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

Contentious identities - social work research and the search for professional and personal identities Professor Walter Lorenz Jean Monnet Chair (Social Europe) Department of Applied Social Studies University College, Cork, Ireland

An earlier paper in this series by John Pinkerton(1) declared the question of the 'ownership' of social work research as unhelpful in its suggested exclusive property categories, suggesting instead that social work research had always contained at least elements of inclusion. The question is therefore not so much whether should be achieved in social work research but on what terms and in what form. 'Ownership', according to Pinkerton, raises the crucial question of control over the production of research and the question of who benefits from the research product. It requires a commitment, an ethical pre-condition for doing social work research.

In the history of the social professions this commitment usually made a detour by way of postulating that if the status of the profession was enhanced, and this also through doing respectable research with respectable research methods, this would be to the immediate benefit of the recipients of social workers' attention. The 'academisation' of social work in the course of its development, a process which is still ongoing in most European countries, was always partly justified with reference to this agenda. This quest for respectability and acceptance brought the profession under the sway of scientific norms and helped to secure its social position. But the fusion of self-interest and devotion to best service had a price in that it delegated the examination of the validity of methods, including research methods, to the established regimes of scientific enquiry, as the custodians of modernity, progress, and validity. With the prevailing contemporary crisis in modernity and its constituting beliefs, with the exposure of the power-driven subjectivity of the scientific enterprise, the responsibility not just for choosing the right method but for choosing the criteria by which the right method can be distinguished from the wrong ones, falls back into the lap of the profession. The question of the truth of a research method becomes the question of the truth of a practice method and vice versa. And both questions become questions about the accountability to clients and to society at large. Defining the nature of social work's professional relationship to clients and defining the nature of the research relationship with research is part of the same process and remind the profession (and its academic teachers) of the enormity and the centrality of the ethical task it implies.

I want to argue that the 'subjective turn' in social research, as it presents itself at least in the English language literature, spells a profound crisis of identity for the social work profession because it opens up the fundamental contradictions contained in the profession's social mandate and in its self-understanding. This contradiction centres on the direction of the social work mandate, whether it aims at fostering life styles and behaviours which are the responsibility of actors themselves and hence expressions of their self-chosen identities or those which conform to given conventions and structures and hence collective identities which do not allow for diversity. The promise of the relative comfort of a cosy arrangement in this new world of subjectivity and deconstruction could appear, for methodology in practice as in research, as a way out of this contradiction. But before settling on this new 'imported' norm and finding a niche within the currently emerging post-structural social science consensus it seems imperative to examine the elements of this contradiction and to re-construct from this the outlines of an autonomous position on research in social work. This position needs to go beyond the uncritical acceptance of subjectivity to attempt a critical examination of the notion and significance of identity in social work research and social work methodology. 'Critical' in this context means that the approach examines the dialectics between diversity and universality in the constitution of identity. A critical approach to this epistemological question could contain also the elements of a critical practice of inclusion. The concept of inclusion, which forms the heading for this section of the series of colloquia, has many interpretations, ranging from the patronising, tolerance-related end of the scale to that of a merging of roles and boundaries. A critical understanding of inclusion hinges on a critical, non-essentialist understanding of identity which this paper also tries to maintain.

Social work, since its inception in all European countries and in the context of securing its position and status within society via academic credibility, was caught between securing its theoretical underpinnings from positivist/quantitative or from interpretative/ qualitative research. This polarisation in itself is problematic in as much as it conflates a number of different levels and agendas in terms of epistemology, theory and methology (Crotty 1998). What is important to recognise is that the methodological polarisation reflects also an ideological polarisation: 'it serves to mark out contrasting sets of values and philosophical and political positions' (Oakley 2000: 303). This becomes immediately clear when introducing a comparative and historical perspective because this dichotomy assumed a different significance in different countries.

