Practicioner-Researcher Partnerships

Practitioner-Researcher Partnerships: Building Knowledge from, in, and for Practice

Peg McCartt Hess and Edward J. Mullen, Editors
ISBN: 0-87101-252-9
285 pages
Item no. 2529


Collaborative Considerations in Practitioner–Researcher Knowledge-Building Partnerships


This volume explores mechanisms that promote practitioner–researcher partnerships in generating social work practice knowledge. Multiple formal and informal collaborative approaches to developing practice knowledge are emerging. Identifying and disseminating such mechanisms has been a high priority of the Center for the Study of Social Work Practice, which commissioned the chapters that make up this book. The chapters examine the character of social work practice knowledge and explore ways practitioner and researcher partnerships can facilitate the development of such knowledge. It is time that the profession progress beyond identification of the gap between practitioners and researchers. What is now needed is innovation in the development of productive knowledge-building partnerships.


During recent decades, social work researchers, educators, and practitioners have publicly and privately decried the gap between practice and research. This gap developed over several decades as the profession confronted and struggled with emergent forces within the profession, the university, and the world of practice.

The value placed on practice research by the profession has varied considerably since the profession's beginnings over a century ago. Growing emphasis on practice research has been influenced by broad environmental forces, such as the maturation of the social sciences, the elaboration of technology, and an increased demand for accountability as agencies compete for scarce resources. The late 1950s marked a turning point for practice research. Schools of social work were strengthening their relationships with university hosts, theoretical diversity was emerging, and research methodology and technology were developing. At the end of that decade, Florence Hollis, a leading practice scholar, wrote that it was time to replace the profession's informal research tradition with formal, rigorous research. Her writing over several decades illustrates the growing tensions and the widening gap that subsequently developed. For example, in 1960 Hollis wrote the following:

Let us admit that rule-of-thumb research is the beginning, not the end, of knowledge. Hypotheses arise primarily from such small-scale, informal research. But eventually formal, rigorous research must follow. We are now ready for that in casework. Innumerable hypotheses and propositions in casework are ready for testing. Some of our pet hypotheses may prove invalid; many will need modification and further development. I believe most of them, if properly tested, will hold up very well. If they do not, the sooner we are rid of them the better. Surely we are not afraid to put them to the test. (p. 166)

In the concluding section of the first edition of Hollis's (1964) influential text Casework: A Psychosocial Therapy, she again forcefully expressed this point of view:

Casework today has two great needs. One is for the development of greater skill among practitioners. . . . The other is for research into problems of casework practice, carried on by investigators who are skilled in research methodology, grounded in casework content, theory and practice, and thoroughly cognizant of the nature of the problems and treatment methods they seek to study. (p. 269)

These quotes highlight two themes that pervaded social work practice writing and teaching throughout the 1960s. It was time for rigorous practice research, which needed to be conducted by skilled practitioners well trained in research. This view of research methodology was in keeping with social work's historical emphasis on research performed by skilled and knowledgeable practitioners and built from case experience. The dominant practice research of the late 1950s and the early 1960s followed that approach, often characterized by the careful analysis and description of the contents of case records to further specify the practice process. Inductive in nature, studies typically aimed to elaborate theory development, and much was learned about practice.

A shift to evaluation research and experimental methods occurred in the late 1960s. Reflecting the expanding gap between practitioners and researchers associated with this shift, Woods and Hollis (1990) wrote:

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, casework went through a period of experimentation and adaptation of a type of research methodology derived largely from the social sciences. As it turned out, the field was not ready for this type of research. To the dismay of caseworkers, many of the studies of this period failed to demonstrate good results. Even into the early 1980s, grave questions were therefore being raised about casework effectiveness. Controversy raged in the literature, with some researchers vehemently challenging traditional theories and methods of helping. Some social workers began to doubt whether what they were doing with clients really helped after all . . . and the notion grew that there was no empirical basis for the casework practice of the day. (pp. 16-17)

These comments capture the deepening rift between the research and practice communities associated with the change in practice research focus and methodologies. However, the adherence of Hollis to a belief in scientifically based practice reflected a broad sentiment prevalent among practice scholars. Despite increasing tensions, the social work practice leadership has maintained that practice and research are compatible and complementary. Representing this belief, Woods and Hollis (1990) asserted the need for collaboration between clinicians and researchers: "The growth of knowledge, the status of the profession, and the improvement of casework treatment require a spirit of cooperation between clinicians and researchers. Each has much to learn from the knowledge, perspectives, and skills of the other; together they can contribute to improved methods of clinical experimentation and increased clinical competence" (p. 20).

Other leaders in the profession also have recognized and called for a closing of the gap. For example, in identifying themes emerging from the landmark National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)–sponsored conference, The Future of Social Work Research, Fanshel (1980) asserted that "the profession needs to face up to the changes in the places in which research is being carried out, to the growing sophistication of some research, and to the problems practitioners are having in identifying with the research effort . . . . Social work should end the artificial division between research and practice" (pp. 16–17). The 1991 NIMH-sponsored Task Force on Social Work Research report, Building Social Work Knowledge for Effective Services and Policies, is a notable contribution to this effort. The profession's efforts to close the gap have been noteworthy (Grasso & Epstein,1992; Videka-Sherman & Reid, 1990).

