Doing Social Work Research
Publication Year: 2011
This book is a practical beginner's guide to both conducting and using research within the context of social work practice. A clear and accessible introduction to applied research methods for social work students and practitioners, this text covers the key themes, debates and approaches, including:
- The ethics of social work research
- Conducting interviews and questionnaires
- Focus groups
- Observation and narrative
- The involvement of service users
- Analyzing data
With practical exercises and reflective questions, this is an essential text for undergraduate and graduate qualifying social work students.
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Chapter 1: What's Distinctive about Social Work Research?
- Chapter 2: Practitioner Research – Engaging with Individuals, Organisations and Communities
- Chapter 3: The Ethics of Social Work Research
- Chapter 4: Service Users, Carers and Social Work Research
- Chapter 5: Interviews and Questionnaires
- Chapter 6: Focus Groups
- Chapter 7: Observation, Narrative and other Approaches
- Chapter 8: Analysing Data
- Chapter 9: Developing a Research Proposal and Writing a Research Report
© Louise Hardwick and Aidan Worsley 2011
First published 2011
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form, or by any means, only with the prior permission in writing of the publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.
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Aidan Worsley would like to dedicate this book to his mother and father, Bill and Olive Worsley. Dad, I think of you every day.
Louise Hardwick would like to dedicate this book to Monica, Tom, Ursula, Molly and Leo.[Page vi]
This book could not have been written without the contributions made by all the service users, carers, students and practitioners we have met and worked with over the years. Their imagination, commitment and determination are applauded. We would also like to thank our colleagues at the universities of Liverpool, Central Lancashire and Chester for their comments, observations and insights that have also helped shape this book and move it towards completion.
It's a little perplexing that relatively few social workers appear to be doing research into practice. Who better to interview service users or run a focus group of carers for the purposes of research than social workers? Who better to analyse complex situations and make a sound assessment based on the evidence? Surely social workers know more about social work than anyone else, possess the right value base and an enviable range of transferable skills for research that equip them commendably. And yet, research appears to be in its infancy for practitioners in the social care workforce. We would argue that research involving social workers (and service users) tends to be done to us rather than with us. Even less often is research actually done by us. This is perhaps even more surprising when we start to think more globally about the nature of social work.
‘The social work profession promotes social change’ (International Federation of Social Work, 2000). These are the very first words of an important definition of our vocation and they beg the question – in what ways do we really promote social change? Similarly, the (UK) Code of Practice has, as its first line: ‘Social Care Workers must protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers’ (General Social Care Council, 2004). The question of how we might respond to these fundamental challenges to our professional practice is given an answer: practitioner research. This book is written especially for every social worker, whether on a qualifying training course, post qualifying programme or simply a practitioner in the field. This book will also provide help to those throughout the social care workforce who are interested in learning more about doing research. It is a book designed to help people research their practice and roots itself in the kinds of research that a typical social worker might consider doing. It's a very practical guide, using examples drawn from practice throughout. But its main emphasis – and main hope – is that it is about doing social work research. We aim to inspire, enable and encourage the reader to engage in research because we think that is what is best for the profession and, more importantly, the many millions of service users and carers that social workers support, challenge and empower throughout their careers.How the Book Works
The whole point of this book is to encourage research by talking about it in a clear, uncluttered way, avoiding unnecessary jargon. It tells social workers what they need [Page x]to know to begin doing research and, in that sense, should be seen as an introductory text – although it will suit experienced as well as beginning practitioners. It is important that the reader is aware that a vast array of research methods texts exist which look in considerable detail at many of the areas we discuss. We therefore advise the reader to use this book in conjunction with others to deepen their understanding of key issues. Our focus is social work research. This book aims to demystify the research process by helping people engaged in social work practice learn about it. Case studies will help the reader examine the concepts, theories and methods than underpin research. The book has an abundance of activities that are based in real life practice, each one of which aims to bring alive important aspects of learning to be a practitioner researcher. In this way, reflection is encouraged and we hope the reader will become an active participant in the book. Each chapter ends with ‘key points’ that underline what one needs to take on board and suggestions for further reading. This is also a book for the many students – on qualifying and post qualifying courses and throughout the canon of social care awards – who are looking to learn about or begin research, perhaps as part of a dissertation or project. Each chapter has a section that specifically looks at how the activities it will go on to describe relate to the National Occupational Standards for Social Work. We felt this was important because it underlines that research is a core part of the practitioner's role but may also help in relating research activity to competency structures.How to Use This Book
