Sociology of Social Work

Social work (SW) is a professional activity wherein practitioners engage in their craft to contribute to policy and practice with a view to reducing inequalities in society and ameliorating the local and personal effects of these on individuals and the community. Theories in SW essentially form practice. In the social sciences theoretical knowledge is contested because different theories offer competing definitions of reality reflecting particular values and ideologies. Hence theories “have interest groups within social work seeking to influence over our understanding of the nature and practice of social work by gaining acceptance of their theory” (Payne 1997, p.2). In fact according to Berger and Luckmann (1966) even our understanding of reality is socially constructed. Therefore there is no single, objective reality, but competing realities derived from different forms of knowledge and experience. Essentially methods translate theories into practice. It is therefore imperative that we develop a critical understanding of social methods and the theories that underpin them so that we continuously cultivate good working practices. (Offer 1999)

This essay will examine the significance of sociology and the importance of a good understanding of the society in which we live. This essay will also provide an understanding of what sociology is, and an insight into each perspective in relation to a particular concept and some of the social problems surrounding it. It will identify how an understanding of sociology is useful in helping social workers understand, evaluate and resolve the potential problems faced by their client groups, and will assess the importance and contribution of sociology in social work practice.

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Contribution of Sociology Theories to Social Work

Sociology differs to psychology, in as much as psychology studies the individual and that individual’s reactions and involvement within society. Sociology concentrates its approach on a much wider level, looking at the bigger picture. Giddens (1989, p.18) reports that the study of sociology offers the individual an opportunity to detach oneself from preconceived ideas about social life, however it does pose specific problems, mainly because of the complex problems involved in subjecting our own behaviour to study. It is hard to be objective which you are directly involved in, and later on in the essay, it is apparent how this has influenced, and biased some perspectives.

Sociology developed as a science in the late 1700s. It was initially a way of attempting to understand the great changes happening in industry and society around that time, following a period of social and industrial revolutions throughout England and the transition from feudal England, into a more capitalist and industrialised society. (Davies 1997) Although there are many definitions of sociology, there is no clear cut definition as to what it encompasses. Macionis and Plummer (1997, p. 4) say that the definition of sociology is the “systematic study of human society”, whilst “The study of human social behaviour, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society”

We can therefore deduce that sociology is a study of looking at things from a wider angle. So, what psychologists may view as a personal tragedy to one person, when viewed from the wider angle, can provide an insight into imbalances in the equilibrium of society. For example, C Wright Mills (taken from Macionis and Plummer) wrote famously about the ‘Sociological Imagination’, which enables the individual to reflect upon the societal impact of what can be apparently individual events, such as divorce, and unemployment. Whilst divorce is a personal tragedy for the individual, the impact of it nationally becomes a social problem, given that Britain statistically has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe. So, sociology is about learning how to look at things with more than just knowledge or common sense, it is about being able to turn situations around and examine the impact on both the individual and the surrounding society. (Sibeon 1991)

To do this however, one must be able to identify what society actually is. What does it encompass? How many people does it take to make a society? Even if we assume that a society is, for example, a group of people with self perpetuating rules, living within a particular framework of social relationships, we still have to question to who’s rules are they are adhering, and to what extent is the framework of social relationship to be extended?

Classical sociologists had no problems in identifying what constitutes a society, as they assumed that society was something that could be investigated or analysed in a laboratory, such as with any other science. Classical sociology was in effect the ‘scientific’ study of society. Whilst more modernist approaches such as Cree, have identified that today’s society is a much more mosaic and fragmented society, and realises that “much as we all have more than one identity, so we live and move in many different, and at times competing, societies” (1997, p. 276).

