Theorising Social Work Research

Social Work: What Kinds of Knowledge? Seminar topics

Social Work: What Kinds of Knowledge? 26th May 1999, Brunel

The Place of Research in Social Work Education Dr. Karen Lyon (email) Reader in Social Work Studies, Department of Human Relations, University of East London, Longbridge Rd., Dagenham, RM8 2AS, Tel: 0181 590 7000 x 2129 or 0171 359 2733, Fax: 0181 849 3508 or 0171 359 2733


Traditional assumptions about disciplinary development accord a central place to the role of research in knowledge creation. Different disciplines have favoured different research paradigms, formerly rooted in the 'scientistic' tradition, and some kinds of knowledge (and disciplines and professions) have thus been accorded higher status than others. Induction into many disciplines occurs through mastery of the research process and contribution to knowledge, as demonstrated through attainment of higher (research) degrees.

But the commonly expressed bipolar tensions in disciplines between knowledge creation (research) and knowledge transmission (teaching) have been differently conceived in the case of professional education. Here, the dichotomy is often characterised as between theory and practice - or 'the academy' and 'the field' and this emphasis may have accounted for a relative lack of attention to research in the history of some professional disciplines. It may be more helpful to think of the development of professional disciplines as requiring the management of a triangular relationship between knowledge creation, knowledge transmission and knowledge application (practice), where each must inform the other in complex and dynamic ways.

The low priority actually or apparently given to research in some subjects, such as social work, might also be related to the imprecise and contentious nature of the knowledge to be defined, imparted and utilised, and resultant disagreements about the appropriate paradigms to be employed in generating 'new knowledge'. But such conflict is not peculiar to professional subjects, nor a reason to undervalue the research dimension. It is also possible that a wider recognition of the relationship between knowledge and power, changing conceptions of the role of higher education in society, and increased understanding of the effects of gender make this a timely point to consider afresh the relationship between research and social work, and more particularly the place of research in social work education.

This paper aims to review some of the literature about disciplinary development, with particular reference to the nature of knowledge and professional education, and to illustrate some of the current issues concerning the place of research in social work education. In the penultimate section, empirical data is drawn from a wider research study carried out between 1992 and 1997, which sought the views of social work educators (through a survey, interviews and documentary analysis) about social work as a discipline in higher education. In this analysis, therefore, more attention is paid to the relationship between knowledge creation and transmission, than to the important interfaces between research and practice, or the field and the academy. But clearly, these must also inform the wider debate about disciplinary formation and development of any professional subject.

On the Nature of Knowledge and Professional Education

'Knowledge' (of a particular kind) has been identified as a 'core trait' of professionals: expertise, ethics, education and entry have been singled out as issues common to all professions (Macdonald, 1995). But the particular forms of knowledge created and utilised in professional education differ from traditional conceptions of knowledge, as based on the Cartesian principle (Henkel, 1995).

Received ideas about the nature of knowledge have been questioned throughout the 20th century, with an early identification by Dewey of knowledge as 'humanistic in quality.......because of what it does in liberating human intelligence and human sympathy' (Dewey, 1916,p.23). Ideas about 'knowledge as power' and the 'emancipatory potential of knowledge' were developed further in the educational context (but continents apart) by Bernstein (1971) and Friere (1972) respectively, and have considerable relevance to the epistemology of some forms of professional education, including social work.

A generation ago also, Polanyi (1962) elaborated the notion of 'tacit knowledge', suggesting that all new learning takes place in the context of existing knowledge derived from the totality of the individual experience, some of it beyond the conscious recollection of the learner. He used 'the idea of 'personal knowledge' as the basis of an attack on the scientistic notion that real knowledge is public and objective in character' (Barnett, 1994,p.106), and the concept also has relevance to pedagogy, including at higher education level, where Barnett suggested that 'knowledge is not so much transmitted as painfully authenticated by each student' (1994, p.26). These ideas may have particular relevance to professional education where, in subjects such as social work, assumptions are made about students as 'adult learners'.

