Theorising Social Work Research

Doctoral and advanced studies in Social Work Seminar topics

Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick

What does social work as a discipline have to offer doctoral level studies and what does the dissemination of doctoral studies have to offer the profession of social work? Dr. Vic Tuck, Solihull SSD I want to address the question as to what the dissemination of doctoral studies has to offer to the profession of social work. And since we are probably talking here about a deeply interactional process, this will inevitably take me into a consideration of what social work as a discipline may have to offer to doctoral level studies, and perhaps social research more generally.

One of the problems still encountered by the profession is that it is not necessarily seen as having a strong, easily identifiable knowledge base. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that, as a profession, we have not been particularly good at applying to our practice the findings of social work related research, which could be said to constitute that knowledge base. However, the challenge remains as to how we better synthesise insights derived from sociology and psychology, for example, in ways that illuminate social phenomena of particular interest and concern to social workers, paving the way not simply for better informed practice but imaginative and innovative practice. I believe that if we are to enhance the credibility of the profession then we still need to develop and extend a knowledge base that can be described as the distinctive `property' of social work, one that is able to demonstrate intellectual rigour as well as practical application. This is where doctoral studies may have something valuable to offer and this chimes in with the objective of the AASW, not simply to provide recognition of knowledge and skill demonstrated at a high level, but to enhance the credibility of social work through the development of professionals committed to excellence.

As I recall, my own experience as a newly qualified social work practitioner was one of feeling that all I had learn via the academic content of my training course was deeply fascinating, but it was difficult to see where it might fit into informing the skills and knowledge I hoped I was beginning to develop. It wasn't until after some years of experience and reflection that I felt I was making real connections between theory and practice. Of course, this learning experience will always be a necessary part of the professional development of each individual practitioner. It is in many ways a deeply personal and often painful journey. But completing doctoral studies has suggested to me how this process can be assisted.

For me the real challenge and joy of doing my PhD lay in having to develop detailed, and what I hope many will see as relatively sophisticated, interpretive frameworks, drawing from a range of sources in the social sciences and `blending' these insights in an imaginative way, for the purposes of making sense of and explaining the data generated by my research study and analysing the significance of the findings. On completion of my thesis, I felt I had arrived at a credible account of how social deprivation, in complex interaction with many other factors, influences the incidence of harm to children. On this basis, I was able to argue that social workers should adopt particular approaches to working with families, including assessments of need and risk, and that social agencies should seek to provide services offering a range of practical and emotional support (Tuck, 2000), a set of conclusions that rests well with current concerns at the Department of Health (1995) and which supports wider government thinking on the impact of child poverty and social exclusion, whilst challenging its limitations.

So what doctoral studies enabled me to do was `theorise' in fresh ways about a phenomenon of key concern to the profession on the basis of promoting a deeper understanding of the aetiology of harm to children, and to construct a stronger conceptual basis for the development of `best practice' as well as modes of service provision likely to be of most value to parents and carers endeavouring to raise their children safely and in good health. On this basis, may we not argue that the value of doctoral studies which derive in some way from the interests and concerns of social work. lies in the aggregated impact of generating convincing and sophisticated theoretical ideas and concepts? And are these not ideas and concepts that extend the knowledge base of the profession and, in so doing, allow for the development of thinking that can be of clearly identifiable value to practitioners, social work managers and policy makers?

My experiences of conducting social research have also led me to think that social work itself may have a distinctive contribution to make to doctoral studies.

Horne (1990) has described social work as a unique activity insofar as, more than any other profession, it seeks to engage with the subjective realities, the inner and outer world, the perceptions and experiences, of those with whom it comes into contact. Any genuine, non-oppressive attempt at helping individuals, families and communities must have this as its central concern, and it can also be argued that the core values of social work derive from it.

The need to engage with the subjective realities of people, of reorganising both the centrality of `the personal' and the attribution of `meaning' by social actors is of course a well established principle in approaches to social inquiry derived from symbolic interactionism and social constructionism. It also lies at the core of feminist approaches to social research, challenging the male paradigm of `scientism' (Oakley, 1981). The blending of theoretical perspectives I undertook was very much underpinned by these methodologies, and I came to believe that the `infusion' of doctoral studies with social work values and perspectives can serve to strengthen them. In doing so, the profession can make more visible the worlds of excluded, marginalised and oppressed people, while also enriching the ethical base of social research.


Department of Health (1995) Child Protection: Messages from Research, London, HMSO.

Horne, M. (1990), `Is it social work?' in The Violence Against Children Study Group (eds) Taking Child Abuse Seriously, London, Unwin Press.

Oakley, A. (1981) `Interviewing women: a contradiction in terms', in Roberts, H. (ed) Doing Feminist Research, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Tuck, V. (2000), `Socio-economic factors: a neglected dimension in harm to children' in Batsleer, J. and Humphries, B. (eds) Welfare, Exclusion and Political Agency, London, Routledge.