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Systems Theory and Social Work



One of the earliest references to social work and systems theory goes as far back as 1976 (Forder 1976). At the time the theory was being articulated most notably in works seeking to provide social workers with a unitary model of practice by Goldstein (1972) and Pincus & Minahan (1973), one that could offer a holistic framework within which to place social work practice. Social work as a new profession was evolving and experimenting with ideas from psychology, sociology and social policy to try to find an identity and set of skills based on solid theories, so there was a lot of effort being put into creating a professional identity, value base and intellectual framework that could explain what social work was. This debate has continued ever since mediated through changes in society, economic upheavals, population trends, legal and educational developments. 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.
Systems Theory and Social Work
One of the earliest references to social work and systems theory goes as far back as
1976 (Forder 1976). At the time the theory was being articulated most notably in
works seeking to provide social workers with a unitary model of practice by Goldstein
(1972) and Pincus & Minahan (1973), one that could offer a holistic framework within
which to place social work practice. Social work as a new profession was evolving
and experimenting with ideas from psychology, sociology and social policy to try to
find an identity and set of skills based on solid theories, so there was a lot of effort
being put into creating a professional identity, value base and intellectual framework
that could explain what social work was. This debate has continued ever since
mediated through changes in society, economic upheavals, population trends, legal
and educational developments. 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.
Forder considered the philosophical implications of systems theory concluding that it
offered more than the prevailing reductionist psychological theories concerned with
behaviour and stimuli, and it could develop sociological theories that placed human
behaviour in the context of a desire for equilibrium and maintenance of the social
and economic status quo. It was argued that systems theory could happily
incorporate the concept of free will, self-determination and fit into Marxist-inspired
conflict theory. Goldstein observed that the process of social work using a unitary
model could be cyclical- rather than a linear start to finish. Together with Pincus &
Minahan the concept of a contract between social worker and client and what they
termed target systems for activity, was incorporated to emphasise the interactivity of
the whole. A kaleidoscope offers a useful metaphor to understand this abstraction.
When it is twisted (an action is implemented) the whole pattern being observed
changes shape and colour from the original, ad infinitum.
Modern systems theory and its link with family therapy and systemic ideas that have
developed from it is generally credited with emerging in the 1950’s as a result of a
number of developments in the fields of psychology, communication theory, and
psychiatry. At a broader level it is also important to acknowledge the socio-economic
context of post second world war economic expansion, population growth, and the
significance of cultural changes affecting people’s attitudes to sex, marriage, leisure
and intimate relationships. The 1950’s in the developed industrialised countries were
therefore a time of rapid sociological change and economic growth, when new ideas
were more easily articulated and received (Walker 2005). Thus there was a broad
cultural change and a focus on scientific ideas that sought improvements in the way
psychological problems were addressed from mainly medical and pharmacological
treatments towards in the 1960’s what we now refer to as ‘talking therapies’.
One of the important factors that stimulated the embryonic ideas that were to grow
into a new form of social work was the need to build upon the traditional
psychoanalytic model of individual therapy. This individual psychodynamic model
was constructed on the basis of theories of the unconscious, psycho-sexual
development, and defence mechanisms that offered elegant explanations for internal
conflicts leading to anxiety, depression and more serious problems resulting in
interpersonal difficulties (Yelloly 1980). New research that demonstrated
effectiveness when groups of people were brought together to talk about their
problems began to influence practice. Two key figures stand out as influential at this
time in moving forward the ideas that were to crystallise in the practice of systemic
practice. Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968) was a German biologist who devised a
general systems theory that could be used to explain how an organism worked by
studying the transactional processes happening between different parts. He
understood that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and that we could
observe patterns and the way relationships were organised in any living system.
