Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 07 December 2023

Human Needs: Overviewfree

Human Needs: Overviewfree

  • Michael A. DoverMichael A. DoverSchool of Social Work, Cleveland State University


Human need and related concepts such as basic needs have long been part of the implicit conceptual foundation for social work theory, practice, and research. However, although the published literature in social work has long stressed social justice, and has incorporated discussion of human rights, human need has long been both a neglected and contested concept. In recent years, the explicit use of human needs theory has begun to have a significant influence on the literature in social work.


  • Ethics and Values
  • Human Behavior
  • International and Global Issues
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Updated in this version

Sections have been rewritten to reflect the most up-to-date resources. Additional sections and bibliographical items have been added.


Since the work of Abraham Maslow (1943, 1971), the theory of human need (THN) proposed two basic human needs—physical health and autonomy of agency—and 11 intermediate needs (Doyal & Gough, 1984, 1991; Gough, 2015a, 2017a, 2017b, 2020). Self-determination theory acknowledged physiological needs (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000; Ryan, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2017) and developed five mini-theories—including a basic psychological need theory—that focused on three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Considerable material using theories of human need can be found in peer-reviewed journal articles published by social workers (Balyejjusa, 2019, 2022a; Chaumba & Locklear, 2021; Dennis et al., 2012; Dover, 2009; Geenen et al., 2015; Gold, 1990; Hölscher et al., 2020; Itzhaki-Braun & Sulimani-Aidan, 2022; Jani & Reisch, 2011; Joseph, 1986a; Kennedy & Gregoire, 2009; Kirzner et al., 2021; Martin et al., 2011; Masters, 2006; Powers et al., 2018; Salazar et al., 2018; Wells & Short, 2010).

Significantly, there have been a growing number of social work dissertations addressing human need (Bulanda, 2008; K. Caffrey, 2019; Ferron, 2007; Hage-Yehia, 1983; Halarewicz, 2020; Joseph, 1986b; Kennedy, 2005; Link, 2011; Ritholz, 2011; Tian, 2015; J. Williams, 2022), discussed in this or previous articles (Dover, 2010, 2016a, 2016b; Dover & Joseph, 2008) or those listed in Further Reading.

History of Theories of Human Need in Social Work

Social workers have long linked access to social services to addressing basic human needs (Reamer, 2018a). The dissertation of the late Barbara Hunter Randall Joseph (1986b) studied the early 20th-century history of the concept of human needs. The plates of the federally published work of Common Human Needs (Towle, 1945) were destroyed during the McCarthy era (Posner, 1995) but later republished by the American Association of Social Workers and the National Association of Social Workers (Towle, 1952, 1957).

The 1956 “Working Definition of Social Work Practice” (Bartlett, 2003) stated that one of the six philosophical concepts “basic to the practice of social work” was, “There are human needs common to each person, yet each person is essentially unique and different from others” (p. 6). Discussing that definition, Gordon (1965) stressed that “maximum realization of each individual’s potential for development” toward their “humanness” is “probably the highest expression of a belief in human dignity” (p. 38). Levy (1973, p. 40, as cited in Reamer, 2018a) went further in characterizing such values as among “preferred outcomes for people,” not just for instrumental reasons, “but because it is ‘right’—that is, because it is something to which social workers must regard themselves as committed.”

Wilensky and Lebeaux (1958) contended that advanced social welfare systems require an integrative view of human needs. Although Maslow (1943) had warned that field theory should not be a substitute for needs theory, Kahn (1957) expressed concern about complex and confusing conceptual problems with early human needs theory.

By the mid-20th century, social work turned to Lewin’s (1947) field theory and Hearn’s (1979) general systems theory as the cornerstones of social work’s ecosystems perspective.

Germain (1979) anticipated key principles of both the theory of human need (THN) and self-determination theory (SDT), including “identity formation, autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others,” which Germain stated were universal but can shift “across cultures and historical era” (p. 11).

Similar sources and concepts influenced SDT (Deci & Ryan, 1980a, 1980b). Both Germain (1979) and Deci and Ryan (1985) cited the work on competence of Robert White (1959). White cited the work on autonomy of Hartmann (1950) and Rapaport (1958). Moreover, a major concern of White (1959) was the parent–child relationship and the notion of effectance, a concept like competence.

However, Thyer and Morris (2008) noted that Germain (1987) said social work needed more research on competence. Furthermore, Germain (1987) became critical of the concept of autonomy. As for relatedness, Germain noted that attachment theory contended that only centrally important emotional relationships were fundamental. In this way, Germain (1987) anticipated THN’s focus on significant primary relationships (Doyal & Gough, 1991). Gold (1990) concluded in Social Work that principles of SDT had implications for social worker use-of-self to clarify client goals and reinforce client motivation.

During the 1990s, Gil became the primary proponent of human needs theory within social work. Gil contended (1998, p. 107) that the satisfaction of basic human needs requires overcoming “obstacles to need fulfillment and human development” within violence-producing, alienating, and exploitive social structures. For a special section on Gil’s work, see Dover (2016a). Work by Reamer (1993) and Timms (1983) informed the extensive human need content in the Code of Ethics (National Association of Social Workers, 1996, 2022).

Needs Theory in Social Work’s Interdisciplinary Foundations

In philosophy, Brock and Miller (2019) proposed more explicit and theoretically informed needs talk, noting that liberal philosophers of distributive justice had sidelined attention to concepts of human need. They contended that Rawls (1971) “pays no specific attention to needs” (p. 13), despite attention to primary goods in later work (Rawls, 2001). However, interdisciplinary empirical research has used Rawls’ work and self-determination theory (SDT) to study primary goods and levels of basic psychological need satisfaction (Bradshaw et al., 2023).

Brock (2018) and Barsky (2022) have discussed Marx’s phrase “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (Marx, 1978, p. 531). Brock (2018, p. 14) also cited Frankfurt (1998) and stressed that needs are morally important when harm ensues from unmet need and when a person has no voluntary control over avoiding such harm. Brock (2018) noted that Wiggins (1998) saw serious harm as the moral compass for understanding how social forces beyond individual control produce unmet vital needs. Brock (2020, 2021) has also used needs theory to discuss global migration.

In political science, political theory, and international relations, Floyd (2017) has argued that solidarist institutions—those that are based on widely accepted norms and values—should be subject to a moral evaluation based on the extent to which they address basic human needs. Gough (2015b) proposed a reconceptualization of primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention as upstream, midstream, and downstream social intervention, respectively. Dineen (2017, p. 52) distinguished between non-arbitrary needs common to all humans and more arbitrary interests and wants as a basis for talking about needs. For similar points, see debates about struggles over needs (Fraser, 1989a, 1989b; Hölscher et al., 2020).

In economics, Gough (2015a) proposed the use of needs theory—rather than preference theory—for responding to global climate change. Kapp (2011) also championed explicit attention to human need, seeing it as a “central analytical tool needed by a humanized economic science” (p. 96).

In sociology, Sayer (2007) called for a “needs-based conception of social being,” which recognizes that people are “capable of flourishing or suffering” (p. 241). Estes (2008) drew upon the theory of human need (THN) to contend that human needs are objective, universal, and transcultural. Wolbring et al. (2013) concluded there has been little theoretical work on human need. A needs-based sociological theorization of human injustice contended that oppression, exploitation, mechanistic dehumanization, or all three—absent primary and secondary prevention—produce systematic inequality in opportunities to access satisfiers of human need, producing wrongfully unmet needs (Dover, 2019).

In psychology, Ryan et al. found a “convergence of evidence on human needs from multiple disciplines, ranging from biology to sociology” (Ryan, Bradshaw, et al., 2019, p. 407) and reiterated the “the openness of SDT’s scientific agenda” during an era of “multidisciplinary behavioral science” (Ryan, Soenens, et al., 2019, p. 136).

In anthropology, Antweiler (2016) discussed Brown’s work on human universals (Brown, 1991, 2013). Brown’s (2017) review of Antweiler defended the latter’s view that “universals and particulars are both indispensable in understanding humanity” (p. 213). Antweiler (2016) defined universals as “characteristics shared by all humanity” (p. 32). Antweiler also discussed approaches to anti-racist, anti-oppressive anthropology and said that understanding human universals has value for psychotherapy and intercultural counseling.

