An exploration and development of the knowledge foundations of social work, with particular reference to mental health and compulsory admission assessments
This submission seeks lo establish the case that this corpus of work makes a significant and original contribution to a central problem for social work as a profession: the status in relation to practice of its formal knowledge base. This issue has generated intensive debate, with some claiming a central place for formal knowledge in practice and others a more peripheral position. The debate is inconclusive, but evidence suggests that social workers do not generally use theory in practice. This has necessitated recourse to a 'subconscious assimilation' thesis, but evidence from the main research studies is inconclusive, because of the absence of a comparison group for social workers: it was not possible therefore, to claim that their characteristic processes of making sense were distinctive. Two central problems provide the focus for this thesis: the extent to which formal knowledge is reproduced by social workers in the conduct of their practice, and given the range of conflicting and growing knowledge forms available to social work, principles by which this knowledge could be more closely and overtly related to practice. The first of these was analysed by a comparative analysis of the practice of social workers and community psychiatric nurses, drawing upon the ideas of the occupationally based reproduction of knowledge in practice. The second involved the development of the theory of emergent understanding and social science based assessment schedules, using the exemplar of the development and evaluation of the Compulsory Admissions Assessment Schedule. A central theme is: that formal knowledge is reproduced by social workers in their practice, and that in order to understand this, and further developments in the theory-practice relationship, it is important to assign a central place to meaning. Two key issues emerged in the examination of practice: the occupation based development of meaning involving particularly the knowledge content of training and the nature of the activity - social work - itself, upon which this knowledge is focused. Both entail issues of meaning: how practitioners 'make sense' of the 'stuff of their practice, and the nature of that activity (social work itself). The development of further principles and methods for relating formal knowledge more overtly and closely to practice was based on three key dimensions: the nature and limits to social science knowledge (based on a Realist approach), what such knowledge is being applied to (social work) and the way in which meaning is created - how humans characteristically make sense. The ways in which social workers may bring formal knowledge to practice, therefore, involves the knowledge, its focus and the ways in which practitioners may relate these together. The use of social science as a basis for social work involved a recognition that to maximise its relevance it needs to be, as far as possible, consistent with the nature and purposes of social work. This is the basis for the development of three concepts underlying practice led theory: the practice paradigm of social work, the principle of convergence and the principle of adequacy of fit. Two developments of knowledge forms were proposed: one focusing on process issues, the Theory of Emergent Understanding, and the other focusing on the produci of research, Social Science based Assessment Schedules, both of which encapsulate the elements of practice led theory. This work seeks to make a major contribution in an area of first rank importance. It establishes for the first time, that social work possesses a distinctive form of practice consistent with its formal knowledge base. This is evident in terms of the distinctive psychosocial domain of social work, in which interpersonal skills have a major part. In the process this work draws upon a number of concepts from occupational and educational sociology: in particular those of classification and boundary maintenance. It also involves the development of major new theoretical concepts, with which to make sense of the conduct of practice and the development of formal knowledge. These include the concepts of 'reflexive eclecticism', 'progressive hypothesis development', 'comparative hypothesis assessment', the 'practice paradigm of social work', and the principles of 'convergence' and 'adequacy of fit'. These provide significant bases with which principles may be developed through which a practice relevant knowledge base might be developed. The Theory of Emergent Understanding and Social Science Based Assessment Schedules present significant developments in the problem of relating theory and practice, and these concepts present means for further and more closely relating together the practice of social work and its knowledge base.