Theorising Social Work Research

What works as evidence for practice? The methodological repertoire in an applied discipline Seminar topics

What works as evidence for practice? The methodological repertoire in an applied discipline 27th April 2000 Cardiff

Research approaches for practitioners: the role of action research Dr. Catherine Humphreys and Fiona Metcalfe At the risk of stating the obvious, a distinctive feature of social work research is the centrality of social workers! This paper will argue that the 'The Methodological Repertoire in an Applied Profession' needs to include research which focuses on social workers, or, indeed, the development of their professionalism and research-mindedness. The processes of research at times, may be as important as the particular topic being researched.

This paper discusses action research as an approach that focuses upon the social work practitioner, their participation in the research and the potential to develop practice from research. A locally based research project is used to illustrate general points about the value of action research to social work practitioners. To an extent, action research stands in contrast to large scale quantitative studies, or programme evaluations. However, this is not to suggest an oppositional relationship, but rather, to acknowledge the broad scope of social work practice and the range of research which may be relevant. There is a tradition of small-scale, locally based research within social work which has value both in its findings as well as in the processes which are used to enhance practice. This paper will both re-assert the value of practitioner research, and more particularly action research, and as well as use the local project as a case study to explore factors which may contribute to an effective action research process.


Practitioner research traces its origins back to the 1970's. Broad and Fletcher (1993) attribute much of the original thinking behind practitioner research to John Brown at the Cranfield Institute who pioneered the ideas in the field of education. The 'insider' knowledge and access was conceived as an advantage which enhanced the relevance and the applicability of the research. The practitioner research tradition has continued to be developed, both within social work and other applied professions such as nursing, health and agriculture. Within social work, developments such as the practitioner research course at Stirling University and other post-qualifying and post-graduate courses have helped to sustain practitioner research work (Gorman, 1999). Similarly avenues for publication such as the research monograph series published at the University of East Anglia, The Kent Journal of Practice Research and books such as that by Broad and Fletcher (1993) have contributed to the encouragement of practitioner research and its validity as an approach within an applied profession. These publications have also supported the attention to anti-oppressive research practice, which one could argue is not unique to social work, but which is nevertheless a continuous theme through the work.

Practitioner research and action research have sometimes been portrayed as synonymous. However, while action research is often practitioner research, much practitioner research is not action research. The history of action research is consistently linked to Kurt Lewin. His influential studies (1946, 1947) provided the wellspring from which action research has developed in a wide range of areas where practical interventions can provide the basis for improvements in practice. Within the action research field a number of different 'schools' have proliferated bringing a range of dimensions to the action research process. Hart and Bond (1995) have provided a particularly helpful typology that draws out the differences between models of action research. They argue that different value systems and methodologies underpin the variation in action research. Approaches range along a continuum from empowering models which seek to involve the least powerful as active participants and researchers through to those based on more traditional research methods using experimental design techniques where the researcher attempts to be an 'objective outsider' in the research process. Research which actively fulfils the aims of the organisation, or focuses upon the professionalisation of groups of practitioners through involvement in research are featured along the continuum.

The example given in this paper derives from a research process undertaken within a fostering recruitment team and has features of each of the models. The attention to more respectful work with foster carers created a context for extending power to a group, who, while not the most powerless of the statutory agency's service users, nevertheless have often experienced themselves as the 'poor relation' in their role with social services. Although there are elements of empowerment and work which meets the goals of the broader organisation, predominantly the research falls within 'the professionalising' approach, which focuses on the development of research-based practice within the profession. (This we might add is a hindsight reflection and was not an original objective for the research).

Action Research: Braiding Research and Practice

While the research project that is being used to illustrate the action research process is modest, many aspects 'worked' in the classic mode of action research. There are therefore potentially some lessons to be learnt from a process, which within its own terms, worked so effectively in entwining research and practice, and which may therefore be more generally applicable.

Critical Conversations: Defining the problem to be researched

Within an action research process are 'critical conversations' which shift and define the research direction. These provide points where important new 'ideas for action' are agree, or where previous metaphors or language no longer 'fit' and new metaphors emerge which are more appropriate (Russell and Ison, 2000).

The context for this research was set by the pursuit of a post-qualifying certificate in research and evaluation by one of the authors (Fiona) which has since been upgraded to a Masters by Research. Fiona, as a full time practitioner in a specialist fostering and recruitment team came with an idea for research which she had already discussed with her team who had agreed that it would be relevant and important work to be undertaken. This was namely to research the factors which motivate and deter potential foster carers from pursuing or not their interest in fostering through to the point of application.

Fiona's initial proposal was to identify the attrition points in the recruitment process and interview a sample of people at each stage in the process. However, following the first supervision session, it was agreed that the team already had some knowledge of this process. Instead, a more dynamic and relevant piece of research might be to explore the effects of a relatively small change in practice, namely including experienced foster carers at points in the recruitment process.