This isn't a book that is necessarily meant to be read from the beginning to the end. Rather, it presents the reader with self contained chapters that focus on specific aspects of research that will be especially pertinent to different people at different times, dependent upon their own approach to research. Having said that, the sequencing of the chapters follows a logical path through the areas that the practitioner researcher needs to understand in order to engage in research. The book has two main sections. The first section contains the first three chapters of the book. They cover the underpinning ideas that, as practitioner researchers, we need to understand so that we can appropriately contextualize our research – seeing it in the broader context of other research. They consider such questions as, ‘what is special about social work research’? There have been many debates on this matter and we all need to arrive at an understanding of where social work research sits in relation to, for example, healthcare research. We also make the argument for the practitioner researcher – the challenging notion that as busy practitioners we should, to some extent, be researchers as well. It makes the point that in many ways, social workers are researchers and already possess many of the skills that the practitioner researcher will come to rely on. But we underline the point that these are transferable skills. A social worker is no more automatically a researcher than a researcher is automatically a social worker. Practitioner researchers need to harness the considerable skills they have and apply them appropriately to a new, different task. Whilst we would not argue this is always easy, a social worker should find that the transition to researcher practitioner is not too difficult because of the transferability of the typical skill sets they possess – and therefore well within the reach of the everyday social worker. In this sense our [Page xi]prof-ession possesses strong foundations in developing its practitioner researchers. There is also a thorough examination of the ethics of social work research which considers the ethical principles we should adopt when going about our research. After all, social work research is likely to involve the vulnerable and disempowered. It is clearly not enough to simply have the skills to carry out research – especially in these complex areas. How we go about research in a way that affirms the values that underpin our work is of fundamental importance.
The second section of the book takes the reader on a step by step, easy to read guide to doing social work research. It follows the typical path taken by most research projects looking at proposals, methods of doing research, analysis of data and writing up research reports. Thus, it looks at service user involvement in research, interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, observation and narratives. Each chapter draws on a range of research projects in social work areas to show how other people have managed the process and overcome the occasional obstacles that all research presents. They draw on a wide range of material from established research methods texts, through to contemporary journal articles, general social work texts and service user led projects.
Great emphasis is placed on developing the knowledge, skills and values that the practitioner researcher needs to generate knowledge in the workplace. We believe that this sort of activity is a part of the professional development of the social work and social care workforce. We believe that a critical, questioning approach to research informed practice – including researching one's own and others' practice – is fundamental to the process of lifelong learning and keeping up to date. These are key components of good practice and, of course, are included in the National Occupational Standards and the Code of Practice.
The authors are both qualified social workers and have worked in various social work, social care, criminal justice and community settings before embarking on academic careers. They bring to this book all their practice experiences, but also the experience of teaching, supporting and enabling social work researchers for many years at many different levels. They have both been active researchers in the field of social work throughout their careers. Louise Hardwick is a Lecturer in The School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Liverpool and Aidan Worsley is Professor and Head of the School of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire.[Page xii]
This book has attempted to demystify research for practitioners and encourage an active engagement in the research process, highlighting the part this has to play in social work's multi-dimensional roles. It has been argued that conducting research should be an integral part of practice, offering the opportunity for a knowledge exchange whereby practice informs research and research knowledge informs practice. Practitioners should no longer allow others to have a monopoly on knowledge production because social work requires research that both arises from, and reflects, the complexities of the practice context. It requires knowledge of the specific contextual situation found in practice settings. It is time for practitioners to use this situated knowledge to communicate an evidenced understanding to a wider audience and influence future practice and policy initiatives from this perspective. We hope that in pursuing these objectives practitioner researchers will work in partnership with service users, carers and colleagues in academic settings.
