Theorising Social Work Research

Researching the Social Work process Seminar topics

Researching the Social Work process 11th July 2000 Luton

A Code of Ethics for Social Work and Social Care Research Ian Butler (email) Professor of Social Work University of Keele

Preparing this paper, despite requests on the Theorising Social Work Research (TSWR) website, has been a lonely business. It would seem that few in social work, myself included, wish to represent themselves as taking a position in relation to the ethics of social work research or indeed on the equally complex question of their codification. My own reluctance stems in part from the chimerical nature of the subject (all of the operative terms in the title resist any precise definition) and my lack of formal training in the field of moral philosophy. It comes also from a recognition that the construction of such a code could be construed as a moral, or at least a normative exercise in itself and I inhabit the same, professionally re-enforced moral hesitancy of my generation. It was tempting to phrase the title as a question but given that the paper itself proceeds as much by assertion as argument, a simple declarative statement seems more apt. I parade my uncertainties, not just by way of the conventional apology, but to emphasise the provisional nature of what follows. I will go on to suggest however, that this 'provisionality' is both necessary and useful, as well as simply unavoidable, in thinking about a code of ethics for social work research.

According to Homan (1991), ethics as a philosophical discipline, 'primarily concerned with the evaluation and justification of norms and standards of personal and interpersonal behaviour' (Karhausen, 1987: 25), need not detain us long. Our concern is with a code of ethics. Such codes, according to his reading of the literature of the time, have little to do with debating, defining, protecting and promoting broad philosophical principles bearing on the nature of what is 'good' or 'bad'. Rather, the business of ethical codes is the formal articulation of 'those distinctive attitudes which characterize the culture of a professional group' (Häring, 1972: 24). Is that the purpose of a code of ethics for the social work researcher?

'Trait' theorists of the professions (e.g. Greenwood, 1957; Toren, 1972) might, with good reason, see in this question some claims making going on in relation to the putative group of 'social work researchers' to whom this paper is addressed. It would hardly be the first time that social work was implicated in such an enterprise. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW), makes a very explicit connection in the preamble to its Code of Ethics for Social Workers (revised and re-adopted in 1996) between the profession of social work and 'certain obligations beyond those of the ordinary citizen' which 'membership of any profession entails'. The attempt in this paper to devise a 'potential code of ethics' was one of the promised outcomes of the current ESRC sponsored seminar series on Theorising Social Work Research, which is an exercise not merely in encouraging some disciplinary reflection but also one of raising the profile of social work as a legitimate and to some degree, boundaried, field of social scientific endeavour in order to find itself a better place in the ESRC sun. Is the production of a code of ethics for the social work researcher part of a process of 'professionalisation' of the as yet ill-defined, status-deprived cadre of social work researchers? I don't believe it is and it is not my intention to re-open a debate on whether 'profession' is an ethical concept in the first place but this rhetorical question allows me to make a number of points.

Firstly, codes of ethics, like the moral principles on which they rest (however shakily) and despite, or even because of, any inherent normative or prescriptive tendency, need to be contextualised and situated. They are not for always and for everywhere. Secondly and relatedly, such codes are not, nor ever can be morally and ethically neutral, by definition, but also in so far as they are social artefacts themselves, they inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, articulate the occupational/ professional, ideological and moral aspirations of their creators. As Homan notes, 'Codes are established on the basis of a considerable measure of self-interest' (Homan, 1991: 3) Consequently, the relationship with a particular code occupied by anyone to whom it might be said to apply, is itself of as much interest and importance as the tenets of the particular code.

I will explore each of these points in turn.

Codes in Context

The first aspect of context that must be considered is the logical imperative that that any ethical code must be grounded in some moral precepts or contentions. What is the moral or ethical foundation to be for the code of ethics in question here?

The argument of the TSWR seminar series, one to which I fully subscribe, is that social work research is distinguishable from other forms of social research. The degree of distinctiveness and its nature has been and continues to be debated (see in particular Trevillion, 2000, Pinkerton, 1999 Parton, 2000 etc.). The basis of whatever differentiation that might ultimately be made, rests, I would suggest, on the rather obvious point that social work research has the practice of social work as its operational domain. It is this particularity of interest, defined further below, that argues the case for a discrete ethical code for social work researchers. Were this not the case, more general formulations of ethical principles and codes of conduct would serve equally well.

