The Social Change Dimension

Learning Objectives:

  • Explore Theories of Racism, Discrimination, and Oppression on the macro level and how it impacts on the micro/mezzo levels
  • Describe Attribution Theory
  • Describe the Vicious Cycle
  • Describe Social and Economic Perspectives
  • Describe Social Action and Social Change Perspectives
  • Define Community
  • Describe Community Organization Theory


Otis wearing his backpack
Photo by nana o. on Unsplash

Otis, a 9 y/o African American boy, has been in the foster care system for just over one year, after his mother was arrested and convicted of prostitution. No relatives were found to care for Otis and his younger brother, and they were separated into different foster homes. Otis experienced placement in a few different foster homes (all Caucasian families) before being placed with an African American family, where he has been for the past 6 months.  He was observed to be adjusting fairly well despite the continued inconsistencies of visits with his mother and his mother’s shortcomings in completing the plan to reunite their family. He was making friends and enjoyed his visits with his younger brother. His mother’s parental rights were recently terminated, and Otis experienced another move when placed with his new adoptive family.

The Johnson family have adopted Otis. His adoptive parents are an older, wealthy Caucasian couple, Bill and Christina, who have 2 other daughters,  both older than Otis. They are trying their best to make Otis feel welcome and a part of their family but have noticed Otis does not seem to be adjusting well, even though he has been with them for almost 6 months. He rarely looks them in the eye, hardly responds when his adoptive sisters try to engage him, and has hardly been eating or sleeping. His teachers report Otis is typically withdrawn each day, demonstrating little interactions with his teachers and peers. The Johnson’s have decided to begin family therapy with Otis as they do not know what to do and want to do their best in supporting him. Otis is able to report feeling out of place within his new environments as he has been the only African American person present in most of his new settings and is not sure how he fits into his new life.

The Social Change Dimension

This dimension explores theories of racism, discrimination, oppression, and privilege on the macro level and explores how it impacts individuals on the micro/mezzo levels. We will also explore Social and Economic Justice perspectives, Social Change and Social Action perspectives, and Community Organization theories.

But first, let’s start with some vocabulary words:

Social Change Dimension Vocabulary Words:
Stereotypes – an over-generalized belief about a particular group of people.
Prejudice – preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.
Discrimination – the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
Race – a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics.
Racism – prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
Oppression – prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control.
Primary Oppression – Active and purposeful. Use of force or deprivation through laws, policies, or regulations that discriminate against people perceived to be inferior to the dominant group.
Secondary Oppression – Not active, but still benefit from it. An example would be staying silent when oppressive acts are occurring such as extending a job offer to a person of the dominant group but not to an equally qualified member of a minority group.
Tertiary Oppression – When members of an oppressed group seek acceptance by supporting oppressive acts of the dominant group – abandoning their own group or “selling out” to seek approval and admission with the dominant group.
Attribution Theory explores how we observe and make judgments about others.
Dispositional attributions – judges behavior due to inherent qualities, motivations, or characteristics of a person (lazy, careless, rude, impatient, unmotivated).
Situational attributions – judges behavior through situational factors that are often outside of a person’s control (bad weather, poor economy, bad luck).
This theory also suggests we tend to have more positive thoughts about people like us (and connect more to situational attributions) and tend to place blame on people/groups that are different from us (and connect more to dispositional attributions).
The Vicious Cycle states when certain conditions (prejudices) are assumed to be true, forces may be set in motion to create and perpetuate the assumed condition (leading to discrimination). This allows the dominant group to limit opportunities for the group in the secondary position and continue holding the power position within their group.
Social Learning Theory and Conflict Theory can also offer help in understanding the origins and structures of prejudice and discrimination.
Otis’ story – Within Theories of Racism, Discrimination, and Oppression we would first want to explore how societal or historical beliefs have impacted Otis and his family. As an African American family living in poverty, it may be easy for people to believe stereotypes and prejudices about his family and why they were in their situation, connecting more to dispositional attributions rather than situational attributions. His mother’s arrest may reinforce stereotypes/prejudices and he may feel the effects of the vicious cycle and begin to internalize these thoughts/feelings. We then move to the foster care system, exploring possible issues connected to systemic racism and how this may impact his experience on the micro level. He was first placed with a few different families, all Caucasian, before being placed in a family of same the race, where he was reported to be adjusting well in that environment. He was then placed in his adoptive home with a family of different race and much higher socioeconomic status than his family of origin. Here Otis is reported to struggle with adjustment in all areas (family, school, peers).
What issues do you imagine he is facing in his new home? Macro level concerns could be connected to polices related to foster care and adoption, historical impacts of group experiences, and how discrimination and prejudice can impact marginalized populations. Mezzo level concerns could be connected to interactions with his adoptive family, school, peers, teachers, as well as his family of origin. Micro level concerns could be connected to his mental health needs as he has experienced trauma with removal from his family of origin, adjustments to his foster homes and now adoptive home, possible physical health issues due to chronic stressors, or feeling lack of a support system. 
Social and Economic Justice perspectives:
The promotion of social justice is a core value and ethical principle of the social work profession.

