Theorising Social Work Research

Researching the Social Work process Seminar topics

Researching the Social Work process 11th July 2000 Luton

Multidiscipliniarity: parameters and boundaries in social work research John Carpenter Centre for Applied Social Studies, University of Durham


Can you fill in the missing words?

[...] research within the social sciences may include any disciplined enquiry which promotes theoretical understanding of [...] processes and settings or which serves.. judgements and decisions about policy and practice. Such research may be conducted in formal [....] settings, in industrial, commercial and professional situations or in informal contexts (such as parent-child interaction, self-help groups and local communities). This disciplined enquiry necessarily draws on the theoretical and methodological resources of philosophy and of social science disciplines, such as anthropology, linguistics, social history, sociology, psychology, or economics. However, it may also involve methods and techniques originating from the distinctive nature of [....] knowledge. In addition, the generation of new methods may itself be a focus of.... research.

No, this is not a description of social work research, although if I had removed a few words which jar (industrial, commercial, and perhaps linguistics) it could almost be. What struck me about this description was that its lack of purity. What kind of mixture of disciplines was this? Just about everything could be included, and it also claimed to have "distinctive" knowledge. Actually, it's a description of educational research taken from the discipline/subject guidelines for postgraduate training issued by the ESRC in 1996.

In this paper I would like to make a few observations about multidisciplinarity in the social sciences. I want to suggest that social work is necessarily a multidisciplinary field of study which, much like education and indeed social policy, draws on a range of theoretical and methodological resources. I do not think this is anything to be apologetic about. Indeed, quite the reverse: multidisciplinarity is, according to the ESRC, one of the "Hallmarks of High Quality Research". It asserts that:

The complex social and economic interactions that shape many of today's most pressing issues demand the skills of a wide variety of academic disciplines, from economists to psychologists. A high proportion of the ESRC's studies involve multidisciplinary teams, including researchers from the medical and natural sciences.

I also want to point out that the context of social work practice has changed irrevocably. As I see it, social work is practised increasingly, and in many aspects exclusively, in a multidisciplinary, or perhaps more accurately, a multiprofessional setting. From the users' point of view the differences between the professions are probably rather unimportant. Consequently, I am not persuaded that defining social work research in terms of a focus on the work of social workers makes much sense. In a mental health context, as in the rest of community care, but also in youth justice and family support, it is not very sensible to separate the activities of social workers from those of their colleagues in other disciplines.

Further, the funders of applied social research such as the Department of Health, the NHS Executive, the Rowntree Foundation and the commissioners of evaluations of new multi-agency services such as Early Years programmes and youth offending teams, clearly expect a multidisciplinary approach. For example, the NHS Executive (Northern and Yorkshire) includes in its current criteria for assessing research proposals the existence of a multidisciplinary team of researchers and a focus on interagency work. Incidentally, its current research priorities are all concern multidisciplinary working and include areas which clearly involve social work and social care: primary and community care, mental health, older people and child health. Similarly, the ESRC research programmes are "normally multidisciplinary: features include the cross-fertilisation of ideas and methods, scientific advice and training and the exchange of data". The ESRC describes the aims as being

".to harness and strengthen the UK social science research capacity in order to address scientific and policy relevant topics of strategic and national importance. They aim to encourage positive interdisciplinary collaboration, within and between projects."

I would like to think that researchers with a background in social work, which as an academic subject is clearly interdisciplinary, and in practice is often multidisciplinary, are ahead of the game. To put it another way, the old disciplinary boundaries are less and less relevant to the practice of applied social research and to the theorising about social issues which must underpin our enquiries. Unfortunately I have to concede that disciplinary boundaries apparently remain important to the RAE, with the result that some researchers and research groups reportedly strain to define themselves and their activities within these boundaries. Nevertheless, I trust I am not alone in thinking that there is rather more to the research endeavour than writing a plausible story for RA5.

In this paper I will use multidisciplinary in both the above senses: the academic and the professional. In the academic sense, I take it to mean research which draws on two or more disciplines. But first I should explain my personal influences and investment in these issues.

A personal note

Almost all my experience as a practitioner has been in multidisciplinary settings. First, medical social work, then child and family guidance clinics (as they were called), adult community mental health services, and primary care. As an academic, I held for five years a joint appointment to the departments of social work and mental health in Bristol, with a particular responsibility to develop shared learning for social work, medical and nursing students. Later I moved to the psychology department at Kent (my first degree is in that subject) and was part of the creation of the Centre for the Applied Psychology of Social Care which transmogrified into the multidisciplinary Tizard Centre, concerned with the development of community-based learning disability and mental health services. During this time I was co-editor of the Journal of Family Therapy, which is multidisciplinary both in terms of its contributors and their theoretical and methodological perspectives. Theoretical influences ranged through nuclear physics (really) and cybernetics to psychoanalysis and social anthropology. Research methodologies included RCTs and conversational analysis. And in the last few years, all this content and more were all subjected to post modernist deconstruction.