Gregory Bateson (1973) and others in the USA took this concept of a general
systems theory and combined it with the new science of cybernetics and applied it to
social systems such as the family. Cybernetics had introduced the idea of
information processing and the role of feedback mechanisms in regulating
mechanical systems. Bateson used this notion to argue that families were systems
involving rules of communication and the regulatory function of feedback that
influenced patterns of behaviour within them. In the UK, Ronald Laing (1969)
challenged the orthodoxy in psychiatric practice by arguing that schizophrenia was a
product of family dysfunction, while John Bowlby (1969) moved from treating
individuals to treating families where an individual was displaying mental health
The idea began to take root therefore that individual experiences within families were
continually being shaped and influenced by the evolving interaction patterns of
communication. Bowlby is more generally recognised as a key figure in the
development of attachment theory yet he was among the first of the new generation
to recognise the limitations of individual work and began to work with families rather
than individuals ( ). Individuals were not therefore determined by early traumatic
experiences or distorted developmental transitions, as the prevailing therapeutic
orthodoxy argued (Freud 1973, Segal 1975, Yelloly 1980). Systemic thinking
conceptualised that individual personality and identity could change along with
changes in family dynamics. From this common root theory-systems theory-a
number of models and methods of practice evolved through to the present day
(Walker & Akister 2004).
Systems Theory
Thinking of families as living systems with all the dynamics that this implies was quite
revolutionary in its time as it challenged the prevailing orthodoxies which perceived
emotional and psychological problems in individual terms.
“Family therapy… looks at problems within the systems of relationships in
which they occur, and aims to promote change by intervening in the broader
system rather than in the individual alone.”
(Burnham, 1984, p.2)
It enabled professionals to think about how the dynamics are constantly altering as
each family member deals with life both inside and outside the family. This also
introduced the ideas of family boundaries and the permeability of such boundaries. It
moved thinking away from linear causality and introduced the idea of circular
causality except where direct child abuse is being perpetrated by a powerful
individual exercising bullying, intimidating and financial and psychological power.
Crude interpretations of family therapy ideas saw this as absolving perpetrators of
responsibility, particularly where a ‘no blame’ culture was employed in family work.
Other critiques rightly pointed to some of the different methods and schools of family
therapy practice as manipulative and even combative (Howe 1989). However family
therapy as with systems theory is constantly evolving, learning from mistakes and
adapting to new circumstances as we shall see later. The important theoretical
concept to grasp is that change impacts and reverberates around the system in often
unpredictable ways- for example in child protection interventions or family support
measures. The systemic ideas were readily embraced by social workers as helping
to understand how the pieces of the family puzzle fit together. What do we mean by
unpredictable results of change?
This activity aims to illustrate the interconnectedness of families, groups,
organisations and interpofessional relationships, whereby one action can
invoke another reaction in these systems:
Activity 1.1
Mother, father and their two children, boys aged 9 and 4, live together. The
parents are having difficulty with the elder boys’ behaviour. Family work is
undertaken which results in clearer rules for the boys’ behaviour and with
father spending more time with the elder boy. The elder boys’ behaviour
improves and everyone is happy until they notice that the younger boys’
behaviour has deteriorated.
What has happened? The improvement in one problem area has led to another
problem developing. This is not uncommon when working with families and the use
of systems theory helps us to consider and anticipate some of the possible dynamics
of change. The impact of change on all parts of the system needs to be considered.
In social work practice when a child is removed from a family it is not unusual to find
that another child takes on the role of the child who has been removed and the
problems begin again. In other words dealing directly, or only, with the problem
presented can lead to another issue developing and the use of systems theory can
help prevent ‘symptom replacement’.
The key points which we need to think about and incorporate into our practice are:
The parts of the family are interrelated.
One part of the family cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of
the system.
Family functioning cannot be fully understood by simply understanding
each of the parts separately.
A family’s structure and organization are important factors determining
the behaviour of family members.
In all practice there are times when there can be a preoccupation with one or two
family members and the others can be marginalised. In the above family the younger
childs’ needs were not given enough priority when designing an intervention targeted
to try and improve the elder childs’ behaviour. This can easily happen even with
experienced practitioners and so it is useful to revisit the interrelatedness of the
family members.
These four points make the case for considering families systemically. In relation to
social work practice the second and third are of particular note. It is still not
uncommon in social work to try to piece together the family’s story by accessing or
understanding separate parts of the family. The notion that this does not enable an
understanding of the whole, if true, throws into question much of social work practice
where family members are not seen together and some may not be involved at all.
So if we cannot understand, lets say, a child in isolation from their family (point 2)
and if we cannot understand the family by simply interviewing members separately
(point 3) then the task of convening the family members relevant to the system under
consideration needs to be undertaken.
