Academic journal article Social Work

Does the Glove Really Fit? Qualitative Research and Clinical Social Work Practice

Academic journal article Social Work

Does the Glove Really Fit? Qualitative Research and Clinical Social Work Practice

Article excerpt

The rapid growth of qualitative methods as a preferred mode of inquiry among many in social work has been marked by the recent appearance of a number of works (Riessman, 1994; Sherman & Reid, 1994; Tutty, Rothery, & Grinnell, 1996). Although advocacy of this "new" approach has emerged from academia (rather than agency-based practice), qualitative methods have been heralded by many as the best way to carry out research in the complex world of social work practice. By offering an epistemological and methodological alternative to quantitative methods, qualitative methods afford an opportunity for practitioners to embrace research without submitting to the "context-stripping" and "reductionistic" approaches of quantitative methods. Indeed, the fit between qualitative methods and social work practice has been characterized rather elegantly as "like sliding a hand into a well-made glove" (Gilgun, 1994, p. 115).

This article explores whether the glove actually fits as well as it appears. At first glance, the parallels between qualitative research and clinical practice are compelling. But on closer scrutiny, a cautionary tale emerges. It is this tale that I wish to tell.

In the reflexive spirit of qualitative inquiry, I note at the outset that I am an advocate and practitioner of qualitative (as well as quantitative) research. Trained as an anthropologist, I have been a faculty member at a school of social work for eight years. In teaching and talking with students and colleagues over these years, I have come to appreciate the relevance of qualitative research for practitioners. The attraction is real and understandable. However, it is also those same conversations that have stimulated me to examine more closely whether the match is as complementary as it appears. It is only by examining ways in which the clinical and qualitative research perspectives differ that a true appreciation of each can be attained.

Attraction of Qualitative Methods for Social Work

It is perhaps no surprise to see qualitative methods eagerly embraced by many in social work. The attraction is particularly powerful to clinically-oriented professors and students seeking alternatives to quantitative methods as a mode of inquiry. After all, the prospect of intensively interviewing a small number of people and generating research findings in narrative form appears more congruent with practice. It is interesting that the field of psychotherapy research, a field congruent with clinical social work, is overwhelmingly quantitative and positivist (Greenberg & Pinsof, 1986; Talley, Strupp, & Butler, 1994; Toukmanian & Rennie, 1992). Some psychotherapy researchers have sought to introduce qualitative methods to the field (Bruner, 1987; Stiles, 1994), citing the natural fit between narrative analyses and psychotherapy. But the emphasis on quantitative methods among the majority of psychologists and psychiatrists who are psychotherapy researchers continues to hold sway.

Gilgun (1994) discussed several ways that direct practice parallels the techniques of qualitative research. (In fairness to Gilgun, her primary concern is with one particular qualitative method - grounded theory [Glaser & Strauss, 1967]). However, her description of grounded theory as it compares with direct practice captures the salient features of qualitative methods in a general way.

According to Gilgun (1994), the parallels are numerous. Similar to the context-rich and inductive approaches of qualitative research, social workers start "where the client is," view clients as part of a wider social context, and favor individualized assessment and maximum detail in chronicling the lives of clients. Furthermore, practitioners think both inductively and deductively, examining information from a variety of sources before drawing conclusions about a client's problems and appropriate treatment, and responding to new information by modifying treatment approaches. …

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