Theorising Social Work Research
What works as evidence for practice? The methodological repertoire in an applied discipline 27th April 2000 Cardiff
Qualitative Research And The Development Of Best Attainable Knowledge In Social Work Dr Nick Gould Reader in Applied Social Studies Department of Social and Policy Sciences University of Bath
"A study of social work research literature for information about qualitative methods would turn out to be a brief venture." (H. Goldstein, 1991: 101)
It has become almost a cliché that qualitative research reports should embrace reflexivity by locating the study within the author's own biography. Seale (1999) has warned against disingenuousness when reading 'confessional ethnography' - the overt intention is to make explicit potential sources of bias within the research and to give the reader a more informed basis for evaluating the claims of the research. The covert agenda can be that reflexive disclosure is a rhetorical device for disarming the reader from being too critical. It is for both reasons that I will begin by establishing that in accepting the invitation to contribute a paper on qualitative research to this seminar, I do so as someone who produces qualitative social work research and evaluation (e.g. Gould 1999a, Gould 1999b), and writes about reflective, inductive approaches to practice (e.g. Gould and Taylor, 1996), but also I 'do numbers' and have a longstanding commitment to the contribution of new technology and quantitative methods to service development (e.g. Kerslake and Gould, 1996; Gould and Moultrie, 1997). Consequently, this will not be a claim for the unique value of qualitative research in social work, but rather an attempt at what Reid has called 'epistemological reframing' to explore how in social work qualitative research, in addition to quantitative research and practice knowledge, can contribute to the development of 'best attainable knowledge' (Reid, 1994).
Goldstein's comment (above) about the paucity of methodological discussion in social work research literature is both true and untrue. It indicates some of the apparent paradoxes which characterise discourse about the qualitative research in social work. A cursory survey of recent (particularly American) student texts on social work research finds qualitative research consigned to one chapter, the remainder of the books usually being dedicated to population-based and variable-centred research designs. The clear implication is that this (qualitative research) is an exotic minority pastime, but inherently unproblematic in its execution. There are few books given over to the topic of qualitative research in social work: Sherman and Reids' (1994) Qualitative Research in Social Work remains a valuable resource; Riessman's (1994) Qualitative Studies in Social Work Research brings together empirical studies focusing on grounded theory and narrative methods; more recently Padgett (1998) has produced a manual for conducting qualitative research in social work contexts, Qualitative Methods in Social Work Research. The tenor of these books is often that qualitative researchers in social work are a beleaguered group struggling to open up the field to reflect a more tolerant methodological diversity.
However, a recent literature search conducted as part of work in progress (Shaw and Gould, forthcoming 2001) confirmed that there exists a very large qualitative literature in the social work journals; a fairly unsystematic search of on-line bibliographic databases by the author found nearly 400 qualitative social work research studies. Empirical analysis of the content of US social work PhD dissertations also shows a strong upward trend in the numbers using qualitative methods (Brun, 1997). This may not represent a unified or self-conscious research movement but is indicative that qualitative methods are widely used by social work researchers. Indeed, one of the complaints of protagonists of evidence-based practice is that the supposed weakness of social work's knowledge base lies in the dominance of qualitative methods in published social work research (Sheldon, lecture at the University of Bath 1999).
