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Assignment: Human Services Organizations as Systems

Social workers use the person-in-environment approach to understand the relationship between individuals and their physical and social environments. This ecological perspective is a framework that is based on concepts associated with systems theory. Systems theory guides social workers when they assess how factors in the environment such as school, work, culture, and social policy impact the individual. Although social workers commonly use the systems approach to focus on the individual, they may apply this approach to human services organizations as well. Human services organizations exist within the context of the social, economic, and political environments, and any type of change in one aspect of the environment will influence the organization’s internal and external functioning.

For this Assignment, consider how administrators of human services organizations may apply systems theory in their work. Also, consider what you have discovered about the roles of leadership and management and how these contribute to an organization’s overall functioning.

Assignment (2–3 pages in APA format): Explain how systems theory can help administrators understand the relationships between human services organizations and their environments. Provide specific examples of ways administrators might apply systems theory to their work. Finally, explain how leadership and management roles within human services organizations contribute to their overall functioning.

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Administration in Social Work

ISSN: 0364-3107 (Print) 1544-4376 (Online) Journal homepage:

Theoretical Perspectives on the Social
Environment to Guide Management and
Community Practice
An Organization-in-Environment Approach

Elizabeth A. Mulroy PhD

To cite this article: Elizabeth A. Mulroy PhD (2004) Theoretical Perspectives on the Social
Environment to Guide Management and Community Practice, Administration in Social Work, 28:1,
77-96, DOI: 10.1300/J147v28n01_06

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Published online: 23 Sep 2008.

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Theoretical Perspectives
on the Social Environment to Guide

Management and Community Practice:
An Organization-in-Environment Approach

Elizabeth A. Mulroy, PhD

ABSTRACT. This paper introduces a conceptual framework called Or-
ganization-in-Environment that is intended to help social work students,
particularly those preparing for careers in management and community
practice, understand the complexity of the social environment in the con-
text of a global economy. This model is based on two assumptions. First,
organizations and communities are embedded in large, complex macro
systems that helped to create institutional barriers of the past. Second, or-
ganizations are civic actors with the potential to strengthen communities
and change institutional inequities set in larger societal systems. Theories
of social justice, the political economy, vertical and horizontal linkages,
organization/environment dimensions, and interorganizational collabora-
tion are presented and used to help analyze the model. Case examples of
privatization, gentrification, and homelessness are used to illustrate theory
for practice. Finally, implications are drawn for a future-oriented practice
that emphasizes external relations and their political dimensions: strategic
management, interorganizational collaboration, community building, re-
gional action, and a commitment to social justice. [Article copies available
for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH.
E-mail address: <[email protected]> Website: <http://www.HaworthPress.
com> © 2004 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

Elizabeth A. Mulroy is Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of
Maryland-Baltimore, 525 West Redwood Street, Baltimore, MD 21201 (E-mail:
[email protected]).

The author thanks Michael J. Austin for his very helpful comments on earlier versions
of the article.

Administration in Social Work, Vol. 28(1) 2004

 2004 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
Digital Object Identifier: 10.1300/J147v28n01_06 77

KEYWORDS. Social justice, social environment theory, organizational
change, social change, community theory, collaboration

The purpose of this paper is to examine the concept of the social environment and
to consider some theoretical perspectives of management and community practice.
The study of macro level factors begins with an examination of the social environ-
ment; namely understanding how people interact–how they respond, adapt, and
cope with family, friends, peers, and intimate others, and how they interact in less
personal relationships within work organizations, schools, or associations in which a
person assumes a role as citizen, producer, consumer, or client. It should then exam-
ine social norms, social institutions, and institutional arrangements–the working
agreements about the distribution of wealth, power, prestige, privilege associated
with race, ethnicity, gender, age, mental status, or sexual orientation. While de-
signed to create stability for society, institutional arrangements can be a source of
conflict for those who experience institutional inequities (Mulroy, 1995a).

Students of management and community practice, and in fact all social work stu-
dents, need to critically examine how macro level factors affect the lives of people
who live in neighborhoods and communities, especially the lives of very low-income
children and their families who live in neighborhood poverty. Gephart (1997) writes:

Existing research suggests the interaction of several forces in American
cities over the past fifty years has led to the increased spatial concentration
of poverty, the geographic spread of concentrated poverty, and the in-
creased clustering of poverty with other forms of social and economic dis-
advantage. These forces have altered the context of urban poverty at the
community level and created the neighborhoods and communities of con-
centrated poverty . . . (1994, pp. 3-4)

The concept of the social environment becomes more holistic when we in-
clude the physical environment, especially in relation to land use and population
distribution (Norlin & Chess, 1997). The question for management and commu-
nity practice is how do we understand the social environment in this way, and
how do we educate students to manage and change it?