It is easy to state this and even if apparently true many professionals working in the
human services feel more comfortable interviewing people individually and believe
that this enables people to speak more freely. The problem with this is that they are
not communicating with the relevant family members and the worker/therapist
becomes the holder of all information and the one who decides what it is relevant for
other family members to know. This is a very powerful position and not compatible
with the ideas of working in partnership with users and carers. Also as individuals we
all have our own slant, bias, preferences or interpretation of the facts and it is more
effective to share these in a family meeting with the relevant system which can also
provide a reality check (Walker & Akister 2004).
The family structure and organisation (point 4) determine to some degree what is
possible within a particular family. There is no ‘normal’ family structure. The question
is does this structure work for this family? Does it allow healthy growth for family
members? This is where issues such as permeability of boundaries can be explored.
Each system has a boundary and systems also contain subsystems and are located
within suprasystems. In family terms there are subsystems within the family which
have their own boundaries. Examples of the possible subsystems are parental,
marital or sibling. There can also be grandparent subsystems and the existence of a
suitable hierarchy between the generation is important (Hayley, 1991). The
suprasystems to which the family may belong concern the extended family,
community and other ecological groupings. If a family’s boundaries are relatively
impervious they may be isolated from their community and may be enmeshed in
their relationships within the family. If a family’s boundaries are too permeable the
individuals in the family may be disengaged from each other and overinvolved with
the wider community. Enmeshment and disengagement were first described by
Minuchin (1974).
Recent inspections and joint reviews following the death of Peter Connelly (DOH
2010) have illustrated the need for social workers to rediscover their core skills of
assessment, so that decision making and care planning are based on sound analysis
and understanding of the client’s unique personality, history and circumstances.
Munro confirms that a systems perspective offers the most holistic tool for
undertaking informed assessment work that takes into full account the wider
environmental factors combined with the inter-personal relationship patterns
influencing family experience. Government guidance is recognising the importance
of a therapeutic dimension to contemporary practice. It has long been established
that social workers own therapeutic skills need to be seen as a resource to be used
and offered in assessment work (DOH 2000a). This has been repeated since Munro
as recently as ( ).
Community care reforms, child care fiascos, and mental health panics have fuelled
the drive towards a managerialist culture in social work reducing the professional
autonomy of social workers. Munro evidenced this and underlined the critical
importance of freeing up social workers to spend more time in direct contact with
families, rather than repeatedly filling in paperwork and tickboxing narrow procedures
and timescales. The evidence from social work practitioners is of a strong demand
for the practical and theoretical resources to equip them to deal with modern family
life and rediscover the value of interpersonal relationship skills (BASW ). The
Department of Health has long conceded that assessment processes have become
de-skilling for social workers (DOH 2000) while others have shown how assessment
frameworks are impeding therapeutic communication between social workers and
service users (Crisp et al 2007).
System theory and intervention practices
Three broad schools of family therapy can be identified within the systems literature:
Structural, Strategic and Systemic, these will be elaborated, along with others in
Chapter 3 but briefly described in this context. First, the characteristics of structural
family therapy stem from the technique of observing the interactive patterns in a
family. Once this baseline of behaviour can be understood as contributing to the
problem a structural approach would seek to highlight these, interrupt them when
they are happening, and then get the family to re-enact them in different ways that
lead to different outcomes. The attraction to practitioners in this way of using family
therapy techniques is that it aspires to provide families with problem-solving practical
solutions while maintaining a strict structural hierarchy between children and
parent/carers. In direct family work therefore the task is to enable the family to try out
different ways of doing things- for example by coaching a parent on how to maintain
a boundary or limit the behaviour of their child.
Second, the strategic family therapy approach in contrast to the structural approach,
does not have a normative concept of the family that should exist according to set
hierarchies and sub-systems of parents/children etc.. Rather, the focus with strategic
family therapists is on the day to day interactions which have resulted in problems
and the cognitive thinking being applied to solve them. The perceptions people have
about these problems invariably influences how they try to tackle them. In this way a
culturally relevant approach will focus on the perceptions within the family system
rather than seek to impose one. Attempted solutions and behavioural responses that
actually maintain the problem require challenging and shifting with alternatives
promoted by the worker (Walker & Akister 2004).