An interdisciplinary analysis of the link between human need and social justice (Traub & Kittel, 2020) included an introduction (Traub, 2020) and chapters from philosophy (Siebel & Schramme, 2020), psychology (Diederich, 2020), sociology (Kittel, 2020), political science (Nullmeier et al., 2020), and economics (Nicklisch & Paetzel, 2020), as well as an incipient pluralistic theory of need-based distributive justice (Nullmeier, 2020). Traub (2020) credited THN and SDT, Wiggins (1998), and Brock (2009) for putting “need satisfaction center stage in a monistic theory of justice” (pp. 7–8).

Traub (2020) portrayed THN and the work of Brock (2009) as non-pluralistic, monist needs-based theorizations of human need. Nullmeier (2020) criticized such monistic approaches—in which need is the primary criterion of justice—and proposed a combination model: a pluralistic need-based theory of justice with several different criteria of justice, including need.

Theories of Human Need

Holden et al. (2018, p. 39) summarized Maslow’s work and its view that physiological needs were “the most dominant of human needs.” Maslow (1943) contended that when those needs were unsatisfied, “all other needs may become simply non-existent or be pushed into the background” (p. 371). Ryan and Deci (2017, p. 92) rejected such a hierarchy, saying that people can neither psychologically thrive nor live healthily by satisfying physiological needs alone. Doyal and Gough (1991) also did not see a hierarchy between health and autonomy of agency.

Ryan and Deci (2017, p. 93) noted that there is little empirical evidence for a hierarchy of needs. Deci (1975) recognized that persons whose “lower order needs are not satisfied are still concerned with behavior to promote self-determination” (p. 84). Noltemeyer et al. (2020), while noting the lack of empirical validation of Maslow’s hierarchy, have used Maslow’s hierarchy for ongoing longitudinal empirical research. Their study addressed practical concerns such as the unmet needs of public school students from poor families and sought to ascertain “whether or how to put the theory into practice” (p. 5).

Narvaez (2018) drew upon Maslow’s work to research the impact of unmet needs on children’s moral development and concluded that unmet needs thwart need satisfaction and produce toxic stress that undermines physical and mental health. Tarsha and Narvaez (2022) discussed the evolution of communal practices to address basic needs and saw an innate motivation to meet needs as one aspect of human neurobiological development—especially in the right brain hemisphere during the early years of life—which is key to the full development of moral capacities.

The approach to human needs of Alderfer (Alderfer, 1969; Alderfer et al., 1974) has also continued to spark interest—including in nursing research drawing on SDT (Turner & Reed, 2022)—on the grounds that its concepts of existence, relatedness, and growth draw on Maslow but avoid its hierarchical flaws, as was noted by Diederich (2020). Research drawing on Alderfer’s approach has also utilized SDT to develop a caregiving ambition framework (Bear, 2019).

Holden et al. (2018) summarized THN and the work of Max-Neef (1991, 2011), whose promotion of human-scale development was people-centered rather than commodity-focused. Max-Neef (1991) distinguished fundamental human needs from their culturally disparate needs satisfiers. Max-Neef viewed needs and satisfiers as having a one to many—and many to one—relationship. One need may have many satisfiers, and one satisfier may meet many needs. However, Max-Neef (1991) recognized that those needs are quite few and that they are both classifiable and satisfiable, a perspective also followed by THN. According to Holden et al. (2018), Max-Neef distinguished needs from satisfiers, and also contended that human needs have been “the same in all cultures and in all historical periods” (p. 37).

Noonan (2006a) compared the rights and needs of people and of capital—a subject also discussed by Gough (2000)—and proposed a needs-based reconceptualization of democracy. Noonan (2012) distinguished between objective organic life requirements and more comprehensive conceptualizations of need and defended both as universal. Noonan (2014) contended that human need theories can inform a deep critique of capitalism and can help envision the nature of human flourishing. Noonan (2004, 2006a, 2006b) concluded that social theory has underemphasized need deprivation and that realization of a thickly construed conceptualization of human need satisfaction requires fundamentally challenging property rights.

Dean’s Understanding Human Need (2010, 2020a) presented a vertical typology of needs: top-down needs, which are seen abstractly, and practical needs, the kind of bottom-up needs that are seen daily. Dean also distinguished between thin needs necessary to avoid harm and thick needs necessary for people to flourish.

For Fletcher (2021), thick concepts are those such as courageous and cruel—which require evaluation and description—as opposed to thinner concepts such as good or bad, which help decide a prudent and pragmatic course of action. Dean (2013) stressed that rights have their origins in negotiation among people as to how to recognize, claim, and address their needs. Despite the variety of needs-based approaches briefly discussed here, SDT and THN are together the predominant theories of human need currently in use.

Theory of Human Need of Doyal and Gough

The THN of Len Doyal and of Ian Gough was the first formal, philosophically constructed theory of human need. The theory posited a hierarchical relationship between societal preconditions needed for either basic need satisfaction (Figure 1, column 1) or human liberation (Figure 1, column 2). Among the universal preconditions for basic needs are social systems of production, reproduction, cultural transmission, and political authority (Figure 1, box A).

Figure 1. Theories of human need: Theory of human need (THN) and self-determination theory (SDT).

Sources: Used with permission and adapted from Doyal and Gough (1991, Figure 8.2, p. 170) and Gough (2017a, Figure 2.1, p. 43), as used with permission and extended in Dover (2019, Figure 1), published by Sage Publications via Creative Commons 4.0 Box I was suggested by Ian Gough (personal communication, April 2022), with graphical enhancements by Karla Fitch.

Boxes B and C in Figure 1 show that these systems enable culturally specifically need satisfiers, which represent culturally and environmentally varying ways of achieving at least a minimally optimal level of the intermediate needs shown in Figure 1, box C: adequately nutritional food and water, adequate protective housing, non-hazardous work and physical environments, appropriate health care, security in childhood, significant primary relationships, physical security, economic security; safe birth control and childbearing, and basic education (Doyal & Gough, 1991; Gough, 2000).

Although the specific satisfiers of intermediate needs vary by culture and environment, they all have universal characteristics. For instance, food must be available, adequate, and nutritional. Doyal and Gough (1991) contended that “the specific needs of women . . . include free and safe access to contraception and abortion” (p. 140), as a constitutional right, without which their life chances would not be equal to men. Young children require special security (Figure 1, box C).

Intermediate needs must be satisfied to meet two primary basic needs—physical health and autonomy of agency. In turn, optimally realizing two universal goals—social participation and the avoidance of serious harm (Doyal, 1998; Doyal & Gough, 1991)—requires meeting both basic needs. Doyal and Gough (1991) viewed autonomy of agency as a construct related to mental health, cognitive non-deprivation, and lack of unduly restricted opportunities for choice.

Unmet human needs for health and autonomy can also lead to mental illness, cognitive deprivation, and role stress, which in turn produce restricted social participation (Doyal & Gough, 1991, pp. 171–178). Fraser (2009) contended that institutionalized barriers to participation are a key aspect of injustice. Doyal (1998) proposed measuring autonomy of agency or its deficits via the degree of adequate information and understanding about one’s environment, preferably enhanced by cultural and cross-cultural transmission or formal education, and exercise of one’s psychological capacity for both rationality and emotionality. This required the absence of undue restrictions on the actual exercise of autonomy of agency.

The Doyal–Gough theory had a parallel “right-hand” track (see Figure 1, column 2), which portrays the path to human liberation, defined as critical participation in a chosen form of life. This requires both health and critical autonomy—not merely health and basic autonomy—as well as enhanced societal preconditions (Figure 1, box G), including civil rights and rights to political participation, along with rights to human need satisfaction.

This enhanced set of societal preconditions enables an enhanced set of specific satisfiers, capable of producing more than a minimally optimal level of intermediate need satisfaction. This allows a supra-optimum level of basic need satisfaction, one characterized not merely by health and autonomy but also by health and critical autonomy (Figure 1, box J). Notably, one unique requirement for critical autonomy is not only a system of cultural transmission within a particular society but also access to cross-cultural knowledge of alternative ways of life (Figure 1, box H) and cross-culturally informed need satisfiers (Figure 1, box I).