The trajectory in the UK seems to have been broadly that the knowledge base of the pioneers of social work, as far as it was systematically constructed at all, resulted from the accumulation of personal, subjective experiences that gave the entire enterprise of charitable work a highly 'culture-specific' appearance. It reflected in all its aspects the values of an elite, the universalised rationality of highly particular life experiences of people for whom these values had ensured successful adaptation to rapidly changing social conditions. This placed the philanthropic movement and its prime exponent, the Charity Organisation Society, in opposition to the emerging Fabian tradition which pursued the case for social reform and based it largely on an alternative methodology, that of quantitative approaches as exemplified by the famous poverty surveys of Rowntree and Booth. This positivist approach to the structural causes of poverty claimed universal validity by applying the constituent scientific criteria of modernity to the social field: rationality, detachment, hypothesis testing, quantified evidence, testable regularity produced findings capable of commanding acceptance across class and cultural divisions in society.(2)

A compromise, or rather a synthesis suggested itself in the form of the pragmatism of an approach which brought also the qualitative method broadly into the positivist paradigm to benefit from its promise of respectability for the profession. Termed the first systematic formulation of qualitative research methods in the anglophone social work discourse(3), the success of Mary Richmond's 'Social Diagnosis' (Richmond 1917) can be attributed not least to the fact that it provided the individualised practice tradition that had grown up in the COS tradition with a degree of scientific respectability. In contrast to the strong value position taken by the 'pioneers' diagnosis in individualised practice demanded the suspension of subjective values and beliefs on the part of the worker. The systematic investigation of all the pertinent factors affecting a person's problematic situation was to be done according to a checklist of issues that rose above the worker's individual life experience and paid equal attention to individual/psychological and social indicators. It also affirmed the close link between research and practice intervention in social work, emphasising the practice agenda of 'understanding'. Mary Richmond's approach helped to narrow the ideological gap between Fabian research and casework orientation, paving the way for the profession to enter academia if not as an independent discipline so at least as a respectable lodger in the house of social science.

This agenda of accommodating to the prevailing paradigm also aided the incorporation of the emerging body of Freudian psychology into the development of casework as a science-based method. The strong structuralist 'spin' on psychoanalysis, which Freud himself had given his brand of psychological science, facilitated its reception in the anglophone social sciences where this constituted the emerging paradigm in the 20s and 30s. Despite containing the possibility of a contrary, critical reading of psychoanalytical findings of the conflict between instinctual drives and social norms which was elaborated by for instance Adler and Reich and transformed into a sociological perspective by Marcuse, Horkheimer and Adorno, the structuralist version emphasised the inevitable task of adjustment to given social conditions by the ego and hence limited the interactive and the investigative process to the elaboration of patterns. The pragmatic positivism of the academic agenda fused with the political agenda of social integration within which social work found its defining space and enduring mandate from which it derived status and credibility.

This coalition was not inevitable as international comparison shows. While the choice of a constituting methodological and research paradigm for social work does in itself not define its social and political direction, it nevertheless opens up the possibility of a critical distance to an otherwise taken-for-granted social mandate. This alternative is represented in the pedagogical tradition within the continental European development of academic discourses. While in no way being homogeneous and unambiguous in its overall orientation (and many of the dichotomies of the Freudian approach to psychology are paralleled here concerning the direction of 'adjustment' - individual to society or society to individual needs) pedagogy attributes a unique heuristic quality to experience. Socialisation, and the social organisation of successful socialisation, seen from a pedagogical perspective, needs to foster the 'self-hood' of the individual in a sense that constantly transforms the given social conditions (Lorenz 1999). Pedagogy is therefore not so much about cultural reproduction but about the renewal of culture and the harnessing of the creative social potential inherent in individuals. The corresponding research principles must consequently not take their reference point primarily or exclusively from given social structural conditions but from the subjective accounts of human actors.

