The Role of Formal Theory in Social Work Research: Formalizing Family Systems Theory


  • Suzanne Taylor Sutphin University of South Carolina
  • Shannon McDonough Allen University
  • Amber Schrenkel University of South Carolina



Family systems theory, formal theory, social work research


Formal theories are critical to accumulating knowledge through scientific research to advance the discipline and practice. The use of formal theory in social work research is currently absent. Family Systems Theory (FST) is commonly used in social work; however, it currently lacks the criteria to be considered a formal theory. We use FST to demonstrate the formalization process and its potential effect on social work research and practice. Currently, FST is being used as a perspective, to develop theories and models used in marriage and family therapy, and to develop assessment tools. We identify the components of a formal theory while presenting a formal version of FST. Directions for future research are suggested including the benefits of using formal theory to direct scientific research and guide the development of evidence-based practice.

Author Biographies

Suzanne Taylor Sutphin, University of South Carolina

The Center for Child and Family Studies College of Social Work University of South Carolina Research Assistant Professor

Shannon McDonough, Allen University

Social Sciences and Public Health Assistant Professor

Amber Schrenkel, University of South Carolina

College of Social Work