A literature review later confirmed that there was research evidence which showed that foster carers frequently became interested in fostering through word of mouth. Hence, foster carers themselves, were potentially significant people in the recruitment process (Shaw et al. 1983; McCoglan, 1991; Ramsey, 1996; Triseliotis, 1998).

The local authority had also recently developed the foster carer role. A review had recommended the provision for a foster care development post and the employment of 25 salaried foster carers as paid employees of the department to assist in support, recruitment of other carers, and training. (Wignall, 1997). The practice of involving foster carers in recruitment would therefore also reflect the developing partnership between foster carers and the local authority which would actively involve them as service users and service providers. It was decided that Fiona would 'float' the idea with her team and see if they would agree to explore the possibilities of involving foster carers in the next recruitment campaign.

These critical conversations provided the first steps in an action research spiral - the practitioner/supervisor consultation and the team beginning the process of becoming active stakeholders in what was previously an individualised and static research project, albeit one that had their support. These steps created the model of the work that was to follow over a twelve month period, involving approximately 10 different cycles. Each new step in the research work bought with it a parallel step in the action learning process, creating a dynamic process of planning, action, feedback and evaluation with an increasing number of stakeholders in the project.

Flexibility in developing the research aims and objectives

A series of research aims were agreed in the first three months of the project:

  1. To compare the data on enquiries, home visits and applications from the 1999 Recruitment Campaign with a previous Campaign run in 1998;
  2. To assess the value of running two Information Evenings with foster carers as a recruitment method;
  3. To analyse the importance of offering everyone receiving a home visit contact with an experienced foster carer, as a value added component;
  4. To interview a sample of prospective foster carers during this period to gather data about factors motivating or deterring members of the public pursuing their interest in fostering to the point of application.

The objectives of the research were to:

  1. Gain a greater understanding of the issue, which motivate and deter prospective applicants to foster with the aim of influencing and improving practice;
  2. To reflect the local authority commitment to Best Value and Quality Protects;
  3. To create a climate within the Fostering Services team in which research can become an integral part of practice.

These objectives developed over the period of the research cycles. For example, the team wanted to retain the qualitative interviewing of applicants at different stages in the process; and team members and foster carers initiated the idea of information evenings. Moreover, it was only latterly recognised that aspects of this research project (added value, service user involvement, developing practice on the basis of research evidence) fitted neatly into the Best Value agenda for the local authority. Further 'critical conversations' occurred with senior management about the project, which then identified the Fostering and Adoption Team as one of the Best Value sites for the local authority. This process guaranteed the project and its findings appraisal beyond the immediate team.

The creation of a climate of interest for practitioner research, or research-mindedness (objective 3), again was almost inadvertent. Initially, the fostering project was the only motivation for the research. However, as the work has progressed, the action research cycles have become the engine that has driven the research. There is now no clear 'ending' to the research process as a momentum has been created which is no longer in the hands of one practitioner.

The combination of 'critical conversations' and the ability to incorporate a collaborative approach to the development of the aims and objectives of the research, on reflection, were significant factors contributing to the effectiveness of the research. This process included: the involvement of the researcher's team in the initial problem identification; the shifting of the project to an action research project; and the 'insider practitioner' information which allowed an appropriate practice intervention to be chosen which 'fitted' with the goals of the team, the organisation and foster carers.

The parallel processes of action research and practice

Foster care recruitment is not an individual process. Rather it is a group process in which planning, action and evaluation are an integral part of every recruitment drive. Hence, the action research cycles of planning, action and evaluation mirror practice already well established in the working dynamics of the team. Forming and motivating a group to be interested in the research (often the first task in an action research process) was not a process which needed to be artificially created. Moreover, the practitioner was not in a management or supervisory position, but one of the team, thus undercutting problems potentially created by the differential power between the primary researcher and the group (Hart and Bond, 1995 p.8)

Maintaining enthusiasm

Enthusiasm - an emotion often in short supply within the statutory social services sector - yet potentially the most essential ingredient in maintaining an action research process (Ison and Russell, 2000), was clearly in evidence throughout the project. The small successes of the research project along the way kept the flame of enthusiasm alive. Each positive response, created the energy to engage in the next cycle. For example, the immediate excitement which foster carers expressed about engaging in the recruitment process and their contribution to the planning process (the idea of information evenings), created the drive to ensure that the details of developing information packs, planning the information evenings and training the foster carers all went ahead with the active support and work from social work team members and financial commitment via the team manager for expenditure on publicity and venues.

Possibly, the organic growth of the action research process created some of the enthusiasm by others for the work. The project was originally framed as research about foster care, where the action research process was incidental. Possibly in other projects, the balance is reversed - a research practitioner enters the process with a theoretical commitment to action research, with the research project (what is to be found out) as secondary. In this case, the combination of the research 'fit' with the foster carers and other members of the team, and the care taken to inform, feedback and build each new phase with the team meant that enthusiasm and commitment to the project emerged and increased over time - an organic part of the research process which became exciting and integrated into the project. Progressively, the importance grew of the action research engine driving forward different aspects of 'the findings' at different levels within the organisation.

