Theorising Social Work Research

Who owns the research process? Seminar topics

Social Work: Who owns the research process? 20th September 1999, Belfast

The Research System as Site of Negotiations John Pinkerton Centre for Child Care Research, Queens University Belfast

In this paper I want to challenge the question "Who owns the research process?" as unhelpful for the consolidation and development of social work research with which this seminar series is concerned. I have to confess that in part my view reflects an aversion I have to the constant use of the term 'owning' in social work, when what is generally meant is not a property relationship but a sense of inclusion and responsibility for something. That might not matter except that the successful promotion of possessive individualism as an aspect of Thatcherism continues to undermine the public service ethos in which social work has been and in my view needs to be embedded. But whatever about that, I also think that the question, as posed, does not encourage a way of thinking about the social work research process which reflects my experiences of being involved in a range of small and larger scale research, funded in a number of ways and using a variety of methods, quantitative and qualitative. For me the question reifies research and suggests an exclusiveness, whereas I have found issues of process and inclusion to have always been part, however uneasily, of social work research. Accordingly I take the view that to adequately describe, analyse and plot a way forward for social work research requires a systemic perspective that recognises the range of stakeholders involved, with their various and legitimate interests and ways of working, and their need to negotiate accomodations and alliances for mutual benefit.

Applied Research

I would endorse the suggestion in the rationale statement prepared for this seminar series, that the hall marks of social work research have been and should be concern to involve stakeholders in every stage of the research process, to give a voice to previously silenced groups and to utilise research to promote social inclusion. In part this is because I see social work research as quintessentially applied research. Three types of research are generally, though by no means universally (Hammersley 1995), recognised as existing in both the natural and social sciences. 'Basic research', sometimes called 'blue skies' research, is experimental or theoretical work on understanding the underlying foundation of phenomena with no particular use in view. 'Strategic research' has the goal of an eventual application but is at a stage where it is premature to specify what that might be. Then there is 'applied research' which is undertaken with a particular use in mind. Recognising the applied nature of social work research raises one of two very important questions lurking behind the otherwise unhelpful "Who owns the research process ?" - the crucial question of control over the production of research and the question of who benefits from the research product.

There is a view of applied research which has been summed up as the 'limestone model'. It suggests that the benefits of research for policy and practice will be long-term and indirect - like water entering and gradually percolating through limestone without it being clear where or when it will emerge and then only as as a trickle (McWhirter 1993). Whilst there may be some descriptive accuracy in that view it is increasingly unacceptable - not only to funders, whether the state or charitable foundations, but also to researchers. Both commissioners and producers of research want there to be tangible benefits from the research product. A major alternative to the 'limestone model' is the 'engineering model', which for social work could be termed a 'commissioner-provider model'. This model assumes a linear sequence running from the recognition of a policy or practice problem deemed to require research, to the commissioning of a researcher to undertake the work and then to the implementation of a policy or practice solution based on that research. The benefit is a direct output of research and the responsibility of the researcher is solely to rigorous design and execution. Yet as one commentator who has experience of being both a university researcher and a government commissioner has bluntly put it: 'It is a myth that social research, if properly conducted, will always find its results incorporated into social policy. The expectation of direct and immediate policy effects from research is in fact unrealistic' (McWhirter 1993 p4). Advocates of the 'engineering model' have to accept that along with whatever influence research findings may have, there will be other more influential social, technical, economic and political inputs that contribute to the final policy or practice output. Indeed that is the case even where research may appear to be the motor of change (Kelly 1999).

A Systemic Perspective

Rather than have to choose between these two unsatisfactory models social work researchers need an approach that draws from both in such a way as to encourage researchers to aspire to maximise the impact of their work whilst recognising that their contribution is only one part of a complex interplay between components in the social care system which together generate changes in policy and practice. Researchers need to understand where they and their work fit into the system and its dynamic. The importance of systemic thinking is well established generally within social work, amongst both policy makers and practitioners, and many researchers draw on systemic models to understand their subjects. So we are well primed to accept thinking systemically about the process of social work research. Figure 1 below is offered as an aid to such systemic thinking.

The model draws attention to the general societal context of research, as registered in the characteristics of the scientific community, the state and civil society. It highlights four key groups of stakeholder - researchers, policy makers, practitioners and service users. It also suggests relatively autonomous processes associated with each group's achievement of its own distinctive outcomes. From the figure it is apparent that the researchers are linked within the process section of the model by lines of communication with the three other groups of stakeholders. The four processes can not be collapsed into a single stream, but they are interactive. The model also indicates that what results from the separate but interacting processes is a variety of outcomes which are specific to the different stakeholders but which also reinforce each other to a greater or lesser degree.

