The person-in-environment perspective in social work is a practice-guiding principle that highlights the importance of understanding an individual and individual behavior in light of the environmental contexts in which that person lives and acts. The perspective has historical roots in the profession, starting with early debates over the proper attention to be given to individual or environmental change. Theoretical approaches that have attempted to capture the meaning of person-in-environment are presented, as well as promising, conceptual developments.
person-in-environment perspective; person-in-situation (person-in-context); ecosystem framework; ecological theory; general systems theory
The person-in-environment perspective in social work is a practice-guiding principle that highlights the importance of understanding an individual and his or her behavior in light of the various environmental contexts in which that person lives and acts (CSWE, 2004). These contexts include (but are not limited to) social, economic, political, communal, historical, religious, physical, cultural, and familial environments. This definition incorporates the notion that there is a reciprocity to the person–environment relationship, such that the individual can
impact the various elements of the environment, just as the environment can exert a conducive or inhibiting influence on the individual. The definition also includes the notion that an understanding of the person in his or her total context creates opportunities for assessment and interventions that are directed at individual functioning, at environmental conditions, or both. It is important to note that this definition is not coextensive with the various theoretical or operational formulations that have attempted to give more substance to the person-in-environment perspective. For example, this perspective is not the same as the various ecosystem models with which it is commonly identified, and which it predates in the literature and in practice.
The person-in-environment perspective has been linked to definitions of social work practice since the concept's earliest articulation in the first working definition of practice (Bartlett, 2003, reprinted from Bartlett, 1958). The preambles to both the current Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education and the most recent National Association of Social Work Code of Ethics identify attention to the individual in environmental context as a crucial element in defining social work practice, as does the definition of practice promulgated by the International Federation of Social Workers (CSWE, 2004; IFSW, 2006; NASW, 1996).
The notion that both person and his/her environment are central considerations in social work practice has strong historical roots. Although emphasis assigned to
either personal change or environmental change has varied over time, neither the ―person‖ nor the ―environment‖ half of this equation was ever completely
eclipsed within the practice and academic communities.
This early history is best exemplified by the public debate between Jane Addams and the founders of the settlement movement, on the one hand, and Mary Richmond and other leaders in the Charity Organization Society, on the other (Germain & Hartman, 1980; Peterson, 1979). Addams underscored the importance of the social, cultural, and policy environment in the lives of individuals and families, and embraced social-environmental change as a way of improving lives of people in poverty and social distress (Austin, 2001; Germain & Hartman, 1980). By contrast, Richmond, adopted a medical model defined by a process of diagnosis and treatment that was focused on identifying and correcting individual deficits (Germain & Hartman, 1980; Peterson, 1979). A careful reading of the historical literature, however, suggests that while the debate between proponents of these two positions was often lively, in practice both Richmond and Addams intervened with individuals, families, and larger systems (Germain & Hartman, 1980).
The medical model favored by Richmond provided fertile ground for implanting the emerging theory and practice of psychotherapy into social casework during the post-World War I period. Many in mainstream social work at this time eschewed emphasis on promoting environmental or system change, adopting instead a concern for psychodynamic factors thought to determine human functioning. However, even with this trend toward more psychological approaches to case work, there were countervailing voices continuing to insist on the importance of the social, economic, political, and cultural environments in explaining social problems and in defining strategies to improve the lives of individuals and families. Ada Sheffield, for example, expanded on the concept of a client's ―total situation,‖ in which individuals and their immediate environments were interrelated (Sheffield, 1931). Bertha Reynolds and Harry Laurie also advocated for the importance of social and economic aspects of the environment as cause and potential solution for social problems (Germain & Hartman, 1980; Schriver, 1987a, 1987b).
