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Research for decision making

While there is a great deal of research that enhances understanding of the social environment and shapes your general or 'macro-level' approach to work with service users, there is far less that assists in decision making about how to approach particular types of cases or deal with individual situations. There are two basic reasons:

  • real life situations are so complex and diverse that although research may be relevant, it rarely matches precisely the situation you are dealing with and the differences may be crucial. Research works by aggregating cases or by exploring individual situations that are by definition unique.
  • research is usually about patterns of behaviour and responses that indicate probabilities in particular situations but this cannot be precise about the outcome of a particular situation. For example research that identifies factors that are associated with physical or sexual abuse, or neglect, can alert you to the dangers in a particular situation, and can help you assess the likelihood of abuse. However it cannot tell you if abuse has occurred in the actual case you are dealing with.

Within these limitations research has a crucial role to play both in shaping the way in which deal with cases at a 'meso-level', and in the finer 'micro-level' detail of interventions.

Pyramid with Meso highlightedMeso-level decision making

Examples of a meso-level approach would be to look at research about how people deal with bereavement and how understanding of those processes can be translated into effective counselling and practical help for people, including children, who have been bereaved. While each person's situation and response is unique there are clear patterns in and stages of natural bereavement processes that need to be understood, together with awareness of the problems that arise if bereavement processes are suppressed. Research may show that there are serious mismatches between the actual needs involved and the frequent social expectations to suppress grief, or at best to curtail it.

There are many areas of social need where existing knowledge and understanding of the issues involved and appropriate interventions is limited. It is perhaps as easy to underestimate the extent of your knowledge as it is tempting and dangerous to overestimate it. There are areas such as child abuse where research knowledge about the factors involved and the danger signs are much greater, even if knowledge about best responses remains uncertain or contradictory and subject to external pressures and demands.

Graphical Text: The answer's Prozac, now what's the problem?

It can be argued that social work's ability to assess and understand problems is better that it's ability to apply effective solutions. Mental illness is an area where sometimes research based solutions, or apparent solutions, can be ahead of wider understanding. Knowledge of the effectiveness of anti-depressant or psychotropic (mood-altering) drugs is often ahead of knowledge about how they work and their long-term influence. Treatments such as Electro-Convulsive Therapies(ECT), although largely discredited nowadays, were historically justified by some evidence of effectiveness in relation to other available treatments, accompanied by ignorance of how it worked.

Pyramid with Micro highlightedMicro level decision making

As identified earlier, research cannot provide the answers to how to work with a particular individuals, families or groups. However it can give many pointers to questions to ask and signs to look for. For example research about the incidence of child neglect as opposed to child abuse can help increase sensitivity and awareness of the possibility of child neglect in cases you are dealing with. Similarly probation officers who are aware that over 50% of their clients are likely to have an identifiable functional literacy problem are more like to identify literacy problems than others who are less aware.

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