The founding director of the Center for the Study of Social Work Practice, the late Dr. Shirley Jenkins, specifically attempted to close the gap through knowledge-building efforts that grounded research in practice through collaboration (Jenkins & Mattaini,1992). She emphasized that "the greater the collaboration of researchers and practitioners, the greater the chance that findings will have relevance and utility" (Jenkins, 1992, p. 404). In 1991, the center sponsored an invitational conference that explored critical practice research issues and potential mechanisms to bridge the gap between social work practice and research. An emergent theme was for the profession to give priority to identifying approaches that advance practitioner–researcher partnerships in generating knowledge as reflected in the publication of conference papers and proceedings in a special issue of Research on Social Work Practice (Special Issue, 1992). This book addresses that priority by proposing a conceptual framework that recognizes potential sources of dissonance and difficulty between practitioners and researchers while simultaneously promoting the cooperation called for by Hollis and others. Limited neither by practice method nor by field of practice, the contributors to this volume provide well-conceptualized, detailed examples of the nature and outcome of productive collaborative knowledge-building efforts.


Despite well-documented tensions between the practice and research communities, progress has been made in bridging the practice–research gap. Practitioners study their own practice with researchers as consultants; practitioners and researchers function as coinvestigators; researchers study practice with practitioners as consultants; groups of practitioners and researchers function as teams; and in some instances, the practitioner and the researcher are one and the same.

The process of building knowledge from, in, and for social work practice is shaped by a series of decisions. Each decision in turn reflects a complex interaction of philosophical, organizational, political, and ethical considerations. When the knowledge-building effort is collaborative, relational dimensions also are influential. Those practitioners and researchers who successfully forge productive knowledge-building partnerships must negotiate the numerous decisions inherent in such efforts. Contributing authors were invited to describe and analyze the evolution of their diverse practitioner–researcher partnerships and to identify the ways in which collaborative knowledge-building efforts have been affected by relational, philosophical, organizational, political, and ethical considerations.


To collaborate is to labor together. Although collaboration may be initiated by either individuals or organizations, joint work requires establishing relationships. The nature of collaborative relationships varies. When practitioners and researchers work as coinvestigators, they accept equal responsibility for the process and product. In instances in which a practitioner or researcher serves as consultant to the other, one relies on the other's expertise. Practitioners and researchers who collaborate as a team negotiate roles and responsibilities. As interests, needs, and skills evolve, the nature of the relationship may change. The relational aspects of collaboration may energize the partners; on the other hand, dissonance in the relationship may undermine productivity. As partnerships are established and maintained, consideration should be given to the interests and needs of the parties, role expectations and assignment of responsibilities, communication, and power.

Individual Interests and Needs

Collaborative knowledge-building relationships meet many individual professional and personal interests and needs. These include substantive interests, such as in a particular client population, practice innovation, or theoretical framework; interests in skill development, such as learning more about an innovative practice or research approach; interests in developing professional relationships and networks; and interests in professional career advancement. Whatever the interests and needs that prompt initial collaborative efforts, partners who experience a relationship as gratifying will be more likely to invest their time, energy, and expertise in the mutual effort, struggle through difficulties created by relational or other factors, and complete the work.

Roles and Responsibilities

Social work practitioners and researchers typically function with a high degree of autonomy and clarity about their roles and responsibilities. In deciding to study a question or problem with one or more colleagues, a practitioner or researcher may experience less than the accustomed autonomy and role clarity. It is therefore important for all collaborators to reach some degree of specificity about each partner's autonomy with regard to conceptual and logistical decisions and actions related to the knowledge-building effort. If partners assume the same degree of autonomy they experience in other professional roles, misunderstandings and conflict may result.

Collaborating individuals may find that explicitly defining the expectations associated with their respective roles, such as consultant, coinvestigator, or team member, offers "some firm footing, some ground rules for what and how and with whom the person claiming that status is supposed to act" (Perlman,1968, p. 41). Open discussion about role expectations increases the likelihood that roles will be complementary and decreases the problems that can emerge when one partner's perception of his or her own role differs from the perceptions of other partners. To illustrate, one team comprised of two practitioners and two researchers noted that

in our early discussions we acknowledged the need for time to build relationships and to learn about and understand our divergent perspectives. By no means was this process perfect, nor was it always smooth; roles and responsibilities required continuous clarification. However, the process was made somewhat easier because the team expected, and stated early on, that conflicting relationships and disagreements about tasks would arise in the normal course of group development and that conflicts would be discussed and an attempt made to resolve them openly. (Galinsky, Turnbull, Meglin, & Wilner, 1993, p. 446)

The concepts of role set and role conflict also are relevant. Collaborators are likely to fill a number of roles. Researchers are often agency consultants, community advocates, and social work educators and may through these roles have prior or current relationships with an agency in which a collaborative study is being initiated. Practitioners also fill multiple roles within their agencies—including supervisor and administrator—and within the community as consultant, educator, and advocate. Both researchers and practitioners should anticipate and attempt to prevent possible conflict between their various roles as they design and implement a study, analyze findings, and determine sources and methods of dissemination.


