3 1.3 Why should we care?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe and discuss four important reasons why students should care about social scientific research methods
  • Identify how social workers use research as part of evidence-based practice

 

At this point, you may be wondering about the relevance of research methods to your life. Whether or not you choose to become a social worker, you should care about research methods for two basic reasons: (1) research methods are regularly applied to solve social problems and issues that shape how our society is organized, thus you have to live with the results of research methods every day of your life, and (2) understanding research methods will help you evaluate the effectiveness of social work interventions, an important skill for future employment.

Consuming research and living with its results

Another New Yorker cartoon depicts two men chatting with each other at a bar. One is saying to the other, “Are you just pissing and moaning, or can you verify what you’re saying with data?” Which would you rather be, just a complainer or someone who can actually verify what you’re saying? Understanding research methods and how they work can help position you to actually do more than just complain. Further, whether you know it or not, research probably has some impact on your life each and every day. Many of our laws, social policies, and court proceedings are grounded in some degree of empirical research and evidence (Jenkins & Kroll-Smith, 1996). That’s not to say that all laws and social policies are good or make sense. However, you can’t have an informed opinion about any of them without understanding where they come from, how they were formed, and what their evidence base is. All social workers, from micro to macro, need to understand the root causes and policy solutions to social problems that their clients are experiencing.

A recent lawsuit against Walmart provides an example of social science research in action. A sociologist named Professor William Bielby was enlisted by plaintiffs in the suit to conduct an analysis of Walmart’s personnel policies in order to support their claim that Walmart engages in gender discriminatory practices. Bielby’s analysis shows that Walmart’s compensation and promotion decisions may indeed have been vulnerable to gender bias. In June 2011, the United States Supreme Court decided against allowing the case to proceed as a class-action lawsuit (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 2011). While a class-action suit was not pursued in this case, consider the impact that such a suit against one of our nation’s largest employers could have on companies and their employees around the country and perhaps even on your individual experience as a consumer.

In addition to having to live with laws and policies that have been crafted based on social science research, you are also a consumer of all kinds of research, and understanding methods can help you be a smarter consumer. Ever notice the magazine headlines that peer out at you while you are waiting in line to pay for your groceries? They are geared toward piquing your interest and making you believe that you will learn a great deal if you follow the advice in a particular article. However, since you would have no way of knowing whether the magazine’s editors had gathered their data from a representative sample of people like you and your friends, you would have no reason to believe that the advice would be worthwhile. By having some understanding of research methods, you can avoid wasting your money by buying the magazine and wasting your time by following inappropriate advice.

Pick up or log on to the website for just about any magazine or newspaper, or turn on just about any news broadcast, and chances are you’ll hear something about some new and exciting research results. Understanding research methods will help you read past any hype and ask good questions about what you see and hear. In other words, research methods can help you become a more responsible consumer of public and popular information. And who wouldn’t want to be more responsible?

 

Evidence-based practice

Probably the most asked questions, though seldom asked directly, are “Why am I in this class?” or “When will I ever use this information?“ While it may seem strange, the answer is “pretty often.” Social work supervisors and administrators at agency-based settings will likely have to demonstrate that their agency’s programs are effective at achieving their goals. Most private and public grants will require evidence of effectiveness in order to continue receiving money and keep the programs running. Social workers at community-based organization commonly use research methods to target their interventions to the needs of their service area. Clinical social workers must also make sure that the interventions they use in practice are effective and not harmful to clients. Social workers may also want to track client progress on goals, help clients gather data about their clinical issues, or use data to advocate for change. All social workers in all practice situations must also remain current on the scientific literature to ensure competent and ethical practice.

In all of these cases, a social worker needs to be able to understand and evaluate scientific information. Evidence-based practice (EBP) for social workers involves making decisions on how to help clients based on the best available evidence. A social worker must examine the literature, understanding both the theory and evidence relevant to the practice situation. According to Rubin and Babbie (2017), EBP also involves understanding client characteristics, using practice wisdom and existing resources, and adapting to environmental context.  Plainly said, EBP consists of four main components: (1) the best evidence available for the practice-related question or concern, (2) client values and preferences, (3) practitioner expertise, and (4) client circumstances.

EBP is not simply “doing what the literature says,” but rather a process by which practitioners examine the literature, client, self, and context to inform interventions with clients and systems. As we discussed in Section 1.2, the patterns discovered by scientific research are not perfectly applicable to all situations. Instead, we rely on the critical thinking of social workers to apply scientific knowledge to real-world situations.  Social workers apply their critical thinking to the process of EBP by starting with a question about their practice, seeking evidence to answer the question, critically reviewing the evidence they find, making and implementing a decision based on the four components of EBP, and then evaluating the outcome of the decision.  EBP is a continual process in which new practice questions continually arise.