Doyal and Gough (1991) viewed their theory as a theory of universal human need and of culturally determined satisfiers. This is central to the culturally and environmentally specific satisfiers that are at the root of their theory. For re-statements of THN, with no significant revisions from the original (Doyal & Gough, 1984, 1991), see Gough (2015a, 2017a, 2020). Gough (2017a, pp. 45–46) contended that the basic human needs are objective, plural (not additive), non-substitutable, cross-generational, and satisfiable (i.e., satiable).

Self-Determination Theory of Deci and Ryan

Self-determination theory is an influential psychological theory of human need—rooted in the humanistic tradition—which also includes developmental, personality, social, and cognitive psychology. Ryan (1995) and Ryan and Deci (2017) traced the concept of relatedness and autonomy to Rogers (1961). Rogers used the term self-direction “towards being autonomous” (p. 170).

SDT also drew on Baumeister and Leary’s (1995) concept of persistent caring relationships. SDT utilizes the concept of eudaimonia, with flourishing—best understood as the fruition of one’s possibilities—being the translation suggested by Ryan and Deci (2017). Ryan and Deci (2017) explained that needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy must all be satisfied—and a sense of all three must exist—for any of them to be fully satisfied. Fully self-determined behavior (Figure 1, box J) requires added preconditions as well.

Self-determination involves psychological growth (related to the expression of autonomous motivation), human integrity (which varies in nature due to the culturally specific assimilation and internalization of culturally specific practices), and well-being (measured in terms of psychological health and life satisfaction). Ryan and Deci (2017) stressed that self-determination requires “the need for autonomy defined as the extent that clients feel that their experiences and actions are consistent with their genuine interests and values” (p. 10, as cited in Chaumba & Locklear, 2021, p. 61).

Ryan, Bradshaw, et al. (2019) traced how human motivational research pushed back against Skinner’s warning not to seek inner causation as opposed to “antecedent causes in the environment” (Skinner, 1953, p. 30, as cited in Ryan, Bradshaw, et al., 2019, p. 407). Dewey’s (1938) suggestion to move away from choosing between either a radical behaviorist focus on external causation or one focused on individual instincts or drives influenced SDT (Ryan, Bradshaw, et al., 2019). Ryan, Soenens, et al. (2019) also discussed the motive disposition theory of Murray (1938).

Deci and Ryan (1985) published the first mini-theory of SDT during the same decade as the publication of an early version of THN (Doyal & Gough, 1984). SDT’s basic psychological need theory (BPNT)—the psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness—was formulated later (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan, 1995). For further historical background on SDT, see Ryan and Deci (2019) and Ryan et al. (2021).

A unifying factor in SDT is the theory of human motivation, differentiated into a typology of autonomous and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation involves valued, volitional human activity. Required or coerced motivation is known as controlled motivation. Nix et al. (1999) stated that SDT explains the locus of causality of human behavior as involving various degrees of autonomous motivation—personally exercised agency—and controlled motivation—which involves pressure or coercion from interpersonal and intrapersonal forces.

Social learning within diverse cultures can lead to an internalization process over the life course, thus producing an intrinsic motivation for the associated behavior (Deci, 2012). More precisely, intrinsically motivated behavior is autonomously motivated per SDT. Dennis et al. (2012, p. 356) explained: “Ryan and Deci (2000) defined intrinsic motivation as ‘the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn (p. 70).’”

Autonomy, relatedness, and competence are three interdependent necessities. Human development requires “specific nutrients from the social environment,” including those that contribute to the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs, which “may be either satisfied or frustrated,” thus leading either to “healthy psychological growth or to psychological stagnation and psychopathology” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 9). Absent basic psychological need satisfaction, psychological harms can ensue—including anxiety and depression—but also physiological harm such as morbidity and mortality (G. Williams, 2002).

Need satisfaction requires “need-supportive environments [that] facilitate the development of integrated self-regulation, including capacities to manage the multiple drives, impulses, emotions, and motives that arise within every individual” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 9).

Ryan and Deci (2017) explained autonomy as “the need to self-regulate one’s experiences and actions,” as a “form of functioning associated with feeling volitional, congruent, and integrated” (p. 10). They clarified that such a sense of voluntariness is “not the same as independence (or self-reliance)” (p. 10).

Ryan and Deci (2017, p. 11) refer to relatedness as “feeling socially connected”—which takes place “when they feel cared for by others”—as well as feeling and seeing oneself as belonging among others and as being significant to others. These may involve relationships within a wider social environment (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11) but are not contradictory to THN’s intermediate need for significant, primary relationships.

With respect to competence, Ryan and Deci (2017) explained, “In SDT, competence refers to our basic need to feel effectance and understanding. People need to feel able to perform effectively within their important life contexts,” but this competence is “readily thwarted,” especially if people experience consistent negative feedback (p. 11). However, Ryan and Deci found that “people will internalize a sense of competence, especially when they feel efficacy at an activity they have initiated or willingly undertaken” (p. 97), especially if there is concurrent satisfaction of autonomy needs.

For each of the three psychological needs—autonomy, relatedness, and competence—satisfaction requires not merely behavioral functioning but also a concomitant sense that these needs are satisfied. Each of the three psychological needs must be collaterally satisfied and accompanied by a subjective sense of autonomy, sense of competence, and sense of relatedness.

Comparing SDT and THN

Camfield and Skevington (2008) and Ryan and Sapp (2007) both discussed the compatibility of THN and SDT, with Gough (2004) noting that both theories view autonomy not as individualistic independence but, rather, as a more interdependent process—one that is an expression of “self-regulation and volition” (p. 303). Both view basic needs as human universals met in culturally specific manners (see Figure 1, box B). The optimization of human need satisfaction requires cross-culturally informed and enhanced needs satisfiers (Figure 1, box I).

Ryan and Deci (2017) noted that “closer to SDT’s approach is that of Doyal and Gough (1991), who emphasized human needs for autonomy and health” (p. 80). Likewise, Gough (2004) noted that THN’s concepts—including cross-cultural understanding, self-esteem, and cognitive skills—are consistent with the centrality of competence in SDT. Figure 1 links columns 1 and 2 theoretically by illustrating basic human need satisfaction in column 1 and human liberation—a needs-based conceptualization of social justice—in column 2.

Doyal and Gough (1991, Figure 8.2, p. 170) and Gough (2017a, Figure 2.1, p. 43) supplied the overall structure of Figure 1. The SDT elements are updated from a needs-based theorization of human injustice that contained a left-side column portraying human injustice (Dover, 2019, Figure 1).

Figure 1 shows the minimal preconditions for basic human need satisfaction at the bottom of column 1 (box A). Box A outlines only the least developed societal preconditions necessary for meeting basic needs. These are not an ideal form of social organization or of the institutional elements of the macro social environment. The bottom of column 2 (box G) shows the human rights that are necessary—but not sufficient—for human liberation.

In column 1 of Figure 1, the satisfaction of basic human needs requires culturally specific satisfiers of intermediate needs (Figure 1, boxes B and C). These satisfiers are objective and have universal characteristics (Gough, 2017a, Figure 2.1, p. 43). For THN, these include 11 intermediate needs (Figure 1, box C), whereas SDT discusses the elements of a need-supportive environment.

For instance, Ryan and Deci (2017, p. 10) discussed the nature of the social and material nutrients that are “essential for growth, integrity, and well-being” and “bodily health and safety,” such as oxygen, clean water, adequate nutrition, and freedom from physical harms. Ryan and Deci viewed both physiological and psychological needs as “objective phenomena in that their deprivation or satisfaction has clear and measurable functional effects, effects that obtain regardless of one’s subjective goals or values” (p. 10).

Significant primary relationships are an intermediate need for THN (Figure 1, box C), a concept similar to SDT’s psychological need for relatedness (Figure 1, box E). The central concept of competence in SDT is compatible with THN’s focus on cognitive skills, cultural understanding, self-esteem, and autonomy of agency (Gough, 2004).

Both theories claim that the satisfaction of basic human needs (Figure 1, boxes D and E) requires the psychological, physiological, and environmental inputs noted in Figure 1, box C. Also, both theories recognize that no need can be met if another is unmet. Both theories view needs as specific and satiable.

