Everyday social work practice: listening to the voices of practitioners
Gordon, Margaret Jean
Despite an extensive literature, there is surprisingly little research about what social workers do in their day to day practice. This body of published work, supported by critical review, argues that we need to hear, and learn from, practitioner voices if we are to comprehend the breadth, challenges and potential of social work practice. It contributes to a steadily expanding field of research that is exploring the hidden, frequently misunderstood, and often negatively perceived, world of everyday practice. By making social work more visible, we open up opportunities for students, social workers, other professionals and the public to learn about the profession’s work by engaging with the live challenges and dilemmas encountered by practitioners. My research examines the actual work of social work by analysing practitioner narratives to reveal the ways in which social workers recount, reflect on and learn from direct work with service users and their families. Most of the research is informed by a strengths-based, narrative perspective, the critical best practice approach. It draws on qualitative methods, consistent with a social constructionist stance that recognises the contingency of practice with its multiple subjectivities, uncertainties, contested viewpoints and constant flux. Three main themes are explored: social workers’ use of knowledge, their decision-making and judgement when services users are at risk of harm, or pose a risk to others, and the integration of practice and theory in a student practice placement. I also report on two related inquiries, one focusing on the experience of co-publication with practitioners, and the other on social workers’ use of self in practice. The notion of ‘best’ practice is found, inevitably, to be fraught with ambiguity, raising important questions about the criteria on which judgements about ‘good’ practice can be made, and who is entitled to make them. My review tackles these and other theoretical, methodological and ethical issues that I encountered during the research. An essential thread that runs through all the research findings is the need for a critical, reflexive approach to everyday practice that recognises the situated, and often contradictory, nature of voice and of the practices described. Taken together, the research findings stress the centrality of practitioner capabilities such as relationship building, critical reflection, skilful use of self, respectful authority, curiosity, creativity and the ability to combine a range of different forms of knowledge in imaginative and flexible ways. They collectively make a strong case for valuing and learning from direct access to practitioners’ experiences of practice. The research, conducted in a range of UK contexts, identifies how and why social workers’ voices continue to fail to be heard, and suggests a number of ways of tackling gaps in our understanding. From a personal point of view, the research is also my own story of learning about doing research into my profession over the last ten years, and of seeking to share and use the findings to improve social work practice and make a difference to people who use social work services, their friends, families and communities.