Professor Juliet Cheetham, Stirling University, Scotland
I want to start with a bold statement. In my view the evaluation of social work effectiveness is one of the best ways of bridging the gap between research and practice. I would not expect instant assent to such a proposition. Indeed, I would expect many people to argue that the linking of research and practitioners is best achieved in a less contentious context: for example, in the identification of the needs of the populations who are or might be served by social workers: or in th examination of social work processes. In such arenas social work will be less threatened than when its outcomes are under the microscope.
Certainly studies of process and of needs are essential to the proper planning of social work policy and practice. Furthermore, the examination of need can result in calls for the expansion of social work’s territory and resources. Thus researchers may well be seen as the friends of social work. But, save in environments long since gone, if ever they existed, in which the identifi cation of needs was an automatic passport to further resources. This research has several limitations. It will not, for example, demonstrate the proven value of social work’s response to needs; it will not help on its own, social workers decides on their most effective and economic approaches. At this point in history, when good intentions, altruism and devotion to the disadvantaged are not accepted as sufficient justifications for social work’s existence, its professional and public reputation and, most important of all, the standards of its services will be enhances by good effectiveness research.
The Social work Research Center
The Social Work Research Center in Stirling was established in 1986 to study the effectiveness of social work. There are now, at any one time, about nine or ten research staff, about half of whom are both qualified social workers and researchers with e xperience of social work practice. The Center’s core funding comes form the Scottish Office and the Economic and Social Research council and we are also commissioned by Foundations and various government voluntary agencies to undertake studies of special interest to them.
In the last five years the Center has undertaken over twenty-five studies of residential and fieldwork services for most major groups of clients. These are grouped into four major themes-the effective of community care, social work and criminal justice; the effectiveness of different organizational arrangements for fieldwork services; and the effectiveness of preventive social work.
It is the Center’s considered view that the demand for evaluative research, and its relative scarcity, encourage a pragmatic approach in which problems confronting social work, the methods by which they are tackled and their outcomes can be studied in settings, small and large, which previously may not have been regarded as feasible contexts for researching effectiveness. Such pragmatism demands imagination, inventiveness and discipline; it is not a synonym for sloppiness. This approach is based on the assumption that there is no one research method which is to be preferred above all others for its potential to illuminate and demonstrate social work effectiveness. Our experience over the last years has taught us to challenge any faith there may be that there is a range of new methodological developments waiting to be invented, a brave new methodological world yet to be discovered. We believed that progress in this much needed and little explored area of research will come, in the main, form rigorous applications, combinations and adaptations of available methods. Evaluating the effectiveness of social work has therefore to be pursued and developed as the art of the possible, with full recognition that what is possible is also limited.
In short, experience on both sides of the Atlantic now encourages a pragmatic, eclectic approach. Thus positivism is not to be used, as has too often been the case in social science and social work, as a term of crude abuse or infallibility. It is simp ly recognized that if the preferred research designs have to incorporate random sampling and/or assignment and control groups then studies of effectiveness will not only often be narrow in scope and superficial in analysis, they will be eliminated from all except the best resourced academic centers and from most social work agencies.
At this point in the enterprise all the citizens of the world of social work, its recipients, practitioners, managers, politicians and taxpayers can and should place their own value on its activities. The responsibility of the researcher is to do her best to ensure that this debate can be grounded in knowledge about the suffering to be confronted, the means of so doing and the effects, for good and ill, of the labours of practitioners.