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Linking Theory, Practice and Research


Jan Fook

School of Social Inquiry
Deakin University
Geelong Victoria



It seems so easy to say that the focus of research in social work should be on building theory from practice. In one simple sentence we have linked and integrated these three major professional activities. Yet, like most endeavours in social work, if not life, it is easy to say, but not so easy to do.

Take some of the common experiences with which most of us are familiar. Practitioners complain that the idea of research intimidates them. Researchers complain that practice is not evidence-based. Students complain that textbook theory is too abstract, and that they learn most from field practice. Educators complain that students are more interested in being lectured to by current practitioners, rather than academics whose knowledge is seen to derive from books or research. We all have beefs against each other, in a profession in which it seems as if separate worlds vie for privilege and recognition.

So how does this situation come about? Why the separation of, and competition between, the worlds of practice, research and theory? I want to begin my paper today by taking a critical look at some of the reasons we have found it difficult to integrate practice, research and theory in social work. I am going to be deliberately controversial, because I am hoping that by confronting some of our dearly held assumptions, structures and behaviours, we might begin to see a new way ahead. Perhaps, in locating these sticking points, we might begin to reformulate our thinking and practices so that research, theory and practice are integrated in the social work endeavour.

Common assumptions

Lately, I have taken to teaching critical social work practice incorporating postmodern and reflective perspectives. In class we spend time analysing, or deconstructing, students' accounts of practice experiences on placement. In the course of the analysis, we connect experiences with commonly held assumptions about practice theory, role expectations, values, ethics, you name it. One of the dominant common themes which arises for students is the issue of power, particularly the ambivalence about having power over clients, and the ambivalence (often hostility) about perceived supervisor power, and student lack of it. Imagine my surprise and bewilderment then, when one student mentioned that she was disappointed in the classes because we weren't looking at power. I was quite floored. When I managed to pick myself up of the floor, I asked what she meant. It transpired that she was talking about structural power. She agreed that we had talked about personal and interpersonal power, but it was somehow not as important, or fulfilling, because it was not structural. I found this particularly perplexing because in the three years prior to this, students had received comprehensive input on structural power, and I had assumed that to make personal links with this would be complementary to prior learning, and would help develop practice skills further.

This incident made me reflect on some of the assumptions we do make about the political and the personal, and how these might be implicated in the way we have constructed the separate worlds of theory, practice and research. Our student seemed to be assuming that

personal (doesn't equal) structural,

and, that structural (equals) political

and therefore that personal, by definition (doesn't equal) political.

There is also an assumption, implicit in this, that the personal is somehow less valuable.

This devaluing of the personal is an assumption which seems to me to be quite rife in much social work thinking, despite, or perhaps because of, the influx of critical, structural and feminist influences. I say this, because I have most commonly noted its presence in people who see themselves as having embraced these more critical traditions in social work (as this student had). It seems that a culture which denies micro-politics has developed.

This devaluing of the personal is supported by other related assumptions. I was reminded of this fairly recently, when running a workshop on critical reflection. By way of a beginning, I presented a couple of transcripts of reflective writing, in which both people had confronted some deep and difficult personally-held assumptions about power and race, which were linked with problematic (in their view) behaviour and attitudes. In one case, a student, Thelma, recognized the way she “sabotaged” herself by casting herself in a “victim” and “morally righteous” position, which she used to excuse her hostile behaviour towards people in authority (Fook, 1999). The other person, Amy, a self-confessed and committed feminist, described her shock in realizing the racism inherent in her own assumption that race does not make a difference between friends. She realized that a denial of racial differences, an assumption that people of colour are the same as whites, can be just as racist as negative discrimination against people of colour (Rossiter, 1995). Both sets of reflections allowed each person to change their behaviour and attitudes in ways which they believed to be more empowering. Thelma, for instance, was able to approach her supervisor more effectively by recasting herself as more of an equal, and seeking advice in a way which preserved, rather than undermined, her social position. Amy was able to enrich her relationship with her friend of colour precisely because she could recognise and accept her friend's perception of difference.

