What Constitutes Knowledge in Social Work Practice

This article examines what constitutes knowledge in social work practice. It will look at the notion of social work epistemology (i.e. how knowledge is derived) and the ontological view (the nature of knowledge) in social work.

Casper (1978) identified four essential patterns of knowing and this includes: personal, empirical, ethical, and aesthetic knowing. Focus will be on personal (knowledge we have of ourselves and what we have seen and experienced) and empirical (knowledge from research and objective facts) patterns of knowing.

It will further highlight that reflection is a core element in social work practice which can lead to Phronesis (a type of wisdom relevant to practical action, implying both good judgement and excellence of character and habits). It will also critically analyse how interpretations of the social world using social theories may contribute towards Evidence Based Practice (EBP) in social work resulting in improved outcomes for the service user.

What is social work knowledge?

what constitutes knowledge in social work

Social work knowledge involves the use of information, reflection, experience and Evidence Based Practice (EBP).

In social work, EBP is a contested ground. Parton (2000) views social work as a practical-moral activity, while Payne (2014) views social work as a rational–technical activity.

Dustin (2007) argues that social work practice should be understood as much a practical–moral activity and as a rational technical activity since it can be an art or a science.

Social work viewed as a practical-moral activity suggests practitioners incorporating elements of art and craft in providing expert care, and help combined with the application of disciplined reasoning.

When viewed as a rational-technical activity, it shows that social workers incorporate the application of concepts and research knowledge (Rogowski, 2010).

The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), (2014) has defined social work as a professional practice with the aim of promoting social change and social cohesion while liberating and empowering people.

Similarly, Payne (1996) highlights that the purpose of social work is therapeutic in nature and the social worker tries to improve and solve the problems that individual people or families have in their lives.

However, because of serious case reviews arising from the unfortunate death of service users over the last decade, there has been a massive pressure on the social work profession to adopt some more robust strategies when working with service users (Payne, 2014).

What knowledge do social workers need?

knowledge in social work

Through ‘personal’ patterns of knowing, in the form of reflection, social workers can develop knowledge of themselves and situations. Through such knowledge, the social worker can establish authentic and therapeutic relationships with service users resulting in improved outcomes (Chinn & Kramer, 2015). This shows that social work is a practical-moral activity.

According to Howatson-Jones (2016) reflection involves accessing previous experience by helping to develop both tacit and intuitive knowledge.

Tacit knowledge enables the practitioner to have a common understanding about a situation and intuitive knowledge (knowledge without reason) refers to knowledge that cannot be specified or defined (Braude, 2009).

The ability to reflect upon experiences in the past is an important skill for all social work professionals. Reflection enables social workers to improve upon their communication skills, enhance future performance and improve practice (Knott & Scragg, 2007).

Reflection enables the social worker to ask themselves questions which drive the learning in EBP. This is because questions facilitate learning by building on the social worker’s expertise and experience. In addition, it aids the social worker to develop a type of wisdom relevant to practical action, implying both good judgement and excellence of character and habits.

For instance, by using Gibbs reflective cycle, the social worker can think systematically about the phases of an experience to help enhance their knowledge, develop self-awareness and help improve the wellbeing of service users (Rothman, 1999).

The social work career paradigm

social work career paradigm

The social work career paradigm starts with tutoring and placement opportunities. Through education and placement opportunities, the social work student learns that reflection is an art of social work essential for best practice (Knott & Scragg, 2007).

Once a social worker enrols on the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) programme, they are encouraged to reflect when working with service users to identify what went well and what did not go so well to improve upon their practice by refining their knowledge.

Through regular supervision, social workers develop the ability to reflect ‘in and on’ action. Schon (1992) believes that reflection-in-action (reflection while carrying out an activity) and reflection-on-action (thinking about practice after the event) is a crucial component in knowledge acquisition and forms a vital skill base for competent practitioners. However, Gilroy (1993, p.138) criticises this viewpoint.

Gilroy argues that Schon’s whole epistemology is absorbed by an infinite regress. He added that for Schon’s epistemology to be consistent, knowledge produced through reflection can only be recognised by further reflection to recognise that it is knowledge.

However, Schon (1983, p.281.) disputes this alleged regress identified by Gilroy and highlights that a practitioner can keep inquiry moving, which will entail continual interweaving of thinking and doing.

Through this process of gaining knowledge and increasing self-awareness, the individual grows into a social worker who can practice independently and question standard practice (Hale, 1993).

How do we learn from reflection?

reflection in social work

Regarding reflection, this supports the premise that epistemology of social work practice is more than EBP but also embraces the ability to gain knowledge through revisiting our experiences (Mason, 2008).

Following this epistemological viewpoint, the ontological stance reinforces the theory that knowledge gained through reflection can be learned, but requires the social worker to be able to acknowledge and understand their own emotional state in order to be able to get in touch with the feelings of the service user (Howe, 2008).

For instance, imbalances of power between workers and service users arising from social class, gender, race and sexuality can be reflected upon and unethical use of power avoided. When such issues are thought about, it enables the social worker to fully engage in the relational aspect of social work.

In frontline settings, this often involves continuously making sense of human frailties such as physical and mental ill health, the dynamics of the relationships between people and the systems in which they function, and practitioners’ own responses to the situations they encounter in the course of their work.

However, viewing social work practice from this perspective suggests sharing different viewpoints when working with adults with physical disabilities. It also involves consideration of how best to intervene in situations where an adult is at risk of abuse or neglect (Soydan, 2014).