Third, the development of the Milan systemic model began in Italy in the 1970’s
where a group of psychiatrists were experimenting with treating individuals
diagnosed as schizophrenic in a radically different way to the orthodox methods then
employed. This is an example of a challenge to the prevailing culture within Anglo-
American practices from a team influenced in their thinking by their particular cultural
context. They reported better outcomes when they worked with the whole family
rather than the individual patient. The central theoretical idea informing this approach
is that the symptomatic behaviour of a family individual is part of the transactional
pattern peculiar to the family system in which it occurs. Therefore the way to change
the symptom is to change the rules of the family (Walker & Akister 2004).
The goal of this work is to discover the current systemic rules and cultural myths
which sustain the present dysfunctional patterns of relating, and to use the assumed
resistance of the family towards outside help as a provocation to change. Change is
achieved by clarifying the ambiguity in relationships that occur at a nodal point in the
family’s evolution. Milan Systemic therapists do not work to a normative blueprint of
how an ideal family should function (Burnham 1986). This approach furthermore
emphasises the importance of the underlying cultural beliefs held by family members
about the problem which affected behaviour. It avoids being perceived as blaming
the non-symptomatic members of the family by working on the basis that the actions
of various family members are the best they can do (Dallos & Draper 2000).
Family lifecycle and transitional challenges
Why is the life cycle so important? It identifies the tasks that the family have to deal
with at the particular stage of life which they are at. Each stage has different
developmental tasks for the family members. Being a couple requires quite different
adaptations to being a couple with a baby. The needs and tasks faced by a family
with young children are very different to those faced by a family with older children
in the process of leaving home and so on. So looking at the family life cycle gives a
window into the developmental needs of the individuals within the family. If these
are not being met then they are likely to experience problems (Brown &
Christensen 1999, Dryden 1988).
Much is written about family development particularly the family life cycle and only
a brief summary is included here. Essentially then, the family life cycle tends to be
thought of as a series of stages each with its own developmental task. The stage of
the life cycle which the family are at will have relevance to understanding why they
are experiencing difficulties at that particular point in time. It has been widely
proposed that families may experience problems at transition points in the life cycle
(see Carter & McGoldrick, 1980, for full descriptions of the transition stages). It is
thus important to be aware of the main transitions and some of the disruptions to
these. A key factor in this view is that many families function well or at least do not
perceive themselves as having problems for long periods of time. There must
therefore be something specific which triggers the difficulties by creating
circumstances which produce stress that the family are unable to negotiate. Many
family workers believe that moving from one stage of the life cycle to another can
produce just such stress (Hoffman 1981, Madanes 1981). Examples of this are
adjusting to the arrival of another child or a child entering adolescence. Each of the
stages involves change for the family routines and there is also an emotional
process of transition required.
The main stages of a modern culturally-relevant life cycle which have been identified
are shown in Table 1.1. Within these stages are many substages and perhaps more
importantly families do not proceed neatly through the stages. We might expect
adolescents to be leaving home around the time that grandparents are requiring
more care when the family has spare capacity to deal with this. However, often
grandparents become ill when children are still dependent and there is a conflict of
interest and a heavy workload to negotiate. Similarly as the family enters the stage of
a family with adolescents another baby may arrive necessitating the family to
negotiate two developmental stages at once….(insert Table 1.1 here..)
Increasingly there are families where divorce and/or remarriage have taken place
and this also adds a different set of issues to the life-cycle stages that have to be
negotiated. These may involve the loss of a natural parent and/or gain of a step-
child/parent/grandparent. It will also involve negotiations between different family
systems. These extensive family arrangements inevitably involve complex family
life cycle stages. Often the new couple will want to have children together as well
as the children they already have. This increases the possibility of being a family
with young children and also older children who may live elsewhere for all or part of
the time requiring complex adaptations.
There are numerous possibilities concerning the life cycle which need the social
worker’s consideration and awareness and which may be key to the presenting
problem. In the example of the arrival of a new baby in a family with adolescents, it
is often expected that the adolescent is old enough to understand the intense
physical demands of a baby. This may be the case at one level but almost
invariably the adolescent experiences mixed emotions to the arrival of the baby and
may find the decrease in attention to themselves difficult to cope with. In families
presenting at this stage these issues should be appraised.
