Constructing practitioner research.

Author:Shaw, Ian

The authors draw on a case study evaluation of two networked cohorts of practitioner-researchers in a children's services national social work agency in one of the home countries of the United Kingdom. The aim of the present study was to understand the meaning of practitioner research for social work professionals through an exploration of how language, ascriptions of meaning, and interpretation provide a social environment through which the nature and meaning of practitioner research emerge. The authors used a moderate symbolic interactionist approach to analyze diverse qualitative data. The findings suggest it is possible to trace a weft of analytic ideas regarding language, memory, moral accountability, ownership, meaning, value, and social work practice as they run horizontally across the experience of the practitioner-as-researcher. The elements of practitioner research have to be understood as being interwoven and bringing together and containing different career and life concerns that otherwise might remain scattered. The implications of this research suggest that practitioner research should not be seen as a less or more comfortable add-on to everyday core practice, but as a multiform activity that challenges the taken-for-grantedness of practice, mainstream academic research, management and, in all likelihood, the experience of receiving services.

KEY WORDS: practitioner research; research and practice; research cultures; research gaze; social work research


The aim of this article was to capture the experience and nature of practitioner research in social work. Our own developing understanding through work with social work practitioners is that the nature of practitioner research is something that emerges from the action, rather than something that prescribes the form of the experience in advance. It is only in the doing of practitioner research that the significant recurring questions take shape.


Literature on practitioner research, especially as it is more likely to be understood in Europe and Australasia rather than in the United States, is of fairly recent origin. In its development, it has understandably focused on three main themes. First, there was a small but useful literature on how to set about doing small-scale practitioner research (for example, Cheetham, 1994; Edwards & Talbot, 1994; Fuller & Petch, 1995; Lang, 1994). Second, there were several efforts to develop a case for the special nature of practitioner research compared with university-based academic research (for example, Elks & Kirkhart, 1993; Hess & Mullen, 1995), which sometimes engaged with ideas regarding reflexivity and critical reflection (for example, Fook, 2001; Schon, 1983). Third, and finally, there was literature that sought to bring together examples of good practice in practitioner research (for example, Broad & Fletcher, 1993).

Practitioner research has sometimes been seen within wider categories that capture the distinctive character of social work practice and research. In Finland, for example, the idea of "practice research" (Satka, Karvinen-Ninikoski, Nylund, & Hoikkala, 2005) has been adopted with some success to convey a coherent identity in dialogue with funders and government.

Practice research in social work knowledge production is practice-based and practice-oriented. The interest is on practice development, and more conscious use of social work methods and instruments. Practice research was seen [as] neither an administrative inquiry nor an academic pursuit; it makes use of social theory and well-known and recognized research methods, but its goal is to improve social work practice. The criterion of adequacy is its relevance for the field work. The ideas of pragmatism, action research and ethnography are near to the concept. (Saurama & Tukiala, 2009)

The concept has been found useful elsewhere in the Nordic countries (for example, by Uggerhoj, n.d., in Denmark), and efforts have been made to develop wider authority for the idea of practice research (for example, Practice Research: The Salisbury Statement, 2009).

Developments in the United States have taken a rather different line, for reasons that are not easy to elucidate. For example, there has been much attention to "scientific practice," which covers a wider scope than practitioner research (assessed in a free book by Kirk & Reid, 2002). U.S. social work has also been less equivocal regarding the merits of approaches to scientific practice and practice research that accept the logic of quasi-experimentation. Thus, there has been sustained attention to single-system designs and also to intervention research (Shaw, 2006). Some of this general orientation to practice and research has found a sympathetic outlet in the journal Research on Social Work Practice.


Our approach values but departs from these orientations. We are not concerned with the question of whether practitioner research has or should have special methods, and we do not want to say whether we think particular evidence or knowledge are yielded by practitioner research projects. We have addressed some of these issues elsewhere (for example, Lunt, Fouche & Yates, 2008; Mitchell, Lunt, & Shaw, 2010). We are concerned with elucidating the meaning of practitioner research as it is undertaken by social work professionals. In doing so we pursue a moderate symbolic interactionist position in exploring how language, ascriptions of meaning, and interpretation provide a social environment through which the nature and meaning of practitioner research emerge. To express this through a familiar statement, the distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings

consists in the fact that human beings interpret or "define" each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their "response" is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions. (Blumer, 1969, p. 180)

We are particularly interested in the interpretations--the use of meanings--that practitioners seem to make. To convey it as Blumer elsewhere expressed it, we are interested in the ways practitioners handle meanings. We concur with his view of knowledge as socially constructed, that it

does not shift "reality", as so many conclude, from the empirical world to the realm of imagery and conception.... [The] empirical world can "talk back" to our picture of it or assertions about it--talk back in the sense of challenging and resisting, or not bending to, our images or conceptions of it. This resistance gives the empirical world an obdurate character that is the mark of reality. (Blumer, 1969, p. 22)

The initiative we draw on involved different participants--two distinct cohorts of practitioner-researchers, practitioners who were colleagues of the practitioner-researchers but not part of the project, managers, academic faculty, and a three-person research team. The emergence of meanings took place in this diverse and atypical everyday world. But we contain our focus within an exploration of how meanings are handled by practitioners-as-researchers.

The challenges posed by practitioner research are of a piece with more extensive concerns in contemporary social work. Influenced, perhaps unwittingly, by work in the field of the sociology of practical knowledge, social workers have gradually challenged the ways that the kinds of knowledge drawn on by researchers and professionals have been typically treated as rather similar. Hence, when professionals are urged to apply research-generated knowledge to their practice, any failure to do so tends to be treated as a failure of practice nerve rather than a failure of research. By taking the process of doing practitioner research more seriously and inspecting it closely, we may question how helpful it is to conceive of all forms of research as representing science-based methods of generating knowledge and more readily recognize the significance of struggles for understanding, interpretation, application, and critique that mark practitioner-researchers' projects (compare Fahl & Markand, 1999; Pawson, Boaz, Grayson, Long, & Barnes, 2003; Polkinghorne, 2000; Schwandt, 1999; Shaw, 2005).


A gradual realization of the volume and potential significance of practitioner research has prompted a number of diversely sponsored and motivated networks of such initiatives in the first decade of the century. Knud Ramian in Denmark has probably done more than any other individual to promote active networks of projects, but little of his important work has been published in English. Significant networks have operated in New Zealand through the "Getting Research into Practice" project (Lunt, Fouche, & Yates, 2008) and in the United Kingdom (UK) through the "Strategies for Living" project, imaginatively funded by the Mental Health Foundation. From 2006 until 2010 the Children's Workforce Development Council in the UK ran a program of funding approximately 60 or 70 projects a year, contracting out the mentoring and coordination of the scheme since 2008 to the research dissemination and utilization network, Making Research Count. Although this was a major collective initiative, the projects were networked in a fairly limited fashion.

Changing Lives: The 21st Century Social Work Review (Scottish Executive, 2006) identified a need for a national research and development strategy for social work services in Scotland. It identified the current evidence base as weak, reflecting a lack of research in social work practice, and, where evidence did exist, characterized it as not accessible to practitioners in...

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