This paper attempts to sift and systematise some of these claims and counter-claims, in order to produce some points for debate about the actual and potential contributions that qualitative research makes to social work (including but not restricted to direct practice). The paper will firstly attempt to review the literature on two dimensions. First, to what extent can qualitative social work research be compared with the broader phases in the emergence of qualitative social research? Second, and more briefly, if instead of working from such a framework qualitative social work research is inductively sorted by subject, what are the major themes that emerge? Having explored some of the cosmology of qualitative social work research, there will be a resume of some of the debates around the contribution that such research makes to social work practice. What is the status of qualitatively-derived evidence in the development of social work practice? This inevitably touches on questions of validity and reliability, the epistemology of practice and whether it has a special relationship to qualitative research, and the moral character of research, particularly the configuration of the relationship between researcher and researched. Finally, some issues are identified which present challenges for those engaged in the development of the qualitative repertoire. 2. Mapping Qualitative Social Work Research - 'Moments' and themes
The periodization of qualitative research has come to be dominated by Denzin and Lincolns' (1994) historical overview which they describe as five broad 'moments'. The traditional period runs from the beginning of the twentieth century until World War II, largely but not exclusively characterised by the dominance of the 'lone ethnographer', but also incorporating the Chicago school in sociology. The object of interest was the 'other', be it the anthropological field study of foreign cultures or the sociological observation of marginal or outsider individuals and communities within the researcher's own society. This gives way to the modernist phase existing until the 1970's, and typified by various projects to systematise and formalise the procedures of qualitative research. Thus, this would include Glaser and Strauss's development of grounded theory. Although Denzin and Lincoln would see the high point of qualitative modernity as having passed by the 1970's, this moment continues in the work of writers like Miles and Huberman (1994) who advocate highly proceduralised and systematic approaches to data collection, analysis and display. The third moment, blurred genres, describes developments until the mid 1980's and is evidenced by the co-existence of a plurality of approaches and a laisser-affaire regard to their combination (from amongst, e.g. symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, phenomenology, semiotics, etc.). From the mid 1980s this phase gave way to the crisis of representation within which various critiques within the sociology of science and ethnography began to challenge the presumption that the researcher's account of events had a privileged relationship to an external reality, or that the author could escape the subjectivity of their own biography and cultural assumptions. Finally, Lincoln and Denzins' fifth moment indicates the influence of postmodernist deconstruction of grand theory, and the recasting of research as a series of narratives producing local, provisional accounts.
Lincoln and Denzins' periodization is not without its problems. Not least, it is a US-centric view of the research literature and in particular under-represents developments in non-English language literature, e.g. Flick (1998) has given examples of objective hermeneutics and Schutze's work in developing narrative interview research as quite distinct developments in the German literature. Lincoln and Denzins' framework also suffers the usual problems of such taxonomies by being over-schematic, not to mention short-sighted - the further back the perspective (for instance pre-War) the more homogenized and over-generalizing it becomes. Such historical frameworks tend also to focus on the doctrinal differences between certain researchers, and as we shall see play down the persistence of pragmatic research approaches which deploy qualitative approaches as part of a mixed repertoire in addressing practice or policy-based research questions. Atkinson has been a particularly severe critic of the reductionist tendencies in schematising qualitative research, emphasising that often there are confusions made between theoretical traditions (symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, phenomenology), research methods (grounded theory) and meta-theories or concepts of broad generality which have no necessary connection to methodological issues (deconstructionism, feminism, critical theory) (Atkinson, 1995: 121).
This overview is sympathetic to his view that research practice is not advanced by 'slavish' adherence to artificial historical boundaries, but nevertheless attempts to synthesise an overview of trends in qualitative research in social work. In particular we will show that 'moments' are not like geological seams which are mined to extinction, but overlap and are often worked simultaneously. Nevertheless, it offers a sensitising framework for thinking about the evolution of qualitative research in social work.