While a discussion of the social environment usually begins with community
theory and organization theory as if communities and organizations were separate
topics, a broader and more integrated conceptual framework is needed for the edu-
cational task at hand. Communities and organizations are located in larger, com-
plex systems as part of an ecology of shifting resources and constraints. Based on
a theoretical foundation that informs this reality, the next generation of practitio-
ners will need to:


• Identify and understand the critical strategic issues external to their organi-

• Assess the inter-relatedness and cross-cutting impacts of the issues.
• Analyze how the issues affect their agency’s mission, purposes, resources,

and operations.
• Learn which other organizations are affected across a range of community

types such as geographic community and communities of interest.
• Determine which theoretical perspectives offer guidance to inform a range

of practice innovations that will help to solve the presenting problems
while holding firm to the overriding goal of social justice.

This article examines the social environment by building on social systems and
ecological theories (not reviewed here) in order to focus on the political economy,
vertical and horizontal linkages, organization-environment relations, and inter-
organizational collaboration. These are selected for illustrative purposes to dem-
onstrate how they can inform macro-level practice. The goal of helping students
understand the social environment is related to the following four points:

1. The social environment and the physical environment are tightly linked
and intertwined.

2. Factors and relationships external to an organization are important.
3. Public policies and societal factors are continuous forces of change not

only for organizations but also for the communities in which organizations
are located.

4. A commitment to social justice is a core principle that frames management
and community practice.


Social Justice

Social justice, a core value of social work (Reamer, 2000), drives the model
(see Figure 1). Social justice has historically guided reformers and social workers
to re-frame the pressing social issues of the times and to engage in the complex
work of finding solutions to vexing societal problems (Addams, 1910; Wald,
1915; Schorr, 1964; Schorr, 1997; Patti, 2000). Today this means confronting the
rearrangement of institutional barriers that emerged in our urban areas during the
past 30 years–barriers that helped to create and sustain neighborhood poverty that
continue to affect the health and well-being of residents and prevent the advance-
ment of many very low-income people, especially minorities.

Elizabeth A. Mulroy 79

The starting point for most discussions of social justice is the theory of justice
developed by philosopher John Rawls (1972) who proposed three guiding prin-
ciples: equality in basic liberties, equality of opportunity for advancement, and
positive discrimination for the underprivileged in order to ensure equity. Rawls
derived these principles of justice on what he believed reasonable people, with
no prior knowledge or stake in the outcome, would apply to a society in which
they were to live (Ife, 1996).

Ife (1996) moves the analysis of social justice from the individual to the commu-
nity level. Following Ife’s thinking, social justice at the macro level is based on six


Social Justice

Level 3
Societal/Policy Forces

Level 2
Locality-Based Community

AgencyLevel 1



Job, Housing,

Education, Services

Economic Globalization
Market Economy

Mulroy, E. 2003

FIGURE 1. Organization-in-Environment: A Conceptual Framework

principles: structural disadvantage, empowerment, needs, rights, peace and non-vio-
lence, and participatory democracy. He argues that unless changes are made to the
basic structures of oppression, which create and perpetuate an unequal and inequita-
ble society, any social justice strategy has limited value. “. . . all programmes that
claim a social justice label need to be evaluated in terms of their relationship with the
dominant forms of structural oppression, specifically class, gender, and race/ethnic-
ity” (1996, p. 55). He believes that a specific commitment to addressing the inequal-
ities of class, gender and race/ethnicity must be a core element of any social justice
strategy, and the guiding principle of community practice (p. 56).

Harvey (1973), writing from an economic and urban perspective states, “The
evidence suggests that the forces of urbanization are emerging strongly and
moving to dominate the centre stage of world history . . . We have the opportu-
nity to create space, to harness creatively the forces making for urban differenti-
ation. But in order to seize these opportunities we have to confront the forces that
create cities as alien environments, that push urbanization in directions alien to
our individual or collective purpose. To confront these forces we first have to
understand them” (pp. 313-314). That is, social workers must first understand
how the forces of oppression operate across a metropolitan landscape in order to
devise strategies capable of bringing about lasting change.

Levels of Influence

Figure 1 depicts a social environment in which communities and agencies are
part of larger systems. The first set of arrows suggests that macro level factors Im-
pact communities and the organizations in them. The second set of arrows sug-
gests that organizations and communities work to find Solutions to help break
down or change oppressive institutional barriers in the larger society. The circular
pattern emphasizes the interconnectedness of the ideas presented (Ife, 1996).

