Paper Review: Ethical considerations in social work research

Ana M. Sobočan, Teresa Bertotti & Kim Strom-Gottfried (2019) Ethical considerations in social work research, European Journal of Social Work, 22:5, 805-818, DOI: 10.1080/13691457.2018.1544117

Introduction

This is a paper whose aim is to place is looking at the ethics of research through a specific social work lens. What is it that might make social work research and the ethical considerations of it, different from other types of research in other fields. Although there are books devoted specifically to this (Morris, 2006, D’Cruz and Jones, 2013, Hardwick and Worsley 2011 and many others) it is a useful introduction to some of the key tensions and considerations which exist in the field. Not least, for me anyway, because it comes from a perspective of authors from Slovenia, Trento and the United States where most of my reading has been UK-based.

Methodology

In terms of methods, this is more of a piece combining literature relating to research ethics with some of the literature about social work research. Referencing BASW (British Association of Social Work) Code of Ethics and the IFSW (International Federation of Social Workers) Statement of Principles, it pulls apart from of the considerations that make social work research ethics different from research ethics, by adding an additional layer of professional responsibilities and values rather than by removing anything.

It does this with two case study examples illustrating where the values of a social worker as a professional may be at odds with the purity of the research process. In these two examples they are focusing on two particular ‘research values’ and explaining where the conflict could potentially arise.

Context

The examples they give as ‘case study’ type relate to the principle of nonmaleficience. This basically means that the researcher should not cause any harm, obviously not intentionally but unintentionally as well through their research with people. The authors draw on this fundamental principle of bioethics where there may be medical treatments involved and extrapolate to social work where there may be ‘harm’ that isn’t easily identified.

In their example, they refer to research in the field of child protection where there were potentially sensitive issues discussed but the research was around understanding the quality of services delivered from the view of families who received services.

This research was carried out in a focus group and this presented some stresses regarding the role of confidentiality and the use of a group setting where sensitive issues were discussed.

The dilemma identified stemmed from the formation of self-help and support group between people who were the ‘research subjects’ during the focus groups. Should the professional stop these conversations where those who were using services were providing advice and support to each other, talking about how they ‘managed’ poor services and provided useful help within the group? Or should they return the conversation and the group focus to the research questions?

The researcher in question moved the focus back to their research and away from the emergent discussion about how participants may help each other, but the authors leave us with the question about whether this was a misuse of power on the part of the researcher who is also a social worker?

The second case given relates to a social worker/researcher whose roles potentially overlap. On the one hand, the social worker is the ‘agent of change’ but the role as a researcher is to document what is.

In this case, the social worker was researching same-gender parented families. The researcher had personal experiences in this area which is what had led them to the research and in order to aid conversation and discussion, told the participants, so they knew they were speaking to someone who intrinsically supported their families and relationships.

In some conversations, the researcher, on listening to some of the challenges and discrimination faced, was faced with the dilemma of whether they advocate for the families who are ‘research subjects’. Would that change the focus of the research so that some stories became stronger if they were to give a view that might help the family?

These were some of the dilemmas that the authors saw as stemming from the dual role of social work practitioner and researcher.

Key Learning

By presenting case studies, the authors invite us to ask questions about potential ethical dilemmas across social work research, and to explore how these issues may be addressed in writing about social work research, for example, in papers that are published. How do we establish that the research has benefited the participants and social work itself rather than provided a professional stepping stone for the author? This is a useful challenge to reflect on as I make my way through research in the field.

The authors looked at the role of social justice in social work research which had taken place and how often it may have been referenced in studies over the years. They are particularly interested in the role that virtue ethics may play in research with researchers, particularly in social work, exploring their motivations behind the research and ensuring the research is beneficial to participants who are not seen as a means to an end.

The paper asks that universities who train novice researchers from the first steps, engage with ethics by ensuring the language is ethics is central because language feeds attitude.

They present models they have considered about how to review ethical impact, particularly looking at some generic ones which they transpose to a social work framework. The authors then demonstrate how the dilemmas presented in the case studies might work through these frameworks.