Writing in the 1970s and eighties, Habermas suggested that scientific knowledge (concerned with predicting the workings of the natural world and controlling it) has been valued in society at the expense of hermaneutic and emancipatory forms of knowledge (concerned with comprehending and communicating with each other, and developing views of the world which lead to changed self-understanding, respectively) (Habermas, 1978). This public prioritising of different forms of knowledge has been reflected in higher education where scientistic knowledge, representative of instrumental interests and strategic rationality, has often predominated over communicative and critical interests, with consequences for the status of particular subjects and research paradigms.

The foregoing ideas illuminate both a consideration of societal values and dominant culture, and also the relationship between, and relative status attributed to, different forms of knowledge, as represented by disciplines, including professional subjects. Barnett's work, about the changing expectations of higher education (1992) and about the relationship between knowledge, higher education and society (1994), has suggested that a shift has taken place in conceptions of knowledge and the role of academics in creating, transmitting and assessing it. The predominance of instrumental values in society has resulted in knowledge itself being commodified, and increased emphasis being placed on the acquisition of skills and functional knowledge. In this situation, knowledge is seen as a product rather than as a process (Scott, 1984), and structural changes, such as modularisation, may contribute to the fragmentation of knowledge and weakening of disciplines.

In these circumstances, academic work increasingly resembles training rather than education, and the development of critical thought, once the aim of higher education, is discouraged. Barnett (1994) identified a new vocabulary, in place of such terms as 'wisdom' and 'understanding', which superficially suggests some convergence between disciplines and professional education, in terms of goals and methods, but which may be at the expense of critical reflection in all subjects. Arguably, the nature and scope of research is also altered, with greater likelihood of 'direction', as is apparently evident in the field of teacher education (Graham, 1996).

The nature of knowledge, therefore, is complex, multi-faceted and dynamic. The inadequacy of a single conception of 'knowledge' has been noted by Jones and Joss (1995), writing specifically about professional education. They have suggested that variations occur between professional subjects in the degree of theoretical orientation, the values attached to particular knowledge, how knowledge is applied, and the existence or not of explicit practice theory. They also cite Walker's (1992) identification of three forms of knowledge appropriate to professional performance, content knowledge (public bodies of theories, procedures and information); knowledge as a cognitive process; and practical knowledge of the practising professional (Jones and Joss, 1995,p.21), all of which have a bearing on curricula and pedagogical considerations in disciplinary development.

The dynamic and interactive nature of knowledge was further elaborated on by Henkel (1995), who, in discussing the hermaneutic conception of knowledge, described (social) scientists and professionals as reflective participants in, rather than privileged observers of, particular phenomena and situations. Thus, knowledge is not a neutral entity but has moral, intellectual and personal dimensions and its development requires continuing dialogue within and between communities. Within this framework, professional education can be seen as 'a process of moving between grounded understanding of one's own practices, strengthening....(them).....and confronting theories, paradigms and practices which challenge them' (Henkel, 1995, p.78). Becher (1989) had also commented on the greater likelihood of personal experience and values having implications for the educational process in the social professions, relative to other disciplines.

These ideas relate to the emphasis given to recognising (and even starting from) the 'situation and experience' of the students (McNamara, 1990) and the value placed on learning by doing and experiential learning (Gibbs, 1988); and have a clear association with the works of Schon, concerning the nature of, and conditions for producing, reflective practitioners ( Schon, 1983; Schon, 1987). Schon urged the redevelopment of professional education to combine teaching applied sciences with coaching in 'reflection in action' and the development of 'professional artistry'. He described the latter as 'the exercise of intelligence', a 'kind of knowing', and suggested that, while applied sciences and research based techniques are important, they are 'bounded by the art of problem framing, implementation and improvisation' (Schon, 1987, p.13), developed in the context of practicums -'virtual worlds' which should have legitimacy in higher education and relevance to the professional field (Schon, 1987,p.137).

Schon's work has been widely used on both sides of the Atlantic to advance debates about the conditions necessary for learning and the appropriate forms of knowledge for professional education. Harris (1993) stated, 'this new epistemology suggests the importance of systematically eliciting the general principles and strategies of knowing-in-action of expert practitioners....(and) extends the sources of knowledge for practice from university based basic and applied.... research to knowledge-of-practice emanating from the analysis of masterful practice' (p.50).

