The relationship between research theory and social work practice

the relationship between research theory and social work practice

It is a topic that penetrates to the very core of professional practice and, as such, demands ongoing scrutiny. Discussion of the relationship between social work. 15+ million members; + million publications; k+ research projects. Join for free role and use of theories and methods in social work practice. This chapter then when initiating a social-worker–client relationship. The research studies the relationship between theory and practice in the context of an agency. Eight social workers from an agency were recruited for in-depth i.

The issue is not whether the world exists but rather whether an absolute and unique order exists independently of our conventional cognitive order. What is maintained is that the world and our experiences present us with an infinite, complex criss-crossing of similarities and differences.

Nothing is totally alike to anything else, and nothing is totally different. It can be hypothesised that human beings have a generic disposition to perceive differences and resemblances in a constant way. But neither the world nor our nature dictates the lines differences and resemblances along which the world should be cut. The way it is sliced is the product of a certain community agreement in practices, and it can be - and indeed is — constantly revised.

This is a fundamental point in the strong programme. Giving it due importance enables us to counter some of the criticisms of subjectivism brought against the strong programme and Wittgenstein Lolli ; Nagel Subjectivism and relativism have often been considered high-risk positions in the social sciences, and especially in social work.

In fact, the perspective presented here can be considered as a form of subjectivism when communities are regarded anthropomorphically as individuals endowed with a perceptive apparatus, a will, and a capacity to select among several possible uses of words.

But this is not the case here. What is described is, on the contrary, a natural process: In a sense, to say that objectivity arises from a conventional order is not the same as equating subjectivity and objectivity.

And to say that the distinction between what is subjective and what is objective, what is true and what is false, is the product of ongoing negotiation and adjustments among the members of a community is neither to say that it is arbitrary nor to reject the distinction Hughes One may regard this way the concepts, crucial to social work, from the ones which designate a phenomenon on which social work intervenes such as child abuse.

This kind of relativism questions, not the objectivity of the phenomena denoted by these terms as some have suggested see Sheppard; Peile et al. These terms can be regarded as measuring rods, as socially constructed standards which create an objective reality.

The question now is whether the perspective presented can cast new light on the entire discussion, and suggest new ways to connect different issues, themes, and trends together. That professional communities are internally divided on the basis of conflicting interests has been extensively argued with reference to other professional groups Freidson ; Atkinson The discussion of key terms which cuts across the entire debate requires us to consider its relevance to segmentations, different interests or different strategies to pursue these interests within the social work community.

Looking at the debate we can see that some key terms are crucial in the discussion. The distinctive feature of the debate is that different definitions are given to a quite specific set of factors, e. We may fruitfully consider the entire debate and broad approaches, e. In a sense, different definitions and different uses of terms and concepts can be linked to different definitions of the groups concerned practitioners, academic social workers, employers and of their relations.

When the different positions in the debate are seen this way, one is struck by the central importance of defining boundaries among groups, associated with the introduction or blurring of distinctions and differences in the terms. The authors who maintain that theory guides practice see a strong divide between scientific theories and common sense.

In contrast, those who deny theory such a role also question the sharpness of the latter distinction. One cannot help noticing that these different ways of drawing distinctions impact directly on definitions of the relationship between the academic social work community and the practitioners' community.

They also affect the related, different ways to draw frontiers between the professions, with informal lay helpers on one side, and other professions on the other. Given the concrete importance of boundary definition, it is likely that behind the debate lies a complex interplay of interests. Actually several authors have connected the emergence and differentiation of positions with the different interests of the specific groups involved. For instance, Payne declares that the pragmatic position, and the critical views towards theory and theoretical training in social work, rests on a power struggle for control over practitioners.

Although he goes no further than this, one naturally thinks of the struggle among agencies to gain control over the training of social workers Lee ; Dominelli Employers and agencies are often seen as critical toward theoretical training for social workers, their position being that a good level of practical information would be enough.

Some authors see for instance Dominnelli maintain that this position is motivated by the interest in employing more manageable and less independent-minded practitioners: On the other side, many authors connect the debate over the integration of theory and practice with a struggle by academic social workers to gain acceptance in the academic community and at the same time assume control over the practitioners' community.

Albeit in completely different ways, Sheppard and Sheldon note that - particularly in order to gain access to the academic community - academic social workers seem to have lost contact with the specificity of social work practice. This combines with the fact that, in order to be accepted, they have assumed a subordinate position with respect to other more established disciplines in the social sciences.

