‘The social worker as a social scientist’: the dilemma of juggling research and practice

Rhian Taylor undertook a social work research project alongside her practice. Here's what she learnt from the experience...

Person studying
Photo: Jeff Brackler/Rex Features

by Rhian Taylor, lecturer in social work at Kent University

In his review of social work education, Professor David Croisdale-Appleby describes three roles for social workers; the role of the practitioner, professional and social scientist. While it’s easy for all social workers to relate to the first two roles, what about the third – the social worker as a social scientist?

Croisdale-Appleby describes this role as one where social workers not only use theory and evidence in their practice but are also engaged in the process of research. But how common is it for a practitioner to engage in research and does this make the social worker as a social scientist vision unrealistic?

Putting the conviction into practice

As a social worker who has always believed in the need to engage with evidence and research I wanted to put this conviction into practice. So in 2013, while I was working as a practice manager in a statutory team, I decided to take on a small scale qualitative research project.

I was concerned that the increased focus on processes and bureaucracy in my organisation was having a significant impact on the levels of reflection in supervision and I wanted to find out practitioners’ views of this. Looking back I still don’t know if I was being brave, or being foolish. Probably both.

Time pressures

The key difficulty in trying to carry out a research project alongside your practice is time. Despite working part-time I still found it incredibly difficult to find enough time to feel that I was properly prepared.

Had I done enough background reading to begin to put together my interviews? Were my research skills good enough to even embark on the initiative? I had a constant sense that I was winging it. Yet I knew that if I waited until I ‘felt ready’ I would probably not do it all, and maybe something imperfect is better than doing nothing.

There are also many advantages to carrying out research when you are practitioner. As I worked for a large local authority I had contacts, and consequently access within the agency which made some of the preparatory connections so much easier. The issues were also really live for me and I think I had an insight into some of the tensions of what I was exploring which may not have been so obvious to an external academic or researcher. The downside of being internal to the organisation meant that there were really complex ethical considerations, especially around confidentially and objectivity.

The highs and lows of the process

I made a lot of mistakes when conducting my interviews, but essentially the process was a joy. As a manager I felt I spent a lot of time listening to my staff but doing the interviews made me realise how my listening was so frequently influenced by management concerns and agendas. In my research interviews I could really listen. I not only heard people talk about concerns about practice but I also heard practitioners really passionate about their work with young people. It was inspiring.

The great thing about research as a practitioner is that you are in a position to do something about your findings. I was fortunate to have responsive senior managers and when I fed back some of my research data to a senior team I was able to set up a working group to look at our supervision policy. This group ended up making recommendations to the organisation as a whole, suggesting the implementation of a new model of supervision which would integrate a more reflective approach.

Compromises and tensions

I don’t want this to make it sound easy. In fact there were many compromises. Academic processes seem to move slowly, whilst practice changes quickly.  This was a constant tension. Waiting for research permissions seem to take forever, yet I had a limited timescale to complete my research. Towards the end of the project I had to pull together my preliminary data for senior managers very quickly as there was a key meeting pending about supervision. It felt another compromise, however, organisations don’t wait forever and I also needed to think politically and strategically if I wanted my research to have an impact.

I hope this account acts as an encouragement to practitioners to think about conducting research, yet as I write this I know that this is probably an unrealistic aim. I was lucky; I was part-time.  There is no way I could have done my project if I had been on a full-time contract.

In January of this year I was fortunate in being part of a round table discussion with Professor Croisdale-Appleby about his report. I asked him about the barriers to social workers engaging in research. It was an interesting discussion and he seemed to acknowledge that most organisational settings in social work do not currently encourage a research culture.

He made comparisons with medicine, where research and teaching seem effectively built into an overall structure for doctors’ ongoing career progression. However, this will be difficult to replicate in social work. Medicine, as a profession, has much greater status and access to financial resources than social work and it will take resources to prioritise research.

Resources will be needed for practitioners to be given time to conduct research within their organisation, or alternatively funding will be needed to facilitate joint projects between local authorities and universities. In a time of austerity, facilitating social workers to become social scientists is not going to be easy.

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