Private troubles or public issues? Challenges for social work research
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Theory matters indeed in social work—this was the central message resounding from the papers presented at the 4th European Conference for Social Work Research (ECSWR) held at the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano in April 2014. The impressively large number of social work researchers who had found their way to this rather remote alpine location affirmed the vibrancy of current European social work research projects. Research activities by researchers, practitioners and PhD students did not seem to have been subdued by the impact of management regimes, procedural regulations and public investigations into social service failures that have spread throughout Europe. On the contrary, the presentations bore testimony to the value of a progressive form of ‘academisation’ of social work education in most European countries, including the former communist countries that had to re-establish social work education, and the confidence of contributors in belonging to a ‘serious’ academic discipline. Social work research is a dynamic phenomenon not just in certain traditional academic centres but all across Europe as the unusual size of this special issue and the number of countries represented in this volume demonstrate. This is also reflected in the growing number of PhD programmes that are located in the discipline of social work itself, and it is to be welcomed that so many research products by PhD graduates have passed the journal’s stringent review criteria and can be presented here as excellent examples of these advancements. Much of this effort of bringing research ‘home’ from ‘neighbouring disciplines’, such as sociology, psychology or pedagogy, into the mainstream of social work education itself was spurred by the challenges posed by the motto of ‘evidence based practice’ (EBP). The principle’s Enlightenment philosophy had created ardent controversies particularly where EBP was used in managerial social service regimes as a means of quelling fundamental debates in social work over the nature and function of theory in such an applied subject. It also brought in its wake a new debate about the nature and role of discretion in professional practice and whether greater standardisation and regulation enhance the quality and accountability of social services or threaten to undermine professional discretion as a more reliable and appropriate form of accountability in human service contexts. And so it was highly appropriate that the conference had the honour of Ed Mullen, one of the early advocates of EBP in the field of social work, giving the keynote address, in which he developed a comprehensive, critical understanding of ‘evidence’ grounded in his profound knowledge of scientific and equally of humanist epistemological debates. His paper therefore has prominent place in this special issue with the message that the idea of evidence implies at its core a commitment to accountability and to an examination of the relevance of theories in relation to an interactively negotiated understanding of a client’s situation and needs. Ian Shaw picks up on that theme with his thorough examination of the meaning of ‘science’ for social work, making available in a critical way the many strands of knowledge production that shaped the professionalisation of social work. This allows him to examine the meaning of knowledge and hence of evidence in current contexts, which can serve as a defence against simplifications and as a means of dealing constructively with controversies. He exhorts us as social workers to passionately ‘do science’ with precision and thereby validate our forms of knowledge, including tacit knowledge, that transcend the science/art dichotomy. Cree, Clapton and Smith in their paper on social work’s reactions to ‘moral panics’ give an example of negative knowledge creation. The case of ‘Maria’, the Roma girl found to be living with a family in Greece, had triggered rash and biased public reactions whereas an authentic response from within social work's professional community would be to ‘stand up to complexity’ and to point out methodological pathways that lead beyond such simplifications. This raises the question whether social workers through their training are equipped to deliver exactly such a comprehensive analysis of different factors impinging on a situation of need. Dedotsi, Young and Broadhurst provide a rather discouraging picture of the preparedness of social work students in Greece. Even under the glaringly obvious impact of financial cuts in services they seem inclined to ignore structural factors in their explanatory models of poverty. The fact that these students on professional courses resort more to individualistic explanations of causation confirms a general trend in social services across countries of a return to moralistic models reminiscent of the origins of case work in Victorian times, but nowadays very much in line with the neo-liberal appeals to individual responsibility. These serious flaws in the education of social workers also seem to occur to a considerable extent on training programmes in Latin America, as the large-scale study of explanatory models of poverty prevalent there among social work students by Negrón-Velázquez shows. She found evidence of the widespread view that poverty could be attributed to psychological deficits and therefore advocates more effective introductions to a variety of interpretations of poverty, particularly of a macro-structural kind, on social work courses as a means of freeing students from neo-liberal dogma that regards poverty related to reliance on welfare benefits. It is well worth remembering that linking social work practice to a commitment for better social policies is not a recent demand by some activists critical of a ‘case work stance’. Branco’s careful examination of the works of the social work pioneers Jane Addams and Mary Richmond highlights that they had already argued for a political dimension of any methodology. Credited with having laid the foundations of respectively the social reform and the psycho-social approaches, often seen as mutually exclusive alternatives, the author shows that both historical figures were deeply involved in social movements that called for fundamental structural changes in response to individual social need. The polarisation between these approaches and the prioritising of a psychological framing of social problems today is forced upon social workers by neo-liberal ideologies, as Nothdurfter documents from comparative research carried out on teams of social workers who deal with unemployed clients in Austria and Italy. His focus is the use by social workers of their ‘street-level discretion’ in relation to the kind and meaning of ‘activation’ they promote. Harsher pre-conditions for the receipt of benefits together with efficiency criteria imposed on the performance of social workers result in a reductionist perspective on needs assessment. This current debate on the role of social work in relation to social policies centres therefore on different interpretations of the notion of ‘activation’. Tabin and Perriard test this empirically in Switzerland and