Social work knowledge values and skills

social work values and skills

Thompson (2016) argues that this method identifies that social work practitioners and service users have their own morals and values that can affect approaches to adult safeguarding work.

Likewise, Holloway and Jefferson (2013) assert that sometimes reflection is limited or non-existent because practitioners defend themselves against the sensory and emotional impact of the work and the acute anxiety they are experiencing. For example, a social worker might have strong views about cases where the allocation of resources is concerned leading to misrepresented approaches to evaluation, interventions and decision-making.

Despite such flaws, Park and Cargill (2015) contend that social work practice is a practical moral activity. An idea that suggests that social work EBP can cause positive outcomes when relationships are built with service users.

Practitioners seek to understand each service user as an individual by noting their concerns and encouraging participation. Ruch, Turney and Ward (2010) share similar views by highlighting that participation initiatives result in a redistribution of power and equal relationships.

However, Beresford and Carr (2012) are of the opinion that this gives a false impression of power transfer. A way of tackling this issue is to foster person-centred approaches.

Social work EBP as a rational–technical activity focuses on EBP that draws mainly on processes, scientific studies, and theories/models to enhance decision-making (Thompson, 2016). This notion suggests that social work practice ought to be grounded on dependable methods got from systematic studies.

An idea that falls in line with Casper (1978) empirical pattern of knowing. The functionalist perspective of Durkheim (1992) may fall within this activity as a social theory that social workers may draw knowledge from – when working with service users.

Functionalist views of Durkheim

functionalist view of durkheim

Durkheim’s functionalist ideas offer the foundation and context for social workers in needs assessments, as it helps practitioners to recognise that society exists as a structure and works as a system (Jones, et al., 2011). In Durkheim’s view as a consensus theorist, for society to function effectively, order and stability must exist for equilibrium to be maintained (Durkheim, 2002).

Durkheim explained that the structures in society are made up of norms, and values which are the backbone of social structures. Social structures are then built and sustained through socialisation.

While Shortell (2016) asserts that through socialisation, cultural rules operate and individuals learn the standards and rules of behaviour, Jones, et al., (2011) argues that people are constrained by the norms and values which are learned through socialisation.

Durkheim (2002) maintains that through socialisation, individuals learn new roles, share experiences, values and beliefs. In addition, individuals within that group are motivated by virtue of a shared common interest.

Thomas (2016) establishes that there are two forms of socialisation; primary and secondary. Primary socialisation involves the internalisation of core values upon which later social experiences can be constructed.

Secondary socialisation takes place later in life and it is the process of learning expected norms and values as part of a group. Individuals are socialised into roles within a social structure (Jones, et al., 2011).

Durkheim reports that the role each individual plays in the society facilitates social cohesion (Shortell, 2016). In social work, practitioners are socialised into their roles through secondary socialisation.

Through learned norms and values, they are equipped with individual key skills, behaviour, knowledge and habits that are necessary to enable effective practice (Jones, et al., 2011). For instance, social workers are guided by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) Standards of Proficiency (SoP).

Standards of Proficiency (SoP)

standard of proficiency

The SoP sets out the knowledge and abilities of a social worker when practicing. These standards are considered necessary to protect the professional reputation and the public.

The Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) sets out abilities which social workers are expected to emulate throughout their career. While a particular norm and value may be important to one person, it may present as an abstract value and hold no specific desirability to another (Schwartz, 1994).

We can identify an overlap between socialisation and reflection. This is because social workers are socialised into the profession and its body of knowledge sets boundaries that start to become defended through reflection when working with others (Redmond, 2006).

The professional culture and context of social work further alters an individual’s sense of self and how we integrate knowledge and knowing.

However, anxiety, fear and overemphasis on results can lead to focusing on a tick-box approach to the completion of learning tasks and not accomplishing learning (Howatson-Jones, 2016). Reflection can therefore become limited and superficial when other priorities take over.

Developing personal knowledge through reflection and combined with socialisation can help improve social work practice, and enhance the experiences of service users (Thomas, 2016).

Reflection links theory to practice and helps the social worker develop and understand their role and support the learning of new skills. This can be done through reflecting ‘in and on’ action. Knowledge derived from practice does not add to professional knowledge unless it has been reflected on for its significance.

Before you go

To conclude, this article has highlighted that reflective practice, and socialisation makes up knowledge in social work practice. Intuition and tacit knowledge form part of reflection in social work practice and starts during social work training. This form of knowledge when combined with education and an understanding of social theories such as Durkheim’s views on socialisation can help improve outcomes for service users.

Reflection is a skill that enables the social worker to contemplate and examine experiences, how and why events have occurred and consider alternative approaches to doing things. It is also important that social workers consider how they might be implicated by their experiences (reflexivity). This shapes the social worker’s critical judgement to enhance future performance.

The ontological view is that social work practice involves more than one reality. Social phenomena and experiences can be socially constructed. Social work knowledge can be epistemologically characterised as a practical moral knowledge (through reflection) or a rational technical knowledge (through the use of social theories).

Reflective practice allows each practitioner to interpret their experiences differently but logically. The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) sets out the knowledge and abilities of a social worker when practicing, resulting in practitioners being socialised into their roles. In addition, the ability to reflect ensures that the practitioner maintains some autonomy while ensuring that the wellbeing of service users is a priority.


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