When discussing these transcripts, I was asked by a couple of participants whether it bothered me that the reflections were only personal, not political. They were concerned that personal reflections, would, by definition, remain personal (whatever that means), and would not have some kind of effect "out-there", and would only remain “in-here”. They also suggested that the personal is easy, but the political is hard. Again I was floored by this reaction. I had thought the examples of reflections were particularly hard, both in exposing vulnerablity, but in facing undesirable personal characteristics and having the courage to make changes on that basis.

What seemed to underlie these questions from the participants (both of whom were men incidentally, and both of whom espoused a structural perspective) was an assumption that "personal" change (read "intrapsychic" I think) was of no value unless linked to political change, and that one could not assume that personal change would lead to political change. Also, political change is something which happens externally, not something which takes place in the internal hearts and minds of people. Here we have examples of assumptions which separate the two worlds, personal and political (the internal and the external, the private and public) and which also devalue the personal (internal or private). It is interesting to note, for instance, that I cannot remember ever having been asked whether political change is useless without personal change. Apparently political change is OK in its own right, personal is not.

Feminists, of course, have very much tried to address this assumption of the separation between the personal and political worlds, with the catch-cry "the personal is political". But I wonder whether we also need another - "the political is personal". Yes, of course the expression of structural politics is embedded in personal experience, but at the same time personal experience is one of the sites at which structural politics is expressed and perpetuated. It is as legitimate therefore, to both learn about and act upon politics through the prism of personal experience, as it is to act in the structural realm.

This theme is taken up ably by Harry Ferguson (forthcoming), in his argument for a focus on “life politics”, in which we move beyond an emphasis on either the individual or society, but in which we recognise the need for self-actualisation within an environmnent which is at least partly reflexively constructed. There is a need to redevelop our notions of the political, to include understandings of how individual lives are planned through choices within a structure of life chances.

Ferguson's work nicely reconceptualises our thinking away from the simple oppositional categories involved in juxtaposing the personal and the structural. However, before we continue with this theme of revising our oppositional thinking, I want to discuss another example of this simplistic thinking.

When I talk to practitioners about valuing their own practice experience, they often ask how their own personal experience can possibly be generalisable, and therefore of use to anyone else? How can they guard against their own experience being a mere description of their own experience? How can they make it more analytical, and (by implication), more valuable because it is more theoretical? This is another version of the "devaluing the personal" assumption. Practitioners seem to assume that somehow, if an experience is "only personal", its use is confined to that one person. I do not mean to suggest that one person's experience can or should be imposed on others. Certainly, if there is one thing we know in social work, it is that experiences and perspectives are different, multiple and complex. However, what is interesting is that we seem to deny all this in the assumption that knowledge must be generalisable (and more analytical and theoretical) to be of use. Useful knowledge is that which is generalisable, not that which is personalised. It is as if the two possibilities are juxtaposed, and are envisioned as the only possibilities.

Why are the choices constructed in this way? Why, for instance, do we assume that generalising means imposing a standpoint ("my experience is the same as yours") as opposed to exploring commonalities and relevance ("we can learn from each others' experiences")? Why do we assume that abstract theories must be more valuable than descriptions of specific experiences?

These assumptions, the devaluing of the personal, and the juxtaposing of it against the political/structural or the generalisable/theoretical, are interesting in their pervasiveness, despite considerable recognition of alternative viewpoints, such as in feminist perspectives. I wonder whether their pervasiveness can be traced in broader social and cultural contexts with regard to assumptions about legitimate professional knowledge.

