By Di Galpin, Andy Whiteford and Annastasia Maksymluk
Uncertainty is an inevitable aspect of social work practice, yet, the creation of certainty is a fundamental tendency of the human mind, and it is not just our perceptual system which automatically seeks to transform uncertainty into certainty. Government and wider society demand a high level of certainty from social workers, especially following high profile tragedies, and subsequent reports identifying ‘failings’ in practice.
As a response to such ‘failings’ the concept of ‘evidence-based practice’ (EBP) has proliferated in social work.
EBP is presented as a model of critical appraisal, designed to inform practice, where the practitioner has a relatively autonomous role in searching for, and critically analysing, research evidence to inform their decision making. The latest guidance on the refreshed Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) articulates this commitment and adds an additional expectation that social workers also generate ‘evidence’ to inform practice.
Whilst practitioners and educators strive to adhered to this principle it could be argued that the complexity associated with notions of EBP can be ignored at both a practical and philosophical level.
The role of subjectivity
Practitioners across allied professional groups are constantly called upon to manage uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity where there often seems to be a plurality of ways to understand what is happening in practice contexts.
From a philosophical perspective EBP appears to operate on modernist foundations, for example, seeking to adhere to methodological or analytic standards of rigour which demonstrate the reliability of a scientific approach, because this will provide clarity in establishing what is the ‘right’ knowledge by bringing together ideas into systematic, cohesive frameworks.
Within this approach the belief that by adopting it one can achieve a level of certainty is alluring, yet, arguably, unrealistic in social work practice, and indeed may lead practitioners into a false sense of security when making decisions based on EBP. Post-modernist frameworks are of benefit here to thinking about the multiple discourses at play in social work practices and understanding the dynamics between them – particularly concerning power.
This requires practitioner and academics to appreciate how objective knowledge is a contested concept which can lead to a fruitless search in complex situations for certainties that may not exist.
Peshkin (1988) provide an interesting perspective which extends and troubles the notion of objectivity by suggesting the ‘taboo’ of subjectivity stems from a misunderstanding of its potential role in EBP. It is our own subjective involvement in practice—not the precise replication of the event—which can provide strong theoretical insight.
However, we are somewhat conditioned as practitioners and academics to see subjectivity as a ‘contaminant’. Yet, subjectivity cannot be removed it – one can never get away from one self. As Alan Peshkin eloquently reminds us:
“Subjectivity is not a badge of honour, something earned like a merit badge and paraded around on special occasions for all to see. Whatever the substance of one’s persuasions at a given point, one’s subjectivity is like a garment that cannot be removed. It is insistently present in both the research and non-research aspects of our life. … our subjectivity lies inert, unexamined when it counts .”
This subjectivity shapes and mediates our thinking and action in a whole range of ways. Therefore, it needs to be understood. Instead of trying to remove the garment and declare ourselves clean of subjectivity, it is important to acknowledge it and deeply analyse the reasons why the practitioner has approached decision making in a particular manner.
Evidence-based versus organisational context
Research from Scandinavia suggests while practitioners support the notion of EBP as the analysis of research to inform practice, it is rarely applied in a conducive way to improve decision making.
This research found professional autonomy is not a given, suggesting the greatest barrier to practitioners engaging in EBP is the organisational context.
Five significant organisational issues were identified as impeding practitioners from adopting a more focused EBP approach:
- No access to databases where they can search for, and evaluate research
- Time constraints
- ‘Organisational logic’ (predictability) prioritised over a ‘logic of care’ (unpredictability)
- A focus on following organisational guidelines which aligns EBP with organisational logic to guide decision making
- Financial considerations taking priority over research findings to inform practice.
The research concludes whilst social workers were not content with the current approach to EBP, they felt incapable of challenging it.
Is EBP at odds with real work social work?
Regardless of whatever EBP might, or might not be, it appears practitioners are currently expected to work within a model of EBP which might be more accurately conceptualised as operational based practice, where professional decision making is centred on meeting organisational need.
From this perspective the production, and application, of ‘evidence’ is the product of deliberate, conscious human design, which is amenable to a whole host of organisational, ethical and political requirements. Evidence is not value-free and we need to ask what values and processes currently underpin the discourse that surrounds and shapes EBP in education, research and practice.
From a logic perspective EBP provides a neat linear model of deliberated decision making. However, social work is rarely a logical, or a linear activity, dealing as it does with often complex and chaotic human lives, lives where meaning is constructed by a variety of individuals, and subjected to structural and organisational filters that heavily influence the practice of decision makers and the lives of those they work with.
The notion of EBP has provided the profession, regulators, educators and government with a seemingly straightforward response to improving decision making in complex cases. But the structural realities of practice continue to be ignored, as do the structural inequalities that exist in many of the lives practitioners work with.
Di Galpin is a social work academic lead at the University of Plymouth, Andy Whiteford and Annastasia Maksymluk are lecturers in social work at the university