THN and SDT also converge in compatible universal goals. For Doyal and Gough (1991, p. 51), there is a universal goal of “minimally impaired social participation” not only in the current social environment but also in “forms of life . . . which they might subsequently choose” (see Figure 1, column 1, box F). For THN, avoiding serious harm is a universal goal (Doyal & Gough, 1991, p. 170). For SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2017), a key goal is achieving the “internal or external conditions necessary to support human flourishing and to avoid serious harms” (p. 80).

THN and SDT contend that human liberation and human flourishing, respectively, are a universal goal, namely “critical participation in chosen form of life” (Doyal & Gough, 1991, Figure 8.2, p. 170), later explicitly relabeled as human liberation (Gough, 2017a, Figure 2.1, p. 43). For SDT, human flourishing—an enhanced level of eudaimonic well-being that is closer to thriving than surviving—is based on “maximal satisfaction of their basic psychological needs” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 386), as illustrated in Figure 1, box K.

To achieve critical autonomy and self-determination (Figure 1, column 2, box J), people must first have their basic human needs met (Figure 1, column 1, boxes D and E). Human liberation was central to THN (Doyal & Gough, 1991) from the start, but SDT later articulated requirements for distributive and procedural justice (Ryan & Deci, 2017): “Greater rights and freedoms, again within bounds of concerns of relatedness and justice, can allow people the opportunities and choices to pursue the goals that matter to them” (p. 603).

THN and SDT both recognize (Figure 1, column 2, box G) that human rights of various kinds are necessary for achieving more than merely basic levels of human need satisfaction. The critical autonomy or self-determination outlined in box J in Figure 1 requires both the cross-cultural education discussed in box H and the availability of cross-culturally informed need satisfiers in box I. In other words, critical autonomy—of the kind that permits participation in one’s “chosen form of life” (Doyal & Gough, 1991, p. 73)—is central to THN’s vision of human liberation: “The higher optimum will further entail access to knowledge of other cultures coupled with the critical skills and the political freedoms to evaluate their own and to struggle to change if they choose” (p. 73).

Similarly, Ryan and Deci (2017) recognized that “in every culture people generally want to experience ownership and initiative in processes of development and change” (p. 589). Accordingly, not only is cross-cultural education necessary for achieving human liberation and human flourishing but also it requires cross-culturally informed need satisfiers (Figure 1, box I). The supra-optimal levels of critical autonomy and self-determination and the autonomous, self-determined choices among ways of life shown in box J in Figure 1 require exposure to alternative ways of life (Figure 1, box H).

Conceptual Issues for Social Work Use of Human Need Theory

The conceptualization of human liberation for THN is critical participation in one’s chosen form of life (Figure 1, box K). SDT stressed the goal of human flourishing and maximal performance and well-being (Figure 1, box K). Global justice must apply to all human beings and is achievable in this century (Brock, 2009), but no one society or group of nations alone can achieve human liberation.

Dover (2016a) discussed the following five areas: (a) the relationships between human needs, well-being, and quality of life (Camfield & Skevington, 2008; Gough et al., 2007; D. Taylor, 2011); (b) wants and preferences (Gasper, 2004; Gough & Thomas, 1994; S. Miller, 2012); (c) the relative value of theories of needs and capabilities (Comim & Nussbaum, 2014; Gasper, 2004; Gough, 2003, 2014; Nussbaum, 2000; Sen, 1985, 1999); (d) needs as strengths (Alkire, 2005; M. Lee et al., 2011; Saleebey, 2006); and (e) whether needs are universal or culturally specific (Boehm, 1958; D. Lee, 1948, 1959; McLeod, 2011, 2014; Noonan, 2012). All of these five areas are updated here:


Results from survey research that drew on SDT—as well as the concept of primary goods (Rawls, 2001)—suggested that economic outcomes alone do not predict quality of life (Bradshaw et al., 2023) because well-being also involves subjective and psychological aspects. Robeyns and Byskov (2020) suggested that the philosophical use of concepts such as freedom, well-being, and justice must consider the range of human needs and their social and personal contexts. However, Fletcher (2018) critiqued ambitious needs theory, stating it adds little of normative importance beyond what the concepts of avoidance of serious harm and well-being provide.


Gough (2017a, pp. 39–40) argued that preference satisfaction theory is flawed in that individual preferences are bounded by available options, people’s knowledge and rationality are known to be less than perfect, and social and economic factors influence people’s choices. Building on work that emphasized a thick conceptualization of human needs (Noonan, 2004, 2006a, 2006b)—needs that are not the thin requirements for mere survival—Noonan (2018) said that people are strongly motivated toward “efforts to make oneself lovable,” stemming from “the felt human need to be valued and loved by others” (p. 37).


Dean and Platt (2016, p. 343) suggested that Sen (1992) asked an important question: Inequality of what? Sen (1992) and Nussbaum (2011) focused on inequality of capabilities. However, Holden et al. (2018)—after an account of the capability theory of Sen (2009) and Nussbaum (2000)—suggested the value of a need metric. The capability perspective’s focus on human functional capabilities celebrates how people manage their relationship with their environment, but capability theory did not specify a universal set of capabilities (Gough, 2017a, p. 41). Brock (2009) noted that 3 of Nussbaum’s (1992) list of 10 basic human functional capabilities are conceptually equivalent to concepts in both THN and SDT. Traub (2020) contended that for Nussbaum and Sen, “Needs have no value; they are a transitory or intermediate stage in the discussion about what constitutes the quality of human life” (p. 10). For a fuller discussion of needs and capabilities, see Brock and Miller (2019), Barsky (2022), and Reisch and Garvin (2016).


S. Miller (2012) contended that recognition of our common human needs enhances our sense of human vulnerability and our mutual human dependencies and interdependencies over the life course. Friesen (2014) has also stressed the compatibility of concepts such as human need, human vulnerability, and human interdependence. Historically, a human evolutionary strength was caring for human physical and psychological needs (Tarsha & Narvaez, 2022). L. Caffrey and Browne (2022) cited earlier work using SDT in residential care (Van der Helm et al., 2018). They found that the strengths-perspective informed the Signs of Safety child welfare model, which they saw as consistent with BPNT.


Social workers D. Lee (1948) and Boehm (1958) long ago recognized that human needs are universal, but cultures and individuals meet them in culturally specific and/or individualized ways. Lenski (2005) suggested we need to move beyond Maslow to develop modern theories of human similarities and differences. One approach suggested the value of “systematic analysis of within-social-group and between-social-group similarities and differences” (Dover, 2019, p. 465 ).

See Pölzler (2021) for further discussion of these and other conceptual issues facing needs theory. For the relationship of human needs to human spirituality, see Canda (2008), Gil (2004), Heschel (1965), and the section on “Future Trends and Opportunities.”

Social Welfare Policy

This section focuses on social policy related to global climate change, referred to by Gough (2017a) as an “egregious threat to human habitats and welfare” (p. 1). In social work, Balyejjusa (2019) contended that sustainable social development practices need to explicitly emphasize a human needs language.

Ryan and Deci (2017) have cited the theory of human need (THN)–informed work on global climate change (O’Neill, 2011) and contended, “Conceptualizing needs as basic and essential to wellness also implicates issues of care, social obligation, and fundamental human rights” (p. 81). However, THN is the needs theory most often used for climate change research (Balyejjusa, 2015a, 2015b; Dillman et al., 2021; Gasper, 2004; Guillen-Royo et al., 2013; Gough et al., 2007; O’Neill, 2011; Schramme, 2018; Ward & Johnson, 2013).

More than half the citations of Doyal and Gough (1991) have been since 2015, including those focused on climate change and global sustainability (Holden et al., 2017, 2018). Following the application of needs theory to climate change (Gasper, 2013; Rauschmayer et al., 2011), Gough (2015a) challenged welfare economics’ entrenched commitment to preference satisfaction theory and its neglect of theories of human need.

Holden et al. (2018) applied THN and other relevant theory of need to a model of sustainable development. Reinert (2020) proposed basic development goals such as food security, health, education, water sanitation, energy, housing and human security and showed their consistency with corresponding human rights.

Gough (2017a) restated THN and discussed whether a focus on a merely sufficient level of human needs satisfaction is an acceptable goal, given climate change. On the related question of sufficiency, see Brock (2018) and the argument of Meyer and Pölzler (2021) that human needs are the currency of and sufficiency is the principle of intergenerational justice. Gough (2017a) recognized we will always live in a “world of constraint” and that “meeting needs at a decent level will require substantial redistribution of wealth and income” as part of a “transformative needs-based agenda” (p. 61). Gough concluded, “A robust concept of human need will play an essential part in resolving these dilemmas” (p. 195).