Some authors anyway have clearly focused on the interests and power struggles identified as driving the debate Karger He sees the debate on the transformation of social work into a scientific practice as an undercover struggle between practitioners and academics. It is a struggle between the researcher-academicians and practitioners for control of social work - a struggle between values, beliefs, and the Weltanschauung of the researchers and the practitioners' perspective.

KragerKarger remarks that the importance given to science masks a struggle for the definition of a hierarchical relation between different social groups and that there seems to be a wider political dimension in the struggle. First, the division of labour it entails reflects and confirms the division of labour in the wider society.

The earlier stories were shrouded in religion and today's are scientific, but both make claims of legitimacy. The function of both stories is to reinforce the existing social paradigm in a society.

Linking Theory, Practice and Research

KargerOne cannot help thinking of the present debate over evidence based practice, and the quest for scientific social work, which is still very strong. Under the perspective described here, the entire debate can be taken to be part of negotiations by different groups over their reciprocal positions.

If one examines the two approaches identified in terms of negotiating strategies, it appears that the former entails a quest for control by academics over practitioners and for recognition of social work within the academic context, albeit in a subordinate position in relation to more established disciplines.

The advantage of this strategy for practitioners would be elevation to the level of other, more accredited professions. In this approach, boundaries, between thinking and doing, between scientific knowledge and common sense, between professional and lay people, are mainly vertical, and they mark out a hierarchy.

The second approach tends to underline differences and peculiarities more in qualitative terms, but along continuous lines; boundaries are mainly horizontal. Here an alliance between academics and practitioners is crucial, and, in relation to the academic context, the struggle is for social work to be accepted as different but equal among the social sciences see for instance the emphasis on social work as an autonomous academic discipline in Sheppard Negotiating strategies, in fact, are built up through the different uses made of, and the meanings attributed to, the crucial terms.

Most of the inconsistencies underlined in the past Clark make sense if the positions are seen in terms of strategies for negotiating relationships among groups. More specifically, it reminds us of the fact that any new definition of the issue is bound to be one step in a negotiating process, and in doing so, it sets the scene for new critical reflections.

But reflection on languages prompts a further consideration. The endeavour to define theory and practice by means of a speculative exercise - which many regard to be the first step in research - appears destined to create more confusion than clarity. Likewise, individual attempts to create abstract definitions and to draw abstract distinctions among different kinds of knowledge are unlikely to gain empirical relevance: One can learn to repeat abstract definitions in a manner recognised by the other members of the community, and to discriminate them from other abstract definitions.

But this is different from the ability consistently to apply labels to specific situations, namely in the same way as other members of the community do. The point is that it is not necessary to establish and define what the terms mean; we need only look empirically at how they are used in different contexts.

Accounts and descriptions of work are more than means to understand a reality that lies beyond them; they become the direct object of research. Descriptions can be treated as samples of language games, and it is at this level that the connection between theory and practice can be found.

This approach is not new in social work. Paley already noted the difficulty of handling the issue of theory and practice within the more traditional frameworks. In his view, the question of whether social workers do or do not use theory should be avoided.

Linking Theory, Practice and Research | Critical Social Work - University of Windsor

His hypothesis is that most practitioners' statements about theory express a reluctance to account for their practices in theoretical terms, and at the same time the belief that they should be able to do so.

Barbour are in Paley's view all variations on the same linguistic theme. He hypothesises that in social work as in other fields Gilbert and Mulkayit is possible to identify two linguistic repertoires: Paley suggests that it may be more interesting to study the contingent language, rather than ask questions that elicit the official one.

This is in tune with many recent studies in which the question of theory and practice has been set aside, and which directly explore practitioners' descriptions of their work.

While assuming the same perspective, I disagree with Paley on many points. This looks like a new version of the dichotomy between language and reality: And it is the recurrent, roughly similar use of words and their frequent combinations that enable us to understand the languages of the profession, not nuances or subtle differences. Secondly, Paley seemingly implies that academic language has no impact whatsoever on the contingent repertoire. It should be borne in mind, though, that when we talk about theory and practice, we are considering the impact of study on practice.

Paley's position implies that years of training and contacts with the academic community are devoid of impact on how practitioners think, or rather, on practitioners' language and frames. If this were the case, it would be better to abandon any reflection on training altogether, viewing professional courses as mere rituals that must be performed in order to acquire the proper designation, namely to qualify as a social worker.

On the contrary, while acknowledging that social workers who account for their practice in terms of specific models are probably something of an exception, the picture changes when we consider the concepts or terms used to describe their work, clients, and so on. One finds that many of the terms used to account for practice are taken from the social work literature.