'Diffusion' rather than 'dissemination'

From the professional social work perspective, the most graphic aspect of the action research process lies in the 'dissemination' process. 'Dissemination' as a metaphor appears inadequate to describe the continuing ripple effect created by the research - there is no start point for the 'dissemination of the findings', rather, a 'learning process' has occurred where different issues have been taken up in diverse ways. Feedback at different stages within the research cycles has meant that learning has been present from the outset of the project - initially at team level, followed by foster carers becoming stakeholders in the project, followed by different levels of senior management taking an interest in the project for the purposes of the Best Value pilot, the Excellence in Business project, Quality Protects, and the development of local authority plans in the fostering area based on the research. Of interest has been the process where the research findings of a front-line practitioner and her colleagues and foster carers have 'diffused' from the bottom upwards, rather than research findings percolating down from the top. While there may be equally problems of a metaphor such as 'diffusion', taken from the world of physics applied to a social process, it nevertheless captures the non-linear, and non-hierarchical process through which 'ideas in action' can move through an organisation. Such a process has engaged the interest of the team in the exploration of other practitioner research projects and the development of further research associated with this project.

A question arises about whether there are aspects of the research which are applicable beyond the boundaries of the organisation. The research was designed to tackle a quite specific, locally based problem, in which generalisation may be more relevant at the level of theory (Lathlean, 1994). Hence, this discussion of the broader issue of the process of action research and its contribution to the development of research-mindedness in social work practitioners. Within the education sector, Elliot (1991) has gone as far as to suggest that 'the fundamental aim of action research is to improve practice rather than to produce knowledge' (Elliot, 1991.p49). While this begs the question of "What is knowledge?", the statement nevertheless confronts the relationship between research and practice. Action research through its attention to 'situation improvement' of a locally based problem, the inclusion of a group as participants in the research process, and the cyclical process of action, research, planning and evaluation has the potential to encourage the development of 'reflective practitioners' - an attitude to professionalism which goes beyond the life of a research project. It is based in practice and feeds back into practice (Abbott and Sapsford, 1998).

Within this project, the processes involved in bringing foster carers into partnership with the local authority in ways which respect their experience, their contribution and professionalism are ones which may also have broader applicability to organisations beyond the particular research site. As a strategy in the development of anti-discriminatory practice, evaluated positively by foster carers it has relevance, possibly regardless of more substantial evidence yet to be gathered in relation to retention and recruitment.

A longitudinal study of the recruitment process over several years (possibly with further developments) will need to be undertaken to confirm the significance of foster carers involvement in the recruitment process. At this stage, the following findings are evident: the process has been evaluated positively by foster carers, team members and applicants; the percentage of applicants rose from 13% of enquiries to 17% with the involvement of foster carers in the first year (not a statistical significant level, but a shift which was encouraging enough for the team to decide to continue the process); information evenings though attended in only small numbers (9 households) resulted in a comparatively high number of applications; the attention to the data base has highlighted its inadequacies and created the impetus to change the way in which information is collected; further knowledge has been gained through the in-depth interviews about the processes which create barriers or opportunities for increasing foster carer applications and retention of current foster carers. Some, or all of these latter finding may have relevance for other local authorities in the future.

Organisational support

Invariably one of the biggest hurdles for practitioner research to confront is the amount of time which it takes. This was a project which was carefully chosen to be of a manageable size and able to be integrated into the everyday practice of the researcher. It was therefore research in which the practitioner experienced organisational support in the form of study days, financial support for university fees, and assistance with the transcription of tapes. While the significant increase in workload, the financial burden, and the excessive amount of time spent on the project out of hours should not be minimised, the reciprocity between the practitioner and organisation (both in terms of the relevance of the research and the support of the organisation) was a major contributory factor towards the research reaching 'completion'.

A further issue mentioned in most practitioner research accounts (Hart and Bond, 1995; Fuller and Petch, 1995) refer to the process through which practitioners develop research skills. Academic training, support, and supervision were integral parts of this project. They provided the 'toolkit' and 'critical conversations' which assisted in maintaining rigour and enthusiasm for the on-going research cycles in this project.


Practitioner research seeks to explore, understand and improve practice. It is founded upon a strong value base with incorporates anti-oppressive practice. The perspective is rooted in the firm belief that a practitioner's professional background and insider knowledge place them in a unique research position grounded in the real world of social work. By definition, these are small scale projects undertaken by practitioners whose research work is often an adjunct to their practice, rather than its primary focus.

This paper argues that within the research repertoire for social work, practitioner research, and more particularly action research, has a place. The synergy with good practice based in planning, action and reflection; the participative approach to improving practice; and the development of research-mindedness in a team of practitioners are compelling arguments for both retaining and encouraging work in this area.


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