The first moment is broadly indicated by the predominance in the social work literature of the clinical case study. Sherman and Reid briefly chart the place of the case study in social work journals from Richmond to Hollis:
'Indeed we could justifiably say that the case study method developed by Mary Richmond in Social Diagnosis is a legitimate form of qualitative research. The case study has been defined as an in-depth form of research that may focus on a person, a cultural incident or a community. Certainly, the in-depth study involved in 'social diagnosis' could be construed as applied qualitative research in which research findings guide intervention' (Sherman and Reid, 1994: 2)
For Sherman and Reid the 1950's until around 1970 social work experienced a qualitative 'dark ages' during which the dominant paradigm became variable-based evaluative studies with a psychological orientation. Ironically, within sociology this was a golden age of qualitative research, particularly with the consolidation of social constructionism. Until the 1970's the influence on social work (with a few notable exceptions) of qualitative research was from social scientists, primarily sociologists, who studied topics or issues which were of interest to social workers, such as institutions or the cultural life of marginalised groups of outsiders. Thus, the Chicago School of sociology produced Whyte's Street Corner Society (1955), Liebow's Talley's Corner (1967), Becker's Outsiders (1963), all of which revealed the assumptions and understandings of the worlds with which social workers sought to engage. Similarly, studies of institutional life such as Polsky's Cottage Six (1962) or Goffman's Asylums (1961) were important sources of sensitisation to the socializing processes of working and living in institutional settings. The landmark study for social work of this period or moment was Mayer and Timms' The Client Speaks (1970) drawing on qualitative interviews with clients of social workers to gain their views on being the recipients of casework. This became the first in a series of qualitative studies, or 'client studies' giving voice to service users (Fisher, 1983).
However, university departments of social work, particularly in the UK, did not become significant producers of research until the early to mid- 1970's. The modernist phase within the broader social sciences was about to give way to 'blurred genres', a pluralistic pick and mix of methods.
In social work by the late 1970's a cluster of studies emerged within which ethnography was being used for studying the dynamics of social work organisations, either as a totality, or some sub-unit or functional aspect of their activity such as intake or assessment. A number of these studies took as their point of departure organisational pre-occupations of the time with intake processes and the functional organisation of teams. For example, both Maluccio (1979) and Rees (1979) used ethnographic methods to explore the processes of intake; how the agency receives, prioritises and allocates work relating to new referrals, and how the definition of problems was negotiated. In the UK, Carole Satyamurti (1981) showed how social workers cope with working within irreconcilable frames of reference. Theoretically located within a Marxist tradition of sociological studies of work but methodologically grounded in ethnography, Satyamurti attempted to elicit the internal and external worlds of social workers during the post-Seebohm period of reorganisation in social services. A case study of one department was constructed built on two year's part-time participant observation. This included talking informally to people, going on home visits with social workers, reading case files and other documentation and general immersion in the life of the group, supplemented by structured interviews with a sample of forty people. Other studies have continued to utilise ethnographic methods to describe and understand the contradictions and tensions, both personal and organisational, in social work, for instance Pithouse's study of a UK social services department (Pithouse, 1987).
The 'modernist moment' supposedly had its apotheosis by the mid- to late-1970's, characterised by attempts to formalise qualitative research. However, it is argued (Flick, 1998: 9) that its legacy survives in the procedures of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and the influence of Miles and Huberman in systematising approaches to the structured analysis and presentation of qualitative data (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Certainly within social work research grounded theory has continued to be an influential and active tradition. Grounded theory has been described by Sherman and Reid as, 'particularly promising for the development of indigenous social work theory and knowledge...' (1994: 6) and as we shall see below has been drawn on as a source for arguing for the recognition of synergies between qualitative research and practice. Its claim is to be an approach and set of methods for developing theories, concepts and hypotheses direct from the data rather than a priori assumptions, other research or existing theoretical frameworks.
Grounded theory has continued to be an ongoing stimulus within the social work research field. With its emphasis on the inductive construction of categories through processes of constant comparison and analytic induction it has sought to analyse populations in terms of constructs which are more multifactorial and subtle than those produced by static, quantitative cross-sectional data analysis. The examples from the social work literature are many. Mizrahi and Abramson (1985) used grounded theory to study interaction between social workers and physicians, developing a typology of professionals which could be placed on a continuum of collaboration - traditional, transitional and transformational Belcher (1994) reports on a grounded theory study of how people become homeless. Usually homelessness research, based on cross-sectional data, tends to explain process in terms of one variable, eg mental illness. Using open-ended interviews Belcher and colleagues sought to develop a more complex model of multiple factors involved in the drift into homelessness. Similarly, grounded theory approaches to data collection and analysis have been used in studying the contribution made to change by community activists. Lazzari et al (1996) studied the contribution of 21 Hispanic women who were active in their communities in facilitating change, be it improving conditions for local people, or developing collective approaches to community development. Ward et al (1996) used continuous comparative techniques from grounded theory to compare how qualified and student social workers attributed motivation to sexual abusers of children. Lazar (1998) also used grounded theory to analyse the interviews with social workers to explore how they construed the relationship between gender and environmental influences.