On a slightly different tack, Rice and Richlin (1993), also writing in the North American context, voiced concern about an apparent mismatch between professional education and the needs of practice, which they have attributed to 'academics (who wish) to make the discipline more academically respectable and theoretically credible and less like practical training' (p.64). They relate this, in part, to the lack of value given to two aspects of scholarly work which are important in professional education, relative to the status accorded in other disciplines to discovery (research) and integration of knowledge (theory building). They suggest improving the status accorded to transmission of knowledge (requiring synoptic capacity and knowledge of pedagogical theory) and the 'scholarship of practice' to redress the balance.

Some of the more recent developments in higher education policies and practices in the UK (for example, the teaching quality assessment exercise and other developments within some universities and subject areas) might suggest that the concerns voiced by American writers about the gap in professional education between the academy and practice is not so great in the UK or that the traditional favouring of research relative to 'other forms of scholarship' is already being challenged here, but if either reading of the situation is true, this may conflict with a need to retain critical perspectives and to strengthen the research and knowledge base of particular disciplines.

Disciplinary Development and Research

Toulmin (1972) suggested that knowledge is developed by 'communities of knowers' and that each discipline is characterised by its own body of knowledge (concepts), methods and fundamental aims (its epistemology). He attributed to academics a proper concern with issues of 'stability and transformation', in terms of transmission to the next generation and modification by research (Toulmin, 1972, p.139). He further identified disciplines as constituting both 'a communal tradition of procedures and techniques for dealing with theoretical and practical problems' and 'a profession comprising an organised set of institutions, roles and men (sic) whose business it is to apply or improve these procedures and techniques'; that is, disciplines have both an internal and an external 'life story' (Toulmin, 1972, p.142).

The relationships between epistemology and knowledge communities were further explored in Becher's research (1989) about the cultures of disciplines, and in the distinctions he drew between hard, soft, pure and applied knowledge forms, which he co-ordinated with the likely learning styles of students (discussed elsewhere in relation to social work (Lyons, 1996)). Toulmin (1972) also advanced the notion of the 'enculturation' of students into the collective concepts of the discipline through a form of apprenticeship, successful completion of which is marked by the student's ability, not only to internalise the knowledge, but also to critique and develop it (p.159). These dimensions (knowledge and knowers, with implications for pedagogy and research) are as relevant to a consideration of the development of professional education, including social work, as they are to thinking about traditional academic disciplines. However, in professional education, the process of 'enculturation' has commonly been concerned with the development of a professional (practice) identity, rather than contributing directly to advancing the disciplinary knowledge base, and, in social work at least, different expectations have operated with regard to the research training of students and research credentials of academics (see later).

It is also arguable that interests outwith both the academy and the related professional field play a greater part in the shaping of various forms of professional education and their research agendas, relative to more theoretical disciplines. Becher (1989) noted the susceptibility of research in the soft, applied field to 'dictation by non-academic interests' and the likelihood that government would promote investigation of 'useful' topics (p.147). Given the role of professionals in society, concerns about the nature and standards of professional education are not peculiar to social work, nor specific to a time and place. For instance, Boyer ( 1990) gave examples of enquiries into medical and legal education near the start of this century in the USA; and Vang( 1994) has commented on challenges to British medical education consequent upon recent changes in health care in the UK.

But there have been indications that this direction has became stronger in the past decade or so. In 1994 Becher wrote 'the professions...are facing a difficult period, and one in which Government intervention seems in a number of countries to have become more active than at any other time......That intervention has commonly taken the form of exercising direct control over the process or outcomes of initial training' (p.ix). Since 1997, even in the more accommodating and inclusive language of a New Labour government (for example, 'stakeholders', 'partnership'), the development of professional education is clearly seen as of wider concern than merely to those most involved in its design and delivery, or in the employment of the 'end product', with concomitant implications for expectations about research.