Such more general formulations however, recognise their limitations. For example, one of the more obvious potential resorts for the ethically curious social work researcher, the Social Research Association (SRA), in its ethical guidelines, acknowledges that social researchers 'work within one of several different branches of their discipline, each involving its own techniques and procedures and its own ethical approach. Many social researchers work in fields. whose practitioners have ethical conventions that may influence the conduct of researchers and their fields'. Even the Toronto Resolution (1992) framed essentially by 'hard' scientists, in an attempt to 'present a methodology for assessing particular ethical codes which comprises the key elements that all codes of ethics in science and scholarship should include', admits 'the difficulty of expressing in a single code the concerns of scientists and scholars in various disciplines and in different countries'. What both the SRA seems to imply and the Toronto Resolution clearly states, is that any code 'should be sufficiently general to encompass scholarly work and basic, applied and technological research as well as the actions of practitioners engaged in the discipline or profession' (Article 3 - my emphasis). This approach is recognised explicitly in some 'practice' orientated codes of ethics. For example, the American Counselling Association (ACA), the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) and the Clinical Social Work Federation (CSWF) each include specific sections in their ethical codes on the conduct of 'research and scholarly activities' (CSWF, Principle 7).

If social work research does have any substantiable claim to disciplinary or even professional/ occupational distinctiveness (and thus a defensible claim to its own ethical code) it seems, as I indicated above, to derive from the contention that whatever else it may be, social work research is to be considered as occupying the same discursive site as the practice of social work and the same operational domains. Its subjects, fields of interest and audiences must, it seems to me, coincide. Social work research is about social workers, what they think, what they believe, what knowledge they claim and what they do with it and its primary (but not its only) audience will be social workers, service users and those who determine who falls into which category for the purposes of public policy. If this is so, then the ethics of social work research must, I would suggest, be at least compatible if not coterminous with the ethics of social work.

Such a proposition is not without its problems, however, at several levels. Firstly, as I indicated earlier, few of the terms of the proposition are susceptible to any very precise or generally accepted definition, including 'social work' and 'social worker'. Secondly, such a characterisation of social work research might imply that only social workers can do social work research. If an economist or a psychologist undertakes research either at the site of social work practice or have as subjects the participants to the social work enterprise (workers and service users) would that be social work research and should they then be guided by an ethical code that is rooted in the ethics of social work? My answer would be 'probably not' if that research was essentially related to their own particular fields of interest, discourses and usual audiences. For that, they have their own ethical codes. Similarly, would only that research carried out as 'social work research' be useful to social workers? In this case, my answer would be a more definite 'no'. In the same way that an economist might employ the research insights of the psychologist and vice versa, so a social worker will find the products of other research disciplines more or less useful. By the same token, knowledge produced by social work research may have relevance to other disciplinary interests and to social scientific knowledge more generally. Research undertaken by individuals or groups with no particular disciplinary or occupational affiliation (such as user groups), could probably be called social work research by my definition although it is by no means certain that the investigators would wish to describe it as such. (See Gibbs, 1999.)

My proposition remains then that the ethical foundation for a code of ethics for social work research is to be derived from the ethics of social work itself. Such a code of ethics is to be applied when the nature of the research activity is designed to engage with the practice of social work (including at a theoretical level) and to be addressed primarily to a social work audience which might include practitioners, service users, policy makers and other social work researchers. (The fuzziness of this argument might be said to at least acknowledge the fuzziness of research practice. I do not know how important it is, other than for instrumental purposes such as funding and dissemination, to know precisely where social work research ends and either social policy or sociological research begins.)

And it is at this point that the difficulties begin for there is no general, consensual statement of social work ethics available that could easily be pressed in to the service of social work researchers. There are several. Nor, indeed is 'doing social work research' the same as 'doing social work' (except possibly in the sense described by Sheppard, 2000). How then can the ethics of social work be made the foundation for the ethics of social work research, assuming one accepts the argument that they should be?

