In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Theory

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Classical Psychoanalysis
  • Ego Psychology
  • Object Relations Theory
  • Self Psychology
  • Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy
  • The Work of Jacques Lacan
  • Psychoanalysis and Culture
  • The Process of Psychodynamic Treatment from Assessment to Termination
  • Transference and Countertransference

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Social Work Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Theory
Jerrold Brandell, Kate Schechter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0170


A psychodynamic theory is a theory that explains human behavior and human motivation in terms both of conscious and unconscious forces and the interplay between these. Although many different psychodynamic theories exist, they all emphasize unconscious motives and desires, as well as the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping personality. They all emerge from the matrix of psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic theory is not a unified body of knowledge; rather, it is composed of multiple theories, models, and schemata pertaining to human development, psychopathology, and clinical method and technique. It is a literature of vast scope whose evolution now spans more than a century. The psychoanalysis of today, well over a century after the publication of Studies in Hysteria 1893–1895 and The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) is greatly changed from the psychoanalysis of Freud’s day. Multiple psychoanalytic psychologies, each with its own vision of human development, psychopathology, and the treatment process, now stand alongside Freud’s classical formulations. Challenges made to the empirical basis of psychoanalytic treatment and its formulations about development and dysfunction have spawned a new and more promising body of research. The shift from a one-person to a two-person viewpoint and the gradual ascendancy of relational ideas, as well as interest in and sensitivity to the environmental surround, have, likewise, been momentous developments. Once the dominant force in American psychiatry, psychoanalysis has all but disappeared as a medical specialty, even as it has taken up a place in the fields of social work and psychology. A very different trend, one that attempts to link psychoanalysis with the neurosciences, has emerged in the early 21st century and is viewed by many as an important new direction for psychodynamic thought and practice, both within social work and within psychoanalysis more generally. These are a few of the more significant changes that mark the beginning of the second century of psychoanalytic thought. Social work, too, has changed in many ways since its earliest attempts to employ psychoanalytic concepts in better understanding and serving its clientele. Although psychoanalytic ideas once held a revered status among clinical social workers and casework theorists, this has been altered by the introduction of newer cognitive and behavioral treatments, the changing requirements of the agencies and clients we serve, and an overriding focus on short-term interventions. The authors of this article believe that it is time for a reappraisal of psychoanalysis and what it offers the social work clinician. In the material that follows, our delineation of some essential introductory and reference works, representing several of the most prominent psychoanalytic psychologies and their central theoretical tenets, will be presented. We will also discuss psychoanalytic contributions to the understanding of therapeutic process, highlighting particular concepts and themes that are unique to a psychodynamic point of view. We conclude with a brief review of the current state of research on psychodynamic treatment.

Introductory Works

Since it is impossible to cover the subject of psychodynamic theory in social work in a comprehensive way, the initial approach taken is to provide a list of introductory publications that together offer a comparative framework for reference on the subject, as well as offering current perspectives on the relationship between social work and psychodynamic theory more broadly. Berzoff, et al. 2011 offers an introduction to central psychodynamic perspectives used in social work practice, with special emphasis on the issues of race, culture, and gender. In a later work, Berzoff 2012 examines psychoanalytic ideas as these are applied to a social work framework in working with vulnerable populations. Borden 2009 provides an overview of central psychoanalytic concepts and theories in relation to various clinical situations and practice settings, while Brandell 2004 offers a historical overview of the relationship between clinical social work and psychoanalytic thought, as well as an examination of the therapeutic process, work with special populations, and various phenomena such as transference and countertransference. Goldstein 2001 comments on two important theoretical systems—object relations and self psychology—and how each theory may be applied to specific client situations associated with modern clinical practice in social work. The widely cited Mitchell and Black 1996 provides a synopsis of each of the major psychoanalytic traditions, while Pérez Foster, et al. 1996, in the authors’ examination of the role of culture in therapeutic relationships, offers a reaffirmation of what they believe to be psychotherapy’s commitment to progressive social change. Finally, Sudbery 2002 focuses on the most-essential dimensions of the client-worker relationship in clinical social work.

  • Berzoff, J., ed. 2012. Falling through the cracks: Psychodynamic practice with vulnerable and oppressed populations. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Discusses the psychodynamic perspective from the standpoint of social work with vulnerable populations such as prisoners, orphans, and immigrants, and racial and gender minorities.

  • Berzoff, J., L. M. Flanagan, and P. Hertz, eds. 2011. Inside out and outside in: Psychodynamic clinical theory and psychopathology in contemporary multicultural contexts. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Provides an introduction to the major psychodynamic perspectives used in social work practice; a discussion of race, gender, and culture in psychodynamic theories; and a discussion of the psychodynamic treatment of several commonly treated clinical conditions (psychosis, personality disorder, mood and anxiety disorders, and trauma). First published in 1996 (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson).

  • Borden, W. 2009. Contemporary psychodynamic theory and practice. Chicago: Lyceum.

    Provides an overview of major psychodynamic concepts and theories and applies them to several clinical settings and situations.

  • Brandell, J. R. 2004. Psychodynamic social work. Foundations of Social Work Knowledge. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Provides an overview of the psychodynamic perspective in social work historically, an introduction to the therapeutic process in psychodynamic social work, a discussion of the application of psychodynamic social work to special clinical populations, and a discussion of current research.

  • Goldstein, E. G. 2001. Object relations theory and self psychology in social work practice. New York: Free Press.

    Introduces two of the predominant variants or schools of psychodynamic theory today, object relations and self psychology, and applies principles from these theories to the phases of social work practice with clients and to work with couples and families.

  • Mitchell, S. A., and M. J. Black. 1996. Freud and beyond: A history of modern psychoanalytic thought. New York: Basic Books.

    Provides an overview of each of the major psychoanalytic traditions, situating each in its historical context. Case examples make each tradition come alive and provide an apt counterpart to the theoretical exposition of each model.

  • Pérez Foster, R., M. Moskowitz, and R. A. Javier, eds. 1996. Reaching across boundaries of cultures and class: Widening the scope of psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

    Reaffirming psychotherapy’s roots in a progressive approach to social change, the authors describe work with clients previously thought to be unresponsive to psychodynamic therapy. Numerous examples guide the clinician to a better understanding of the role of culture in the therapeutic relationship.

  • Sudbery, J. 2002. Key features of therapeutic social work: The use of relationship. Journal of Social Work Practice 16.2: 149–162.

    DOI: 10.1080/0265053022000033711

    Argues that expertise in relationships is central to effective social work, whatever the setting, and conceptualizes relationships in psychodynamic terms. Analyzes the key components of the social worker’s use of the relationship with the client, in terms of attention to the client’s basic need, responsiveness to her or his aggression, and aid in the diminution of the client’s self-criticism.

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