"Who benefits ?" becomes not a question of exclusive ownership but about how best to ensure mutual reinforcement between the outcomes achieved by the different stakeholders. Seen in this way research offers the opportunity to bring identified groups of stake holders together to form an alliance of interests in pursuit of independent outcomes which can facilitate each other or at least find an accommodation. From this perspective "Who is in control?" ceases to be a question of identifying where the exclusive power and authority lies over the research process, but of how the politics of the research alliances are played out. Such alliances are not just a matter for the start and then the end of the research process when the brief is being agreed and when findings are available. The relationships are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated throughout a project's development - from the initial idea, through the design of the project, to data collection, analysis, write up and dissemination.

As each of the four groups advances its own concerns through a process particular to itself any alliance must take account of these differences and attempt some form of synchronising. Within the process section of the model in Figure 1 these links are denoted by the vertical line cutting across the process arrows. At the same time each process arrow connects one of the stakeholder groups to its own separate outcome. The arrows within the outcomes section then suggest the possible reinforcement between the separate outcomes. The arrow returning from the outcomes section to the process section represents the feedback loop that must exist in any functioning system. Each of the key groups takes what it requires as feedback but does it in a manner that is effected by, and effects the others. The impact of research on the activities and concerns of each group is not a matter of time and chance, as in the 'limestone' model, nor is it the result of direct, managed inputs, as in the 'engineering' model. Rather Figure 1 suggests that maximising mutual benefit depends on the forging and sustaining of social alliances within the context of a dynamic system.

Societal Context

In addition to highlighting the interplay of the four groups of key players the model also draws attention to the context in which these relationships are played out. Attention to societal structures asserts as central to any consideration of research process the recurring social science theme of the relationship between 'structure' and 'action' (Giddens 1979). The process and outcomes sections of the Figure 1 can be seen as representing a focus on social action whilst the context section draws attention to social structure. The core strategic question for researchers, as for any other social actors, is what are the structural boundaries to the possibilities of their social action. It is society in the broadest sense that sets the overall context of the social care system in which researchers and the other key actors have to operate. It is important to recognise that ideological, economic and political structures determine the space within which any social care system has to function and it can be a very narrow space squeezed between other, more dominant forces within the state and civil society. For researchers there is also the wider scientific community of which they are a part and which is also dependent on the broader forces of ideology, economics and politics. This reminds researchers that they are part of a wider society in which they have responsibilities and are connected to the other key players as citizens as well as researchers. It is also important to recognise the global dimension to this societal context. Thus in a variety of ways attention to societal context raises the question of power and the politics of research (Harvey 1990, Hammersley 1995 ).

For researchers to make useful strategic calculations about the social space and the balance of power within which they are operating it is helpful to focus on how structural limitations and the possibilities for action are expressed in the particular nature of the scientific community, the state and the civil society in which they are working. In the UK their still exist hierarchies within the scientific community that would privilege the natural sciences over the social sciences and pure research over applied research. However there is also a growing recognition that a sterile pure versus applied distinction needs to be replaced with a more graded and interlocking view of different types of research (Hill 1999). It should also be remembered that there is a long tradition of applied social research which can be traced back at least a hundred years (Alcock 1998) This is an important asset which should not be taken for granted. It has been pointed out that even 'when faced with pressing social problems, in many countries, such as France, there is no tradition of seeking remedies by reviewing empirical evidence' (Bullock and Little 1995). Social work's present concern with evidenced based practice has that tradition to draw as well as clinical medical practice. Applied social research in the UK has also, in the main, avoided being fragmented by endless abstract debate between rival schools of thought and theoretical paradigms, as complained about in other countries (Casas 1995). If anything the tendency has been to underplay the importance of developing basic theory, though the growing disenchantment with the capacity of the welfare state to resolve major social problems which grew from the late 1960s did prompt more basic theoretical critiques from both the left and right (Taylor-Gooby 1991).

An unfortunate result of the general lack of theory within social work research is that the wide ranging interdisciplinary allegiances based on pragmatism and empiricism has made the research community a loose knit, disparate group lacking the authority of a clear professional identity. This lack of a strong independent research identity impacts on the capacity of social work researchers to negotiate on their own behalf. It has allowed other professional, occupational or organisational groups to dominate and set the research agenda - especially where the group has either been traditionally powerful, as with medicine, or in the ascendancy, as with groups associated with the 'new managerialism' (Clarke 1998).