I am now director of something called a centre for applied social studies; not you will notice a centre for social work, although our primary educational task is the education of social workers. Nonetheless, the name is quite appropriate: the researchers in the centre do include qualified social workers, but the others come from sociology, psychology, social policy, management, town planning and, yes, a physicist. Given this background, you will perhaps appreciate why I find it difficult to become passionate about defining and defending social work research as a narrow disciplinary entity. You may understand why my goal is not to set parameters and define disciplinary boundaries but rather to relax them and to promote inclusively, multidisciplinarity.


It is not difficult empirically to demonstrate the existence of professional stereotyping and it is generally assumed that negative stereotypes hinder effective multidisciplinary practice. In psychological terms, stereotypes are reductionist and exaggerate differences between groups, in order to establish the uniquely superior credentials of the in-group on some highly favoured dimension. For example the stereotype of doctors as arrogant and controlling in their dealing with patients: social workers are of course never so. Rather they are the only profession which has ever given serious attention to values and ethics in practice - or are they? Such stereotypes are based on ignorance, but fortunately they do seem amenable to change under certain conditions. These conditions include the opportunity to recognise similarities and differences and to respect others' contributions to a joint project (Hewstone et al., 1994).

I am inclined to think that we sometimes have the same problems of stereotyping in the relations between the academic disciplines. Never mind the gulf between science and the arts identified by CP Snow, I have come across quite remarkable ignorance and prejudice in discussing these issues in the social sciences. As with the professions, one group attributes to another a naïve and simplistic position in order to demonstrate that it is the only enlightened discipline. Debates about positivism or the superiority of qualitative versus quantitative research methods remind me of the school debating society on capital punishment: entertaining perhaps, but the debaters do not seem to realise that the world has moved on (in some places, at least).

Methodologies and perspectives in social science research

How about the following statement from the ESRC guidelines of what should be included in postgraduate training in a particular subject:

As [....] research can cover studies with paradigms drawn from physical sciences to humanities and arts, a broad approach should be adopted. Individuals should be sensitised to the underlying assumptions of what they are doing. One approach to this would be to examine the philosophical underpinning of the broad categories of methods: the distinction between experimental and quantitative methods, with their positivistic basis, and qualitative methods, which can cover a number of philosophical positions; the distinction between physical and social sciences and the nature of inquiry in both; issues of hypotheses formulation and theory building; and the relationship between [...] research and practice.

I read this as an inclusive approach and indeed the discipline concerned, management, defines itself explicitly as an interdisciplinary field. Methodological boundaries are disappearing, even in a dull old subject like psychology:

Advances in methodology reflect new theoretical and conceptual developments and the need to throw off the constraints of earlier approaches. In their turn, new methodologies, whether developed in psychology or other disciplines, must influence the ways in which problems are conceptualised. (Psychology)

Incidentally, by my reckoning, nineteen out of the twenty subjects/disciplines listed in the ESRC guidelines included qualitative research methods (the exception was economics). Further, guidelines on teaching about qualitative research methods suggest that some of issues and problems have already been identified:

Research students are likely to require a sound introduction to qualitative techniques including the collection of archival materials, documentary, content, textual and comparative analysis observational and interview techniques. Students should also be aware of problems of bias in questionings, problems of objectivity and values as well as having an ability to distinguish between different types of reason and explanation. Since much qualitative research investigates policy and development decisions, students should also have an appreciation of decision making methods (Guidelines for Planning).

Would the following do as part of the curriculum guidelines for teaching about methodologies in social work research?

Philosophical issues in social work research

This should include an introduction to epistemological issues in the philosophy of social science, and the nature of understanding and explanation in social work; an introduction to the philosophical assumptions underlying different methods of empirical enquiry, including quantitative, interpretative and action research; the place of such concepts as causation, objectivity, subjectivity, validity and generalisation in social work research; and the relation of the researcher to the researched, and of theory to social work practice, including the nature of professional knowledge. Also included should be different interpretations of the concept of social work and their implications for research, and issues of ethics and values in social work enquiry.

As you may have guessed, I took these from the guidelines for education research training, substituting social work for education. But researchers in social work have as good a record as most in discussing these issues. The point I want to make is that in terms of a reasonable appreciation of applied research methods, we can justifiably see ourselves as part of the mainstream of social science research.

Using theories in multidisciplinary research

I think that a justifiable claim to be part of the mainstream of multidisciplinary social science research should be the basis for recognition of the research we undertake. I think this would be more convincing than some strained-for distinctiveness. As I have already illustrated, interdisciplinarity is very respectable, and some subject areas already recognised by the ESRC are quite up front about this. Consider the following description:

[....] is concerned with all aspects of the study of [....]. As such it is not a discipline but an increasingly disparate area of study where many disciplines have something to contribute. As an important area of [....] research it is often located within a [....] faculty. However it is not restricted to a [....] perspective being concerned at the macro and micro levels, nationally and internationally, with the many processes and structures that influence [....]. To be distinctive, [....] research often requires students to cross disciplinary boundaries and therefore commit themselves to breadth at the expense of narrower technical expertise.

Did you guess that this describes industrial relations? Suppose we were to define social work in a similar way. I would find that really quite attractive. In my personal experience both as a practitioner and a researcher, the crossing of disciplinary boundaries has always provided the inspiration for the work I find most stimulating. Since I fear that this is all reading as quite the opposite, indeed rather dull and abstract, let me try an example.

