The Role of Theory in Social Work Research: A Further Contribution to the Debate

Article excerpt

THE DEBATE BETWEEN Bruce Thyer and Tomi Gomory in the Winter 2001 issue of this journal provided a stimulating example of scholarly argument, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a further contribution. Their articles brought out a number of significant issues relating to improving the knowledge base of social work practice. I want to pick up on two themes that emerged: the role of theory in evaluative research and the way evidence tests a theory. In this journal, it is hardly necessary to reiterate the case for evidence-based practice but both of these themes seem to me to be fundamental to its development and to the profession moving away from a predominant reliance on personal skills and intuitive knowledge. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with both Thyer and Gomory to some extent and my concern is to propose a third, modified position on the issues. It is difficult in the space of an article to deal with complex philosophical arguments so my aim is to reference the major philosophy texts and to focus on drawing out more of the practical implications for social work of these somewhat abstruse philosophical matters. A more detailed account of my own position can be found in Munro (1998).

Both authors agree on the need for more research evaluating the effectiveness of social work interventions in order to improve services to users. Thyer points out that this need has been recognized for decades, yet we are still far from developing a strong evaluative tradition. Without such studies, the drive towards making practice more evidence-based is inevitably undermined. How can we exhort practitioners to base their decisions on evidence when there are such big gaps in our knowledge? Thyer raises a very pertinent question in asking why it is proving so difficult to do evaluative research when it seems so widely accepted that it should be done. His answer is that researchers have the wrong priority and are preoccupied with testing theories at the expense of appraising practice. In support of this claim, he quotes an analysis of the content of articles published in thirteen major social work journals (Thyer, 2001b, p. 12). This categorized 47% as empirical research and, of those, 49% were explanatory studies (testing a theory aimed at explaining a phenomenon). Only 3% reported credible outcome studies of the results of social work practice. Thyer (2001b) also criticizes PhD programs for requiring students to formulate a theoretical framework for their study even when the study has not been guided by any explicit theory:

   An otherwise sound piece of clinical or program evaluation may be forced to 
   rest uneasily on a Procrustean bed of theory-testing research, sometimes 
   being distorted beyond recognition. (p. 14) 

The comments on how students artificially add theory onto their work resonate with my experience in the United Kingdom. Student social workers are required to do detailed case studies of their practice, making explicit the theories that guided their assessment and intervention. For many, if not most, the theoretical exposition is fabricated after the work has been done and merely to satisfy course requirements. The teaching of formal theories in college is often so cursory that, unless the practice supervisor uses a clear theoretical framework, the student is unable to apply any one theory in an explicit and systematic manner in their direct work with clients. Their academic tutors and practice supervisors often know about and collude with this cynical use of theory. This is pernicious because it promotes a culture that encourages social workers to see theories as irrelevant to their practice and as merely some kind of game played by academics. This anti-intellectual stance has coexisted with the drive to develop a scientific base throughout social work's history and is possibly the greatest obstacle to widespread adoption of evidence-based practice. …