Theorising Social Work Research

Doctoral and advanced studies in Social Work Seminar topics

Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick

Co-ordinating a doctoral training programme Joan Orme Reader in Social Work Studies, University of Southampton

Research training has been established in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Southampton for nearly two decades. It is based on a model of research training which was initiated in the Department of Social Work Studies in 1981 as The Personal Research Programme. This programme encouraged qualified practitioners to undertake part-time practice-based research, The initial aim was for practitioners to achieve an MPhil while undertaking research which would evaluate practice and lead to improved or innovative practice at field and managerial level. The academic route allowed those who were willing and able to upgrade to PhD, if the research indicated that this was attainable. The taught programme involved a series of lectures and seminars on one day a week over a period of two years introducing students to both a range of methodological approaches, and alerting them to the practical (and other) aspects of the process of undertaking higher degree research, especially part-time. The minimum time for completion was five years. Many took the maximum of seven, and a few even longer

In the mid 1980s the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Southampton developed a Faculty-based programme, based substantially on the social work model. The scheme has ESRC approval, and received a favourable review in April of this year. Social work staff have consistently made a contribution to the organisation and teaching of this Faculty scheme and since 1993 have been part of the co-ordinating group. This move to interdisicplinarity was accompanied by expectations that all Departments gain ESRC recognition for research studentships. University and Faculty support has also been given for studentships. For Social Work this has meant that, while recruitment of part-time researchers has continued there has been a growth in the number of full time students, and in the number of students achieving Doctorates.

The scheme is outlined in the Appendix and therefore it is not necessary to explain it in detail. The philosophy behind the Southampton scheme can also be found in Allan & Skinner (1991) which gives an overview of the more pragmatic approaches to research training, and in McKenzie, Powell & Usher (1997) which, based on papers from contributors to the core course, explores epistemological and methodological approaches.

In this paper I want to explore the implications of an interdisciplinary research training scheme for social work within the social sciences by asking: Why Doctorates in social work? Training for what? And Why interdisciplinary? Hopefully this will precipitate debate about what social work research students need to know, and what social work educators need to do to meet these needs and how research opportunities relate to the needs of the profession.

Why Doctorates in social work?

For decades social work has eschewed academic qualifications, arguing that, for both educators and practitioners, a base in practice is essential, but having no similar regard for the need for theoretical rigour. Other social science disciplines have generated a pool of people who, while they may research practice, have done so from a sound academic base. Also, other professions have focussed on the need for an iteration between theory and practice. In particular the recent developments in education and nursing have seen a growing number of practitioners, research and development staff, managers and academics achieving doctoral level qualifications. In social work in some other countries (eg North America), the level at which a person practises is related to the level of academic qualification.

However, such arrangements are not universal. In Finland the pattern is similar to that in the UK. Initial pressures to increase the regulation of the social work profession and establish a high-quality vocational and scientific education there meant that social work lacked a strong 'scientific' base (Karvinen, Poso & Satka, 1999). In universities research into social work was colonised by academics from other disciplines. There were fears that this 'academization' of social work would disadvantage practitioners and user. It was seen to silence social workers, who neither dared write much about their work nor participate in theoretical debates (Karvinen, Poso & Satka, 1999 p.6). Academics and doctoral students worked together to argue that institutional reflexivity would not be achieved in social work by insularity, or by creating false dichotomies between knowledge from theories and knowledge from practice. What is required is: 'a new kind of reciprocal, evaluative and communicative relationship between different ways of knowing and types of knowledge' (Karvinen, Poso & Satka, 1999 p.9). The response was the mushrooming of Masters courses, academic and research programmes for experienced field social workers, and an increasing number of Doctorates.

In Britain we have perceived an attack on both the professional experience and autonomy of social workers (Clarke, 1994), but also a threat to the place of social work as a discipline in higher education. The introduction of care management was based on research undertaken primarily by academics in social policy (Challis & Davies, 1989), the 'What Works?' debate in probation is driven by a wholesale acceptance of the principles of behaviour modification which has been developed by social psychologists. If the relationship between knowledge, theory and practice remains a profoundly contested area (Harrison & Humphries, 1997), the relationship between social work and other academic disciplines can be seen as a battle for survival as evidenced by the removal of probation education and training from social work departments to criminology, and the continuing ambiguities about where social work is situated in the academy.