The Ethics of Social Work

Hugman and Smith (1995) having traced a brief history of social work ethics from Biestek (1961) and Butrym (1976) to the CCETSW Paper 30 (1991) echo MacIntyre (1985), and bewail the 'failure of the philosophers of the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment to provide a rational basis for morality which would command general public assent' (1995: 9). They clearly recognise social work as a moral activity and see in the complexity of social work practice (see also Trevillion 2000) the impossibility of devising universal ethical principles. There are simply too many contradictory 'world views' at play and too many conflicting interests: 'the promotion of choice for one may restrict the choices of another; the protection of the vulnerable may entail the attachment of stigma to someone else (for example, the stigma of being an abusive or neglectful parent); and so on.' (1995: 9) (See also Berresford, 1999 for a consideration of this dilemma in social work research terms). Hugman and Smith also make it clear that whilst social workers make moral choices (What is the right thing for me to do here?), they do not necessarily make them in circumstances of their own choosing in that social work also serves other than individualised, welfare directed ends.

Their response, (after Donnison, 1994) is to adopt an 'Aristotelian' position which, essentially accepts that '[a]ll sources of moral authority can only provide principles which are rooted in a particular society at a particular point in time' (1994: 28). This is a species of argument which proceeds from what is to what ought, anathema to more serious moral philosophers. In one sense, this takes us no further forward in that, particularly in our case, there is no accessible moral map of what is either in terms of the ethics of social work or of social work research. But what this position does allow is the possibility of 'developing a framework for thinking rationally about what constitutes good social work [research], or what the virtues of a good social work [researcher] might be' by reference to the 'living sense of why skilled practice matters, how it flows from and expresses meaning and purpose with which the individual interprets his or her life and how that is connected with a relevant and living tradition'. (Hugman and Smith 1995: 11).

For our purposes then, almost any moral starting point that can plausibly be related to the broad social work enterprise as it is currently constituted (which includes social work research), will do. By reference to even the most arbitrary (but defensible) statement of moral principles we would have a platform on which to build, provided that the situated, contestable, interim and impermanent nature of such a platform was fully recognised. Here, Husband's account (1995) of the 'morally active practitioner' is helpful. In articulating the struggle for an ethical pluralism that arises from his engagement with anti-racist practice, Husband argues for eternal moral vigilance in the form of the 'morally active practitioner' who would 'recognise the implementation of professional ethical guidelines as desirable and as being permanently irreducible to routine. Doing one's duty may not be the same thing as being morally responsible. Doing one's duty may be mere compliance; an habitual and ultimately habituated application of generalised responses to a particular instance. Morally engaged practitioners could not hide within this professional ethical anaesthesia, but would retain their responsibility for their professional practice and its implications' (1995: 87 - my emphasis)

Any and every statement of ethical principles, by virtue of its situated nature and any and every form of its codification should be contested and subject to critical scrutiny as soon as the ink on it is dry by every 'morally active practitioner' to whom it might be said to apply. It is in this sense that the provisional nature of any code of ethics is presented as a positive attribute. This paper and the 'potential code of ethics' with which it concludes is of value only in the criticism that it evokes and the dialogue which follows. Tentativeness and 'provisionality' also enable some of the less substantiated assertions that follow to be more easily made.

Before making an attempt to provide a statement of principles on which to build our code, some further observations should be made on how and by whom any particular code could be given effect. The website on which this paper appears is temporary and while that might accord with my general position about the necessarily interim nature of what it contains, if the dialogue which the paper is meant to initiate is to continue, some other virtual or more concrete space needs to be established in which discussion can take place. What, to refer to Husband again (1995: 86), is to be this particular ethical code's polis if not its police? BASW? The Social Work Research Association? The National Institute for Social Work? The lone researcher?

