Theorising Social Work Research

What works as evidence for practice? The methodological repertoire in an applied discipline Seminar topics

What works as evidence for practice? The methodological repertoire in an applied discipline 27th April 2000 Cardiff

Reconstructing knowledge about older people through social work research (abstract) Judith Phillips

Social work as an applied discipline has a broad research tradition and methodological repertoire. Its eclectic theoretical and methodological base; its application to practice; its engagement with topics which are relevant and useful to policy-makers and practitioners and the value base with which research is carried out provide it with a basis on which to make a claim to wider social scientific relevance. Although separately, other social science disciplines might make similar claims, taken together these represent the distinctiveness of social work research. Claiming distinctiveness is a contentious issue, yet we need to attempt to highlight our particular, methodological repertoire if we are to hold onto the notion that the kinds of knowledge we produce are relevant. Otherwise our territory is invaded, ways in which knowledge is created is distorted and the type of knowledge produced is different. To illustrate this I will briefly look at one area of social work research, work with older people.

Reviewing the history of gerontological social work research it is evident that agendas have changed over time, creating and challenging our understanding of ageing and older people. Social work research has moved from a position of seeing all older people as a burden and adopting a positivistic approach in researching their needs, to one where engaging older people in research through narrative and biography is breaking new ground in empowering very frail older people. However, such research agendas are increasingly set by others outside of social work. The complexity of work with older people in practice, for example, has been reduced to merely a technical exercise under the guise of the care management process. Research agendas have mirrored this trend concentrating on managerial concerns and methods. Although multi-disciplinarity is to be welcomed the contribution of social work knowledge has become indistinct, calling into question the role and purpose of social work with older people.

To re-establish itself social work needs to re-engage in setting agendas for research and employ methods and values that highlight its distinctiveness and complexity; this is imperative if it is to win back the ground lost to other disciplines. I will argue in my paper that such territory can be reclaimed by rethinking what constitutes social work (including social care) with older people by developing methods that produce social work knowledge in ways that are empowering both for older people and social work researchers.