This then is the challenge to social work education in Britain: to retain our commitment to widening access to the profession, by making high quality education and training available, but also to increase awareness in the workforce of the need for methodological rigour and practice informed by research and theory. There also has to be some (re)claiming of the process of knowledge generation for the discipline of social work in higher education..

This is not to claim that social work should become a defended territory, creating disciplinary boundaries which defy collaboration. Dialogue has to occur between educators, researchers and practitioners,

The time may be ripe for such developments. The emphasis within government on evidenced based policy and practice provides the opportunity to both provide evidence, but engage in debate about what constitutes evidence. With the establishment of the General Social Care Council the opportunities for linking research training and Doctorates to the registration of social workers might help to ensure that training in research is seen to be as important as training in management, and the acquisition of a PhD or MPhil is seen to be as important and desirable as an MBA or DBA.

The aim of doctoral training should be to ensure that researchers in social work by gathering information and reflecting on that information in the light of existing knowledge contribute not only to 'best practice', but also to new theories which will inform both policy and practice. Hence the results of the research so that, rather than silencing social workers, research training gives them an informed, effective and authoritative voice.

In order to do this we have to create the means for qualifying social work students and experienced practitioners to undertake higher degree research leading to recognised and respected qualifications. These routes are important not only for the profession and the discipline as a whole, but also have staff development and human resource benefits for both organisations and individuals. Finally, and perhaps most important, they have implications for the quality of the service that is offered.

Training for what?

Social work practice therefore has to develop a research mindedness which is systematic in its methodological approaches, clear about the ethical implications, rigorous in its methods and analysis and proselytising about its findings.

However, social work, has a different starting point from other disciplines. Increasingly in social sciences research training occurs at undergraduate level providing a useful foundation for those who go on to research careers. The limited attention to competences in research methodologies in the guidelines for qualifying training ( Paper 30) and the fact that such training has been set at DipHE level has meant that practitioners who wish to undertake research degrees have been disadvantaged. While work has been undertaken on the indicators of research- mindedness (Harrison & Humphries, 1997), the emphasis of Advanced Awards has been on practice- related competences and again there has been little in social work to compare with the MResMeths courses which are available in other disciplines (including Education).

The recent emphasis of the ESRC on training for research is said to be 'a personal attribute model of competency' (Collnson, 1998 p.60) which produces a professionally trained researcher competent to undertake research in any project in their general discipline area. Such a model was precipitated by demands of employers for researchers who can apply themselves to the process of research, rather than be expert in a small field of specialist knowledge, or indeed originator of that knowledge. Ironically while such a model of training is challenged by both research students and supervisors it is one which presumably might fit the current demands of social work to ensure evidenced based practice. However, research training which produces a more critical evaluative approach to evidence might not be so attractive to managers who have to ensure the implementation of policy. Equally, the potential for those who are research competent to challenge the evidence on which policy directives are based may not be attractive to those who design those policies.

Here is the rub for social work educator. Research in universities is said to pay limited attention to the political and practical payoffs required by politicians, employers and others, denying knowledge intrinsic value (Hammersley, 1995). However, when knowledge is generated which does attend to the political and the practical it is dismissed as irrelevant. It is therefore important for practitioner researchers to be educated in the means to ensure that the voice of practitioners and/or the users are not silenced or distorted by the creation of a hierarchy of knowledge.

Hence for social work doctoral training requires some basic input on research methods. This training should occur not in an insular environment focussing only on their own project with a mechanistic approach of 'get the data, do the sums and write the conclusion' (a research version of hatched, matched and despatched).

Methodologies and methods are not specific to social work but have to be taught in an environment in which the knowledge base of those undertaking the research is broadened by attention to the contributions which other disciplines can make. What is specific to social work is both the foundational knowledge, where this has not been acquired through prior education and learning. Significantly the philosophical underpinning of research is crucial for social work. The emphasis on empirical work has to be counteracted by an understanding of how the very process of knowledge construction will impact on the practice under review (Trinder, 1996; Peile & McCouat, 1997). Equally important are the practical and ethical implications of researching the sensitive areas of practice interventions in the lives of others. At the minimum social work needs its own ethics committee.

Social work has to celebrate that it brings a unique perspective of researchers who are positioned between practitioners and users. It provides both insights and sites in which all social sciences can work together on social work issues, and in doing so can involve those who are so often the 'objects of research - the service users. This is part of the interactive nature of social work research which can provide lessons for the rest of social sciences (Orme, forthcoming).

Why interdisciplinary?