Reflection

I enjoyed reading this paper as it was clearly written and easy to follow. I enjoy reading about ethics anyway and placing research ethics within a social work context was immediately useful to me so it may have made my perception of interest stronger.

Some of the issues raised about ethics are specific to research. How do we choose research and subjects? Sometimes this is an individual decision, sometimes it relates to funding availability but it should have a purpose that serves the aims of the profession in terms of growth.

I enjoyed the case study examples as well, they were easy to follow in any context and not specific to social work in a particular area but they made the examples clearer.

Use in Practice

As I am increasingly moving into a different stage of research, this has provided practical contexts for me to reflect on how I design research to ensure that social work principles and standards are embedded in the design from the start, but it is also providing me with a template, through the models given, to review the research but also some of the work we might do on a day to day basis when we try to gather feedback or run QI-type projects, of being aware of any potential harm that may be caused.

It also reminded me of the need to look beyond some of the UK texts I usually turn to and broaden my understanding of professional literature internationally.

Conclusion

This was a useful paper both in terms of research ethics, where it is most relevant but also worth considering some of the points in a more general exploration of social work ethics and how we make decisions about priorities in a work role.

Reflection: On Linking Practice, Research and Writing about It.

After a month or so of writing on this site, after a couple of false starts over the years, I thought I’d reflect a bit on what I’ve learnt through writing and how my research work, day job and additional writing are coming together.

I have tried to develop more of a discipline with the writing. Whether this will see me through the next three years (or so) to completion of my doctorate or not, I don’t know but what I do know is that writing is easy when you are on a roll, but it needs to be a discipline in order to make it a habit. I have never been one for self-help books, especially, but it was a book I read that emphasised the point which, thinking about it, is obvious (which I guess is the same for many self-help books) that to write when you don’t feel like writing, is the toughest part.

It’s also incredibly easy to stop writing. Yes, it’s about creating a habit but it doesn’t always develop naturally through habit and just a day or two of a lapse, makes it much harder to re-start.

I tend to work towards deadlines. One of the hardest things I’ve found about moving to a research aspect of a degree rather than a taught part is the flexibility of deadlines and knowing this in my head. I’ve bought myself (I did this last year as well) an A4 day to view diary with monthly plans at the front and while I’m a big fan of digitalisation, this diary sits on my desk and I make notes about what I have done and am planning to each day. I have the next few months mapped out and whilst that may and is likely to change, I have set myself clear expectations.

My ‘research diary’ as such sits on OneNote but having a paper version allows for other notes and is particularly helpful for setting myself deadlines. The problem with deadlines is the disappointment when you fail to meet them but while trying to build a discipline, I’m also trying not to be too hard on myself.

Along that line, the writing has been on the basis that I will review one paper a week and one book a week. I have deleted one post I published because I was told (and this was correct) that I had fatally misinterpreted an acronym used in the research paper which had completely changed its meaning. This was a very useful lesson to me about assumptions made, on my part and on the part of those who write for us. I am also not sure if I will be able to keep to that pace. I read a lot anyway, and a lot of the books I am reviewing, are books I’ve read over the last few years but having the discipline of trying to write regularly can be helpful, when it doesn’t involve too much pressure. It’s that balance between discipline and self-criticism that one has to walk, especially if you are particularly tired or stressed from work on one day.

While I want to succeed, I often have to prioritise work on a day to day basis and trying not to feel guilty when I spend days doing not-work, not-study things is also a focus.

I write because I want to practice writing. I am not looking at ‘hits’ or developing a loyal readership as I know I am quite selfishly choosing topics which are interesting to me. I choose papers I have found useful, either for my studying or for work. There is a paper that I read recently, that I thought was really poor and a book that I thought didn’t set out what it intended to. Generally, all the papers and books I have written about, I’ve found useful, helpful and well-written. I may need to develop more confidence before confronting the critical although that is a useful skill as well and one I will try to work on.