Assuming a 'home' could or should be found for it, what is the mechanism by which the code is to be applied? For example, in the case of research undertaken in university departments as part of some particular scheme of study or even in the case of doctoral studies (leaving aside any consideration as to whether undertaking social work research wholly for the purposes of gaining a social work qualification or other form of academic award is itself an ethical exercise), is ethical scrutiny to be left to the supervisor or particular academic department concerned? For example, the University of Southampton (Dominelli, 2000) has developed a detailed and coherent protocol which outlines the various roles and responsibilities of both student and supervisor whereby the student is responsible for seeking approval for their research project from a Departmental Research Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee is comprised wholly of academic staff members of the department, however. In the case of my own department, whilst the possibility of referral to an Ethics Sub-Committee exists, ethical approval in most cases is managed by the student (or member of staff, as the case may be) completing a 'checklist' covering only questions relating to the sensitivity of the research topic, the vulnerability of subjects, whether informed consent is to be obtained and what risk to subject or researcher there is likely to be. Assuming these meet the (unstated) criteria for approval to the satisfaction of the departmental Director of Research, no further scrutiny is likely. In neither situation, which is typical of most university departments (?) and better than some, the degree of disinterested scrutiny of what is being proposed is somewhat limited.

Many social work researchers will have experience of other forms of ethics committees, often where their interests overlap with those of health professionals. In the medical profession, the process of securing ethical approval by means of independent local ethics committees is an established one although one that is not without its problems or its critics. For example, recently, the pages of the British Medical Journal have seen a debate on the less than satisfactory state of affairs concerning multi-centre research ethics committees. These committees were established on a regional basis in 1997 to try and find a way out of the 'Byzantine labyrinth' (Alberti, 2000: 1157) that was formerly the means of securing ethical approval when any particular research project crossed several local ethical committee boundaries.

Before the establishment of multi-centre research ethics committees, any mulit-site research project would need to secure approval from each local ethics committee in whose jurisdiction its activities took place. The new, regional structure is meant to operate such that where a project is to take place within the boundaries of 5 or more local research ethics committees, its case would be made to just one multi-centre committee. Once approved at this level, local committees would then consider the study only with respect to matters that may have a particular local relevance. The case for establishing multi-centre committees had been suggested (Busby et al, 1988; Harries et al, 1994; While, 1995) by a general dissatisfaction with the diversity of local ethical requirements mediated through idiosyncratic local practices and procedures, which not only obstructed multi-centre research but also allowed, in some cases, research of doubtful quality to proceed. Two published studies of the workings of the new multi-centre research ethics committees would suggest that all is not quite yet as it should be. Despite the fact that some administrative improvements have occurred, Tully et al (2000: 1182) concluded that 'substantial frustrations remain for researchers working within a system that at times presents an unethical barrier to potentially beneficial research'. Lux et all (2000: 1183) are even less satisfied and conclude that the new structure of ethical review 'retains the inefficiencies of the former system'. In response, the President of the Royal College of Physicians, while citing generally the 'high standards of practice' in local ethics committees, goes on to acknowledge (Alberti, 2000: 1158) that 'There remains the problem of different modes of working and standards, which are occasionally highly idiosyncratic, between local research ethics committees. A national advisory body is clearly needed to communicate regularly with all local committees, organise training programmes, and lay down clear guidance that is updated regularly. In return, local committees need better support, and their members need reasonable payment for what is often an onerous task. The guidance on multicentre proposals needs major reinforcement.' In this statement, Alberti perhaps identifies some of the issues that will need to be considered before any potential code of ethics such as ours can hope to be advanced through the establishment of local or even regional ethics committees. (See also Blunt et al, 1998 for a more detailed account of possible response to the difficulties faced both by local and multi-centre research ethics committees.)

The Bio-medical Model

Where the established tradition of ethical scrutiny in the medical profession may be of some use to us however is in the progress that has been made in formulating a general and more or less consensual 'basic moral analytical framework and a basic moral language' (Gillon, 1994: 184). The ethical framework that emerges, based on the seminal work of Beauchamp and Childress (1989) is frequently referred to as the 'four principles plus scope' approach or, more simply, as the 'biomedical model'. The four principles are respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice and the question of scope refers to the process of deciding about to whom and in what circumstances the particular moral obligation applies.

