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Theorising research

The increasing focus in social care, in the criminal justice system and in health care on Effectiveness and What Works has led to extended debates about the nature of social work research, its relationship to social work theory and the extent to which 'scientific' research using random control groups to test different methodologies represents a model of research to which the social work profession should aspire. Alternative views suggest that social work is too complex and imprecise for such approaches to provide many useful results and that more experiential and knowledge based approaches are needed to do justice to the subject area, particularly in relation to feminist, anti-racist and other perspectives.

A significant contribution to the debate is the ESRC funded seminars in 1999 and 2000 on Theorising Social Work. The six seminars covered:

  1. Social work: What kinds of knowledge?
  2. Who owns the research process?
  3. Doctoral and advanced studies in social work
  4. Researching social work as a means of social inclusion
  5. What works as evidence for practice? The methodological repertoire in an applied discipline
  6. Researching the social work process

The debate about the nature of social work research is an interesting and important one, but practitioners seeking ways of improving their research awareness are likely to be interested in all forms of research that can help them improve their understanding and practice. For those wishing to explore these issues further, the following references provide some starting points:


Archer, J. L. and Whitaker, D. S. (1989) 'Engaging Practitioners in Formulating Research Purposes', Social Work Education 8 (2), Spring, 29-37.

Broad, B., (ed) (1999) The Politics of Social Work Research and Evaluation. Birmingham, Venture Press.

Everitt A, Hardiker P, Littlewood J. and Mullender A. (1992) Applied Research for Better Practice. BASW Practical Social Work Series.

Dominelli, L. and McLeod, E. (1989) Feminist Social Work. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Habermas L. (1974) Theory and practice. London, Heinmann.

Hagel A. (1998) Dangerous care: reviewing the risks to children from their carers, Policy Studies Institute & The Bridge.

Neilsen, J. M. (ed) (1990) Feminist Research Methods: Exemplary Readings in the Social Sciences, Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press.

Pawson R, Boaz A., Grayson L., Long A. and Barnes C. Knowledge review: Types and quality of knowledge in social care Social Care Institue of Excellence (SCIE)

Popjay J, and Roen, K. Knowledge Review: Using evidence from diverse research designs Social Care Institue of Excellence (SCIE)

Sainsbury E. (1985) 'Client Studies: their contribution and limitations in influencing social work practice', British Journal of Social Work, 17, (6) 635-644.

Sheldon B. (2000) Prospects for Evidence Based Social Care: An Empirical Study, Centre for Evidence Based Social Services. University of Exeter.

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