Although communication is a core social work skill, one can assume that the barriers to communication that often occur in other professional relationships also may interfere with the practitioner–researcher collaboration. Two of these may challenge practitioners and researchers as they work together. Compton and Galaway (1994) noted that preconceived ideas may result in "anticipating the other" rather than listening carefully: "Anticipation of the other occurs when one permits an existing stereotype to shape and distort the current communication" (p. 312). Both practitioners and researchers may hold preconceived ideas about the other (Kirk, 1990) and find that stereotypes must be challenged to communicate effectively. Assumption of meaning also can be a communication barrier. Practitioners and researchers may use the same word with different meanings and expectations (such as "prediction") or may use different words to identify the same concept or phenomenon. Professional jargon associated with theoretical frameworks and practice settings also may contribute to assumption of meaning. In our experience, intentionally clarifying meaning, particularly as roles are defined and agreements are reached regarding research questions, methodology, and dissemination of findings, may uncover areas of misunderstanding before they become areas of conflict.


In negotiating the numerous decisions involved in collaborative efforts, colleagues inevitably confront the question "who decides?" When conflicts arise, the resolution is often a function of power. French and Raven (1959) identified five bases of power: legitimate power, reward power, coercive power, expert power, and referent power. Raven (1965) added a sixth—informational power. Collaborators' agreements and the culture and norms of the organizations with which collaborators are associated may determine legitimate power. Reward power includes anticipated personal reactions and concrete rewards. Coercive power occurs when one party can effect punishments for the other. Referent power reflects the identification of one with another, whereas expert power is based on the attribution of superior knowledge, an attribution that may be based on reputation or on credentials.

Within collaborative relationships, individuals hold and exercise different types of power. Huston (1983) stated that

persons possessing expert power merely need to state their position on issues about which their expertise is relevant; individuals who have reward or coercive power will offer promises or threaten the target; those whose power rests with the information they can bring to bear on a matter will try to influence the target by explaining their views. (pp. 204–205)

A number of variables will determine the distribution and use of power within the partnership. These include the purpose for the collaboration, the organizational auspices and resources supporting the effort, and the individual characteristics of the collaborators. The effects of individuals' power on their process and product may be important to anticipate.


Based on their educational and professional experiences, social work practitioners and researchers develop philosophies that either implicitly or explicitly shape their thinking about the nature of practice knowledge and those methods most likely to generate knowledge. Considerable variation most likely exists between practitioners and researchers with regard to several intricately related dimensions that define the character of practice knowledge. These dimensions are often posed as dichotomies or as representing mutually exclusive points of view. lnstead, we discuss them as dimensions with extremes as well as points along a continuum.

Particular practice and research groups and communities may be more or less compatible depending on their collective positions on these dimensions. Therefore, the ease with which collaborating organizations—such as schools of social work and community agencies—and individual practitioner–researcher teams reach agreement with regard to knowledge-building efforts may be explained partially by the similarity and difference of their positions on these dimensions. Collaborators' failure to explicitly consider these can contribute to confusion and frustration.


This dimension involves the degree to which objectivity and subjectivity are valued in reaching an understanding of reality that is accepted as knowledge. Social workers traditionally have valued practice approaches that emphasize the clients' subjective understanding of their needs, problems, and goals (Hollis, 1939, 1968; Perlman, 1957; Richmond, 1917). Furthermore, clients' perceptions and the meaning of these in a particular context have been explored, understood, and sometimes changed by the human helping relationship. As Orcutt (1990) noted, "reflection as a thought process is an integral part of the practitioner–client interaction. It assumes varying levels, but all thought that is meaningful has an element of reflection that precedes understanding" (p. 68). Thus, in social work practice, subjective perception has a central role in defining reality.

In the social work research community, a value has been placed on discerning the nature of reality as separate from subjective reflections and from context. Adopting an approach to science that was developed for use in the physical and natural sciences, researchers have embraced a view that assumes that objects and events can be known by using scientific methods, thereby providing bias-free objective knowledge (Briar, 1979; Hudson, 1978; Kirk & Fischer, 1976). In this view, it is assumed that the empirical world can be known within limits and approximate agreement can be reached about an observed reality.

Accordingly, some social work researchers and practitioners seek to build knowledge through strategies that enhance objectivity; others value knowledge-building methods that access clients' and practitioners' perceptions and meanings and thus enhance subjectivity. Still others seek strategies that do not force the objective–subjective dichotomy. For example, building on the work of Reason and Rowan (1981), Orcutt (1990) has suggested a research paradigm that is subjective–objective, viewing "reality as a process—neither as subject nor as object, but as both" (p.96). We believe that collaborators' preferences with regard to objectivity–subjectivity and their openness to valuing each other's perspective will contribute to the ease with which specific collaborative knowledge-building efforts are es tablished and maintained.


