What do we know?

“Better knowledge for better practice” is the credo of the
Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie). But what do we mean by
knowledge? In 2002, Scie commissioned a project to explore the
published social care knowledge base. The project’s first aim was
to identify the major types of knowledge, and develop a way of
classifying them that would be useful to those searching for
answers to policy and practice questions.

The sources of knowledge

The project chose a method of classification which evaluated
knowledge according to the source from which it comes.1
There were five classifications:

  • Organisational knowledge. Gained from the
    management and governance of social care. Examples include manuals,
    codes of practice and inspection reports.
  • Practitioner knowledge. Gained from social
    care practice. Here the project referred to practice wisdom that is
    written down, for instance in journals.
  • Policy community knowledge. Gained from the
    wider policy environment including professional bodies, think-tanks
    and experts. Examples range from manifestos and green papers to
    “think pieces”.
  • Research knowledge. This is systematically
    gathered using a pre-determined design. Universities are a major
    source, but research knowledge is also produced by government,
    charities and independent research bodies. Academic journals are
    the major vehicle, but research knowledge is also disseminated in
    reports and books.
  • User knowledge. Gained from experience of
    using services. Sources can include consultation exercises,
    lobbying documents from user groups, and reports of projects
    involving users and carers.

This classification is a useful antidote to people’s tendency to
value knowledge from their own areas more highly than that of
others. Practitioners value the experience of other practitioners,
researchers turn first to the work of colleagues and so on. This
classification, by placing the major sources of knowledge side by
side, alerts everyone to the possibility that others may have
something useful to contribute.

Take, for example, the question “what works?”. Policy makers and
practitioners are encouraged to look to research knowledge for
answers. However, practitioner and user knowledge can provide a
vital extra dimension, which helps to put research knowledge into a
real world context. Other questions point to combinations of
knowledge. For example, ‘What must I do?’ is usually satisfied by
organisational knowledge, but practitioner and research knowledge
can contribute invaluable insights into the implications.

The quality of knowledge

A classification that encourages policy-makers and practitioners to
look widely for answers needs to be complemented by ways of judging
the quality of information.

The second major task of the project was to develop quality
standards. It devised a set of generic standards that can be
applied across all five sources of knowledge. These ask whether
research is open to scrutiny, well grounded, fit for the purpose
intended, legal and ethical, accessible and specific to the use it
is being put to.

These questions reflect a key message from the team’s work: that
standards do not replace judgement. They are not a checklist
against which to accept or reject particular bits of knowledge, but
a reference point for judgements and a context within which to
explain why and how judgements are made.

Much remains to be done to develop workable standards for judging
knowledge, not just across the board, but within each source. The
project has already begun to test the standards on pieces of
knowledge from different sources. Scie will be taking this work
forward in the coming years, in partnership with the social care

Lesley Grayson and Annette Boaz are researchers, ESRC
Centre for Evidence Based Policy and Practice at Queen Mary,
University of London. For further details of the project contact
the centre at

or Scie at


1 This model is based on J
Hudson, “A model of professional knowledge for social work”,
Australian Social Work, 50 (3), 1997

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