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The multiple roles of applied social science research in evidence-informed practice.

In the summer of 2008, the editorial staff of Social Work issued a call for papers for a special issue of integrative reviews to further evidence-informed practice. Broadly conceived, evidence-informed practice is the use of current empirical evidence in making practice and policy decisions. In social work, evidence from empirical research is integrated with professional understanding of sociocultural context--including clients' beliefs, values, and behaviors--as a guide to intervention (for example, Gambrill, 2006). Adequately addressing issues of concern to social work from an evidence-informed perspective is a daunting task requiring integration of a diverse and burgeoning empirical literature. One response to this particular challenge is to develop integrative reviews of the empirical literature written by researchers for colleagues (practitioners, policymakers, and researchers) with other areas of expertise. Such reviews can help practitioners and policymakers to enhance their evidence-informed practice and may assist other researchers in seeing new connections between their research and related areas. In addition, the richness of social science research traditions reflected in this special issue provides an opportunity to reflect on the aims and assumptions of various types of social science evidence and the diverse roles that such evidence may play in social work practice and policy. An important contribution of the articles collected in this special issue is to suggest ways in which modern applied social science research may be more fully and systematically used in future efforts to integrate practice and research.


All social science research rests on basic philosophical assumptions about the social world that are not empirically verifiable but that critically guide research choices and interpretations. As reflected in this special issue, modern social science encompasses a variety of philosophical perspectives with related research aims, methods, and designs. A number of the articles collected here reflect postpositivist perspectives of critical realism, with an emphasis on quantitative research methods and designs. From a postpositivist perspective, there is an objective social world that exists independent of our representations of it. Our biased perspectives, however, limit our ability to perceive that reality. For example, our sincere desire to help clients may blind us to the shortcomings of our interventions. The aim of social science research is to develop methods to minimize that which is subjective so as to capture that which is "really real" Hence, the methodological emphasis is on controlling extraneous variables, bias, and human subjectivity through experimental or quasi-experimental designs (for example, see Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). Studies using large samples in randomized, controlled trials, as is typical in pharmaceutical research, may be seen as the gold standard of evidence within this tradition. The basic idea is to rigorously examine social work interventions and policy, primarily through quantitative methods using experimental or quasi-experimental designs. Those shown to be effective and not harmful should be widely used by ethical professionals.

Other articles in this special issue reflect interpretive epistemologies with an emphasis on qualitative or mixed research designs and methods. The basic assumption is that there is no single "really real" social world that exists independent of our representations of it (for example, Denzin & Lincoln, 2003; Shweder, 1996). Humans are qualitative beings who have feelings, beliefs, goals, values, desires, and thoughts that critically affect the ways in which they respond, including to social work interventions. There are multiple legitimate interpretations of complex social phenomena such as client responses to social work interventions and policies. Applied social science research that does not attend to human context and subjectivity is incomplete and limited in its practical utility. Empirical research can enhance our understanding of and empathy for clients whose life experiences and cultural contexts differ from our own by articulating their experiences and perspectives, including negative responses to generally effective intervention strategies. Hence the methodological emphasis is on sustained, in-depth study of complex sociocultural contexts through qualitative or mixed-method research designs. Studies that provide a richly contextualized analysis of social phenomena through practices such as sustained engagement and use of multiple methods--including direct observations, in-depth interviewing, and record reviews--may be seen as the gold standard within this tradition. The basic idea is that rigorous empirical research interpreting clients' diverse experiences and perceptions in sociocultural--historical context is essential for ethical social work practice and policy.

Although it is important to understand the aims and assumptions of various types of applied social science research, distinctions should not be too sharply drawn. In practice, many researchers attempt to both measure and interpret. Applied researchers also face similar challenges. Regardless of the intellectual tradition in which it is grounded, research to inform practice relies on close communication and partnerships between researchers and community-based social service agencies and professionals.


The variety of applied social science research aims, methods, and designs suggests that it can play a range of roles in social work practice and policy. Evidence-based practice in social work is complex because there is no single research tradition, set of methods, or set of designs that represents a gold standard of evidence. Indeed, best practice for any complex social work intervention or policy will require attention to different kinds of evidence obtained through diverse social science traditions. To fully utilize the potential of applied social science research, it is necessary to reflect on the multiple roles it may play in informing practice and policy. The articles in this special issue suggest a number of such roles.

One role for social science research in practice and policy is to describe the extent to which a problem occurs within a population. Postpositivist research approaches using quantitative methods are effective means for accomplishing this important goal. Kotrla reviews evidence regarding the extent of sex trafficking of children and adolescents in the United States and describes who is at risk of becoming a victim. After raising awareness of this important social problem, Kotrla discusses ways in which social workers can address the tragedy.

A second role of social science research is to assess the extent to which intervention goals have been met for particular clients or to which an intervention approach generally is effective in meeting its goals and is not harmful. Postpositivist research using quantitative methods can help to identify generally effective interventions and eliminate the use of harmful or ineffective interventions. For example, the effects of psychotropic medications, a primary intervention for mental health clients, are examined through clinical trials research. In this issue, Hughes and Cohen exemplify the critical thinking encouraged by evidence-informed practice in their review of the ways in which psychotropic drug harms are inadequately assessed in clinical trials research.

