In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Behavioral Social Work Practice

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Organizations
  • Issues, Controversies, and Debates

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Social Work Behavioral Social Work Practice
Bruce A. Thyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0040


The practice of social work is often seen as centered around various theories of the etiology of psychosocial problems, various theories related to the proposed mechanisms of action of psychosocial interventions, various models of practice, and perhaps more overarching practice perspectives. Behavioral social work provides the practitioner of social work with an integrated set of theories and models and represents the original person-in-environment perspective that has been deemed central to the discipline. The central organizing principle is learning theory, specifically types of learning that have been labeled as respondent (simple behaviors elicited by preceding stimuli), operant (more complex behavior evoked by past consequences that followed behavior that have produced rewarding or aversive events), and observational (acquiring behavior by imitating others). This comprehensive perspective not only includes ways to inform practice but also provides a well-developed methodology useful in the evaluation of the outcomes of social work practice, called single-system research designs (SSRDs), and an integrated philosophy of science known as behaviorism. Learning-theory principles can also be used to account for much of normative and dysfunctional human development across the life span, including those repertoires commonly labeled as one’s “personality.” One can practice behavioral social work in terms of intervention without evaluating practice using SSRDs or without subscribing to the philosophical principles of behaviorism. Those who embrace all three aspects of this approach used to be called radical behaviorists, with “radical” used in the sense of “complete.” However, the term “behavior analyst” is more widely used in the early 21st century. Most social workers who use the methods of behavioral social work are not radical behaviorists but, rather, employ such methods in the context of practice eclecticism.

Introductory Works

Although references to the application of learning theory and conditioning methods can be found in the social-work literature as far back as the 1930s, it was not until the 1960s that behavioral techniques truly began to influence the field of social casework. Werner 1965, describing the cognitive behavioral approach called rational emotive therapy (RET), appears to be the first book written by a social worker dealing with this approach. RET incorporates traditional learning-theory-based experiential methods aimed at changing behavior directly with office-based talking therapies that attempt to change irrational cognitions said to give rise to dysfunctional actions. The earliest purely behavioral monograph is Thomas, et al 1967, which contains papers from a panel presented at the annual program meeting of the Council on Social Work Education. Most of the papers were authored by faculty at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. This monograph makes an excellent first reading to gain a historical sense of the optimistic appraisal of the usefulness of behavior methods to social work. Fischer and Gochros 1975 comprehensively lays out the learning theory foundations of behavioral therapy and presents how these approaches, largely developed in the field of psychology, could be fruitfully applied to social-work practice. Arthur Schwartz, a social worker, and Israel Goldiamond, a psychologist, coauthored Schwartz and Goldiamond 1975, a textbook on social casework practice derived primarily from an operant perspective. The social workers John Wodarski and Dennis Bagarozzi authored Wodarski and Bagarozzi 1979, a very easy-to-read introductory textbook on behavioral methods that covers operant, respondent, and observational learning-theory principles and derivative treatments. Additional individual chapters discuss various approaches to behavioral marital therapy; cognitive behavioral methods; and the application of behavioral methods to more-macrolevel issues, such as reducing energy consumption, pollution control, and the reduction of crime. For its day, this is a very cutting-edge volume. More-recent general introductory texts on behavioral social work include Hudson and Macdonald 1986, Thyer and Hudson 1987, and the Sundel and Sundel 2005, an explicitly behaviorally oriented textbook on social-work practice. Fewer introductory books taking a singularly behavioral approach are appearing, because these methods are better represented in other mainstream texts, where they often figure prominently albeit not exclusively.

  • Fischer, Joel, and Harvey L. Gochros. 1975. Planned behavior change: Behavior modification in social work. New York: Free Press.

    This is a singularly impressive comprehensive volume covering basic assumptions and theoretical positions, recording and assessment, general intervention methods, and behavioral approaches to specific practice issues, such as substance abuse, antisocial behavior, depression, marital problems, school social work, sexual difficulties, severely disturbed behavior, and values and ethics. Highly recommended.

  • Hudson, Barbara L., and Geraldine MacDonald. 1986. Behavioural social work: An introduction. Chicago: Dorsey.

    An introductory textbook authored by British colleagues. Hudson was an influential British academic with the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Oxford. Macdonald played an important role in the development of evidence-based practice in the United Kingdom and joined the social-work faculty at Queen’s University Belfast.

  • Schwartz, Arthur, and Israel Goldiamond. 1975. Social casework: A behavioral approach. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    This textbook was jointly written by a social worker (Schwartz) and a psychologist (Goldiamond) and presents a consistently operant theoretical perspective on the provision of social casework services. Apart from describing the theory of behavioral social work, this book also presents two chapter-length case histories illustrating the applications of this approach. Misconceptions of the behavioral model are outlined.

  • Sundel, Martin S., and Sandra Sundel. 2005. Behavior change in the human services. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    An extremely lucid, well-written introduction to the field of behavioral social work, by two highly experienced authors. Perhaps the best primary textbook written by social workers on the topic of behavioral methods used in the human services that is still in print in the early 21st century. It is written from an operant perspective with attention to cognitive techniques.

  • Thomas, Edwin J., ed al. eds. 1967. The socio-behavioral approach and applications to social work. New York: Council on Social Work Education.

    This volume consists of a series of Council on Social Work Education conference papers organized by Thomas. This 1967 symposium was one of the earliest extensive efforts to introduce behavioral principles to the field of social work. Papers separately deal with the usefulness of behavioral methods to various fields of practice, micro through macro.

  • Thyer, Bruce, and Walter W. Hudson. eds. 1987. Progress in behavioral social work. New York: Haworth.

    This volume was a special issue of the Journal of Social Service Research that was published as a separate book. It contains articles illustrating the application of behavioral methods to various areas of social work, including chronic mental illness, parent training, obsessive-compulsive disorder, problems in adolescence, sexual dysfunctions, treatment compliance, abusive drinking, family therapy, using single-system designs, and urinary incontinence.

  • Werner, Harold D. 1965. A rational approach to social casework. New York: Association.

    Werner introduces the approach called RET, created by the psychologist Albert Ellis, to the field of social work. RET was an influential treatment and is considered one of the earliest cognitive behavioral therapies due to its integration of behavioral and cognitive approaches. Ellis subsequently renamed it rational emotive behavioral therapy to highlight its learning-theory foundations.

  • Wodarski, John S., and Dennis A. Bagarozzi. 1979. Behavioral social work. New York: Human Sciences.

    A very easy-to-read introductory textbook by one of the earliest proponents and most prolific contributors to the field of behavioral social work (Wodarski). Topics presented include respondent, operant, and observational learning; cognitive methods; self-control; marital therapy; and the alleviation of social problems.

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