To enable them to study this, sociologists have identified many different perspectives on different sociological concepts. A concept is an issue that is directly related to sociology or society, and as such includes issues such as the family, crime and deviance, the community, class, status, poverty, race and youth. All these concepts have a direct impact on society and so sociologists are interested in studying them. Each concept is often intrinsically linked to the remaining ones. (Giddens 1989)

If we take as a simplistic example, a young black boy who has been caught stealing, he is from an impoverished background and is being brought up by his single parent mother. In this single example, a sociologist could choose to look at this case study from any or all of the above concepts. The family unit has broken down, leading the youth to commit acts of crime and deviance, possibly because the family’s standard of living has deteriorated, leading to a lowering in class and status, which in turn could have led to prejudice and isolation from the surrounding community. (Gitterman 2001)

A perspective however, is the actual viewpoint and theory which surrounds the explanation used to evaluate and identify society and social problems. For example, classical perspectives include Marxism, Interactionism, and Functionalism.  In the very simplest of definitions a Marxist perspective would examine a concept with its relativity to social class, and class conflict. Interactionists would be examining the meanings and interpretations of the study matter, and would focus on the individual. A Functionalist perspective, however, would examine the purpose and needs of the social structure surrounding the concept, and would be looking at the social system and sub systems. (Fook 2002)

These classical perspectives originated mainly from Western, heterosexual, middle class men, and highlight one of the many problems sociologists face, and that is distancing oneself from the matter which is being studied. The viewpoints of the classical sociologists appear to be from white, heterosexual men, FOR white, heterosexual men. These early classical attempts to study a society which is in itself a constantly changing and nebulous mass, has meant that new sociologists have had to emerge, bringing with them new, broader perspectives, and these are called contemporary sociologists.  (Fook 2002)

Contemporary sociologists include views of society from perspectives such as Feminism, Anti Racism, Disablism, and the Gay Rights lobby, and the perspectives from which they write are fairly self explanatory, but Feminism will be discussed in more detail further on.

When examining one concept in detail, such as the family, and viewing it from each different perspective, we are provided with an insight on not only the historical background of the viewpoint from which it was written (e.g. Marxism and Feminism were established in very different historical episodes), but it also enables us to lay this across different aspects of working practice in social work. (Stevenson 1970)

Therefore in order to operate in the social work profession efficiently, one needs to be able to look at the bigger picture, and put aside our own values and opinions of the family – i.e. all the differing family types etc, as it is hard to be objective about something with which you have direct experience of. We have all had experience of family, and so our expectations of the family life of our client groups will ultimately be influenced by this, much in the same way as sociologists will be influenced by the society in which they are part of. (Bailey 1980)

To identify the family from differing perspectives, one must first reach an agreed definition as to what the family is in sociological terms, broadly speaking because if there is no agreed definitive answer as to what the family consists of, then each perspective may be constructing theories about what could fundamentally be very different social groups. As a society we have stereo-typical ideas and ideologies of what a family ‘should’ consist of and these are perpetuated through the media and advertising with images of the ideal family (i.e. husband, wife, 2 children, dog), and through humour, with television programmes such as 2.4 Children, My Family etc.

Macionis and Plummer (1997, p. 438) suggest that the family “has been seen as a social institution that unites individuals into co-operative groups that oversee the bearing and raising of children.” Cree however, (2000, p. 26) defines the family as a group of people bound together by blood and marriage ties, but not necessarily located in one geographical place.  When providing a definition, it has to adequately address the changing nature of family life in Britain throughout the last century. For example, using statistics from Giddens (1989, p. 181) over 20 per cent of dependent children now live in lone parent households. In addition to the rise in lone parent households, there have also been a significant increase in the emergence of differing family compositions.

It is easy to see that family structure and composition has changed greatly over the last century, and this could be due to the way that society adapts to accommodate social problems, for example, an increased number of lone parents, gay couples and sexual relationships outside of marriage etc. These were social problems during the 1900’s and earlier, and were immoral, which in the local communities at that time, could have been punishable by law, but today’s society has started to adapt and accept these changes, making something which was originally perceived as deviant into a social ‘norm’, and this will lead eventually into this behaviour becoming part of the social mores of our society. (Sibeon 1991) It is therefore safe to say, that in order for society to be maintained it has to accept the changing threats to values and adapt around the social problems it encounters.

Using statistics from Giddens (1999, p. 176) we can see that the number of couples with dependent children has dropped significantly from 38% in 1961 to only 23% in 1998, whilst this signifies a decline in the amount of young married couples having children, it also highlights the fact that our society is also now increasing in age. This shows that the current population is likely to be comprised of adults without dependent children. In addition to this, the number of lone parents has risen dramatically from 2% in 1961 to 7% in 1998. Using figures from Macionis and Plummer (1997, p. 447) which state that, “the numbers in adoption have sharply fallen. 6,000 in England in Wales in 1994, compared with 21,000 in 1971”, we can see how society has accommodated the issue of unmarried mothers. The number of one person households has also risen from 11% in 1961 to 28% in 1998, and this is probably due to the rise in divorcees having to find alternative accommodation following the breakdown of a marriage.

