Austria (ASYS): Systemic definition of social work

Walter Milowiz

ASYS – Association for Systemic Social Work, Counselling and Supervision


In the jumble of systemic networks in which we live, it is actually rather surprising that anything can function at all. A broad variety of familial, private, work, provisional, buerocratic and controlling relationships that bind every person into society pile up to overwhelming nets if one considers that every relationship a person has, leads to another person with just as many relationships and so on. If one wanted to keep such a net in order, s/he would be hopelessly lost: The famous task of a centipede who cannot walk anymore after someone enquires how he manages to coordinate so many legs seems almost ridiculous by comparison (cf. Wilke 1993).

Still, it seems to work somehow. Obviously, we learn form a very young age onwards to include ourselves in a relatively functional way into an evergrowing network of relations.

There are many controversies about the definition of mental health or mental disease, about normality and deviations or disorders, and systems theory has initially not made it easier for us by pointing out that it is not about one disturbed person who has been pushed towards the edge by some coincidence, but about dysfunctional relationships within the system of society, which sustain themselves in some way. This comment seems essential as this is in major contrast to the modern German literature on systemic social work, partially based on Luhmann, like Kleve (2007) or Hosemann (2006). They transfer insights on systems to the attempt of helping persons or families. We, on the other hand, describe disorders as a way of communication within a system to which we as social workers also belong.

This relieves the individual because such a disturbance is always something that both sides, the disturbing, and the disturbed party, share, but what is „in order“ and what isn’t, is still difficult to tell! We want to offer a definition of disturbance in the sense of „social case“, or, „case for social work“, which is in contrast to a definition for family therapy or psychotherapy.

This cannot be a description of the problematic situation of indicated clients, that have to be solved, as Eugster (2000), Hosemann (2006) or Ritscher (2005) attempted it, also not about their „Lebenswelt“, the way Kraus (2000) offers it, but rather viewed interactionist-systemically: the solution of relationship conflicts. To this end we have to attempt the opposite, to reformulate problematic features of indicated clients on the one hand, and adverse living conditions for these clients on the other hand, as ways of communicating, as part of a link, or, better, of a loop of two-way messages. And to this chain or loop of message we relate our considerations from a social worker’s viewpoint.

In each such loop of messages, in each relationship, part of the available energy is used for the definition and the maintenance of the relationship. This is true for a relationship between two or more people as well as for the relationship between a person and an institution or the relationship between a person and its whole environment.  (Which messages are exchanged?) If we can assume that a kind of ideal state is reached when the maximum amount of energy is available and can be used for the pursuit of other goals, for the joys of life and for the maintenance of our provision, then one can assume that the perfect relationships are those where a minimum of energy is needed for work on the relationship itself.

This would define a dysfunctional relationship as one in which the majority of the available energy is used for dealing with this relationship.

One has to accept that every change in the relationship, for example, getting to know each other, separations, when new people enter a relationship or, generally speaking, changes of circumstances on the outside, brings uncertainty to the relationship, and requires, for a certain amount of time, intensive work on the new relationship in accordance with the changed circumstances.

We can only talk about a relationship being dysfunctional if due to such a development a form of relationship comes into existence which is stable on the one hand, but on the other hand is challenged all the time, that means a relationship which consists of an interminable dispute about its change.

Obviously, it is difficult to tell how much fight for definition in a relationship is still to be considered healthy – changes in the relationship should, of course, be acceptable within reason – but it is for certain that too much fighting results in too little energy for life’s daily functions and can therefore be termed dysfunctional.

This definition, apart from its logical insight, has various advantages that cannot be valued too highly:

  • A relationship can be called dysfunctional without calling one of the relationship partners ill, guilty, or wrong in any other way.

  • This definition leaves the question what should be changed open for considerations of doability: solutions are not a priori tied to existing norms of society and can still be deemed acceptable by society.