Often the last few years, I’ve had more division between my part time study and full time work. I had some study days generously granted by my employers and I brought some of the additional reading I had done into the workplace in exchange, including developing some additional mental capacity training which was rolled out. As I moved into a different job, the links are becoming easier to create because I am doing social work and studying about doing social work. It’s not always intrinsically linked because the areas of social work are different (long story) but what it has done is made me far more aware of the breadth of social work and the value in not compartmentalising the profession into ‘mental health’, ‘child protection’, ‘dementia’, ‘learning disabilities’. The ‘social work’ runs deeper and needs to run deeper than the topic. However, it has become more difficult to separate the time between work and study. I’ve had to actively use more leave which has an impact on the time to rest. This, I hope, will improve but it is a worry.

The other area I have become more aware of is the links and divisions between research and practice. Practitioner research happens and is happening. I am evidence of that. But in order for the profession to grow, it needs to happen far more. This isn’t about battle lines drawn between academia and practice. If anything, I have seen those are increasingly unhelpfully divisive, but we need to make space for more conversations and more conversations with the people who aren’t used to having these conversations – about how we can work together and how we can draw in more user and carer voices.

So I will try and continue as far as I can with the writing, as long as it helps me to learn. I keep telling myself that if I stop now, what I have learnt has already been worth the time (and financial) investment. I may move to one review post and one more flexible post, whether it’s posting links, an update on where I am going or how I use the various tools I use (I am currently on my fifth reference manager). Thank you for joining me.

Paper Review: Human Rights : Its Meaning and Practice in Social Work Field Settings

This post refers to the following paper :

Julie A. Steen, Mary Mann, Nichole Restivo, Shellene Mazany, Reshawna Chapple, Human Rights: Its Meaning and Practice in Social Work Field Settings, Social Work, Volume 62, Issue 1, 1 January 2017, Pages 9–17, https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/sww075

Introduction

As I have covered Australian and British social work papers, I thought I’d turn to the United States with this one and while I have read and learned about human rights in the context of English mental health and mental capacity legislation, the ability to see where the global human rights debate is, was appealing. It has been useful to look at where research is focused in the US where the role of social work has some distinct differences and the cultural context may not be as similar as we sometimes assume.

Context

The research study which was carried out involved interviews with social work students and and ‘field supervisors’ who are experienced social workers as might be obvious, who are supervising students in their initial training placements.

The paper starts with a literature review which covers social work and the role of human rights in social work settings. This has the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as the starting point but diverges by looking at some of the additional principles to cover, what they describe as ‘population-specific’ conventions including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Principles for the Older Person which grew up subsequently. There is also reference to some of the work which has linked human rights with social work in a broader context and where human rights practice crosses with social work. This includes the role of advocacy in social work and an interesting distinction between case-based advocacy and cause-based advocacy. There is also reflection on the role of community based social work as human rights in practice.

It was interesting reading through a UK lens where obviously the European Convention of Human Rights doesn’t figure but also where the UK-based literature on human rights and social work would not have been as relevant to the article. This is very much my ‘little England’ view and a literature review is never going to be comprehensive. However, it also introduced me to a broader understanding of human rights, encouraging me to read further and put my focus on UK human rights into a better global perspective.

Methodology

One thing I noticed in this study which was helpful (to me, as a novice researcher) was that the authors explicitly stated their research questions which were

“What means do social work students and their field supervisors attribute to the concept of human rights as it relates to their work in field settings?” and “How do social work students and their field supervisors describe human rights practice in their own agency meetings?”

Having the research questions clearly established helps with appraising the research which takes place and helps understand decisions made regarding research design.

In this case, the authors took a phenomenological approach. These terms can sound like a different language intended to detach academic world but it only means that it is looking at the experiences of people who have them from their viewpoint. It is not an ‘objective’ study but that would not have been unsuitable for the research questions which are asking about how the participants experience and understand human rights in their practice and so phenomenology fits well.

The study was carried out through online questionnaires. Online surveys were sent out to students and supervisors and they were open for responses for two months. There were, in the end, 35 student participants and 48 supervisors. There was a mix of students on different programmes (Batchelors and Masters) and mix of gender and race which was established in the results. The average age of students was 20 and the average age of supervisors was 45. I noted this only because I can’t imagine the average age of UK students would be so low. So another notable difference.