So, whilst we have identified what a family is, and an example of the social problems surrounding it, it is useful now to look at how each perspective views the family and its purpose and usefulness in society.

Alternative Theoretical Perspectives

Looking at the functionalist perspective, who provide the most positive view of family life, it is essential to understand that functionalists view the family as the “basic social unit and the core institution of society” (Jorgensen et al. 1997, p. 72) The Functionalist perspective also negates the influence of other social institutions such as schools, the government etc and their important roles in the socialisation of children. This perspective does not account for the breakdown of the traditional model of the family, and the fact that more children are now being raised outside of this. There is no real mention either of the incidents of abuse and violence, of which there is strong evidence to suggest that the family is in fact a very dysfunctional place in which to raise children, and this could be due to the fact that the sociologists writing on this perspective at the time were white, middle class me and not looking outside of the society they are a part of. (Dalrymple ; Burke 1995)

Moving on to the contemporary perspectives, the Feminists bring this to the forefront in their approaches to the family. The feminists believe that unequal power relationships exist within families. Not least importantly then, are the issues of domestic violence, marital rape, incest and sexual abuse. The feminist perspective does not perceive the family as a haven for love and support, but that issues such as incest and domestic violence provide a further opportunity for men to dominate and oppress women. (Collins 1990)

Feminism became influential in the 1970s and 1980s and has continued to grow in strength and followers to this day. Before feminism, sociologists have been criticised for the male bias in their studies of society as a whole. From a feminist’s sociological viewpoint, women had previously always been viewed as appendages to men. Feminism has been concerned with the analysis of male/female relationships in terms of the relative significance of sex, class and patriarchy, i.e. male headed dominance. There are several different views within the feminist perspective, with as Lena Dominelli writes “a plurality of views, – liberal, radical, socialist, anti-racist and post-modernist, which can be held by both black and white feminists; for example, white radical feminism, black socialist feminism” (1997, p. 97)

Neil Thompson (1997, p. 53) writes that whilst there is no such thing as uniformed and consistent feminism, there are common themes and points of argument, they “all share a focus on the critique of patriarchy and the need to establish a fairer society in which women are no longer marginalised, alienated and pushed into secondary roles”. It also does not account for the fact that when women come out of the home, and enter the employment arena they are still being discriminated against, with low pay, maternity issues etc, which is perpetuating social problems.


Analysis and Application of Theory to Social Work.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW 2005) include in their definition of social work the promotion of  “…social change…and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.”  People from all social groups can suffer abuse or oppression of some kind or other (though some people are at greater risk) and I feel that the above definition suggests that a role of social work is to help protect vulnerable people against abuse.  This paper will further explore anti-oppressive theory and ways in which these can be employed to counter abuse and discrimination.

The terms “oppression” and “discrimination” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, Thompson (1997, p. 8) defines discrimination as “…prejudicial behaviour acting against the interests of those people who characteristically belong to relatively powerless groups…it is a matter of social formation as well as individual/group behaviour…” He states that oppression involves “…hardship and injustice brought about by the dominance of one group over another; the negative and demeaning exercise of power.” Thompson proposed his PCS analysis in order to provide a framework enabling practitioners to examine issues of oppression and discrimination.

Diagram to illustrate PCS model (from Thompson 1997)

The central circle P represents the personal, psychological, practice and prejudice. Here we are considering the individual’s thoughts, feelings and actions. The way in which each practitioner interacts with each client and the “…inflexibility of mind which stands in the way of fair and non-judgemental practice.”  The P level is embedded in the C level, as values and norms are internalised through socialisation. C refers to the cultural, sphere where people share “…ways of seeing, thinking and doing.” Commonailties and consensus about right and wrong and conformity to shared norms are found here.  Social inequalities are thus legitimated through culture. ( Our culture is supported by structures such as the economy, society and the nation state. The C level is immersed in the S level. Discrimination is part of the fabric of society. Socio-political and social divisions describe the “…interlocking patterns of power and influence” (Thompson 1997, pp. 6-19).

