What are the merits and limitations of novel metatheoretical artefact with promoting the learning and teaching of theory for social work?

PIF 7 July 2021

Gavin Millar, Senior Lecturer in Social Work and doctoral student at ARU, presented his doctoral thesis, which involved students and educators, as co-researchers, determining rigour for a metatheoretical (theory of theories) artefact, as a part of a Participatory Action Research (PAR) inquiry. 

In brief, social work has a long history, dating back to the late 1800s, of accommodating theories from different fields of study, such as (but far from limited to) philosophy, sociology, and psychology. Gavin introduced us to the longstanding tension between needing to understand the psychology of people (Addams, 1902) and needing to understand groups, cultures, and societies (Richmond, 1917); when in reality we probably need a fusion of both (Bruno, 1936). Social work is inherently interdisciplinary; however although the meaning is often understood, the theories developed in other disciplines do not always translate effectively to social work practice. Indeed, in-house academics, independent government reviews, and serious case enquiries, have laid blame on the teaching of theory, to be at the root of educational difficulties with preparing social workers for the complexities of contemporary practice (Munro, 2011; Stepney, 2012).

As an inclusive practice, social work and social workers draw on many different theories and perspectives, from critical theory to attachment theory, feminism to existentialism. These theories should not be considered within a hierarchy but applied when appropriate, dependent on both the social work practitioner and the situation. Accordingly, Gavin argues that we should not be telling social work students which theory to use, but helping them to understand the self and which theories work for them. Furthermore, theories can be blended to allow a more nuanced approach; but there is no instruction or language to explain how this could be done.

Embracing students and practitioners’ feedback and suggestions, Gavin developed the Blended Theory Model (the Artefact), to engage with this problem and promote transparency in working with social work’s transtheoretical epistemology. The Artefact was subsequently examined, and amended, by a focus group of co-researchers (including students, practitioners and educators) with aims for improving the learning and teaching of theory for social work. In terms of the PAR approach, Gavin identified a number of challenges before he had even started:

  • Typically, PAR shouldn’t have an expert (Winter and Munn-Giddings, 2001; Silver, 2008).
  • Typically, the artefact would come out of the process (McTaggart, 1997).
  • Typically, decisions on the research design would be made by the participants (Punch, 1998).

However, McTaggart (1997, p.26) poses three general questions when considering whether research can be considered PAR:

  1. How is this example participatory action research?
  2. What does this example tell us about the criteria we might use to judge claims that an endeavor is participatory action research (to test our theory of what participatory action research is)?
  3. And, most important of all, what contribution has this example made to the improvement of the understanding, practice, and social situation of participants and others in the context described (acknowledging that all good things in our experience are not necessarily participatory action research)?

The fact that McTaggart poses these questions suggests that it is possible to do things differently, and Gavin sets out the following answers to the questions:

  1. The Blended Theory Model Artefact itself is participatory. Although Gavin designed the initial version, participants could have completely rejected the Model, and it changed and developed organically through a dynamic process.
  2. The research was action-based: it focused on the interdisciplinarity of social work and the problem of applying theories developed in other disciplines to social work practice, and how that could be improved.
  3. There was a commitment throughout to engaging with participants on how the Model would be developed and reviewed. For example, participants decided that they should each create their own Blended Theory Model in order to experience the process and from this exercise the Model was transformed.

The final version of the Blended Theory Model is a simple foundation for students and practitioners to identify an overarching theory, assessment theory, intervention theory, and then develop the complexity of how these fit together. It combats theory fatigue as it enables an understanding of why those theories are relevant and how they fit together, making decisions around approaches to practice less complex. It is important to recognise that people learn theories in different ways, and the Blended Theory Model is not a panacea. However, it is a tool of self-reflection as well as a shared platform for people to discuss theories. Different people will have different approaches, but the Blended Theory Model allows you to see where those approaches come from and how that translates into people’s practice and style of working.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at anna.dadswell@anglia.ac.uk.

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