Exploring the use of common terms or concepts in the two different languages may be a fruitful way to investigate the issue of theory and practice. This approach enables us to address a question of relevance to practitioners, without dropping one of the terms of my research question theory as other researchers have done.

Incidentally, the role of theoretical concepts in making sense of professional reality has become an interesting object of reflection. As De Montigny suggests, the ethnomethodology approach to language, which underlines how self portrayed objective accounts are indexical, opens up new research on how meaning is constructed in social work De Montigny A relativistic approach to language can also inspire an interesting line of research, as a term considered crucial both in the literature and by practitioners, or which is used across the world, may provide the starting point for exploration of the issue.

When the issue is addressed in terms of language games, what elsewhere has been treated as a problem - namely, differences in the use of theoretical terms by practitioners, or different uses of words in different contexts - becomes the focus of interest. When this claim is set aside, similarities and differences reveal the transformations of use that a term undergoes when used within different groups or segments of the community.

In this sense, the analysis of similarities and differences among uses of the same term, and of its linkages with other terms within broader systems of meaning, gives us access to the different languages spoken within the practitioners' community. At the same time, besides the above considerations, addressing the issue through a particular concrete example may provide practitioners with a chance to express opinions about how they specifically connect theory to practice.

Starting from a specific case renders discussion of the issue more manageable and focused. Thanks also to my colleague Massimiano Bucchi for his careful reading of a previous draft; and to my late friend Paolo Donati for his encouragement and insight. European Journal of Social Work, 2, pp. Tackling the Theory and Practice Dilemma, in: British Journal of Social Work, 1, pp. Theory and Practice in Social Work. Kuhn and Social Science. A Historical and Contemporary View, in: Social Service Review, 3, pp.

A Social Theory of Knowledge. Knowledge and Social Imagery. Wittgenstein, Rules and Institution. Wittgenstein and the priority of practice, in:. The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. Social Work Education and Probation, in: Theory and Practice in Social Work, London: The Sociological Turn, Dordrecht: Manuale di metodologia per il servizio sociale. International Social Work, 4, pp. Ethnometodology for Social Work, in: Qualitative Social Work, 1, pp.

Sociology for Social Work. A Study of Institutionalisation of Formal Knowledge. The University of Chicago Press.

Self-Determination and a Critical Perspective in Casework. Promoting a Balance between Interdependence and Autonomy, in: Qualitative Social Work, 2, pp. Language and the Shaping of Social Work, in: An Introduction to Social Work Theory. Modernity and Postmodernity in Social Work, in: British Journal of Social Work, 5, pp. The Philosophy of Social Research. Theory in social work: European Journal of Social Work, 4, pp. Science, Research and Social Work: Who Control the Profession, in: Social Work, 3, pp.

By way of a beginning, I presented a couple of transcripts of reflective writing, in which both people had confronted some deep and difficult personally-held assumptions about power and race, which were linked with problematic in their view behaviour and attitudes.

The other person, Amy, a self-confessed and committed feminist, described her shock in realizing the racism inherent in her own assumption that race does not make a difference between friends. She realized that a denial of racial differences, an assumption that people of colour are the same as whites, can be just as racist as negative discrimination against people of colour Rossiter, Both sets of reflections allowed each person to change their behaviour and attitudes in ways which they believed to be more empowering.

Thelma, for instance, was able to approach her supervisor more effectively by recasting herself as more of an equal, and seeking advice in a way which preserved, rather than undermined, her social position.

Amy was able to enrich her relationship with her friend of colour precisely because she could recognise and accept her friend's perception of difference. When discussing these transcripts, I was asked by a couple of participants whether it bothered me that the reflections were only personal, not political. They also suggested that the personal is easy, but the political is hard. Again I was floored by this reaction. I had thought the examples of reflections were particularly hard, both in exposing vulnerablity, but in facing undesirable personal characteristics and having the courage to make changes on that basis.

What seemed to underlie these questions from the participants both of whom were men incidentally, and both of whom espoused a structural perspective was an assumption that "personal" change read "intrapsychic" I think was of no value unless linked to political change, and that one could not assume that personal change would lead to political change. Also, political change is something which happens externally, not something which takes place in the internal hearts and minds of people. Here we have examples of assumptions which separate the two worlds, personal and political the internal and the external, the private and public and which also devalue the personal internal or private.

It is interesting to note, for instance, that I cannot remember ever having been asked whether political change is useless without personal change. Apparently political change is OK in its own right, personal is not.

