Theorising Social Work Research

Researching Social Work as a means of social inclusion Seminar topics

Researching Social Work as a means of social inclusion 6th March 2000 Edinburgh

Research as a Vehicle for Social Inclusion: a Focus on Young Mothers in Care With Children in Care Professor Lena Dominelli University of Southampton

Social work research that involves 'client' groups and integrates them into a project as full members of a research team, is a difficult and complex endeavour. Its achievement raises a number of questions. Of particular interest in this paper are those concerning their inclusion as participants in the totality of the research process and its aftermath. Aiming for it seems easier than securing it as a reality in practice, for inequalities creep in at many points.

In this paper, I explore this issue by focusing on research work-in-progress with a group of young mothers in care with children in care in Canada. I will consider philosophical, methodological and practical obstacles that have to be transcended to make inclusion in the research process and outcome more than tokenistic. And finally, I will examine the reasons for concluding that research can make a contribution towards the creation of a more socially inclusive society, but at the same time argue that its potential to do so is limited, whether the level of inclusion being considered is within the research relationship or social relations more generally.

The Project

The idea for a research project on young mothers in care with children in care came out of earlier work on children and families when some colleagues and I became aware of the limited literature on the experiences of mothering amongst this group of young women. We were fortunate enough to secure funding for a two year study on this topic from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The study is based in Canada and involves Marilyn Callahan (co-director), Debbie Rutman (consultant on young people in care) and Susan Strega (research fellow), myself (co-director) and various members of the Youth Network who are young mothers who either are or have recently been in care. The project is guided by an Advisory Committee that meets regularly and represents all the stakeholders interested in this issue - academics, young mothers, practitioners and policymakers. The people named above constitute what I call the university-based part of the research team, and, we all have worked or currently are working with young people as practitioners.

The young women remain anonymous, to protect their identity, but this in itself highlights a difficulty in being totally inclusive in research. For example, those of us who are named can claim having 'done' this research in our CVs, knowing that knowledge of our work is, by virtue of being named, already in the public domain. For one of the young women to demonstrate her involvement, should she at some later stage in her life wish to do so, is much more complicated. I return to this point later. The project is interesting not only because it raises questions about inclusion concerning the research subjects, but also issues about doing international research when a member of the research team (me) lives and works from an overseas base. However, the shortage of space and time means that I will not explore this latter aspect of my involvement in this paper.

The project is still in its early days, having begun about six months ago. So my comments, although based on reflections of activities undertaken thus far, are tentative. Moreover, they are my own personal views about the project and my interpretation of the events that have unfolded to date. For although I have asked my colleagues for permission to refer to the project in the context of this seminar, they have neither seen this paper, nor yet had the opportunity to comment upon it. This has been due to the practicalities of not knowing that I would be drawing on this particular piece of work until fairly recently and being unable to write the paper sooner than I have done. This point in itself identifies how the realities of our lives and demands from other spheres of activities impact upon us as researchers so that control over the research process and its development is fragmented and lies in many hands not just in those of the researchers and those directly involved in it.

Additionally, although the project includes documentary analyses of policies in this area, interviews of practitioners and policymakers, I will focus only on issues linked to the interviewing of the young mothers in care and the analysis of their interviews through a 'grounded theory' approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).

Social Inclusion: Conceptual Issues

Social inclusion is the antonymn for social exclusion. At one level, both terms are rooted in power relations that indicate the extent to which an individual or group has control over their lives and the conditions within which they live. Inclusion implies being part of the mainstream of society and empowerment; exclusion suggests being limited to its margins and being disadvantaged. The European Union has popularised these terms, but I would argue that its definitions emphasise the 'structural nature of the processes which exclude or include parts of the population from economic and social opportunities' (EU, 1993:22). The EU document frames social cohesion as contingent upon economic development and performance, with socially excluded groups at the mercy of powerful economic forces beyond their control. The economic sphere drives its definitions and presents those at the receiving end as passive 'victims' with limited opportunities for acting as autonomous subjects. Thus, the EU's approach fails to develop proposals for action grounded within an analysis of the holistic processes whereby social inclusion and exclusion occurs, and the ways in which excluded people respond to their predicament.