The descriptive vocabulary of knowledge is often divided into what are referred to as "observable" and "theoretical" terms. Although many have argued that the sharp distinctions between observational and theoretical terms no longer hold sway in contemporary philosophy of science (Fiske & Shweder, 1986; Suppe, 1977), the distinctions between these terms continue to influence the knowledge-building efforts of contemporary social work practice. The use of theoretical terms for which appropriate operations do not exist has been deemed problematic in both practice and research (Corcoran & Fischer,1987; Hudson,1985). The question as to how one knows that theoretical entities exist has been forcefully raised in social work debates (Hudson, 1978; Neisser, Taubman, Levitt, Brown, & Gingerich, 1978; Wertkin, Gyarfas, & Hudson, 1978).

The gap between the person–environment theoretical frameworks on which social work practice is based and the primarily person-centered measures that have been available to study practice and practice effects has exacerbated tensions in this dimension. Both research conventions and available technology have been described as contributing to the focus on evaluating primarily person-centered practice problems and outcomes, neglecting attention to those that are environmental, transactional, and multidimensional (Kagle & Cowger, 1984). To illustrate further, the ecosystems framework incorporates theoretical terms that practitioners find useful in psychosocial assessment and in intervening in person–environment situations. One such term is boundary, such as the boundary between a family and its environment (Germain, 1991; Hartman & Laird, 1983; Meyer, 1993; Minuchin,1974). Although the use of graphics allows for the representation of boundaries (Hartman, 1978; Mattaini, 1993), difficulties arise in making the theoretical term "boundary" operational in empirical terms. Do these difficulties preclude knowledge-building efforts that describe and evaluate practitioners' efforts to create changes in family boundaries? We do not think so. Identification of difficulties, however, requires that collaborators give careful attention to terms used in research questions and make explicit their assumptions about measurement. Practitioner–researcher willingness to define explicitly theoretical and empirical terms is essential to productive collaboration.


The current debate regarding quantitative versus qualitative methodologies is important as the profession moves toward clarifying the nature of practice knowledge. Although social work research texts commonly have been written with only minor reference to qualitative research, new professional publications reflect the increased interest in using qualitative methodologies, such as case study research and ethnography, in social work knowledge building (Reissman, 1994; Sherman & Reid, 1994).

Although measurement does not require quantification, social work researchers have valued developing reliable and valid instruments useful in quantitative research (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987; Coulton & Solomon, 1977; Hudson, 1982, 1985). In the symbolic representation of the psychosocial world, however, problems may arise in measuring process and outcomes in social work practice through exclusive reliance on quantitative methods. Ironically, context, which often has been viewed as a potential source of measurement error by social science researchers (Bloom & Fischer, 1982; Bostwick & Kyte, 1981), is essential to the conceptualization of social work practice. The capacity of qualitative methods to access the detail and complexity in the context of clients' lives and in the process and context of social work practice is increasingly identified as valuable by practice researchers (Bernstein, Goodman, & Epstein, 1992; Black et al., in press; Gilgun, 1992, 1994; Hess, 1988; Reissman, 1994; Sherman & Reid, 1994).

The majority of social worker researchers are prepared in their professional education to use quantitative research methodology (Fraser, Jenson, & Lewis, 1991; Roberts, 1989). However, typically, this education has not prepared them to incorporate qualitative methods into knowledge-building efforts, subsequently reinforcing the value of quantitative approaches. In the future, neither practitioners nor researchers will be able to understand the increasingly specialized mathematics and language associated with the quantitative world without advanced training. The conventional position that both quantitative and qualitative approaches are useful and that the nature of the question should determine whether to use quantitative, qualitative, or a combination of methods may continue to be obscured as issues of expertise and philosophy are debated. If so, this dimension will increasingly contribute to tensions existing between researchers and practitioners.

Explanation–Prediction and Understanding

Philosophers of science would generally agree that the primary goal of scientific activity is knowledge and that scientific knowledge results from understanding. Yet what is meant by understanding and how understanding is achieved are vigorously debated (Hartman, 1990). Students preparing for professional social work practice demonstrate great interest in learning new ways of understanding the problems and needs of clients. Often the under- standing develops as students connect their clients' needs or person–situation configuration with a particular theory. From the students' perspective, however, understanding the client is not sufficient unless it guides intervention on the client's behalf. The student insists that the understanding needs to apply to the individual client and not to clients in general. Thus it can be said that the practitioner needs an understanding that not only explains a specific client situation but also provides for predictable outcomes when actions are taken based on this understanding. Students are often left wondering what actions would have predictable results with the clients they must face the next day in their practice.

A hypothetical researcher might have little interest in the details of the student's specific client or with the outcome of the student's particular actions with a client. Rather, the researcher is curious about achieving a general understanding of a broad category of events. The type of prediction of concern to the researcher may be whether the understanding achieved will be able to provide deductions, thus enriching, elaborating, or testing a theory. Although intervention theories might be expected to provide direction to practitioners, this idea of prediction differs from that of prediction as a test of the theory. Although prediction as a test of a theoretical proposition plays an important role in basic science, in a different sense prediction can be thought of as the ability of a theory to provide practical guidance to practitioners. Intervention theories, for example, might be expected to provide sufficient precision so as to give direction toward achieving a particular purpose.

