Research Policy and Planning: The journal of the Social Services Research Group – Vol 17 (1) 1999
The politics of social work research and evaluation
Dr. Bob Broad, Reader in Social Work Studies, De Montfort University, Leicester
Knowledge is power and research creates knowledge. Researchers are thus in a powerful position to define social issues and to shape public responses. They must therefore face up to some fundamental questions about control of the research agenda, about their independence and about the relationship between research and the political process. In social work, research and evaluation is under pressure from different stakeholders often with conflicting agendas. This brief paper examines some of the key issues involved in the politics of social work research.
Politics and social work research and evaluation
The issue here is about whether the politics of research and evaluation in social work is a problem, challenge or an opportunity, and what flows from each of these three possibilities. The term ‘politics’ is taken to mean relating to a person’s or organisation’s influence or status’. In social work research and evaluation the term politics, with its inherent status and influence elements, applies at both macro and micro levels. The former relates to the broader social work research context, (and general strategies for surviving and succeeding, including obtaining funding for research projects or researchers) whereas the latter focuses more on practical issues, especially the ways in which individual research projects are conducted, shaped and compromised by local and internal considerations. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two levels.
There is a range of key questions about the political dimensions of social work research and evaluation which are often not acknowledged or written about. For example, who funds, commissions and produces research? How are research agendas set and by whom? Can and do users and carers have a greater role in research than seems to have been the case in social work planning and practice? What can we learn about the politics of social work research from experienced researchers? These political dimensions impact not only on the final research product (local concerns) but also, more critically, on the ‘real’ purpose of research and ultimately, the nature of knowledge – how it is defined and by whom.
It is argued by some that activities and approaches by researchers and/or agencies which seek to change, empower, redistribute or use, feminist or antidiscriminatory understandings can be described, and too easily dismissed, as ‘political’ activities. Conversely those understandings which, for example, support the continuation of existing practice, or make a string of ‘good practice’ recommendations, may be less likely to be labelled ‘political’ and are more likely to be considered acceptable. Yet to collect and produce new research data gives the information holder power to shape and distribute that information for a particular purpose or purposes, with the report carrying a stamp of authenticity, scientific credibility and, if conducted by a university, academic credibility too. Agencies are often well aware of the potential contribution of research and gatekeeping mechanisms abound to keep research in check.
From the researcher’s perspective, gatekeeping mechanisms are one way (another is inertia) commonly used by agencies to monitor research by controlling access to knowledge, people, information and, perhaps most critically, input into the ways in which issues are defined and addressed. Whilst recognising the difficulties and frustrations that accompany gatekeeping, there is also an argument for researchers not being too precious or defensive about research; for them to ‘get real’. For example consider how a researcher might respond if an agency recommended changes to a proposed piece of research which involved the research commissioner totally redefining the topic, involving all ‘their’ people, and having all the power.
Funding, co-operation and competition in social work research
There are a limited number of prime sources of funding for research and researchers. In the areas of social work, social care and criminal justice the main sources are: central government (especially the Department of Health and the Home Office); large specialist research bodies (for example the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRQ) and its commissioned programmes (for instance the ESRCs Youth in Transition research programme); large specialist charitable trusts (such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation); local government (social services departments for example), smaller philanthropic trusts, (for instance City Parochial), and voluntary organisations (such as, in the child care field, Barnados). There are a number of European Union funding sources, distributed through specific programmes, usually requiring some sort of complex and mind numbing cross border arrangement. The Central Council for the Training and Education of Social Workers (CCETSW) has been a source of limited funding associated with increasing social worker research awareness (see, for example, Harrison and Humphries, 1997). CCETSW also has a welcome and important role in supporting universities running post-graduate degree courses allied to social work. Research funding also goes direct to notable research centres outside the university sector, for instance, in respect of children, the National Children’s Bureaus Research Unit and the Department of Health funded social work research unit at the National Institute of Social Work.
The Association of Directors of Social Services has an important role via its ability to authorise, promote, or block social work research conducted across different local authorities – their Research in Practice initiative is currently focusing on a range of children and family research issues. Those largely self funded post-graduate practitioner researchers are another source of original, and often excellent, research (see, for example, the contributions contained in Broad and Fletcher, 1993). There are networks of researchers in the social work field including, of course, the Social Services Research Group (SSRG), the Social Work Research Association (SWRA) and the Joint Universities Council/SWEC Research Group.
There has always been competition between research providers, especially universities, for status and funds before the emergence of the ‘new universities’ this was mainly between those classified as ‘ivy-league’ and the rest. Undoubtedly competition, properly framed, and played on a level playing field, is as a ‘good thing’.
However as a direct result of the Research Assessment Exercise, first conducted in 1996 and next scheduled for 2001, for universities with aspiring research goals the stakes are very high indeed. Good quality outputs and ever more funded projects are required by government to fund further university research. If a trend towards specialisation and selection of universities emerges this will likely favour existing stakeholders. The counter view is, of course, that funding bodies should be able to select, or continue to select, only those institutions or individuals who, in their view, produce good quality research. This view rather assumes that the notion of a ‘level playing field’ is possibly an ultimately unattainable dream.
