By: Michael A. Robinson, MSSW
Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.
As I began the fall semester of my doctoral program, a wave of fear crept over me, as I pondered my presence here. Am I ready? Why didn’t I just get a job? Do I belong in a doctoral program? Am I scholarly enough to grace the hallowed halls of the academy? Searching for an answer to these perplexing questions interrupted my slumber on many nights, that is, when I was able to grab a couple of winks between assignments. Now, on the eve of my final semester of course work, I am given an assignment that will define who I am for the remaining time that I am in graduate school, and perhaps define me as I enter into the academy. The pressure is on, and this assignment cannot be taken lightly, as it will lay the groundwork for my dissertation topic, my life’s passion, the fruit of my educational labor.
I would say it is perhaps the most important assignment I have been directed to produce; my personal journey with theory is the essence of the assignment. Yes, theory, that awful word that pops out of every professor’s mouth, a word that many students take for granted, a concept that is merely treated as a vocabulary word to be defined on a test or analyzed in a paper. I pondered this assignment for many weeks as I prepared to produce the final product, a beginning to my dissertation.
I have been influenced by many theories during my career as a graduate student of social work. Because of this experience, my life has been changed and I now have a mission. I will explain in no uncertain terms my journey with theory, and I hope that by the end of my odyssey, you will understand what theory means to me and its application to my future.
What is a theory? I decided to do what most eager graduate students would do. I Googled the term and came up with 259,000,000 hits. WOW! The Number One site for “theory” housed a clothing line for men entitled Blue Fly, the ultimate hook up for the fashion obsessed. Perhaps at this level I should do a scholarly search, so I logged onto the university Web site and searched the term “theory” on Ebsco Host Research Database. The site returned 447,367 hits, JSTOR returned 669,609 hits, and none of the articles involved fashion; however, the term theory has roots in every discipline known to the academic world from algebraic theories to zoological theories.
I then turned to the collection of very expensive text books that I have accumulated over the years and scrutinized the table of contents searching for a definition of theory, and found several interesting interpretations.
According to Becvar & Becvar (1999), “we prefer to think of theories as stories in order to remind us that while they may be useful and thus true in some way, we cannot speak of them as Truth in the ultimate sense” (p. 2). Now this is a definition of a concept that has utility.
A theory is not necessarily the truth, and therefore, we can accept or reject a theory. Theory generation, according to Padgett (1998), “involves generating a meaningful explanatory framework that has been developed from the ground level up” (p. 58). According to Berg (2007), who cites Babbie, Hagan and Senese, “theory can be defined as a general and more or less comprehensive set of statements or propositions that describe different aspects of some phenomena” (p. 19).
The most comprehensible definition hails from the Internet version of the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines theory as a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.
I cannot say that I recall the theories that were discussed in my undergraduate school days, as this was in excess of twenty years ago, and my class schedule consisted of a multitude of courses aimed at developing a future stock market analyst, a fortune 500 company’s CEO, or a bank president. As far as theory goes, I can only remember that economics was chock full of theories, and it was my least favorite class. I somewhat remember a theory that involved quantity and demand, and an inverse relationship between the two, but really I believe e = mc² was the only theory I remembered from my undergraduate days.
My graduate school career began just a few short years ago, and I can recall many theories that were espoused by the learned faculty, and this is where my journey with theory really begins. As a non-traditional student in a three-year MSSW program with a specialization in marriage and family therapy, I was introduced to social work practice theories, as well as family therapy theories. During this often mystifying and frenzied time in my life, I was introduced to a theory that shed light on me as a confused graduate student, embarking on his first practicum—empowerment theory was introduced in a Human Behavior in the Social Environment class, and thus began my first love affair with theory.
Empowerment theory is the first significant theory I encountered that made sense. Empowerment theory, as presented by the faculty of the school of social work, gave me a torch to pick up and run with as I attempted to provide therapy to a multitude of troubled souls. Empowerment theory, as defined by Gutierrez (1995), is “the process of increasing personal, interpersonal, or political power so that individuals, families, and communities can take action to improve their situations” (p. 229). Imagine me, a kid from the Southside of Chicago, helping clients to improve their situations based on a concept learned in school.
The following semester, I was introduced to a litany of practice theories, all of which had utility, but the one that resonated with me the most was General Systems Theory. According to Chisholm (1967), general systems theory, as postulated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, states that all things have connections with many other things, and the significance of any one depends on its relationship with others, and the unit of study should not be a single thing but a system of interrelated objects or ideals. As confusing as this concept sounds, it made perfect sense to me—everything makes sense in context. I can remember my first client and how I invited his family into the session (with his permission), as well as friends and a co-worker. The revelations revealed in that ground-breaking session still bring tears to my eyes today. The systemic process proved successful, as we as a system helped to make this young man’s life become more bearable.
I must add that there were other practice theories that I experimented with, such as Freud’s psychodynamic theory; B.F. Skinner and other behaviorist theories; and the post modern communication theories espoused by the Palo Alto group, which consisted of Bateson, Jackson, Haley, and Weakland. The other theoretical approaches are effective in their own rights, but I found a comfort zone in general systems theory and its application to family therapy.