  • The question whether a social worker should step in when asked to do so is thereby answered: whenever someone comes to a social worker with any form of complaint, it means that this person is in the middle of a relationship fight and looks for the social worker as support in that fight. It is clear that the social worker has come into contact with a dysfunctional system. (Of course, it might still be necessary to reject responsibility. But this is an intervention then!)

  • Also the task of the social worker is easily defined. One can assume that the social worker is only called in when the inside energies of a subsystem are not deemed sufficient any more to reach a satisfactory definition of the relationship. Her/his task can only be to enter this subsystem and to start tinterking on the relationships until a state is reached which after the departure of the social worker guarantees a functional relationship which is not dominated by a relationship fight anymore.

Based on this train of thought, the role of social work in society can maybe be defined in a fundamental way. What in my impression has rather been a vague definition by instinct, can now be formulated: To functionalizingly intervene, whenever relationship conflicts, that means, dysfunctional relationships between society on the one hand and an individual or small, private subsystems on the other hand stabilise or escalate, or whenever such stabilisations or escalations are to be predicted, to preventatively become active – this is the scope of social work.

As far as I can foresee, this definition can only be attributed unambiguously to social workers (psychotherapy only falls into this category if the need for therapy cannot be fulfilled in any other setting; the competition of two organisations only insofar as unacceptable problems for people are to be predicted), and on the other hand, it describes all the functions of social workers.

One has to point out here that such an intervention cannot be made from the outside: as soon as the social worker has the impression that he plays a role for  the system, he has become part of it and he needs a model of the system for planning his interventions that includes him and his reactions. This is, on the one hand, difficult, but, on the other hand, it saves considerations similar to those of Kleve, how one can steer a not instructable and therefore not steerable system (cf. Kleve 2007: 74 ff). We shall return to this in the methodological part.

On the basis of this definition of the social worker’s role it might be interesting to consider how an intervention by a social worker in a family can be justified. Basically, I am of the opinion that subsystems should solve their inward problems alone. If they want to ask for help, then family therapy or family counselling is addressed. If one expects that the subsystem reaches a solution which later on leads to a permanent conflict between the subsystem or members of the subsystem and society, then, and only then, social work should become active. In this way, it is easy to delimit social work and to pinpoint its definition.

It is only to be decided how to leave room for the development of a functional relationship: whether this is possible, and that is the favourite solution for the systems theorist, by redefining the situation, or whether one rather intervenes preventatively in the subsystem or prompts changes in society that make a solution of the predictable conflict possible within a limited time period. As the intervention definitely has the aim of reaching a relationship which is acceptable for both parties, it is ethically rather safe[1] and it is inferable by economical considerations and the resources of the social worker which path s/he chooses.

 The relationship fight: communication and metacommunication

But how to recognise a dysfunctional relationship? One possibility has already been mentioned: when a social worker is called in, one can take it for granted that the person who addresses him has a relationship problem s/he cannot or does not want to solve without the help of the social worker. S/he is therefore definitely in a relationship fight. Even when dealing with an unemployed person, who doesn’t want to work, because society doesn’t want him to, there already is a conflict and one has to think about what to do.

As it is for certain that not all conflict-heavy relationships between society and individuals or subsystems are brought to the attention of social workers and we have also described one part of the social workers’ activities as preventative, it does not suffice to consider only those cases brought to the attention of social workers, but we have to speak more broadly about how to recognise dysfunctionality.

To do this, I want to first return to one of the roots of systems theory in social psychology: communication theory,which goes back especially to Watzlawick and his team (Watzlawick et al. 1969).

