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Basics of Social Work Research: Analytical Essay

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Social Work research is distinct from the more scientific community as a result of its positioning as emancipatory with a focus on challenging inequality and oppression in all aspects of the research process

Alston and Bowles (2018) suggest that social work research supports the analysis of often complicated interventions that are required to respond to society’s most vulnerable populations. Social work research can assist practitioners assess and evaluate the effectiveness of social work intervention whilst understanding the effect of legislation and social policy for service users and the wider community.

Alston and Bowles (2018) further highlight that social workers need to understand their responsibility within the research community and develop “research-mindedness” (Flynn & McDermott, 2016), concluding that social work practitioners need to be encouraged to engage critically with research evidence and integrate this knowledge into daily practice (Gray, Plath, & Webb, 2009).

Furthermore BASW has a commitment to developing policy and resources for social work practitioners, highlighting that “Social work bases its methodology on a systematic body of evidence informed by knowledge derived from research and practice evaluation” (pg)In addition highlighting the role of social work to undertake primary and secondary research on social work issues”.

Ref BASW (

Witkin and Harrison (2001) suggest that research evidence can assist with providing social workers with the foundations of evidence-based practice (Witkin and Harrison, 2001).

In addition, James W. Drisko Melissa D. Grady (2012) Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) in Clinical Social Work, suggest a correlation between practice and research highlighting that this provides valuable knowledge for clinical social work practice. Suggesting that EBP is a process with both “strengths and limitations”. Drisko and Grady (2012) suggest that social workers should engage with EBP to ensure the best possible outcomes for service users. (p251)

However, the social work profession can encounter barriers to undertaking research for example resource issues, professional identity and organisational systems and culture (Cynthia A. Lietz Luis E. Zayas) This may impact on social work establishing its self within the research community.

Research Ethics

Research ethics are complex. Researchers need to weigh up the likely benefits of their research on the one hand and possible infringement of the rights and dignity of participants on the other. From the outset researchers need to consider the ethical challenges that these choices may bring. Moreover, after ethical approval has been granted, researchers still have to make many day-to-day ethical judgements during the processes of data collection, analysis, write-up, presentation and impact. In addition Bell (2017) highlights that anonymity, confidentiality, informed consent and the potential impact that researchers themselves can have on a participants and vice versa. This is an ethical duty that all researchers must adhere to.

Likewise Conroy and Harcourt (2009) emphasise that it is important to understand that ethics should be treated as an ongoing issue that cannot necessarily be settled at the start of the research practice, but must be revisited and addressed throughout the research process

However, SCIE suggest that social work values align with respect, dignity, and human rights, therefore this professional ethical positioning lends itself well to the consideration of ethics

However; Alderson p87 suggests that views can vary regarding the value of research ethics and its regulation. Highlighting that some researchers view the task of producing knowledge as a priority Hammersley (2009). In contrast, suggesting that others view research as value laden (Sayer, 2010). Nonetheless Alderson (2012) raises the caveat that there is potential risks when undertaking research, through its processes and influences that researchers must be aware of, such as the misuse of power therefore, researchers must consider the morals of their work as carefully as their methodology.

However where there are strengths to ethical research there are also limitations, (Hammersley and Traianou 2012) suggest that Ethical guidelines does not always provide straightforward answers, alternatively it promotes the need for researchers to reflect ad justify their work and this is further supported by Alderson (2012) who notes that principles and outcomes can be vague and left open to potential disagreement.

In addition, potential ethical pitfalls for researchers include the ability to present a strong enough critique of their own ways of working and their ability to balance competing accountabilities (Fuller and Petch, 1995, p.11).

Furthermore, an ethical awareness of researcher bias regarding researchers’ preconceived ideas which could influence the chosen design furthermore may prejudice the analysis and data. Therefore it is an important factor not to be overlooked. (Lietz, Langer, & Furman, 2006).

Part A

Bryman (2012) highlights that critical thought must be applied when deciding on which methodologies would be relevant, whilst acknowledging that relative strengths and weaknesses can be dependent on the contextual basis for the research.

Teater (2016) suggests that Social workers judgements and decisions are informed by the evidence relating to a particular issue. This can assist in determining which intervention is likely to achieve positive outcomes whilst minimising the likelihood of risk or harm.

Bryman (book p 31) suggests that Quantitative methodology can offer focused analysis of data collection, applying a deductive and more scientific approach to testing theory. Likewise, Michael Sheppard 2019 suggests the importance of quantitative research within social work, highlighting that quantitative research aligns with the growing desire for measurable outcomes. As seen by Dr Smith (2018) who reviewed the value of, effectively measuring the impact of social work interventions.