Postmodernism challenges the first order cyberneticists and all of the theories generated by this group of learned people. The primary difference between the first order cybernetics and second order cybernetics is the position of the observer. This was part of a paradigm shift in mental health, treating the family as a unit, and the therapist as part of the system. The therapist is the expert on process, and the family is the expert on their problems.
Postmodernism, which has its roots in literary deconstruction, communication theories, semiotics, and sociology, challenges the age-old ideal that the therapist—the professional—is the keeper of all knowledge, the expert. Instead, this group espouses the stance that the client and the therapist/professional have equal positions in the therapeutic process, and language and the role of discourse are the focus of constructivist and social constructionist.
Systems theory is a unifying theory that represents a paradigm shift in terms of how we understand the client’s behavior. We now look at the client and his relationship to the family as each affects and is affected by the other persons (Becvar & Becvar, 1999). The clichés, “no man is an island” and “it takes a village to raise a child” have meaning in the post modern era.
General systems theory as a framework for family therapy is different from the psychodynamic theories, in that the therapists do not use intrapsychic labels such as ego, self concept, drive awareness, and so forth as behavior descriptors. Systems theorists move away from the norm of linear causality and move toward a circular or reciprocal model (Becvar & Becvar, 1999). I will attempt to summarize the concepts used in general systems theory in its application to family therapy.
Boundaries are fundamental characteristics of a family system, and the amount of information flowing into and out of the family system is dictated by the rigidity of its boundaries, which can be opened or closed (Becvar & Becvar, 1999).
Communication and information processing are also central tenants of systems theory. Context is the tenant that I consider the most essential aspect of systems theory in its application to family therapy, because change equals a change in context. Other important concepts are entropy, which is the shortage of energy in a system, and negative entropy, which is the tendency away from maximum chaos moving toward a state of balance. Communication is paramount, and feedback can be positive or negative, which in this framework does not imply good or bad—it is relative to context (Becvar & Becvar, 1999). This revolutionary theoretical framework proves useful as the definition of family changes from the nuclear family to non-traditional family systems that consist of single parent families, gay and lesbian couples, communes, and kibbutzes.
I advanced to the next challenging phase of my graduate school career, the Ph.D. program, a program that requires each of its students to be intimate with a theory or theories, depending upon the discipline. We discussed the differences among theory, worldview, perspective, and model, and how the terms are many times used interchangeably. The first theory class at this advanced level reintroduced me to many of the theories cultivated in the MSSW program, but the assignment I remembered and welcomed the most required the students to write a paper on a theory of our choosing. I contemplated this assignment, researched theories, and decided to take a chance. I chose a very controversial theory that involves race and racism, and I tried to elicit responses from the instructor and my cohort, but to no avail. I was given a letter grade, and we moved on to the next assignment.
The theory I reviewed was critical race theory (CRT), which evolved from critical legal studies, white feminist theory, Black feminist thought, radical feminism, and critical theory. The founders of the movement are Derrick Bell, Mari Matsuda, Kimberle Crenshaw, Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, and Patricia Williams. The historical origin of CRT began during the 1960s, a turbulent time in American history, which gave birth to a movement in which African Americans were making advances in civil rights in America. Critical race theorists believe that minorities need to oppose this binary thinking and work jointly to confront forces that oppress them all.
A new generation of scholars is putting whiteness under a lens and exploring why everything good is portrayed in life and fiction as white, while bad is portrayed as black/dark. They are studying how certain groups moved from non-white to white—groups such as Irish, Jews, and Italians. They will look at the recent manifestation of white supremacy and white power groups and why they mean trouble as opposed to black solidarity groups. White privilege will also be examined and how it has evolved in our society. As with all theories, there are those who do not agree with the tenets, and CRT is no different.
It is now the eleventh hour, and I have to write about a theory that is near and dear to me. I have toyed with the idea of healthcare disparities in general and access to healthcare in particular for a dissertation topic; however, I am told that this topic appears to be too broad for a dissertation. I am told I need to narrow my focus and perhaps develop my dissertation around a particular illness or disease, such as hypertension, birth defects, heart disease, substance abuse, or any one of many chronic diseases known to man. Although I have not quite determined what my focus will be, I have researched theories in the area of healthcare disparities. The theory I have chosen thus far is the Andersen Model.
The Andersen Model was developed by Ronald Andersen, a professor, chair of the Department of Health Services, and chair of the School of Public Health at UCLA. According to Andersen & Davidson (2007), “the model stresses that improving access to healthcare can best be accomplished by focusing on contextual as well as individual determinants” (p. 4). The model suggests that contextual factors play an important role in recognizing the significance of community, structure of the healthcare network, and the process of providing care to individuals within the community. The model has four major components: contextual characteristics, individual characteristics, health behaviors, and outcomes. I have to become intimate with this structure if I am to succeed in the time-honored tradition of dissertation defense—the last road block, the academy’s gatekeepers’ final defense against individuals with questionable scholarship.