Considering relationships between the field and the academy, tensions are also evident more widely. Svenson (1994) noted (in Sweden) 'a growing tension between the interests of the practitioners and the interests of teachers and researchers, who are seeking more control over a distinct discipline' and Hartman (1989), in a study of six professional schools in Australia, had noted the pressures arising from commitment to traditional academic norms and scholarship relative to the transmission of distinctly vocational skills and attitudes required of professional educators. Thus, management of conflicting pressures related to academic norms, professional requirements and societal expectations seems to be a particular (macro) feature of the culture of professional disciplines. This is quite apart for the management of 'internal' tensions relating to curriculum content, pedagogical approaches, the practice element or competing research paradigms, which might be regarded as micro-features of particular subjects.

An additional dimension which is particularly significant in relation to some forms of professional education, including social work, is the gender dimension. Toulmin (1972) was writing at a time of a relatively privileged, autonomous and male dominated academic world, and, despite early studies about the position of women in academic work (Blackstone and Fuller, 1975) or particular professions (Walton, 1975), it was not until over a decade later that a wider analysis of the gendered nature of professions (Witz, 1991), the relationship between gender and the cultures of disciplines (Becher, 1989), and a possible connection between gender and social work subject development more specifically (Holland, 1988) began to be acknowledged. It is suggested that the gender dimension is also a factor in the previous relative lack of a research base and the more recent adoption of particular research paradigms in social work and some other forms of professional education.

Becher (1989) posited that disciplinary development, culture and status is related both to the 'power positions' of people who regulate and promote the discipline and to the form and internal coherence of the knowledge base. In relation to the first, he identified various subjects in which women predominate, including the social professions, as having low status. In relation to the second, a traditional criticism made of social work is that it has no knowledge base of its own, merely drawing from a range of other disciplines. However, this is a characteristic shared by other forms of professional education, including medicine (which is better regarded, with stronger research traditions), suggesting that this in itself is not a sufficient reason for lack of a credible knowledge base.

But Barnett (1994) has also identified 'interdisciplinarity' as lacking strong support in higher education and it can be suggested that a subject which has drawn on different disciplines (the dominant paradigms of which are sometimes in conflict) and which then may have struggled to integrate that knowledge into new forms appropriate to its own purpose, can be seen as lacking a coherent knowledge base. It also seems likely that a number of factors (in the eighties and changing requirements through the early nineties) have influenced social work education in particular ways which detracted from research activities and efforts to develop the theoretical base of the discipline (Lyons, forthcoming). Additionally, as already suggested, the form of knowledge is either suspect or contentious, favouring hermaneutic and emancipatory goals, and being concerned with the 'discovery' and interpretation - with a view to treatment - of various social problems.

A brief mention of some of the research output of social work illustrates the ways in which it may mirror the situation in practice but be at variance with dominant assumptions about disciplinary formation and status. Walton (1975) suggested that the first recorded attempt to research social work practice was by Clement Brown at LSE in the interwar period. Her analysis of individual and family case records between 1924 and 1934 was written up as 'Social Work in Action' but apparently not published, and one can only speculate as to the possible reasons for this. Perhaps her gender and role (professional educator, rather than disciplinary exponent, in a department striving to establish its own disciplinary status), as well as the form and content of the research (not essentially quantitative or experimental in design) played a part?

Even in the sixties when social researchers (with roots in social policy, sociology and psychology) were engaging in large scale studies and contributing to action-research programmes designed to alleviate social problems, social work research and publications were dominated by the 'analysis' of 'case studies' (of work with individuals and families). It can be noted that both these terms were (and to some extent still are) being used in ways which were distinct from the wider meanings of analysis and case study (design) in the developing social research field. However, in 1970, the Mayer and Timms study set an important precedent both in the research design and in 'giving voice' to service users. It marked a shift in the prevailing ideology of British social work, assisted by evidence from research into casework, mainly in the USA, which had also cast doubt on the effectiveness of this approach (Goldberg and Warburton, 1979). (However, the 'critical' findings may also have fed into a 'distrust' of research in a profession which was facing other challenges).

