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Structural Social Work

Definition, essential elements, dominant structures, practice strategies, intergenerational disadvantage, alcohol, drugs, mental illness, family and domestic violence.

What is structural social work?

Structural social work can be considered an applied critical theory.  Structural social work’s strength is linking personal troubles with the structural determinants of life.  It focuses on the material conditions that bring hardship to the majority while the privileged few maintain abundant resources and power.  Structural social work aims to deal with people’s immediate needs while simultaneously engaging in consciousness raising and direct action to dismantle a system of domination undergirding unequal life chances.  However, structural social work conceives the environment as mainly a social environment, rather than looking at a wider natural ecological approach (Chan, 2018).

Structural social work links individual “problems” to broader societal injustices. It views social inequalities, rather than individual deficiencies as the root of people’s problems. The twofold goal of structural social work is to address people’s problems by examining the social order that surrounds them while simultaneously working to transform society through social reforms and fundamental social change. Social workers operating from a structural perspective foster an open, supportive and egalitarian relationship with people by recognising and honouring the person’s expertise in their personal situation (George & Marlow, 2005).

Developing respectful and honest relationships with families is key to this structural and strengths-based practice approach. Understanding the challenges parents have faced, the strategies they use to overcome these challenges, and their hopes for their children is critical. At the same time, an honest relationship allows for a genuine understanding of the effects of adult adversity on children. This understanding is key to the safety and wellbeing of children who are living with complex and intersecting issues such as disadvantage, parental substance use, mental illness, trauma and violence (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).

Structural social work is meant to be a clear break from conventional social work.  Conventional social work seeks to reform individuals but leaves intact society’s unfair, unjust structure. Thus, conventional social work helps people cope with the difficulties of life in capitalist countries without addressing the influence of capitalism itself (Chan, 2018).  Conventional social work emphasises client adaptation and support provision within the dominant social order.  Structural social work, however, questions the legitimacy of institutions and economic systems, suggesting that real advances in social welfare cannot be achieved without fundamental changes to the way in which global society organises the distribution of resources and power (Murray & Hick, 2012).  Without change society will still be arranged into unequal classes where classes with the greatest wealth and power continue to enjoy the best life outcomes. Classes with the least resources and power will continue to eke out an existence with the worst life outcomes. No one has a choice of whose family s/he is born into (wealthy, poor, white, or black) and it is this that determines in large part, where one will end up in life. What the structural approach sees as justice is a leveling of opportunities for all citizens, generating equitable outcomes (Chan, 2018).

The role of dominant structures

Dominant structures decrease access to opportunities, resources and power for certain groups, resulting in individual and collective experiences of oppression.  These structures include:

  • Gender (personal interactions and roles are both shaped by, and serve to reinforce larger, gendered, dominant institutions and relations of power),

  • Socially constructed racial categories (language, religion, nationality, ancestry and skin colour continue to be the basis of exploitation and inequality),

  • Cultural identity,

  • Disability (disability is socially constructed through assumptions of a young, able-bodied, healthy male; while existing supports for arrangements for such individuals are seen as ‘entitlements’, people requiring a different kind of help are assumed to be ‘needy’ or ‘dependent’),

  • Age,

  • Sexuality (social structures are infused with heterosexism and homophobia based on assumed heterosexuality and gender ‘norms’) (Murray & Hick, 2012).

Structural social work challenges the false separation between a person’s ‘professional’ and ‘personal’ life.  It highlights action outside the institutional contexts of social work practice but emphasises that, even while acting as agents of government, social workers can provide oppressed groups with access to knowledge and thereby contribute to social change (Murray & Hick, 2012).

Structural social work practice

In practice structural social work would consist of:

  • Defence of the client: Structural social workers ally with clients, using their institutional power to defend or promote client’ interests, both within and outside social agencies. 

  • Collectivisation or collective consciousness:  Structural social work encourages the formation of groups to raise class consciousness among the working class and to highlight the collective causes of problems and affirm individuals’ collective identity

  • Materialisation:  Structural social work grounds clients’ problems in their access to resources and fosters an understanding of how thoughts, feelings and behaviours are linked to material conditions, such as work, community breakdown and economic pressures.  Priority is given to clients’ survival needs, including food, shelter and access to services.

  • Unmasking oppressive structures and critical consciousness-raising: Structural social workers use critical questioning, reframing and the disputing of myths to assist clients in exploring how oppressive power relations impact on their daily lives.

  • Increasing the clients’ power in the worker-client relationship: Instead of viewing client-worker interactions as top-down or expert-prescriptive, the structural approach seeks egalitarian and democratic relationships by exploring power relations—especially the systemic power or authority that resides with the worker.  It could involve alternative service delivery models where decisions (such as hiring personnel) are made democratically both by staff and service users.  Such models cultivate support for structural practice and the legitimisation of demands for social justice. 

  • Empowerment through personal change: A positive client self-image is supported by normalising fears and reactions and validating strengths or successes. 

  • Social activism and political change: Structural social workers should become involved in social justice organisations, social movements, alternative services and the use of non-violent tactics, coalitions and solidarity work (Murray & Hick, 2012; Chan 2018).