The fourth moment represents a crisis of representation as, under the influence of feminism and postmodernism, foci emerge which problematise the processes of doing fieldwork and analysis, and foreground the subjectivity of the researcher in these processes. The exemplars of this fourth moment include the overlapping fields of feminist and narrative research. Both are fundamentally concerned with giving voice to those who may not be heard: 'At the core of feminist research, therefore, is the commitment to give voice to previously marginalized and silenced people.' (Davis and Srinivisan, 1994: 348) This is also a diverse tradition but within which there is a broadly shared emancipatory agenda, summarised by Harding as: 1)knowledge is grounded in the experiences of women; 2) research should benefit women; 3) the researcher immerses herself or shows empathy for the world being researched (cited Hyde, 1994: 173). At the same time, as Padgett points out, within this broad manifesto there is also to be found a plurality of epistemologies and methodological repertoires, one of which is narrative research.
Narrative research in social work draws on models of therapeutic intervention, e.g. narrative family therapy, as both research method and therapeutic intervention (Besa, 1994; Fish and Condon, 1994), and also the methods of oral historians. Thus, the construction of narratives about an individual life is not only a communication of the subjective experience of events, but also a process of re-integration for people whose lives may have been fragmented by violence or oppression (Riessman, 1994: 114). 'Narrative analyses start from a specific form of sequentiality' (Flick, 1998: 204). The character of narrative research is both methodological and epistemological. Life is regarded as a biographical narrative which can be reconstructed through a procedure of elicitation although, for the critics of narrative research, this leads to methodological controversies. First, there is an over-confidence in the inference from narrative to external reality, there is rarely triangulation with other data sources. Second, the labour intensity of the method, and its ideographic rationale, mean that often studies are presented as individual case studies, or very small samples which can, at least for more positivist critics, produce problems of generalisability. Despite these objections, for some social work researchers, narrative inquiry rescues the voice of the service user or excluded from the margins, and contests the implicit hierarchies within positivistic research. For example, Krumer-Nevo (1998) has used narrative analyses of young women's perceptions of their struggles as mothers in families with multiple problems. Riessman in particular has argued for narrative research as a counter to some of the perceived reductionist tendencies of positivism; she draws on narrative accounts by people experiencing divorce to contrast this with more quantitative studies of the divorce process which produce, for instance, gender bias within standardised symptom scores and the neglect of personal meaning in survey research (Riessman, 1991). Borden also used narrative methods with individuals who had experienced adverse life events to show how narrative identified the strengths and personal resources that they were able to mobilise, in contrast to the 'deficit models' which problem-centred approaches tend to produce (Borden, 1992). There are similar implications from Riessman's narrative case study of a man with advanced multiple sclerosis who uses narrative devices of restorying his life to guide the image others have of him. (Riessman, 1990). Again, Stevens (1997) uses narrative accounts by black female adolescents to show the complexity of their coping strategies to meet challenges in living.
The movements into narrative and postmodernism segue into Lincoln and Denzins' fifth moment of reflection, co-operative inquiry, empowerment and the positioned investigator. Here the concept of narrative moves from the more literal meaning of telling life stories towards the argument that research theories or methods are forms of rhetoric, persuasion or story-telling. This is where, as Flick has argued, 'narratives have replaced theories, or theories are read as narratives' (Flick, 1998:10). The interest in subjectivities allies some strands of feminist research with postmodernism. Sands (1995) has suggested that postmodern theories of multiple selves and multiple identities as elaborated through the concept of 'voice' enable challenges to be made to patriarchal assumptions of conventional social work; drawing on narrative methods she uses the exemplar of an excerpt from an interview to explore the reconstruction of identity. Similarly, Trethewey (1997) has used qualitative interview data with clients and social workers to analyse strategies of resistance and empowerment amongst clients, arguing that their identities are not the passive recipients that is often presumed.