The seventies and eighties saw an increase in the number of more sophisticated and 'academically respectable' research designs, including a number which aimed to explore the tasks and perceptions of social workers themselves and/or which researched the impact of changing organisational forms on their work (Rowbottom et al, 1974; Parsloe and Stevenson, 1978; Hadley and McGrath, 1984), with periodic examples of studies which also aimed to convey consumer perspectives (Rees, 1978; Goldberg and Warburton, 1979). Increasingly, funding has been obtained for larger scale studies (usually rooted in the positivist paradigm) which address issues of central interest to social workers but which are also of wider public concern, and some of the current debate about the role and form of research focuses on the expectation that new findings will inform 'evidence based' practice (Macdonald and Sheldon, 1998).

However, the 1990s have also seen a more assured use of the interpretive paradigm and social work is well placed to utilise methodologies deriving from feminist thinking; ethnographic, biographical and narrative approaches; action research and empowerment strategies, including user participation in the design and execution of the research activity itself. On a general note, Walker (1985) stated 'what qualitative research can offer the policy maker is a theory of social action grounded in the experience - the world view - of those likely to be affected by a policy decision or thought to be part of the problem' (p.19) and social work can contribute to this process.

It also seems likely that there has been an increase in the extent to which social workers and educators are themselves involved in the research enterprise, which may be important in how research is presented and received: as Ravn (1991) noted, the researcher is concerned 'not just with the unveiling of the facts but in constructing them'(p.112). In so far as particular approaches might be regarded as marginal to, or at variance with, 'mainstream social research', social work may still be suspect as a discipline, but an alternative view suggests that social work itself has actively contributed to the development of alternative research paradigms which have wider relevance. The current lack of consensus within the discipline about the form of research and its place in social work education (as findings discussed in the next section demonstrate) can also be viewed as a sign of creative tension and a healthy stage in the development of the discipline.

Research in Social Work Education

Given the current place of social work in higher education, it can be postulated that social work academics have responsibilities in relation to research as follows, firstly, to carry out research and extend knowledge; secondly, to utilise research findings to inform their teaching and to assist individual and collective professional development; and thirdly, to clarify assumptions about the teaching of research on qualifying and other programmes. The extent to which these responsibilities are realised and issues relating to research as an activity within (or alongside) social work education are indicated by data from a wider study (Lyons, forthcoming).

Taking the last responsibility first, there were divergent views about the needs of students for teaching about research or the possible content thereof. This was partly related to the differing levels at which qualifying education is offered, the short duration over which most courses are taught and the constraints of a prescriptive approach to outcomes to be achieved (usually leading to a crowded curriculum, with no clear requirement that research should be included). An analysis of DipSW course content as indicated by responses to 56 (out of 64) questionnaires to social work departments/units in 1994 suggested that only a minority of qualifying courses included teaching (and assessment) of research methods and that these were mainly to be found at post-graduate level.

Additionally, while most of the (eleven) senior social work academics interviewed in 1996 expressed support for the idea that social workers should be able to utilise research, respondents were less convinced about the possibility of including research teaching in all courses. However, there was some recognition of increased opportunities for introducing or developing research skills in some top-up degrees and post-qualifying and advanced award programmes. The view of one respondent 'good research skills are very relevant and very close to the practice of social work, including being critical of ones own methods' echoes Schon's advocacy of the creation of the 'reflective practitioner' who 'becomes a researcher in the practice context' (Schon, 1983,p.164) and suggests a model of research which is rooted in practice and might be quite small scale and evaluative. The reframing of practice skills to serve the research enterprise has also been commented on more recently by Powell (1996), and the possible development of 'practitioner researchers' has been articulated for over a decade.

Another theme from interviewees' responses was the need to promote (whether through teaching or own research) methods and approaches compatible with the overall goals of social work, including empowerment, demonstrated by the following comments. Reference was made to 'interactive forms of research where people are participants in the research process'; 'broadly based research and alliances with users' and involving 'practitioners and users in a collaborative form of research', although as one respondent noted, 'if we take the idea of stakeholders seriously, then there are methodological issues about how best to involve users'. Some respondent referred more specifically to the research approaches which might be relevant, including 'the use of the case study approach and feminist or social consultancy approaches' or, more generally, 'social work perspectives lend themselves to qualitative approaches'.