It is important to note that structural social work does not incorporate an ecological approach, i.e. it does not appreciate how biology, non-human entities, and the earth itself mediate human oppression and wellness.  Structural social work appears to have few plans to address climate change and industrial pollution, arguably the most important current social problem.  Indeed, human needs appear to take precedence over ecological issues (Chan, 2018).

Social Worker Role in Structural Social Work

Social Workers could do the following (Kuyini, 2014):

  • Analyse primary and secondary structures: e.g. power, patriarchy, capitalism, sexism, racism, ageism, family, bureaucracy

  • Examine the existing social relations and arrangements and how they serve the interests of powerful groups in society, while negatively impacting on less powerful and marginalised groups. 

  • Make prominent the power and control issues in society and in worker–client relations.

  • Highlight and analyse the social control functions of the social work profession. This is important especially in an era where the relational work of social work has given way to that of ‘gatekeeper’ of social control, urged on by competitive funding arrangements.

  • Empower clients through:

    • Defending the rights of clients – questioning practices that deny access to services

    • Mutual dialogue and trying to establish egalitarian relationships with clients and working with clients

    • Raising awareness of structural issues and advocating for those missing out.

    • Personal change (validate strengths of clients and enable clients to link their own experiences with others in similar situations)

  • Consider the client’s environmental and broader socio-economic factors 

  • Engage in social change through social activism

    • Avoid participating in activities which serve the interests of powerful groups in society

    • Recognise the importance of joining the struggles and movements for social change.

    • Removing oppressive structures and relations

The social worker needs to (Kuyini, 2014):

  • Focus on helping others but also focus on the self

  • Avoid ‘blaming the victim’, i.e. unconsciously attributing responsibility for the situation or problem to the individual.  While working with the individual on the problem, also focus on the socio-economic factors, such as class and power interests and associated ideological beliefs

  • Make time to reflect, scrutinise personal biases, and see oneself as part of system of oppression and inequality

  • Value the process of one’s work, not just outcomes

  • Learn to define self and successes outside of the mainstream understandings and measurements of successful practice outcomes 

  • Assist users of services to challenge oppressive systems

  • Focus on strengths, thus resisting the stigma attached to service users’ help seeking

  • Develop support networks among colleagues 

Structural Social Work Practice and Intergenerational Disadvantage

Intergenerational disadvantage is commonly defined as socioeconomic disadvantage which reflects not only people’s lack of economic resources, but also their social exclusion and limitations on their aspirations and political voice. Disadvantage can persist within communities across generations when there is a lack of socioeconomic opportunities for vulnerable people and their families.

Factors that may contribute to intergenerational disadvantage include:

  • Education

  • Socioeconomic background

  • Family size and culture

  • Ethnicity

  • Cultural background

  • Language spoken at home

Poverty, trauma, abuse and neglect, and mental health difficulties play out within and across generations, yet are often responded to as short-term, individual and isolated challenges.

Practice strategies for families experiencing intergenerational disadvantage

Acknowledge that structural issues, not the person, are at the root of problems. This gives a different sense of the situation. It shifts the social worker from being the expert with solutions to a person who shares and reflects with the person, ideally concentrating on the person’s strengths.

It is important to develop the human connection. Be upfront. Be honest, respectful, not over-promising, just telling the person what the practitioner’s role is, what she or he can and can’t do

Acknowledge that the actual attendance of parents at a session and willingness to have a conversation is an act of resilience.

Notice the things the person has done, the attempts to do things differently while acknowledging that times can be challenging.

Stress that the person is not alone in their experiences and there are elements of the situation that are bigger than them. Identify these structural conditions that enable and maintain the position the person is in.

Where relevant, tap into the children’s experiences—ask what children are experiencing, and ask the parent what she or he thinks the children are experiencing (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).

Structural Social Work Practice With Parents Who Use Alcohol and Other Drugs

A structural approach to addressing issues with alcohol and other drug use holds two clear aims. Firstly, there are many co-existing reasons why people use substances, and they need to be supported to recover through nuanced and non- stigmatising practice. Secondly, the safety and wellbeing of children living with people experiencing substance use issues can be negatively impacted in the short and long term.

It is common for children of parents who use substances to experience emotional and mental health issues including depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and attachment-related issues. Children may also experience difficulties with trust and forming relationships and may struggle with the impacts of stigma. They may develop difficult behaviours, underachieve academically, use alcohol and other drugs themselves, and become prematurely sexually active.

Children who are unable to live with their parents due to parental substance use issues may be cared for by other family members, including grandparents, or within private fostering arrangements. Emotional support from extended family members, teachers and other adults can be pivotal in supporting children to thrive in this context.

Practice strategies for working with parents who use alcohol or other drugs

Seek to involve and partner with parents and their children (if appropriate).

The balance between acknowledging the multiple traumas that many parents have or may continue to experience, while not minimising the effects of unsafe parenting on children, remains one of the most challenging aspects.