According to it, communication is content-related exchange of information that necessarily has an aim. For this exchange to function, a consensus is required about how to interpret this message. The question, „Where are my cuff links?“ is a purely content-related question and the receiver has to know, in some way, in order to act accordingly, whether this question is meant as an accusation (because the cuff links should have been there for a while or aren’t in their correct place), as a pure informative question or as a joke about the jumble in the clothing sector the activity of the communication partners in the previous hour has led to. This will hugely depend on the kind of relationship of the partners: whether they have a complementary relationship where one is responsible for the cuff links, and the other one can complain that they aren’t there, or a symmetric relationship fight in which they constantly fight about their responsibilities, or a relationship in harmony that does not need this topic for defining the relationship. The type of relationship is determined by a variety of things, which are normally exchanged in „analogue“ form, which means by everything else but the content-related message:  intonation, timing of a message, slaps in the face, or the place in which a message is sent, are only a small selection how exchange about relationship forms takes place. This exchange that defines relationships and also defines how to interpret communication is called metacommunication (cf. Watzlawick et al. 1969, page 55).

Communication is a purely content-related message. Metacommunication on the other hand is communication about the relationship. Is the relationship accepted in its current form by all communication partners, it is unproblematic, little energy is used for its change, metacommunication is limited. The available energy can be used for different projects, for example a holiday trip, considerations about the ecological conditions for survival or agriculture. Is one or more partners not content with the relationship, s/he will try to change it. If the remaining partners accept this change, a new relationship type has begun to exist, they can still go on vacation or save the world, maybe with a changed role allocation.

If, however, the other partners do not accept this change and start tinkering on the relationship themselves, a new relationship type has also begun to exist, but this one is defined by constant work on the relationship (where more or less permanently, metacommunication is used) and one can imagine that, depending on the intensity of the attempts, very little time remains for other activities. Not only does the relationship stagnate, but it is also not possible anymore to jointly attempt to reach goals, as every action together has another meaning in this relationship game, and therefore has metacommunicative meaning.

I deem it reasonable to call such relationships dysfunctional, in which the main part of the energy is used up for the fight about the relationship itself, where metacommunication gets out of control. If, for example, a state employs many policemen (who should obviously stop individuals from putting their desired relationship type into practice), and this leads to individuals dealing with how to avoid or stop this kind of control, it is clear that this is a dysfunctional relationship which makes it impossible for the state and its people to reach goals together even in situations of life and death due to their preoccupation with metacommunication.

If a person falls chronically or permanently ill, in order to escape a state of mental overload by her environment, and this environment reacts with more vehement demands (at the latest when the person is healthy again), this person will invest her energies in the disease, the environment on the other hand on recreating the person’s performance capability.

Interestingly enough, even a couple who cannot refrain from trying to make the relationship even more intensive, is entangled in a dysfunctional system. Imagine both of them constantly trying to make the relationship even more intense. If this does not finish at some point in time, they will fuse into each other without having eaten a bite and will starve.

Fortunately, this rarely happens. But whoever has experienced this overwhelming infatuation knows that the temptation is there, but also knows that during this time almost only metacommunication is used. In talking and acting one only looks for more intensity for the relationship. As nice as this is, if this turns into a more permanent situation, it is definitely dysfunctional.

This example shows an essential aspect of the term „dysfunctional“. Not every dysfunctional relationship is unpleasant, the assessment of dysfunctionality is obviously an ideological one. One might also enjoy a symmetric relationship fight, and still it has to be called dysfunctional if it goes so far that perception of relations beyond the scope of  the relationship is lost.

Let us summarize: a relationship is dysfunctional when metacommunication has become the main occupation so that nothing or almost nothing can be done on top of it.

The examples have shown that metacommunication can be used in different ways: verbalized metacommunication expresses itself in permanent dispute about the relationship, about the way of treating one another, about the behaviour of one of the partners, which is common in politics, for example. As this example does not deal with the relationship between society and individuals it is not a case for social work.

Another area of metacommunication is expressed through actions which steer the behaviour of at least one relationship partner, as for example the act of making one employee redundant has a major impact on the behaviour of the remaining employees- it is important to note that the intention to manipulate behaviour does not have to be declared, does not have to be conscious, might not even be there at all. If the effect is there, this is some kind of metacommunication and has to result in a metacommunicative reaction: acceptance or rejection of the thereby initiated form of relationship.


The third area is actually, like the first as well, part of the second: the symptoms.

