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Social Work Theories in Europe

Prof. Dr. Peter Erath

If social workers’ tasks were always evident and successful, usually nobody would ask for a theory. Only if there are doubts concerning expected reactions or outcomes do  we start to reflect as well as to argue and to search for evidence. Against this background the debate about "theories" in social work is both important and problematic. It is important because social workers want to help other people, which is worth doing, but it is at the same time problematic because they have to work with "autonomous" persons living in very complex situations und under very special conditions.

According to Luhmann, social work therefore needs theories not in order to overcome (which is not possible) but to deal with its "technological deficit". The big problem, however, is to find or create theories which are neither too complex nor too simplistic to cover the whole range of social work.

A compromise may be to differentiate between "meta-theories" which try to define what social work as a whole could be, "reflection-theories" which help social workers to reflect on their actions in general against important knowledge theories, "models" which are able to shape professional processes, "professional theories" which try to explain what social workers could or should do, and "reference theories" which they take from other social sciences in order to better act and reflect in specific professional situations.

Though theory-building in social work is demanding and complex, social workers would not be able to create a "reflective practice" without using theoretical terms. But there is no doubt that we should not take theories for granted but rather expose them to empirical critique in order to make social work truly "scientific".

Professor Peter Erath of the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt teaches courses at Bachelor’s and Master’s levels and runs seminars for agencies which are keen to improve their theoretical and conceptual standing. He has published books, book chapters and articles on social work theories, social work as a scientific discipline and social work management. He is currently undertaking studies and research on the relevance of the concept of evidence-based practice for German social workers and on risk management in child care services.

Updated: 29. 03. 2017

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