Over time it is important to establish trust so the hard conversations can be had with the parents. Be open to their story, be honest, be yourself, show empathy. Take the time to build a connection. From this foundation, difficult conversations around the impact of AOD use, especially on children safety, can be had. Helping parents achieve their goals for their children is a way of approaching this, rather than having to impose something on the parents and children. You have the conversation out of respect for the parents. Understand the parents are struggling.

It is important to treat the individual/s with substance use issues in the context of their family. Failure to do so both ignores the impacts on the family and their own need for support and overlooks the potential role of the family in enabling meaningful change.

Conduct sensitive, non-judgemental and hopeful conversations about parents’ strengths and hopes for their children’s future.

It is important that parents can tell their stories in ways that highlight the strategies they have used to keep their children safe, or to nurture wellbeing despite their substance use. While these stories are important in reducing stigma for parents, practitioners need to be clear about the non-negotiable safety needs of children. A strengths-based approach with parents should not involve a minimisation of those behaviours which are placing their child’s safety or wellbeing at risk.

Have a conversation with each family member to understand the impacts of AOD use. Assess the impact of parental substance use on children’s health, education and social lives.

Preface conversations with “I know this is going to be uncomfortable for you and for me, but let’s have this conversation.” Eventually, practitioners may have to state that “Because of the way you are acting, your child cannot be safe.” Practitioners have to be brave about making those calls, and not having their relationship with the parent get in the way of hard decisions around the welfare of the child (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).

Structural Social Work Practice With Parents Affected by Mental Illness

It is estimated that up to 1 in 5 young people live in families with a parent who has a mental illness. Children living with parental mental illness are more likely to experience trauma, emotional and/or behavioural difficulties; be removed from the family home and taken into care; and develop their own mental health difficulties and/or substance use issues. A retrospective study conducted in 2014, however, highlighted that young people living with parent/s with mental illness also develop significant strengths including resourcefulness, confidence and maturity. It is not uncommon to only realise a parent has a mental illness when child protection concerns are raised.

With a focus on building the strengths of each family member, social workers seek to engage, empower and partner with families by connecting them with comprehensive, culturally relevant, community-based networks of supports and services.

Practice strategies for supporting parents affected by mental illness

Invariably, parents have found ways to manage their mental illness that provide opportunities to develop strong relationships with their children. Taking the time to inquire about parenting histories, stories of success and strategies that work helps to position the parent as capable and caring, rather than a problem that needs to be fixed.

The aim is to bring to the forefront the impact mental health may be having on someone’s life and the lives of those around them at that moment.

Social workers should adopt a position of curiosity to develop a picture of the ways in which the parent’s mental illness might be affecting their children. Curiosity promotes a collaborative approach and encourages and supports a parent’s autonomy and can lead to an open discussion about parenting, their children and family.

Adopt a family-focused approach to gain a full picture of how the family functions. Working solely with the parent as an individual fails to recognise their continuing parenting roles and responsibilities, as well as their own concerns about their children’s needs (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).

Structural Social Work Practice With Families Affected By Violence

Witnessing and experiencing family and domestic violence has profound effects on adults, children and young people. However, FDV services are more likely to focus on the needs of parents than the immediate needs of children.

A child-focused approach to family and domestic violence planning

Planning for children and families affected by violence should be grounded in a holistic and systematic assessment of children’s safety and needs. A holistic assessment evaluates a child’s:

  • needs

  • unique stage of development

  • familial context and circumstances

  • culture and identity

  • risk and trauma response; and

  • relationship to the perpetrator

Establishing a relationship of trust is critical for working with children and families in ways that facilitate the development of meaningful plans.

The focus needs to shift, so the child is part of the situation and is being impacted like the women. Children have a right to be involved in the decisions that affect them. They should therefore be given opportunities to contribute to their own assessments in ways that are both appropriate to their developmental capacity and that respect their cultural, spiritual, gender and sexual identity. Children should be provided the time and space to communicate when they feel ready, in a way that suits them; and may require support to ensure that their voices are heard and taken seriously.

Children’s needs are best met by whole-of-system responses involving universal, specialist and tertiary services as required.

Services responding to FDV must always be conscious of the risk presented by perpetrators. It is important to monitor changing circumstances, along with any behaviours that might indicate a heightened risk of harm and lethality.

Social workers must guard against taking away or minimising a woman’s agency. Social workers need to shift the conversations from ‘he’s strong and you’re weak’ to recognising women’s agency in those situation. Social workers need to be compassionate and understanding and sensitive around what women are living with (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).


(copies available on request)

Chan, W. T. C. (2018). Solidarity and heart: The development of structural social work.  Critical Social Work, 19(1), 21-41. 

George, P., & Marlowe, S. (2005). Structural social work in action. Journal of Progressive Human services, 16(1), 5-24. doi:10.1300/J059v16n01_02

Kuyini, B. (2014). HSSW300 Disadvantage and Service Provision.  School of Health, University of New England.

Murray, K & Hick, S. (2012). Structural social work.  In M. Gray and S. Webb (Eds.), Social work theories and methods.  Sage Publications.

Wendt, S., Rowley, G., Seymour, K., Bastian., & Moss, D. (2023). Child-focused practice competencies: Structural approaches to complex problems. Emerging Minds Practice Paper.


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