As part of your practice or your studies you may find yourself given the opportunity to undertake a study related to your work. Research carried out from within an organisation, sometimes called 'insider research', can have great strengths, given that the practitioner-researcher has prior knowledge of systems, established networks for a sample of participants or respondents, a closeness to practice problems and relationships in place which can help to create the trust needed for openness in responses. It can establish a sense of ownership of the research, which Nutley et al. (2007) argue is important in helping practitioners to engage in research-minded practice itself. On the other hand, practitioner research needs to be approached with caution, since this insider position can, if used without self-awareness, honesty and reflection, produce a biased report of limited use (van Heugten 2004). Respondents from the workforce may feel pressurised to take part because of internal politics, and the closeness within the working space may mean that they are reluctant to comment negatively on fellow workers' practices, or express views that may go against current policy or practice within their team. Respondents from service user groups may fear that openly criticising the services they receive may go against them if ongoing services are required.
Insider or practitioner research takes place when the researcher is involved in the organisation they are using as the field of research.
- Make a list of all the advantages of insider research - try and think of more than those listed above.
- Now do the same for the disadvantages of insider research.
- Is one list longer than the other?
- Is one list more persuasive than the other? Why is it more persuasive?
While any concerns need to be recognised, the advantages of practitioner research make it worth grappling with. Dodd and Epstein (2012), writing from a North American perspective about practitioner research, note that while practitioner-researchers may fear that their research will have only minor or local impact, many take their findings beyond the local setting and present at conferences or write papers about their studies. Such research may present the only opportunity to evaluate innovative local projects, so that lessons from them, whether good or bad, are not lost (Smith 2009). Furthermore, the practice-closeness of qualitative practitioner research can make it more applicable to local contexts than more distanced studies. So long as other studies in the area of research are reviewed as part of the process in order to provide a firm base to build on, practice research expands the knowledge base for reflective, research-minded practice.
Many of the skills you use as a good social worker are also used in good research. For example:
- the interpersonal skills you develop and practice in your professional relationships will help you to be a sensitive research interviewer
- your understanding of theory, values and ethics in practice will help you to utilise these when it comes to the research process
- your ability to set up a service user chronology will help with the skills needed for systematic recording of qualitative research data
- your skill in handling sensitive emotional situations will help you to ask personal questions
- as a social worker you draw together information from a variety of sources, including what you hear, read and observe; you analyse this information in the light of your knowledge and make decisions based on this evidence.
Almost all research in practice represents a compromise: between the researcher's wish to carry out well-planned, timely and ethical research, and the pressures to perform within contemporary practice. Providing a sound platform for carrying out practitioner research requires negotiation and planning in order to work within these conflicting priorities. The rewards of practice-rich research which inform from the heart of social care make this worthwhile.