Sheppard (2019) suggest that researchers have identified a range of topics suitable for quantitative research, such as citizenship, health, ageing and population movement, all of which has an interconnectivity with Social Work interests. However, Bryman (2013) raises the caveat that if the researchers chosen topic has had limited research undertaken in the past, then a Quantitative approach would be more challenging as their will be limited literature to draw upon. Suggesting an alternative methodology should be applied.

Nonetheless Teater (2016) suggests social worker’s as a social researcher need to apply current and relevant knowledge to inform their practice. Therefore, collating and analysing data about social phenomenon, such as measuring the impact on children living with domestic abuse can provide social work with a holistic understanding about the prevalence and impact of these issues. Concluding that “quantitative data can address questions and assist understanding about issues that could not be answered in other ways” (pg). However Sheppard (2019), Fetterman (2009) acknowledge that those attracted to social work in the first instance lean towards a qualitative position. Highlighting that social work resembles ethnographic processes which is seen in daily practice through observations, interviews and case notes, which are used for analysis, drawing conclusions and evaluating interventions.

In contrast Litez (date) suggests that research studies undertaken through the lens of qualitative analysis provides social workers with valuable information regarding diverse issues.

However, Padgett (2008) suggests that credible qualitative research needs to minimise the risk of research reactivity and bias. Research reactivity can have an impact on how participants react therefore changing the results of the study. For example, the presence of a camera when discussing the potential criminality of an individual’s behaviour is likely affect the way participants engage.

Bell (2016) highlights In order to minimise this risk, qualitative researchers need to remain aware of how they themselves may influence the credibility of data. Additionally Researcher bias such as preconceived agendas can further impact on design and data analysis, potentially resulting in misrepresentation of the data (Lietz, Langer, & Furman, 2006) which is not seen as problematic within quantitative methodology.

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However, the complex landscape of social issues faced by social workers could suggest that a mixed method approach to research would provide an essential tool Josphine Chaumba (2013).

Furthermore, Chaumba (2013) highlights that Mixed methods research provides additional elements to social work research, such as “voices of participants, comprehensive analyses of phenomena, and enhanced validity of findings” (PG). Chuumba (2013) states therefore the use of mixed methods research is essential to the social work profession.

Chaumba (2013) argues that different methodologies can be applied to different area’s of the same issue. Therefore, Mixed Methods can increase the depth of understanding for the researcher when interpreting their data from one methodology such as a survey can clarify or compliment the results from the other methodology such as in-depth interviews.

However as suggested by Bryman (2012) it is crucial that social work researchers have an understanding of how to engage with mixing quantitative and qualitative methods. This is supported by Lietz (date) who acknowledges the skill set required to analyse the quality of the research undertaken within each methodology.

Evaluating Qualitative Research for Social Work Practitioners Cynthia A. Lietz Luis E. Zayas

Part B

This literature review will explore Looked after Children (LAC) transitioning from care. This research review revealed that the majority are small scale qualitative studies. Mills & Birks (2014) suggests that social work researchers are often attracted to a more qualitative approach due to its emphasis on depth of understanding.

Searches were carried out using RGU library database, SAGE Journals Online within a 10year date range. Inclusion criteria considered UK research however, one researcher included data collected from Europe. Furthermore, ensuring the quality of the chosen research is to a high standard the review will only include peer reviewed articles.

A thematic approach was applied to the selected articles. This review will summarise the articles and group them together. The chosen research highlights an interesting correlation between three key debates.

  1. Criticisms of existing support provision
  2. Increased risk and vulnerabilities for care experienced young people
  3. Transitions and the importance of supportive relationships

According to Action for Children (2014), “the most vulnerable young people in society experience the highest levels of instability and uncertainty within the care system” (pg). Highlighting that they lack the right support once they are no longer looked after.

Recent research undertaken by Natasha Adley, Victoria Jupp Kina (2014), Gillian Schofield (2017) et al. and Caroline Barratt et al. (2019) explored the importance of supportive relationships, acknowledging that care leavers continue to face challenges compared to their peers. These researchers applied qualitative methodology using similar age ranges 17-26, conducting in-depth semi-structured to elicit information. Furthermore, the views of the young people were positioned at the heart of their research process. By doing this, each researcher was able to present a depth of understanding enhancing their data.

Adley’ (2014) ‘Getting behind the closed door of care leavers: understanding the role of emotional support for young people leaving care’ explored care leavers views regarding their personal support networks. The use of an eco-map provided a powerful tool to illustrate gaps in support revealing that social workers, in particular, were unaware of the young people’s feelings compounding their lack of emotional support. However, Adley’s research provided limited understanding as to why this would be the case.

Schofield et al. (2017) ‘Risk, Resilience and Identity construction in the life narratives of young people leaving residential care’ explored more in-depth this phenomenon regarding practitioners. Schofield (2017) brought holism to the issue of emotional support that was not seen as explicitly in Adley’s (2014) study. However, the findings of this study echo the importance of nurturing relationships, whilst brining focus to throughcare support and work culture.