Symptoms are – according to the definition of Watzlawick (Watzlawick et al. 1969: 77) or Haley (1987) – acts that are able to influence the communication partners in their behaviour and, at the same time, relieve the symptom carrier of his/her responsibility for that influence. (cf. Haley 1987). For example, the inability of a family to deal with money is seen as a symptom in so far as it is useful to get society to help out financially via the social network, and the responsible social worker will be well-advised to not only help out financially, but to also take a look at the relationship fight between the family and society. Of course, repeated criminality is also to be viewed as a symptom. Here, there is fighting about whether someone has to secure their life by assuming assimilated activities and showing independent self-organizational talent or whether his provision is guaranteed by the state in a total institution (cf. Goffmann 1973). Ironically, total institutions like jails or psychiatric hospitals indeed take on responsibility for survival: it is definitely more difficult to commit suicide there than in the wilderness. Of course, also illnesses, accidents, alcoholism and other addictions, homelessness, etc. are to be viewed as symptoms. In order for someone to think systemically, it is of major significance to abstain from questioning whether someone has brought about these symptoms intentionally or unintentionally, or not at all! It is only which effect they have in the interactional game.

Even if someone is hit by the proverbial roofing tile, it has to be noted whether and how this occurrence can have significance in the interactional cycle: had things occurred previously that had something to do with self-inflicted injuries or accidents and what reactions had then been triggered in the environment?

The social worker will perk up his/her ears in each metacommunicative occurrence that happens with a relatively high level of energy, that means, an occurrence which is spectacular in some way or emotionally intense. Should this occurrence happen for the first time, it might  suffice for him/her to do that and start a conventional emergency response.

Should comparable occurrences happen repeatedly in a relationship, this definitely means that dysfunctionality is underway and the rescue operation cannot be limited to a conventional procedure if one does not want to maintain the dysfunctional relationship in unchanged form.

There are, however, symptoms which are so dangerous that already after the first contact with this symptom it has to be brought to light whether a permanent relationship crisis is underway. If someone, for example, attempts suicide, it seems pretty dangerous to wait for a repetition; the same goes for seemingly unintentional self-injuries like accidents or illnesses, attempted murder or other violent acts.


To find out whether a crisis is the expression of a permanent disorder, there are the following options:

  • Generally, an anamnesis of the symptom carrier is useful, in which one can search for weakened or less obtrusive but similar courses.

  • Also by means of the anamnesis, one can search for a reason why a certain form of relationship is pursued with these symptoms. One has to note that also reasons are possible which seem pretty measly to the ordinary mortal by comparison to the inconveniences the symptom carrier is willing to undergo.

  • The third option requires that one assumes that every system has a kind of memory for relationship structures and therefore tries to develop similar relationship structures with different relationship partners. In this case, the social worker can view the relationship structure which the symptom carrier triggers in her/himself as a repetition and, for example, assume that someone who seems ridiculous with their „silly attempt at suicide“ (and, maybe more) is fighting against devaluation which he incurs by way of feedback. And then the situation has already become more serious.

This third option is usually the most informative. One can broadly assume, also as social worker, that one’s spontaneous reactions do not deviate that much from the norm that the reactions the symptom carrier triggers in oneself are untypical. Hence, one usually has a depiction of the disturbed relationship structure in the dialogue space and only has to be able to see it. Unfortunately, one is only able to see this miniature version if it is possible to step aside a bit, in order to assemble one’s own feelings and reactions with the behaviour of the symptom carrier like a puzzle. With experience, this is doable. I have even experienced remarkable successes at the Sozialakademie (College of Social Work) where there are time and emotional constraints regards the practice opportunities.

Naturally, these options are also valid if, under the auspices of the social worker, repetitions have already happened and a permanent crisis can be assumed as guaranteed.

