Academic journal article Social Work

Design-Based Practice: A New Perspective for Social Work

Academic journal article Social Work

Design-Based Practice: A New Perspective for Social Work

Article excerpt

The relationship between knowledge and practice in the field of social work has continued to spark debate among scholars and practitioners (Gomory, 1997). Many have argued that only knowledge derived from science should guide practice decisions and behavior. This argument, in turn, has led to discussion about the meaning of science and scientific inquiry in the field of social work (Witkin, 1989). Over the past 30 years, this has been repeatedly played out as a debate between proponents of a rational/experimental view of science (Hudson, 1982) and a more existential/ heuristic model (Heineman-Pieper, 1989). Regardless of whether they have sided with one camp or the other, most support the view that the social work profession needs to continue along the path of becoming more scientifically based.


Witkin (1989) proposed a relatively "open" model of science for social work that would incorporate concepts and approaches to inquiry that "recognize and accommodate the complexities of human social life" (p. 96).

Others (Goldstein, 1992; Lewis, 2003) have argued that knowledge is derived from practice and experience, and "practice should inform theory and not the other way around" (Goldstein, 1992, p. 49). This raises the question again of what type of science is appropriate to advance the state of the profession. A related debate has concerned the question of whether the purpose of relating knowledge to practice is to "solve a problem" of the client or to engage the client in a more continuous and creative process of discovery (Lewis, 2003).

The most recent attempt to provide a framework for linking knowledge to practice in the field of social work is known as evidence-based practice (EBP). As defined by Gambrill (1999), in EBP "social workers seek out practice related external research findings related to problems clients confront, critically appraise what they find and share what they find with clients" (p. 348). According to this model, the practitioner then makes decisions with the client's participation and chooses courses of action on the basis of this systematic review of scientific evidence plus other factors. Support for EBP is widespread among academic social workers (Rubin & Parrish, 2007). Some have even proposed that EBP be adopted as the new paradigm for social work practice and education (Howard, McMillen, & Pollio, 2003).

In this article, I argue that it would be unfortunate if EBP were to become the new paradigm for social work practice and education. Although there certainly is a place for using scientific evidence in the practice of social work, EBP is much too narrow a framework and is applicable to only a certain type of situation that social workers encounter. I present an alternative model for relating knowledge and practice that ! believe is more attuned to the complexities of the contextual environment in which social work operates and to the challenges facing the field of social work in the future.


Although EBP has attracted many supporters in the field of social work, it has also raised a number of objections (Gray & McDonald, 2006; Trinder, 2000; Webb, 2001). According to Mullen, Bledsoe, and Bellamy (2008), many of the objections to EBP derive from the fact that EBP as a practice framework is "poorly understood by social work educators and practitioners" (p. 326), and they have proposed strategies to improve the teaching, dissemination, and implementation of EBP in a practice setting. I do not intend to address those specific limitations. Rather, I will address several fundamental reasons why EBP--even if it could be operationally defined, effectively taught, and implemented--does not represent the direction in which social work should be moving.

EBP Is Restricted to Answerable Questions

The first major limitation of EBP is that it only addresses certain types of questions or problems. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.