Researchers and practitioners may have different ideas about not only understanding and the relative importance to be placed on explanation and prediction but also the type of understanding desired. Because of the contextual dependence of knowledge and the unique complexities of many of the substantive concerns of social sciences, it is sometimes said that social scientists should be "idiographers"—describers of individual events—rather than "nomothetists"—developers of universal laws (Scott, 1990). This difference also is reflected in the hypothetical situation described earlier in which practitioner–researcher interests were focused either on a unique client situation or a type of client situation. When differing interests and expectations with regard to explanation, prediction, and type of understanding are carried into practice research, tensions are likely.


Practitioner–researcher partnerships may be formed independent of organizational auspices, as a consequence of the arrangement between collaborating organizations, and in response to requests for proposals to organizations with which affiliations for funding are subsequently established. The majority of social work practitioners and researchers who engage in collaborative knowledge-building efforts, however, are affiliated with organizations. The number of organizations with which collaborators are affiliated is likely to increase when studies are funded. Whatever the number and nature of the practitioners' and researchers' individual and shared organizational relationships, collaborators' decisions probably will be influenced by organizational mission and authority to access resources, including staff time, expertise, and data (Bogo et al., 1992; Cook, Freedman, Evans, Rodell, & Taylor, 1992; Schilling, Schinke, Kirkham, Meltzer, & Norelius, 1988; Wells, Feldman, & Kelman, 1988).

Organizational considerations ultimately may determine whether and in what form the partners' work can proceed. For example, organizations with a knowledge-building mission, including schools of social work and service settings such as teaching hospitals, often have developed mechanisms for practitioners and researchers to access seed money or other support and incentives for practice research. However, human services organizations typically have a direct service mission. This mission may result in restraints on the use of staff time for practice research caused by concern about the potential neglect of client services needs. Therefore, although an agency might value and encourage practitioner–researcher partnerships, staff might engage in such activities with limited or no adjustment to workload and with limited or no other organizational resources. Practitioners affiliated with some service organizations can only engage in practice–research partnerships on their own time. Inevitably, the availability of time and other resources will shape the nature of knowledge-building efforts.

Methodological options and access to staff and clients may be affected by service organizations' concerns about potential practice–research intrusions on staff service delivery (Young, 1986). Other concerns, such as the potential for practice–research findings to raise questions about the organization's policies, programs, and practice, may influence the ease with which access to agency records, staff, and clients will be authorized and the ability to agree on issues related to disseminating findings.

Organizational considerations provide both opportunities and obstacles to practice–research collaborations. The underestimation by collaborators of the importance of these considerations to short- and long-term decision making may jeopardize their attempts to work together.


The development and dissemination of knowledge from, in, and for practice inevitably raises political and ethical issues for those engaged in the process. Social work collaborators are members of a politically active profession whose code of ethics outlines numerous and potentially conflicting obligations that affect the purposes, methods, and uses of collaborative practice research. As such, social workers must be willing to engage in dialogue with others affected by their knowledge-building efforts. Karger (1983) has argued that

All research is political and ideological; by the choice of the subject and design of methodology, the researcher creates a context for understanding social phenomena. Conversely, the refusal of the researcher to create a context for understanding social phenomenon is also political. . . . Research that does not attempt to fully illuminate a problem may succeed in further masking it. No research is insignificant. (p. 203)

Collaborators must be prepared to identify and attempt to address the complex ethical and political dilemmas inherent in each phase of knowledge building.

In a discussion of the social context of social program evaluation, Rossi and Freeman (1989) emphasized that evaluators must

recognize the range of stakeholders who directly or indirectly can affect the usefulness of evaluation efforts, both as evaluators go about doing their work, and afterward, in their responses to the product. . . various stakeholders typically have different perspectives on the meaning and importance of an evaluation's findings. These disparate viewpoints are a source of potential conflict not only between stakeholders themselves but between these persons and the evaluator. No matter how an evaluation comes out, there are some to whom the findings are good news and some to whom they are bad news. (pp. 422–423)

Stakeholders whose interests potentially affect and are affected by collaborative practice research include not only organizations affiliated with researchers and practitioners but also funding organizations, those whose practice is studied, policymakers, clients, and the social work profession. Early in their work together, practitioners and researchers should anticipate the potential meaning of findings to various constituencies and the various forums and formats through which findings will be disseminated. As the process evolves, if the findings are anticipated to be "bad news" to significant stakeholders about a particular practice, program, or policy outcome, collaborators should prepare to face an intensification of the ethical and political dilemmas they must address.


The subsequent chapters of this book describe and analyze practice knowledge and the practitioner–researcher partnership from the perspective of strategies for narrowing the gap between practice and research. The contributors present additional and varied perspectives on the practitioner–researcher gap. More important, their contributions describe and evaluate promising ways to narrow this gap and to reduce the tensions so that productive partnerships can emerge. The concluding chapter considers the issues raised in this introduction and, drawing from author contributions, presents ways to enhance practitioner and researcher contributions to the development of practice knowledge.