In the simplest of terms, 'respect for autonomy' refers to the moral obligation to respect the autonomy of each individual in so far as that is compatible with respecting the autonomy of others. It implies treating others as moral agents in their own right, as ends in themselves and not simply as means. It predicts for example, the securing of informed consent, preserving confidentiality and a prohibition on wilful deceit. Beneficence and non-maleficence (doing good and not doing harm) may be reduced, in the context of medical care, to a rational calculation of producing by one's actions a net benefit to the objects of one's attentions. 'Justice' may be equated with the moral obligation to deal fairly in the face of competing claims, especially in relation to equalising claims deriving from people's rights and respecting morally acceptable laws. It prohibits the pursuit of one's own interests at the expense of others' legitimate interests; using scarce resources for unprofitable ends; favouring one's own particular community of interest or association and disapproval of the moral choices of others. In combination, certain other moral obligations can be discerned. For example, according to Gillon (1994: 186), the empowerment of others is 'essentially an action that combines the two moral obligations of beneficence and respect for autonomy to help patients in ways that not only respect but also enhance their autonomy'. The application of these moral principles (the 'scope' of the model) remains a space in which individuals can act according to their own moral conscience. The decision as to which principle is to take precedence should they compete or to whom should any principle apply, to what degree and in what circumstances remains available to the 'morally active practitioner'.

Gillon offers an account of the application of this model to medical practice which implies more of a steady state than is actually the case even from the briefest survey of the contemporary medical literature. (See, for example a very challenging debate, ranging over almost twenty years, on the circumstances whereby a patient's informed consent, an aspect of autonomy, can be dispensed with in the case of randomised controlled trials inter alia, in papers by Faulder et al, 1983; Baum et al 1989; Tobias and Souhami, 1993; Thornton, 1994; Baum, 1994; D'Agostino, 1995; Tobias, 1997 and Doyal, 1997).

Nonetheless, I do intend to offer these four principles as the basis of a code of ethics for social work research. I am conscious that having argued for the ethics of social work research to be grounded in the ethics of social work, there is a certain irony in advocating a general framework that derives from another discipline, especially one with which social work has had an uneasy relationship, given the assumed ruthless positivism of scientific medicine. However, the model is one that is congruent with a number of formulations of social work ethics. For example, there is an uncanny resemblance in the words of the first 6 of the 12 principles of the International Federation of Social Workers' (IFSW, 1997) code of ethics to the precepts of the 'four principles plus scope' model as I have described it:

2.2.1. Every human being has a unique value, which justifies moral consideration for that person.

2.2.2. Each individual has the right to self-fulfilment to the extent that it does not encroach upon the same right of others, and has an obligation to contribute to the well-being of society.

2.2.3. Each society, regardless of its form, should function to provide the maximum benefits for all its members.

2.2.4. Social workers have a commitment to social justice.

2.2.5. Social workers have the responsibility to devote objective and disciplined knowledge and skill to aid individuals, groups, communities, and societies in their development and resolution of personal-societal conflicts and their consequences.

2.2.6. Social workers are expected to provide the best possible assistance to anybody seeking their help or advice, without unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, age, disability, colour, social class, race, religion, language, political beliefs, or sexual orientation

The remaining principles could also, I would suggest, be accommodated within the general framework. Similarly, the 'Principles of Social Work Practice' of the Irish Association of Social Workers' Code of Ethics, would seem to fit easily with the particular model that I am suggesting:

The social worker's primary focus is the needs of clients. This must take precedence over self-interest, and personal convictions. That focus may be constrained only by the request of clients themselves, or the lawful requirements of an employing agency

The social worker must strive for objectivity in professional practice. Constant development of self-awareness will continuously build upon knowledge and skills to maintain and enhance the standards of professionalism. etc.

Banks (1995) concludes her comparison of 15 national social work codes of ethics with the observation that: 'many common features were noted, particularly a congruence around the stated values or principles underpinning social work including: respect for the individual person, promotion of user self determination, promotion of social justice and working for the interests of others.' (1995: 92). If a more concise and more obviously social work derived account of the 'four principles plus scope' model were needed, this could well serve.

Clearly, any formulation of this or any other framework would need to be 'cut to fit' or extended to map the particular practice of social work research. But such a task is beyond the scope of this paper and is quite properly, as I have argued, an object that can only be achieved in dialogue. In raiding the codes of others to assemble the following code of ethics for social work research, I have merely attempted to ensure that no point contravenes my chosen ethical framework ('four principles plus scope').

