Learning to ‘research’

I have been focussing my reading very much on methods and methodology recently. This might have come a bit later than it should have considering I am in my second year of a five year course, but I am still in on a very sharp learning curve. Trying to divide my time (alongside a full-time job, of course) between reading about the subject matter of my research and reading about research as a new knowledge area to develop may not be quite as well-balanced as I’d ideally like at the moment.

Through my reading, I came across a couple of books, for I am mostly focussing on books rather than articles for my methodology reading, which have been a bit snotty about interviews as a primary research method. One was very much referring to interviews as secondary data which is constructed as opposed to ‘real life’ data which is found ‘in the wild’ (my terms between the inverted commas but I think that was the meaning). Interviews were, perhaps dismissed as ‘too easy’ or an obvious choice which create data that might not have the same validity.

The other approach was very much about a ‘hierarchy of research methodologies’ where the evidence-based quantitative/positivist research was more rigorous by nature than smaller scale qualitative interviewing.

I’m planning on using interviews as my primary way to gather research data. I have already scheduled (kind of – waiting for it to be confirmed) a pilot interview or two. I am not yet knowledgeable enough, I don’t think to challenge the authors, but I think there’s a fair case to be made for interviews – not least because it is the best way to access the information and language that I want to analyse in order to better understand the research questions I have provisionally settled on (for today – I have to say that my research question/s are currently being tweaked on a daily basis).

Thinking about interviewing in particular, it came to me that really that’s all I’ve ever been doing in my years of social work. I started my MA in social work in 1998 so for about 20 years or so, I’ve been ‘interviewing’. Interviewing people to complete assessments and reviews, interviewing people to understand the circumstances of their lives which have led to interactions with the state embodied in the social worker. I have had to interview in difficult situations, when people have not wanted to speak to me because they feared me or my role, because they despised me and/or what I represented or because they were unable to.

On my first placement at University in 1998/9, in a local authority older people’s team, I remember going out on a visit on my own to ‘review’ a relatively straightforward care package. When I returned and spoke with my practice teacher, she asked me a lot of questions, about what I’d heard, seen, smelt – how I had felt, what observations I had.

The words were only one signal to me, the frayed carpet remained in my mind, thinking about the impact of mobility and potential harm a fall might cause. It reminded me of the importance of observation skills and listening skills in the role I had.

Later, when I went to see people at home for the first time, I would look around rooms and try and find a connection – one house, where a man had many paintings and sculptures of horses (which was unusual in inner London) and it had started a conversation where he reminisced about his life as a jockey, photos of family which were admired to start conversations that people felt comfortable with. Often when I visited people at home, and I worked in older adult’s mental health services, I would offer to make them a cup of tea or coffee when I arrived (when I knew them – it obviously, depended on the context and wasn’t always appropriate) but it allowed me to check the contents of the fridge and the shelf-life of the milk without making an explicit statement. It was these observations that allowed me to build up pictures. I also relied on feedback from family members, paid carers and staff at day centres or community groups who would feed back. This was all giving me pictures from which to form judgements and create a view about how to interpret a situation.

This made me think about the research methods I have been reading about, mostly qualitative, to be fair – the interviews, the observations, the focus groups even – all activities I carried out and still do carry out every day (well, most days) at work. I speak to people mostly, but then I interpret and explain the information that has been given to me in a format that makes sense to the state – it might be a report I’m writing or an assessment or a review, it might be about presenting my interpretation at a ‘panel’ or explaining my position to my manager.

But also, in my work, I need to understand data. I need to look at information from audits of services and staffing levels on wards. Information about the use of restraint, seclusion and incidents. This needs to be interpreted and understood.

Basically, all those skills I have to be a social worker, they aren’t that dissimilar to research skills I am learning about. Of course, I’m not saying I would interview a research subject in the same way I’d speak with a person who I was working with – but there are some analogies. When I practised as a AMHP, we had to be clear about the purpose of our assessment and the implications of it from the start. When I completed a continuing care assessment, I had to explain how that information would be used and ensure that I used criteria which were established to provide evidence to support my interpretation and judgement.

The skills we learn to practice are research skills. The differences between being a social worker and being a researcher of social work, is, perhaps the impact of the theoretical approaches we take. When we interview and interpret for social work practice, we use social work theories and methods. When we are interpreting and understanding practice for research purposes, we have other contexts in which to understand.

But maybe learning to research isn’t quite as alien as it seemed to be to me, and what I am really learning is how to interpret the data I gather in different ways and in different contexts.

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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