Reflective Inquiry: Developing Knowledge in Practice

In chapter 2, Donald A. Schön reviews ideas set forth in The Reflective Practitioner (1983) and explores their current application to social work. In his chapter Schön asserts that "It is time to reconsider the question of professional knowledge" (p. 39) and encourages social workers to reflect on situations in which "we cannot say what we know" (p. 39). He writes that skillful practitioners continually engage in a process of reflection-in-action that may be difficult to describe.

In this volume, Schön extends his well-known analysis of the professions to social work. He proposes that social work practitioners not only use but also generate knowledge, accomplished through systematic, critical reflection on knowing-in-action. He suggests that the reflective process leads to increased personal effectiveness and a learning from experience that can be useful for others. In situation-specific ways, practitioners develop knowledge by generating new strategies of action, models, and maps and by reframing problems and roles. Schön proposes that successful practitioners manifest the capability for reflective inquiry in the practice situation, especially in uncertain situations that demand judgment and where learned behavior does not apply. He proposes that successful practitioners acknowledge and face not knowing and that they are capable of reflective inquiry in practice, which leads to rethinking strategies of action, reinterpreting contexts, reframing problems, and redefining roles. Successful, experienced practitioners manifest tacit intelligent action or know-how (knowing-in-action). They also engage in on-the-spot inquiry when confronted with novel situations wherein the tacit know-how does not apply (reflection-in-action). Schön proposes that through reflecting on these situations and processes, practitioners can develop new knowledge useful to them and to others in similar situations.

Schön sees the practitioner–researcher partnership as one that builds on reflection so researchers might help practitioners enhance the reflective process. Researchers might collaborate in identifying cumulative patterns of understanding, problem-setting, and strategies of action generated in multiple practice situations, thus making specific knowledge more applicable in general. In partnership, researchers also might pursue ways to make these understandings researchable by critical analysis, explication of plausible alternatives, and proposal of observations and practice experiments for testing and developing these understandings further. Schön's proposal changes the practitioner–researcher relationship from one in which the practitioner is the audience to one in which the practitioner is a partner in knowledge development.

Practitioners Reflect in and on Practice

An assumption underlying this volume is that practitioners play a number of critical roles in knowledge building. In chapter 3, Peg McCartt Hess explores a critical role for reflective practitioners—reflecting in and on practice and giving voice to their reflections. Drawing on Schön's observations that reflection typically is prompted by a puzzling, troubling, or interesting phenomenon, Hess interviewed four social workers described by colleagues as "experienced, reflective practitioners" and asked them to discuss a case that had puzzled them and prompted reflection. Using Schön's framework, Hess posed similar questions to each practitioner, focusing on the ways in which each thought about the problematic situation, drew on practice knowledge, reached for new understandings, identified new learning, and raised questions for additional study. The cases include

• a group of single mothers living with either human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and their adolescent children, in which the practitioner is confused by unexpected difficulties in addressing the mothers' plans for their children's guardianship

• a family threatened with separation because of the mother's severe chronic mental illness, in which the practitioner is faced with problems in developing a practical plan for risk management and identifying institutional arrangements

• individual therapeutic work with a young adult who has serious somatic symptoms, in which the practitioner asks, "Why aren't the symptoms decreasing?"

• marital treatment with a couple in their late forties, in which a private practitioner questions the appropriate model for service coordination when alcoholism is present.

The practitioners' words illustrate the process of reflection-in action as they describe reframing roles and problems and developing and testing strategies and models in their practice. The excerpts demonstrate the process and outcome of reflection on reflection-in-action as the practitioners retrospectively evaluate their practice experiences and knowledge. The types of observations that may emerge from purposeful practitioner–researcher dialogue also are illustrated.

Researcher Consultation Promotes Reflective Practice

Irwin Epstein (chapter 4) critically assesses Schön's formulations and places them in the context of social work. He considers the four practitioners' case examples Hess presents as illustrations of how social workers think when facing indeterminate, puzzling practice situations. Epstein joins Schön in supporting the promise of the reflective practitioner model. However, he sees a place for established theory and dominant research paradigms as well as the alternative theories and competing research paradigms that Schon identifies. He stresses the need to extend the ideas of reflective practice to all levels of social work practice. As a solution to the practice and research gap and the crisis of relevance, Epstein recommends incorporation of research into practice decision making at every level in a way that empowers practitioners, promises enhancement of practice, and avoids compromising practice principles and ethics. He sees practice and research partnerships as enhanced when

• positive relationships are established based on trust, respect, and appreciation

• practitioners set the research agenda

• research is adapted to practice requisites

• account is taken of the practitioners' ability to contextualize and apply findings

• active listening occurs and focuses on identification of concerns, theories, metaphors, and contradictions

• validation exists of practitioner's desire to know and reflect

• belief exists that practice-based, research-informed reflection leads to effective practice.

Epstein proposes that promising practice–research strategies should be naturalistic collaborations that do not require compromise with practice principles and ethics (differential evaluation) and that recognize and build on the assumption that practice and research are analogous information-driven, problem-solving processes (research analogues). Also promising are grounded-theory approaches that require ongoing reflection on the theoretical assumptions of the practitioner and client, the fit of these assumptions with experience, the possible better fit of alternative theories, and consideration of implications of findings for practice.

