Social Work as Applied Social Science: A Historical Analysis

By Klein, Waldo C.; Bloom, Martin | Social Work, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Social Work as Applied Social Science: A Historical Analysis


Klein, Waldo C., Bloom, Martin, Social Work


The 1980s began with the reintroduction of controversy regarding the nature of social work as an applied social science. Heineman's analysis of social work suggested that it was dominated by an outmoded, overly restrictive paradigm of research (an explicitly empirical orientation that was rooted in the philosophy of logical positivism) (Heineman, 1981; Heineman Pieper, 1985). Since that time, Hudson (1982) and many others (Geismar & Wood, 1982; Ivanoff, Blythe, & Briar, 1987) defended portions of an empirically based practice paradigm. New critics noted a variety of other problems in social work (Guba & Lincoln, 1989; Hoffman, 1990; Rodwell, 1990). Defenders patched up the breaches, syntheses were offered (Dean & Fenby, 1989; Mullen, 1985; Peile, 1988), and new starts on the nature of this applied social science were made (Siporin, 1988; Witkin & Gottschalk, 1988).

Unfortunately, the result is a melange of opinions that has not resolved some fundamental questions regarding the nature of social work. Indeed, the controversy has tended to polarize rather than unify the profession. This article offers one perspective on the profession of social work as an applied social science, by means of a historical analysis of its major journal literature, by decade markers, over the past 120 years. We believe that this approach may shed some light on the contemporary controversy by providing an objective perspective on how social work has been represented in a sampling of its writings over time.

This analysis makes clear that the dichotomy that sets social work practice in opposition to social work research is false. Both practice and research are based on an empirical experience of reality, and both exist as primary activities of the applied social science we refer to as professional social work. Indeed, practice and research find their connection in the concept of applied social science. Without the application implicit in practice, "applied social science" would not be applied; without the knowledge-building commitment demonstrated through research, it would not be science.

We have found a guiding metaphor helpful in keeping track of all the separate but related components in social work. The Bayeaux tapestry is an 11th-century embroidery of scenes of the Norman Conquest of England (Denny & Filmer-Sankey, 1966). This famous tapestry is over 230 feet long, a kind of moving picture of the configuration of events occurring in the year 1066--from the point of view of the victor. Only eight different colored threads are used on a bleached cloth background. As a metaphor of the complex interplay of factors over the history of scientific practice in social work, we will use the notion of a tapestry of distinctive threads, all of which are part of the whole, but some of which are predominant at any given time. No one thread ever constitutes the whole of the tapestry, however partial we may be to one component or another.

What are the threads that make up the tapestry of applied social science? This investigation began with a reading of the literature already mentioned as well

as exploratory reading of papers from the Journal of Social Sciences, perhaps the earliest social work-related journal. An exploratory qualitative analysis of these writings produced a number of conceptual components or threads that seemed to be present. Through continued critical discussion and preliminary efforts to meaningfully apply the emerging categories to the early social work literature, five main categories and three sub-groups, like the eight threads of the Bayeaux tapestry, were identified. Subsequent use of these five categories in a content analysis of social work articles published between 1870 and 1990 produced reasonable to extremely high levels of interrater reliability.

Components of Applied Social Science

The five components in applied social science that emerged through this qualitative content analysis were empiricism, technology, conceptualization, valuation, and commentary.

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