What do social work and research have in common?

Joan Rapaport

by Joan Rapaport

At the Practitioner Research seminar on Tuesday 30 April Joan Rapaport will ask: ‘Why should social workers do research?’ Here she explains how she personally became interested in this question as an Approved Social Worker and PhD student. And, focusing in this post on Action Research, she points out the degree of overlap between methodology in research and social work practice.

There are still a few places left at the Practitioner Research seminar, which takes place at King’s College London, but please book by end of day Friday 26 April. | #practres

Imagine a world where social workers were enthusiastically sharing ideas, holding seminars to share their latest research findings and encouraging research developments through various support networks. Given the current shortage of practitioner research, could this position ever be achieved? And why should we strive to ensure that it does?

It was only during the course of my PhD study on the neglected role of the nearest relative under the Mental Health Act 1983 (for e-summary see Rapaport, 2012) that I began to be aware of the importance of research and theoretical frameworks to guide and develop practice. Officially recognised as a patient safeguard against unwarranted hospital detention, the nearest relative had attracted considerable concern, especially amongst social workers, because of the potential for the role to land in the hands of poorly motivated relatives. My research confirmed that it was better known for its vices than its virtues. However, it also found that when the nearest relative powers and social work duties worked reciprocally for the ‘patient’s’ benefit, the nearest relative was indeed an effective safeguard. This finding led to a development of normalisation and social role valorisation (‘SRV’) theories and the discovery of reciprocal role valorisation (‘RRV’). This was found to occur:

where the nearest relative and social worker supported each other to achieve mutually respected and identified goals to help the patient which were also recognised by the professionals and significant others involved. (Rapaport, 2012)

Although a discovery of the nearest relative study, RRV is relevant to practitioners because of its versatile potential for other social work settings, especially where professional duties and family responsibilities combine. It also demonstrates how social workers, in the course of fulfilling their duties, can simultaneously enhance their own professional image. The importance of practitioner engagement in research and theory development is once again gaining ground in professional circles (McLean et al., 2012). How might this laudable objective become a reality?

A PhD is a huge undertaking in terms of time and money. Typologies such as Action Research may therefore be more accessible and appealing especially as it is closely linked with practice and uses approaches familiar to practitioners such as qualitative interviews.  It is a strategy for change, can be undertaken by practitioners and service users alike, and readily meets the social work ideals of user empowerment. Models described by Beddoe and Harington (2012) and Frith (2012) amply demonstrate these characteristics. The former describes a project ‘Growing Research in Practice’ (GRIP) to enhance the research capability and confidence of groups of social workers in Auckland, New Zealand. The latter, conducted in Iceland, explored ways of helping children and young people facing predicaments. Both studies, (and also that of the nearest relative) involved full stakeholder participation and methods such as interviews, group discussions, evidence-based trials and evaluations and debriefing sessions – all part and parcel of social work – to gather data. The New Zealand project reported several positive outcomes including opportunities for professional enhancement, shifts in organisational culture, improved collaborative working and opportunities to educate and involve others. The main finding of the Icelandic study was a shift from practitioners making decisions for young people to giving them the knowledge, skills and resources to empower them to make decisions for themselves. In short, both studies had extremely valuable outcomes for all concerned.

Whilst the case for professional development is well made by the above, Action Research may also provide managers with a cost-effective way to conduct in-house evaluations and to shift obstructive cultures and help redefine objectives. Opportunities to develop leadership skills and gain recognition through the dissemination of project findings are also likely outcomes. As an illustration, the findings of the nearest relative study were used to inform the reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 and also a number of other carer and advocacy-type projects.

With the high standards of professional registration and regulation in mind, Action Research would seem to hold promise for the social work profession and service user empowerment. Given its approaches are familiar to social workers, it could arguably become part and parcel of social work practice. Promotional seminars, product champions and support networks will be required to spread the word and further its worthy objectives.


Beddoe, L. and Harington, P. (2012) One Step in a Thousand-Mile Journey: Can Civic Practice Be Nurtured in Practitioner Research? Reporting on an Innovative Project. British Journal of Social Work, 42; 74 – 93.

Frith, E. (2012) Child-Directed Social Work Practice: Findings for an Action Research Study in Iceland. British Journal of Social Work, 1-19; doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcs099.

Maclean, S. with Collins, P., Dean, A., Moore, S., and Tucker, G. (2012) The food of good practice. July/August, Professional Social Work.

Rapaport, J. 2012 Reflections on ‘A Relative Affair’: The Nearest Relative under the Mental Health Act 1983. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/scwru/pubs/2012/reports/rapaport2012reflections.pdf

A version of this piece originally appeared in Professional Social Work.

Joan Rapaport is Visiting Research Fellow, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London.