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Social work practice and research: Is there a gap to mind?

This blog was initially established to help bridge a perceived gap between the worlds of social work academia and practice. I have used it to reflect on aspects of my work (with the odd post about other things I find interesting, such as cycling, thrown in for good measure!) which demystifies what a social work academic does. I have also used it to explore our proximity to practice and the relevance of our work for practitioners. There is so much more I can say on this – including how I have recently challenged myself to put my own research into practice – but more on that later. However, for a few days this week I’m at the 3rd International Conference on Practice Research which  provides a good opportunity to reflect on where we are up to in bringing social work research and practice closer together.

This conference uses the metaphor of a bridge to represent a two-way connection between research and practice. This is counter-posed with the metaphor of a pipeline, which suggests that research is produced in the ivory towers of a university and ‘piped’ out to practitioners working in ‘the field’ who are meant to uncritically implement it. While the latter does happen, my experience of social work research is one of dialogue, collaboration and co-production with practitioners and service users.

In my talk to the conference on Wednesday I will be using the metaphor of a bridge to explore the shared concerns of social work practitioners and researchers who, let us not forget, are often the same people. I will be reflecting on research which practitioners have conducted whose findings contain important messages for both policy makers and practitioners. I will also explore some of my work which has used a variety of methods to answer different questions but has a coherent aim of articulating and evidencing social work practice to assist the development of the profession. I will celebrate the shared space on the bridge rather than the gap which it crosses.

At this conference there are some presentations about practice-research partnerships between universities and practice agencies which I am interested to find out more about. There is much we can learn from these in the UK. One such partnership is described in a paper I wrote with colleagues which was recently published online by the European Journal of Social Work. In this paper, Aino Kääriäinen, Mirja Satka and Laura Yliruka discuss the Finnish model whereby social work education, practice and research are combined.

They discuss how in Helsinki the university and city authorities both identified the need to bring together social work education, research and practice to enhance the social work profession and reinvigorate practice. They created the Heikki Waris Institute which:

provided a new mediating structure between research, teaching and social work practices … and new knowledge and innovative interventions in urban social issues and skillful practitioners who were able to develop the service provided by the City of Helsinki (p. 9)

The co-location of researchers, educators and practitioners removes physical boundaries to working together, but also changes the nature of both practice and research as collaboration is fundamental to everything they do. This is a model I’d be very interested to see working in the UK.

We put this paper together over a year ago at the 3rd European Conference on Social Work Research in response to the Frontline proposals. We explored the perceived disconnect between the academy and practice experienced by social work students who sometimes find it difficult to integrate their academic and practice learning. We also explored the experiences in nursing and probation, whose professional training has moved in opposite directions in the UK in recent years (nursing has become more professionalised with the requirement to study to degree level whereas probation is being de-professionalised and increasingly privatised). There is no robust evidence that either change has had the desired effect (or undesired effects, for that matter, either).

Our paper was published in early May at the same time as the Think Ahead report proposed to extend the Frontline practice-based model of social work education to mental health social work. We don’t yet know the impact of these training schemes on social work practice or the outcomes for people who use social work services. There is also limited evidence from social work or allied professions about practice-based routes to professional qualification. However, there is a need to find innovative ways to enhance existing partnerships between social work university departments and social work agencies. I particularly like models which co-locate researchers, educators and practitioners so that boundaries are no longer an issue. Practice-research partnerships are one way forward but, as always, we need to evaluate them to identify if they too have an impact on both practice and outcomes.

Webber, M., Hardy, M., Cauvain, S., Kääräinen, A., Satka, M., Yliruka, L. & Shaw, I. (2014) W(h)ither the academy? An exploration of the role of university social work in shaping the future of social work in Europe, European Journal of Social Work,DOI:10.1080/13691457.2014.912202

If you would like a PDF copy of this paper but don’t have access to one, please contact me and I’ll email one to you.

If you are interested in finding out more about the 3rd International Conference on Practice Research its twitter feed @ICPR_2014 has pictures and a flavour of the discussions.

One thought on “Social work practice and research: Is there a gap to mind?

  1. Julie Fox says:

    I’m interested in this – its alway been strange to me that there even is a ‘gap’ and to problematise that is to explore all sorts of interesting questions about the institutional arrangements we work within. In 20 years I’ve never been made aware of any opportunities for practising social workers to initiate, get involved with, or comment on (in a structured way) research that is relevant to their work. Isn’t that strange? ( A couple of years ago the social work ‘professional lead’ accidentally sent me a document inviting research proposals from ‘allied professions’ – which turned out to exclude social work.) I’m not saying it never happens but it certainly is not an everyday occurance. There’s something really odd about being in a world where the concerns of practioners are rarely the starting point for research. Roll on Finish model!

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