confirm the considerable margin of discretion social workers can still exercise positively or negatively in relation to policy regulations and to different client groups, discretion that needs to be applied professionally. A second round of papers in this collection reflects on the wider implications of current neo-liberal trends for social work research. Lorenz maintains that a phenomenological tradition, which traditionally had been present, at least implicitly, in much of social work’s research and practice, today has more relevance than ever as it offers opportunities for collaboration with users of services in research and practice. Acknowledging the value of subjectivity and the resulting co-construction of meaning in relationships brings an interactive dimension to research and can foster a clearer awareness of possibilities and limitations of the individual self in a wider political context. This leads to the question, on what criteria the quality of personal social services is to be assessed. Bertotti presents the results of an interactional research project in Italy where practitioners were able to reflect on their professional criteria for quality work in a series of workshops with the aid of self-assessment questionnaires. In a climate of increasing managerial regulations being imposed on practice it is significant that a reflexive evaluation of their own standards of practice, conducted in teams of practitioners, produced quite stringent sets of criteria in line with accepted professional standards and above all a greater willingness to review work done from this perspective. Kirkwood et al.’s paper illustrates this in a specific field of practice and reaffirms the centrality of reflexivity in practice. The authors tested the tool of the Conversation Analytic Role-play Method on practitioners in criminal justice settings in the UK with the aid of audio and video recordings of case material and found that this enhanced reflexivity not just introspectively but also in relation to the awareness of the wider policy context of practice. How social work research can make a direct contribution to the improvement of methods in relation to complex family issues is demonstrated by the Finnish research report of Pölkki, Vornanen and Colliander. Despite their pragmatic research question ‘what works’ in intensive family work, the results evidence the importance of conceptual coherence in the approaches taken, particularly with reference to building personal relationships between family workers and families and to respecting their dignity, especially that of children, whose needs are often submerged under other family worries. Constructive communication and mediation skills are confirmed as essential professional instruments in the context of honest and authentic relationships. Aside from being confronted with more intensive family and child welfare work generally, social work services are becoming increasingly involved in issues of migration. Here a focus on acute crises and on difficulties superficially presenting as ‘failed integration’ into the new social environment can often obscure the realisation of the resourcefulness of people who have to negotiate living in different worlds simultaneously. The narrative accounts of Italian women living in Germany over 3 generations, presented and analysed by Aluffi Pentini, testify to those self-acquired skills and thereby underline the core social work stance of valuing clients as persons and giving them a voice while simultaneously representing a ‘reality’ with which subjective accounts have to be sensitively confronted. Sousa and Almeida elaborate on the importance of such skills in their empirical review of the place of culturally sensitive social work on the curricula of professional training programmes in Portugal and find this item to be generally lacking. From their systematic review of four different positions on ‘multiculturalism’ they regard cultural sensitivity as satisfied not merely by a set of skills indicators. They maintain it needs to be connected to ethical issues concerning the recognition of diversity in all social work contexts, which is why its minor place in training is all the more inexplicable. Social work education generally needs to move beyond imparting ‘benign multiculturalism’ to establish ‘critical cultural pluralism’ as a central competence criterion. Reimer’s contribution confirms the importance of seeing ethnicity, gender and education in their intersectional dynamics. Her interactive research on biographies of Roma and Sinti women in Germany complements and concretises the research accounts of cultural diversity presented in this collection of social work research. The stereotyping and discrimination experienced by these women result not just from their ethnic ascription, but from other structural limitations imposed on them, and their mutually reinforcing effects show in severe educational challenges. However, some of these women confronted this adversity collectively by themselves at a personal but also at a structural level in various forms of civic engagement. This fits with Gutjahr and Heeb’s findings from empirical research on patterns of social assistance trajectories in Switzerland. These refute the popular notion of the individualisation and temporalisation of experiences with poverty. They note that well-established structural risk factors of poverty, such as low educational qualifications, single parenthood and unemployment, continue to prevail among long-term welfare recipients and that escape from temporal dependence on public assistance is largely possible only under more favourable framework conditions such as tax relief. We therefore conclude this special issue with a Swedish investigation by Ponnert and Svensson into the growing tension between procedural standardisation and professional discretion in social work across Europe. This paper revisits the question raised by Mullen at the beginning of how we use evidence in social work as the basis of accountable practice. Discretion is to be used in the best interest of service users and always with reference to evidence in a comprehensive sense to enhance the credibility of forms of service delivery. It can be seen that although the contributions to this special issue of EJSW span a wide (and representative) range of European countries (with a glimpse of some Latin-American countries) they converge on a small number of core issues for contemporary social work. These are methodologically the conceptualisation of different and interacting dimensions of diversity and practically the defence of professionalism and discretion against the encroachment by neo-liberal ideologies and cost-cutting regulations. Authentic social work research can demonstrate that social work practice has no reason to shy away from basing itself on evidence and being professionally accountable as long as its notion of evidence recognises and does justice to the complexity of social problems and acknowledges the value of inter-subjectivity in producing useable and ethically grounded evidence. It has been a gratifying experience editing this impressive showcase of current international social work research and we look forward to the next products emerging from future ECSWR conferences.