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Austria (ASYS): Basic Ideas Concerning Systemic Social Work Print E-mail


Walter Milowiz

ASYS – Association for Systemic Social Work, Counselling and Supervision

Basic assumptions:

The theory our work is based upon refers to self-repetition, escalation and change of social interactions.

Whatever happens is a product of interactions that follow each other in a circular sequence, in feedback-loops.

So, just like a quarrel as well as love emanate out of nothing and gets to a point where people just react to the things the other one says (or does, or looks like), every social interaction – and every social problem - is regarded as a circular sequence of actions (words, movings) able to keep itself alive by repeating itself.

A child may react to its parents, when it shows symptoms at school, and the reactions of the teachers and school staff may influence the parents’ behaviour in a way that the child behaves in the same way furtheron.

In these sequences we distinguish between escalating, constant or deescalating developments.

If the things happening in the interaction are considered as unwanted (by the subjects or organisations involved), then counselling would aim at deescalation or any other way of introducing change to the self-repeating interactions.

Social work is not dealing with all kinds of such unwanted but self-repeating interactions, only with those where society is one partner of the interaction: When children, grown-ups or groups behave in a way that their surroundings try to change them (their behaviour) - but causes no change or even causes just more of the unwanted behaviour.

In such situations, of course, interaction not only happens by words, but also by giving a job or dismissing, by being dressed “appropiately” or not, by giving good or bad school grades, by getting ill or not and so endlessly on. And the problem would not be parents hitting their children, but the sequence of parents hitting their children and the reactions of the surrounding trying to change this attitude but failing (or maybe even all the more cause the parents hitting).

The core aim of social work in such a situation is to release changes, that will enable both sides (the “clients” and their surrounding world) to agree on the other side’s doings.


Examples of good practise:

Family “F.”

has been sent to counselling because of the son Alois’ encopresis at school. Alois seems to have got very much fed up with all the time being the sick person and being asked about his encopresis. The counsellor can come up to an agreement with the parents about not talking about the child for a few meetings. Instead they would focus on the issue of “education counselling”.

The first conversations show that both the parents do a lot of vociferous arguing, both of them anxious about their reputation in the block of  low cost flats they live in. Both of them consider it a disgrace that the familiy lives on dole.

To the mother it is essential to be on good terms with others in the house, to live up to the social standards here. She is known as outgoing, helpful and friendly, while the father, having been jobless for a longer period, tends to drawing back and spending his time with the children whom he likes very much and who like him as well. He tries to live up to the expectation to be the head of the household as well as the bread-winner of the family,

Both mother and father share this view of a traditional role allocation. The father’s failing to fulfill these expectations causes a lot of tension between the partners as well as between the family an the surrounding: the other inhabitants of the block and the helping systems which had been built up around the the boy soiling his pants.

The counsellor, after some time, brings up the idea of changes in the world and especially about possible changes in the gender role allocation. Gently he proposes that for a try the father might take over the housekeeping while the mother could try to get a job.

They accept the proposal. She quickly finds a job as a waiter and finds it convenient. The father is pleased to be with the children and keeping the house neat and clean. They consider this arrangement no longer as a failure, but as a way of life on their own choice, the permanent  devaluation  of the father’s person ends.

Control conversations after a while show that the encopresis problem had disappeared and Alois had no particular problems at school.

The main vicious circle that the counsellor had to manage was that everybody was concerned about the boy showing encopresis and what the parents could do about it, thus making the parents feel devaluated, which caused them to quarrel and again feel more devaluated.

The tipping point was that the counsellor could stop this vicious circle including devaluation by not speaking about problems but about possibilities.

See also the Article about Systemic definition of social work.


Irene K.: (good practise unplanned)

Irene K., 19 years, had run away from home at the age of 16 and had lived first all alone, then with a minor dealer on the street, had also taken drugs herself. When she became pregnant, she left him, stopped taking drugs and looked for lodging and succeded in an instution calling itself “attended living”. There she should prove her ability to live on her own which would lead to getting a low cost flat later. To do so she had to meet an attendant regularly to prove her reliability. This turned out to be very difficult:

She rarely kept appointments and was very dismissive to the attendant. In return the attendant considered her  to be difficult and doubted not only her residential ability, but also her ability  to raise her child. Therefore she proposed to give it up for adoption.

The relationship deteriorated continously. Because of the unborn child the children welfare  was activated.

By chance the first attendant herself went out on maternity leave, and Irene had a new attendant. She was impressed while reading the case course that the young woman from own strength had freed herself from her boyfriend, the street and the drugs – and obviously had had no fallback. This she told Irene at teir first meeting. From then on there were no more difficulties and after a few months Irene got a low cost flat.

It is to be assumed that Irene and her fist attendant got into a similar interaction pattern as formerly with her parents. A change could only happen because the new attendant could recognise her achievements instead of critizising.

The vicious circle consists of critizising on one side and defiant behaviour on the other side: When Irene behaves defiant (because she feels critizised), she is critizised for that and reacts more defiant and so on. The tipping point was that the new attendant could respect Irene’s own outstanding achievements, thus implementing a new perception.

Application fields in Austria:

As far as I know by now in Austra there are very few social work organisations or institutions in Austra that base their work on systemic paradigmata. I have only heard of a small private child care center in Salzburg calling the solution-oriented approach of deShazer and Berg their theoretical base.

On the other hand there are many social workers in all fields having absolved post graduate training in systemic approach, partly at ASYS, partly in other more therapy-oriented organisations.

Alumni of ASYS are working in the fields of child care, social work with grown-ups in difficult situations, psychiatry, hospitals, homeless people, drugs, jobless people and so on.


Literature we use in our courses:

Milowiz, Walter (2009): Teufelskreis und Lebensweg: Systemisch denken im sozialen Feld. 2nd ed.,Göttingen

Andersen, T. (1990): Das Reflektierende Team. Dialoge und Dialoge über die Dialoge. Dortmund.
English: The Reflecting Team: Dialogues and Dialogues about the Dialogues

Haley, Jay (1987): Gemeinsamer Nenner Interaktion. Strategien der Psychotherapie. München
English (probably): Strategies of Psychotherapy

Imber-Black, E. (1990): Familien und größere Systeme. Im Gestrüpp der Organisationen. Heidelberg.
English: Families and Larger Systems: A Family Therapist's Guide Through the Labyrinth

Jong, P. de; Berg, I. K. (1998): Lösungen (er-)finden – Das Werkstattbuch der  lösungsorientieren Kurztherapie. Dortmund.
English: Interviewing for Solutions

Maturana, H. R.; Varela, F. J. (1987): Der Baum der Erkenntnis. Die Biologischen Wurzeln des menschlichen Erkennens. Bern und München.
English: Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Understanding

Selvini Palazzoli, M.; Boscolo, L.; Cecchin, G. (1978): Paradoxon und Gegenparadoxon: Ein neues Therapiemodell für die Familie mit schizophrener Störung. Stuttgart.
English: Paradox and Counterparadox: A New Model in the Therapy of the Family in Schizophrenic Transaction: A New Model in the Therapy of the Family Schizophrenic Transaction

Watzlawick, P.; Beavin, J. H.; Jackson, D. D. (1969): Menschliche Kommu­ni­kation. Formen, Störungen, Paradoxien. Bern.
English: Pragmatics of Human Communication

STEP: Systemic social work Throughout EuroPe

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