The State

The development of social research in the UK in general and social work research in particular has depended on the sponsorship of the state. This had clear benefits during the post war development of the welfare state. But the collapse in the consensus about the nature of the state and the ascendancy from the late 1970s of a politics driven by an ideology which held as axiomatic that "there's no such thing as society" (Thatcher quoted in Taylor-Gooby 1991 p85) inevitably had an impact on the social sciences. However as with many other aspects of the Thatcher years the undermining of the relationship between the state and social research may have been more apparent than real. In order to pursue its distributive and regulatory functions in an increasingly complex domestic and international environment the state continued to require the knowledge and information that research can provide. Accordingly public policy continued to be characterised by an incrementalism based on rational problem solving which required the data, key ideas and explanatory conceptual frameworks that research can provide. Much more significant during the 1980s and 1990s has been the political promotion of the market as the means of economic management which forced research along with every other resource hungry activity to become more focused on purpose and competitive in costs.

Civil Society

Whilst the basic function of the state may not have changed there has been a growing awareness of the complex of institutions through which the state may operate including those which might more readily be regarded as private rather than public. In part this reflects political choices during the last two decades to roll back the state through creation of various forms of quasi-antonomous non-government organisations, promotion of the private sector and reasserting expectations of the family as the basic unit of social reproduction. But it also represents recognition, signified by the increasingly commonplace use of the term 'governance', of the importance of developments within theoretical work which highlight that the contemporary state depends on much more than its formal administrative and security appartatus to sustain and extend its influence (Hill 1997, Althusser 1971, Parton 1994)

It may be true that in " the last resort, public policy is whatever the controllers of the state institutions decide to do' (Hill 1997 p16) But the notion of governance directs researchers concerned about their place in the system to give attention to more than just the 'corridors of power'. There is a need to take into account that 'a decision network, often of considerable complexity, may be involved in producing action, and a web of decisions taking place over a long period of time and extending far beyond the initial policy-making process may form part of the network' (Hill 1997 p7). The impact of research has to be considered within the more fluid and amorphous networks of civil society. Within the UK the pace of change within civil society has raised fundamental questions about the environment, social institutions, social relationships, value systems, rights and obligations. A significant feature of contemporary civil society associated with managing the pace and direction of change has been the upsurge of single issue campaigns and organisations. So much so that some commentators have argued that the UK is a "post-parliamentary democracy" in which public policy is the result of negotiations between government agencies and pressure groups. (Richardson and Jordan cited Hill 1997 p31) The use of research plays an important part in these negotiations. Thus civil society as much as the state is both highly significant for, and receptive to, the impact of research - though in a more random and unpredictable fashion.

Research Leaving Care in Northern Ireland - An Illustration

To illustrate the argument for using a systemic perspective to describe and analyse social work research I will apply the model in Figure 1 to my experience of undertaking research on young people leaving care in Northern Ireland (Pinkerton and McCrea 1999). This was a study commissioned by government and undertaken by myself and another academic researcher, in which practitioners and service users were surveyed and interviewed about the needs and service experiences of young people leaving state care. Thus in terms of the categories in the model the stakeholders were the academics as researchers, the policy makers were civil servants and social services inspectors, practitioners were field work and residential care staff and the service users were young people leaving care and their families. For the researchers the outcome aimed for was to provide, on a once off basis, after two and a half years work, an academically respectable report providing a baseline of empirical data and informed comment on young people leaving state care in Northern Ireland. As applied researchers we were also concerned that the report should contribute to the work of policy makers and practitioners in reviewing, planning, monitoring and evaluating services for this group of service users. For policy makers the need to do this was determined by impending legislation which had been taking shape for over a decade and commitments expressed in strategic plans spanning five year periods. For practitioners it was the more pressing concern to ensure more effective interventions in the lives of the individual young people on their case loads. Whilst it is clear that there is an overlap between the outcomes pursued by these three sets of actors it is equally clear that they are different outcomes working to different time scales.

What of the fourth group of stakeholders noted in Figure 1- the service users: the young people and their families? The implicit assumption I certainly had at the start of the project was that they would somehow directly benefit from the other stakeholders achieving their outcomes. At the point of engagement which commenced the research process there was a clear hierarchy in the attention given by us as researchers to our relationships with the other actors - the policy makers first, not least because they were also the funders, the practitioners next and the service users only as passive beneficiaries. It was a case of "eyes on the down people... palm out to the up people" (Nicolaus quoted Hammersley 1995 p104).

