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About this book

Students of social work need to understand the contribution of research, as part of this evidence base, to effective practice. This textbook introduces students to a range of research methods at a practical level and sensitises them to the political dimension of research.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction: research as contentious

Abstract
This is a book about research methods for social work and social care practice. The emphasis on the need for students to understand research approaches and for practitioners to be ‘research-minded’ is an important development for the profession and one to be welcomed. The book is intended as a practical contribution both in enhancing awareness of studies that inform practice and in offering tools to those who conduct their own studies. There are a number of good books on research methods that are used widely on training courses (see, for example, Bell, 1993; Denscombe, 2003; Mark, 1996; Royse, 2003; Sheppard, 2004) and that offer detailed practical instructions for conducting research projects. I have resisted the temptation to write another text that is solely a ‘how-to-do-it’ manual, because no human activity is uninfluenced by particular ways of viewing the world, and research no less than any other activity is always in the interests of some social group or other. It is as well to acknowledge that at the outset, and to declare what this means for the rest of the book.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 2. Ethical research and social justice

Abstract
In the view of this author ethical research practice and social justice are intertwined. This is not a widely held view and will be regarded by some as contradictory, especially those who hold that ethical research strives to be objective, neutral and as far as possible uninfluenced by the views of the researcher. In this opinion, to attempt to set ethical research in a framework of social justice is to impose a particular set of values on research practice, risking distortion of the design, the process and the findings. I take the contrary position that all research (and codes of ethics) is influenced by values of one sort or another, as I discussed in Chapter 1, and what is important is that these are declared and made available for examination. I also argue that a research goal of social justice is a legitimate one, given that social work is universally committed to working towards justice — ‘principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work’ (IFSW/IASSW, 2005, p. 10) — and it would be rather odd if this applied to all social work activity except research.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 3. Experimental ways of knowing

Abstract
Experimental approaches to research are at the opposite end of the paradigm and methodology spectrum from participatory research, discussed in the next chapter. They are generally considered to be the method of the social sciences, and have had a big influence on the evidence-based practice movement and the push towards ‘what works?’ as discussed in Chapter 1. This chapter introduces the basics of this approach and its influence on research in social work. It considers some of the methods used to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions designed to change behaviour. These methods include both quantitative and qualitative approaches that are derived from the experimental method. Overall there has been a negative reaction towards experimental methods in social work (see, for example, Butler and Pugh, 2004; Humphries, 2003; Jordan, 2000), reflecting a longer critique from the 1960s that questioned their suitability for research with human subjects, particularly from interactionists, phenomenologists and feminists. In addition, the Thatcher government was antagonistic to social science research generally (as was the Reagan administration in the USA), reflecting a shift away from government intervention in social problems (Kirkpatrick, 1984), and research funding was cut.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 4. Participatory research

Abstract
Research approaches that emphasize participation (known both as ‘participatory’ and ‘participative’) have gained currency in recent decades, and converts range from small users’ agencies to United Nations organizations. Governments in a number of countries now insist that participation of service users must be a central aim of research as well as the planning and delivery of services. At the same time however, as observed in Chapter 2, research ethics committees often operate on assumptions that do not recognize the democratic participation of service users, leading some authors (for example Truman, 2003) to question the appropriateness of criteria used by such committees in making judgements about participatory research.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 5. Action research

Abstract
Action research has been an attractive option for health and social care workers because the name conveys a sense of things happening immediately and therefore speaks to the practical and change-oriented nature of social work, rather than ‘scientific’ research as discussed in Chapter 3, which may often aim to gather knowledge without creating changes. Indeed ‘pure’ research may be explicit in its desire to ‘disturb nothing’ as an element of ethical research practice. An objective, detached view of the research problem in order to explain it is at the heart of the scientific method. ‘Action research’ appeals because it implies engagement with the social world and empowerment for relatively powerless people — the changes that take place in the course of the research are bound to be in the interests of ‘the researched’. One of the founders of action research, Kurt Lewin (1948), set out explicitly to change the life chances of disadvantaged groups, and an underlying principle of the approach is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 6. Case study research

Abstract
As with a number of approaches considered in this book, case study research is not a method per se, but is an attempt to study a phenomenon in depth, using a whole range of approaches. It is associated with both realist and constructivist paradigms, the former believing that there are cases ‘out there’ that can be captured by empirical inquiry and the latter believing that cases are the constructs of researchers and/or research participants (see Chapter 1 and Platt, 1992a for an exploration of these beliefs). This chapter will deal mainly with case studies as they are commonly understood and used within a constructivist paradigm, using qualitative methods, since they are often the main form of inquiry in qualitative studies. The case study assumes that things may not be as they seem and privileges in-depth inquiry over coverage: understanding ‘the case’ rather than generalizing to a population at large (Stark and Torrance, 2005, p. 33)
Beth Humphries

Chapter 7. Critical social research

Abstract
Critical social research is, like the other approaches discussed in this book, a distinctive approach to studying social life, drawing on specific beliefs about the world and how it operates. The conventional notion of scientific research has been underpinned by an assumption that what is shared across disciplines is a similar scientific method and uniform standards that can be applied across the scientific community. This has been unsettled by critical research that regards the ‘scientific method’ based on positivist concepts as unsatisfactory because it deals only with what can be observed ‘objectively’ and does not locate social phenomena in their historical and political context. It asks awkward questions about the social interests served, masked or denied by research as well as other practices. Critical social research is grounded in critical theory, and this requires some explanation. As Nancy Fraser has said:
A critical social theory frames its research program and its conceptual framework with an eye to the aims and activities of those oppositional social movements with which it has a partisan, though not uncritical identification. The questions it asks and the models it designs are informed by that identification and interest. (Fraser, 1989, p. 113)
Beth Humphries