Throughout we have focused on the social work practitioner and student undertaking research because, as with service user-led research, practitioner research is an undervalued perspective both within the social work and academic community and the broader welfare sector – indeed not just undervalued but almost invisible. There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from the lack of infrastructure support provided by employers, funding bodies, academics and policy makers, to the traditionally low academic expectations of qualifying and post-qualifying courses that have given cursory consideration to practitioners doing research. All of this has contributed to a lack of confidence in the practitioner contribution. Social work requires research from multiple perspectives and this should include both the practitioner and the service user since each provides a unique ‘coal face’ insight which complements ‘top-down’ inductive knowledge.
The challenge for practitioners is to develop an attitude of reflexive destabilisation and ‘research mindedness’, a state of mind that can open up the possibility of exploring the interface between individuals and communities to seek further understanding and allow critical questions to emerge that relate to social work. This is a process that questions and challenges taken-for-granted assumptions to facilitate a better understanding of the experiences and forces that impact on practitioners, service users and communities. This endeavour can be seen as the starting point on a research continuum, with an awareness of the situated knowledge of the ‘here and now’ leading to the investigation of relevant research and literature to confirm and deepen this everyday understanding. From this stage of the enquiry a number of possibilities may [Page 148]emerge, ranging from endorsing and giving legitimacy to what is already known to acknowledging challenging aspects of that understanding and re-evaluating the situation. All practitioners should engage at this level of the research continuum to inform their practice and where appropriate should be encouraged and supported to move beyond this towards an active enquiry that identifies those areas that demand further investigation.
To achieve this transition to active researchers, practitioners will also need the support of the broader infrastructure of social work (for example, GSCC, DoH, JUCSWEC) and social work organisations (both statutory and third sector), as well as research institutions (universities and research funders like the ESRC). All these macro learning environments should encourage cultures of both individual and organisational learning.
Social work draws on specific values that predispose it towards ‘relationship-based practice’ to achieve social change for the better for individuals, groups, and communities. For the practitioner the service user is not just an individual in a social situation who is the subject of engagement but in fact also a unique individual in complex and uncertain circumstances. This means that any engagement must always seek to facilitate a relationship which can enhance well-being. This ‘caring relationship’ can provide practitioners with the opportunity for ‘bottom-up’ knowledge that is specific to the situation and context of practice – and it is from this perspective that practitioners can situate their research and sustain social work values in the enquiry process.
This is not about reducing the research scope by only looking inward to the individual circumstance. It is about looking upwards, inwards and outwards to explore the specific in the broader context, allowing the possibility of research that can address social injustice for disadvantaged individuals, groups and communities. To achieve these goals practitioners will need to work together with and for disempowered individuals, groups and communities in collaborative partnerships using methods that are appropriate to the task.
The type of approach and methods used will depend on the kind of data being sought. For instance, professional researchers might seek and have the capacity for large-scale quantitative surveys that will use frameworks for large amounts of data which can be analysed quickly and have the potential to inform national statistics. However, practitioners are unlikely to have the capacity to undertake this type of investigation and are likely to be concerned with small-scale enquires that relate to their specific situation – the service users and carers, the organisations and communities they work with.
This is why we have focused on methods that are appropriate to this type of small-scale investigation. We have explored those that are appropriate for applied social research such as interviews and questionnaires, observation and narrative and focus groups. With any method the most important thing is that the conceptual approach and methods chosen fit the purpose of the investigation and not just researchers' conscious or unconscious preferences. It has been argued that the requirements of this type of data gathering correspond very closely to features of an action and empowerment research orientation that assumes a participatory/collaborative approach, informed by a reflexive problematisation that involves a cyclical process of action, reflection and review. Also, this type of research endeavour is predicated on the assumption that it will seek to change things for the better thereby empowering the individuals and [Page 149]communities involved. Doing research is not in itself enough – it needs to be communicated to an identified audience. Therefore a dissemination of findings is a crucial element for successfully effecting change for the better and should be a central consideration for practitioner researchers. Thus they can make a difference: doing research, involving and telling others, achieving change.
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