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Anti-oppressive perspectives

In social work and social care we are urged both to pay attention to 'evidence-based practice', to be reflective learners and practitioners and to see evaluation as an integral dimension to practice. Social work researchers who are concerned with social justice aim to develop an anti-discriminatory consciousness to conduct their research in anti-discriminatory ways. Such an attitude will inform every stage of the research process, from the conception of the research through the planning to the methods and reporting. There are a number of principles to keep in mind in conducting research in an anti-discriminatory way. Some of these are reiterations of what you have heard in other sections of this resource.

Tick Knowledge, especially for and about social life, is not produced in a vacuum - researchers and evaluators as knowledge producers are located within a complex set of social structures Their identities, motives and agendas will impact on the questions they ask, the methods they use and the conclusions they draw. Instead of an assumption of a neutral, objective stance, anti-discriminatory researchers need to be concerned with the moral and political questions that affect the lives of the people being researched, including understanding how the language of power, oppression and domination is used. This may lead them to reject some methods as incompatible with this stance.
Tick People who are the objects of research are often those in relatively powerless positions who have no control over how they are represented in research reports. As a result some research present people's experiences from the perspectives of dominant cultures and groups. Anti-discriminatory research will seek to develop methodologies that are respectful, ethical, sympathetic and authentic.
Tick Service users and other research participants, have a part to play in designing and taking part in investigations, rather than only 'being on the receiving end'. Where possible research should be a negotiated process between researchers and service users, including the interpretation of any findings.
Tick Anti-discriminatory research does not necessarily imply only qualitative methods. Truman's et. al (2000) survey of gay men's health needs, the aims and design of which were dictated by service users, is an example of a quantitative study that set out to apply anti-discriminatory principles.
Tick Social workers and others may be involved in research indirectly, by being asked to collect statistics and other information, which may be used for purposes they may not support (e.g. recording immigration status to be used to identify 'illegal' entrants). They and their unions need to ask how routinely recorded information is to be used.
Tick Data protection restrictions have helpfully ensured that information about service users cannot be used routinely for research or other purposes for which it was originally intended.

Anyone who aspires to do anti-discriminatory research should ask her/himself these critical questions:

  • Whose research is it?
  • Who owns it?
  • Whose interests does it serve?
  • Who will benefit from it?
  • Who has designed its questions and framed its scope?
  • Who will carry it out?
  • Who will write it up?
  • How will its results be disseminated?

If they can be answered with confidence, it is likely the study will be informed by anti-discriminatory research perspectives.

There is a need for practitioners to become research-minded - to research and evaluate their own interventions. The process of social work is as important as the outcomes. 'Evidence-based practice' was based on a scientific world view that depends on elements of practice being measurable, quantifiable and controllable. Approaches and methods should be suitable for an interactive profession concerned with personal change and social justice. Any anti-discriminatory research or evaluative strategy needs to challenge scientific and technocratic rationality in the construction of social problems and their solutions; to aim towards active participation in struggles for change; and towards an increase in the capacity and skills of dispossessed people to take action.

Some relevant reading

Disability, Handicap and Society, (1992). 7 (2). Special issue on emancipatory research.

Fuller,R. and Petch, A. (1995). Practitioner research. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Humphries, B. & Truman, C. (eds) (1994). Re-thinking Social Research: Anti-discriminatory Approaches in Research Methodology. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Shaw, I. and Lishman J. (1999). Evaluation and Social Work Practice. London: Sage.

Smith, L.T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies. London: Zed Books.

Truman, C., Mertens, D. M. and Humphries, B. (2000). Research and Inequality. London: UCL Press.

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