While the professional practice community was experiencing the tension between proponents of psychological approaches and those advocating the importance of environmental strategies, leaders in the profession were also preoccupied with a quest to define social work's scope and purpose. An early attempt was the Milford Conference and the 1929 final conference report. The report specifically mentioned adjustments in the environment and use of community resources as a proper concern of social work (Brieland, 1977; Holosko, 2003). Following the formation of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in 1955, a study group, headed by Harriet Bartlett, was commissioned to develop a working definition of social work practice. The group report identified three generic methods as proper to social work practice: (a) changing the individual in relation to the social environment, (b) changing the social environment in relation to the
individual, or (c) both in relation to their interaction (Bartlett, 2003). Although the original working definition had its share of critics, including Gordon's (1962) reexamination of the definition and Wakefield's (2003) reconsideration of both Gordon's critique and the working definition itself, the notion that the person-in-environment was the proper domain of social work practice remained intact. Theoretical Conceptualizations
As early as the 1950s, a few social work scholars had begun to look for ways to better conceptualize the so-called person–environment perspective. By the
1970s this quest had become a major preoccupation in disciplinary discourse. Over the next several decades, two major, interrelated frameworks were advanced specifically for the purpose of giving theoretical substance to the person–environment perspective: (a) general systems theory and (b) ecological theory and life model.
General Systems Theory
Hearn (1958, 1969) is usually credited with introducing general systems theory into the social work literature (Drover & Shragge, 1977). Other early contributors to the application of general systems theory to social work include Pincus and Minihan (1973), Meyer (1976), Goldstein (1973), Gordon (1969), and Lathrope (1969). General system theory, based largely on the work of theoretical biologist Bertalanffy (1950, 1969), became ascendant in the social work literature in the 1960s and 1970s, and remained the prevailing paradigm until the introduction of ecological systems theory (or ecosystems theory) in the late 1970s and 1980s. Bertalanffy was concerned with what he saw as the increasingly mechanistic and atomized view projected by contemporary science, in which parts and processes of a given phenomenon were identified and studied as isolated entities. He argued that an element is best understood in relation to its constituent parts (subsystems) and in relation to larger or more complex elements of which it is a constituent part. He defined ―system‖ as ―sets of elements standing in
interrelation‖ (1969, p. 38). Bertalanffy identified two kinds of systems: ―closed
systems,‖ that is, ―systems that are considered to be isolated from their
environment‖ (1969, p. 39) and ―open systems,‖ characteristic of living
organisms, which are in constant interaction with their environments. Other concepts he emphasized included ―subsystems,‖ the constituent elements of a
larger system in a hierarchical order, and ―feedback,‖ or the flow of information in
an open system that allows regulation (change) and stability (homeostasis) in relation to other systems.
The concept of a hierarchy of systems, in which a system was comprised of a set of subsystems and in turn constituted a subsystem of a larger entity/system, was crucial to the application of systems theory in social work. Persons and other systems were understood to be influenced by contiguous systems and by larger systems of which they were a part. System theory reinforced the notion that the focus of social work practice should be on neither person nor environment, but
rather on transactions between person (a system) and systems in the environment (Gordon, 1969; Lathrope, 1969; Pincus & Minihan, 1973). Because of system theory emphasis on linkages between systems of differing sizes and complexity, early theorists were convinced that systems theory would aid in unifying social work practice, including the dual focus on person and environment (Gordon, 1969; Hearn, 1969; Pincus & Minihan, 1973). However, not everyone was enthusiastic about System Theory's potential. Drover and Shragge (1977), for example, argued that systems theory did not account for values and ideology. Leighninger (1977, 1978) shared the concern for values, particularly with regard to what he viewed as an implicit acceptance of status quo (emphasis on achieving homeostasis) and consequent inadequacy of the theory to deal with larger social change or conflict. Others suggested that the level of abstraction of the model was somewhat distant from human phenomena the model was said to describe (Drover & Shragge, 1977; Germain, 1978a). Still others argued that the systems theory focus on transactions took attention away from the ―person,‖ and, therefore, was inconsistent with social work's
commitment to the centrality of the individual (Mishne, 1982).
The general system paradigm was the major influence in social work theorizing for approximately two decades. At the time it provided a useful challenge to psychodynamic theory as the reigning conceptual model for practice, and brought renewed attention to larger elements in the social environment (Leighninger, 1977). Although largely replaced by ecological (ecosystem) theory, general system theory concepts are still operative in a number of family therapy models, particularly in ―structural family therapy‖ developed by Minuchin (1974).
Ecosystems Theory and the Life Model
Ecosystems theory in social work draws on general systems theory and the science of ecology, the study of living organisms within their environments. The ecological or ecosystem perspective is usually associated with the work of Germain and Gitterman (Germain, 1973, 1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1981; Germain & Gitterman, 1996; Gitterman & Germain, 1981) and Meyer (1983).