Another role for applied social science research is to explore the experience and perspectives of those for whom generally effective interventions are problematic. For example, interpretist research using qualitative methods can enhance understanding of the ways in which cultural contexts interact with interventions, resulting in diverse outcomes. In her integrative review, Kayama examines cultural beliefs about disability and policies for special education intervention in Japan and the United States. She describes similar difficulties experienced by parents of children with disabilities in both countries, including establishing trusting relationships with service providers, but culturally diverse expectations regarding those relationships. These culture-based expectations about relationships are linked in complex ways to parents' engagement in services for their children with disabilities and, possibly, to children's developmental outcomes.

Another important role for applied social science research is to introduce new concepts to social work policy and practice. These concepts can contribute insights and creative new ways of thinking about persistent problems. In her integrative review, Bamba explores the experiences and perspectives of Japanese child welfare workers and maltreated children living in state care through interpretive research using qualitative methods. A primary goal and persistent problem for child welfare professionals in Japan, the United States, and other countries is to enhance children's social and psychological well-being. The ways in which well-being is understood, however, vary widely, as do interventions to achieve this goal. Bamba introduces the Japanese concepts of Ibasho and mimamori. In brief, Ibasho is a place one makes for oneself where peace of mind, reassurance, security, acceptance, and belonging are experienced. Japanese child welfare workers value children's creation of their Ibasho as important to their well-being. One of the ways in which they facilitate maltreated children's Ibasho creation is through mimamori, a practice of watching affectionately over children to ensure their safety while avoiding direct or excessive adult interference that would inhibit their free exploration and developing sense of autonomy and responsibility. Qualitative social science research, as exemplified by Kayama's and Bamba's reviews, provides us with opportunities to step outside what we take for granted to consider how we may serve clients differently within our own pluralistic communities.

Another role for empirical research in social work is to articulate the experience and perspectives of clients, especially those who lack access to certain systems of power. The issue of power is never simple, but within the United States, asymmetries clearly exist by virtue of class, gender, ethnicity, disability, illness, and so forth. A broader, deeper understanding of clients' perspectives, particularly of those whose voices are hidden, is an important contribution of applied social science research. In her integrative review, Momper explores the complex issue of gambling among American Indians. She begins by considering increases in problem and pathological gambling concurrent with the rapid appearance of casinos in American Indian tribal communities. The complexities of this issue are brought to the fore when Momper also considers the positive effects of casinos on socioeconomic development from the perspectives of community members. This complex portrait has implications for more adequate policy responses to American Indian gaming.

Integrative reviews of social science research also can contribute to interdisciplinary education. Social work is a multidisciplinary field. Realistically, it is not possible for individuals to maintain a professional level of competence in multiple, complex, and changing fields. In particular, "bio" is often the neglected aspect in social work's signature biopsy chosocial--spiritual perspective. In this issue, Matto and Strolin-Goltzman describe how social work can use biomedical knowledge from social neurosciences to inform the development of psychosocial interventions like substance abuse treatment. In their review, Van Dorn, Scheyett, Swanson, and Swartz discuss psychiatric advance directives (PADs), legal documents that allow individuals to express their wishes for future psychiatric care and to authorize a legally appointed proxy to make decisions on their behalf during incapacitating crises. They review the clinical and legal history of PADs, including empirical evidence for their effectiveness. Also in this issue, Spencer, Gunter, and Palmisano discuss the roles of community health workers as social justice and health advocates both internationally and domestically. Identification of the close alignment of community health work with social work values and principles of social justice suggest opportunities for enhanced collaboration.


The articles in this special issue contribute not only individually through their up-to-date reviews of empirical research, but collectively as an exemplar of the complexity and potential of modern social science research in enhancing social work practice and policy. Awareness of the diverse roles that applied social science research from a variety of traditions can play in evidence-informed practice will allow us to use it to its full potential. Attention to research evidence from diverse traditions can encourage both critical and creative thinking about complex social issues and interventions.


Denzin, N., & Lincoln,Y. (2003). Introduction: The discipline and practice of qualitative research. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), The landscape of qualitative research: Theories and issues (2nd ed., pp. 1-32). London: Sage Publications.

Gambrill, E. (2006). Evidence-based practice and policy: Choices ahead. Research on Social Work Practice, 16, 338-357.

Shadish, W., Cook, T., & Campbell, D. (2002). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Shweder, R.A. (1996). Quanta and qualia: What is the "object" of ethnographic method? In R. Jessor, A. Colby, & R.A. Shweder (Eds.), Ethnography and human development: Context and meaning in social inquiry (pp. 175-182). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wendy L. Haight, PhD, is professor, School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801; e-mail:
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Title Annotation:GUEST EDITORIAL
Author:Haight, Wendy L.
Publication:Social Work
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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Next Article:Understanding the assessment of psychotropic drug harms in clinical trials to improve social workers' role in medication monitoring.

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