Yet if that happens, and there is a further narrowing of ‘approved providers’ in research, then it can be argued that the more structural and critical approaches to social policy and social work practice will become marginalised. Put simply if crudely, it is arguably more politically convenient to commission research leading to staff training and guidance than to investigate structural (political/policy) and other, resource, inequalities. In this scenario, with an ever narrower range of providers, those exploratory and innovative research projects using methodologies and grounded approaches which encourage wide participation and problem definition may be unable to attract funding. The kinds of research likely to be threatened might include user and carer driven work (though there seems a nominal interest developing in these areas), the more qualitative designs (especially ethnography), social action research, observation studies, feminist research, and work has explicit antidiscriminatory values. Of course, the alternative political scenario for future research approaches is that the ‘mainstream’ centrally funded research will define, absorb and dilute the above, ‘minorstream’, methodologies and visions.
In local authorities, where planning, research and evaluation are conducted in-house, there is an emphasis on evaluation, quality assurance, audits and inspections. Here, where the funding base for such work is often minimal, competition (and co-operation) is generally between local universities and/or the independent sector and the local authority provider. The advantages of the independent sector lie mainly in its ability to respond quickly and in low overheads. However, disadvantages include a lack of institutional and academic contingencies and a perceived absence of quality control checks.
Having touched on the political and funding aspects of social work research other key themes can be considered under two main headings. Within practical research issues we need to think about the complexities involved in different types of negotiating and sustaining access for research. The apparent defensiveness and protectiveness on the part of many agencies raises questions about who is protecting who and why – and often, but not always, it can be about protecting budgets. Another area for consideration here is-the issue of conducting sensitive research into a contentious topic, which is ‘political’ in the sense that study proposals are subject to gatekeeping checks by funders and partners who tend to have a investment in a conservative (and political) research agenda. Also to be thought about under this heading is the notion that in order to conduct research in an appropriate and sensitive way, researchers need to possess similar characteristics to those of their respondents, an idea described as ‘essentialism’, whether in terms of gender, disability, or any other criteria. This raises complex issues, including that of ‘researcher exclusion’ when involved in researching those dissimilar from the self. For some time now a closely argued critique of many of the assumptions made about social work research conducted about ethnic minority communities has been needed. One such critique might focus on the vocabulary that punctuates research to describe or explain the black and minority ethnic population and the way ethnic groups are ‘problematised’. It is worth noting that black researchers often work on black issues whilst very few black researchers work on non-black issues.
A second set of issues can be broadly categorised as knowledge – how is it created? to what ends? what sort of knowledge? whose knowledge is it? – power – to produce knowledge, to include and exclude certain sorts of knowledge, to obtain research funds, power struggles between agencies and researchers – and the relationship between the two. This also relates both to researchers’ experiences of practical and ethical problems connected with the knowledge they have produced and ‘tactics for survival’ for researchers and practitioner researchers alike.
One aspect of this is the way social work research is conducted in universities and the distorting impact and costs of the Research Assessment Exercise. The underlying principle of selectivity as it applies to social work research conducted in universities can be questioned. Another, related issue, is the nature of social work knowledge as compared with the allied areas of social policy, health and sociology. There are legitimate concerns that qualitative research methodologies may be becoming sidelined and misrepresented in social work policy debates. The growth of interest in evidence-based practice, and the reality of that growth, is questionable. Other potential myths connected to social work research –
qualitative versus quantitative, feminist versus mainstream, and emancipatory versus mainstream – are also worthy of discussion in the ‘politics’ debate. The argument that ‘bottom up’ participative research conducted with minority and disenfranchised communities is necessary to produce tangible and sustained change sets out a challenge to traditionalist research commissioners. Another key area of concern is the way in which research findings are used, misused, misappropriated, and re-appropriated. The question ‘to whom does research knowledge belong?’ and broader questions about differential power relations cannot be ignored. Collaborative work between university and social services departments is another area where potential tensions abound. And finally there are any number of personal and political dilemmas involved in being a practitioner researcher in an agency at the same time as attending a post-graduate course with research components – conflict of interests, issues around insider and outsider research and the value placed on research process and outcomes by the organisation being just some of them.
Part of the art of research, whether conducting it or managing it, is to develop a research ‘nous’, and become more aware of its political dimensions and all its multifarious dimensions. The issues described above are central and re-emerging themes in a new collection entitled The Politics of Social Work Research and Evaluation, edited by Bob Broad on behalf of the Social Work Research Association (S~) and published in the SWRANenture Press Research series. The book has a strong empirical base and contains informed reflections on social work research practice and methods as well as cautionary tales and practical tips from the field. The book is available at a cost of £12.50 + £1.25 P &P from Venture Press at BASW, 16 Kent Street, Birmingham B5 6RD Tel: 0 121622 3 911.
Bob Broad is the current Chair of the SWRA
Broad, B. (ed.) (1999) The Politics of Social Work Research and Evaluation. Birmingham: SWRA/Venture Press Research series. Broad, B. and Fletcher, C. (eds.) (1993) Practitioner Social Work Research in Action. London: Whiting and Birch.
Harrison, C. and Humphries, C. (1997) Putting the Praxis back into Practice. London: CCETSW.
Social Work Research Association (1997) The politics of social work research and evaluation Leicester: SWRA Leicester conference promotional literature.