The survey contained a mix of open-ended and structured questions.

Results

The researchers divide the outcomes into seven themes in terms of identification of human rights issues relevant to practice and five themes under which they described their own practice or observation of practice.

In terms of the human rights overlap with social work, the most common theme identified was poverty, in addition to this was discrimination, participation, self-determination, autonomy, violence (right to live free from violence where violence is expanded to mean abuse), dignity, respect, privacy (including confidentiality) and ‘freedom and liberty’.

Poverty identified reflected the resources that link to access to housing and healthcare. This obviously has a different context where healthcare is mostly on an insurance basis but presented another layer of the economic and social human rights which occupy the social justice element of social work and embed social work as a human rights profession.

The interesting point the researchers made about discrimination was that students primarily focussed on discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ groups whereas the supervisors more often referred to cultural competencies and gender based discrimination.

The themes of participation, self-determination and autonomy emphasised the right to have the means to determine ones’ own destiny, including refusing or discounting professional advice.

The group of supervisors who referred to ‘freedom and liberty’ were non-descriptive. It is an interesting expression of a more abstract concept as a right.

In terms of practice and how they saw human rights expressed within the agency there were five themes determined. These were advocacy, service provision, assessment and relationships.

Advocacy was reflected in both individual practice with clients and in terms of challenges within organisations. The researchers distinguish themes of case advocacy versus cause advocacy. Cause advocacy was more heavily emphasised by students. Service provision included areas like psychoeduction and providing direct support to groups of people that had specific needs. I’m not sure of case management as human rights but that might be about my prejudices and understanding of the term rather than the way it is meant by the participants.

Assessment was seen as a human rights engaged activity as a process in order for ‘needs and wishes’ to be met. I think this may be a bit tenuous at best because I prefer ‘conversations about needs’ to ‘assessments’ but that might be my issue with the language. Sometimes, assessments need to be assessments. Do they always lead to resources that are necessary? Perhaps not.

The relationship was interesting as it was presented as being key to human rights in practice including the honesty and transparency of the connection. For the purposes of the paper, treating people with dignity, care and in a way that is free from discrimination were part of the relationship.

Key learning for practice

There were a couple of interesting elements that I took from this paper. It was fascinating to read about human rights from a non-European perspective. It made me itch for more exposure to international research. Struggling to match human rights in principle to work that social workers apply on a day to day level can be a challenge and this research addresses this by asking about both conceptual and practical visions of human rights.

The language of human rights was measured in the research and it can make us think about the language we use in practice. Do we talk about assessments meeting wants and needs or about assessments as processes to be completed? Do we distinguish and action both case and cause advocacy? We might not be able to to both but do we recognise it when we do it.

One of the things I thought I could do as a result of this, was self-audit some of the small actions and conversations I have and records I write in each week, meetings I attend and consider how human rights legislation and principles are enacted in practice.

Reflections and gaps

I enjoyed reading this paper and enjoyed particularly seeing the process of a research project including research questions being described. Of course, the study was based on students and practice supervisors. It would have been interesting to see the outcomes if it had been practitioners at various stages of their careers. The different areas of practice were not also clearly differentiated so it wasn’t clear how many worked with adults or children and in what settings, for example. This might have produced further interesting results. It was a relatively large sample (I thought) and the survey was an interesting way of collecting data, particularly large tracts of data but I wondered about how useful (or different) interviews might have been.

Conclusion

One of the things that struck me (and possibly the authors as well) was the lack of reference to race and discrimination on the basis of race and culture particularly by the students who were interviewed. This was something I wondered about in terms of teaching within social work settings as well. The authors speculate that this might align with gaps in the teaching curriculum although discrimination in the LGBTQI+ community was more heavily referenced by students.

Poverty came up as a strong theme in discussion but in practice it wasn’t always clear how this was challenged and addressed. This is more about where some of the cause advocacy might focus, perhaps.

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