Level 3–Societal/Policy Factors

Macro level factors include, but are not limited to the market economy,
globalization, immigration, poverty, and a range of public policies. Institu-
tional arrangements are formulated at Level 3. These may include, for exam-
ple, international real estate investment and financial lending decisions and
supportive public policies related to housing and urban development; na-
tional or regional labor market needs and supportive federal policies and reg-
ulations related to immigration; medical, managed care, and health facilities
decisions driven by insurance companies; or shifting national political prior-
ities toward privatization of public services generally and the adoption of a
contracting and purchase of services culture.

Elizabeth A. Mulroy 81

Political Economy. The political economy concerns the intersection of events
and decisions in a community and the wider polity that have economic implica-
tions and political considerations. For example, the political economy involves
powerful elite forces that own and control economic capital, use economic re-
sources to promote industrial growth, and compete for control over modes of pro-
duction and resources. Land, for example, is considered an economic resource to
be brought to its highest and best use. The urban political economy creates the
physical environment through real estate development and the highly politicized
processes of land use planning and zoning with their manifestations in state and
local-level land use plans, governance, and control (Feagin, 1998; Gottdiener,
1994; Lefebrvre, 1991). In The Political Economy of the Black Ghetto, Tabb
(1970) asserted that racism is perpetuated by elements of oppression within an
economic and political system that must be understood as a system (p. vii).

The political economy can also be applied to organizations and their environ-
ments (Hasenfeld, 1983; 1992). The capacity of a human service organization to
survive and to deliver services in the 21st century is based on its ability to mobi-
lize power, legitimacy, and economic resources (Hasenfeld, 1992, p. 96). For
nonprofit organizations this is reflected in the increased degree of dependency
on resources external to their own organizations from federal and state grants
and contracts, and private philanthropic grants from foundations (Gibelman,
2000; Martin, 2000). Functions of management include the acquisition of a wide
range of external funding, financial control through management of multiple
grants and contracts, impacts on program implementation, competition among
internal programs for scarce resources, and effects on organization-wide fiscal
stability (Gummer, 1990). Implications of resource dependency include the po-
litical effects on nonprofit and public human service agencies when national and
state budget priorities shift, and newly elected legislative bodies fail to
reauthorize allocated funds for existing demonstration and other programs
mid-stream in their implementation cycles (Mulroy & Lauber, 2002). The con-
cept of privatization is used in the following example to illustrate the ways in
which macro level factors can operate in the social environment, in this case on
agencies directly. (A range of diverse macro level factors can be introduced in
Level 3 for purposes of analysis.)

Example: Privatization. Privatization is the shifting of service delivery from
the public sector to the private for-profit and nonprofit sectors through contracts
and the purchase of services. It is a market-oriented approach in which individ-
ual nonprofit human service organizations compete for public funds on an un-
even playing field. It increased competition first within the nonprofit sector as
large and small nonprofits vied with each other for public sector contracts in a
period of overall reduced federal expenditures for domestic social services.
Competition then increased outside the sector as nonprofits had to compete with


private firms. Hard hit were community-based nonprofit organizations with so-
cial change missions (Fabricant & Fisher, 2002).

The for-profit sector has benefited from privatization, particularly after pas-
sage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. Highly
resourced, large corporations with no ties to local communities offered large
state and county agencies the chance to purchase packages of diverse services
that included management information systems, welfare-to-work job training
programs, Medicaid billing, case management, and direct services to recipients
(Frumkin & Andre-Clark, 2000).

Many smaller nonprofit human service organizations faced serious dilemmas
such as being priced out of existence, scaling back services to the poorest or
sickest, and proving in the short term that their interventions get results. When
viewed from a social justice perspective, implications of privatization can be
drawn for service equity, access, cost, continuity, and quality of care (see
Gibelman & Demone, 2002).

Level 2–The Geographic Community

Institutional arrangements developed in Level 3 are absorbed and imple-
mented in Level 2. The locality-based community can be a neighborhood, city,
county, or other jurisdiction with boundaries and an interactional field (Warren,
1978) of subunits that serve collective needs. The locality-based definition of
community for Level 2 was selected because it has a geographic boundary, be it
a neighborhood, city, or county that students in field placement internships can
readily identify. Other definitions of community can be woven in as needed (see
Fellin, 2001).

