Models of Community Practice

Just as there are many ways to define and understand communities, there are many models of community practice. Some models place greater emphasis on mobilizing people at the grassroots while other emphasize the technical nature of problem solving in the macro arena. Some models emphasize the inequality and injustice that exists in most communities and seek to radically alter the broad social structural factors that contribute to these problems. Others believe that people in the community must identify and define problems for themselves and that professionals may be able to support their efforts but they can't do it for them. Some models place considerable emphasis on the process of electoral politics. Others seek to ignore the role of political systems in favor of encouraging local self-reliance, thereby freeing the community from the broader political environment. Some models are most appropriate for mobilizing support for mass movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Nuclear Disarmament Movement, and more recently, the environmental movement. Other models are more suited for addressing locality based problems that are of special concern to local neighborhoods. No mater what model is used, the common thread running through all of these models is people working together to change the conditions that directly effect them in their daily lives.

Basic models of community practice

A number of authors have proposed models or strategies for changing community systems. Each of these models requires that the social worker assume different professional roles which require somewhat specialized professional skill sets. While there is some overlap in the models presented below, they represent models that have been widely used in social work to think about the professional roles for and requisite skills needed by macro social workers.

Hanna & Robinson (1994) identify three basic models of "community empowerment."

The traditional social change model is based on change flowing out of "traditional" electoral politics. The formal political party is viewed as central to this model. It is called traditional because the authors believe it signifies the status quo. That is, they believe interest group politics and political liberalism will yield little by way of benefits to marginalized social groups in the U.S. While it is undeniable that increased participation of minorities and women in elected office is a positive step toward diminishing race and gender discrimination, critics have argued that electoral politics does not bring large numbers of people to a sense of their own power to effect change in their daily lives.

The direct action model is characterized by active resistance or protest to existing conditions or proposed laws or policies. People may join together in temporary mass mobilizations during a broad based national crisis such as happened in the civil rights or anti-war movements. Or, they may come together in small-scale movements that focus on localized issues. Resistance and opposition is based on private values and interests that are openly articulated on a collective basis, coupled with public action.

Transformative strategies are based on an adult model of learning which requires strict adherence to the rules of democracy. It is characterized by a small-group orientation, that emphasizes self-directed learning, interpersonal bonds, linking personal oppression to social structural oppression, and a fully collective approach to group awareness, decision making, and social action. It believes people can't act on their own behalf unless they are aware of the conditions that effect them. Therefore, learning is a process of consciousness raising for social action.

Rothman (1995) also identify three models of community organization and macro practice. Originally developed in 1970, Rothman's three models of community practice have probably been one of the most influential conceptualizations of macro social work practice. Although the models are presented as distinct approaches to macro practice, in reality they are generally "mixed and phased" in order to develop a comprehensive plan of action or organizing paradigm for macro practice.

I refer to the locality development model as bottom-up because it is a self-help, participatory model of change. It is based on the premise that for change to occur, it is necessary to include the broadest possible participation of community citizens. It places a great deal of emphasis on self-determination and democratic process. Professionals can't change the community for the people, they must do that themselves. Professional can provide encouragement, support, expert knowledge, and other resources. They can treat the members of the community with respect and dignity. They can work side-by-side with the residents to create the conditions that make change and empowerment possible. They can help the residents develop knowledge, skills, and self-confidence needed to challenge the status quo. But the people themselves must define the problem and develop a plan for dealing with it.

In a sense it is an extension of the group work model. Considerable attention is given to group dynamics and in some cases the process through which the community defines its problems and develops strategies to resolve them is more important than the change itself. That is, the process of getting people together to discuss their common concerns and to plan for resolving specific problems is critical for effective community development. This model places great emphasis on such things as consensus, cooperation, democratic process, participation, and self-help.

The social planning model is in some ways the opposite of locality development. I refer to it as a top-down model of community change. It emphasizes the technical aspects of solving problems. It assumes that most social problems in large industrial societies are too complex for the average citizen to understand. Therefore, professionals who have specialized expertise must guide and control the change process through the use of technical skills such as sophisticated data collection and analysis and the manipulation of large bureaucratic organizations. Participation on the part of the citizens can vary greatly, but this model often provides little opportunity for citizen input into the planning process. Some have criticized it as an "elitist" model of social change.

When we talk about social planning, I think its worth distinguishing between social planning and physical planning. Social planning is concerned with the provision of goods and services to members of the community. Physical planning is concerned with land use management, zoning ordinances, and the structure of physical facilities. They are generally treated as separate and distinct. However, they are closely related. The way we plan and structure our physical environment can have a tremendous impact on our social environment. For example, new highways cutting through inner-city neighborhoods, dislocation of low-income neighborhoods to make room for a convention center, the design and structure of public housing projects such as the infamous Pruitt-Igo in St. Louis.