A figure showing the 5-step process of evidence-based-practice as a cycle. 1. Ask a question 2. Find evidence 3. Evaluate evidence 4. Make and apply decision 5. Evaluate decision
Figure 1.1. The steps of the evidence-based practice process.

Let’s consider an example of a social work administrator at a children’s mental health agency. The agency uses private grant funds to fund a program that provides low-income children with bicycles, teaches the children how to repair and care for their bicycles, and leads group bicycle outings after school. Physical activity has been shown to improve mental health outcomes in scientific studies, but is this social worker’s program improving mental health in their clients? Ethically, the social worker should make sure that the program is achieving its goals. If the program is not beneficial, the resources should be spent on more effective programs. Practically, the social worker will also need to demonstrate to the agency’s funders that bicycling truly helps children deal with their mental health concerns.

The example above demonstrates the need for social workers to engage in evaluation research or research that evaluates the outcomes of a policy or program. She will choose from many acceptable ways to investigate program effectiveness, and those choices are based on the principles of scientific inquiry you will learn in this textbook. As the example above mentions, evaluation research is baked into how nonprofit human service agencies are funded. Government and private grants need to make sure their money is being spent wisely. If your program does not work, then the money should go to a program that has been shown to be effective or a new program that may be effective. Just because a program has the right goal doesn’t mean it will actually accomplish that goal. Grant reporting is an important part of agency-based social work practice. Agencies, in a very important sense, help us discover what approaches actually help clients.

 

In addition to engaging in evaluation research to satisfy the requirements of a grant, your agency may engage in evaluation research for the purposes of validating a new approach to treatment. Innovation in social work is incredibly important. Sam Tsemberis relates an “aha” moment from his practice in this Ted talk on homelessness. A faculty member at the New York University School of Medicine, he noticed a problem with people cycling in and out of the local psychiatric hospital wards. Clients would arrive in psychiatric crisis, stabilize under medical supervision in the hospital, and end up back at the hospital back in psychiatric crisis shortly after discharge. When he asked the clients what their issues were, they said they were unable to participate in homelessness programs because they were not always compliant with medication for their mental health diagnosis and they continued to use drugs and alcohol. Collaboratively, the problem facing these clients was defined as a homelessness service system that was unable to meet clients where they were. Clients who were unwilling to remain completely abstinent from drugs and alcohol or who did not want to take psychiatric medications were simply cycling in and out of psychiatric crisis, moving from the hospital to the street and back to the hospital.

The solution that Sam Tsemberis implemented and popularized was called Housing First, and it is an approach to homelessness prevention that starts by, you guessed it, providing people with housing first. Similar to an approach to child and family homelessness created by Tanya Tull, Tsemberis created a model of addressing chronic homelessness with people with co-occurring disorders (substance abuse and mental illness). The Housing First model holds that housing is a human right, one that should not be denied based on substance use or mental health diagnosis. Clients are given housing as soon as possible. The Housing First agency provides wraparound treatment from an interdisciplinary team, including social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, and former clients who are in recovery. Over the past few decades, this program has gone from one program in New York City to the program of choice for federal, state, and local governments seeking to address homelessness in their communities.

The main idea behind Housing First is that once clients have an apartment of their own, they are better able to engage in mental health and substance abuse treatment. While this approach may seem logical to you, it is backwards from the traditional homelessness treatment model. The traditional approach began with the client stopping drug and alcohol use and taking prescribed medication. Only after clients achieved these goals were they offered group housing. If the client remained sober and medication compliant, they could then graduate towards less restrictive individual housing.

Evaluation research helps practitioners establish that their innovation is better than the alternatives and should be implemented more broadly. By comparing clients who were served through Housing First and traditional treatment, Tsemberis could establish that Housing First was more effective at keeping people housed and progressing on mental health and substance abuse goals. Starting first with smaller studies and graduating to much larger ones, Housing First built a reputation as an effective approach to addressing homelessness. When President Bush created the Collaborative Initiative to Help End Chronic Homelessness in 2003, Housing First was used in a majority of the interventions and demonstrated its effectiveness on a national scale. In 2007, it was acknowledged as an evidence-based practice in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Policies (NREPP).

Try browsing around the NREPP website and looking for interventions on topics that interest you. Other sources of evidence-based practices include the Cochrane Reviews digital library and Campbell Collaboration. The use of systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and randomized controlled trials are particularly important in this regard.