Social and cultural contexts

It has been argued that the process of professionalisation is equivalent to the process of seeking status through legitimizing professional knowledge (Eraut, 1994, p. 1). Furthermore, it can be argued that professionalisation is, almost by definition, a masculinizing process (Hugman, 1991, p. 86), since the seeking of status within patriarchy can presumably only be achieved by success according to patriarchal standards. In other words, the need to raise the status of professional knowledge is inextricably bound up with the push for professional power and status, and that this process unavoidably devalues the ways in which women know and work. Knowledge is therefore legitimated through a social process which implicitly denies womens' ways of knowing and working, and which supports a view of knowledge as rational and empirical, discovered through a "scientific" process of objectively conducted research. In this way, knowledge can (and should) be studied in a decontextualised vacuum, so it can be generalised across contexts, settings and times. Theories are thus generated and tested so that they can stand the tests of time and change, and thus be said to be truly generalisable, valid and reliable. True knowledge is thus contextless and impersonal, able to be made to fit regardless of context, interpretation or perspective. Further testing allows this knowledge (or theory) to be refined, and increases its generalisability.

In this scientific process of legitimation, knowledge becomes more easily commodifiable (which is nice for our managers), because it can be packaged neatly to fit all situations. However, the irony is that the more it is packaged in this way, the less likely it is to be applicable across a range of diverse contexts. As the sociologist Collins (1990) notes, in the process of traditional education and research, we are engaged in a process of transforming practical knowledge (which we value least) into formal rules (which we value most), moving it from private to public domains. But this process actually renders knowledge less flexible, because it is decontextualised, and therefore contextualised knowledge actually needs to be added to make the knowledge relevant again. The great irony of course is that in the traditional scientific research paradigm the process of generalisability actually renders knowledge less generalisable. The process of “scientification” of knowledge actually makes the knowledge we value most, meaningless without the knowledge we value least. Another irony of course is that it is the more “scientific” and generalisable knowledge which is easier to research and teach, since it is clearer, more controllable, and less changeable. No wonder we value it more.

Collins encapsulates the irony by labelling this as the “sociological uncertainty principle: when a system is completely understood, it is too late for practical purposes” (1990, p. 220). In other words, the process of scientification of knowledge actually makes knowledge less practically applicable, and the more it is made scientifically generalisable, the more useless it becomes. This of course has grave implications for us who research and teach professional knowledge, since our business is that of creating and teaching knowledge which is practically applicable.

However, all is not lost. Collins' exposure of the irony in our conceptualisation and valuing of different types of knowledge can help stimulate some useful rethinking about the place and value of the personal practical experience of professional practitioners. Personal, contextualised, practice experience simply needs to be revalued as an aspect of knowledge which is needed to make more generalised theoretical knowledge meaningful. Both go hand in hand. And in this way of thinking, research and educational approaches need to readjust to replace generalised forms of knowledge with relevant contextual knowledge where needed.

I am not simply rehearsing the old arguments here about valuing practice wisdom. I am instead arguing that we need to seriously reframe our understanding of the relationship between different forms of knowing, and therefore the role of ourselves as both researchers and practitioners in social work. As part of this, we need to revisit the idea of generalisability, to focus more on questions of relevance, and how knowledge and theory can be built which allows it to be transferred successfully across different contexts. The problem is one of creating knowledge which can usefully transferred between different contexts, through skilled contextual awareness and application, rather than imposing pre-existing knowledge which has been created in a different context. If we really want to create and teach knowledge which is practical (which I would see as the calling of social work researchers, educators and practitioners) then we need to focus not just on pre-existing knowledge, but also on the skills which are used in making it relevant (transferring it) from one situation to another.

Another British writer who has identified this problem most succinctly is the educationalist Michael Eraut. He argues that professional knowledge is defined by the research community, rather than the professional community, as “codified, published and public” (1994, p. 54). He notes that if we are to research the creation of professional knowledge then a much broader framework is needed. He argues that researchers need to extend their roles from that of “creator and transmitter of generalisable knowledge” to that of enhancing the knowledge creation capacities of individuals and professional communities” (p. 57). Let me repeat that: as researchers we need to move from seeing ourselves as the creators of generalisable knowledge for practitioners to enhancors of the knowledge creation capacities of practitioners. Researchers become facilitators, and these facilitators can be located in a number of different worlds.