Feminists, of course, have very much tried to address this assumption of the separation between the personal and political worlds, with the catch-cry "the personal is political". But I wonder whether we also need another - "the political is personal". Yes, of course the expression of structural politics is embedded in personal experience, but at the same time personal experience is one of the sites at which structural politics is expressed and perpetuated.

It is as legitimate therefore, to both learn about and act upon politics through the prism of personal experience, as it is to act in the structural realm. There is a need to redevelop our notions of the political, to include understandings of how individual lives are planned through choices within a structure of life chances. Ferguson's work nicely reconceptualises our thinking away from the simple oppositional categories involved in juxtaposing the personal and the structural.

However, before we continue with this theme of revising our oppositional thinking, I want to discuss another example of this simplistic thinking. When I talk to practitioners about valuing their own practice experience, they often ask how their own personal experience can possibly be generalisable, and therefore of use to anyone else?

How can they guard against their own experience being a mere description of their own experience? How can they make it more analytical, and by implicationmore valuable because it is more theoretical? This is another version of the "devaluing the personal" assumption. Practitioners seem to assume that somehow, if an experience is "only personal", its use is confined to that one person.

I do not mean to suggest that one person's experience can or should be imposed on others. Certainly, if there is one thing we know in social work, it is that experiences and perspectives are different, multiple and complex.

the relationship between research theory and social work practice

However, what is interesting is that we seem to deny all this in the assumption that knowledge must be generalisable and more analytical and theoretical to be of use.

Useful knowledge is that which is generalisable, not that which is personalised. It is as if the two possibilities are juxtaposed, and are envisioned as the only possibilities.

Taxonomy of social work theories - part 1

Why are the choices constructed in this way? Why, for instance, do we assume that generalising means imposing a standpoint "my experience is the same as yours" as opposed to exploring commonalities and relevance "we can learn from each others' experiences"? Why do we assume that abstract theories must be more valuable than descriptions of specific experiences? I wonder whether their pervasiveness can be traced in broader social and cultural contexts with regard to assumptions about legitimate professional knowledge.

Social and cultural contexts It has been argued that the process of professionalisation is equivalent to the process of seeking status through legitimizing professional knowledge Eraut,p. Furthermore, it can be argued that professionalisation is, almost by definition, a masculinizing process Hugman,p. In other words, the need to raise the status of professional knowledge is inextricably bound up with the push for professional power and status, and that this process unavoidably devalues the ways in which women know and work.

Knowledge is therefore legitimated through a social process which implicitly denies womens' ways of knowing and working, and which supports a view of knowledge as rational and empirical, discovered through a "scientific" process of objectively conducted research. In this way, knowledge can and should be studied in a decontextualised vacuum, so it can be generalised across contexts, settings and times.

Theories are thus generated and tested so that they can stand the tests of time and change, and thus be said to be truly generalisable, valid and reliable. True knowledge is thus contextless and impersonal, able to be made to fit regardless of context, interpretation or perspective. Further testing allows this knowledge or theory to be refined, and increases its generalisability. In this scientific process of legitimation, knowledge becomes more easily commodifiable which is nice for our managersbecause it can be packaged neatly to fit all situations.

However, the irony is that the more it is packaged in this way, the less likely it is to be applicable across a range of diverse contexts.

As the sociologist Collins notes, in the process of traditional education and research, we are engaged in a process of transforming practical knowledge which we value least into formal rules which we value mostmoving it from private to public domains.

But this process actually renders knowledge less flexible, because it is decontextualised, and therefore contextualised knowledge actually needs to be added to make the knowledge relevant again. The great irony of course is that in the traditional scientific research paradigm the process of generalisability actually renders knowledge less generalisable.

No wonder we value it more. In other words, the process of scientification of knowledge actually makes knowledge less practically applicable, and the more it is made scientifically generalisable, the more useless it becomes.

This of course has grave implications for us who research and teach professional knowledge, since our business is that of creating and teaching knowledge which is practically applicable.

the relationship between research theory and social work practice

However, all is not lost. Collins' exposure of the irony in our conceptualisation and valuing of different types of knowledge can help stimulate some useful rethinking about the place and value of the personal practical experience of professional practitioners. Personal, contextualised, practice experience simply needs to be revalued as an aspect of knowledge which is needed to make more generalised theoretical knowledge meaningful.

Both go hand in hand. And in this way of thinking, research and educational approaches need to readjust to replace generalised forms of knowledge with relevant contextual knowledge where needed. I am not simply rehearsing the old arguments here about valuing practice wisdom.

I am instead arguing that we need to seriously reframe our understanding of the relationship between different forms of knowing, and therefore the role of ourselves as both researchers and practitioners in social work.