Social Justicejustice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.

Distributive Justice – concept that addresses the ownership of goods in a society. It assumes that there is a large amount of fairness in the distribution of goods. Equal work should provide individuals with an equal outcome in terms of goods acquired or the ability to acquire goods.

Think About It: I encourage you to think about these perspectives. Do you believe this is something we can actually achieve? Is it fair? Why or why not? What are barriers that interfere with this?

Social Change and Social Action perspectives:

Social Action – people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities.
Social Movement – a type of group action which typically focuses on political or social issues.
Advocacy – any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others that lack the skills, resources, or power to represent themselves.
Advocacy is another foundation intervention utilized in Social Work. Our goal is to teach others the skills of how to advocate for themselves but there are times we as Social Workers must step in and provide this support for our clients that cannot do so for themselves. We also support work in Social Action within our communities and across our country to lead to Social Movements to work in making change on the macro level.
Community – can be defined as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common or a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
Territorial Community – geographical type of community.
Relational Community – people, groups, and organizations whose connections are based upon commonalities or identification and are not limited by place or geography.
Community Organization Theory explores 3 contexts Social Workers use to understand community from a macro-based perspective. Please see below:

1. Community as the milieu in which practice actually occurs.

Social Workers help define the weaknesses and/or needs of a community, and what resources or interventions may benefit the community.

Locality Development Model: Social Workers uses the skills of community members to create change. Community members are recruited and organized to discuss issues, possible solutions, and ways to implement interventions.

2. Community as the change target.
Assessments and interventions completed by outside parties, rather than members of the community.
Social Planning Model: Social Workers, or other professionals, take lead on determining community issues, and what
interventions should be used.
Community members “Contract” with outside Social Workers.

3. Community as a mechanism for change.

Community members have the skills and abilities to create change; the Social Worker helps members identify and use their strengths.

Social Action Model: Social Workers empower community members to create change. Social Workers organize and guide the community, but the community must effect the desired change in the end.


It is important to explore the needs of the community to determine which course of action is best to provide the supports for their needs. It is also important to remember to utilize the Strength’s Perspective when working with a community as their strengths will often help determine the supports and solutions needed.
Please continue on to Chapter 6: Social Categorizations and Stereotypes, Chapter 7: In Group Favoritism and Prejudice, Chapter 8: Reducing Discrimination, and Chapter 9: Racism for further exploration and learning.

Key Takeaways:

  • Theories of Racism, Discrimination, and Oppression explores how people are impacted on each level and within their systems.
  • The promotion of social justice is a core value and ethical principle of the social work profession.
  • Territorial Communitygeographical type of community.
  • Relational Communitypeople, groups, and organizations whose connections are based upon commonalities or identification and are not limited by place or geography.
  • Community Organization Theory – 3 Contexts Social Workers use to understand community from a macro-based perspective.
  • Check out this case study, Exploring Unintentional Racism: The Case of Tim Hanks, designed to help you explore your attitudes about race and learn about the complexity of the concept of racism.


Rogers, A. (2013). Human behavior in the social environment (Fourth Edition.) New York: Routledge.


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Human Behavior and the Social Environment I Copyright © 2020 by Susan Tyler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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