Where morality meets mess but snubs empiricism

Journal of Social Work - Qualitative Social Work

October 24, 2003

Hidden away in an early issue of the Journal of Social Work ( JSW ) is this comment by Eileen Gambrill on the problem of evaluating the quality of output of an academic social work department: "Popularity and number of presentations and publications are not necessarily a good guide to high-quality work." The same cautionary note can be sounded at the arrival of these two well-produced journals. The volume of material emerging from academic keyboards continues to grow, but its quality and relevance for practice or teaching is variable.

Gambrill, an American professor, is commenting on her time as an international adviser to the research assessment exercise panel -an experience that left her unimpressed. Her insider's account of her persistent attempts to identify the criteria employed by the RAE panel provides an entertaining aside. But a related and more serious point emerges from a review of JSW and of Qualitative Social Work ( QSW ). Whatever their editorial quality, they have not come into existence primarily because of a huge backlog of UK-based empirical research material in the field. Of the 48 articles considered in JSW , 15 are the result of original empirical work -eight of them from the UK. Of the 43 papers considered in QSW , 16 can be said to present new research findings -but only four of them are reports of research carried out in the UK.

Two-thirds of the contents, therefore, can be variously described as think-pieces, conceptual analyses, explorations of theory or philosophy, secondary research reviews (though none is a systematic review) and - especially in QSW - methodological explorations.

JSW proclaims the breadth of its approach (compared with other new social work journals that, the editor says, "have tended to focus on one specialised aspect of practice"). Its initial strength lies in its attraction of heavyweight contributors to debates about the theory of social work and the nature of knowledge (Malcolm Payne, William J. Reid, Peter Beresford and Suzy Croft, Ian Butler and Mark Drakeford) but it has begun to focus more on practice topics similar to those found in the profession's flagship publication, British Journal of Social Work: gender, residential childcare, training, the law and vulnerable adults, disability, poverty and violence in social care.

QSW has both a broad and a specialised focus: it is broad in that, like JSW , it covers all aspects of social work activity, but it is specialised in its methodological focus. Its title presents a problem (the editors would probably call it "a challenge") in that the bulk of the writing is drawn from qualitative research methods, and any reader of the journal will be right to assume that those methods are the primary interest of most of those who have written for it. The editors, however, emphasise their equal commitment to a focus on qualitative social work practice, but there is a definitional problem with this. The idea of a qualitative approach to practice can, in other spheres, tend towards the counselling end of the spectrum, but the practice approach reflected in much of QSW is predictably more political and generally reflects critical, radical or feminist perspectives.

One particular tension is apparent in some of the QSW material, and it is epitomised by the article produced for the journal by the qualitative methods guru Norman Denzin. When people do critical research on social work -especially from a sociological perspective -it is all too easy for them to ignore the complex realities of a social organisation. But when people (even if they themselves are sociologically trained) do research "from the inside", as Andrew Pithouse did in his excellent account of life on the ground in a social services department office, Social Work: The Social Organisation of an Invisible Trade (1987), they try to deal with the messy compromises and the in-house deals that are as much a part of qualitative reality as the moral or political imperatives that often drive the ideological thinking of critical theorists.

In a sense, the problem for qualitative methods researchers -ironically, given their motivation to reject positivist methodologies -is to ensure that they don't take sides. Denzin spells out the conundrum: "All inquiry reflects the standpoint of the inquirer", and his own paper reveals a man of very strong views. But if that is so, why bother to "inquire" at all.

There must always be a commitment made by the researcher (or the critical analyst) to employ methodology, of whatever kind, in such a way that it maximises openness and neutrality. Whether testing a hypothesis or asking "What is going on here?", a cardinal principle for professional research lies in its willingness to prove or to discover that what you once thought was right is wrong. That is the difference between empirical inquiry and evangelism.

That takes us back to the nature of knowledge as explored in JSW - and to a final thought. While the healthcare professions (for the most part) are comfortable with their role and function and are able to see research as offering a way of improving their performance and the end-product, many of the contributors to these journals view research as a way of exploring social work's role in society or of changing the nature of society itself:

"Social work researchers can show members of the underclass how to find their own cultural homes within the shifting oppressive structures of global and local capitalism" ( QSW ).

As Carole Smith says: "If we academics want to get anywhere near influencing, let alone transforming social work, we will first have to render our internal debates intelligible to others and we will then have to ensure that what we want to say has some relevance to the material context of social work practice" ( JSW ).

Martin Davies is emeritus professor of social work, University of East Anglia.

Journal of Social Work

Editor - Steven Shardlow
Publisher - Sage, three times a year
Price - Institutions £219.00 Individuals £38.00
ISSN - 1468 0173

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