Pedagogy hence came to occupy a contentious position within the highly polarised academic debate in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century when Dilthey's programmatic affirmation of hermeneutics as the appropriate paradigm for Geisteswissenschaften, (human sciences - "Arts" is always a very inferior rendering of this prestigious term) allowed for no compromise with positivist natural science. Social sciences in Germany during that period did indeed bolster their status and political influence by delivering statistical, 'objective' data on the efficiency of state-instigated social progress and integration. By contrast the influential 'Verein für Socialpolitik (sic)', founded in 1872, operated broadly on a Fabian social reform agenda, utilising however predominantly the biographical methods in the French tradition of Frédérik Le Play. The format of reports the society developed, the 'Enquête' (enquiry), takes account of three criteria: the elaboration of the economic and social context of a question, the articulation of views of 'witnesses' (people affected by the issues as well as experts) and the translation of the findings into proposals for statutory reforms (Prein 1992). The methodological orientation mirrored the programmatic thrust of the association and its prime exponent, Gustav Schmoller, who advocated not just improvements in social security benefits for workers but their participation in the shaping of social and political conditions of a true 'welfare state'. It was not least this 'value commitment' of the association that attracted the critique of a certain Max Weber who in his essay on the 'objectivity' of sociological and socio-political insight(4) rejected the 'ethical evolutionism' and 'historical relativism' of Schmoller's approach (Schmoller 1883). Implicitly more than explicitly perhaps the strong representation of the hermeneutic tradition in German academia as the defining human science paradigm lent the qualitative studies a high degree of credibility, on which most of the early research material in the development of the discipline of social pedagogy in Germany depended (Thole 1999b).

The availability and prevalence of the hermeneutic paradigm in German pedagogical discourses also allowed Alice Salomon, one of the most influential pioneers of social work training in Germany, to dwell on the 'Verstehen' elements in her own version of 'social diagnosis' which she wrote deliberately with reference to Mary Richmond's seminal work (Salomon 1926). Here she states that despite the allusion in the term 'diagnosis' to medical and practice (she had previously used the term 'Recherche', research) and to methods derived from natural science the method in the hands of social workers is distinctly hermeneutic. The most important aspect for her is not the amassing of data but their 'evaluation, comparison and interpretation. The total picture does not result from the addition of details' (Salomon 1926:7). This shifts the focus from quantifiable details to affects and intentions, and this in the clients as much as in the worker. This requires a distinct intellectual method and quality in social work, a scientific approach that sets its own terms and that arrives at its own standards of objectivity by allowing for subjectivity, becoming conscious of it, debating and critiquing it.

In elaborating elsewhere on the conditions of this precarious objectivity Alice Salomon develops a version of subjectivity cum universality that is most intriguing in as much as it appears at one and the same time hopelessly dated and acutely modern. For her the subject of the social worker / observer, is indeed not neutral. Her concern is the professional and academic training of women as social workers and it is to their womanhood, to their specific female qualities that she takes recourse as the guarantee for a non-partisan, non-ideological approach to 'caring'. For her the aims of the bourgeois women's movement rise above party politics to address the integration of society as a 'body'. The incomplete incorporation of women into economic and political structures combined with their psychological predisposition for the role of mother ensures their freedom to act not in self-interest but with a view to the common good (Salomon 1919 p11). And precisely in this regard the qualities of social workers as women need to be developed with reference to their 'being different' as the hermeneutic and interventive vehicle of bringing about a better society.

The parallels and contrasts between both developments are striking. They are both set against an underlying political agenda with regard to the subversive potential of enfranchisement and emancipation as against the structural necessities of integration and adjustment. Social work in most cases recognised this dichotomy, not least on account of its willingness to establish a basis in research for its operations, while arranging itself largely on the side of integration and, in cultural terms, assimilation. It is not the research paradigm which accounts for the political position of the profession, but these glimpses from social work history illustrate the point that different research paradigms have assumed particular significance in the context of different political agendas. Nevertheless, the articulation of identity and the confrontation of questions of subjectivity in research seem to be crucial ingredients of an emancipatory agenda based on a belief in the potential of human agency (Crotty 1998).

However, the potential of the hermeneutic approach to research for raising not just the status of the social work profession and the credibility of the researcher, but for raising questions of identity and raising the level of participation by the 'objects of research' in matters affecting their lives was never fully realised until very recently. The experience of Nazi totalitarianism in Germany had left a deep mistrust against both hermeneutics and positivism. Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology for instance showed an all too obvious towards the uncritical endorsement of social reality as created by the Nazis. The status of positivism escaped relatively more unscathed as its seeming objectivity had never been directly implicated in the setting of ideological research targets, although it could be argued that in the case of social work it was the very belief in the neutrality of 'diagnosis' that made social workers the willing assistants of the racist Nazi welfare machinery (Lorenz 1999). But the overall uncertainty as to whether social pedagogy and its specific kind of scientific knowledge had actually been infused with ideology created an intellectual hiatus which in the immediate post-Second World War years was filled with the seeming reassurance of positivism's objectivity.

