The Right to Effective Treatment and the Effective Treatment of Rights: Rhetorical Empiricism and the Politics of Research

Article excerpt

Progress is the "grand narrative" of Modernism (for example, Gergen, 1991). According to one version of its story, systematic, empirical investigations and technological advances - the representative expressions of Western science - will lead to increasingly more effective ways to solve problems and a better life for all. Despite the dramatic failures of Modernism's Elysian vision, including how it has created rather than solved problems (Chambon & Irving, 1994), its believers abound.

Within contemporary social work, modernist sensibilities find expression in the scientist-practitioner movement and among methodological behaviorists and with advocates of logical empiricism and positivism. Each of these camps expresses the modernist refrain that the social work profession is woefully lacking in research knowledge, skills, and productivity and that reversing this situation is the key to the profession's success (and even survival).

A recent spin-off of this empiricist dirge has it that not only is the scientific dimension of social work sadly lacking but that social workers are unethical to the extent that their activities are not guided by data from empirical research. This is the theme of a recent article by Myers and Thyer (1997), who go beyond simply asserting that empirical research on social work practice is a good idea to arguing that we now have at our disposal an array of methods that have been demonstrated to resolve particular problems of social work clients and that clients have a "right" to receive these "effective" methods. If true (or even convincing), their arguments have important implications for the profession. They advance the modernist project by supporting the notion that, in fact, social work is developing more effective technologies. And if one buys that argument, on what basis can one refute their contention of clients' rights to effective treatment, and by implication, social workers' responsibility to provide such treatments? Finally, the charge of unethical actions goes to the heart of social work, a profession that proudly wears its values on its collective sleeves. Therefore, a careful analysis of Myers and Thyer's arguments is warranted.

Rhetorical Empiricism: An Oxymoron?

Given Myers and Thyer's orientation, readers might expect an impressive display of empirical data supporting their arguments. Surprisingly, however, they rely not on data but on a variety of rhetorical tactics including misuse of analogy, oversimplification, false consensus, appeals to authority, and the use of testimonials and misrepresentation.

Misuse of Analogy and Oversimplification

Myers and Thyer begin their article by presenting medical practice as analogous to social work practice. Although there are similarities between social work and medicine, the differences are significant. For example, medicine is based on a disease model that much of social work rejects. Also, social work practice tends to be more holistic in its approach to individuals - seeing them within the context of family, community, and culture.

Even if the analogy were appropriate, medicine rarely conforms to Myers and Thyer's portrayal as the simple application of technology. For example, before embarking on a course of treatment, even in cases of identifiable ailments, physicians must consider factors such as an individual's life history, current state of health, past and current treatments, lifestyle issues, and level of social supports. Thus, the analogy works only if the reader is willing to reduce social work practice to something analogous to a caricature of medicine, a model of practice most social workers would reject.

False Consensus, or the Ivory Soap Argument: 99 44/100 Percent Pure

Myers and Thyer write about empirical methods as if they were unproblematic. Mostly, they have chosen to ignore the voluminous critiques that pepper the social work and social science literature (Gergen, 1994; Heinemann, 1981; Tyson, 1995). …