Vertical Links as “Windows on the World.” The pioneering work of Roland
Warren (1971; 1977; 1978) provides a powerful and provocative concept for an-
alyzing communities in terms of their horizontal and vertical patterns. The hori-
zontal pattern is understood to be an “interactional field” that viewed
community as the aggregate of people and organizations occupying a geo-
graphic area whose interactions represent systemic interconnections (1978). He
explicitly stated that the interactional arena was of social rather than physical
space. The importance of vertical ties was that they linked community units to
units outside the community, or to the macro system and thus to the larger soci-
ety and culture. Such ties could have a number of aspects that were economic,
thought systems or ideologies, economic roles or occupations, technologies,
public behavior, common values and norms, patterns of land use, social stratifi-
cation, power structures, organizational linkages, and social problems (Warren,
1978, pp. 432-437).

Elizabeth A. Mulroy 83

The concept of a vertical pattern of ties is an intriguing idea to me because it
introduces this question: To what extent does the strength of a community’s ver-
tical ties determine the resources and support it gets from national, state, city, or
county sources in an increasingly global economy? My interest in this question
launched the trajectory of my own research based on the macro system ap-
proach. I have attempted to systematically analyze relationships between as-
pects of the macro system and community subunits (see for example, Mulroy,
2000; 1997; 1995a; 1988; Mulroy & Shay, 1997; Mulroy & Shay, 1998; Mulroy &
Lauber, 2002). The reported findings suggest that a community’s physical envi-
ronment is tightly linked with the social environment; patterns of land use such
as urban sprawl can determine the status of a community’s health and the
well-being of its residents; and in the global economy economic decisions made
by multi-national firms with no national or local community affiliation or loy-
alty profoundly affect both. The gentrification of a community will serve to il-
lustrate these concepts.

Example: Gentrification. Staying with the theme of neighborhood and con-
centrated poverty introduced at the beginning of the paper, the concept of gentri-
fication is used to illustrate two main points; namely the decline of urban
neighborhoods and urban sprawl.

First, the decline of many urban neighborhoods was part of a larger pattern of
urbanization and sprawl that occurred over decades. Federal and state housing
and urban policies, for example, are examples of vertical links that attempted to
respond to urban blight in inner city neighborhoods and central business districts
by targeting deteriorating commercial districts and residential neighborhoods
for revitalization. Housing is a connector between the physical and social envi-
ronments in all neighborhoods, including those targeted for gentrification.
Housing concerns affordability, security, safety, health, neighbor and social re-
lations, and confers status. The location of housing determines a household’s ac-
cess to facilities, services, jobs, transportation systems, safety, and quality
schools (Mulroy, 1995a; 1988). It affects the formation of social networks, and
thus the ability of residents to build social and human capital (Coleman, 1988;
Wilson, 1996). Federal and state housing policies require cities and counties to
have land use plans, and housing is a core element.

The increasingly high cost of suburban housing made the revitalized districts
attractive to many people who worked in the central business district and they
were enticed to move back into the urban core. The return of upper- and mid-
dle-income people to the central city was an explicit public policy and an eco-
nomic development goal of gentrification. New mixed-income communities
were created that stabilized entire city blocks. Gentrified neighborhoods, how-
ever, tended to displace and disperse many local very-low income residents and
furthered their downward mobility in search of rental housing they could afford


(Mulroy, 1988). Most urban neighborhoods, however, did not receive public and
private investments for gentrification.

From the political economy perspective, the processes of urbanization such
as real estate and financial lending decisions made by national and multi-na-
tional firms with vertical ties to a neighborhood–and bolstered by help from sup-
portive federal housing and urban development policies–changed the spatial
organization of communities with serious impacts on poor neighborhoods
(Feagin, 1998). For example, our understanding of where people live in a city
and why they live there has traditionally been guided by concentric zone theory
developed in the 1920s. Simply put, ecological processes result in city growth
and development that evolve outward in five zones of concentric rings: (1) the
central business district, (2) transitional manufacturing zone, (3) worker housing
close to low-wage manufacturing jobs, (4) higher income housing, and (5) the
suburbs. (See Fellin, 2001 for a more complete discussion.) The theory of hous-
ing filtration postulates that as low-wage households in worker housing save
money they would seek better housing and move out to the next residential zone,
freeing up their multi-family housing for the next group of low-wage workers,
typically new immigrant groups. Housing “filtered” down in this pattern of sup-
ply and demand. Over time, this “filtering” of the housing market was the basis
for private builders to construct new housing in the suburbs. Housing has always
been a private market function in America, and therefore private developers ra-
tionally build where the demand for expensive housing and therefore greater
profits will be highest–the suburbs. It was assumed that there would always be
an adequate supply of housing stock for the poor in older inner-neighborhoods
(Mulroy, 1995b).

