Social Work Theories and Risk: A German Perspective

Birgit Dümmer
Rita Brodwolf
Peter Erath
IUC Dubrovnik: Social work theories and methodologies



In Germany, social work has many different but still equally “valid” theories. This is possible because there are different traditions of social pedagogy and social work, and the hierarchic structure of social policy allows different ways to found and deliver social work.

According to these given facts we would like to outline the handling of risk (risk management) in four common theories of social work in Germany:


  1. Social work in the tradition of humanities.
  2. Social work in the tradition of critical theories.
  3. Social work according to the systemic-proceeding theory (Silvia Staub-Bernasconi).
  4. Social work in the tradition of the system theory (Luhmann).



1.  Social work in the tradition of humanities: minimizing risk through professional experience

The hermeneutical knowledge theory assumes that an advanced understanding and interpretation is necessary to fully understand the world, social problems, the situation of clients, etc.



Within this interpretation process (hermeneutic circle), part and whole, pre-knowledge and learning about the subject, and theory and practice, are all within a reciprocal enlightenment relation.


Thus the experienced interpreter (e.g., the social worker) comes to a real and fundamental understanding of a situation or a person.


Within this theory Hermann Nohl builds up social work as pedagogic work concerning relation and interpretation. Aims for social work are based on the client’s physical and mental possibilities to develop.


Tasks of social work within this theory are

  1. Construction of a personal relationship between the social worker and his client. The base of a helping relation is the “pedagogic relation” (päd. Bezug), in which the social worker respects and acknowledges the client as a person (the “pedagogic relation” is autonomous to effects from its environment).
  2. Observation and interpretation of the client’s behavior based on the social worker’s life, professional experience, and knowledge of the client. Within more modern theories such understanding should be based on scientific interpretation of case structures.
  3. Helping by education. According to H. Nohl, help leads clients to become aware of their problems so they can realize and change their behavior. Within this task the social worker has to provide a special “space” of safety and protection (called “Schonraum”), where risks should be lowered (children’s homes, institutions to protect children, families, etc.) and where education could be possible.

Concerning the assessment of risk this means that only the social worker, who is the only person to be aware of the whole situation, can take responsibility for any decision. Given his or her relation to the client, knowledge of the client, and ability and motivation to steer the educational process, only the social worker is fully able to recognize and estimate risks.




Therefore a generally valid program or method to reduce or avoid risk would not fulfill the demand for individual help and the “pedagogic relation,” and has to be rejected. In this perspective the social worker should be autonomous and this autonomy should be granted by the society.



2.  Social work in the tradition of the enlightenment (critical theories): allowing and communicating risk within negotiating processes between social worker and client

Hans Thiersch adopts hermeneutic ideas and places them in a critical theory which points out the contradictions of the post-capitalist society. In his theory, the client’s “everyday world” is between “system” and “everyday life,” and therefore social work is in danger of colonizing the “everyday world” as any other system does (if social work functions as an institution).

The duty of the social worker within this perspective is to draw the attention of clients to their problems, combining this effort with a critical reflection on the social causes of individual problems and the connection between individual help and political action. That means social work also has to initiate social changes, for example, by community care, political action and empowerment processes. The social worker, therefore, is the person who analyzes and mediates in the client’s “everyday world” in order to reveal negative trends and speed up developments in the client’s consciousness.


The transfer of the demand to improve the client’s “everyday life” and world to be more successful, combined with the critical reflection of the society and social work itself, is communicative. Hans Thiersch constructs a communicative approach which does not go beyond the function of revealing contradictions in the client’s “everyday life.” Even the process of helping has to be communicated to avoid colonization by social work.


Within this view risk is not something to avoid, but to take, because otherwise there would be no social progress or social change.




Hans Thiersch gives us no specific clues of how to handle risk. It is only the individual social worker who can estimate the risk in a given situation by communicating the risk with the client. To do this appropriately the social worker can’t insure a line of action by any standards, as such standards would only colonize the client’s world and therefore be contra-productive. S/he should always keep only a critical reflection in mind.



3.  Social work in a systemic-proceeding perspective (Silvia Staub-Bernasconi): managing risks with ethical and professional values

Systemic-proceeding social work means that anything is in movement, anything is transient and changeable; therefore anything is in process and, moreover, everything existing is integrated in systems and causally connected. In this context, but also in the whole social system, people are confronted with problems of satisfying their needs and problems of fulfilling the requests and desires within their lives. People have to learn to find solutions for those problems within the structure of social systems and through cooperation and conflict with other people. Social work can help find solutions and support people during that process.


Staub-Bernasconi divides problems into four different categories:  problems of equipment, communication, power and criterions, all of which can either appear isolated or in combination with any of the other(s). Systemic-proceeding social work is a position that sees the entirety of the situation and demands the social worker’s entire personality.


According to this, social work is positioned in sectors where social problems accumulate, i.e. the social periphery. Social work finds itself in a field of tensions (individual vs. social values); on the one hand it aims at individual satisfaction of needs, but on the other hand it also aims at a fair proportion between the rights and duties of individuals and social groups, as well as a just proportion of power. These are all conditions of social peace.




While belonging to a profession which is oriented towards human-rights (according to Staub-Bernasconi’s position), each social worker always has to be aware of personal and social values and therefore must deal carefully with risk and protect the weak. Beyond this, she gives social work no clear or methodical advice concerning risk assessment and management.



4.  Social work in the tradition of system theory (Luhmann) : standardizing risk assessment and risk management procedures

Based on Niklas Luhmann’s system theory, Baecker demands a system of social aid in which social work would be an autonomous functional system. Baecker builds up the code of “help” and “non-help“, which separates the system of social aid from other systems, and at the same time allows internal communication.


Programs are necessary to distinguish what is a case of “help” and what is a case of “non-help”.   The decision of “help" or “non-help" is made by the profession of social work, not because of a given situation but because of given programs or standards. By doing so, the function and duty of social work can become more efficient and professional.



From this position it is possible to define concise regulations about how to deal with risk, for example to define clear, research-based criteria for assessment and intervention in difficult situations.


As there is no strong commitment towards social work research in Germany yet, there are presently hardly any developed and clear procedures of how to manage risk in difficult situations. .There is, however, an increasing awareness of the necessity to develop and discuss this subject in future.




Until the end of the 80s, social work in Germany was acting within the hermeneutical, critical and system-proceeding traditions. There was enough funding and society respected social work as an autonomous profession. Taking natural risks, as well as possible risks within helping processes, was acceptable.  Currently, money is lacking and questions about the legitimacy, effectiveness and transparency of social work are appearing in society.  Because of this, more rational theories like the systemic theory are gaining importance. As social work in Germany is increasingly considered to be a function of the modern welfare state, which has to guarantee the individual rights of its members, it is more and more challenged to develop clear criteria for its procedures and interventions, including possible risks and dangers. However, the classical theories (which we should not forget) tell us that if social workers are only aware of their social function and don’t dare to take risk at all, they will no longer be able to stand up to their ethical and critical commitment to support the individual not only for, but also against society.


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