Social Workers and Social Work Research
Social work as a profession is widely recognized as having a commitment to social justice and social change, to go beyond merely conducting research about individuals, groups, communities, to designing studies with and for the individuals, groups, and communities being observed through social work research.
However, as social work sought (and continues to seek) to legitimize itself as a profession in the field of social sciences, evidence-based practice enters the discourse surrounding the work of the field more and more often.
Evidence-based practice is, of course, based on research, yet historically accepted forms of social science research are not focused on social change but on social understanding. Thus, social workers conducting research are left in a precarious position, attempting to gather empirical evidence to better inform our work, while acting within a value system promoting social transformation and empowerment of research participants.
Social Work Research Methodologies
Research methodologies within the social sciences can be categorized in a variety of ways, with researchers falling somewhere along a continuum of two extreme positions. For social work researchers, the continuum of proximity to our research “subjects,” is particularly salient, with participatory methodologies at one extreme and distanced methodologies at the other.
Some of the advantages and disadvantages of participatory research methods have been outlined in Participatory research, but here, we will further interrogate the potential dangers and complications of working in close proximity to one’s “subjects.”
Some of the advantages and disadvantages of participatory social work research have been outlined here, but we will further interrogate the potential dangers and complications of working in close proximity to one’s “subjects.”
In their aim to equalize and balance power in the research relationship, participatory methods ask a lot of participants, requiring them to play more active roles which take more of their time, commitment, energy, and sometimes, carries risks.
The researcher and the research project becomes dependent on the subjects to a great degree, as not only does the project’s fulfillment require their cooperation at the minimal level of consent to participate, the project depends upon the participants playing active roles and fulfilling intensive commitments as a part of the study design.
There is often pressure to emphasize the participants’ roles, which can lead to a tendency to exaggerate those roles and thereby, misrepresent the process. It often places participants in close proximity to one another, in ways that might not be desirable or convenient. It takes more time and less certainty in how the process will unfold and what outcomes will be produced.
Participatory Research is Complex
Participatory research is ethically complex. It is situational and contextual, and therefore, often lacks clear guidelines and must rely on practices of best judgment. Researcher and participants are in a constant state of negotiation and renegotiation of roles, struggling with power dynamics, effects of researcher presence, multi-layered relationships formed in the process, interpersonal issues, and ethical gray areas.
In becoming subjects of study, participants are asked to lay open their lives, to allow the presence of an outsider in private spaces, to trust a person and process previously unknown to them, to constantly adjust to the effects that the study will have on them during the research process and after it is completed, reported, published, and disseminated.
Researchers are unable to offer, in most cases, clear answers at the outset about how the research and its findings/reports will take shape, what benefits or consequences it might have, where and how it will be made available. Participatory methods create messy relationships in which researchers and subjects bond, leading to a host of potential problems – the researcher leaving and the subject’s loss of that relationship, the ulterior motive of the research within the relationship that might develop, emotions getting in the way of good research practices.
Participatory Research Has its Difficulties
Participatory methods create ethical quandaries to which there are no “right” answers. Participating with others in either of these roles is challenging, taxing, and emotionally exhausting. Sacrifices are made, over and over again, by participants and researchers alike, all in pursuit of the optimistic anticipation that the new knowledge uncovered or discoveries made will be meaningful, transformational, of value.
However, in participatory research, measuring change and proving impact is not clear-cut.
Not only can the researcher not always articulate and “prove” what positive change was made, the research design cannot benefit from clear evaluative principles that might inform the way it is carried out.
These challenges related to proving impact can create barriers to participant recruitment and often limits funding opportunities as well.
Conduct When Participating in Social Work Research
A great dissonance exists between the institutional procedures of research conduct, such as IRB review and funding applications that ask for measurable outcomes within specific time frames that are difficult for participatory researchers to establish.
But even with an ever-present cognizance of these disadvantages and complications, as a social worker and a feminist, I feel compelled to conduct research in participatory ways, to accept the rigors of participatory methods because they at least make concerted effort toward equitable, justice-based forms of investigation and discovery that attempt to de-academize research and knowledge creation and value the localized knowledge and personal expertise of the individual.
It is not research for research’s sake, only serving the interests of the researcher or “the field,” but instead insists on having a positive impact on those participating in the study.
Participatory methods seek to include multiple voices and perspectives in the research process, emphasizing the situatedness of knowledge and the identity politics and systemic structures at play in its production. It acknowledges hierarchical relationships and power in the researcher-subject dynamic and attempts to equalize them.
And although such power dynamics can never be totally neutralized, in the absence of that possibility, it interrogates and re-negotiates those dynamics, and provides a more in-depth look at participant’s realities and perspectives.
My Thoughts on Social Work Research as a Social Worker
I recognize the value of more objective or distanced forms of social work research, falling at the opposite end of the spectrum – the ability to work with very large sample sizes and even larger amounts of data, to generalize with some degree of validity the information gained, to establish quantifiable outcomes through the standardization and operationalization of variables, to offer a macro-level perspective applicable to greater amounts of people.
These research methodologies should not be discounted because social work as a field stands to benefit from more empirical forms of evidence that shape our practice.
But too often, those exceedingly objective ways of doing research are so far removed from the very people they study. They often lack local interpretation and involve a privileged researcher speaking for others, with no input from the research subjects. The researcher sees data, not humans, and isn’t obligated to consider the impact his findings, positive or negative, might have on his subjects. It reinforces the exclusivity of the academy and objectifies the research subject, replicating oppressive systems.
It is patronizing and de-valuing and cold. And while there is certainly more nuanced than this simplified description, for me, this is equivalent to harm, and at odds with social work values and goals.
How Social Workers Can Use Different Methods
Thus, social workers must seek ways to bridge and blend the two extremes in social work research. We have the opportunity to design mixed methods projects that recognize the advantages of disadvantages of both ends of the proximity to subjects spectrum but remain person-centered and strengths-based.
The objective and distance approach to research has, for too long, been considered the only “correct” way of conducting social science.
If we want to understand people, we must position ourselves not just as researchers, but as people occupying multiple roles and identities at once – as people interacting with other people in order to come to an understanding of their behaviors and actions, their attitudes and beliefs, their psyches and emotions, and the greater societal patterns and structures that shape their lives.