Beyond the pro and contra of evidence-based practice: Reflections on a recurring dilemma at the core of social work
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Currently, social work is witnessing a quite polarized debate about what should be the basis for good practice. Simply stated, the different attempts to define the required basis for effective and accountable interventions in social work practice can be grouped in two paradigmatic positions, which seem to be in strong opposition to each other. On the one hand the highly influential evidence based practice movement highlights the necessity to base practice interventions on proven effectiveness from empirical research. Despite some variations, such as between narrow conceptions of evidence based practice (see e.g. McNeece/Thyer, 2004) and broader approaches to it (see e.g. Gambrill, 1999, 2001, 2008), the evidence based practice movement embodies a positivist orientation and more explicitly scientific aspirations of social work by using positivistic empirical strategies. Critics of the evidence based practice movement argue that its narrow epistemological assumptions are not appropriate for the understanding of social phenomena and that evidence based guidelines to practice are insufficient to deal with the extremely complex activities social work practice requires in different and always somewhat unique practice situations (Webb, 2001; Gray & Mc Donald, 2006; Otto, Polutta &Ziegler, 2009). Furthermore critics of evidence based practice argue that it privileges an uncritical and a-political positivism which seems highly problematic in the current climate of welfare state reforms, in which the question ‘what works’ is highly politicized and the legitimacy of professional social work practice is being challenged maybe more than ever before (Kessl, 2009). Both opponents and proponents of evidence based practice argue on the epistemological, the methodological and the ethical level to sustain their point of view and raise fundamental questions about the real nature of social work practice, so that one could get the impression that social work is really at the crossroads between two very different conceptions of social work practice and its further professional development (Stepney, 2009). However, this article is not going to merely rehearse the pro and contra of different positions that are being invoked in the debate about evidence based practice. Instead it aims to go further by identifying the dilemmas underlying these positions which - so it is argued – re-emerge in the debate about evidence based practice, but which are older than this debate. They concern the fundamental ambivalence modern professionalization processes in social work were subjected to from their very beginnings.