 Solutions: calibration and recalibration

Now, we have developed on the basis of systems theory what the achievements of social workers are, what can be seen as a disorder and how one can recognize them. Unfortunately, this is not enough, as we have defined the activities of social work in a way that it also intervenes. And it should be possible to define this intervention as well. Therefore, another systemic term needs to be introduced: the calibration (cf. Watzlawick et al. 1974). A system is called calibrated when a state has been achieved in which processes of the system repeat themselves without any major changes happening. Social workers mainly deal with two kinds of systems: dysfunctionally calibrated systems and dysfunctionally escalating systems.

An example for a dysfunctionally calibrated system is the relationship between society and a homeless person who is repeatedly – sometimes drunk and sometimes sober – picked up, spends a night in a cell, is superficially reintegrated with the help of a social worker and then picked up again after some time as a homeless person. It is obvious that this system is stable, which means that processes repeat themselves without there being any major changes and it is obvious that it is dysfunctional, i.e. the homeless person and society do not agree on how to deal with his existence.

An example for a dysfunctionally escalating system would be the relationship between society and a rather aggressive drunkard who, each time he commits something when drunk, is punished, is arrested, feels even more humiliated and commits something more serious during the next, inevitable intoxication, which  - due to the repetition for one – leads to a more massive punishment and an even stronger humiliation. Dysfunctionality is visible here in an unambiguous way: environment and symptom carrier do not agree on how to deal with each other, and for this very reason they always deal with each other in exactly the same way. Regarding escalation, this means that the relationship is not stable, but that an essential parameter is ever on the inrease. Over time, one has to reckon that the drunkard becomes a killer or is put into jail with a life sentence or placed in a psychiatric ward. In this case, the system is stable and calibrated again.

The distinction between stable and escalating systems is of significance for the social worker in so far as interventions in escalating systems are of higher importance. But in both cases it is about introducing a stable relationship form that is not defined by relationship fights. It is probably easily understood what the term „recalibration“ means here: recalibration is the creation of a new stable state of a system and the aim of an intervention by a social worker is to make a recalibration in a functional, stable state possible.

What options for recalibrating a dysfunctional system exist in the area of social work?

The first, most beautiful, and, at the same time, most difficult is the reformulation of the relationship in a way that the system stabilises itself in a more functional way without any further interventions of the social support net: if, for example, the drunkard finds a way to find his selfconfidence in more accepted ways than in drunken acts of violence, and because of that, is not arrested anymore, but rather receives a medal for his merits for the republic, or when a society learns to view his misdeeds as expressions of fear and starts encountering him in a more gentle and understanding way, which in turn might put an end to his deeds.

The second option lies in integrating the symptom carrier into the social support net how it seems sensible in the case of elderly people living alone who cannot provide for themselves anymore, or in the case of terminally ill or handicapped persons.

The referral to psychotherapeutic assistance or parenting support ordered by court also fall into this area, although the execution of both are not the social worker’s responsibility. One has to point out here that the social worker might have to cause society to install such institutions or cause their adaptation to the needs of the symptom carrier (age is a symptom, too!).

The third option is that the social worker him/herself permanently takes on the role of the social support net by maintaining a stable relationship with the symptom carrier and through his/her permanent influence s/he makes a functional relationship between society and the symptom carrier possible. This option should be chosen with care as it lays claim on the social worker over a longer time period and this time and energy is lost for other interventions.

The fourth and so far last option is a bit more washy:  If the social worker hopes for a solution in the sense of option one but sees him/herself unable to reach such a solution with the measures and experience available to him/her, s/he can choose a middleway between option one and three, by keeping up a relatively stable relationship to the symptom carrier her/himself and using the available resources to make a functionalising institution seem a possibility and by furthermore hoping patiently that at some point option one or two become possible. This is probably the most common case although the social workers’ resources are not used optimally here.

 Justification of social work

When asked why social work exists in this world, most people will answer: because so many people are doing poorly and because it is necessary to help them. There are many „essential“ things in our society that do not happen, and there are also many people who do not support such good deeds.

