The Center Concept
Shirley Jenkins

The bottom line for social work research is that the research findings must have utility for practice. Elegance of design, sophistication of statistics, and soundness of theory are all beside the point if the problem which is addressed has little relevance to client needs or service delivery. This does not mean that theoretical research is not essential for knowledge often too abstract for application, or executed in highly selective ungeneralization sites. The complaint of research that practitioners are research shy is often answered by practitioners who say "Show me a finding relevant to my practice, and I will use it.".

There are several structural factors in social work which interfere with desired continuum from problem formulation to research utilization . Some of the difficulties relate to the dualities in the profession: one foot firmly planted in service and one toe in knowledge building; the duality in training, with the student doubly committed to academic study on the one hand and agency placement on the other, and the competing demands of social action, and program accountability. Another factor was the late development of a corps of trained social work researchers, who appeared on scene decades after the profession was operational, and attitudes were already established. This sequencing can be contrasted with developments in other fields, where research findings preceded and laid the base for the profession, as well as peer respect fro research endeavors. In social work, research is too often considered to be an add-on feature for the field. Social work is typically problem and service driven.

In spite of the all the difficulties encountered, it is nontheless true that a substantial literature on social work research has been published, and that both universities and agencies have had a part in that development. Although this paper will speak to a particular model of university-agency collaboration, this is by no means suggested to be the only model.

Changes in Agency-Based Research

The relative roles of university and agency in social work research have shifted over the years. As recently as 20 years ago, there were at least four voluntary agencies with significant research departments in New York City. For one reason or another none of these agency research enterprises is functioning in New York today.

In the late 1960's the research pendulum began to swing to the universities; the enriched funding opportunities at the federal level, with a premium on sophisticated methodology, the call for program evaluation, the growth industry of the lucrative private market for research consultants, the burgeoning of doctoral programs in social work with graduates trained in research methods, and the expansion of computer technology, were all factors which had a negative impact on agency based research. These was only one problem - the Willie Sutton factor. (When Sutton was asked why he robbed banks he said "because that's where the money is.") For practice research, the agency is where the clients are. Efforts at practice research outside the agency setting present real problems in access, relevance, and utilization. New forms are needed.

Center Model

Our model is research center jointly sponsored by a university, Columbia, and a major social service agency, the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services. Called the Center for the Study of Social Work Practice, it was formally established in 1988 as a joint enterprise -- a partnership between a major research university and an agency which serves 45,000 clients a year. Partnership between agencies and schools of social work, in training and field placement are inherent to social work education. The concept of partnership in research, however, is not generally recognized. Although it is not a problem-free model, it has much to recommend it.

Our Center for the Study of Social Work Practice is simple in conception, but complex in operation. The purpose is to add to knowledge, the means is by grounding research in practice. To this end we seek collaboration of research scholars, with strong methods and computer competence, practitioners with practice wisdom and experience, and clients who have unsolved problems. We have had a good start -- at present six professors and four doctoral students from Columbia are involved in the Research Center, together with eight Agency administrative and clinical staff.

The Center formally operates under a contract between Columbia University and the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, an agreement which specifies broad policies but allow flexibility in procedures. There is a Center administrative core, comprised of the Director on a part-time basis and an administrative assistant. The annual core budget comes from the income from a two and one half million dollar endowment being raised by the Agency. The endowment funds come from private donors who want to support a strong research arm for the Agency, and remains earmarked within the Agency. generating income which supports core salaries, administrative expenses, and seed money for development of research projects. This insures continuity and stability. The Director, who must have a University appointment, is responsible for research development, overall administration, and for maintaining academic standards. There is a a Professional Advisory Committee of four, composed of senior persons from both the School and the Agency, and a Development Council which includes prominent persons recommended by both institutions.

"The Center's purpose is to add to knowledge, the means is by grounding research in practice."

In addition to the core, the Center operates through separate research projects approved by the professional Advisory Committee, each of which has its own director and separate funding. This allows for an accordion-like structure, with an endowed modest central administrative core, not subject to the vagaries of annual shifts in funding, and a series of time-limited projects, with different funding sources. Thus the overall activities can expand or contract, without threatening the core budget.

The academic year 1988-89, was a year of research development. By May 1989, there were six ongoing projects, described elsewhere. Each is related to a social work area of the agency, and each has implications for problem solution.

In the effort to establish a more scientific base for practice, there is room for all types of research - from theoretical laboratory experiments to program evaluations. Where research utilization is primary goal, however, the greater the collaboration of researchers and practitioners, the greater the chance that findings will have relevance and utility.

This article is excerpted from a paper presented at the Conference on Research Utilization, sponsored by Boysville of Michigan and Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, May 1, 1989.