The EU's understandings of power is one dimensional, that is, these endorse Parsons' (1952, 1957) view of power as a 'zero-sum' game. In it, those who are socially included have power, those who are excluded do not. However, this conceptualisation of power has been challenged by a number of scholars. Clegg (1989), for example, posits power as a multidimensional and fluid force. French (1985) suggests that power embodies a relation that is constantly negotiated and renegotiated as people interact with each other in specific circumstances. More complex understandings of power are reflected in the activities and writings of those involved in the 'new' social movements - women, black people, lesbian women, gay men, disabled people, and older people who have argued cogently that power is not simply based on the distribution of resources (Scott, 1990). They have identified the importance of issues linked to identity and the marginalisation of particular identities (Dominelli, 1986; Dalton and Keuchler, 1990; Phillips, 1991; Morris, 1991; Wendall, 1996). Additionally, theorists from the 'new' social movements have emphasised the importance of cultural forms of exclusion (Hall, 1992; hooks, 1992, 1994a, b).

Community power theorists such as Dunleavy et al (1995) have argued for 'positive sum' analyses of power in the context of relationships between players in community politics. Barnes (1997) explores how marginalisation excludes people from realising their rights as citizens. Dominelli (1986) shows how one part of a social movement - women sex workers, challenge being defined as powerless by others to affirm their own potential to act for themselves through collective organisation. Dominelli and Gollins (1998) indicate how at the level of everyday interactions, marginalised individuals, in this case a woman with learning difficulties, draw on a whole range of strategies and knowledge to empower themselves. Thus, the agency of the subject is an important aspect of both social inclusion and exclusion. The structural location of an individual of being either within the mainstream of society as a member of the socially included group(s) or at its margins as one of the excluded group(s) provides the context within which they exercise agency.

Thus, the literature emanating from the 'new' social movements and academic analyses reveals a more complex picture than that suggested by official definitions of social inclusion and exclusion. Additionally, these reveal a vibrant engagement with the processes whereby inclusion and exclusion occur and a number of attempts at transcending structural limitations to create alternative resources for delivering more relevant services at the level of community. Activists within the 'new' social movements face dilemmas of de-radicalisation and incorporation once they seek to engage with the state (Lovenduski and Randall, 1993), of which social work is a part. They question taken-for-granted assumptions about their role and status as excluded people and demand inclusion within local systems of governance and service provisions (Morris, 1991; Shakespeare, 1993). The achievement of their objectives usually requires establishing an effective relationship with local service providers. The Youth Network to which some of the young mothers involved in the research project on young mothers in care represents their attempt to empower themselves individually and collectively and through doing so influence local social services provisions.

Identity-based movements have also deconstructed and redefined notions of 'community' (Ng et al, 1989; Dominelli, 1990; Barnes, 1997). Finally, and of particular importance to those involved in doing research, the 'new' social movements have questioned the knowledge base used to legitimate traditional professional expertise and demonstrate by example, that there are more effective ways of establishing enabling working relationships between professionals and service users (Dominelli and McLeod, 1989; Ahmad, 1990; Oliver, 1990; Rogers and Pilgrim, 1990; Morris, 1991). The young mothers in this research project revealed how they valued the advise on mothering given by their peers and close friends more than the suggestions that arose through bureaucratic means. Their social workers' comments were also more valued when she drew on her own experience to transcend the professional boundaries that distanced her from her 'clients' to become their 'friend' whilst still being professional in her approach. In other words, their actions demonstrated that reliance on the transmission of knowledge created and disseminated through positivist paradigms is misplaced. Their responses tally closely with feminist critiques that have also highlighted key weaknesses in positivist approaches to knowledge creation. These they have identified as tendencies to: universalise from the particular; ignore power relations inherent in everyday processes and interactions which are also reflected in research relationships (Smith, 1976; Stanley and Wise, 1983); reject experiential evidence; privilege the voice of experts and assume the passivity of the research subjects (Belenky et al,, 1986).