Historically, social work can be delineated from different directions, starting with personal and churchrelated mercifulness and the „pedagogic“ desire to motivate people to maintain society’s basic principles and/or to motivate them to work again (cf. Müller 1991), and a then washy combination of both of them when the – still authoritarian - state to a large extent took on these functions. This tradition was then carried on in the process of democratisation and expanded and has kept the caritative-pedagogical myth substantially alive. Even (post-)modern constructivist authors like Kleve (1996) still support the approach that social work is defined as „helping where noone helps“, i.e. a rather caritative notion.

This notion is, however, preposterous in a democracy, as it assumes that a class of „normals“ has to decide how to deal with outsiders who are not viewed as belonging to this class. In a democratic state we have to find a definition which gives justice to the fact that the legislator is voted by all people eligible to vote together, and should therefore see him/herself as the representative of all people – before looking at differences. Social law making in a democracy can only answer the question, „How do we want to deal with each other when one of us is doing poorly?“.[2]

Indeed, there is a tendency – and in some social states also a reality – to ground social basic rights that guarantee the individual a life in dignity in the constitution. Germany is, by constitution, a social state and everyone can invoke the basic rights and all law initiatives based on them are – at least theoretically – enforceable.

In Austria, there are also many lawful regulations that guarantee the citizen a legal claim on social coverage vis-a-vis the state and therefore vis-a-vis society. This includes, for example, the different social work laws or the attendance allowance legislation that unmistakably prescribe a redistribution of financial resources to people with unusually high strains (i.e., handicaps, lack of access to the labour market, etc.). These legislations are also the consequence of a political basic principle of the mutual guarantee of a humane existence of the individual members of our society.

As citizens, we are born into this „contract“ and even if we cannot decide for ourselves whether we want to sign it, we are still contract partners: Individuals cannot exit this political system, they might at most attempt a change by way of democrato-political decision making processes.

The social security of all members of our society is a law, then. Membership in our society includes a certain security: we guarantee each other that, if one of us is threatened with the inability to continue his/her humane existence, we will do something against it. (It is anyone’s guess whether all of us approve of this „contract“.)

Or, with Kleve,“By this ideal, all citizens should be equal and free so that they can potentially participate in all systems of society (...) If this participation, which, sociologically speaking, could also be called inclusion (...) is endangered or already impossible, then social work makes an appearance“ (2007:32f.).

This threat to the participation is in our approach not a coincidentally developing fact that, if once comes into existence, remains that way, but rather an interactional phenomenon that maintains itself incessantly in the interplay of the participants on both sides. The execution of this guarantee of social opportunities encounters problems when, especially in dysfunctional, escalating relationships, the acting out of an antagonism draws all attention to itself. The conflict partners then forget this joint contract, ignore it in the heat of fighting or feel unable to fulfill it.

If there are individuals or small groups on both sides of the conflict, other laws come into effect, but if someone runs the risk of being pushed aside as a „whole“, that means we are dealing with an outsider development, the social legislation is responsible to realize this guarantee.

In a highly developed society with highly specified separation of functions it seems useful to train and appoint experts to appropriate institutions for the solution of such conflicts in which the basic right to a humane existence of individuals or small subgroups is endangered. Social workers are these experts.

Society’s mandate to social work is: „If we push individuals or groups of people  belonging to our society too far to the fringe by way of social disputes, then do take care that these disputes are returned to humane tracks.“

This is the  - in our opinion only reasonable – definition of social work in a society in which, formally seen, all participants have the same rights and responsibilities. The equality is true before looking at factual differences; social work has to step in when the differences grow too large or when escalating outsider developments are taking place.

In his article, „From family therapy to systemic social work“ (2002), Herwig-Lempp showed the expansion of the angle from individual’s psychotherapy to family therapy. His step to social work – „The difference between therapy and social work is that social work does not only deal with the involved people but also with other professions and institutions and their respective points of view, concepts and theories“ (Herwig-Lempp 2002:78) – is a different one from ours: Already in 1988 we expanded the system even further, when family therapists expanded the interactional system from individuals to families and further on to „problem systems“. We view the social structure around the „indicated clients“ (including themselves) as client system, which we describe to be circularly and autopoetically self-maintaining and with which we work. Of course, also carers become part of this system as well as the other professions mentioned by Herwig-Lempp.