Changes in life cycle stage can be difficult for many reasons including for example,
anxiety about letting go in adolescence and adjusting to altered responsibilities with
new arrivals in the family. In the intensity of dealing with a whole family interview we
can lose sight of the life cycle issues which often offer simple explanations which
make sense to the family. Prior to the first meeting the social worker should
consider what the life cycle stage of the family is. They should consider what the life
cycle issues and transitions appear to be for the family and prepare to confirm or
moderate these during their assessment of the presenting problems and of family
functioning. Sometimes the life cycle transition can be key to the whole child
protection process so it is a very important feature of any preparation for an initial
assessment of a family.
Key elements in systems based work
Supervision- Family therapy has had a rare openness in relation to exposing
practice to wider scrutiny. Apart from the use of video recordings as a way of
analysing the complex family patterns of interaction that are impossible to track
during an interview, they can also be used as a training tool. Family therapy sessions
are usually supervised live involving at least another person observing the session
and offering feedback and suggestions during the work or at a planned mid-point
break. The person/s observing may be behind a screen or present in the room and
are able to gain a different perspective to the worker involved with the family and
spot important aspects that may benefit from a supportive suggestion. This notion
has been developed to include the use of reflecting teams whereby the people
behind the screen/mirror join the family and the worker in front to openly discuss
their perceptions. Individual-oriented therapists or counsellors who have usually
undergone intense personal analysis are also expected to open their practice to
scrutiny and supervision whether in public or private practice. Convergence is
occurring nowadays whereby family therapists are coming under pressure to
demonstrate a degree of personal therapeutic experience before qualifying as
registered therapists.
Context of problems- is more than anything perhaps the most defining
characteristic of social work practice. It means that whatever the problem being
presented to you as a practitioner using systems theory you will automatically begin
to ask a series of questions that are linked to the context of the presenting problem.
This relates to not just the family context but the wider professional, public, socio-
economic and cultural context of the problem. In other words it is an ecological
approach in that it posits not just individuals as inter-linked within families but
families as inter-linked in communities that are in turn inter-linked to class, ethnic
groups and cultures. It is a way of beginning the reframing process and looking at
the problem from a different angle so that the concept of blame begins to be eroded
and replaced with the concept of understanding the patterns that create and maintain
the current problem. For example, one question that is helpful to ask at some point to
each member of a family is ‘If this problem were to disappear what problem would be
left to concern you?’ This illustrates the different way of working compared to
approaches that can unwittingly reinforce the family’s dependence on a particular
problem. Understanding the overall context of the problem offers another way of
tackling it rather than seeking to change an individual or indeed trying to change a
Circularity/patterns- is a characteristic of systems based work. It is a foundational
assumption of systems theory that problematic behaviour is conceived as forming
part of a reflexive, circular motion of events and behaviours without beginning or
end. Being able to spot the circular process and articulate it in a meaningful way with
the individual or family offers a positive way forward. This releases the social worker
and the family to think beyond linear causality and blaming or scapegoating
behaviour. The important distinction when using this conceptual framework is where
abusive adults use grooming behaviour and their power to abuse children and young
people. In these child protection cases and in domestic violence situations the
motivation and responsibility need to be firmly located with the perpetrator who may
need to be removed physically from the family system. The circular understanding of
problems offers an elegant explanatory tool for the reasons for the symptoms and
other dysfunctional behaviour. Within a family any action by one member affects all
other members and the family as a whole. Each member’s response in turn prompts
other responses that affect all other members, whose further reactions provoke still
further responses. Such a reverberating effect in turn affects the first person, in a
continuous series of chains of influence (Goldenberg & Goldenberg 2004).
It is important not to take theoretical concepts to a level of abstraction where they
cease to be useful. It is easy to be seduced into the technocratic skills and
mechanisms of systems-based working at the expense of missing individual human
responses in families or individuals members and yourself to what emerges during a
your work in safeguarding children and young people. You may become an efficient
social worker in terms of technical ability but may be experienced by the
family/individual as cold, distanced and emotionally unavailable. One way of
guarding against this is to do some preparation before embarking on the work by
reflecting on your own individual experiences within your family system. This
includes early childhood memories which you may want to prompt with the use of
photographs or familiar objects and places.
