The Multiple Roles of Applied Social Science Research in Evidence-Informed Practice

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2008, the editorial staff of Social Work issued a call for papers for a special issue of integrative reviews to further evidence-informed practice. Broadly conceived, evidence-informed practice is the use of current empirical evidence in making practice and policy decisions. In social work, evidence from empirical research is integrated with professional understanding of sociocultural context--including clients' beliefs, values, and behaviors--as a guide to intervention (for example, Gambrill, 2006). Adequately addressing issues of concern to social work from an evidence-informed perspective is a daunting task requiring integration of a diverse and burgeoning empirical literature. One response to this particular challenge is to develop integrative reviews of the empirical literature written by researchers for colleagues (practitioners, policymakers, and researchers) with other areas of expertise. Such reviews can help practitioners and policymakers to enhance their evidence-informed practice and may assist other researchers in seeing new connections between their research and related areas. In addition, the richness of social science research traditions reflected in this special issue provides an opportunity to reflect on the aims and assumptions of various types of social science evidence and the diverse roles that such evidence may play in social work practice and policy. An important contribution of the articles collected in this special issue is to suggest ways in which modern applied social science research may be more fully and systematically used in future efforts to integrate practice and research.

AIMS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF VARIOUS TYPES OF SOCIAL SCIENCE EVIDENCE

All social science research rests on basic philosophical assumptions about the social world that are not empirically verifiable but that critically guide research choices and interpretations. As reflected in this special issue, modern social science encompasses a variety of philosophical perspectives with related research aims, methods, and designs. A number of the articles collected here reflect postpositivist perspectives of critical realism, with an emphasis on quantitative research methods and designs. From a postpositivist perspective, there is an objective social world that exists independent of our representations of it. Our biased perspectives, however, limit our ability to perceive that reality. For example, our sincere desire to help clients may blind us to the shortcomings of our interventions. The aim of social science research is to develop methods to minimize that which is subjective so as to capture that which is "really real" Hence, the methodological emphasis is on controlling extraneous variables, bias, and human subjectivity through experimental or quasi-experimental designs (for example, see Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). Studies using large samples in randomized, controlled trials, as is typical in pharmaceutical research, may be seen as the gold standard of evidence within this tradition. The basic idea is to rigorously examine social work interventions and policy, primarily through quantitative methods using experimental or quasi-experimental designs. Those shown to be effective and not harmful should be widely used by ethical professionals.

Other articles in this special issue reflect interpretive epistemologies with an emphasis on qualitative or mixed research designs and methods. The basic assumption is that there is no single "really real" social world that exists independent of our representations of it (for example, Denzin & Lincoln, 2003; Shweder, 1996). Humans are qualitative beings who have feelings, beliefs, goals, values, desires, and thoughts that critically affect the ways in which they respond, including to social work interventions. There are multiple legitimate interpretations of complex social phenomena such as client responses to social work interventions and policies. …