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How Social Workers Utilize Social Environment in Diagnosis



Social Workers Utilize Social Environment in Diagnosis

Anyone who is considering a career in social work is likely to have already come across some of the terminology that exists in this field. One such term that comes up often is “social environment”. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a particularly illustrative term. In fact, it could be considered something of a complex or vague set of words. However, it’s actually a really insightful concept that most, if not all, social workers are likely to come across every day. This article will look more closely at what this idea constitutes, and it will also explore how social workers use it when making diagnostic assessments.

What is a social environment?

All too often, people hear the word “environment” and think of the physical and geographical surroundings in which a person exists. They may, for example, think of things like rivers and trees, or perhaps the temperature in a certain place. These are all physical environments. A person’s social environment, on the other hand, is the circumstances they find themselves in in relation to other people, such as those they live with or the people they spend a lot of time around. Arguably, the person’s social environment is just as important, if not more so.

Social environment typically revolves around the idea that the manner in which a person interacts with their environment and the people around them plays a huge role in determining outcomes in that person’s life. The idea dates back centuries. Karl Marx, a major thinker of the 19th century, was well known for applying a political perspective to the idea of “social relations”, essentially that the way a society functioned was based around the dynamics between the people who formed that society.

In terms of social work, the social environment view of things is perhaps best comprehended as a helpful concept that allows social workers to view their clients in terms of who else they regularly see and talk to. The practice of using environmental concepts in a way that applies to human relationships is probably best traced back to the thinker Murray Bookchin, who created the idea of the “social ecology”. This involved the sense that living beings are interconnected, and that issues with one element of that, such as a person, are likely to have links to people around them, for instance, in the same way that a tree might.

How social environment applies to diagnosis

While the idea of a social environment is useful for many reasons in the social work world, it’s definitely plays a part in the field of diagnosis. Social workers are not medical doctors, but they still make diagnostic choices about clients and may inform them about what may be wrong with them medically, and it’s important for trainees to understand that. Not only would it be considered an ethical violation to stray into this territory as it would be beyond their proficiency, but it would also probably not be very useful. After all, the job of a social worker is not to provide medication or “cure” a person, but instead to view the person’s challenges in a broad sense, rather than just medical.

Some social workers, such as those who have specialized as clinical social workers, can make diagnostic decisions about certain issues, such as a substance misuse issue that a person might be experiencing. This is relevant to the work that the social worker is doing to help that person do to get their life back on track.

In all cases, what social workers can do is diagnose, or at least identify, problems that a person might be experiencing in terms of their relationships. For example, it might fall to a social worker to identify that a person is in an abusive relationship and to empower that person to choose to leave. This is exactly the sort of theoretical challenge that online advanced standing MSW programs at reputable institutions such as Keuka College are likely to offer answers to, or at least the skills to determine an answer. Through courses such as this, students focus on the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. Offered 100% online with 500 field practicum hours in their local community, students are prepared to specialize as clinical social workers or mental health providers who can accept insurance referrals.

Due to this, social workers are likely to find it useful to have the concept of a social environment in their diagnostic kit bag. Taking the example of the trees again, a social worker who follows this school of thought is likely to assume that an individual’s way of behaving is closely tied to how they link to the people around them – as their “roots” are linked to those other people. They may, for example, think that a person who is experiencing difficulties in raising their children might be experiencing not a lack of will or a lack of knowledge, but instead a lack of support. The social worker will be inclined to consider the person’s overall situation, including who else lives in the household and is able to help provide childrearing support, before jumping to conclusions about mental health conditions they may be suffering from and so on.


In summary, social environments are really important when it comes to practicing as a social worker. They refer to the idea that the links people have with others are vital in their development, and it’s a handy perspective when identifying what challenges a client might face. It’s worth pointing out that, while there is plenty available online to read about social environments, they are perhaps something that at their heart are best learned about in person.

Social environments come up all the time when training to be and practicing as a social worker and are a lens through which to view the phenomena you experience. So, if you’re considering training as a social worker and you’re feeling concerned about this as yet another term in the wide variety of new phrases you have to learn, don’t worry as you can pick up ideas about the social environment as you go and incorporate them into your practice.

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