The endeavours of those in the 'new' social movements have highlighted the importance of the mechanisms and processes whereby social inclusion is achieved. Moreover, their insights have been influential in the ways in which services and policies are created, implemented and delivered. And, they have been instrumental in establishing alternative services and resources more capable of meeting their needs as they define them.

Mechanisms and Processes Involved in Social Exclusion and Inclusion

Power is exercised strategically at the macro-level, through institutions at the intermediate level and in interpersonal relations at the micro-level. Macro-level dynamics provide the social, political and economic bases of exclusion and set the context within which micro-level negotiations and re-negotiations take place. At the institutional or intermediate level, social exclusion operates through social policies which allow differentiated access to service provisions; bureaucratic procedures and practices which regulate entitlements in accordance with set definitions which may be exclusionary; and professionals who act as 'gatekeepers' to resources and decision-making structures. At the micro-level, the processes of interaction and the value system within which this occurs, enable participation to be either facilitated or resisted. This is the level in which women seek to take the initiative through either individual or collective action and thereby maximise their scope for manoeuvre and enlarge the range of options open to them. In taking action, women seek to limit their exclusion from key decision-making and resource sites and exercise some purchase on their life situations. The micro-level is also the one in which they begin to challenge constructions of their social reality endorsed by other key players and resist forces of exclusion. By taking action to broaden their choices, women embark on processes of negotiation which begin to impact upon the situation and enable their voices to be heard; engage in redefining the problem(s) to be addressed; specify their role(s) within this process; and develop alternative explanations and solutions to those on offer. Thus, women have used their own knowledge and experiences to resist exclusion and marginalisation with the aim of mainstreaming their concerns.

At this point, the alternative forms being developed by women can be either resisted by the powers that be or incorporated into their daily routines. This process of incorporation is one of mainstreaming marginalised initiatives and can form an important element in the processes of transformation that endorse social inclusion. The incorporation of alternative services into mainstream provisions can also constitute avenues through which the energies of those in the margins are co-opted to prevent social change from taking place. This is most likely to occur when these innovations are added on to existing structures without being accompanied by other changes in policies and practices. The Youth Network is aware of the dangers of incorporation, but at the same time is engaged in dialogue with practitioners so as to improve the local services provided for young people.

Social Inclusion and Exclusion in the Research Process

The project on young mothers in care began because the co-directors sought answers to several questions which later went on to inform the research project. These included:

In developing their research project, the co-directors sought advise from women who were working with members of the Youth Network to ascertain whether or not there was a need to examine these questions and then considered the feasibility of doing so at the local level. Both of these queries were answered in the affirmative. The university-based co-directors began with a feminist orientation to the research and sought ways of ensuring that the participative methodologies that we espoused would allow the young women to speak for themselves and that the project remained true to their concerns. Speaking for themselves was deemed to be an essential part of the processes of inclusion with regards to the research project. Discussions with other potential members of the research team also revealed that they shared the co-directors' wish of not beginning the research with preconceived theoretical frameworks. Thus, we chose 'grounded theory' (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) as our preferred method for doing the research.

At this point, our aim was one of inclusion. However, the vagaries of funding which included the possibility that although worthy, our research proposal, like many others, would not be funded, we did not directly involve young mothers in care in our research design. For we felt that without being able to recompense them for their expenses and to some extent the time they spent on the project, we would be exploiting people with limited access to financial resources. Thus, we had to rely on our previous work with women in this group and the networks that we had developed through researching other areas to give us insights and the bases from which to proceed. Consequently, only our link person with the Youth Network was fully involved in creating the application for research funding. Additionally, we had our feminist value system which urged us to engage in participative research methodologies and doing research that aimed to improve the condition of women's lives (Stanley and Wise, 1983). Our project, therefore, had a social goal as its ultimate outcome: changing policy and practice with regards to young mothers in care.