Therefore there has to be cooperation between academic disciplines to ensure that social work researchers can draw on theoretical and practice backgrounds of other social sciences disciplines. No-one would argue that medics should not study biology, or medical ethics. Equally no-one challenges Medicine as an academic discipline (or a profession because it draws heavily on other sciences).

Equally social work can make a contribution to social sciences. Research practice of social sciences as a whole is informed by the contribution of social work researchers. These contributions can include practical issues such as interviewing techniques, ethical issues based on debates around the value base of social work, and methodological debates about the synergy between research methods and practice - the praxis of research (McKenzie et al, 1996).

It is by bringing its practice methodologies to the practice and process of research that social work can make its greatest contribution. The reflexivity which has been so much a part of individual interactions as well as organisational and institutional developments enable social work researchers to be critically evaluative of the potential for research to contribute to domination and oppression. Equally social work's engagement with the subjects of social sciences' knowledge the very groups who are excluded, who become the objects of surveillance and discipline, can be given a voice. In this way social work, and indeed other practitioner researchers, can contribute to a reconstructive social science which reveals the emancipatory potential of communication (Delanty, 1997 p.84ff). But more than this in its commitment to practitioner and user involvement in the research process social work can decentre the knowing subject and can call attention to the process and outcomes of research, but also to what is implicated in the research (McKenzie et al, 1996 p.33).

Research is about change, revolution, and emancipation. But if social work wishes to be part of these processes it has to ensure not only that its practitioners have the tools to engage in the practices, but also that they are able to demonstrate that new tools are necessary.

Conclusions and Implications

I have deliberately chosen not to undertake a 'this is what we do' approach to research training, but to think more broadly about what is implicated in the engagement of social work researchers in research training at doctoral level. The conclusions are that all aspects of the project are implicated and that certain conditions need to apply. These include:


Allan, G. & Skinner C. (1991) A Handbook for Research Students in the Social Sciences, Brighton: Falmer Press

Challis, D. & B. Davies (1989) Case Management

Clarke, J. (1994) A Crisis in Care? Challenges to Social Work Buckingham: Open University Press

Collinson, J. A. (1998) 'Professionally trained researchers? Expectations of competence in social science doctoral training' in Higher Education Review 31. 1 pp.59-67

Delanty, G. (1997), Social Science: Beyond Constuctivism and Realism, Buckingham: Open University Press

Hammersley, M (1995) The Politics of Research, London: Sage

Harrison, C. & C. Humphries (1997) Putting the Praxis Back into Practice London: CCETSW

McKenzie, G.W., Powell, J. M. & R.S. Usher (1997), Understanding Social Research, Brighton: Falmer Press

Orme, J. (Forthcoming) 'The Appliance of Social Science: Social Work -- a cautionary tale' in Journal of Social Work Education June, 2000

Peile, C. & M. McCouat (1997) 'The Rise of Relativism: the Future of Theory and Knowledge Development' in British Journal of Social Work 27 pp.343-360

Synnove, K, Poso, T. & S. Mirja (1999), Reconstructing Social Work Research, University of Jyvaskyla: SoPhi

Trinder, L. (1996) 'Social Work Research: the state of the art (or science) in Child & Family Social Work 1 pp.233-242


University of Southampton

Research Training in the Social Sciences

Excerpt for the Postgraduate Research Students handbook


The research training scheme is designed to meet the different needs of research students entering the Faculty, some of whom come with a strong research background and training, others with less experience. The aim is to provide students with training, (both generic and discipline - specific) which is systematic yet flexible enough to meet their individual needs and facilitate the development of their research project.

All students attend the core module and, in consultation with their supervisor and Advisory Board, develop a tailor-made training programme designed to suit their own needs. This will depend upon their discipline, the subject and nature of their research, and their experience of research methodology. Responsibility for deciding which 'training pathway' is most appropriate remains with the Department.

Objectives of Research Training

The principal aims of the Faculty Research Training Scheme are:

(I) to facilitate the preparation and successful completion of your postgraduate thesis;

(ii) to prepare you for research within the social sciences, so that you become conversant with key research methods in social science;

(iii) to develop your critical awareness of, and your capacity to evaluate, the complexity of theories and explanations in social science;

(iv) to give you knowledge of the basic principles of research strategy and design so that you can formulate researchable issues and construct effective research programmes;

(v) to help you to identify and develop appropriate methodological skills to enable you to carry out your research;

(vi) to provide you with access to expertise within different Departments;

(vii) to create a forum of peers so that you can discuss issues relating to postgraduate research and provide mutual support.

