Being a Social Worker: The Effectiveness of Intervention
Social work as a profession originated from women’s social service work with marginalized populations, the settlement house movement, and other forms of reciprocal community benefit programs. Being a social worker has its challengings and one big one can be proving intervention effectiveness.
However, as the social work field evolved and became “legitimized” as a profession and an academic discipline, it became closely tied to empirical theories of psychology and human development, that remain an important foundation for much clinical social work practice and study today.
The contemporary legacy of this historical “legitimization” process is the push for evidence-based practice that moves the field away from its community-based roots.
Of course, it is sensible to ground our work in proven methods and continue to conduct research to see what treatment and intervention strategies might be most effective with certain populations.
We aim to rely on evidence gathered to inform our current practice as we collect more evidence to shape our future practice – evidence-based practice in the field of social work has obvious benefits.
However, we must also use our professional judgment and collaborative relationships with clients to guide our work, being careful not to rely too heavily on empirical data and evidence-based strategies that are not as clear-cut as they might first appear.
Social Work is Evidenced Based
Much evidence-based research in the social sciences is based on observational, rather than controlled experimental data. While in the field of social work, and especially psychology, controlled experimental study designs are sometimes carried out, the majority of articles published in social work journals rely on observational data to state their claims.
Many of these claims are causal claims, attempting to meet funding agency’s demands for evidence-based practice, proof of program impact, and outcomes-based measures. That is, researchers claim a cause and effect relationship by stating that the specific treatment, intervention strategy, or community program caused a desired/positive effect.
While it seems a normal line of human inquiry to ask why, or what caused a specific event, situation or phenomena to come about, claims that seek to establish cause-effect relationships are problematic for a number of reasons.
When a limitless number of potentially impactful factors are at play, proving a direct cause and effect relationship is not as easy as one might think.
In order for causal claims to be taken as true when using observational data, extreme assumptions must be made, ignoring those factors outside of the variables being studied. For example, let’s say I were researching the effectiveness of an after-school program and wanted to be able to claim that this program has a positive effect on students’ school performance as measured by grades.
It might seem too obvious to collect the necessary data and analyze it to see if students participating in the program have higher grades. If the data does reveal a correlation between program participation and higher grades, it might be stated that the program causes higher grades.
This is, however, not necessarily the case. Any number of external factors that are not the after-school program could be affecting students’ grades – socioeconomic status, learning style, parental availability to assist with homework, etc.
In attempting to claim a unidirectional causal relationship between the after-school program and student grades, a complex of array factors is disregarded – at odds with the social work “person-in-environment” perspective.
Difficulties When Creating Relationships
Aside from this glaring issue, there is a host of subtle statistical and conceptual difficulties in establishing causal relationships that are quite mathematically complex, such as sample selection bias, bounds for treatment effects, and regression continuity.
While it would take pages upon pages to explain these erroneous complications in detail, suffice to say that each of them causes spurious correlations – a correlational relationship between variables that does not imply a causal relationship.
While various mathematical and research design methodology alternatives exist to minimize such problems, the inherent trouble of causal relationships cannot be fully eradicated. Causal claims remain problematic.
Social Work Takes an Ecological Systems Approach
When working with any client system, the social work profession takes an ecological systems approach that acknowledges the variety of systems that an individual interacts with on a daily basis, as well as a biopsychosocial view that recognizes the internal factors that come to bear on a client’s functioning.
We cannot control for all of those systems and factors in collecting and analyzing data to prove the value or efficacy of social work interventions. But we can conduct research that shows correlation, combined with qualitative interpretations, that will be of great support to evidence-based practice.
And we can conduct critical readings of studies and research reports that interrogate causal claims. We must recognize that correlation is accurate and sufficient, while causation is fictional.
While we are unable to prove that a treatment caused a person’s recovery, we can consider that it was a contributing factor. While we cannot claim that a cultural identity project caused greater group cohesion, we can consider that it was of support in that process.