This practical activity will immediately enable you to visualise the concept of
systems and connectedness not just restricted to your own family system.
The experiential nature of this activity will arouse strong feelings and give you
some insight into the impact of your work with vulnerable families:
Activity 1.2
Try constructing your own family geneogram using the symbols and
example in Figure 1.2. (..Insert figure 1.2) Draw connections between
other family members you feel close to or distanced from.
Think about the family history and culture going back several
generations writing pen pictures of grandparent relationships and
By recalling those poignant stories or significant events that affected
you and your family you can begin to appreciate the impact of your own
interventions with families and individuals.
This exercise should help you maintain contact with the real feelings and
experiences generated when working at a therapeutic level with client families or
individuals. Some of you will find this exercise too distressing or uncomfortable while
others will find it enlightening and empowering. You may find it helpful to conduct the
exercise jointly with a trusted colleague or friend, or even a family member. Be
prepared for a powerful experience and anticipate the need to talk it through with
someone afterwards- this might be a team leader or counsellor or a friend who is
good at listening in a non-judgemental way. Knowing yourself is a pre-requisite for
modern social work practice and is very much the case for working with families
where you are engaging them at a deeper level. Understanding your own family
culture and heritage and the events and issues that have shaped all the individuals
within it offers you some personal insight into the meaning of culture and the deep
feelings of identity it evokes.
Thinking about your own community and where you come from as well as the idea of
what it feels like to expose the past and explore its impact on the present is a
powerful experience. A thorough knowledge of your family process can help you
avoid over-identifying with a similar family or help avoid persecuting a different
family. Awareness of your own feelings of vulnerability and sensitive family issues
can prepare you for negotiating these in a more sympathetic and thoughtful way with
families and individuals you work with. A sophisticated understanding of culture will
enable you to consider the multifarious nature of the term culture and how it can
protect you against assuming knowledge and understanding of similar people when
in fact you are very different.
Decision making
Social work, with children and families, involves critical decisions about whether or
not children should remain in their parents’ care. The knowledge on which such
decisions are based is drawn from theories of child development, parenting
capacity and family functioning. Social work practice in this field is criticised for
failing children when tragedies occur. Inevitably tragedies will occur. However, it is
clear from inquiries into child deaths that social work practice can be improved see,
for example, the inquiries into the deaths of Maria Colwell (Department of Health
and Social Security, 1974) and Peter Connelly (Department of Health, 2010).
Whether the approach taken by an inquiry promotes changes that lead to better
outcomes for children is unclear. The inquiry into Maria Colwell’s death confined
itself to procedural conclusions, investigating the way in which care had or had not
been provided and the coordination of services. Unfortunately, the focus of the
inquiry and of the subsequent reforms was the existing system and how to improve
it. Nowhere did the inquiry suggest that the interests of the child could be better
served by interventions directed towards the systemic context on which that child is
dependent. In 1984, Minuchin wrote:
“Looking at the Maria Colwell case from the point of view of a family therapist, I see
a group of good people, including dedicated servants of social and legal services,
who couldn’t respond to Maria because they thought in fragmented ways. Their
cognitive models imposed a kind of acoustical screen so that Maria’s cries were
absorbed and blunted. If I am right, then the reforms introduced to improve those
legal and social service systems will only help to retain incorrect points of view”
(Minuchin, 1984: 144).
The Munro report has now energised a new generation of officials and government
ministers and provided a solid evidence base from which they can draw
conclusions and implement changes in child protection. It has taken twenty years
for systems ideas to become integrated into policy relating to working with children
and families. The government proposed a framework to try to improve practice
through more structured approaches to family assessment (Department of Health,
2000a; Bentovim and Bingley Miller, 2002). Improving both family assessment and
the understanding of attachment relationships were key to this initiative.