However, there was some recognition that 'exclusive' reference to one research paradigm rather than another would be limiting, 'approaches using consumer involvement have a value in social work, but positivistic approaches also have a place'. This view was more fully expressed by another respondent, 'The dominant ideology is that research must be functional. The implicit concept of evidence and the relation between knowledge and evidence, and ideology and practice, is obscured......a central problem is that social work has never clarified its core intellectual paradigm, so it doesn't have one for research, so different traditions are used. What it adds up to is a self-conscious pluralism'. In general, there seemed to be a pragmatic acceptance of the possibility of utilising conflicting paradigms and 'mixed methods' (that is, generating both quantitative and qualitative data) in social work, with a tendency towards a 'broad definition' of what constitutes research and what should be taught about it.

There was less clear cut data about use of research findings in other teaching, although this had been one of the criteria in the assessment of teaching quality (1994) and it can be presumed that this was well demonstrated, at least among the departments/units which were rated as excellent. In the absence of a specific question in the survey questionnaire or interview schedule, there were few responses which indicated the extent to which teaching is 'research informed'. However, one interviewee said 'it is very important for students to understand that knowledge comes from research as well as practice...(and) to get them into the habit of going to books and articles for knowledge when they need it'. And two others commented on the relationship between their own research and teaching, as follows, 'There is inestimable value in social work teachers being engaged in research and being able to bring that back into their teaching' and 'it is far more exciting to be taught by people doing research, talking about their own work, sharing their findings'.

There was rather more reference (by interviewees) to both the necessity of combining research and teaching roles and also the difficulty of doing so. These ranged from 'education needs to be informed and stimulated by doing research. If social work teachers are to be effective they need to do research themselves' and 'We expect all our staff to be active researchers.....' to 'there are pressures to do it but it is difficult to release staff' or 'there has to be a place for research in social work education, though we haven't been very good at it because of resourcing problems and the structuring of the academic year. You need clear time in which to carry out or write up research'. The latter point was also found in the documentary evidence and wider literature (for example, Johnston, 1996).

There was some correlation between type of response and whether the interviewee was located in an old or new university, with predictable indications that the wider culture of the institution had a bearing on both expectations and opportunities. This was starkly conveyed by one respondent who said '.... the loss to staff and students would be enormous if (this university) became a teaching only institution', echoing concerns of some academics in other disciplines and universities. The wider concern with the possible splitting of research from teaching was also apparent, 'There is a danger that only some people do research while others teach.....there is an observable relationship between academic seniority and research and a decrease in the teaching load'.

While this change in workload emphasis or role may parallel an aspect of professional practice ( that the more experienced practitioners become managers and hence removed from service delivery) it may be at variance with career patterns in other disciplines (with the likely exception of other forms of professional education) where research is a prelude (and then an accompaniment) to an academic career (but may then decrease with the assumption of managerial roles within an institution). (Henkel, 1997). Indeed, the difference in criteria used to recruit academic staff (that is, with social work traditionally stressing the need for 'practice' rather than research experience) may be another factor which has inhibited the development of research in this subject, and probably in some other forms of professional education.

This possible difference in career profiles of social work academics was illustrated by the survey data. Entry to academic work commonly constituted a career change ( from practice or management) and while 53 out of 57 respondents (heads of departments or units) who completed biographical details were professionally qualified social workers, less than a fifth held doctoral qualifications. In a subsequent study (1998) by the Association of Professors of Social Work, only about one third of Professors held PhDs. This does not necessarily imply a lack of research competence and activity among senior staff in the discipline but it does suggest a difference in the priority accorded to academic credentials and a departure from the 'PhD as apprenticeship' model common in other disciplines. It may also affect the capacity of professional educators to supervise and thus generate further research of this kind.