What follows then is the very first step in a process of devising a code of ethics for social work research. In fact, it is a relatively short amalgam of ideas, words and phrases raided from a series of 'social work' and 'research' codes with some particular prejudices of my own included. I have tried to concentrate on those elements of any potential code that might be claimed (either seriatim or in aggregate) as distinctive of social work and social care research. Hence it does not include points that bear on the employment of research staff or the niceties of submitting papers to academic journals (a particularly important consideration from my point of view!), for example, or on other matters that are common to most if not all research disciplines.

It proceeds according to one particular moral framework. It is a situated code which, at this stage, may be said to represent only one person's experience of the 'living tradition' from which it derives. It has no owner, no guardian and no mechanisms to give effect to it. Either in this or subsequent iterations, it is not meant to be prescriptive but to present a series of ethical considerations against which a particular piece of work can be reviewed. It is in need of elaboration and testing against real or hypothesised research practice. It is offered, hesitantly, on the assumption that there exists a body of 'morally active social work researchers' to contest it and develop it.

The Code
  1. At all stages of the research process, from inception, resourcing, design, investigation and dissemination, social work and social care researchers have a duty to maintain an active, personal and disciplinary ethical awareness and to take practical and moral responsibility for their work.
  2. Both the process of social work/ care research, including choice of methodology, and the use to which any findings might be put, should be congruent with the aims and values of social work practice and, where possible, seek to empower service users, promote their welfare and improve their access to economic and social capital on equal terms with other citizens.
  3. In the case of all those who are the subjects of research, but particularly those made vulnerable by age, health, disability or social disadvantage, social work and social care researchers must retain a primary concern for subjects' welfare and should actively protect participants from physical and mental harm, discomfort, danger and unreasonable disruption in their daily lives or avoidable intrusions into their privacy.
  4. Social work and social care researchers must not tolerate any form of discrimination based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, health, marital, domestic or parental status and must seek to ensure that their work excludes any unacknowledged bias.
  5. In establishing the aims and objectives of their research, social work and social care researchers are to consider the ascertainable consequences of their actions for the users of social work/ care services, both in particular and in general, in order to ensure that the legitimate interests of service users are not unwarrantably compromised or prejudiced by the proposed investigation.
  6. In their chosen methodology and in every other aspect of their research design, social work researchers are to ensure that they are technically competent to carry out the particular investigation to the highest standards of social science as currently understood, recognising the limitations of their own expertise. In relation to research carried out primarily for educational or instructional purposes, this responsibility is shared by the student's supervisor.
  7. In relation to every participant to the research process, including service users, colleagues, funders and employers, social work and social care researchers have a duty to deal openly and fairly. In particular, there is a duty to inform every participant of all features of the research that might be expected to influence willingness to participate, especially but not exclusively when access to services may be, or may be perceived to be, dependent on participation.
  8. Only in cases where no alternative strategy is feasible, where no harm to the research subject will arise and where the greater good is self-evidently served, are procedures involving deception or concealment permissible for social work and social care researchers.
  9. The social work and social care researcher will at all times respect the individual participant's absolute right to decline to participate in or to withdraw from the research programme, especially when the researcher, is by any means, in a position of authority over the participant.
  10. Participation in any social work/ care research activity is to be predicated on the freely given, informed and acknowledged consent of the research subject. Particular care must be taken in obtaining the consent of those who have impairments that might limit understanding and/ or communication. Third party consent in the case of those who are incapable of giving consent directly may only be obtained from a legally authorized person.
  11. Consent must be secured through the use of language that is readily comprehensible to the research subject and which accurately explains the purpose of the research and the procedures to be followed.
  12. Any data or other information produced in the course of social work/ care research is confidential except as agreed in advance with the research participants (including research subjects) and proscribed by law.
  13. Social work/ care research findings must be reported accurately, completely and without distortion and note any significant variables and conditions that may have affected the outcomes or the interpretation of the data. This includes a duty to report results which reflect unfavourably on agencies of the central or local state, vested interests (including the researchers' own and those of sponsors) as well as prevailing wisdom and orthodox opinion. In addition, social work and social care researchers, have a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to ensure that public communications of their work reported through the mass media, do not contain unfavourable stereotypes or other derogatory or damaging representations of service users or are otherwise misused.
  14. The publication of social work research findings should properly and in proportion to their contribution, acknowledge the part played by all participants to the research process.


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