Healthcare inequities continue to be problematic in the lower socioeconomic status communities, which primarily consist of minorities. I strongly believe that it is my moral duty as a social worker to take a stand and focus my efforts on empowering clients. Effecting change is a charge of every social worker, or should be, and theory is an important element in the process. What I realized while conducting the search for a theory that can be used as a lens in which to view my research, was that there are a plethora of theories that I could have employed. As a graduate student, I realize the importance of theory in social work education, practice, and research, and if we are to dispel the Abraham Flexner myth, as a profession we must become intimate with theory.
As a social worker, it is my responsibility to the discipline and to the underserved populations to help develop a framework by which to help alleviate healthcare disparities or any of the social problems that plague our society. In the text Modern Social Work Theory, Payne cites Howe, 1987, “We always have a theory that helps us decide why and how to choose between alternatives, even if we hide it from ourselves” (p. 4). Theory is a part of social work whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, and according to Dilthey, who is referenced by Weick (1991), human beings differ significantly from the inhabitants of the physical world, which is the subject matter for most scientists. Therefore, a different approach to studying humans is needed. The scientific method has a place in studying the physical universe, but when attempting to understand man, contextual factors should be considered, because they are just as important, and theory can provide the lens in which to establish and view the contextual factors that influence man’s existence.
If social workers as a profession are to advance their cause in the area of social research, they will require funding by public and private agencies that will hold their research agendas to the same rigorous standards as the so-called hard sciences. Moreover, to further the cause of social work, scientific methodologies must be employed if we are to contend for the limited amount of funding available for social programs.
Does this mean that the future of social research is in the hands of the positivist researcher? According to Morris (2006), the positivist approach to social work research is an objective world view. She goes on to say “it is the paradigm that underlies almost all social research method books” (p. xviii). Is positivism, a combination of traditional philosophies of science with probability theory and sampling theory, the wave of the future for social work research? What of the post positivists, who favor qualitative research methods? Are they not capable of securing research grants? Is their research not as reliable or valid as the positivists? The answer lies with theory selection, and social workers, practitioners, and researchers must adapt theories that parallel their belief systems, and subscribe to their tenets.
Social workers must take into account that social work has encountered many problems by following the scientific method. This is not to say that the scientific method is not useful in social work, but used alone may prove ineffective, or less effective at times. According to Weick (1991), social work theories not rooted in the human experience have yielded unreliable or erroneous results. There needs to be a middle of the road approach for integrating science and social work, perhaps science with a heart. Social work research is the scientific arm of the profession and through research, theory is explored and tested in an effort to improve practice methodologies and outcomes. However, context should be a mandatory variable in the scientific equation as it pertains to social work.
Is there a happy medium between the scientific method and social work values? The use of qualitative inquiry may be really more in line with social work principles and is a viable research methodology, but is this method rigorous enough to stand up to the standards established by the hard sciences? Now is the time for social work researchers and educators to adapt or develop theories that embrace social work values and provide the support necessary to obtain funding from the private and governmental funding agencies. Practitioners should realize that the application of the right theory can help to improve outcomes, and students of social work should realize that theory selection may indeed control the future of social work.
American heritage dictionary (4th ed.). Retrieved 9/27/2007 from http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/theory;_ylt=Alcmnl xc669QUA1IlxaP5bGsgMMF
Andersen R. M., & Davidson P. L. (2007) (Chapter 1), Improving access to care in America: Individual and contextual factors. In Andersen R. M., Rice T. H., Kominski G. F. (Editors), Changing the American Health Care System: Key Issues in Health Services Policy and Management. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, (p. 3-31).
Becvar, D. S., & Becvar, R. J. (1999). Systems theory and family therapy (2nd ed.). Lamham, MD: University Press.
Bell, D. A. (1980). Brown v. board of education and the interest-convergence dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 518.
Bell, D. A. (2000). Race, racism, and American law (4th ed.) New York: Little, Brown.
Berg, B. (2007). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Chisholm, M. (1967). General systems theory and geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Retrieved 9/22/2007 from http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-2754%28196712%291%3A0%3A42%3C45%3AGSTAG%3E2.0.CO%3B2-
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (1992). Images of the outsider in American law and culture: Can free expression remedy systemic social ills? Cornell Law Review, 1258.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2001). Critical race theory. New York: University Press.
Gutierrez, L. M. (1995). Understanding the empowerment process: Does consciousness make a difference? Social Work Research, 19, 229-237.
Morris, T. (2006). Social work research methods: Four alternative paradigms. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.
Padgett, D. K. (1998) Qualitative methods in social work research: Challenges and rewards. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.
Payne, M. (2005) Modern Social Work Theory. 3rd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Weick, A. (1992). The place of science in social work. Journal of Sociology & Welfare (18)4. 13-34.
Michael A. Robinson received his MSSW with a specialization in marriage and family therapy from the University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work, where is is currently teaching and pursuing a Ph.D. in social work. His research interests are in the area of mental health care disparities in general, and access to mental health care for African Americans suffering from depression in particular.