These developments are indicative of three emergent, interlocking themes in wider qualitative research, which are also found in social work:
- 'the crisis of representation' - a recognition that even within the ethnographic tradition there has been a tendency to write up fieldwork in terms which emulate the objectivity of positivism, so that the author is concealed as an agent who interprets, prioritises and owns the research. This was not new to the 1990's; Geertz's seminal book, The Interpretation of Cultures, first published in the 1970's, gave rise to a 'confessional' style of ethnography acknowledging the hand of the author in the construction of research accounts (Seale, 1999). However, postmodern deconstruction more radically and fundamentally places the author at the centre of methodological argumentation;
- the reinstatement of the author within research accounts implies a declaration of the political position of the researcher and legitimates research as an intentional political project, which is intended to contribute to the emancipation of the subjects of the research. This echoes Marxist conceptions of praxis, the dialectical interaction of theory and practice, and in particular the field of action research. But there are also implications for less overtly political traditions such as ethnography where the moral and political implications are identified:
"Ethnography is both a way to study justice as well as to 'do justice'. Furthermore we suggest that ethnographers are 'justice workers' in so far as they clarify the nature, process and consequences of human expectation which are manifested in everyday life as social definitions." (Altheide and Johnson, 1997: 173-4)
- the instatement of those who might traditionally have been viewed as the subjects or respondents of research as equal collaborators in research, the service user or practitioner as co-researcher. This reinforces the recognition of research as a reflexive practice, and the dissolution of traditional dualities between the researcher and the researched.
Shaw (1999) has noted that participatory research is not a unified field and incorporates the influences of several approaches including co-operative inquiry, action science, action inquiry and participatory action research. From within these perspectives conventional, modernist qualitative research is a morally compromised endeavour in which respondents consent to participate without having opportunity to influence or control the research process. Some social workers have looked to the contribution to research methodology and epistemology of writers such as John Heron and Peter Reason to provide an alternative approach in which the formally-designated researcher facilitates a process which is democratically steered by people who traditionally might be 'respondents'. There are already numerous examples within the social work literature. Bemak (1996) raises the possibility of working with children as co-ethnographers. Other examples would be Bess Whitmores (1990) work on user participation in program evaluation or Baldwin's account of working with people with learning disabilities as co-inquirers into day centre services (Baldwin, 1997).
What we often see here is a continuation of modernist research methodologies but located within a research sensibility which has become cautious of claims to universality or generalisibility beyond the local. The postmodern concern with decentring the authorial presence to create space for a plurality of voices is not without problems and it remains to be seen how this is developed within social work. At the more modernist end of the postmodern spectrum - as we have seen - there is already a long tradition of confessional ethnography which makes explicit the actions of the researcher. This is really still a form of realism; the researcher retains responsibility for selection and interpretation of the data, but by accounting for the process there is an attempt to deal with conventional research preoccupations of bias, reliability or replicability. As such, reflexivity can be a disguised form of realism, by convincing the audience that the researcher has 'really been there' there is a hidden attempt to persuade us that this is a credible and authentic research account. Moving along the continuum there is a commitment to making the researcher's theoretical position more explicit yet, as Seale (1999) argues, it is not always clear what is meant by 'theory' which sometimes can refer to a cluster of attitudes, values or prejudices without really engaging with more technical conceptions of what might be construed as 'theory'. Such research can still be seen as a modernist aspiration to produce a narrative in a single voice, albeit one within which rhetorical devices are deployed to persuade the reader of their ability to trust the author for their openness and trustworthiness. Most 'reflexive' qualitative research in social work is located within a research tradition which is essentially modernist - paradoxically it makes claims for the decentring of authorship but through its use of the first person and declarations of subjective response to the field, the author is often more centre-stage than ever. In social work there is as yet little sign of radical postmodern reflexivity which engages with innovative or experimental textual formats, polyvocal texts where there is a genuine plurality of voices, although some researchers are writing with service users.
