Professor David Austin
University of Texas-Austin
School of Social Work, Austin, Tx
The 1990's will be a period of great opportunity for social work as an organized profession. It will be a period of exciting and dramatic developments. We have found ourselves frenquently with announcements that say that social work is not what it used to be, and other announcements that say, one of these days, social work is going to disappear. Interestingly enough, most of those pronouncements seem to come from academics who don't suggest that universities are going to up and disappear. The first finding is quite true - social work is not what it used to be. In fact, there's no social institution in the United States that is what it used to be. And that is the way it ought to be. The second pronouncement is false. Students are flocking into schoo ls of social work across this country in unusual numbers.
A general observation which strikes a different note is that within social work, research development is at a point of crisis. Research is not recognized as a significant part of the mission of the profession, either structurally or conceptually. In so me ways, this conference today is as much a symptom of the crisis as it is an answer to it. The fact that we can point to this as being an unusual occasion is itself a symptom of what is not happening in social work around research.
As the underlying theme of this conference reflects, and as people have commented on time and time again -- there is a very significant and important gap between the current pattern of research activities, primarily in schools of social work, and the w orld of practice and its knowledge needs. The gap is paralleled in the gap between research teaching and practice teaching in most schools of social work across the country.
As a result of the lack of really concentrated research development in any one area of social work practice, there is very limited participation by social work researchers in establishing research priorities in national research funding bodies.
Against this kind of background of a really dynamic and expanding profession, within which research development has almost been stalemated, the Task Force was appointed by Dr. Louis Judd in late 1988, following a series of meetings of the leadership of national social work organizations. The establishment of the Task Force on Social Work Research was a recognition of the importance of the potential social work contribution to the research mission of NIMH.
Current state of research
What is the current state of research in social work? What should be the role of research in social work? The task Force has begun to put in writing a statement of its own understanding of what it's about. The goal of the Task Force is to suppo rt the development of research resources within the profession of social work from a person-in-environment perspective in order to improve professional practice with respect to problems of serious social concern, including direct practice, the design and development of service programs, community development and social policy analysis. In describing more fully the framework within which we have proceeded, we have added this language: just as professional practice in social work involves many fields of pra ctice dealing with a wild range of critical social problems, so the scope of knowledge building research in social work is diverse, involving a variety of interrelated, information gathering and analytic methods appropriate to the research questions being addressed. These research methods include, among others, qualitative and quantitative field research, individual and comparative case studies, historical analyses, surveys, organizational and program analyses, studies ondary data sources and quasi-experi mental and experimental studies.
There is need to develop within the practice profession a research tradition in which research questions are formulated out of the deductive theoretical concepts of the social science disciplines. That , in fact, is a very difficult process of developm ent. It is very difficult to graft a research methodological career line onto a practice profession. None of the practice professions have solved that problem. It is at least as difficult in social work as it is anywhere else, but is not a problem which i s unique to social work.