This hierarchy was also apparent in the synchronising of the processes. Considerable time and effort went into discussions between the researchers and the policy makers as funders to convince them that the idea and the research design were worth investing in. In particular that it would overlap with an outcome they were committed to in the Regional Plan - "services need to be more proactive and flexible if the needs of these young people are to be adequately met" (SSI 1994 p126). By contrast, although the research design required the participation of practitioners and the young people leaving care, both groups were still very much viewed as passive and receptive subjects to be researched. However once the process of the research got underway and in particular during data collection it was necessary to directly engage both practitioners and service users. As researchers new to the subject area we needed to establish a small support group made up of practitioners and a foster parent directly involved in leaving care provision. We also held discussions from time to time with an existing Aftercare Practitioners Group. This at least sensitised us as researchers to the differences between the practitioners concerns, working practices and timetables and our own - including at one point the knock on effect of industrial action on questionnaire returns.

Attempts were made to develop similar relationships with young people leaving care through a focus group and through including a young person in the support group. But actually these were gestures that would have required more commitment of time and resources than were available because the importance of this work had not been recognised and negotiated at the design stage. But again it is important to note that whatever the limitations in the process of negotiating contacts, in completing questionnaires and taking part in interviews, the research was constantly subject to re-negotiation between the stakeholders and so relationships did develop. This was clearest with practitioners. The research prompted them to think in particular ways about care careers, outcomes and coping mechanisms, both in relation to individual young people they had responsibility for and in relation to leaving care work in general. This was further encouraged by the production of interim reports and dissemination events at the end of each of the four stages within the research design. Research products that could to some extent be fitted into the professional process with which they were engaged. The research also raised the profile of leaving care and seemed to add value to their work.

The relationship with the young people leaving care was much more restricted because of their lack of involvement. Conscious of the limited success of our poorly planned attempts to make more of that relationship, in the final report we included not only recommendations about policy and service provision but also two which were intended to boost the relationship between the research and young people leaving care and between the various stakeholders.

In response to these recommendations two initiatives emerged as part of the research project's dissemination strategy; which also included the publication of both an easy to read six page summary booklet and a full one hundred and sixty page final report, briefings with civil servants and a conference. The first initiative was a project between the Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) and the Centre for Child Care Research to produce an 'A to Z of Leaving Care' in a filo fax format appealing to young people. This was to incorporate the research findings and recommendations with advice, information and accounts of personal experience from care leavers. This project has suffered from being an 'add on' to the research without sufficient thought being given to planning and resourcing it but is continuing. The other initiative was that a voluntary organisation, with a brief focusing solely on promoting the interests of care leavers through providing information, training and constancy, undertook a feasibility study to explore the possibility of a role for themselves in promoting the Consortium. This was led by the other researcher, got a mandate to set up in the region and won government funding for the initiative. That organisation, First Key (NI), now uses participatory research, in collaboration with VOYPIC, as a major tool for auditing agency practice.

Before finishing with this illustration, it should not be forgotten that, as noted earlier, it is concern over the pace and direction of social change that provides the context of social work research - the societal context of Figure 1. Nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to children, as evidenced in debates about family life, child protection, school and youth crime (Scraton 1997). Young people leaving care epitomise many of these themes - family failure, children as victims, young people as dangerous, teenage mothers, youth homelessness (West 1995). The research report attempted to at least acknowledge this broader context in another of its recommendations:


In conclusion I want to repeat my basic point that to adequately describe, analyse and plot a way forward for social work research requires a systemic perspective on the research process. The research system needs to be recognised as part of the wider social care system and as a site of negotiations between a range of stakeholders - all with their own legitimate interests and ways of working. Seen from that perspective, not only will we be accurately reflecting the realities of social work research but we will also be building on its strengths. In the first seminar of this series, which addressed the question "What kinds of knowledge", Steve Trevillion (1999) suggested that the type of knowledge which is the province of social work research: "consists of a subject matter of connections which can be understood in terms of complexity, choice and change by a way of knowing which is engaged or participant in its position, committed rather than ethically neutral in its values, reflexively self critical or re-evaluative in its cognitive stance". I would tend to concur with that somewhat tortuous view and suggest that through understanding and developing the social work research process systemically we will be best able to generate such knowledge.


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