Research into practice

There’s a lot of it about. The most conservative of estimates convinces us that at the moment you read this, there are well over a thousand active practitioner research projects in England and Wales alone. It is quite possible that at any one time there are more practitioner research projects than conventional academic social care research projects

Yet it often seems fairly invisible. After all, it is not usually the results of practitioner research that networks like Research in Practice, the Centre for Evidence Based Social Services Research, or Making Research Count spend time and effort disseminating.

Practitioner research – research that is small-scale, local, grounded in practical concerns, and set up and carried out by social care practitioners or managers – is highly diverse. Probably more than half of all such projects are “practitioner owned” and carried out in connection with a higher education qualification, but many are initiated and owned by agencies, usually without any higher education connection.

Leaving aside the motive of gaining a postgraduate qualification, why do it? A study of practitioner research in social care in south-east Wales suggests there are several crunch issues.1 For instance:

  • There was little evidence that users were involved in practitioner research.
  • Practitioner researchers tended to take a somewhat ambivalent position in relation to research methodology. This can lead to a dependence on the advice of others and even a partial abdication of responsibility for methods. This could undermine the validity of the results of some projects.
  • Projects that work well are often those that enjoy a variety of supporting and shaping influences. Yet for some, the individualism of the research project is what drives them.
  • With regard to making use of the findings, there was often a sense of disappointed hopes.
  • Most practitioner research probably depends for its health and well-being on a certain passion about the research problem and its solution.

We should not be pessimistic about the value and future of practitioner research, although change for the better cannot be achieved by simply saying so. For example, despite a rich diversity of projects, practitioner research would benefit from greater stakeholder involvement. This could take the form of inter-agency and cross-sector partnerships; the use of data from more than one agency in the same project; and a “bigger” research strategy through planned links between projects. It could further benefit from collaboration between researchers; the availability of computer assisted data-analysis (which is not pie in the sky as teacher researchers have the opportunity to gain training in data analysis for qualitative and quantitative data analysis through the ESRC-funded research capacity building network); selective published findings from projects; and appropriate use of project results.

We would like any steps taken to include:

  • Keeping and encouraging the present diversity in practitioner research.
  • The development of a practitioner research bursary system, similar to the one that exists for teachers.
  • Higher education institutions developing procedures that encourage collaborative projects with service users for postgraduate dissertations.
  • Practitioners collaborating through local practitioner-led networks.

1 Ian Shaw, Simon Keane and Alex Faulkner, Practitioner Research in Social Care: A Survey and Case Study Analysis, unpublished, 2003

Simon Keane was the research associate working on the practitioner research project. Ian Shaw is head of social work, department of social policy and social work, University of York, e-mail:; Alex Faulkner is co-ordinator of the health & social care research support unit for south-east Wales, school of social sciences, Cardiff University, e-mail:

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