The contractee must therefore be society itself, in whichever way the assignment is realized. It does not seem helpful to me but rather blurring to use the term contractee again for the one bringing the case, indicated clients or anyone else, as this is the case in Ritscher (2005:183 f.). It is the duty of the social worker to decide whether a situation requires an interference and in which direction an interference seems reasonable, that is promising.

This, s/he can only do in the name of society, otherwise s/he automatically becomes a representative of one of the conflict partners. Therefore, it seems logical that society should finance social work even if politics and authority are interposed for the purpose of guidance mechanisms.

And naturally, if this „contract“ is valid, it is the responsibility of everyone participating in this societal contract to guarantee the training and appointment of such specialists. This means, their training and their appointment should be paid for by means of taxpayers’ money as long as there is no other guarantee of securing this societal contract.

Apart from that, as also to be found in Herwig-Lempp (2005), we have to assume that these specialists for social problems are really experts and therefore also the authorities in this matter. No lawyer, no doctor, no psychotherapist, and, yes, also no politician or civil servant can give them instructions on how to solve social problems. The above-mentioned can, even if they are the social workers’ superiors, only present the experts with the pending cases. The solutions have to be developed by social work.

It seems essential to me to point out that at least communal social work has nothing to do with alms and also nothing with partisanship for the weak ones. It is the realization of the contract between all involved people that has always existed – before looking at the difference of powers and independent of it. In real conflicts, there usually is a strong and a weak side, but due to the contract, both sides have equal rights entitling them to a solution and to co-determination on how to solve the conflict.

At first, one has to distinguish social work as described above from charity-work as often exerted by churches and private or public donation campaigns. It would be a whole new discussion whether systemically purposeful social work is possible coming from the caritative sector. It would be deemable, of course, that such help commits itself to integration by choice. This is only possible, however, if caritative social work is not geared towards „the poor“ but rather towards the underlying conflicts.

Social work does not require any additional justification. It would require an entirely new definition should this right for a humane existance be abolished. The myth, that „the poor“ form a category by themselves that is not entitled to the same rights as „the not-poor“ and that the latter help the former due to magnanimity is simply not sustainable in a democratic society based on humanistic ideology.

Naturally, this cannot mean that strengthening and support for the respective „weak ones“, as typical in the often unidirectional supportive womens’ work or in politically activating development cooperation is fundamentally wrong. A conflict can also change its quality and consequently its resolvability if there is a change in the balance of powers. It still holds true that from a professional perspective it is essential that the counsillor keeps an eye on the whole - in this case the conflict.

The systemic approach for sociology by Niklas Luhmann (1984) particularly spawned a wide circle of attempts to transfer it to social work (cf., for example, Lüssi 1991, Kleve 1996, Hosemann and Geiling 2005). These models have one disadvantage: The principle of autopoiesis, which I support as well, leads to serious difficulties if systems are defined in a way that the social worker has to intervene in foreign systems in a purposeful way from the outside. If Kleve defines social work unmistakably as helping persons and families, as well as Eugster defines it as „Helping where noone helps“, it results from our definition of the social case as dysfunctional conflict relationship that social work always has to do with this relationship, yes, that social work itself becomes a player in this relationship and instructions on how to change dysfunctionality result from this point of view.

In this respect, the systemic model for social professions distinguishes itself from other models:

  • Social problems are generally seen as dysfunctional patterns between small social units and their environments.

  • The mastery of a social problem always consists of the resolution of such a dysfunctional pattern.

  • The social worker can only act as a participant in the dysfunctional pattern to be handled.


[1] Exception: when one of the relationship participants is silenced in any way.

[2] Cf. also the remarks on democracy in: Maturana and Verden-Zöllner (1994): Liebe und Spiel. Die vergessenen Grundlagen des Menschseins. Heidelberg:p. 72 ff.