Academic journal article Social Work Research

Research Priorities for Gerontological Social Work: Researcher and Practitioner Perspectives

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Research Priorities for Gerontological Social Work: Researcher and Practitioner Perspectives

Article excerpt

This article describes a Delphi study to identify research priorities of gerontological social work practitioners and to compare these priorities with those of social work academic researchers. A national expert panel of 52 gerontological social work practitioners completed questionnaires to delimit a set of high-priority research topics. Findings were compared with a similar Delphi study conducted with academic social work researchers. The researcher panel and the practitioner panel endorsed a need for intervention research. Practitioners also identified several unique priorities, including income security and long-term care policies, decision making, and planning for later life. The authors suggest four substantive areas (housing and transitions in living arrangements, family caregiving, health and mental health, and workforce) and four crosscutting themes (intervention research, social policy, service delivery, and capacity building) as a potential organizing framework for a research agenda for gerontological social work.

KEY WORDS: Delphi method; gerontological social work; intervention research; research agenda; research priorities


In appointing the Task Force on Social Work Research in 1988, Lewis L. Judd, then director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), charged the group to analyze the state of research education, research resources, and research development in social work. Among its key findings, the Task Force on SocialWork Research (1991) identified a significant lag in the contributions of practice-relevant research to the knowledge base of social work. The profession has since responded with an increased emphasis on building knowledge for services and policies. There is, for example, growing attention to developing models of social work practice that emphasize the importance of evidentiary knowledge bases (Rosen & Proctor, 2003) and guidelines for applying knowledge in practice (Holosko, 2003; Howard & Jenson, 1999). Such models provide a framework for structuring the development and application of knowledge.

However, as Austin (1998) observed, the domain-specific nature of knowledge development and practice argues for a strategic approach to social work research that is based on fields of expertise, for example, child welfare, health, mental health, and gerontology. The author recommended that social work researchers critically assess the knowledge base, identify knowledge gaps, and establish research priorities to address those gaps in each of its substantive domains. Rosen and Proctor (2003) echoed this call for a more systematic approach to knowledge development. They argued that to escape the profession's piecemeal approach, social work needed to formulate a clear, comprehensive, long-range agenda for intervention research.

Responding to the need for a methodical approach to developing social work knowledge, the John A. Hartford Foundation sponsored an effort to develop research priorities to help focus and organize social work research in the field of gerontology (Burnette, Morrow-Howell, & Chen, 2003). Using a Delphi methodology, this project aimed to gain consensus from two national panels, one of academic researchers and one of expert practitioners, on research priorities for this field.

Delphi techniques provide a structured process to elicit and correlate expert panelists' informed opinions on a particular topic. Data are collected through the iterative administration of three or four questionnaires, interspersed with controlled feedback. The goal is to achieve consensus, typically on 10 to 15 top priority topics.

An earlier article detailed findings from the researcher panel (Burnette et al., 2003). We summarize those findings and then present results from the practitioner panel with an eye to comparing the two panels.


We began the two-phase Delphi project by identifying a panel of 46 gerontological social work academic researchers through the John A. …

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