Although general systems theory provided useful tools for organizing assessments and planning interventions with various systems (macro and micro) relevant to a particular case, many came to view systems theory as too mechanistic and too abstract to deal effectively with the phenomena of people's daily lives (Germain, 1978a; Peterson, 1979). The discipline of ecology, based as it is on living organisms in relationship to other systems with which they interact in an environment, appeared to offer a more concrete and lifelike metaphor for conceptualizing the traditional person-in-environment perspective. The core principle of the ecosystem perspective is that each individual (family, group) is in an interdependent and constant relationship with the larger environment and with other elements that make up his or her environment (Germain & Gitterman, 1996). This means that an individual cannot be
understood adequately without reference to the environmental context the individual inhabits (Brower, 1988). The perspective emphasizes that the environment can exert a facilitative or an inhibiting effect on well-being of individuals, just as individuals can impact the environment in ways that promote or damage the ability of the environment to facilitate life (Germain, 1981). To a greater extent than general systems theory, ecosystems theory stressed the mutuality of person–environment relationships (Germain, 1973, 1981). Similarly, while general systems theory helped practitioners think systematically about influences external to the individual, the ecosystem framework and the life model of practice based on this framework went further by insisting on the absolute necessity of considering the whole human context in any practice situation. The most comprehensive critique of the ecosystem framework was leveled by Wakefield (1996a, 1996b). Two of his arguments are pertinent to this discussion. First, he challenged the notion that social work needs one all-encompassing conceptualization like the ecosystem framework to give coherence to disparate forms of practice, including interventions with differing emphasis on person and environment. He further argued that the ecosystem perspective ―looses the
specialness of the person‖ with its identification of person as one system among many others and a focus on transactions rather than persons (1996b, pp. 198–
199). Gitterman (1996) responded to Wakefield by arguing that an overarching conceptualization like the ecosystem framework helps us to understand that no one domain-specific theory or model accounts for all of social reality. He further argued that the ecosystem model, rather than dismissing the importance of the person, captures the uniqueness of each person in his or her singular context. Other critiques of the ecosystem perspective have generally accepted the framework, but have suggested that typical conceptualizations of the ecosystem framework lacked attention to identified aspects of person or cultural–social–
physical environment (Besthorn & Canda, 2002; Devore, 1983; Epple, 2004; Saleeby, 1992, 2004). Despite its critics, the ecosystem framework continues to have a great deal of currency as a conceptualization of person-in-environment, so much so that the ecosystem framework is sometimes treated (erroneously) as synonymous with the person-in-environment perspective. The perspective continues to be identified in theoretical and research literature as a guiding framework (Rogge & Cox, 2001).
Recent Conceptual Developments
A series of new theoretical approaches have emerged in the literature since the early 1990s, providing alternate formulations for the person–environment
relationship. These perspectives offer a fresh look at the relationship between individuals and their contexts, with the possibility of new avenues for intervention and research.
Nonlinear, Dynamical Systems Theory
Several theorists have begun to extend systems theory by applying nonlinear, dynamical systems theories to complex clinical problems. Proponents argue that
human behavior is frequently more complex and apparently unpredictable than can be explained by simple, linear cause and effect relationships (Warren, Franklin, & Streeter, 1998; Warren & Knox, 2000). Dynamical systems theories attempt to account for change in systems over time, including feedback loops that may recursively alter the process of change in unexpected ways (Warren et al., 1998). Warren and Knox (2000) have successfully applied mathematical formulae based on dynamical systems theory to the behavior of adolescent sex offenders. These authors suggest that the model may be useful for other types of compulsive behavior.
Risk and Resilience Theory as an Ecosystem Approach
Linking ecological theory with concepts drawn from epidemiology and public health, theorists posit that there are risk factors and protective factors inherent in the environment and in the person (Fraser, Richman, & Galinsky, 1999, 2004). Risk factors increase the likelihood of harm or the continuation of a harmful situation; protective factors support positive outcomes even in situations of risk (Fraser, Richman, & Galinsky, 1999, 2004). What makes this framework useful for social workers and researchers is the conceptual and operational support it provides for multilevel assessment, intervention, and evaluation. There is a growing body of social work literature, including empirical studies, supporting this perspective, particularly (though not exclusively) in child welfare (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004; Early & Vonk, 2001; Fraser, 1996, 2004; Fraser, Richman, & Galinsky, 1999; Greene & Cohen, 2005; Little, Axford, & Morpeth, 2004; Unger, 2001). A very new, intriguing development in risk-resilience theory is the suggestion that the fields of genetics and social epidemiology may have something to offer social workers through promising work on gene–environment
interactions (McCutcheon, 2006).