Gough (2020) focused on both the needs of the many and the overconsumption of the few. Gough defined “a sustainable ‘consumption corridor’ (CC) between minimum standards”—which empower individuals to have a satisfactory life—and a set of maximum consumption standards that limit individual “use of natural and social resources” (p. 208), in the interests of sustainability. Gough argued that doing so does not mean a joyless existence, and it can “enhance eudaimonic, and possibly hedonic, features of well-being” (p. 208). Gough has also outlined two scenarios for sustainable social welfare, involving a global eco-social contract (Gough, 2021).

This is consistent with the self-determination theory (SDT)–influenced work of Lelkes (2021) and Kasser (2002). Lelkes (2021) reassessed people’s needs in terms of a voluntary simplicity (p. 172) that embraces both material and psychological needs. This is liberatory in that it frees people from consumption that threatens their sustainable existence. Kasser (2002) studied materialism and linked SDT’s three needs to four related sets of concepts: (a) safety, security, and sustenance; (b) competence, self-efficacy, and self-esteem; (c) connectedness; and (d) autonomy and authenticity.

Social Work Practice

This section reviews selected literature showing a growing use of needs theory—including self-determination theory (SDT)—within social work and other helping professions. Kirzner and Miserandino (2023) stressed that SDT can contribute to evidence-based social work practice, including program planning and evaluation, but should be applied using a social justice orientation that appreciates how pervasive social contexts constrain opportunities to address human needs. The social needs approach to social work practice of Balyejjusa (2022b) drew on the theory of human need (THN) and SDT to show how work with client systems goes through a sequence of problem analysis and definition, solution analysis and definition, resource analysis and acquisition, and the setting of end goals. Referencing problem-oriented approaches to social work practice (Compton et al., 2005; H. Perlman, 1957), Balyejjusa illustrated the practice process with a social needs framework diagram.

Citing Reader (2006), Balyejjusa (2022b) discussed how a client may have both a dispositional human need—related to being human, such as THN’s health and autonomy needs—and an occurrent need, related to circumstances the client system faces, such as THN’s intermediate needs. The steps of the social needs framework included (a) identification of the problem and its relationship to unmet needs; (b) work with the client to prioritize resources; (c) acquisition of resources; and (d) reaching the mutually determined goals related to individual or collective social functioning and well-being or goals at both of these levels.

Kirzner et al. (2021) suggested using SDT to inform health interventions relevant to people and communities living in poverty and stressed its value in program planning and evaluation. SDT can also show how “autonomy, competence and relatedness are thwarted or supported by the environment” (p. 11).

Human needs-related concepts have continued to influence ecological systems theory. Gitterman et al. (2020) stressed “the levels of fit between people’s needs, goals, and rights,” advocacy for policy responses to human needs, and the roles of social workers and social networks in supporting “the need for human relatedness” (p. 322). The authors warned that social networks can also inhibit autonomy (p. 323). Social workers should avoid conflating human needs and service needs, which can happen when they define “people’s needs or problems based on the method of service” (p. 42). Gitterman et al. (2020) continued Germain’s focus on caring for others and being cared for (Germain, 1979, pp. 12–13; Germain & Gitterman, 1979, 2008).

Caring is the subject of growing scholarly attention (S. Miller, 2012; Staub, 2015), including work that integrates caring with SDT’s approach to autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Custers et al., 2010, 2012; Ryan et al., 2021) and an approach to psychological caring that references both SDT and Maslow (Narvaez, 2018). One randomized controlled trial used qualitative methods to find that strong caring relationships produced positive outcomes and that SDT-informed peer mentoring also enhanced competence and a sense of autonomy in Title IV-E funded parent mentoring programs (Rockhill et al., 2015).

Dennis et al. (2012) found that the experience of a psychological needs-supportive environment enhanced subjective well-being among older people who are homeless and that the autonomous exercise of self-determination reinforces the reduction of behaviors that reduce objective well-being. Dennis et al. found that in a needs-supportive environment—one that addresses all three psychological needs—extrinsic motivation is often “internalized and integrated with the self” (p. 356) because positive feedback enhances competency, supportive relationships meet relatedness needs, and rapport reinforces autonomy.

Salazar et al. (2018) performed a focus group study of substance abuse prevention programming with youth transitioning from foster care. SDT-informed goals included bolstering autonomy, competence, and relatedness. With respect to autonomy, program design looked to empower youth to take initiative, set goals, and exercise responsibility. For instance, the youth concluded that participation should be voluntary and that they should be decision-makers on how students use or do not use substances on college campuses.

For other work about social work practice informed by theories of human need, see Dover (2009), De Mönnink (2017), Gold (1990), Jani and Reisch (2011), Joseph (1986a), Masters (2006), O’Brien (2010), Thomas et al. (2012), Vigilante and Mailick (1988), and D. Williams and Strean (2006).

Sheldon et al. (2003) and others have used SDT in clinical settings, and SDT has also been applied in organizational settings (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Validated instruments are available for clinical and research measurements of the degree of autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Ryan & Deci, 2017; Sato et al., 2022). The definition of agency as the “ability and capacity to self-determinedly act towards the goal(s) of improving the environment and/or circumstances”—in other words, as an expression of a person’s overall autonomous motivation—may make it possible to design an instrument for individual and aggregate community-level assessment that could “enhance the ability and capacity of disempowered populations to take initiatives that would enable them to work out of their difficulties” (Sato et al., 2022, pp. 175, 184).

Visser et al. (2019) suggested the value of SDT for enhancing the affective and motivational aspects of interprofessional education. Nursing is the interprofessional care profession with the longest history of using and developing theories of human need. For a brief social work review of that nursing literature, see Dover (2010, 2016b). A growing body of work in nursing now draws on SDT (Duprez et al., 2021; Edward et al., 2019; Flannery, 2017; D. Perlman et al., 2017; D. Perlman, Brighton, et al., 2018; D. Perlman, Taylor, et al., 2018; Shackleford et al., 2021; Turner & Reed, 2022; Van der Meulen et al., 2018), including work in psychiatric nursing (Raeburn et al., 2015; Riley & McDermott, 2018).

Two studies on the use of SDT in interprofessional care (Haerens et al., 2021; Wilhite, 2020) are among a growing number of such studies, including in audiology (Ridgway et al., 2015, 2016, 2017; Wilhite, 2020), physical therapy (Quinn et al., 2020; Wynarczuk et al., 2017), occupational therapy (D’Arrigo et al., 2017, 2020; Hammar et al., 2016), sports and exercise science (Hall, 2018; Podlog et al., 2015), psychosocial rehabilitation of persons with severe mental illness (Probst, 2016; Vancampfort et al., 2015, 2016), nutrition and dietetics (Wright et al., 2022), cardiac rehabilitation (Sweet, 2011), health sciences (Steinbarger, 2021), and social work with families of people with Alzheimer’s disease (Masters, 2006).

Wilhite (2020) used retrospective narrative inquiry and the semistructured interview method (Galletta, 2013) to portray the interaction with educational and medical institutions and the familial relationships of seven families with least one child with a cochlear implant. The study used SDT to interpret the autonomy, relatedness, and competence needs of parents. Wilhite (2020, p. 66) cited Ryan et al. (2008) to show the necessity of addressing psychological needs concurrent with health services. Consistent with self-determination’s requirement of autonomous motivation, this enables internalization and integration of values and skills that help sustain mutually determined health behaviors. This requires helping relationships that are caring and respectful and meet psychological needs. This enables identified regulation—for instance, the patient’s choice to endorse a particular health behavior—or integrated regulation—in which the behavior is integrated with other patient values and lifestyles. Overly controlling interventions produce defiance, not compliance (Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Haerens et al. (2021) used observational and client reports to study the therapist–client relationship in the treatment of communication disorders. The authors’ schematic overview illustrated how to conceptualize an autonomy-supportive—as opposed to a controlling—style of intervention. The overview described the progression from motivation that is extrinsic motivation (external) to introjected motivation, identified motivation, and, finally, integrated motivation. Integrated motivation is more autonomous, more internalized, and more consistent with self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Autonomy-supportive treatment approaches enhanced patient motivation. The authors concluded that SDT can improve student speech pathologists’ relationships with clients.