Chapter 8. Discourse analysis

Abstract
As with other research methods, discourse analysis consists of a number of approaches to research, with different assumptions and emphasizing different theoretical positionings. Some versions of it have been used very effectively in critical research approaches, as we shall see later in the chapter. Taylor (2001) describes the approach broadly as ‘the close study of language in use’ (p. 5). Weatherell, Taylor and Yates (2001a) describe it as ‘the study of talk and texts … a set of methods and theories for investigating language in use and language in social contexts … it offers routes into the study of meanings’ (p. i). It has developed over the past twenty years or so, reflecting changing views and conceptualizations of communication, culture and language, especially the question of whether language conveys a reality or representations of reality. In this respect discourse analytic research rejects a view of language as only a way of transmitting meaning from one person to another, as a transparent, neutral, information-carrying vehicle. Rather discourse analysis sees language as constitutive — as actually creating, negotiating and changing meaning. It is not a static system but is located in ongoing interaction involving competing attempts to fix meaning and pin it down once and for all. The study of discourse, therefore, confronts debates about what constitutes reality and ‘truth’, what are social problems and solutions and what is ‘real’, and about the very nature of meaning.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 9. Ethnographic research

Abstract
Ethnography is concerned with writing about and describing cultures. Ethnographic approaches to research take the view that an appropriate way to understand the social world is to take an insider’s view in an attempt to understand other people’s world-view, and to study the meanings that people attribute to events and actions. The way to do this is in naturalistic settings, in being close to people going about their daily business. In this sense it is located within a constructivist paradigm. A key method is participant observation, where the researcher attempts to saturate herself/himself in the culture and the world of those researched, either overtly or covertly, and to record the realities of those involved in this world. This is in direct opposition to the rules of the physical sciences, where the researcher must control the environment in order to study relationships among variables, and where s/he remains distant with a view to maintaining objectivity. Instead ethnography acknowledges that all research has an impact on its subjects and the ways in which they construct their reality, and can never have a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective. For this reason the notion of reflexivity (as discussed in Chapter 1) is central to ethnographic research.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 10. Social surveys

Abstract
Surveys as an approach to social research is one of the most common (usually quantitative) methods found in the social work literature. Broadly it is based on realist principles and represents an attempt to capture certain features of social life in ways that allow general observations to be made, although surveys do not provide depth of understanding of phenomena. Kirk (1999, p. 191) offers some features of surveys:
  • they can be of people, groups, organizations, communities or other units of interest such as journal articles;
  • they can be used to explore topics, to describe complex relationships among characteristics and (sometimes) to identify causal relationships;
  • they allow economic study of large populations by using relatively small samples;
  • they provide a platform for generalization of findings to broader populations;
  • they ‘scan’ a carefully selected group rather than intervene in the manner of an experiment;
  • they use a range of methods of data collection — e.g. personal interviews, either structured or unstructured, telephone interviews, mailed questionnaires, agency records, other existing documents;
  • they gather information at one point in time (though this may be repeated as in longitudinal studies).
Beth Humphries

Chapter 11. Evaluation research

Abstract
Evaluation in social work is as popular as ‘evidence-based practice’ and ‘research-mindedness’, and is required increasingly in all the work of social care. This is part of a global call for value for money in an ever-changing world. Evaluation in the twenty-first century is receiving close attention internationally, and rapidly moving global conditions have introduced different actors into the evaluation arena. Chelimsky and Shadish (1997) brought together a collection of papers discussing different perspectives, methods and uses of evaluation across the world, leading them to characterize its purposes as threefold:
  • evaluation for accountability (e.g. the measurement of results or efficiency);
  • evaluation for development (e.g. the provision of evaluative help to strengthen institutions);
  • evaluation for knowledge (e.g. the acquisition of a more profound understanding in some specific area or field. (p. 10)
Each of these three purposes takes on more or less significance according to the setting, the motivation of stakeholders and the political climate in which it takes place.
Beth Humphries

Chapter 12. Conclusion

Abstract
Research and evaluation skills have become a central part of the repertoire of social work and social care workers, and courses on methods are now included in the social work curriculum. Practitioners are required to collect statistics for use by others in an organization, they are expected to evaluate their own practice and they are encouraged to initiate their own primary research towards post-qualifying development. Student assessment includes a dissertation where choices of research methods and students’ understanding of them must be made explicit. Whichever of these activities is demanded, it is important not only to have grasped the methodologies, but also to be able and willing to make informed critique of them, asking questions not only about their appropriateness to answer the research questions but also about the philosophical assumptions that underpin them, the ethics that inform them and the part they have to play in any aim of a more just society. Roger Fuller (1999, p. 82) sees as amongst the components of ‘research-mindedness’:
  • an awareness of the scope and limitations of research;
  • an ability to read critically the claims that emerge from research studies;
  • an ability to read critically the policy changes that purport to be based on research studies;
  • a sympathetic attitude toward research that may be conducted in a practitioner’s own work setting.
Beth Humphries
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