Most individuals have significant others with whom they relate. The skills of working
with two or more people are vital to all those in the caring professions. An
intervention with one person will affect their significant others and we need to be
cognisant of this. As social workers we need to work with people in their family and
community or ecological contexts. The skills of working with two or more people are
best described and developed in the introductory texts in social work and family
therapy literature (Barker, 1998; Dallos & Draper, 2000, Okitikpi & Aymer 2008,
O’Loughlin & O’Loughlin 2008,Trevithick 2005). Once these are incorporated into
our decision-making processes they can be utilised in many and varied situations.
The skills of systems theory are readily transferable and relevant to all age groups.
The popularity of systems theory and the practice of family therapy arose from its
apparent effectiveness in enabling rapid change for families experiencing problems.
One of the reasons for this appears to be the active inclusion of all family members
in the process of change (Barker 1998, Barnes 1998). Thereby avoiding situations
where people feel excluded from what is happening to those they are close to or
resentful of change. The experience of feeling excluded can occur in many settings.
However it is not easy to get families together and many workers do not feel
comfortable dealing with the complexities of working with the family system where
child abuse is suspected. And obviously this is contra-indicated where a family
member is actively abusing another. For all professionals working in the human
professions some of these skills are essential since the people who live together
and relate together are in the best position to alter the circumstances for each other
and to promote positive change. The reason that people come to need
interventions is that they have encountered difficulty in dealing with a particular set
of circumstances and need help to move on and to re-establish their family system
using the strengths within the family. So systems theory is quite consistent with the
strengths approach to social work practice, it seeks to focus on what the family can
do well rather than what they are failing to do.
There are many excellent introductory texts to family therapy (e.g. Barker, 1998;
Dallos & Draper,2000). Rather than try to repeat what is already written, the core
concepts and considerations for working with a family have been described and
then linked to social work and systems practice. All family therapy is predicated on
working with the family as a system and therefore we have looked briefly at the key
components of systems theory as relevant to social work. The importance of
convening and engaging with a family and the issues of the life cycle and
multicultural aspects are crucial to the setting up of work with a family. How the
process begins and the work done even before seeing a family are critical to the
potential success of any decision and subsequent intervention. People do not seek
the help of professionals lightly, or take kindly to unwanted intrusion into their lives.
So our preparation for working with a family is crucial and also easily rushed in
busy professional practice. Time spent in preparation will pay off in reaching the
best available decision and stands a good chance of sustaining change or
safeguarding children and young people in the long term.
Multicultural Systems
McGoldrick, Pearce & Giordano (1982) were among the first to draw attention to
culture and ethnicity as crucial influences on the interactional style and structure of
families. They also highlighted the importance of giving attention to ethnic groups
within what is typically referred to as the majority culture. In order to train
multiculturally sensitive therapists, the understanding of one's own ethnic and
cultural background enables us to have a context within which to understand the
culture of others as the exercise above sought to achieve. It is important to
appreciate that within the majority culture there is not a homogenous group (Preli &
Bernard, 1993, Muncie et al 1997). Social workers need to be aware of the
subtleties of their own ethnic and cultural make-up since multicultural practice
applies to both majority and minority cultures. The point here being that we cannot
make assumptions about the internal structure of a family from their known culture,
as defined by crude stereotypes or lazy generalisations, since there is always
individual interpretation in any culture or religion and we need to take the time to
reflect upon and understand this. This does not mean devouring texts seeking to
define ethnic minority characteristics or religious customs, rather it requires you to
shed stereotypes, challenge orthodox assumptions, and open your imagination to
any possibility. Or as Einstein eloquently put it: “ knowledge without imagination is
Pursuing these cultural ideas further Berg and Jaya (1993) looked at Asian-
American families. They explored the concept of family uniqueness and started
from the understanding that Asian-American families are like all other families, like
some other families and like no other families. They believe that cultural sensitivity
can be learned and looked at some culturally important values for this group. What
follows are however, some generalizations for the sake of brevity but we must
always remember that each family is unique and requires an individual approach.
The need for careful, reflective assessment and high quality supervision before any
intervention is made is vital.
Family Culture A:
There is a long tradition in Asian culture of solving problems through mediation
rather than through head on confrontation. Berg and Jaya suggest social workers
are in a good position to mediate within a family's conflict because of their position
of authority, knowledge of family relationships and techniques that enhance face
saving with Asian families.
