Individual vs Structural-Cultural Theories

Discussion: Individual vs Structural-Cultural Theories

Theories help frame more than presenting problems—they also frame social problems, and both types of problems can be linked in relation to client issues. For example, many scholars and social workers have attempted to understand the social problem of poverty. Turner and Lehning (2007) classified various psychological theories to explain poverty under two headings: (1) individual-related theories or (2) structural/cultural-related theories. In other words, think of these two headings as lenses in viewing poverty. In this Discussion, you apply lenses through which to understand a client’s problem in relation to social problems.

To prepare:

  • Read this article listed in the Learning Resources: Turner, K., & Lehning, A. J. (2007). Psychological theories of poverty. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 16(1/2), 57–72. doi:10.1300/J137v16n01-05
  • Select a theory under the individual-related theories and a theory under the structural/cultural-related theories.
  • Complete the handout “Comparing Individual-Related and Structural/Cultural-Related Theories” to help you craft your response. (Note: You do not need to upload the handout to the Discussion forum. The handout is intended to assist you in writing your Discussion post.)
By Day 3


  • Describe how a social worker would conceptualize a presenting problem of poverty from the two theories you selected.
  • Explain how this conceptualization differs from an individual-related versus a structural/cultural-related theoretical lens.
  • Compare how the two theoretical lenses differ in terms of how the social worker would approach the client and the problem and how the social worker would intervene.
By Day 5

Respond to at least two colleagues:

  • Evaluate one identified strength and one identified limitation your colleague may encounter when employing an individual-related theory and a structural/cultural-related theory to formulating interventions for poverty.


Assignment: Application of Systems Theory to a Case Study

In this course, you will be asked to select one case study and to use it throughout the entire course. By doing this, you will have the opportunity to see how theories guide your view of a client and the client’s presenting problem. Although the case may be the same, each time you use a different theory, your perspective of the problem changes, which then changes how you go about asking the assessment questions and how you intervene.

The first theoretical approach you will use to apply to a case study is systems theory. In other words, your theoretical orientation—your lens—will be systems theory as you analyze a social work case study.

Different theories can be used to take a systems approach. For example, Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory considers how a system is made of smaller subsystems that influence each other and seek homeostasis, whereas Brofennerbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory focuses on how an individual’s experience is influenced by different system levels (micro, mesoexomacro, and chrono). Systems theory is commonly used to understand the interrelationships of the systems (e.g., family, community, organizations, society) of the client. If you are working with families, communities, and organizations, it is also beneficial to use systems theory to get a holistic picture of all the interrelated parts of the system.

To prepare: Select and focus on one of four case studies listed in the Learning Resources. You will use this same case study throughout the course.

By Day 7
  • Focus on the identified client within your chosen case.
  • Analyze the case using a systems approach, taking into consideration both family and community systems.
  • Complete and submit the “Dissecting a Theory and Its Application to a Case Study” worksheet based on your analysis.

Angelica Wiggins RE: Discussion – Week 2COLLAPSE

As social workers, theories help us to better understand the problems and world around us. Poverty is a social problem that has been examined through a variety of lenses or theories. These theories are typically classified as either being individual or cultural.

Individual-Related Theory

McClelland’s Need for Achievement Theory suggests that there are barriers to achievement and it is necessary for an individual to overcome these barriers. Further, McClelland theorized that individuals who have a need for achievement take calculated risks, often work alone, like to receive feedback, and have a strong need to set and accomplish goals (Turner & Lehning, 2007). When looking at poverty through this lens, one would conclude that if an individual is living in poverty then they lack these common characteristics needed to overcome barriers. When using this theory, a social worker would need to help the client identify barriers as well as use a strengths-based approach to set and achieve identified goals. Utilizing solutions focused therapy or a similar approach could also be beneficial.

Cultural-Related Theory

Sen’s Empowerment Theory proposes that poverty is more than just someone’s socioeconomic status, it is essentially an imbalance of political and psychological power (Turner & Lehning, 2007). By looking at poverty through this lens social workers would see the barriers that society produces for some individuals entrapping them in a cycle of poverty. In order for poverty to be eradicated according to this perspective the balance of power would need to shift. Social workers utilizing this theory would want to work at the macro level to advocate for policy change and more representation of specific groups in our government.


Turner, K. & Lehning, A.J. (2007). Psychological theories of poverty. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 16(1/2), 57–72.

Ebony Mcennis RE: Discussion – Week 2COLLAPSE

The first theory I would like to discuss is an individual theory known as “Achievement Theory”. Achievement theory also known as Acquired needs theory comes from the theorist David McClelland. McClelland proposed that individual’s specific needs are acquired over time and are shaped by one’s life experiences. This theory also reminds me of environmental theory. Most of the needs according to McClelland can be classed as either affiliation, power, or achievement. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is also similar to this theory with the notion you are your environment.

 Here are a breakdown of the terms:

  1. Achievement- has strong need to accomplish goals, takes calculated risks, likes to receive consistent feedback, and often likes to work alone.
  2. Affiliation: Wants to belong to the group, wants to be liked, favors teamwork over competition, and does not like high risk.
  3. Power: Likes control, and to influence others, likes to win arguments, enjoys competition when winning, and enjoys status and recognition.

As a social worker, I would first need to identify which dominant behaviors my client is experiencing, and I can use some of this information to help set goals and provide feedback. It will also be important to help the client identify personal barriers they feel are hindering their goals. It will also be important after identifying behaviors to structure treatment by catering to those needs the client possess so they are comfortable introducing new learned behavior. For example if my client is all about achievement it will be important to introduce challenging but reachable goals, and provide feedback to them. This is allowing the familiarity, while also introducing the new behavior little by little. I also want to note that I do not agree that the poor have not developed a need for achievement. I feel that barriers are also achievements in some sort.

Second theory:

Empowerment theory proposes that poverty is more than just low income: It is a lack of political and psychological power (Sen, 1999). More specifically, Sen suggests that modern society deprives “certain” citizens of power and control, which then results in poverty for those citizens. In order to escape from such poverty, Sen believes that a society must provide all of its citizens with three things:

(1) Political, economic, and social freedom;

(2) Security and protection;

(3) Transparent governmental activities (Sen, 1999)

Therefore, I really like this theory. Primarily because I feel is deepens the conversation of poverty, and provides elements of a system designed to segregate. We have to understand that levels to socioeconomic status are designed to reserve resources. There has to be a separation, or also known as survival of the fittest.

In practice with a client I would use this theory by understanding first the system in general restricts the ability for people in poverty to overcome barriers. It will be important educate my client on available resources, and empower their current resources to make appropriate changes. Balance of power will not be shifting anytime soon, so there is work to be done at the lobbying level. Unless people of poverty know about these resources they cannot utilize them. There are also personal factors of a client that can be empowered so the client can eventually make these decisions on their own.


Turner, K. & Lehning, A.J. (2007). Psychological theories of poverty. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 60-69.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. World Bank (2001). Attacking poverty: Opportunity, empowerment, and security (World Development Report, 2000/2001). Retrieved on June 3rd 2019, From doi:10.1300/J137v16n01_05