Our moral and political stance, therefore, was there from the beginning and informed our relationship to the research. Traditional 'grounded theory' says little that would be able to guide us in thinking through the implications of this for the design of the proposal; the impact on our negotiations with the young women who subsequently became engaged in the research; the findings which would come out of this work; and the recommendations for policy and practice that would arise from the research. Indeed, a weakness of the 'grounded theory' approach is that it relies on the researcher(s) to act in benevolent or paternalistic roles at the inception of the research, bringing in the voices from the margins, primarily at the point of doing the analysis. Feminist approaches are explicit about their values and change orientation (Stanley and Wise, 1983).

So, like Liz Stanley (1990), I would argue that 'grounding' the research within a feminist framework is crucial in a number of respects, particularly those that aim to include the women being interviewed as equal partners in the research. These include: constructing women as beings capable of autonomous action (Broverman et al, 1970); adopting a non-paternalistic relationship with the young women we wanted to interview and bringing them, through the Youth Network connections, into the project as soon as we heard about its funding; informing our approach in using the findings to improve service delivery and policies for young mothers in care; creating the spaces that would ensure that the young women interviewees would be engaged in this process, deciding what to do and how it should be done, alongside us; and anticipating that the insights about young mothers to be gained through this project would have relevance to other women, policymakers and practitioners.

Our theoretical framework was also relevant in our conceptualising these young women as actors who negotiate and renegotiate power relations through their actions despite their exclusion from formal positions of authority. It was also central to our original aim of validating the young women's experiential knowledge as a legitimate alternative to professional knowledge, and our casting of power relations as being affected by cultural and identity factors as well as economic ones. Our commitment to use research to transform exclusionary structures rather than simply seek inclusion within them also stems from our feminist values. So, it is mainly at the level of examining these young women's experiences as mothers that 'grounded theory' as such, plays a key role.

But even here, I suspect that working in ways that endorse pure 'grounded theory' will prove elusive. This is because even if we include the young women in analysing the data collected and deciding what to do with the findings, theory operates at a number of different levels, and inherent in our original research proposal was an implicit theory about social exclusion. In beginning to make this theoretical presence explicit for the purposes of this paper, I can see that exclusionary processes had been anticipated as operating at three key levels: the personal, the institutional, and the epistemological. These are most evident in the general questions which we have developed as the basis from which to conduct semi-structured interviews. Let me pull these out to make my point.

At the personal level, we ask questions about the young women's experiences of being mothers in care and their relationships with their social workers. These presume that the young mothers are a marginalised group of women whose voices are not always heard. Moreover, we inquire about how they have tried to influence their situations and whom they have drawn upon to help them in doing so. These presuppose agency as a factor in these women's lives. Although the research team has an open mind about the responses we will get, we have framed the questions in ways that highlight particular aspects of their experiences more than others, even though these queries are couched in general terms such as 'Tell me about your experience of being a mother in care'.

These questions also draw on (auto)biography and the young mothers who respond to our questions will be selecting certain aspects of their lives to talk about. Their stories will be influenced by what they consider relevant, what they think that the researchers want to hear, the locations in which the interviews are held and many other factors. Moreover, their stories will be their interpretation of what they have experienced and the factors that have contributed to these being the way they were for them. Implicit in this framing of the situation is a notion of relative truths, an embeddedness in the particular that may make it difficult to identify the 'common' patterns that 'grounded theory' seeks to draw out. Because on one level, every young woman's story will be unique. Exhausting the data until no more new patterns emerge relies on abstracting the particular to make it more general. Here, another level of interpretation comes into play - that emanating from the researcher(s), irrespective of whether she is a university-based researcher or a young mother who has been in care.