Another way to 'cut the cake' of qualitative social work research, in contrast to the more deductive method of comparing social work research against a predetermined historical framework which emphasises epistemology and methodology, is to sort it inductively to identify substantive themes or pre-occupations of qualitative social work researchers. Such a project has been undertaken by Popay and Williams (1998) in the field of qualitative health research and I am indebted to their work for shaping my own attempt to sketch what this looks like from a social work perspective. Some of the categories which emerge are in fact prefigured by my historical overview of qualitative social work research; there are identifiable clusters of studies which over time have addressed such topics as understanding organisational culture, investigating 'invisible' processes in social work, eliciting service user perceptions of practice and evaluating complex policy initiatives. Some of these studies are what Popay and Williams call a difference model, i.e. stand-alone qualitative studies, others are combined with quantitative methods as part of an 'enhancement' model, that is they compensate for some of the deficits of pure quantitative studies. What this begins to look like is sketched in Figure 1; the cited examples are illustrative only:
Figure 1: Themes in Qualitative Social Work Research
1. 'Taken for granted' practices in social work
- Maluccio (1979): intake practice in social work
- Dingwall, Eekelaar and Murray (1983): decision-making in child protection practice
- Stenson (1993): deconstructing social work interviews
- Parton, Thorpe and Wattam (1997): risk management in child protection
2. Understanding service user and social work behaviour
- Mizrahi and Abramson (1985): collaboration between social workers and doctors
- Gilgun and Connor (1989): How perpetrators view child sexual abuse
- Martin (1994): oral history narratives by African-American people
- Belcher (1994): social drift among homeless people
3. Representing service user's voices:
- Mayer and Timms (1970): the language of social case work
- Rees (1979): social work face to face
- Fisher (1983): speaking of clients
- Whitmore (1990): participatory approaches to program evaluation
4. Organisational culture and change management
- Satyamurti (1981): strategies of professional adaptation to stressful environments
- Pithouse (1987): the occupational invisibility of social work
- Baldwin (2000, in press): managing the transition from social work to care management
- White (2001, forthcoming): 'insider' ethnography of child care practice
5. Understanding complex policy initiatives
- McGrath (1991) Multi-disciplinary teamwork
- Lewis and Glennerster (1996): implementation of community care in social services departments
- Gould (1999): multidisciplinary child protection practice
3. Qualitative research as practice?
So far we have considered at some length the development of qualitative social work research as a category within the wider sphere of social science research. In recent years there have been vigorous debates about whether qualitative research has a pre-eminent position in relation to influencing practice. A superficially persuasive argument is that qualitative research should be the preferred approach in social work research because it has a natural synergy with the processes of practice. This view is usually associated with the writing of Jane Gilgun (1989, 1994) who has proposed and elaborated the metaphor that practice fits qualitative research 'like a hand fits a glove', but it is also an assumption of writers like Heineman Pieper, an advocate of 'naturalistic clinical research' (1994). Gilgun's argument is specifically located in grounded theory, though there has been a tendency by commentators to extrapolate from this to the general field of qualitative research. Essentially, Gilgun's argument is that practice and qualitative research share a number of common features: the focus on how informants construe their world is congruent with the social work injunction to start where the client is; the contextualization of data fits with the social work emphasis on understanding the person within their environment; 'thick' description of individual case studies is parallel to the social work individualization of social work processes of assessment and intervention; grounded theory uses both deductive and inductive reasoning in the same way that social work synthesizes research-based knowledge and practice wisdom; both social workers and qualitative researchers use processes of constant comparison and analytic induction to construct, test and modify hypotheses; both take place in naturalistic settings, use similar methods of data collection such as observation and interviewing and involve maintaining a balance between empathy and analytic detachment.