The Faculty Postgraduate Research Training Scheme

The Faculty Research Training Scheme is made up of the following components:

(i) The Core Module which consists of an induction day, teaching on Fridays during semester one offered by different members of the Faculty, and a residential weekend which occurs around the beginning of February.

(ii) Survey Methods and Introductory Statistics are available as optional modules.

(iii) Departmental Option units, offered either in a student's own department or in other departments, including those offered by the Research and Graduate School of Education. Some Department make it compulsory for students to undertake their own Departmental units.

(iv) 'Recall days' for second year students, which provide further opportunities to reflect on experiences of research practice and the supervisory process; two sessions on the presentation of research through the medium of posters, covering practical and ethical issues, in preparation for the research students' day conference (see below). Additional 'skills training' sessions may also be provided.

(v) The Research Students Day Conference provides an opportunity for second year students to produce posters on their research. One student from each department gives a presentation. All first and second year students and all staff are invited to attend this conference.

The Core Module has been designed with two main aims in mind: first to assist research students to achieve an awareness of the different research traditions, methodologies and techniques that they may wish to explore, and second to provide a forum where students from different disciplines can get together to discuss common issues and problems. The Core starts with an Induction Day for all new research students in the Faculty. This is held on the first Friday of Semester 1, and is designed to answer many of the questions you are likely to have about being a research student in the Faculty. Amongst the issues to be discussed are: the nature of postgraduate research; the role of supervisors and advisory boards; the different forms of support available to you as a postgraduate student; and the organisation of the Faculty Research Training Scheme. The day also provides you with an opportunity to meet with other new research students and with staff in the Faculty. After this the compulsory Core Module runs mainly on Friday mornings throughout the rest of the first semester. The module is concerned with the processes involved in developing good research projects. One element in it is a residential weekend in which, amongst other issues, the philosophical foundations of different traditions of social research are examined.

Departmental option units are intended to provide students with training on methodological issues specific to the different disciplines. Some of these units are intended primarily for students from within that particular department, but may be open to students from other departments by negotiation. They may also be encouraged to develop knowledge and skills by participating in third year undergraduate modules in their Departments.

Planning a Personal Research Training Programme

Students should discuss their individual training requirements with their supervisor and Advisory Board, and together reach an agreement about the training modules which should be followed, in addition to the compulsory core module. Typically full-time students take modules during their first year, though some may be more appropriately taken in their second year. Part-time students usually take modules over two years, though this depends on the actual pattern of modules they are required to take.

The Core (required of first-year research students)


The nature of research in the social sciences; theoretical and practical issues in planning and conducting research on a scale appropriate for an MPhil/PhD.


The Core module aims to provide postgraduate research students with a secure basis for conducting research projects in the social sciences. It will do so by addressing three broad areas of concern to all researchers: epistemological issues, research strategies and research skills. In the process, the core will explore the diverse nature of research methodologies within the social sciences as well as the common themes than run across them. Even though you may have no direct use for particular modes of analysis, it is important that all research students are aware of the diversity of thought which characterises social and economic research. The Library will offer sessions on how to access the Library's computer based search facilities, and there will be a session on the efficient utilisation of the WorldWideWeb via the University's server.

Residential Weekend:

An important part of the Core is the Residential Weekend held at the beginning of the second semester. This is fully funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences. It has two objectives: 1) to explore epistemological and methodological questions raised in previous weeks, including disciplinary boundaries and new perspectives within the social sciences and 2) to facilitate the development of a social and intellectual community comprising all postgraduate research students in the Faculty.

Methods of Teaching:

A range of methods including plenary sessions, small group discussions and

workshops led by staff and students.


There are a number of "How to do research" books available. In our experience the most useful have been volumes to which Faculty members have contributed. These are two:

Allan, G. and Skinner C. (1991), A Handbook for Research Students in the Social Sciences, Brighton: Falmer Press.

McKenzie, G.W., Powell, J. and Usher, R.S. (1997), Understanding Social Research, Brighton: Falmer Press.

Survey Methods


Practical aspects of survey design and implementing social surveys. Issues to be considered and problems to be faced during the main stages of design, fieldwork and analysis.


The social survey is a widely used and often criticised method of social research. The aims of this module are to examine the potential and the limitations of the method, and to promote good practice in the design and implementation of surveys.

Issues to be covered:

* survey design

* sampling

* data collection

* questionnaire design

* attitude measurement

* interviewing

* implementing surveys

* data processing and presentation.