Motivational interviewing (MI) has stressed client autonomy and both relational and technical components (W. R. Miller & Rose, 2009, p. 535). Corcoran (2016) noted that autonomy is central to acceptance, which along with compassion and evocation are the three legs of the MI stool. W. R. Miller and Rollnick (2013) stressed therapist conviction that clients have strengths, knowledge, and competence. The literature on SDT-informed motivational interviewing has referenced its use in substance abuse counseling (Foote et al., 1999; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019) and its value in dietician interventions during pregnancy (Buckingham-Schutt et al., 2019). Abildsnes et al. (2021, p. 713) found that although SDT and MI overlap conceptually and are complementary overall, their conceptions of autonomy support diverge.

One systematic review of the relationship of SDT and MI presented a preliminary theory of SDT-informed mechanisms and contextual factors that could enhance MI interventions with adolescent health behaviors (Mutschler et al., 2018). Friederichs et al. (2015) reviewed randomized controlled studies about how SDT theory is relevant to MI and research on physical activity (PA). They found that web-based PA interventions based on SDT and MI work best in programs whose goal is not merely compliance with guidelines but also enhanced levels of PA.

Social Work Research

The literature on self-determination theory (SDT) now includes dozens of randomized controlled studies, including in social work (Geenen et al., 2015; Powers et al., 2018). Doctoral students have completed more than 1,700 dissertations and other doctoral projects with “self-determination theory” in the title or abstract—per a 2022 search of Proquest Dissertation Abstracts for doctoral-level dissertation—with 903 since 2016. SDT now exceeds the number of dissertations (1,527) completed with “Maslow” in the title or abstract.

Among quantitative research dissertations, Kennedy (Kennedy, 2005; Kennedy & Gregoire, 2009) used SDT to study substance abuse treatment and how a transtheoretical model of change impacted treatment outcomes. Ferron (2007) evaluated the Treatment Motivation Questionnaire among persons with serious mental illness and found support for the value of SDT. Ritholz (2011) used SDT in a survey of how autonomy, competence, and relatedness affected the therapeutic alliance with African/Caribbean American clients in mental health recovery. Link (2011) drew on SDT’s concept of intrinsic motivation to study the relationship of leisure functioning and rehabilitation among prisoners. K. Caffrey (2019) produced path analytic results suggesting that the extent of psychological need satisfaction may have a variety of indirect effects on autonomous motivation to sustain lifestyle practices associated with reduced age-related cognitive decline.

Among qualitative dissertations in social work, Bulanda (2008) studied a youth-led participatory evaluation study of an after-school and mentoring program designed to supply protective factors for disadvantaged youth. The research goal was to both obtain feedback on the program and better understand the nature of self-determination among the inner-city teens, who took part in both the program and the evaluation research. The results suggested that if a program addresses youth’s psychological needs, they can shift from extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated behavior. Bulanda concluded that SDT has implications for youth program development, clinical interventions, and youth participation in program evaluation.

Halarewicz (2020) did interviews with home health aides in New York City to understand intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to detect and report elder abuse. J. Williams (2022) studied school social work that prevents and addresses social isolation among middle-school students. Tian’s (2015) dissertation at The University of Utah focused on SDT’s concept of autonomy and examined the question of autonomy among Chinese college students, comparing their pre-college and later development.

Among quantitative social work studies in peer-reviewed journals, Martin et al. (2011) used SDT to clarify the motivations for increasing participation in gambling among older Detroiters. Wells and Short (2010) used SDT to study the motivations of social work educators to engage in gerontological research. Itzhaki-Braun and Sulimani-Aidan (2022) performed a quantitative study on the personal and environmental resources needed for addressing the basic psychological needs of ultraorthodox Jewish young women leaving a system of care.

Goemans et al. (2021) performed an exploratory study of young people in South Africa who were aging out of foster care. The study focused on both SDT and the African concept of Ubuntu—with its emphasis on interdependence, namely the stress on both “the importance of community connectedness and mutual care and support” (p. 235) and the perspective that “the self exists only in relationships with others” (p. 234). Among conclusions were the need for interdependent forms of self-determination within a supportive context that includes emotional care, as well as a “central focus on ensuring the material and physical needs were met” (p. 230).

Two SDT-driven dissertations in psychology (Parker, 2018; Tittler, 2021) supplied evidence for the value of SDT for antiracist and antisexist interventions that address autonomy, competency, and relatedness needs and that motivate anti-oppressive social and political action. The work of Kyere et al. (2022) suggested the need to transform both intangible ideational and discursive practices and the tangible institutional structures that reinforce structural racism.

Tittler (2021) reviewed literature on intergroup dialogue (Nagda & Zuniga, 2003) and did a meta-analysis of SDT-informed interventions designed to enhance motivations for health behavior change (Gillison et al., 2019). The study’s intervention incorporated SDT techniques for both addressing the psychological needs of the participants and enhancing internalization of the value of conversations among students about race.

Parker (2018) studied two experimental approaches with participants—including those with a social dominance orientation—known to reinforce prejudiced and anti-egalitarian viewpoints. Education about the harmful consequences of sexist behavior—done in a psychological needs-supportive manner—reduced the endorsement of sexist attitudes and evinced enhanced internalized motivation.

Kirzner et al. (2021) did focus group research on the barriers and supports reported by low-income urban patients receiving care for cardiovascular disease, as well as on their goals and preferences. Results showed unmet relatedness needs and insufficient support for autonomy and competence. Results supported the value of SDT-informed research addressing “core psychological needs in a low-income population” (p. 11).

Social and Political Action

The National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW, 2022) Code of Ethics states, “Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources . . . required to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully” (6.04). Such action seeks “to improve social conditions in order to meet basic needs and promote social justice” (6.04), thus linking needs and justice. The phrase “develop fully” is consistent with critical autonomy and self-determination (see Figure 1, box J).

Advocacy for universal human needs can potentially inform an emancipatory social work (Mullaly, 2001), empower communities to engage in autonomous needs definition (Ife, 2009), and contribute to struggles against neoliberalism (Ife, 2013) and for human liberation (Dover, 2019). However, Dominelli (2002) warned that there are immense conceptual difficulties with understanding universal human needs. Ben-Ari and Strier (2010) and Rossiter (2011) drew on Lévinas (Lévinas & Robbins, 2001) to criticize overreliance on needs theory, on the ground it could disempower clients and communities.

Hölscher et al. (2020) recognized that the political interpretation of needs is central to social work but suggested this could contribute to surveillance rather than care, could privilege the interests of service providers over marginalized population, and could de-amplify oppositional discourse that arises from the needs of people receiving services.

Others extoll the liberatory license that giving political primacy to needs can allow (Lebowitz, 2004). Cho et al. (2013) noted that social movements need to “focus attention on the vexed dynamics of difference and the solidarities of sameness” (p. 788).

Empirically, Korolev (2016) did cross-national research which concluded that higher levels of political participation—by which was meant more than competitive elections—predict social outcomes consistent with objective human need satisfaction. The best approach is to engage in “needs communication” that makes objective needs an “urgent public issue” (Korolev, 2015, p. 35). This is especially the case if needs and related demands can be de-ideologized (Korolev, 2017).

Skirtz (2012) discussed how one tenant cooperative explicitly promoted community control, cultural diversity, and self-determination. However, Skirtz noted contradictions between individual-level needs for housing and a community-level need for safe, viable neighborhoods. This produced a binary debate counterpoising the advantages and disadvantages of housing density and the deconcentration of the poor.

The social worker-led Coalition on Human Needs (CHN) is an alliance of dozens of national organizations—including NASW—as well as civil rights, labor, and other professional associations (CHN, 2022).

United Way has adopted community impact and community needs assessment approaches (Paarleberg & Meinhold, 2012), leading to its current mission of advancing the common good by focusing on income, education, health, and quality of life (United Way, 2022).

The Alliance of Information and Referral (AIRS) standards governing United Way 211 systems include 98 uses of the concept of needs, including needs assessment, needs clarification, and making referrals to meet needs. Practices must be consistent with “the inquirer’s strengths, needs, preferences, goals and values” (AIRS, 2020, p. 5). The standards focus on client advocacy, not system change, but point out that 211 data on presenting problems and unmet needs can inform system advocacy.

