The Role of Theory in Social Work Research

By Drisko, James W.; Gomory, Tomi et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Role of Theory in Social Work Research


Drisko, James W., Gomory, Tomi, Thyer, Bruce A., Journal of Social Work Education


In "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951) The philosopher W. V. O. Quine wrote that

   the totality of our knowledge ... is a man-made fabric which impinges on
   experience only at the edges.... Total science is like a field of force,
   whose boundary conditions are experience.... But the total field is so
   undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much
   latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in light of any
   single contrary experience. (pp. 39-40)

These sage words are well illustrated by Bruce A. Thyer's and Tomi Gomory's articles in the Winter 2001 Journal of Social Work Education. Each author raised worthy points, but the development of their ideas seems limited, perhaps by the Jerry Springer tone and Point-Counterpoint format.

Thyer raises some solid points about the lack of connection between grand theory and many social work dissertations and juried articles. He also implicitly points out how little attention social work education pays to issues of philosophy of science and how little clarity we offer students (and each other) about both the terminology and underlying conceptual issues of the scientific method. While arguing for balance between theory and "empirical research," Thyer seems unaware of several decades of philosophical thinking which note that theory and observation are intrinsically joined (see Harding, 1986, Harre, 1985, 1986; Klee, 1996; Nelson, 1990, Ruben, 1990; Skorupski, 1990). Appreciating how our theories and their related technologies shape our data and our inferences is a central educational obligation for social workers whose primary mission is to enhance human well-being.

Gomory offers a useful introduction to Karl Popper's work. Gomory does not note that over time, Popper came to mark Adlerian and Freudian theories as unscientific because they could not generate tests which were unequivocally falsifiable. I suspect many of social work's more recent "theories" or "approaches" would also fall prey to such a critique. Still, this does not automatically mean that such theories are not useful to enhancing human well-being. As Gomory does note, Popper stressed that the logic of falsifiablity was distinct from the empirical testing of a theory because the test may be subject to many forms of error. This point warrants elaboration. We can state Popper's view on falsifiablity as follows: Even well-developed, logical, theoretical predictions are only testable in combination with several additional assumptions, theories, and technologies. Any of these additional elements may undermine the test of the underlying theoretical logic. Establishing falsifiablity in the social sciences, which lack clearcut predictions and use technology subject to many challenges, is particularly difficult.

Gomory fails to note that the Quine-Duhem thesis fundamentally challenged the possibility of disconfirming a theory using observational evidence alone. The, thesis, as stated by Klee (1996) reads: "Any seemingly disconfirming observational evidence can always be accommodated to any theory" (p. 65). This is because no observation is free of theory, as noted in the quotation from Quine above. The logic of this thesis being quite widely accepted, one is left to develop other grounds for judging a theory. Quine, a philosophical pragmatist, suggests we judge the worth and merit of theories and evidence in a web of human relationships. Many factors influence how theories are accepted and applied. Discoveries rarely serve as their own context for justification.

Recent feminist philosophers of science, such as Lynn Nelson, suggest that the context of a scientific discovery is relevant to its later justification (or devaluation). That is, social, political, and moral factors do influence the reception of observed facts. This should come as no surprise to a social worker, even in the context of science!

The emphasis on explanation in all four articles seems to miss the value of theories in helping us understand and imagine (even as we may miss much of what is or is intended or experienced by others).

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