In this situation meeting with family members separately is suggested since airing
their difficulties together at the outset may be too confrontative. This is in contrast to
the suggestion above of the importance of beginning family work with whole
families. It highlights how every family situation needs individual appraisal by the
social workers on receiving referrals to assess whether standard procedures,
whatever they are in a particular agency, are appropriate for the particular family
referred. The task of convening and engaging with the family will therefore vary
though it will remain the case that simply understanding the parts of the family will
not enable an understanding of the whole family and the individual contact will need
to be preparing the family for a family meeting. Berg and Jaya also give a salutary
example of how the different cultures approach the same problem, using the
example of behaviour control.
Family Culture B:
With American and British children who misbehave they are often 'grounded'. Their
punishment is to be forced to be with their family and it seems that one of the
results of grounding is that children fight their way out of the family (a process
Americans call emancipation). With Asian children being excluded from the family is
extremely rare and is a severe punishment. Thus if children misbehave they are
threatened with banishment from the family and told to get out. The children have to
fight to stay in the family and the expectation is that children will remain within the
family bringing their spouses to join it.
The point here is that neither approach is better or worse, simply that they are
different and need to be understood before trying to intervene. An intervention
based on the wrong premise for ‘grounding’ would otherwise totally fail and the
social worker would be perplexed by this if they have assumed majority culture
norms. In fact with any family these expectations should be checked.
The systems model of careful, systematic assessment of how a family organises
itself in relation to the necessary tasks of family life is particularly appropriate for
understanding the uniqueness of any family. It enables the social worker to spend a
number of sessions with the family, in a structured way exploring their interaction
patterns before embarking on ideas and strategies aimed at change. It is also a
model which focuses on your role as a facilitator, working in partnership with the
family, enabling or empowering the family rather than instructing or directing them.
Messent (1992) working with Bangladeshi families in East London also points to the
appropriateness of systems theory with Asian families because of the importance of
interconnections between different family members, while urging caution on the
techniques used. Later in the book a variety of methods and techniques are
described, but in this context Messent advises that Structural techniques are
appropriate but unbalancing the family should be avoided as this approach may be
too confrontative.
Is it necessary or even desirable for social workers to come from the same religious
or cultural background? Different difficulties can arise in the situation of same
culture, particularly where this is not the majority culture and issues around
integration with the majority culture arise. There may be benefits to having the
same cultural/religious identity, but there may also be dis-benefits, Toledano (1996)
writes of an issue that may arise when the family and the therapist do come from
the same religion or culture (in this case Judaism) and when the culture is a
minority in society.
"How can staff use their own experience and knowledge of their shared culture
without imposing it on the family?..... A position of 'not knowing' is helpful when the
therapist operates almost as a curious anthropologist studying an unfamiliar
culture. It is however problematic when the worker is known to share the client's
culture." (Toledano, 1996, p.293). This is helpful as it emphasises difference within
groups and the difficulties that can arise when the assumption is of shared values
and the expectation is that the social worker will support the same. It is not
necessary to have the answers to a cultural or religious dilemma within a family-
however it is necessary to facilitate the process of the family in coming to a
resolution of the dilemma. An awareness and preparedness by the social worker to
question their own and the families position with respect to cultural and religious
issues is essential. But it cannot be stressed strongly enough the need for
appreciation of uniqueness within any grouping.
Recent research and theoretical constructs are creating a context where systems
ideas can be understood and put into action. Chapter Nine examines some of these
in more detail. Ferguson for example (2008) examines the nature of social work
from the perspective of movement and mobilities. He argues that social work is at
all times ‘on the move’, yet theory and analyses of policy and practice largely depict
it as static, solid and sedentarist. This draws on the new mobilities paradigm
(Sheller and Urry, 2003), through which a concern with flows and movements of
people, objects, information, practices, speed and rhythm, with complexity, fluid
images and liquid metaphors, is moving to the centre of social theory. This is
consistent with a systems perspective of constant change of the Buddhist saying
that you cannot put your foot in the same river twice. An understanding of the liquid,
mobile character of social work means producing accounts which are much closer
to what its practices are, how and where they are performed and experienced by
service users and professionals, and the opportunities and risks inherent to them.
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