A broad conceptualization of human need has long inspired social movements. Rose Schneiderman famously said in 1912 (Eisenstein, 1983, p. 32), “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” Renault (2017) stressed the social struggles that arise from social suffering produced by unmet needs of the physical and psychological self. Activists in the fall of 2011 Occupy movement proclaimed, “Serve human needs, not corporate greed” (Rira, 2011, p. 17).

Needs, Rights, and Justice: Theoretical Developments

Theoretical developments have increasingly juxtaposed human needs, human rights, and social justice. A sociological examination of the evolution of the moral foundations for human rights suggested that “a theory of society based on democratic human need fulfillment” would advance the conceptual evolution of humanity (Friesen, 2014, p. 21).

Nullmeier (2020) concluded that need is “an indispensable part of any theory of justice” (pp. 326–327). Dean (2013) discussed the value of translating needs into rights and built upon earlier work (Dean, 2010) to argue that rights have their origins in negotiation among people as to how to recognize, claim, and address their needs. Specific contexts related to social citizenship or social organization at the local, organizational, national, or international level help formulate the nature of those rights.

Wronka (1992) recognized that human need is an empowering concept, in that it can lead to demands for human rights. Wronka (2017) reiterated:

Human rights are universal only to the extent that they are adopted and enforced, but human needs are rooted in the human condition. . . . Technically, human rights do not exist. However, human needs do, and human rights make up the legal mandate to fulfill human need. (Preface)

See also Wronka’s other work linking human rights and human need (Wronka, 1992, 2008a, 2008b).

Ife (2001, 2009, 2012, 2013) recognized that both human rights and human needs are important concepts for working for social justice and against neoliberalism. Social work authors have long argued that barriers which limit opportunities to obtain satisfiers of human need are a cause of social injustice (Gil, 1998, 2004; Noonan, 2006a; Olson, 2007).

Dean (2020a) was concerned with how “needs are translated into, or articulated as, social rights, whether those are expressed as ‘second generation’ human rights or as social rights of citizenship within a welfare state” (p. 148). Joseph (1986a) explained, “Consciously held theories of change include ideas about the nature of human beings, the nature of human needs, the nature and sources of power,” and thus “whether working for services, resources, jobs, housing, civil and human rights” our social movements must strive for an “equitable basis to meet the needs of its people” (p. 124). Joseph suggested this can be done by redefining unmet human needs as serious social problems which have their roots “deep in the structure, values and everyday functioning of our capitalist society” (p. 127).

Social Work Values and Ethics

Reamer (1998) noted that it was not until 1996 that the NASW (1996) Code of Ethics used the concept of human need. NASW (1996, 2022) included the concept several times, including in the Preamble: The code states,

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty, with a dual focus on individual and societal well-being.

Describing the origins of this language (NASW, 1996), Reamer (2018a) said the goal was to ensure that the most basic and essential human needs would be central to social work practice. However, it has been rare for ethical codes to include use all three of these concepts: human rights, human needs, and social justice.

The NASW (2022) Code of Ethics states, “Social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of clients” (1.01), which needs theory views as requiring the meeting of basic human needs (see Figure 1, box F). This societal responsibility involves social and political action to ensure “living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs,” by promoting values and institutions compatible with social justice and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with social justice (6.01). That provision is consistent with advocacy for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (United Nations General Assembly, 1948), which the United States has ratified. Articles 22–27 of the Declaration address individual and family well-being in ways consistent with the theory of human needs (THN)’s intermediate needs, and other articles are also consistent with the preconditions for optimization found in Figure 1 (box G).

The NASW (2022) Code also said, “Social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs” (Preamble). (The Code mentioned client needs five times. This suggests that social workers and clients should jointly assess, discuss, plan, and evaluate how to address human needs holistically—while acknowledging structural barriers to doing so—in addition to prioritizing service requests and presenting problems.

The NASW (2022) Code used the concepts social justice or injustice seven times. The concept of human rights is absent, but the code does state, “promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people” (6.03). The International Federation of Social Workers’ (2018) global statement of ethical principles stressed empowerment, human rights, liberation, social justice, and well-being, but it did not use the concept of human needs, and it provides links to national ethical statements.

The Statement of Ethics of the International Consortium for Social Development (2019) included all three concepts among its six goals: realization of humanity; satisfaction of human needs; human rights; equality; social, economic, and environmental justice; and peace (p. 96).

The Canadian Association of Social Workers (2005) discussed needs, rights, and justice and offered the following guiding principle of social justice: “Social workers uphold the right of people to have access to resources to meet basic human needs” (p. 5). In support of the value of respect for dignity and worth, the code specifies a human rights principle: “Social workers are committed to human rights as enshrined in Canadian law” or in international conventions and at the United Nations (p. 4). The following is one principle for upholding the value of service to humanity: “Social workers strive to use the power and authority vested in them as professionals in responsible ways that serve the needs of clients and the promotion of social justice” (p. 6).

There is increased attention to human needs in the literature on social work values and ethics (Barsky, 2022; Reamer, 2018a, 2018b). Chaumba and Locklear (2021, p. 62) reviewed Gambrill’s (2013) conceptualization of self-determination and stressed that self-determination involves “a basic right for clients to make independent choices about their care without external coercion” (p. 61). Self-determination required “client participation through the different stages of their treatment or services” (p. 62). Practitioners enhance self-determination when they create environments “where the client’s interests and values are explored and integrated into the treatment plan” (p. 62).

Barsky (2019) showed how social workers help clients make “self-determined choices” that respect “client’s strengths, dignity and autonomy” (p. 23), thus enabling clients to exercise self-determination in goal setting and to explore constraints on client autonomy imposed by the client’s personal situation or safety needs. Barsky also stressed the promotion of quality of life, including “physical and mental health” and other elements consistent with needs theory, such as social supports and a clean and safe environment (p. 415).

Barsky (2022) cited Dean (2020a), who contended that society should not only meet basic needs but also promote human flourishing. In a chapter on social justice, Barsky presented this as consistent with an egalitarian approach to social justice.

Drawing on Fraser’s (1989a, 1989b) approach to need interpretation, the approach to life value of McMurtry (2002), the work of Noonan (2006a), and other approaches to a life-first approach to a “eudaimonic ethic” (Dean, 2020a, p. 8)—including self-determination theory (SDT) and THN—Dean has proposed a “needs-first ethic” (Dean, 2015, 2020a) that incorporates a “needs-first ethos” (Dean, 2020a, p. 8). That ethos includes a right to think (consciousness as a social right), the right to be active (including in meaningful work), and the right to care as part of human sociality.

Drawing on Mikkola’s (2016) work on dehumanization, Dean (2020a, 2020b) also asserted a right to humanization. Dean viewed well-being as a radical need, not as a goal, as seen by THN and SDT. Dean (2020b) viewed such needs as “constitutive of the human essence” (p. 3). Drawing on Honneth (1995) and the concept of “a vital human need” (C. Taylor, 1992, p. 25), Dean (2020b) contended that “the translation of needs into rights has been a constitutive achievement of the human species and is an ongoing process of human development” (p. 5).

Social Work Education

Considerable literature has focused on the importance of addressing human needs in social work education (Bisno, 1952; Blake, 1994; Lewis, 1981; Stroup, 1953; Van Wormer & Besthorn, 2017). One curriculum plan of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) noted that social workers are concerned with meeting basic human needs because it is one way to achieve human dignity and human fulfillment (Boehm, 1956, p. 36). This section addresses the evolution of needs content in CSWE’s accreditation standards.

The 2004 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) of CSWE (2004) stated, “Social work practice promotes human well-being” (p. 2). The standards encouraged approaches that “respond to changing human, professional, and institutional needs” (p. 2). The purpose statement included the phrase “meet basic human needs and support the development of human capacities” (p. 4). With the adoption of competency-based standards (CSWE, 2008), CSWE did not keep specific language on human need but did include content on human rights, social justice, and well-being.

The 2015 standards called for “critical assessment of strengths, needs, and challenges within clients and constituencies” (CSWE, 2015, p. 7) as well as for social workers to be “knowledgeable about theories of human need and social justice” (p. 5). It was possible to parse the paragraphs in those standards into discrete knowledge elements for use in curriculum mapping (Lewandowski & Dover, 2015).