Researcher–Practitioner Partnerships Support Local Community Development

Claudia Coulton (chapter 5) critically examines the practitioner and researcher partnership at the local community level. Coulton draws on her experiences as director of the Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change to discuss linking research with local planning and action initiatives in low-income communities. Coulton holds that collaboration between university-based faculty and community-based practitioners has great potential, but such community and faculty partnerships require that questions studied be important to all parties and that anticipated answers have practical as well as scientific significance. She warns that faculty cannot approach communities as laboratories to test preconceived ideas. Partnerships must be guided by the vision, values, and questions of both parties in a coequal relationship. That useful research will address the concerns of the community must be assumed. Coulton sees such partnerships as strengthening practice by anchoring local planning and action initiatives in research rather than political appeal. Although the Cleveland Area Network for Data and Organizing program (CAN DO) provides an outstanding example of her principles, Coulton questions how such an approach to partnerships ultimately will affect the quality of practice and how such research will be accepted in universities. Although it holds potential for enhancing partnership, does the product of practitioner–researcher collaboration result in theory development on one hand and improved practice on the other?

Community Practitioners Conduct Practice-Based Research with Researcher Consultation

Schön notes that practitioners often have difficulty saying what they know. Juliet Cheetham (chapter 6) describes a partnership model designed to help practitioners articulate and put flesh on what they know. This model also illustrates Epstein's idea of conducting practitioner-led studies in, rather than on, practice. Cheetham provides another example of Coulton's proposal that universities develop collaborative relationships with community agencies and practitioners. Cheetham describes how a university has successfully supported individual social work practitioners in conducting small-scale studies of practice effectiveness. Her emphasis on effectiveness research is directly related to her central theme: Social workers must be able to comment with authority on the impact of their intervention. Cheetham believes that this prompts and demands the closest alliance between practitioners and researchers and that the answer to questions of effectiveness needs to be pursued in partnership with clients. She emphasizes small-scale, practitioner-led research that prompts and informs policy questions requiring large-scale formal research and that can analyze the effect of practitioner services on individuals, families, and small groups. This latter type of research can have important impact on local practice. In agreement with Coulton, Cheetham raises concern about the difficulties of this type of partnership for university-based researchers. One issue is that of dissemination. Faculty must publish the results of their practice research in journals, but to reach practitioners, findings must be presented at conferences and professional meetings, which can be demanding on university-based researchers. Cheetham notes that the university places different values on basic, strategic, and applied research, and small-scale practice-effectiveness research may not be regarded highly.

Institutions Sponsor Collaborative Partnerships

Denise Burnette and Audrey S. Weiner (chapter 7) describe important dimensions of successful collaboration in their exemplar of a university–faculty and agency–practitioner relationship. By addressing personal and relational characteristics; organizational, political, and ethical factors; and philosophical–epistemological perspectives, they clearly identify elements of a productive partnership. The retrospective analysis of their collaborative partnership illustrates one prescription for success.

Burnette and Weiner underscore the importance of addressing underlying epistemological stances in the partnership. Their position is clear when they write, "Of the lessons learned from our experience in agency–university collaboration, perhaps the most important is that the complex, dynamic nature of the social world and the attendant pain and problems that are the purview of social work defy bifurcation into rigid epistemologies or research methodologies" (p.149). Their analysis demonstrates awareness of the epistemological issues that can separate practitioners and researchers. They stress the importance of a compatible relationship in which both partners take a pragmatic, multiple-perspective, open stance on these epistemological issues. Burnette and Weiner highlight the importance of personal and relationship factors in partnerships. Although different by virtue of their respective positions in academia and agency, they share backgrounds and interests that shape and sustain a common focus and set of commitments. They also illustrate the significance of organizational factors in sustaining partnerships: A research center jointly sponsored by agency and university provided the structure and climate that helped to initiate and sustain a productive partnership.

Practitioner–Researcher Partnerships Develop out of Shared Interests

Rita Beck Black and Virginia N. Walther (chapter 8) describe the successful partnership between a university faculty member and a teaching-hospital practitioner. Black and Walther are located in institutions committed to knowledge development through research. Both share a methodological view that they retrospectively identify as grounded-theory reflection-in-action. Thus, the relationship has been sustained by important organizational and philosophical similarities. Historical links between the university and the hospital also have provided a context that supported partnerships. The importance of personal dimensions also is evident in this analysis, with many similarities in background and interest between both partners. And, although roles have been somewhat fluid, each has brought differences to the relationship that were complementary. Black and Walther identify six key factors that characterize successful collaborative partnerships and that were the key ingredients that helped define success in their partnership. Like Burnette and Weiner, their epistemological stance is similar and perhaps best articulated in the statement, "Methodolatry—idolizing one type of research as the one true way—holds no interest for us, nor should it for the social work profession" (p. l6l).

