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Research methods and social work: ne’er the twain shall meet?

Social workers are generally not excited by research methods. Granted, it’s not a particularly sexy topic and the technical nature of research can seems miles away from the reality of practice. Apart from nerds like me, most practitioners are more concerned about getting stuck into making complex decisions under difficult circumstances with the people they are working with than being interested in whether a particular piece of research is any good or not.

Derided and debated they may be, but evidence-based (or evidence-informed) practice models include research-based evidence as one source of knowledge which can assist with making complex decisions. Alongside practice wisdom; legislation, policies and procedures; and the needs and wishes of the individual concerned, research evidence may support practitioners in their decision-making processes. An understanding of the methods which underpin this research can help practitioners decipher if it’s worth the paper its written on (or the megabytes of memory it takes up!).

I think this is particularly important in mental health social work. Working alongside psychiatrists and psychologists, who often appear very confident about the evidence-base for their interventions, we can often struggle to articulate what research underpins our practice. When interviewing experienced practitioners for the former advanced level post-qualifying programme I led whilst at the Institute of Psychiatry, I found that they often struggled to cite any research which informed their practice. I found this very worrying, though not particularly unsurprising as in all my social work training – both pre- and post-qualifying – I had been frustrated about the lack of research being discussed.

In a departure from my usual empirical papers, I have explored why social workers struggle to learn research methods in a theoretical paper for Social Work Education, which has just been published online. The publishers have provided free access to the full text of this paper for the first 50 people to click here. But just contact me if you miss out on this and I’ll send you a PDF of it.

In this paper I argue that it is important for mental health social workers to be research literate so that they can engage with the evidence base of psychiatry and psychology, the dominant discourses in mental health services. Such research literacy is difficult to obtain as the research content of most social work training is quite low. The programme I led at the Institute of Psychiatry was something of an exception in its emphasis on research methodology training; the decision to close it is certainly a sad loss for social work.

Social workers struggle to learn research methods because our backgrounds are more commonly in the arts and humanities than the sciences. Engaging with empirical research methods can involve a paradigm shift for many practitioners, which is uncomfortable and disconcerting. But, I believe this is necessary in order to engage in discussions about research with psychiatry and psychology colleagues in multidisciplinary teams. Furthermore, I have seen how practitioners’ confidence is transformed when they can confidently read and critique papers which underpin the dominant professional groups in mental health services.

Taking their knowledge of research methods into undertaking their own research, practitioners can – and do – make a valuable contribution to the evidence base for social work practice. Publishing in both psychiatry and social work journals, practitioners demonstrate that social workers can learn about and apply research methodology to answering practice-based questions. I’m pleased to have three practitioners starting part-time PhDs with me at York this autumn who are doing just this.

So, whilst the fields of research methods and social work may not be a marriage made in heaven (how many more cliches can I fit into this post?), where they are brought together therein lies the potential for mental health social work to develop its own evidence base.

Webber, M. (2012) Developing advanced practitioners in mental health social work: Pedagogical considerations, Social Work Education: The International Journal, DOI:10.1080/02615479.2012.723684, can be accessed here: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/NtHI4gtTrntadHNHahNT/full

One thought on “Research methods and social work: ne’er the twain shall meet?

  1. DaisyB says:

    It seems to me that the disconnect between practice and research has occurred for a variety of reasons, ranging from silo working from both practitioners and academics, a lack of understanding about how research can improve practice and the impact on outcomes that can be achieved as a result. The article mentioned is well worth a download, with some great des riptions – my favourite being ‘professional artistry’ which I think is a great example of reflection-in-practice. There is a tendency for social work to just keep its head down and act defensively when challenged which is a real barrier I think in terms of learning from what research tells us. While social work education has a focus on theory into practice, this doesn’t seem to translate very well in terms of research-based-practice, which I think is often far more relevant to the practice context as it can tell us so much about what works.

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