What Is the Role of Theory in Research on Social Work Practice?

By Thyer, Bruce A. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

What Is the Role of Theory in Research on Social Work Practice?


Thyer, Bruce A., Journal of Social Work Education


   The gap between theory and practice is a wide one.

   Agatha Christie

IN 1967, WHEN I WAS 14 YEARS OLD, Scott Briar (1967) labeled the state of affairs with respect to research on social casework as a "crisis," in part because our field lacked evidence of the effectiveness of social work services. In the mid-1970s, shortly after I graduated from high school, Joel Fischer (1973a, 1973b, 1976) published articles and a book effectively documenting Briar's assertion that the field lacked a strong evidentiary basis for service. Two decades after Fischer's assessments, after I had become a tenured professor, the National Institute on Mental Health commissioned a distinguished panel of social workers to systematically review the state of affairs with respect to social work research. What was the conclusion of this group? "The Task Force has concluded that there is today a crisis in social work research" (Austin, 1991, p. 11). There is a phrase to describe a crisis which has persisted for longer than one's professional life. It is called business as usual! Perhaps it is time to stop sounding the alarm, and to begin to put out the fire.

Why has this crisis come about, and why does it persist? Aaron Rosen and his colleagues (Rosen, Proctor, & Staudt, 1999) at Washington University have recently completed a comprehensive survey of articles published in 13 major social work journals between 1993 and 1997. Of the 1,849 articles published, only 863 (47%) could be classified as empirical research. Of these 863, 423 (49%) were explanatory studies (those which tested a theory aimed at explaining a phenomenon), 314 (36%) were descriptive reports, and 126 (15%) some type of outcome study. Now, a profession with 126 outcome studies published in a five year period sounds to be in pretty good shape, with respect to establishing an empirical foundation of effectiveness. However, when Rosen and colleagues (1999) eliminated those with poorly replicable interventions, and unreliable or invalid outcome measures, only 53 studies remained--about 3% of the total numbers of articles published. And of course, many of these had negative findings. A practitioner seeking guidance about potentially effective ways to help clients would have to read over 30 articles to find one that is a useful outcome study.

The problem of descriptive and explanatory studies dominating our research efforts does not seem limited to journal articles. Harrison and Thyer (1988) examined the abstracts of all social work dissertations published between July 1984 and June 1985. Of the 187 dissertations, 109 related to direct practice, 57 pertained to administration, policy, or organizational analysis, 16 dealt with professional matters, and 5 dealt with historical studies. Of those dealing with practice, 93 were either exploratory, descriptive, process, or nonexperimental case studies. Only 16 out of 187 dissertations (9%) were either experimental or quasi-experimental outcome studies on practice.

The conspicuous absence of well-crafted outcome studies on social work practice has led to a growing chorus of voices calling for an expansion of such research investigations, which may be given the general term of "services research" or "intervention research." Harrison and Thyer (1988) provide one description of services research:

   Such studies test the efficacy of social work interventions, validate
   assessment methods for use in social work practice, and/or determine the
   effective components of a social work treatment program.... We would also
   argue ... that the most valuable scientific and professional contribution
   to the knowledge base of social work practice would be for students to
   conduct experimental and quasi-experimental outcome studies which test
   social work interventions. (p. 108)

These authors further suggest:

   We propose a national research agenda for doctoral programs that have
   direct practice or clinical specializations: That faculty actively
   encourage students to conduct outcome research for their doctoral
   dissertations. … 

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