Caroline Barratt et al. (2019) ‘Exploring internal conversations to understand the experiences of young people transitioning out of care’ backed up Schofield (2017) findings applying a narrative approach complimented by Margaret Archer’s model of reflexivity (2010). The study was able to elicit detailed conversations from six care leavers providing a deeper understanding of (LAC) feelings. She concluding that participants application of attributing meaning to their experiences were “powerfully shaped by their experiences of trauma and key relationships”. (pg)

In addition, risk, lack of service provision and Corporate Parenting were a recurring theme. ‘Who Care’s Scotland’ (date) states that (LAC) are nearly 20 times more likely to be criminalised, nearly half of 5-17-year-olds living in care have a mental health diagnosis. Highlighting that young people are leaving care to early, increasing risk due to lack of support and poor social, emotional development.

The following researchers focused their research on this phenomenon. The chosen articles applied qualitative methodology through semi-structured interviews, age range 12-21. However, two researcher groups only approached practitioners which may have risked presenting practitioner bias.

Jennifer Driscoll (2018) ‘Strangers and estrangement, young people’s renegotiations of birth and foster family relationships as they transition out of care and the implications for the state as parent’ study used 21 care leavers. Driscoll (2018) argued that care leavers have poorer outcomes which is a common theme seen across the Western world (Jackson and Cameron 2012). This study brought focus to UK care leavers higher risk of depression/anxiety and lack of stable relationships (Wade and Dixon 2006). Applying an ethnographic approach provided evidence from the UK and France, suggesting a commonality between countries regarding mental health problems becoming exacerbated during transition process (Stein and Dumaret 2011).

This is supported by Sarah Butterworth et al. (2016) transitioning care‐leavers with mental health needs: ‘They set you up to fail!’ Butterworth (2016) explored care‐leavers’ experience within social care and mental health services. All interviewees were diagnosed with mental health issues. The study concludes that young people view successful transitions relies on having trust in support services. Acknowledging that care leavers often experience inconsistent care, lack of supportive relationships exacerbating existing mental illness.

Legislative initiatives have shifted to help address some of these issues. In Scotland, young people can now remain in care until they reach 21 as a result of the ‘The Continuing Care (Scotland) Amendment Order (2019). Kenny McGhee (2017) published ‘Staying Put & Continuing Care: The Implementation Challenge’ interviewing nine residential practitioners from five children’s homes from three local authority areas. Findings from this study align with Schofield’s (2017) study regarding what constitutes good residential child care however this study highlighted that implementing policy and Continuing Care legislation by practitioners consistently appears linked to political agendas and commitment from service management. This was later highlighted within the Scottish Government Care Leavers paper (2019) which suggests that in order to achieve meaningful change, services must embrace legislation throughout their organisational policy and practice.

Likewise Claire Fitzpatrick and Patrick Williams (2016) echo the failings within the care system, focusing on the unnecessary criminalisation of some (LAC) within ‘The neglected needs of care leavers in the criminal justice system: Practitioners’ perspectives and the persistence of problem (corporate) parenting’ interviewing 11 practitioners/key stakeholders. Concluding, that practitioners can view care leavers as ‘risky’, thus labelling appeared to affect who would receive therapeutic support. This practitioner culture can be seen highlighted within Schofield (2017) research.

Hayley Alderson et al. (2019) ‘The key therapeutic factors needed to deliver behavioural change interventions to decrease risky substance use (drug and alcohol) for looked after children and care leavers’. Further supports this by applying inclusive approach to helping support a more profound recognition regarding drug/alcohol misuse. Alderson (2019) encompassed focus groups with 19 (LAC),16 carers and 14 professionals. The study emphasised the role of supportive relationships consistent within this review.

Both Fitzpatrick (2016), Alderson (2019) noted that there is a well-documented link between (LAC) and the criminal justice systems, yet despite the 3 year gap both highlighted the same lack of recognition in policy/practice. Both studies highlighted that specialist support for care leavers is limited requiring serious attention.

Although participatory research is by no means the only way to conduct empirical research into the lives of young people, it can lead to highly original insights and improve the credibility, Bell (2017). In addition, aligning with the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child, particularly Article 12, which states that “children have a right to express their views in matters affecting them”. This may have been lacking within Fitzpatrick, Williams (2016), McGhee (2017) research where stakeholders/practitioner voices were prioritised.


This literature review recognises differing approaches to understanding/improving (LAC) experiences. The research has provided similar findings and raises important questions regarding health social work and crime. (Alison Clark 2014). However, the chosen research has limitations in regards to small sample size, furthermore it doesn’t lend itself to providing evaluation of a wider population. However, the research helped highlight areas for further research, it is noted that there appears to be little change to the views of young people over the applied date range with consistent themes around lack of supportive relationships and poor outcomes

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