Essentially the PCS model demonstrates that society operates on three different levels and highlights the interconnections between these levels.  Payne (1997, p. 34) points out that “…commonalities arising from cultural assumptions are…an important part of personal behaviour…”.  Although individual incidents of discrimination might arise from personal prejudice, overall, discrimination  “…arises from the fact that powerful groups in society maintain discrimination…as a way of preserving their power.”

It is important for social workers to remain aware of their internal prejudices and endeavour to avoid discriminating against clients belonging to “out groups” (relative to the individual worker). In addition to this social workers need to recognise prejudice in others; this might be in a client – e.g. negative self image due to internalised prejudice, or it might be in service providers – in which case we need to find ways of challenging it. Thompson (1997, p. 28) points out that “the further away one moves from the personal level, the less impact an individual can have…” which is why professionals need to challenge the “dominant discriminatory …ideology” in order to effect a change in the structure and culture which perpetuate oppression.

Dalrymple and Burke (1995, pp. 64-67) remind us that “…whoever we are we have rights.”  They assert that “…one element of anti-oppressive practice (AOP) is to ensure that people’s rights are not violated.” Other aspects of AOP include:

§  Promoting positive images and involvement;

Supporting, respecting and valuing participation;
Encouraging links and other forms of support;
Raising awareness of oppression and how to take positive steps to address it;
Challenging oppressive attitudes and practices.
A recommended way to challenge oppression is awareness or consciousness raising. However, Ashrif (2001, p. 91) challenges the assumption that awareness of a problem “…leads inevitably to the resolution of the difficulty.”  The author goes on to argue that:

“The appeal of awareness/consciousness raising approaches by state, local government and institutions is that problems can apparently be solved with minimum disruption to capitalist exploitation and without bloodshed.” (Ashrif 2001, p. 91)

Ashrif (2001) asks if being aware that one is oppressed confers any advantage on the oppressed group or individual and doubts that once aware of the oppression they cause, the oppressors will stop.  This could be because we each derive “…varying amounts of penalty or privilege from…” our membership of various dominant and oppressed groups (Collins 1990).  It is opined by Ashrif that the only way to bring about change is to encourage oppressed people to vote out all existing political parties.  However given the structure of the system we have for electing members to parliament this is extremely unlikely.  This supports points made earlier about the most powerful groups protecting themselves using the structure of our society.  (Gitterman 2001)

The PCS analysis avoids putting various forms of oppression into any kind of hierarchy. The discriminations “…have a potentiating effect on one another…” (Payne 1997, p. 73).  An example of this can be seen in research done by Nazroo (1999) who found that “gender combines with ethnicity and socio-economic position to shape people’s health”.

The members of BASW adhere to a code of ethics, which requires social workers to protect and promote the dignity, individuality, rights, responsibilities and identity of service users.  We have already said that people have a right to live in safety and without fear, so social workers need to guard against the abuse of clients by ensuring “…the protection of service users, which may include setting appropriate limits and exercising authority, with the objective of safe-guarding them…”. BASW also urge workers to move for change at an S level by challenging social structures “which perpetuate inequalities”, whilst acting at the P level by making sure not to act under the influence of prejudice against any person or group on any grounds.  Social workers are obliged not to use their professional status/relationships to “… gain personal, material or financial advantage…” (BASW 2005). I feel that maintaining scrutiny of one’s own and other’s conduct and constantly monitoring one’s values and attitudes is very difficult and draining and so workers need to have good managerial support (e.g. regular and constructive supervision) and membership of a mutually supportive team plus adequate co-operation and communication across disciplines.


I understand that sociology can assist the social work practitioner in assessing situations from the wider picture and drawing on relevant perspectives in their own merit to help the client group involved in reaching a suitable resolution. I therefore believe that an understanding of sociology can help social workers to develop a mind set which will provide the foundations for the commencement of good practice skills. I think that society modifies itself to accommodate social problems and that sociology itself has adapted to identify these, therefore, as sociology helps us to identify what the social problems are, it can help social workers to help the society in which they work. I have endeavoured to give a brief description of Thompson’s PCS analysis of anti-oppressive theory, and a short account of some of the main features of task-centred theory.  I have used a practice example to illustrate how these may be used to counter discrimination.