Metaphors can be alluring forms of argument and Gilgun's case seemed non-controversial until Padgett, herself a protagonist of qualitative research in social work, suggested that under closer scrutiny the glove really did not fit (1998, 1999). Padgett reasserts the value of the contribution of qualitative research to the knowledge base of social work, but draws out a number of criteria by which she asserts that practice and research are very different undertakings, and that there are both scientific and ethical reasons for ensuring that the two are not conflated. Primarily she argues that both are located in different paradigms; practice is irredeemably theory and model driven, located within normative views of social or individual functioning whereas qualitative research is concerned with theory generation and is non-normative. Padgett then argues that the goals of the two activities are divergent. Practice has a series of mandates established between legal duties, the agency and service user which may be contested or in conflict but are presumed to be contributing to a notion of 'helping'; the goals of research are the development of knowledge and scholarship. Furthermore, Padgett asserts that the practice and research relationships are different, the former is often time-limited and terminated by the judgement of at least one party that further improvement cannot be made, the latter is characterised by prolonged and unscheduled immersion in the field, brought to a close when the researcher judges that no further understanding will be elicited. Unlike in practice, with qualitative research the 'real work' begins when the engagement with the respondent is completed, with transcribing, data analysis and writing up. Padgett's sting that provoked the strongest reaction was her argument that the conflation of research and practice was inherently unethical with compromises around standards of confidentiality, informed consent and withdrawal from research/ treatment (Padgett, 1998: 376).
There have been a flurry of responses and counter-responses within the pages of Social Work. Essentially these have been that Padgett's argument caricatures social work, primarily that it construes practice within an outdated representation of practice as a privatised, clinical activity located in anachronistic, psychological paradigms (Bein and Allen, 1999). Heineman Piper and Tyson (1999) have focused their response on the allegation of unethical practice by arguing that in combining practice and qualitative research the ethical standards of the social work profession do not have to be somehow suspended while the research agenda is pursued. However, as Padgett subsequently points out (Padgett,1999) Heineman Piper and Tyson seem to have a particularly narrow concern to 'rescue' their own brand of 'naturalistic clinical research' rather than to engage with the wider arguments about qualitative practitioner research which the debate raises.
Padgett does not perhaps really pursue the full implications of her argument. If doing qualitative research is different from doing practice, but makes an important contribution to the knowledge-base of social work, then how is that contribution made? This is where it may be helpful, in Reid's words, to 'reframe the epistemological debate' (Reid, 1994). (I am conscious that in the first of these seminars it was suggested that epistemology was an obfuscatory and alienating kind of word, but I see little alternative without introducing lengthy circumlocutions). Consequently, the remaining sections of this paper will be concerned with identifying some criteria by which first, qualitatively-derived knowledge might be judged as providing evidence for social work, and second, for reconciling qualitative with quantitative and practice-based forms of knowledge.
4. Qualitative research as evidence
If qualitative research makes a contribution to policy and practice it is reasonable to expect that some criteria can be established to set standards of quality and utility for that research. As the debate about evidence-based practice stands in relation to social work, the protagonists of evidence-based practice argue that the value of evidence for practice derives from a methodological hierarchy, with randomised controlled trials at the apex. Ironically, within evidence-based medicine, from which EBP in social work initially draws its model, there is a more elaborated debate. Thus, although some clinical interventions are best evidenced by RCT, there are also factors - appropriateness, cost-effectiveness, professional decision-making behaviour, geographically multi-sectorally based intervention programmes to name but a few - which demand a more differentiated and pluralistic approach to determining what counts as evidence, including the contribution of qualitative research. (Popay and Williams, 1998). Within the literature there are extensive and arcane discussions concerning the equivalent markers of validity and reliability for qualitative research. Elsewhere I have discussed some of the technical aspects of these discussions (Gould, 1999a) and suggested that some of it seems to be motivated by a defensive impulse to show that qualitative research, whilst lacking the scientistic techniques of quantitative research, can also make itself difficult and obscure. As Reid as argued, the issues need to be settled in language which has meaning for both practitioners and researchers; we need evaluative criteria for research, whether quantitative or qualitative which are meaningful to the larger professional community rather than solely to elites within it such as academics or policy-makers (Reid, 1994).