But social work in that reconstruction phase in the 1950s and 60s, as it was for at least the Western European continental countries, lived with a strange dichotomy. It was infused with a hankering for academic respectability which it sought by attaching itself epistemologically to established paradigms of psycho-social or behavioural psychology and structural sociology while at the same time doing little in the way of primary research to endorse or develop that methodology. What seminal research was undertaken tended to be of a qualitative nature (e.g. Mayer and Timms 1970). But the overall orientation of professionalisation and academisation of social work took its bearings from the scientific project of furthering the effectiveness of interventions in the pursuit of objective, universal truths about society and human behaviour. Differences in methodology become variations on the theme of social workers aiming to be the custodians of the truth about the best functioning of society. Particularly the response to the growing awareness of the extent of child abuse in practically all European countries was a reaffirmation of the paradigm of objectivity and the substantiation of facts (Finkelhor 1984), although qualitative perspectives sought to complete the picture (eg. Miller 1984). The dominance of the positivism as the defining paradigm can be gauged by the tardiness in the acceptance of qualitative research methods as 'respectable' in social work. Sherman and Reid state 'Qualitative research has had an uneven history and delayed development as compared with the relatively continuous and progressive growth and maturation of quantitative methods in social work research' (1994:1) - and this despite the very central role the method actually played in the development of the social work literature. The eventual affirmation of qualitative research methods was associated with the demand for an autonomous, self-generated body of social work theory that turned its rootedness in practice from a source of slight embarrassment into a source of pride and confidence. 'There was also a recognition that the study and analysis of what goes on in the actual process of practice had been shortchanged in favor of measurable outcomes' (Sherman and Reid 1994:3). A similar process prevailed in the context of the German methodological debate where it seems strange that the qualitative and intepretative methods of research gained scientific credibility in the past decades largely through their importation from the USA, rather than through a historically based reflection on the hermeneutic tradition as such (Thole 1999a). Not that this affirmation would find universal acclaim - on the contrary: a recent review of trends in social work research found an overwhelming preponderance of empirical/evidence based practice and pragmatism (Trinder 2000).

But the greater and more overt acceptance of the value and validity of qualitative research approaches and their special significance for social work required the endorsement of general paradigm shift towards qualitative methods in social science. Only then could social work overcome its general 'disengagement from research' which was largely a 'disengagement from positivism' (Everitt et al. 1992: 8). Critcher et al. (1999) observe the increasing importance given to qualitative research in welfare research generally during the decade 1985 - 1995 with reference to the analyses of Depner et al. (1984) and Thoits (1995).

The shift can be explained in various ways

(i) Advocates of qualitative research methods, particularly in the domain of ethnography which gained wider acceptance in the social sciences in the past decades, could point out with increasing success the 'missing bits' in quantitative approaches: it 'neglects processes of development and change and the creative role of individuals and groups' (Layder 1993: 39).

(ii) They further state that in quantitative research the parameters of what is to be studied and known are already laid down, narrowing the findings to options within an already defined knowledge (and theory) horizon (Silverman 1993).

(iii) The degree of objectivity that is achievable by purely quantitative methods was being questioned by the advocates of the approach themselves (Mullen 1985).

(iv) Quantitative methods, by presenting pre-structured versions of reality, miss out on reflecting the actual views of those being studied (Critcher et al. 1999).

The acceptance of these limitations facilitated a rapprochement between quantitative and qualitative methods that culminated in their treatment as complementary and in the greater acceptance of triangulation as a means of improving validity, reliability and generality of findings (Brekke 1986).