Methods of teaching:

Workshops focusing on survey design issues with reference to research topics of interest to participants.

Introductory Statistics


To introduce students without a strong background in statistics to the basic elements of good statistical thinking. This will help them to: 1) read the statistical parts of papers during their literature review and 2) to make the best use of numerical data in their thesis. The focus is on descriptive statistics, the analysis of simple and complex tables as well as on correlation and regression analysis. Both presentational and analytic skills are developed.


Since the 1960s, all the social sciences have experienced a rapid increase in the use of statistics. Almost all research students are consumers of statistical material and many are producers as well. Research students must understand the basics of any statistical procedure used in their thesis and be able to defend its use in their specific context.

Issues to be covered:

* presentational skills and descriptive statistics

* how the data was collected affects the analysis

* the analysis of simple and complex tables

* the use of measures of association and tests of independence

* the analysis of continuous data using correlation and regression.

Methods of teaching:

Lectures, class discussions and demonstrations of the process of data analysis.

Departmental Options

Research Training Units in the Department of Social Work Studies

Students in the Department can, with the agreement of their Supervisor, take option modules in any of the other disciplines but they are require to take the following options which are provided by the Department.

Those units which comprise the specialist stream of the MSc in Professional Studies can also be taken separately as a postgraduate certificate.

Examples of units include:

Understanding Social Research

Module Tutor: Joan Orme


The object of this module is to encourage students form a practice background, to reflect on the philosophical traditions which underpin the methodological debates in the social sciences, and to evaluate their implications for practice based research.


Practice based research raises a number of dilemmas for all those involved. Apart for very practical aspects such as access and confidentiality, there are also concerns about the generation of 'expert' knowledge which may contribute to regulatory discourses. This module looks to the social sciences literature to help practitioner researchers locate their research in understandings of how knowledge is generated, to the consequences of the 'researcher's gaze' for practitioners and those with whom they are working.

Issues to be covered:

* defining social sciences research

* limitations of social sciences research

* social sciences research and change

* research as praxis

* practitioners and users as researchers


Hammersley, M (1995) The Politics of Research, London: Sage

May, T (199 ) Social Sciences Research, Buckingham: Open University Press

Schon, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, London: Temple Smith

Stanley, L. (1990) Feminist Praxis: Research Theory and Epistemology in Feminist Sociology London: Routledge

Methods of teaching, organisational framework:

As part of our MSc in Professional Studies (Research Methods) the unit involves 25 hours of contact teaching and 40 hours of private study. The small group teaching takes place on a weekly basis and is accompanied by reading and seminar work.

Ethics, Politics and Professional Skills in the Research Process

Module Tutors: Staff from Social Work Studies


The dynamics of the research relationship, obligations and responsibilities to research subjects, including the role of ethnics committees and issues of safety for both the researched and researcher, access to agencies and the role of funders in the research process, all these issues in the context of positivistic and phenomenological paradigms.


We conceptualise research as both an intellectual and a practical process. The scope and nature of 'practitioner research' differs from that of academic social scientists in general. It tends to focus on evaluation, on user involvement and on the use of groups in the research process. A defining characteristic of social work research is its concern with quality of life issues and patterns of intervention through policy and practice. These areas bring with them particular ethical and political issues for social work researchers. Some of these issues, such as the ethics of research involving vulnerable groups needs to be addressed by all social scientists. This course provides a bridge between theoretical and methodological issues to interest to all social scientists covered in the core module and in Understanding Social Science Research, and the specific interests of research students from non-academic backgrounds in health and social care agencies.

Issues to be covered:

* the dynamics of the research relationship

* the relationship between research skills and other professional (specifically social work) skills

* the choice of research population

* obligations towards research subjects

* issues of safety for subjects and researchers

* the role of ethics committees

* access to agencies

* the role of funders and the rights and obligations of researchers towards them

* the role of the self in research

* insider-outsider issues in qualitative and quantitative research.

Methods of teaching, organisational framework:

As part of our MSc in Professional Studies (Research Methods) the unit involves 25 hours of contact teaching and 40 hours of private study. The teaching takes place in week-long intensive blocks.

Selected introductory reading:

Lee, R.M. (1993), Doing Research on Sensitive Topics, Sage

Shakespeare, P., Atkinson, D. and French, S. (1993), Reflecting on Research

Practice: Issues in Health and Social Welfare, Open University Press