Person and Environment in Social Constructivist Theory
Since the 1990s, the social work literature has seen increasing interest in the implications of social constructionist theories. Those who adopt some form of constructivist perspective agree that the impact of the environment on individuals is not direct, but rather is mediated by various meaning-making processes through which people make sense of their environmental realities (Allen, 1993; Carpenter, 1996; Gergen, 1999; Kondrat, 2002; Laird, 1993). Social constructionism serves as the basis for newer forms of therapy with individuals and families, including solution-focused and narrative therapies (Berg & De Jong, 1996; Franklin, 1996; Gergen, 1999). Consistent with a belief that knowledge and reality are humanly constructed, constructivist researchers adopt qualitative, interpretivist approaches to inquiry (Schwandt, 1994). More than earlier person-in-environment conceptualizations, constructivism advances the notion of the human beings as active agents in constituting their own social environments. However, social constructionist theorizing has tended to focus on the construction of micro (interpersonal) realities, and has not consistently accounted for the macro environment, except to suggest that larger social structures do impact individual realities (Kondrat, 1999, 2002; Laird, 1993). In an effort to
include larger systems more securely in constructivist thinking, Kondrat (1999, 2002) proposed a macro-constructivist conceptualization of person-in-environment, based on Giddens' Structuration Theory (1979, 1984, 1987). This formulation suggests that larger social structures and institutions, even society itself, are all social constructions, constituted and maintained by the social actions and interactions of people over time. She suggests that the individual is in the environment not so much the way a smaller box is within a larger box (the historical metaphor) as Germain (1978a) proposed, but rather the way players are in the football game or dancers in the ballet. The game and the dance do not exist without the players/dancers. This conceptualization is said to offer a more dynamic link between individuals and their environments, both micro and macro (Kondrat, 2002).
A number of attempts have been made to operationalize the terms
―environment‖ and ―person‖ to provide practitioners with a consistent tool to
guide assessment and intervention across practice situations. By and large, these efforts have been atheoretical; that is to say, have formulated operational terms directly from the person–environment practice principle, without reference
to given theories. The ―genogram‖ and ―eco-map‖ are familiar examples
(Hartman, 1978; Walton & Smith, 1999). The most comprehensive attempt to operationalize person-in-environment was the PIE classification system developed by Karls and Wandrei (1992, 1994) (Karls, Lowery, Mattaini, & Wandrei, 1997; Williams, Karls, & Wandrei, 1989). The PIE classification system is described as an instrument for coding common problems of adult clients. It is a four-factor system (a) person's problems in social functioning, (b) problems in the environment affecting a person's functioning, (c) mental health problems (using the DSM), and (d) health problems (Karls & Wandrei, 1994). A number of studies and case applications were described in the book that presented the system. This system held the initial promise of doing for social work what the DSM does for psychiatry—that is, provide a common nomenclature to guide assessment and intervention. Critics, however, suggested that the system was too focused on aggregating discrete problems, that it may have limited cultural applicability particularly in more collectivist cultures, and that it was too reliant on the medical model (Karls et al., 1997). The strong problem focus may also be incompatible with more recent emphases on client strengths, not captured in the PIE formula. For whatever reason, the PIE system has not been further developed in the literature in any systematic way.
Wakefield's (1996a, 1996b) provocative question as to whether the profession's historical quest for one all-encompassing theory to capture the disparate forms of social work practice may have been answered by recent history. Currently, there are a number of alternate and coexisting conceptualizations for the relationship between person and environment that are bridging interdisciplinary boundaries in unexpected and promising ways. For better or worse, the search for one
discipline-unifying conceptualization may not have been realized. Nevertheless,
to date, the principle that social work practice is characterized by a person-in-
environment perspective seems to have stood the test of time.