But these compromises skirt around the central issues that lay behind their polarisation and were to an extent masked by their dichotomous presentation. The mere accommodation of such methodological differences was unlikely to maintain the faith in a waning enlightenment consensus that research would lead to objective results and it was just a matter of choosing between various alternatives to the same end. The central issues are that the foundations of knowing, the very criteria by which the reliability of knowledge can be established, have become problematic. This crisis was brought about partly by the realisation of a rift between language and reality in terms of a radicalisation of the interpretive position (Sarup 1993), partly through the awareness that regimes of truth are maintained not so much by the weight of evidence but by regimes of power (Foucault 1972). This critique, celebrated in the wave of post-modern and post-structuralist deconstruction, picks up on the philosophical challenges posed by Nietzsche to the self-confidence of modern rationality. With the demise of empiricism and structuralism in sociological discourses and the advent of post-structuralism and post-modernism the stringency of the search for mutually exclusive approaches to research, to theorising, to understanding and ultimately to truth has given way to the greater acceptance of relativism and subjectivity. From the perspective of this relativity the shared contours of the previously prevailing research approaches become apparent in as much as they are all variations on the theme of modernity with its belief in progress, rationality and domination of the unpredictable. Whether inductive or deductive, whether positivist or hermeneutic, whether empiricist or structural, the regimes of truths claimed by these positions reveal themselves ever more clearly as regimes of power. It was the quest for power positions that motivated the search for epistemological paradigms and consequently led to very different settlements in different countries. All operated with the aim of universal truths, of transcending the boundaries of discrete experiences. All constructed or postulated a research subject with the help of various a priori chosen forms of identity.

From the perspective of this critique, modernity operated with two ways of knowing something about others: one that reflects my power to define the parameters within which knowing is allowed to take place and into which the more refined knowledge about the lives of others, however it has been obtained, can be inserted, and one which strives to oppose or suspend this power by letting the social lives of people articulate themselves with authenticity (and authenticity was after all one of the driving forces of modernity). Both ways of knowing contain mechanisms of exclusion and of incorporation, and this in both the positivist and the interpretive paradigm: exclusion in the sense that the acceptance of the authentic voice is utterly precarious, depending on tolerance, perhaps trust, on guarantees and rights to be heard - in other words on social and political arrangements that give expression to a fundamental ethical commitment to acceptance and inclusion; incorporation in the sense that power relations set the terms for acceptance where rights do not restrict those powers.

However, these post-modern and post-structuralist forms of critique(5) do not in themselves constitute a shift to a new paradigm of social epistemology in Kuhn's sense (Kuhn 1970). Rather, they have left a kind of vacuum that is being filled with whole range of proposals. One is inspired by the at times triumphant celebration of the freedom achieved under this relativity and as a loose collection of 'post-structural positions' (Peile and McCouat 1997) invites us to come to terms with an 'anything goes' scenario in which presentation, selling power, popularity, aesthetics replace the 'tyranny of rationality'. ' It must be clear tht it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented' (Lyotard 1984: 81). It is difficult to see how such an approach could constitute a foundation for better practice as it suspends the validity of any set of criteria by which 'better' could be recognised and assessed. While seeming to be 'anti-exclusionary' these radical relativist positions bring with them only new forms of exclusion in the way in which they de facto restrict knowledge to what can be shared within (but not across) discrete constituencies who already share those beliefs, who are already constituted by a shared language. 'Campaigns which are based upon the collectivizing of an identity... have been successful in countering negative and devaluing representations in dominant welfare discourses. However, they also run the risk of freezing or fixing people into single unitary identities, when in fact, their self- identities may be quite complexly and multiply constituted (in terms of class, race, ethnicity and so on). This means that the politics of domination may be challenged, but the effect of the dominant discourse in totalizing particular identities/categories is left untouched' (Williams and Popay 1999: 170).

Feminism has taken a different pathway in its critique of taken-for-granted certainties and the exposure of regimes of power in epistemology and ultimately remains committed to the, albeit totally re-worked, modern project of emancipation, argument, truth(6). Central to the feminist point of departure is the notion that the researcher's self is crucial to the process and the results (Stanley and Wise 1993). The various strands of feminist research share the promise that identity, because of its contentious nature, provides a central reference point for communicating a basic consensus over aims, agendas and methods in social science and social work research (Swigonski 1993). They raise many of the questions with which social workers grappled in the constituting phases of their profession with renewed urgency and in a new context, questions of identity, difference and experience (Fawcett and Featherstone 2000).

