Academic journal article Social Work Research

Constructing Practitioner Research

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Constructing Practitioner Research

Article excerpt

The authors draw on a case study evaluation of two networked cohorts of practitioner-researchers in a children's services national social work agency in one of the home countries of the United Kingdom. The aim of the present study was to understand the meaning of practitioner research for social work professionals through an exploration of how language, ascriptions of meaning, and interpretation provide a social environment through which the nature and meaning of practitioner research emerge. The authors used a moderate symbolic interactionist approach to analyze diverse qualitative data. The findings suggest it is possible to trace a weft of analytic ideas regarding language, memory, moral accountability, ownership, meaning, value, and social work practice as they run horizontally across the experience of the practitioner-as-researcher. The elements of practitioner research have to be understood as being interwoven and bringing together and containing different career and life concerns that otherwise might remain scattered. The implications of this research suggest that practitioner research should not be seen as a less or more comfortable add-on to everyday core practice, but as a multiform activity that challenges the taken-for-grantedness of practice, mainstream academic research, management and, in all likelihood, the experience of receiving services.

KEY WORDS: practitioner research; research and practice; research cultures; research gaze; social work research


The aim of this article was to capture the experience and nature of practitioner research in social work. Our own developing understanding through work with social work practitioners is that the nature of practitioner research is something that emerges from the action, rather than something that prescribes the form of the experience in advance. It is only in the doing of practitioner research that the significant recurring questions take shape.


Literature on practitioner research, especially as it is more likely to be understood in Europe and Australasia rather than in the United States, is of fairly recent origin. In its development, it has understandably focused on three main themes. First, there was a small but useful literature on how to set about doing small-scale practitioner research (for example, Cheetham, 1994; Edwards & Talbot, 1994; Fuller & Petch, 1995; Lang, 1994). Second, there were several efforts to develop a case for the special nature of practitioner research compared with university-based academic research (for example, Elks & Kirkhart, 1993; Hess & Mullen, 1995), which sometimes engaged with ideas regarding reflexivity and critical reflection (for example, Fook, 2001; Schon, 1983). Third, and finally, there was literature that sought to bring together examples of good practice in practitioner research (for example, Broad & Fletcher, 1993).

Practitioner research has sometimes been seen within wider categories that capture the distinctive character of social work practice and research. In Finland, for example, the idea of "practice research" (Satka, Karvinen-Ninikoski, Nylund, & Hoikkala, 2005) has been adopted with some success to convey a coherent identity in dialogue with funders and government.

Practice research in social work knowledge production is practice-based and practice-oriented. The interest is on practice development, and more conscious use of social work methods and instruments. Practice research was seen [as] neither an administrative inquiry nor an academic pursuit; it makes use of social theory and well-known and recognized research methods, but its goal is to improve social work practice. The criterion of adequacy is its relevance for the field work. The ideas of pragmatism, action research and ethnography are near to the concept. (Saurama & Tukiala, 2009)

The concept has been found useful elsewhere in the Nordic countries (for example, by Uggerhoj, n. …

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