This kind of conceptualisation opens the way for reformulating the research role as one of assisting in the building of theoretical knowledge directly from practice, so that the knowledge created is contextually relevant and flexible. You will see that in this simple statement, we have come back to where we started from (and I quote) “the focus of research in social work should be on building theory from practice”. If research is conceptualised in this way, it is automatically integrated with theory and practice, and researchers are not, by definition, people located in a research world, but simply people who build theory from practice. They are defined by the activities they undertake, rather than the domain they inhabit and control.

What does this conceptualisation have to do with the broad aims and future of social work?

How does this way of conceptualising the links between theory, practice and research have relevance for our understandings of the role of social work, especially the social justice foundations of our profession?

This reformulation is based on a radical rethinking of the foundations of our epistemologies in social work - it questions fundamental assumptions about appropriate ways of knowing, and the types of knowledge which are valued or discounted. In this way it opens up possibilities for legitimating knowledges and perspectives which have previously been ignored, trivialised or disallowed, and in this sense, has the potential to change and transform currently acceptable ways of operating. This reconceptualisation of the integration of research, practice and theory thus has emancipatory possibilities. It constitutes, in Ferguson's terms, a type of “life politics” for practitioners - a focus on the theories which are constructed out of the everyday choices which workers face and make with people in their changing and unceratin contexts.

With such a meaning framework, it is possible to identify and analyse the ways in which existing thinking and practices might support and create a separation between the worlds of practice, theory and research. A major challenge is to transform thinking, interactions and structural arrangements, so that they support an integration between the three worlds. Much work needs to be done here in creating new models for collaboration. These can occur in a number of spheres:

  • research designs and methodologies need to be more inclusive, so that they enable knowledge creation from practice (for example reflective approaches; case studies; practice-focused research)
  • conceptions of social work research which are not simply based on exisiting disciplinary conceptions (ie. Behavioural or social sciences) but actively value inclusive approaches which mirror the holistic and multidisciplinary nature of social work
  • constant critical questioning of assumptions and practices which automatically silence or devalue the voice of practitioners. It is especially important to be self-reflexive – how do our own behaviours, positions and attitudes help create cultures and environments which devalue and silence the practitioner's perspective?
  • creation of infrastructures and processes which allow collaboration between researchers and practitioners, and their respective institutions, so that the two worlds become better integrated eg. Industry partnerships at macro and micro levels eg. Student practice research units
  • policies and activities within respective institutions which actively seek to transform the research and practice culture into an integrated one
  • continuing professional education programs which integrate relevant research approaches eg. Educating for practice- based research, especially for research activities which are implicit in everyday practice – educate practitioners to think research
  • educational philosophies and practices which communicate and model an integration of the three worlds eg. In undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, using language which models integration

To my great delight, many of these types of activities are on the increase in social work, and indeed in many of the professions more broadly, as the whole university seeks to make itself more relevant to the community. However what is now needed in social work is a radical reconceptualising which gives a more articulated framework to these activities, a framework which will allow us to create new ways of organising our profession in ways which celebrate our holistic, multidisicplinary and contextual features. We are a profession which prides itself on working with people in context. What we need are ways of understanding and undertaking research which inclusively allows for the complexity involved in this.


Collins, H.M. (1990) Artificial Experts: Social Knowledge and Intelligent Machines, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, Falmer, London.

Ferguson, H. (forthcoming) “Social Work, Individualisation and Life Politics”, British Journal of Social Work.

Fook, J. (1999) “Critical Reflectivity in Education and Practice” in Pease, B. & Fook, J. (eds) Transforming Social Work Practice: Postmodern critical Perspectives, Routledge, London, and Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Hugman, R. (1991) Power in Caring Professions, Macmillan London.

Rossiter, A. (1995) “Entering the Intersection of identity, Form and Knowledge: Reflections on Curriculum Transformation”, Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 5-14.



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