Knowledge, research and practice: using reflection to connect the triad
Although we can clearly state that research sets out to contribute to knowledge, understanding what is meant by 'knowledge' with regard to practice is a more contentious subject. This is because knowledge can be generated in different ways, by different sources, and for different purposes. Pawson et al. (2003) classified knowledge by source, stating that its focus and purpose changed depending on whether the knowledge came from:
- an organisational base
- a practitioner viewpoint
- service users and carers
- the policy community.
Similarly, Plath (2006) demonstrated that practitioner knowledge within social work and social care was shaped by the complexity of the field and each individual context, and could be difficult to quantify. Practitioner knowledge also arises from theoretical perspectives and from the value base in which social care services are situated.
Social work research has drawn from a range of related social science disciplines which may have specific kinds of knowledge associated with them, including psychology, health, social policy, sociology and law. In health-related research, a hierarchical approach to the usefulness of different kinds of knowledge as evidence has arisen. This means that evidence that comes from statistical analysis of quantitative studies has been seen as stronger than research that uses smaller-scale qualitative studies to look for meaning and processes through interpretive methods. However, both kinds of research have their strengths for social work, and Dodd and Epstein (2012: 17) propose a 'wheel of evidence' which places these different approaches in equal positions to each other, to replace the hierarchical approach. The dilemma for the practitioner who wishes to practise in a research-minded way has been to link their existing knowledge of the field with new knowledge based in research, and convert this into the ways that practice takes place.
When consulted about research mindedness, practitioners cite a wide range of factors that act as real barriers to the integration of knowledge and practice. These are:
- Theoretical - what knowledge counts?
- Logistical - how do you gain access to it?
- Practical - what do you do with it?
Constraints to research mindedness cited by practitioners in a project sponsored by CCETSW London and SE
- Lack of confidence in interpreting and evaluating research
- Difficulty in keeping up with the volume of research
- Difficulty in accessing research literature within the organisation
- Absence of research culture within the organisation
- Low status accorded to undertaking/updating research compared to other work
- No time allocation for practitioner research
- Research being associated with a positivist paradigm which many practitioners view as incongruous with anti-discriminatory practice
- Increased procedural and managerial control over day-to-day practice gives little encouragement to innovative and potentially challenging research mindedness in practitioners
- Research is seen as something done by experts
- Previous research studies have alienated social work practitioners
- Difficulty in relating research findings to individual service users' lives
- Small practitioner research studies are undervalued in organisations relative to larger quantitative studies
While the logistics of accessing research is addressed here in Finding research, theoretical and practical issues are also fundamental to working in a research-minded way. An understanding of the different kinds of knowledge helps to clarify whether a research project 'counts' in relation to the practice problem being explored. A link can then be established between existing theoretical, practice knowledge and research knowledge, using the practitioner's own abilities to critically reflect within their context of practice. From this, evidence-informed choices can be made. Critical reflection maintains a continuous loop in which knowledge is built, considered, put into place and feeds back into new theories or findings from research.
Inevitably, discussion about research mindedness in social work cannot be separated from its social and political context. Keeping in mind the question 'Who is the research for?' is central to ensuring that the interests of service users are recognised. At a time of continuing change in social work and social care, it is imperative that research mindedness, as a way of being and acting for those working in the field, is allied with explicit values of social justice and inclusion.