The relationship between research, policy and practice
Social care research can have an impact on practice through its links to policy formation. Although the need to translate research messages into policy and practice has been recognised and improved, this relationship continues to be complex. Policy-makers often want research messages that are clear, unequivocal and relevant to their current and impending priorities. Good research in social care, however, reflects the complexities and 'untidiness' of practice; this can make the translation of sometimes contradictory findings into simple messages for policy difficult to achieve. Research is often retrospective, looking back at the processes a nd outcomes from a programme or intervention, and at participants' understanding of them, and when it is prospective the questions with which it is concerned may seem isolated from practice realities.
Who creates and controls research 'evidence' for policy and practice?
The relationship between research and policy is not one-way. Although social care research is often commissioned in order to provide evidence for government departments before policy is formed or finalised, much of the research that shapes policy is produced and/or paid for by other groups, including service user organisations. Some of these commissioning bodies, such as Barnardos or the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, set out with the goal of creating evidence which will influence policy and practice. Organisations such as these can be useful places to look for published research as well.
Thinking about some of the groups who carry out and commission research helps us to think also about the ways in which research evidence is controlled, shaping what becomes known of the social world. Control occurs through:
- what research gets commissioned and funded
- what research gets published
- whose voice is loudest when the strength of 'evidence' is being considered.
The government is one source of commissioning and funding for social work and social care research, providing funding for research carried out through bodies such as SCIE. This may be research into areas that are considered weak in terms of evidence, or research that is needed to help drive a new policy initiative or a shift in practice. Other reasons for commissioning research are public concern about certain groups such as vulnerable or misbehaving children, as well as concern about work practices in the social field. An example of research in social care commissioned by the Department of Health (DH), through its Policy Research Programme, was the Older People and their Use of Services (OPUS) project, which involved 16 separate research studies aimed at supporting the National Service Framework for Older People. These studies were then drawn together into a report published by the DH in 2008 (Askham 2008).
It is often helpful to know who funds research, and what their priorities might be, as this may affect the outputs from a project. Resistance to receiving the findings of the research or a failure to publish research reports which do not correspond with a funder's current philosophies and policies are obvious ways of exerting control, and have implications for academic freedom (Orme and Shemmings 2010), as well as ethical implications. Significant research findings may be withheld or remain out of the public domain. A famous example of a report that the government was said to have tried to suppress was The Black Report on health inequalities, which was completed in 1980. Since the findings of the report provided evidence of the growing health gap between the rich and the poor, it did not align with the philosophy of the neo-liberal Conservative government of the time. It was published in very limited numbers - around 260 - before a Bank Holiday to limit its impact. The authors were incensed, and later published it as a book which 'generated great interest both in the UK and in other countries since it showed 'that there were large differentials in mortality and morbidity that favoured the higher social classes and that were not being redressed by health or social services' (Davey Smith et al. 1990: 374).
Owning research: power and control in the research process
The notions of ownership and control in research are complicated. At one level, research funded by commissioning bodies is almost fully controlled by them, since in the first instance they decide or agree what is to be researched. Often there are tightly-worded contracts which control both the methods and the outputs of the research. Avorn (2006) describes a number of cases from the pharmaceutical industry in the US, where unfavourable findings from drug evaluations were suppressed by companies in order to gain federal approval for use.
However, other groups also exert their power within the research process. Power operates in complex ways and researchers also have to accept responsibility for the ways in which they control and shape the research process. The questions that are asked, the way they are asked and the people chosen to be research respondents or participants all influence what is learned. The respondents and participants also have some control over what is said and their level of participation, and ethical research should always allow them to stop taking part at any time, including, where possible, the retraction of any information already given.
What do you think about power and control in research?
- Is it fair that the people who pay for the research have a say in it?
- Would you prefer for all research to be independent?
- What differences might funder control or researcher independence make to the development of research knowledge?
Gatekeepers: controlling access
Another source of control is the group known as 'research gatekeepers'. Gatekeepers are those who are in a position to permit or deny researchers access to particular individuals or groups. They hold power over where research can take place and with whom. They may be parents making the decision on behalf of a child, or professionals who can provide initial access to service users or other practitioners who might want to take part in the research.
Organisations are, in effect, gatekeepers, and it is important to understand the reasons why they will or will not 'open the gate' for research. Some of the concerns they may express include that:
- information held is confidential
- they consider that service users are too vulnerable to give informed consent and need protection
- enabling research will take up staff time
- the research will not be valuable to them.
A concern which largely goes unexpressed, but which researchers remain aware of, is the worry about what respondents might say about their care, an organisation or individuals and practices within it.
Organisations recognise the power which comes from being a gatekeeper to a desired set of research data or contacts. An organisation may have its own research agenda or policy towards research, and any proposal from a researcher may have to fit into this context to be accepted. An organisation may wish to influence the research, including:
- the aims and structure of the project
- the method
- the location or participants
- the report arising from the research.
Power and interpreting findings
Finally, it is important to recognise that there is an element of power within the process of interpretation of research results by both researchers and funders. This process has been criticised, especially by feminist researchers and those from the service user movement, as a way of controlling the information: what is said, by whom and in what ways. For example, feminist commentators have pointed out that research findings from groups of men were often used to describe the experiences of women (Stanley and Wise 1993). Jenny Morris (1991) has made similar criticisms of the effects of research on disabled people. Other researchers who have worked in emancipatory research describe how a dominant view can override service users' own perspectives. For example, Colin Barnes discusses the ways in which a view of disability as based solely on impairment ignores the disabling nature of mainstream society (Barnes 2003, 2004).
Consider your own position as an interpreter of research findings.
- Do you look at the participants, research methods and findings from a certain perspective?
- Can you spot theoretical frameworks such as feminism or radicalism in the author's interpretations?
- Do you ever disagree with the way a researcher has interpreted a participant's replies? How would you have done it?
The section Making sense of research gives you more clues about how to identify this sort of bias or misrepresentation of research findings. In Finding research we discuss the range of research and data you may find in your search to further your understanding and knowledge.