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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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1.1 Perspectives on human growth and development

This is a photograph of a man at a computer.
Figure 3

There are many ways of describing and explaining the complex processes that exist in human development, but there are some perspectives that have particular relevance for social work.

A ‘perspective’ in this context generally embodies a set of connected ideas that can assist in understanding why people do certain things in certain ways. The absence of explanatory and interpretive perspectives would lead to very concrete assumptions that all people at every age simply choose to do things because they want to and that they are not subject to any other internal or external influences. Very few people are likely to take this somewhat absolutist position, and therefore it is likely that we all make assumptions about people’s motivations and choices based on our personal perspectives, conscious or otherwise, about what drives and influences them. It is common practice for social workers to be required to make assessments about the motivations, choices and potential of others, and therefore it is essential for social workers to reflect upon and engage wisely with how such assessments are made and upon what basis.

A perspective about human development is sometimes applicable to explain particular characteristics. For example, there would perhaps appear to be a clear biological explanation in the case of a person with a learning disability, where they may have very limited cognitive functioning as the result of an inherited and well documented genetic condition. However, most usually, perspectives about development are used in combination, providing more nuanced assessments together than might be possible individually.

These five perspectives about human development have proved to be enduring and useful for social workers:

  • Biological and genetic: suggesting that development and behaviour are linked to physical, neurochemical and hormonal processes and genes.
  • Psychodynamic: arguing that development and change are influenced by innate unconscious drives such as sex, aggression, id (a term first used by Freud in the 1920s – the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest). This perspective also attributes aspects of development to the influence of social upbringing, e.g. Freud, Erikson.
  • Cognitive: suggesting that cognitive development and learning is the result of innate mental structures such as schemas, memory and perception in combination with environmental influences and life experiences, e.g. Piaget, Vygotsky.
  • Social/humanist: focusing on the role of parents, caretakers, siblings and other social influences and their effect on development via social engagement and support, e.g. Maslow, Rogers, Bowlby.
  • Learning/behaviourist: suggesting that children are born tabula rasa (blank slate) and develop and learn from environmental conditioning (e.g. in response to rewards, reinforcement and stimulus) rather than any internal thoughts or feelings, e.g. Pavlov, Watson, Skinner.