There are indications that this situation might be changed by the advent of the Research Assessment Exercise, although conversely this may also militate against some staff pursuing research leading to higher academic qualifications (even if at a later stage than their contemporaries in other disciplines). This was suggested by separate (unprompted) comments by two interviewees, one of whom said 'I am currently discouraging staff from doing PhDs because it is really important to get ideas into the public domain....and the PhD detracts from the time available for other forms of research'. The other commented, 'The RAE sets the context for current research activities. You can't submit a PhD thesis so it is more important to write for publication'. While understandable as strategic responses to funding incentives, such policies could inhibit the development of research competence and confidence of individual academics and also the academic credibility of the discipline.

In other respects it is likely that social work's poor performance in the RAE in 1992 (ranked 68th out of 72 subjects) provided a spur to a more concerted and proactive approach to the 1996 exercise (resulting in a ranking of 57th out of 72 subjects). A shift in approach was evident in documentary sources and is also apparent in current activities, including collective efforts to raise the research profile of the discipline. However, there was evidence from the survey of a fairly active research culture, with 35 out of 64 respondents referring to research assisted by external funding, and nearly two thirds of respondents claiming to be involved in research of a collaborative nature, predominantly ( 41/59 respondents) with social work agencies. Further discussion about the scale of the social work research enterprise in the mid nineties, and its response to the RAE, is contained in Lyons(op cit.) and Lyons and Orme (1998) respectively.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Social work has had a chequered history in higher education and its future development as a discipline is likely to be considerably influenced by external actors, and factors outside the direct control of academics. It shares a number of characteristics with some other forms of professional education, including a leaning to the field of practice and an emphasis on 'different forms of knowing' and scholarship. Arguably, these have detracted from its performance in research in 'mainstream' academic terms, to date.

A number of factors can be identified as influencing the level and quality of the research enterprise in relation to social work, including the following:-

-the value placed on research by the host institution, and other indications of a research culture in faculties and departments;

-incentives and resources available to undertake research, related both to external factors (including the perceived need for research and the criteria employed to evaluate research proposals and outcomes) and to internal factors (including the competence of social work educators and the wider field of practitioners to engage in research and utilise findings);

- the credibility accorded to particular kinds of research, including a recognition of the effects of gender and other factors which discriminate against (or undervalue) some forms of knowledge;

- different career patterns of social work educators, including the later stage of entry to academic work and different expectations about prior experience and qualifications.

While there is clearly a difference between social work education in the USA and UK, Hixon Cavanagh (1993) identified a 'mismatch' between the academic environment and professional education, which has relevance to disciplinary development here. Her summary encapsulates views expressed by other writers, namely that the dominant academic culture rewards scientific knowledge and research; that the disciplinary specific organisation of academic institutions tends to discourage curriculum integration; and that poor curriculum integration in professional education may be exacerbated by an environment which promotes inappropriate forms of pedagogy and assessment (p.109). The extent to which these conditions are currently being challenged or changed in UK higher education is debatable.

Whatever one concludes, it seems likely that social work, along with some other forms of professional education, is between a rock and a hard place in terms of establishing and maintaining both academic credibility and professional relevance. The risk of inappropriate academisation of the subject has to be set against the danger of failure to adapt existing research for its own purposes, to develop its internal research competence, and to generate its own research agenda and knowledge base. Along with tensions related to its location on the boundary between higher education and a particular form of professional activity, the discipline must also attend to wider societal expectations. Again, an American view about professional education is relevant: 'Faculty need to reflect on how their teaching, research and service activities take place....(in a way).... that models the kind of professional expertise increasingly demanded by the larger society' (Curry et al, 1993, p.322).

However, an Australian perspective also resonates, 'the research culture, the essence of the university stamp, demands a considerable theoretical input which ultimately differentiates professional training from trades' ( Hartman, 1989, p.507), and this view poses a significant challenge to social work educators. Further, as one of the 1996 respondents put it, 'social work authority should come in part from research, not just from the agency base and statutory role of the worker'. So research must be seen as an essential component of social work education and professional activity, and the discipline itself must assert its position as a necessary and legitimate independent voice in relation to social (work) policy and practice development.


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