Given the enormity of the uncertainty evoked by questions of identity it is tempting to privilege the authenticity with which women experience social problems and to resort to an 'essentialism of identity' which the research process helps to excavate. This was the approach by which already Alice Salomon had claimed that the experience of women as carers had universal validity. This is where the post-structural critique can assist in radicalising the feminist quest for collectivity, if not universality, within the particular of identity. Essentialism, rather than being capable of universalising insights and communicating them effectively, brings with it new forms of exclusion which are in fact well rehearsed in the debate on racism. Privileging the knowledge base of one social group over that of another on account of a particular type of experience, associated with 'given' essential characteristics of members of that group, inevitably leads to new forms of exclusion and closes the way towards communicating over the social significance of different experiences. Wanting to regain certainty by salvaging elements of positivism seems to be always associated with creating new forms of divisions and exclusion, while going with the stream of deconstruction seems to offer no means of overcoming and challenging the existing forms of exclusion, even though their extent, their pervasiveness and their resilience may be better understood in the light of a post-structural critique.

These pitfalls in the filling of the 'postmodern vacuum', in coming to terms with relativity and uncertainty, pose some very uncomfortable alternatives for social research generally and for social work research in particular. The path to academic respectability and professional accountability which had informed the development of social work research methods in the past and had meant an arrangement within a prevailing paradigm consensus, is no longer open. Indeed, it would be dangerous for social work to treat the current paradigm crisis as a transition to a new consensus and to rally around a likely winner in the battle for succession, to pin the social work colours to the mast of post-structuralism. In the given political contexts this would spell the surrender of any possibility of autonomy to managerial dictates. It certainly would not by itself increase the power of self-representation and influence over service developments by the users of social services.

The present profound crisis of certainty in epistemology cannot be confronted from within the conventional parameters of research methodologies but requires the widening of the debate to include the dimensions of subjectivity, identity, experience and exclusion into a more coherent research agenda. It also requires the inclusion of an explicit discourse on ethics as advocated particularly strongly from within feminism (e.g. Rossiter et al. 2000). If post-structuralism has produced anything unambiguously then the realisation that knowledge 'lost its innocence' (Flax 1993), that the issue of values and their legitimation can no longer be divorced from that of knowledge and its constitution. Knowing requires language and with that communication in a radicalised form, not just as technical competence but as a way of negotiating identity, relationships and constituent communities. 'The essence of my argument is that rather than identifying how gender and ethnicity affect the research process, we need to examine how they are negotiated' (Fortier 1998:49). Communication in turn requires a commitment to understanding which, as Habermas (1989) has demonstrated, derives from the act of communicating itself. Communication can constitute the self as a historical self, in the context of others, with all the distortions and impositions that this brings in specific historical and political circumstances of inequality and powerlessness.

Research in social work, as social work practice itself, must be conceptualised a means of a participatory shaping of this historical process. This unashamedly normative way of putting it spells a value position, a position that expresses a commitment to the possibility of a social existence. What form this social existence will take, how it tackles issues of inequality and exclusion, is no longer a matter of revealing eternal laws of nature, of society or of human behaviour. It is a matter of negotiation among all members of a communicative community such as it is beginning to articulate itself within the debris of the crumbling bastions of truth. For the exposure of regimes of truth as regimes of power has not been so much the result of critical academic discourses but of the claiming the public rostrum of debate and political action by disenfranchised groups and silenced minorities. As Beresford pointed out in this seminar series and elsewhere, the principles of research developed around the 'Toronto Group' indicate not just a new method of participatory research but a new way of defining the relationship between research and research participants (Beresford and Evans 1999). In these principles the term 'research subjects' assumes a new and radical meaning in terms of the acquisition of the means by which understanding, identity and experience can be created and communicated.

If this movement is not to be subsumed under and dominated by a consumerist and ultimately positivist research managerialism which drives a very different agenda of cost-efficiency and divisiveness, it has to develop research principles in the context of a complex ethical argument. The way in which identity and experience are constituted can be an important indicator of the resilience of social welfare movements against the danger of this incorporation. As Williams and Popay state in relation to the development of a new framework for welfare research, 'The development of new social welfare movements based on the politics of identity has drawn attention to the particular, and often overlooked, needs of social groups and challenged the "false universalism" of welfare.... However, they also run the risk of freezing or fixing people into single unitary identities, when in fact, their self- identities may be quite complexly and multiply constituted (in terms of class, race, ethnicity and so on)' (Williams and Popay 1999: 170).

