Theorising Social Work Research

ESRC-funded Seminar Series - Seminar Rationale

The seminar series aimed to raise the profile of social work as a research discipline. It explored and sought to justify a claim that social work should be recognised by the ESRC as a discipline in its own right, as well as of identifying the specific contribution it makes to social science research activity and to the identification of promising new areas of research.

Though many social work academics are already active in ESRC-funded activities, social work itself is invisible because applications are required always to cite Discipline Codes and these do not include social work. Research grant, research programme project grants and studentship applications are typically made under a social policy heading (sometimes also under sociology, socio-legal studies or education), with the result that neither the substantive nor the methodological contribution of social work researchers to UK social science output can be accounted for or evaluated in its own right.

In the wider context, research in social work has come to the fore in a number of ways:

  1. The call for 'evidence-based practice' and 'research-minded practice' has placed welcome pressure on academics to produce the necessary research evidence but it has also led to an over-simplification in policy quarters of the understanding of what social work research is and what is can offer. The series aimed to foster a more accurate view of social work research as employing, and, indeed, contributing to the development of, the full range of social scientific paradigms and research methods.
  2. All the organisations supporting the seminar series (the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, the Association of University Professors and NISW) placed raising awareness of the research contribution of the discipline on their agenda of priorities.
  3. The much improved performance of social work in the last RAE (34% of social work submissions graded '4' or above and a higher submission rate) has shown that discipline-wide efforts can increase both the quality and scope of research.
  4. The discipline's research output reveals innovation in, for example, involving stakeholders in every stage of the research process, giving a voice to previously silenced groups, and utilising research to promote social inclusion. These are the hallmarks of social work and, in that they are also now national priorities for the ESRC and other funders, it represents a failure to capitalise on resources if this contribution is neither recognised nor drawn upon by the wider research community.