So why share the story of Housing First? Well, it may help you think about what you hope to contribute to our knowledge on social work practice. What is your bright idea and how can it change the world? Practitioners innovate all the time, often incorporating those innovations into their agency’s approach and mission. Through the use of research methods, agency-based social workers can demonstrate to policymakers and other social workers that their innovations should be more widely used. Without this wellspring of new ideas, social services would not be able to adapt to the changing needs of clients. Social workers in agency-based practice may also participate in research projects happening at their agency. Partnerships between schools of social work and agencies are a common way of testing and implementing innovations in social work. Clinicians receive specialized training, clients receive additional services, agencies gain prestige, and researchers can study how an intervention works in the real world.

While you may not become a scientist in the sense of wearing a lab coat and using a microscope, social workers must understand science in order to engage in ethical practice. In this section, we reviewed many ways in which research is a part of social work practice, including:

  • Determining the best intervention for a client or system
  • Ensuring existing services are accomplishing their goals
  • Satisfying requirements to receive funding from private agencies and government grants
  • Testing a new idea and demonstrating that it should be more widely implemented

Spotlight on UTA School of Social Work

An Evidence-Based Program to Prevent Child Maltreatment

We all know that preventing a problem is better than trying to fix the effects afterwards. Child maltreatment is a problem that social workers often encounter—wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could keep it from happening?  Is there an effective intervention for parents who are feeling overwhelmed and are perhaps on the edge of maltreating their children?  University of Texas at Arlington’s Dr. Richard Hoefer and (at the time Ph.D. student) Dante Bryant conducted a program evaluation to find out if that is possible.  While more research is needed to verify the findings, their work points out a possible way of preventing child maltreatment for some families.

A private nonprofit received a grant to develop and test the “Multi-disciplinary Approach to Prevention Services” program (MAPS). Program staff worked with parents at-risk of committing acts of maltreatment. The overall evaluation question was whether the program had a positive impact.

Before evaluators answer an outcome question like this, they must understand the logic behind a program and test whether that model is correct.  In this program, developers believed that parents at-risk of maltreating their children did not have the knowledge and skills needed to be successful parents. Thus, parents were frustrated and unhappy with their children and their own parenting.  This leads to a higher risk of maltreatment.

The program’s logic was that if the parents learned and applied skills of effective parenting, positive changes would ensue.  Parents’ perception of their children’s behavior would improve, their dissatisfaction would decrease, and maltreatment would not occur. In the longer term, parents would not be involved with Child Protective Services and money would be saved.  The program was thus implemented to reduce the need for Child Protective Services (with its costs) by targeting negative parental behavior, strengthening parent-child relations, improving the family environment, and keeping families together.

The evaluation of MAPS answered these questions: (1) Did program participants increase their resource engagement? (2) Did program participants improve parenting knowledge, skills and satisfaction? (3) Did program participants report additional involvement with CPS?

The authors used a one group pretest-posttest design (which you will learn about later in this textbook) to assess program outcomes and achievement levels. Questionnaires were administered as a during the client intake and assessment process; the same questions were later used after the program as a posttest.  Hoefer and Bryant (2017) used the Parenting Scale (Arnold, O’Leary, Wolff, & Acker, 1993) to measure actual parental behavior, the Eyberg Child Behavior Inventory (Burns & Patterson, 1990) to measure both the children’s behavior and how parents perceived it (how much they were bothered by what the child did), and the Kansas Parental Satisfaction scale (James, Schumm, Kennedy, Grigsby, & Shectman, 1985) to understand how parents felt about their own parenting.

At the end of the program, Hoefer and Bryant used data from 64 families to determine results.  Parents did receive more resources (primarily parenting skills classes) than they had before the program.  All measures of parenting knowledge, skills and satisfaction showed positive changes at a statistically significant level, when comparing pretests and post-tests. Importantly, by the end of the program, only one family of the 64 in the program was further involved with Child Protective Services.

We need more research, though, because the one-group pre-test/post-test design of the evaluation cannot show a causal relationship for the outcomes.  In addition, this evaluation was not able to follow families beyond the program’s end to look at long-term effects.  Still, along with other research on the efficacy of improving parenting skills to reduce child maltreatment, it builds on a good case to use such interventions on a widespread basis to reduce harm to children.

Key Takeaways

  • Whether we know it or not, our everyday lives are shaped by social scientific research.
  • Understanding research methods is important for competent and ethical social work practice.
  • Understanding social science and research methods can help us become more astute and more responsible consumers of information.
  • Knowledge about social scientific research methods is important for ethical practice, as it ensures interventions are based on evidence.

 

Glossary

  • Evaluation research- research that evaluates the outcomes of a policy or program
  • Evidence-based practice- making decisions on how to help clients based on the best available evidence

 

Image Attributions

A peer counselor with mother by US Department of Agriculture CC-BY-2.0

Homeless man in New York 2008 by JMSuarez CC-BY-2.0

 

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