One improvement in the 2022 EPAS is that those paragraphs now discuss interrelated social work competencies that are “accompanied by a set of behaviors for each competency” (CSWE, 2022, p. 6). This moves beyond knowledge statements by discussing the competency’s relevant “knowledge, values, skills, and cognitive and affective processes” (p. 8). The 2022 EPAS purpose of social work statement juxtaposed the concept of human rights with well-being and social justice, stressing not only social and economic justice but also racial and environmental justice, as well as working for the realization of human rights. A new values statement juxtaposed human rights and social justice and referred to “the dignity and worth of the person” (p. 14). The values statement also discussed how “an anti-racist and anti-oppressive perspective underpin the explicit and implicit curriculum” (p. 14).

The 2022 CSWE EPAS did not directly address human needs but included “understanding the value base of the profession and its ethical standards,” and it specified making “ethical decisions by applying the standards of the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics” (CSWE, 2022, p. 8), which fully address human needs.

EPAS 2022 stressed antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI) in the explicit and implicit curriculum (CSWE, 2022), with implicit curriculum meaning the overall student learning experience and the program context.

Given the view of Jones (2000, p. 1212), “Indeed, institutionalized racism is often evident as inaction in the face of needs,” and the 2022 EPAS exhortation for programs to have an “inclusive approach to addressing the vast range of student learning needs” (CSWE, 2022, p. 16), knowledge of theories of human need can inform attention to the overall human needs of students, faculty, and field staff and instructors. For instance, Neufeld and Malin (2020) discussed literature from health professional education that examined the relationship between an autonomy-supportive educational environment, basic psychological need satisfaction, and psychological well-being. Ryan and Deci (2020) noted that “teachers, like their students, have basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness” (p. 7).

Burghardt (2021) has documented inadequate attention to the needs of social workers, leading to renewed advocacy for “the collective needs of social workers” (Social Worker Equity Campaign, 2022). As Barsky (2019) noted,

Social workers are human, with human needs and frailties. Although we aspire to be focused on the needs of others, we must take care of ourselves so that we can care for others. Caring for ourselves without putting our needs above those of our clients requires a fine balance. (p. 24)

Future Trends and Opportunities

As Ryan and Deci (2017) noted, “One of psychology’s most critical questions concerns the internal or external conditions necessary to support human flourishing and to avoid serious harms” (p. 180). A similar question is incumbent upon the profession of social work.

This article has documented a trend characterized by a “steeply escalating trajectory of both basic research efforts and evidence-supported applications” (Ryan et al., 2021, p. 97), one that is “focused on the social environments that can meet human needs, both physical and psychological.” Of course, there are remaining opportunities for solving conceptual and empirical problems, from a solidly social work perspective.

First, it might be considered whether Maslow’s hierarchy meets the standards of theory obsolescence discussed by Thyer and Morris (2008). Social workers could still acknowledge Maslow’s historical contributions, compare the hierarchy to the theory of human need (THN) and self-determination theory (SDT), continue longitudinal research using Maslow’s work, and encourage comparative analysis of the value of existing and emerging theories of human need for solving empirical and conceptual problems.

Second, social work could explore how needs theory addresses human spirituality. One way to view human spirituality is as a communitarian commitment arising from human relationships (Etzioni, 2017). Relationships among people should not be separated from knowledge of the divine (Lévinas, 1969, p. 78, as cited in Morgan, 2007, p. 180). Dissanayake (1992, p. 229) discussed how spirituality expresses a human universal predisposition to sharing and reciprocity. Cunningham (1998) and Wattles (1996) discussed the golden rule as a universal ethic of reciprocity. Antweiler (2016) viewed ritual and religion as universal in all cultures, as did Rappaport (1999).

Third, it could be asked whether needs theory is compatible with anti-oppressive models of social work practice (Finn, 2021a, 2021b; Martinez & Fleck-Henderson, 2014), with antiracist approaches (Rodgers, 2016; Tourse et al., 2018), and with an emerging human rights framework (McPherson, 2020). With respect to that question, and to the antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion approach of CSWE EPAS (CSWE, 2022), one avenue would be to identify mechanisms within organizations and institutions that hinder human need satisfaction (Dover, 2019) and to pursue the logic of Christopher’s (2017) work on the institutional perpetuation of a hierarchy of human value that underpins White racial supremacy. For instance, Swartz (2009) suggested that “the idea of a collective humanity” (p. 1053) can help undermine a “hierarchy of human worth” (Swartz, 2013, pp. 36-37), and also proposed an emancipatory emphasis on “knowing that the whole of humanity is one” (Swartz, 2012, p. 140).

Fourth, regarding social and political action, the work of Skirtz (2012) suggested addressing a conceptual problem regarding whether to view human needs at the individual level—although they might be aggregated within various populations—or to conceive of them as also being conceptualized at community, organizational, social group, and societal levels—a question previously raised by Max-Neef (1991).

Fifth, with respect to social work practice, the needs-based ethicist Gillian Brock (2009)—after asserting that human beings have a moral responsibility to “enable others to meet their needs themselves”—asked, “What is it to enable someone to meet a need?” (p. 900). Brock concluded, “Sometimes we need to focus on the person’s capacities, sometimes on the opportunities, external structures, or environment” (p. 900). This suggests embracing medicine’s precept—do no harm—but also the following principle: Neglect no need.

Sixth, with respect to social research, one study (Darling et al., 2002) suggested the value of further research on the difference between client and agency views of both service needs and human needs.

Seventh, with respect to social policy, one empirical question involves deciding what level of available and sustainable satisfiers of intermediate needs—including allocations of resources for health (Herlitz, 2016; Herlitz & Horan, 2017) and health justice (Schramme, 2018)—can enable an optimal level of basic human need satisfaction.

Eighth, with respect to both social work values and ethics and social work education, there is an opportunity to connect human rights, human needs, and social justice more consistently with each other and to explain their relationship to human well-being and to social injustice.

Ninth, there are still opportunities under the aegis of the 2022 EPAS to include the concept of human need in program missions, specializations, added competencies, and component behaviors. EPAS requires the program mission be consistent with—not identical to—CSWE’s statements of the purpose and values of social work. Also, “programs may add competencies that are consistent with their mission to respond to their context” (CSWE, 2022, p. 1) and may supply more corresponding behaviors for the required competencies—in a way that addresses human needs—as long as they provide a rationale for their curriculum design (CSWE, 2022, p. 8).

If clients and constituencies and professional associations within a social work education program context are actively advocating for human needs, given what the 2022 EPAS refers to as “client and constituency goals” and the “needs and opportunities of practice communities” (CSWE, 2022, pp. 12, 14), program missions can certainly address human needs—side by side with attention to human rights and social justice—as part of an antiracist and anti-oppressive curriculum design.

Finally, following decades of research and theory development on human need since Germain (1979) contended that human beings have three basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—is now the time for social work to revisit that original social work practice insight?

The late David G. Gil (1924–2021) argued for a deeper grasp of human needs within the profession of social work. Has the literature on human need now evolved sufficiently to overcome the misgivings that led Kahn (1957) and Germain (1987) to move away from using theories of human need for social work practice?

Social work is already striving to bridge the micro and macro divide (Abramovitz & Sherraden, 2016). Will the profession now address the conceptual problem of eclecticism (Tucker, 1996) by linking the theories of human need with theories of human rights and social justice and with a limited set of key theories with strong social work roots, such as empowerment (Collins, 2000; Emmel, 2017; Gilbert, 1974; Gutiérrez, 1990; Gutiérrez et al., 1998; Simon, 1994; Solomon, 1976), ecosystems (Gitterman et al., 2020), theories of role relationships and social relationships (Marwell & Hage, 1970; Nunes et al., 2022), the other mini-theories of SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2017), and emerging social justice–oriented forms of behavioral approaches (Jason et al., 2021; Saini & Vance, 2020)?

Can social workers develop a combination theory of social work practice that is pluralist (but non-eclectic) and needs, rights, and justice focused (but non-monist), using Traub’s (2020) need-based social justice theory development method? Robert Bremner (1956) said, “Human need is a continuing fact, which each age discovers, or thinks it discovers, afresh” (p. xiii). Do we now have such an opportunity again?

Further Reading