This means that researcher and research 'subject' (or 'research participant') really need each other as 'the other', that the process of research as the encounter with the other, precisely because it is ambiguous, fraught with endless possibilities for misunderstandings, can only be approached as a hermeneutic process for which there are no a priori certainties, neither in positivist assumptions nor in claims to authenticity. Research, and particularly social work research, as seen from this perspective goes beyond established methods of ethnography and becomes really an exercise in inter-cultural competence. Inter-cultural competence aims at establishing the participants in a communicative process as people with distinct, separate and yet negotiable identities. This focus on identity contains the problematic of inclusion and exclusion in a very comprehensive and complex form which the research process needs to take account of and articulate fully rather than to foreshorten it: it underlines the need to establish the dialectics(7) between what Taylor calls the categorical and the ontological identity. 'The first is based upon recognizing and identifying oneself or others as belonging to the same social category. The second focuses upon the uniqueness of the individual - how experiences mark out the individual as different (Taylor forthcoming)' (quoted in Williams and Popay 1999: 168).

It would be interesting to speculate that the professional identity of social workers is subject to the same dialectic dynamics. Staying with the uncertainty over its professional status and identity that has historically accompanied all forms of social work, rather than delegating its resolution to a political allegiance that promises power and status, would be the key to realising the profession's hermeneutic potential in today's society where personal and collective identities have become the site of intense struggles. This hermeneutic potential contains an emancipatory potential in opposition to a politics of identity and of recognition which is always in danger of reifying given or postulated identities. Social work, not least through constituting research as communicative inter-cultural competence, can play a role in stripping emancipatory and empowerment projects of the linear, positivist assumptions within which they are frequently framed. Its own historical experience shows how the closure of the process of identity formation, at both the personal and the social level, leads to processes of exclusion and the justification of inequality.

To summarise therefore: It is not the choice of a particular research method that determines social work's position socially and politically. Rather it is the ability to engage critically in the political agenda of defining the terms on which knowledge and truth can be established which should form the basis for the search of appropriate research approaches in social work. The outlines of such a programme are prefigured in the dialogical constitution of identity which needs to confront difference and yet make understanding possible across divisive differences. A radicalised hermeneutic epistemology, which could well be capable of accommodating both qualitative and quantitative research methods, appears to hold some promise of meeting this professional and ethical agenda.


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1 Research Seminar 2, 20.9.99. 'The Research System as Site of Negotiations'

2 It is interesting to note that Booth, and also Beatrice Potter - Webb, in fact did not rely entirely on quantitative methods but also introduced an ethnographic element by living, disguised, among the poor of their chosen areas: ' Beatrice's strategy was an early example of the use of participant observation to complement `quantitative enquiry'. Booth himself later copied Beatrice's example, spending some time lodging in three households in his classes `C, D and E', and apparently enjoying their habits of life better than those of his own social circle, aside from the fleas. Neither Charles Booth nor Beatrice Potter were honest with their informants, disguising from them their real purpose.' ( Oakley 2000: 122)

3 '...we could justifiably say that the case study method described by Mary Richmond (1917) in Social Diagnosis is a legitimate form of qualitative research' (Sherman and Reid 1994:1)

4 Weber, M. (1904) Die 'Objektivität' sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis, Tübingen: Mohr

5 there is no point here in entering into the differentiation between post-modern and post-structuralist approaches, see Fawcett and Featherstone 2000 and Crotty 1998 chapter 9

6 While acknowledging the different strands of feminism and particularly the contrasts between standpoint and postmodern feminism they seem to converge on the objective 'to retain some form of large-scale theorising in order to understand the systematicaticity as well as the diversity of women's oppression' (Fawcett and Featherstone 2000: 13)

7 the use of the term 'dialectic' in this context does not refer to an oppositional 'system' whose unfolding in history interpretative methods are designed to trace or to further; the post-structural critique of oppositional constructs and narratives is accepted here.