The personal level also has interpersonal dimensions that impact on the researcher-subject of the research relationship. Although we have sought to include the young women in the research by sharing our power as researchers with them, there are limits to this process. The project funders will hold those of us who made the application (the co-directors) accountable for the research - the research design, the expenditure of research monies, its findings and its dissemination. This already places us in a different relationship from the remainder of the research team. Even though we involve the others in what is being done, we are ultimately responsible for it. Additionally, the research team has a number of social divisions within it. Although we are all women, our places in the academy and field are different. We may share the same ultimate goals regarding participative research and its significance in providing data that will be useful in transforming service delivery and policies for young mothers in care. But, our respective positions are not equal.

The co-directors are professors. The others in the university-based team are on casual, time-limited contracts. The young women themselves perform a variety of paid and non-paid jobs that offer little money. Asking them to participate fully in the project runs the risk of exploiting their time and energies, for although a small honorarium is available for them, the amount involved does not recompense them on a basis that is comparable even to that of the part-time researcher whose time on the project is allegedly covered via salary costs. I say allegedly, because I know from a number of research experiences, that regardless of their status, researchers often put in more time than originally anticipated to see a project to its completion and dissemination stage whether or not the money to pay for it is available. This constitutes an institutional appropriation of labour that is usually mediated through personal relationships in the research process itself. And, it can set up unintended inequalities amongst those in a research team that the individuals within it have limited scope to alter. Those involved in the research have to consciously address these inequities for the differences which fragment them to be acknowledged and if some sharing of power is to take place.

Moreover, there are a range of other issues which arise from the different positions they occupy. University-based researchers have more credibility amongst funders and the general public than young women in care, who even if they were to publish their own story, would have to deal with their being part of a stigmatised group with little credence long before they reached the publication stage. Additionally, the conditions under which the research effort is carried out are disparate. These also increase the inequalities of their positions.

Those in the university are expected to do research as part of their job and have the skills for doing it. Those in the field have to find the time for undertaking research on top of their usual workloads and develop the research skills needed as they go along if they do not have them already. Inadequate as the academic's experience of their privileged research position may be in reality, there is no readily accessible infrastructure of support and training for those in the field to become active researchers as there is in universities. Additionally, being involved in research and publishing the findings contributes to promotion and an individual's standing in the academic community. It may do nothing in this regard for practitioners and 'clients'.

Those in the field who contribute to the research are not blessed with similar possibilities by virtue of their involvement in the project. Often, their work on a research project is rarely defined as worthwhile work outside the research relationship. The interviewee's commitment and involvement is, therefore, devalued and the hard work, even of being interviewed is not usually acknowledged. Yet, sometimes, the questions which are asked can be very disquieting and uncomfortable. If the experience of a young mother has been appalling, involving physical and sexual abuse, it is not easy to talk to strangers about them. Dealing with the young woman's vulnerabilities by making provisions available for addressing them is a matter that the research team has to consider so as to have the relevant services ready for action if needed before undertaking interviews. Sometimes, the young women's stories can also be very upsetting for the interviewers. Thus, provisions for debriefing and supporting them also have to be made available.

The question of obtaining informed consent before interviewing the young woman is also problematic. Whilst this can be done with sensitivity and care, it remains a troubling issue. Consent to the interview is obtained at the beginning of the interviewing process when neither party is fully aware of what may come out of the interview. Although the person being interviewed is informed that she may withdraw her consent at any time, this view of the process, I believe, is somewhat naive. Obviously, initial consent has to be secured before the interview takes place. But treating consent as a one-off event which then places the responsibility on the interviewee to change the terms of their going ahead by terminating the interview can be frustrating to the person who wishes to terminate the agreement. The interviewee may feel compromised by the position of agreeing to be interviewed in the first instance, so that expressing dissent at this point becomes unlikely. Engaging in what might be seen as going back on her word becomes impossible for her, especially if she feels obligated to the interviewer, a feeling that can arise only by knowing that the interview is important to the researcher's capacity to meet her normal duties.