My suggestion is that it may be conceded that quantitative researchers ask reasonable questions about methodology which are inadequately deflected by polemics which suggest that 'positivism' (usually undefined) is synonymous with fascism. For instance, it is a reasonable expectation that both quantitative and qualitative research publications should contain enough description of the research question, design and methods for the reader to judge their adequacy. Within these descriptions it again seems reasonable to expect of all research that details of sampling and analysis are provided, even accepting that the expectations concerning both will be somewhat different. Beyond these points of convergence it may be more reasonable to expect that conventional issues of validity and reliability will follow a different logic from quantitative research. Following Popay and Williams, the judgement of the adequacy of qualitative research follows from what they call the 'primary marker', that is: does the research illuminate the subjective meaning, actions and contexts of those being researched? From this primary distinction flow various standards which can be applied to the adequacy of qualitative research to count as evidence:
- Responsiveness to social context. Is the research design sensitive and adapted to the real-life setting in which it is conducted?
- Evidence of theoretical or purposeful sampling. Is the sample constructed in such a way that the structures and processes within which the individuals or situations being researched are adequately represented?
- Adequate description. Is the description of the individuals or events being researched sufficiently detailed to allow meaning to be inferred?
- Data quality. Are subjective perceptions and experiences treated as knowledge in their own right without 'expert' translation? How are different sources of information prioritised and reconciled?
- Theoretical and conceptual adequacy. If the research is 'grounded', how does it move from description of data, including quotations and examples, to analysis, interpretation and theorisation. If not grounded, how adequately is the study theorised, and the findings related to the cited body of theoretical knowledge?
- Typicality. What claims are made and how persuasive are they for transferability of findings to other populations?
- Policy relevance. How fully has consideration been given to the full range of stakeholders implicated by the research?
Qualitative research in social work continues to develop within a range of theoretical and methodological traditions. Social work researchers draw eclectically from methods representing the diversity of qualitative 'moments', including ethnography, grounded theory, case studies, narrative, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, and co-operative inquiry with little apparent concern about being conscripted to the paradigm wars. They bring these methods to bear on the kinds of questions which pre-occupy qualitative researchers in other domains of social research. These include exploratory research to describe and map out new fields of inquiry; researching issues of sensitivity where surveys are too blunt an approach; research to capture the frames of reference and meaning constructed by professionals and service users; evaluations of programs and interventions where there is a desire to capture process as opposed to quantified outcomes; case studies where holism is more important than measurement of specified variables; and politically committed research which rejects the claimed neutrality of positivism. Although it would be difficult to show that social work has made an identifiably distinct contribution to qualitative methodology, qualitative social work research has made and continues to make a substantial contribution to social work's knowledge base.
How that knowledge base contributes to social work practice and policy-making is not uniquely problematic for qualitative research; both quantitative and qualitatively derived knowledge have to be interpreted and mediated by practitioners to meet their needs (though I have argued that both can be judged by explicit standards that are pragmatically relevant to practitioners). To restate the classic Wittgensteinian conundrum, rules cannot contain the rules for their own application; prescriptions do not follow deductively from knowledge - judgement, discretion and improvisation are some of the filters which intervene. As Reid has suggested we need to reframe the epistemological debate in social work so that, rather than argue for the supremacy of a particular paradigm, we conceptualise or model the contribution that qualitative research makes to practice, in conjunction with quantitative research and practice-based knowledge. This acknowledges that social work as a form of practice is a complex, sophisticated activity involving the reflective synthesis of both inductive and deductive reasoning within which qualitative research contributes to 'best attainable knowledge', in Reid's words 'a network of propositions with origins in practice experience and research' (Reid, 1994: 464).
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