Multidisciplinary research: an example

I will describe some current research which, I think, is multidisciplinary both in its subject matter and in its application of disciplinary perspectives, and which uses a variety of methodologies. It concerns the evaluation of a programme of postqualifying education for professionals working in community mental health services. The professionals include social workers, although they are all working in or attached to multidisciplinary mental health teams. The course is run by the department of social work at Birmingham and includes material which some social workers regard as distinctively theirs, such as a concern for values and user empowerment (they are not, of course exclusive concerns).

The initial evaluation questions had been identified by a group of stakeholders, including the course commissioners and user representatives. I must note that the commissioners, the programme and the evaluation team all started with explicit statements of the principles and values which they brought to the work, and which coincided (Barnes et al., 2000). We (my two colleagues are by qualification a town planner and a social worker) elaborated the initial questions, notably through work with user groups to determine user-defined outcomes for the programme. We continue to develop the questions through discussion with a representative project advisory group. The point here is that defining the research questions precedes the construction of a methodology. We did not approach it as quantitative or qualitative researchers, and tried not to impose our own set of disciplinary perspectives or prejudices.

Some of the questions posed for the evaluation are:

Some of these questions are best answered by quantitative methods and some by qualitative methods. As in most evaluations it is possible to triangulate methods and increase the plausibility of the conclusions. But first, in order to develop the questions it is necessary to draw on a range of knowledge and theories deriving from a number of disciples to investigate the issues involved. In this way it is clearly multidisciplinary. For example, in order to formulate sensible questions with which to answer whether managers' aspirations are satisfied, it was essential to understand not only current mental health policy, but also how policy is thought to be implemented in practice - in other words, principles and methods from the field of (public sector) management. We have explored these issues through semi-structured interviews and rating scales.

Similarly, social identity theory and the contact hypothesis of intergroup relations provided a set of hypotheses and questionnaires which we have used to explore interprofessional attitude change. The educational process itself, we have investigated using educational theories about different types of knowledge and through participant observation. Because we expected that the students' implementation of learning would depend partly on how well their teams functioned and whether there was a climate for innovation, we have used standardised questionnaire measures derived from organisational psychology. We combined these with group interviews of the team members, which are informed by sociological role theories and understandings of power.

Because we were keen to provide conventionally credible evidence of the outcomes for users, we trained course participants to use standardised outcome measures with a randomly selected sample of users on their caseloads. These measures, which include symptomatology, social skills, quality of life and 'empowerment', are taken from the work of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and service users. We are comparing outcomes over six months with outcomes from another, concurrent study of mental health services where no special training has taken place. It is not an RCT, this was beyond our reach, but is next in the 'hierarchy of evidence'.

So what kind of research is this? Is this mental health research? Perhaps: this is the broad context and mental health is a multidisciplinary arena. Educational research? If you consider the definition I cited at the beginning of this paper, it certainly could be. Social work research? The principles of inclusion and partnership which guide our work are evident is much that is written about social work and, to some extent, social work research. So, if social work research is really multidisciplinary in its field of study (i.e. if it can encompass mental health and community care), and multidisciplinary in its use of theories (i.e. if it can comfortably make use of organisational psychology and sociology), and if the methodologies used are determined by the research questions rather than the predilections of the researcher, then 'social work research' will suit me fine. But only if I have to give it a label.

A conclusion

I have observed that the provision of care is an interagency, multiprofessional enterprise and noted that research funding now has a strong multidisciplinary orientation. For these reasons alone, social work research should be careful about defining its boundaries tightly. But further, I have suggested that social work should be proud to be a multidisciplinary subject. It clearly draws on a range of social science disciplines to inform the theories which must necessarily inform its practice and research. It could claim to have a reasonably sophisticated understanding of philosophical positions and to use a range of methodologies. This puts it in the mainstream of social science research, which, I have pointed out, is increasingly a multidisciplinary activity.

I do not want to argue that all subjects or disciplines are, or should be, interchangeable. In the same way, I do not think that all the professionals in a multidisciplinary team should do the same thing. The tasks in for example community mental health services are so complex that specialisation are valuable. Thus, not every member of the team can expect to be expert in advocacy or cognitive behaviour therapy. But this is not to say that any professional worker, irrespective of discipline cannot become an expert. Multidisciplinary teams, in practice and research are useful not so much because of the formal qualifications of their members, but rather because of the skills, experiences and perspectives which their members bring to the team. Teams work to the extent that their members are willing to cross disciplinary boundaries and share their expertise. They don't work when members retreat behind stereotypes and claim unique and superior expertise. I believe that the same is true of research.


Barnes, D, Carpenter, J and Bailey, D (2000) Partnerships with service users in interprofessional education for community mental health: a case study. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 14: 187-200.

Economic and Social Research Council (2000) Introduction: a quick tour.

Economic and Social Research Council (2000) Postgraduate Training Guidelines.

Hewstone, M, Carpenter, J, Franklyn-Stokes, A, Routh, D (1994) Intergroup contact between professionsl groups: two evaluation studies. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 4 347-363.