The interviewer can periodically check this matter out with the interviewee, but this needs to be handled cautiously because the interviewee may experience their doing so as a questioning of their integrity or as indicative of their inability to make up their own mind. Additionally, asking a person several times in a short interview if they wish to continue being interviewed, may disrupt the flow of their story, or add to the time that it takes for the interview to be completed, thereby making this kind of intervention undesirable. Leaving the matter to be affirmed again at the end of the interview may make it difficult for the interviewee to withdraw consent. This is because the person responding to questions may feel that they have developed a relationship or rapport with the researcher which they do not wish to sever by saying that having given the interview, they no longer wish to see what they have said being used by the interviewer. The interviewee can also refuse to continue with an interview at any point and is told she may do so at the very beginning without losing any of the services to which she is entitled. However, she may be reluctant to take advantage of this possibility. For if the interviewer is someone they have just met, and if the 'client' has had poor experiences of professionals, it may be hard for a particular individual to be certain of how far the statements made by this person can be taken at face value. The interviewer's initial word rather than an established relationship between them is a difficult basis for deciding whether or not to proceed further.

In situations in which the people to be interviewed no longer have faith in the capacity of the researcher to beneficially impact upon their lives, they may refuse to be involved in the research from the very beginning. Interviewee reluctance to be interviewed by people different from themselves has been highlighted as a key concern by those involved in the disability movement, where preference is given to disabled researchers who are seen to be like them and who will respect their commitment to the movement's values and aims of changing society rather than blaming them as individuals (Barnes and Mercer, 1997). Although any of these options may be exercised, they all have limitations that can place a heavy burden on the person being interviewed.

At the institutional level, semi-structured interview questions are asked within a specific context to a specific individual occupying a particular position. Their structural situation will influence both the responses to the questions asked of them and the interpretations ascribed to their answers. Much of its impact may be implicit. For example, in asking the young women if they have been able to participate in making policies and advising practitioners about working with young mothers in care, there is an assumption that they should be so involved. But this is not consciously stated. Similarly, asking about the support networks that the young women have in the care setting assumes that they ought to have them. Otherwise, why make this an area of exploration? Again, as in the previous question, the answer is not presupposed, but its importance as an issue has been.

On the epistemological level, both culture and knowledge become important considerations. The project addresses the question of how professional knowledge of mothering dominates over that of the young mothers' own knowledge derived from their experiences and contributes to their exclusion by undervaluing their own understandings of motherhood. This issue is influenced by the cultural representation of young mothers as a stigmatised, undeserving group. Stereotypes of young mothers can be internalised by both the practitioners who work with them and the young women themselves. The researchers' lack of control over the entirety of the research process and in the use made of research findings makes the goal of transforming social work policies and practice a difficult one to realise. Yet, an important aim of this research project is to ensure that the knowledge gained through research involving marginalised 'client' groups is accepted as 'knowledge' within mainstream social services. Questions about the use of the findings will include that of whether the young women can utilise them as a basis for developing both individual and collective strategies for action aimed at changing the services that are provided to young mothers in care and improve the care experience for all children and young people in the care system.


Involving interviewees as active subjects within the research process rather than treating them simply as research respondents with the passivity and objectification that the term implies is a desirable goal and should form an integral part of any research project. Involving people as actors in research more readily replicates their role in their daily lives where they are constantly engaged in actions that centre around negotiating and renegotiating their realities.

However, realising the objective of involving interviewees as active subjects working within an egalitarian framework in every aspect of the research process and subsequent use of the findings is difficult. Its achievement can only ever be partial for neither the researchers nor the interviewees can successfully eliminate the binary division between those who originally set up the research project and those who subsequently are involved in the research primarily through their role as interviewees. Additionally, although research can be used to document and track the processes of social exclusion and identify mechanisms that can be used to promote inclusion, its implementation in either the specific subject area of the project or in social relations more generally, is also limited. For social change of this order involves a holistic process that affects change in the hearts, minds and behaviours of all those living in a particular society, not only those with a specific interest in the research topic. This is a political aim to which research can make a modest but invaluable contribution.


1. I have placed 'client' in quotes to indicate the problematic nature of the term.


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