MSW can help you achieve your objectives.

What is a social work master’s?

A master’s in social work is a graduate-level degree designed to train graduates for licensure and certification that allows them to practice clinical social work and other high-level work in their state. All MSW programs must be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE membership includes over 800 undergraduate and master’s-level social work degree programs as well as numerous social work practitioners, educators, and agencies

How long does it take to earn this degree?

A typical and traditional path to a master’s in social work takes two years of full-time, on-campus study. If you need more flexibility, you have options. Many schools with traditional program offerings also have part-time study options, including online programs. These remote or mostly remote programs provide the same quality of instruction, access to professors and alumni networks, and fieldwork placement, but allow students to study from around the country or the world.

You may also find that many schools offer accelerated and advanced standing options. An accelerated program might help you earn your degree in as little as 18 months, and an advanced standing program applies credits from a bachelor’s in social work toward your MSW degree, which will also shorten your time as a degree candidate.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

Different schools establish different admissions requirements, but nearly all require a bachelor’s degree (not necessarily in social work), letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and a resume. Some schools require standardized test scores (typically the Graduate Records Examination (GRE)), although more are transitioning to test-optional admissions policies.

Many schools look closely at letters of recommendation. Graduate and undergraduate schools are relying less on standardized testing in recent years, and for master’s programs in social work, indications of commitment to the profession carry significant weight. Take sufficient time to gather references from mentors, professors, and supervisors and craft your own letter outlining a statement of purpose. These will give a fuller, more compelling picture of you as a master’s degree candidate.


Part of your research into master’s in social work programs should include forming a clear picture of the course offerings for any program. Most MSW programs include coursework on practice models and social work theories used in social work, including Dr. Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, Erik Erikson’s stages of development in psychosocial development theory, and Albert Bandura’s social learning theory.

Coursework will also focus on micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work, ethics and law, the history of race and gender in social work, social welfare and social justice, and work on individual, and family and group practice.


Specialization is also specific to individual master’s programs, so make sure to research this program feature for each school you consider. For example, the online MSW at Tulane University offers specializations in Disaster and Collective Trauma and in Mental Health, Addictions, and the Family. Rutgers University offers specializations in clinical social work or management and policy. Stony Brook offers three areas of specialization: community, policy and political action; families, youth and transition to adulthood; and integrated health. No program offers all possible social work specializations; you’ll need to examine your available options before applying.

What are the top schools that offer social work master’s?

You can always look for the top schools offering a master’s in social work, but the best program will be the one you research and choose for yourself and for your career goals. Top ranked schools include Tulane University, Fordham University, Howard University, Smith College, New York University, Rutgers, and Columbia University.

Online/hybrid options

Many of these same schools offer online and hybrid options including Tulane, Fordham, Howard, Rutgers, and Columbia. Finding the right program takes time and research, but the payoff should be well worth the investment and effort.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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