Second, the effects of urban sprawl have restructured communities and nei-
ther concentric zone theory nor housing filtration may work as theorized.
When a neighborhood was gentrified “reverse” housing filtration took place.
Neighborhoods had vertical ties to aspects of the macro system, particularly
through political, economic, and organizational linkages (Warren, 1978). For
example, as manufacturing wound down and firms relocated to cheaper points
of production in the suburbs, rural “exurbs,” or to international locations with
cheaper labor costs, inner-city plants were closed and often abandoned. Neigh-
borhoods around them began to decline. Many insurance companies and banks
not horizontally linked in the neighborhood’s interactional field habitually de-
nied loans to home buyers and small entrepreneurs in many of these deteriorat-
ing inner-city neighborhoods. Red lines were drawn on maps to identify
communities in which investment was considered a bad risk. The Community
Reinvestment Act of 1977 made this practice of redlining neighborhoods ille-
gal, but it still persists, resulting in large pockets of urban decline.

Elizabeth A. Mulroy 85

Low-income residents who lived there had limited access to jobs that paid a
living wage and thus no ability to save and move out to zones with better housing
and living conditions. Absentee landlords, not horizontally linked in the com-
munity’s interactional field, owned most multi-family housing and apartment
buildings in declining inner-city neighborhoods as investments to make money.
Rather than make needed repairs, they often let buildings run down and aban-
doned them. Residents had no access to capital to purchase or improve the hous-
ing in which they lived, or to start or improve a business. The impacts of the flow
of capital out of these neighborhoods and the absence of vertical links for posi-
tive community building purposes can be seen today in urban neighborhoods
rife with rising poverty, failing schools, abandoned buildings, poor public ser-
vices, and increased levels of crime (Richmond, 2000).

At the time these neighborhoods were in decline, highway construction pro-
liferated from central business districts out to the sprawling new suburbs. Less
expensive housing was built in rural areas far from central cities but near new
super highways. This made it easier for commuters to get to work in the central
cities but the highways cut through and divided the old working class inner-city
neighborhoods in the process. Traffic congestion and air pollution increased as
these new patterns of land use development were repeated across America.

The point of the gentrification example is to highlight how dynamic
changes in a specific geographic community are driven by external forces that
may work to decrease the strength of local horizontal ties as vertical ties to dis-
tant but influential and powerful sources increase. Such vertical ties, however,
may have negative or positive impacts on a target community as the gentrifica-
tion example illustrates. While some vertical ties served to extract capital, oth-
ers were used to infuse capital and improve neighborhood conditions.

This conceptualization helps the practitioner to monitor local community
conditions in terms of the patterns of horizontal and vertical links. That analysis
can then be related to: (1) the structure of the housing market relative to the
availability of safe, habitable, and affordable housing, (2) location of public
transit lines relative to employment for low-wage workers, (3) access to finan-
cial capital (banks, credit unions), basic needs (groceries, pharmacy, clothing
stores, health clinics, public schools), social capital (outreach offices for social
services, family support centers), (4) physically safe and environmentally
healthy places for children to play, and (5) culturally appropriate services for
new immigrant groups.

Level 1–The Organization

Both macro level forces in Level 3 and the ways they are executed and imple-
mented in Level 2, in turn, influence individual agencies. It is understood that
many agencies are not community-oriented, but because their client groups may


live in unhealthy and unsafe neighborhood environments, civic infrastructure is
a matter for agency concern.

The model of Organization-in-Environment (Figure 1) makes the following
three assumptions. First, the organization’s internal/external boundary is porous,
so environmental surveillance and solution-finding are continuous and therefore
strategic. Second, social workers need to be active community leaders at the deci-
sion making table when complex coalitions are formed, issued framed and de-
bated, tough political decisions made, and Solutions created (see arrows in Figure 1).
Since an environment is dynamic, changes to agency structure, resource base, or
functions can be anticipated not only from the organizational life cycle perspective
(Hasenfeld & Schmid, 1989) but also from an ecological perspective as adapta-
tions to the influences from Levels 3 and 2. Third, organizational behavior is
guided by effectiveness, efficiency, and equity criteria. Effectiveness and effi-
ciency are considered criteria for good internal management generally. Equity re-
flects the social justice criteria and all three criteria need to be in balance as noted
in Figure 1. Two theoretical perspectives are introduced next; namely, organiza-
tional-environment relations and inter-organizational collaboration.

Organizational-Environment Relations. The relationship between formal or-
ganizations and their external environments has interested a number of organi-
zational sociologists and social work theorists for many years (Aldrich, 1979;
Alter & Hague, 1993; Gummer, 1990; Hasenfeld, 1983; Lawrence & Lorsch,
1969; Schmid, 1992; 2000; Zald, 1970). Theorists once differentiated between a
general environment of …

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