Partnerships Focus on both Practice Innovation and Knowledge Building

Arthur Blum, David E. Biegel, Elizabeth M. Tracy, and Mary Jane Cole (chapter 9) distinguish between partnerships focused solely on research collaboration and those based on development and implementation of an innovation. On the basis of the experience of the Center for Practice Innovations, these authors identify a number of elements that contribute to a successful partnership between agency and university when the focus is practice innovation and research. These skills include university personnel's ability to

• establish a credible, revelant relationship rooted in agency practice

• clearly establish mutual objectives

• mutually clarify and accept agency need

• maintain ongoing open communication

• diminish the significance of credentials

• plan sufficient time for developing the relationship before focusing on products

• remain open to multiple research methodologies.

Blum and colleagues also stress the importance of conducting an innovation analysis before developing the partnership so the extent to which the product of the partnership will represent an innovation for the agency is clear. They present a framework for conducting the analysis that identifies differences between traditional agency practice and innovative practice. They contribute to the understanding of partnerships by suggesting that practice–research partnerships may need to stress additional elements when the collaboration involves innovation.

Practitioner–Researchers Conduct Multisite Studies

Mildred Mailick, Michael King, James Donnelly, and Sona Euster (chapter 10) describe a powerful form of collaboration bridging the gap between research and practice: melding the two roles into the same people who conduct multisite investigations supported by a committe structure. This occurred in health care settings by social workers faced with issues related to diagnosis-related groups, heightened patient acuity, and shortened lengths of stay. A committee of practitioner–researchers associated with the Metropolitan New York Chapter Society for Social Work Administrators in Health Care has designed and conducted specific, time-limited studies involving current problems of member facilities. The authors point out that the problem of relevance frequently encountered has been overcome because participants themselves identify the research questions based on practice experience. This leads to rapid use of research findings because participants can take immediate action based on findings. They also identify emerging questions that guide future research.

Developing a Social Work Research Unit Model

Grace H. Christ and Karolynn Siegel (chapter 11) describe a 12-year experience developing practitioner and researcher relationships while building a research unit at a major urban hospital. Christ and Siegel describe the development of a research unit as an integral part of a hospital social work department and discuss how this differs from other research models traditionally associated with hospital social work. They identify four phases in the evolution of the practitioner–researcher relationship. The practitioner and researcher partnership is seen as beginning with a positive mutual expression of curiosity and interest, evolving toward conflict and competitiveness, changing during study implementation to cooperation, and, for those having a positive experience, establishing a constructive and collaborative relationship. Christ and Siegel present a guarded view of the relationship, not hesitating to point out the problems they have experienced in developing a research unit. They note that the challenge of developing effective practice research in social work is not a trivial one.

Modeling Practitioner Knowledge through Expert System Development

William J. Ferns, Jr., and Marion Riedel (chapter 12) and John R. Schuerman (chapter 13) examine expert systems research in which the practitioner–researcher partnership is central to the development process. Such research carefully models practitioner expertise. This is most often achieved through detailed discussions between the researcher and the practitioner. A close partnership results in a complex description of the thinking of expert practitioners. Both chapters provide an unusual empirically based glimpse into the character of practice knowledge.

Ferns and Riedel describe expert systems as computer software programs that model a human expert's judgment in a specific domain. Through a case study of Lifenet, a computerized expert system for assessing imminent danger of suicide in runaway and street youths, Ferns and Riedel outline parallels between the development of expert systems and the process of acquiring professional practice knowledge and skill. As the expert practitioner and the researcher who collaborated to develop Lifenet, they present the system as a metaphor for Schön's model of professional knowledge development. They extend the metaphor to include the time lag that occurs between the recognition of a problem and the development of the knowledge needed to address that problem. They note that skilled practitioners become experts through the constant synthesis of research-based knowledge and practice wisdom. Development of an expert system is presented as a cyclical process in which the knowledge engineer and the practice expert, as a team, refine the system's knowledge base. Ferns and Riedel emphasize that expert system development recognizes the practitioner's role as the holder of practice wisdom. They assert that the partnership between practitioner and researcher is both a prerequisite and a natural arrangement in developing and evaluating expert systems.

Schuerman considers ideas emerging from his exploration of the use of expert systems in child welfare decision making. With colleagues at the Chapin Hall Center for Children, Schuerman developed systems for three decisions made while investigating an allegation of abuse or neglect: whether an allegation should be "founded," the assessment of risk to the child, and the decision to place a child in out-of-home care. He notes, as Schön suggests, that practice is partly a matter of testing many subhypotheses, usually in a nonlinear way. Instead of prediction, child welfare practitioners appear to base decisions on a balancing of two conflicting principles—"inertia" and "give ëem a chance." Because skilled practitioners are able to make case decisions without relying on prediction, expert systems may be able to manage the problem of the unpredictability of behavior to the extent that such systems can capture the decision processes of experts.

The following chapters describe and illustrate a wide variety of collaborative partnerships and perspectives about the character of practice knowledge. The contributors to this book have provided those who would venture into the challenging and exciting world of practice knowledge development with a solid foundation.


1. This section includes material adapted from Mullen, E. J. (1993). Commentator. In S. Berengarten (Ed.), The Columbia University School of Social Work: A history of social pioneering (Monograph 5, pp. 15–22). New York: Columbia University School of Social Work.

2. This section is adapted from Mullen, E. J. (1985).Methodological dilemmas in research. Social Work Research & Abstracts, 21, 12–20.


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