The social action model assumes one segment of the community is being overlooked or by-passed. The focus of this model is on organizing those segments of the community to stand-up for their rights, to demand that their needs and concerns be addressed. Emphasis is on bringing about basic change in major social institutions or community practices, and to redistribute power, resources, and decision-making processes in the community or a formal organization. I call this an inside-out model because it starts with a committed core of people who work to develop a collective consciousness among all people who are effected by the conditions. It represents a model which tries to challenge the status-quo through a wide range of disruptive, confrontational, and often conflictive tactics. This model brings issues of social justice, equity, oppression, and discrimination to the forefront of the community's consciousness.

Checkoway (1995) identifies six distinct strategies of community change:

Mass mobilization seeks to bring about change by organizing and massing large numbers of individuals around issues. It assumes that visible public actions can generate power and compel concessions from targets. From this perspective, the issue is the critical focus of the change effort. Therefore, issue selection is very important. Issues must be selected that will appeal to a large number of people. If supporters are not committed to the issue, it is unlikely that mass mobilization will produce significant change. This strategy is often used as a response to existing conditions but rather as an independent force for change. The goal is to win on specific, time-limited issues rather than to create a permanent organization for future change efforts.

The goal of social action is to build powerful organizations at the community level in order to win improvements in people's lives, make people more aware of their own power, and alter the existing power relationships in the community. It is very similar to the social action model defined by Rothman and the direct action model outlined by Hanna and Robinson. This model recognized that organization is instrumental to power. For those who use this model for macro practice, the organization serves to stimulate collective action and generate power in the community.

As a macro practice strategy, citizen participation tries to involve citizens in policy planning and program implementation undertaken by governmental agencies. This strategy takes seriously the statement "government by the people, for the people." It assumes that people should actively participate in their government and that agencies of the government should involve them in matters that affect them. It is based on the premise that participation has significant benefits for both government and citizens. For the government, it can collect and provide information, identify attitudes and opinions, generate new ideas, build constituency support, open up the political process by involving traditional nonparticipants, and develop community organization and cohesion. For citizens, if creates opportunities to gain representation, to exercises political rights, and to influence policy decisions.

Public advocacy is the process of representing the interests of constituents and interest groups in legislative, administrative, or other established institutional arenas. The foundation of this model is the belief that all groups within the community should have representation regardless of their wealth and power. Public advocates tend to be highly experienced, deeply committed, and anxious for change. However, critics often charge that advocates often do not share the socially descriptive characteristics of their client's community, nor do they consult with or remain accountable to the people they claim to represent, involve them in identifying the issues, or help them to advocate for themselves.

Popular education aims to create change by raising critical consciousness about common human need. It assumes that people are able to participate but are temporarily unwilling to do so because they lack competence, confidence, or a common consciousness. Popular education is a form of praxis in which people reflect critically on their objective reality and act on that reflection to "transform the world." Transformation cannot and will not occur unless people's level of consciousness is raised regarding the problems they confront. Paulo Friere (1970) used this method in squatter settlements in Brazil. He brought small groups of people together to describe the themes that dominate their daily lives, discuss these themes as problems to be examined by the group, select several problems for dialogue and reflection, and formulate plans to address the problem. The aim of this model is to alter people consciousness from a state of conforming to reforming to transforming society.

Local service development is a process by which people provide their own services at the community level. It assumes that problems in communities have local solutions and that residents can take local initiatives to help themselves. It is not a form of outside advocacy for local groups (public advocacy), nor a mandated participation in plans originating someplace else (citizen participation). This approach uses a process by which people strengthen themselves as well as their community by working to develop services needed by its members. Supporters have identified a number of benefits of this approach. It can provide psychosocial benefits for participants by reducing isolation and increasing interaction. It can contribute to organizational development by setting priorities and implementing programs. It can improve the delivery of services by making them more responsive to community needs. It can increase accessibility, acceptability, and availability of services.


Checkoway, B. (1995). Six strategies of community change. Community development journal, 30 (1), 2-20.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Hanna, M. & Robinson, B. (1994). Strategies for community empowerment. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Rothman, J. (1995). Approaches to Community Intervention. In Rothman, J., Erlich, J. L. & Tropman, J. E. (Eds.). Strategies of Community Intervention, Fifth Edition. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc., p. 26-63.

Back to Syllabus