Academic journal article Social Work

Practice Wisdom

Academic journal article Social Work

Practice Wisdom

Article excerpt

A recent Point and Counterpoint exchange in Social Work (Harrison, Hudson, & Thyer, 1992; Witkin, 1992) provided both the message and the medium with regard to a continuing gnawing problem in social work: the relationship between empirical knowledge and practice experience. Like so many before them (for example, Heineman, 1981; Hudson, 1978, 1982; Imre, 1984; Raynor, 1984; Ruckdeschel & Farris, 1981; Witkin, 1991), these authors presented absolutist positions in which one side is right and the other side is wrong. We find this approach disheartening. Denying either the value of quantitative measurement or the limits of such measurement in capturing the totality of a client's reality appears to be equally shortsighted.

Now in its second decade, this debate seems no closer to a solution. Indeed, Peile (1988) identified several political strategies that have supported the debate by seeming to maintain extreme positions. The axiom "if you cannot measure a client's problem, it does not exist" (Hudson, 1978, p. 65) typifies the empirical knowledge position in one extreme form. At the other extreme, it is suggested that "a[n empirical)] foundation is largely illusory and a questionable base for social work practice" (Witkin, 1991, p. 161).

We believe that many of our colleagues have grown weary of this confrontational approach, which has yet to prove fruitful in resolving the debate. This article presents an approach to using both of these two sources of knowledge rather than excluding one or the other. To discount either form of information because it falls short of reflecting the full complexity of social life or fails to be fully measurable in the tradition of the strict empiricist is wasteful. We suggest that well-developed "practice wisdom," as it is defined in this article, offers the opportunity to draw from empirical research, theory, direct practice experiences, and personal subjective views in a comprehensive approach to recognizing and applying knowledge.

The Experience of "Knowing" in Social

Work Practice

The view of "reality" offered by Carnapian logical positivism (Carnap, 1953) is an abstract world of concepts bound together by logical modifiers, forming propositions that may be combined in networks (theories) that describe some portion of the universe. This simplified worldview may be useful in a workaday world, first as a way to see order or structure within a panoply of protean perceptions and second as the basis on which plans might be made to change that order.

Our objection to this Carnapian worldview and the research empire based on it is that it tells fictional story: We have very few operational measures and analytic procedures that approximate the complexity of real life. Although statistical procedures have evolved from bivariate to multivariate approaches since scientist Francis Galton formalized correlational statistics in the 19th century, these newer procedures generally rely on correlations between only two variables while controlling for the involvement of other variables. Although these procedures represent a dramatic improvement in the capacity to accurately reflect reality, they still fall understandably short of capturing the empirical complexity of everyday reality. Ultimately, very little of social reality -- the multiple social systems acting and reacting in relationship to one another -- would fit within the Carnapian universe if played by "club" rules. Empiricists, among whose ranks we count ourselves (after a fashion), assert that everything can be measured. This is truly so if one permits indicators or proxies for the thing measured, including holistic experiences. But how pale are these indicators against the vibrant reality with which practitioners are engaged? If empiricists would stop boasting how much they can measure and figure out ways of approximating the complex real-life experiences that practitioners and clients recognize as the world they live in, they might get the debate off dead center. …

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