Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of complex systems. Social work is the professional field concerned with applying social science insights toward improving standards of living for individuals and communities. Systems theory is valuable to social workers in that it can assist them as they identify, define and address problems in social systems.
Systems theory covers a broad range of theoretical and methodological practices across many disciplines. Generally, systems theory is concerned with the structure of complex systems, with a special emphasis about how parts relate to each other and to the whole system. In the social sciences, this usually means understanding how individuals relate to each other and to their society as a whole, and the effect that social pressures have on individuals.
Social workers can hold a variety of different roles. They range from policy advisers to mental health professionals. What binds them together is a core concern for improving social conditions for individuals and promoting social justice.
Applied Systems Theory
Social workers employ systems theory in order to understand the dynamic interrelations between individuals, families, institutions and societies. Generally, they want to identify how a system functions, what aspects of that system have a negative impact on people and understand how they can cause positive change in that system.
Individuals and Families
On the micro level of social work, workers use systems theory to understand the dynamics, relationships and roles within families, and how these things affect individuals therein. For instance, they want to know that parents and children are taking upon their proper responsibilities, that parents are providing for the safety of their children and that these roles are stable and beneficial to everyone involved.
Communities and Societies
On the macro level, social workers are concerned about the social welfare of entire communities and societies. They apply systems theory to understand the social structure of communities, and attempt to advocate for policies and programs that promote social justice, economic prosperity, equality and high standards of living within those communities.