Research methodology: Experiences of social work managers
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Published: Tue, 11 Apr 2017
This chapter will outline the manner in which the research was planned and completed, with reference to literature when necessary. Furthermore, it includes an important discussion of some of the ethical dilemmas that had to be considered during the sampling and subsequent interview processes.
This piece of research aimed to explore the experiences of managers in social work, and set out to cast light in surprisingly under researched areas. One of the central aims of this piece of research was to obtain data that was readily analysable (Arksey and Knight 1999) and valid (Whittaker 2012).
The nature of the research meant a qualitative approach was used to explore the various themes that emerged from the review of the literature. This was preferred over a quantitative method, particularly as the latter usually requires larger samples for generating statistics and quantifiable data. Qualitative methods focus on seeking out and interpreting the meanings that people ascribe to their own actions (McLaughlin 2007), and allows for exploration of opinion and experience (Shaw 2003). Interpretative topics were at the core of this research; core values, which despite being substantially constant across societies and throughout history, is inherently subjective. A qualitative approach enabled the collation of data that is rich in description, detail and character (Neuman 1997).
Social work research is required to enhance and develop knowledge (McLaughlin 2007), and can help explore people and communities, paying particular focus to the wider social and structural issues that affect them (Cheetham 2000). The profession is embedded in practice; therefore research that informs behaviour and questions the known and unknown elements of practice is vital to encourage lateral thinking and dynamism amongst frontline workers, as well as going someway towards boosting the professional status of social work (Bledsoe et al. 2005). With this in mind, it was interesting to note some of the barriers to accessing informants, not from social workers themselves, but from organisations. Dealing with rejection from one local council was personally frustrating, but has wider consequences for the profession.
“To understand social work… we must understand how knowledge is validated within the profession” (Askeland and Payne 2001:14)
“Social work research is about social workers, what they think, what they believe, what knowledge they claim and what they do with it.” (Butler 2002:241).
With this in mind, the implications of a blasé attitude to research, albeit a small project such as this one, are significant. One of the themes that arose from the interviews, as will be discussed in more detail later, was the increasingly diverse and heavy workload of managers. Lack of time is a commonly quoted barrier to research participation amongst practitioners (Sheldon and Chivers 2000), and this is one of the reasons research remains a low priority for workers in the field (McLaughlin 2007). Furthermore, as is commented on further at the end of this chapter, having to go through organisational protocol first has implications for anonymity, and arguably has consequences on worker willingness to take part (Lewis 2003).
Research into the topic of core values started with certain core textbook readings, which expanded into their recommended reading lists and cited articles. A range of literature databases including Ingenta, Social Sciences Citation Index, Social Services Abstracts were searched using keywords such as “core values”, “social work manager”, “social work management”, “managerialism and social work”, and “performance indicators” in various different orders. The search extended to databases such as Oxford University Press Journals, SocINDEX, SwetsWise and Academic Search Elite. Furthermore, using university’s Searcher Electronic Database it was possible to search a plethora of databases at one time. This was further augmented with internet searches and the use of Google Scholar. Initially, there was not a lot of research regarding retention of core values among managers, indeed this was indicative of social work as an under researched area in general. Nevertheless, broadening my search using the above keywords and Boolean operators such as OR and AND proved to be more fruitful.
The dearth of research available in this area, and regarding social work managers more generally, proved an impetus to focusing on a particular sample. Interviewees were approached a couple of months before the interviews took place, and had been chosen specifically due to their current management related roles. Having a purposive sample avoided the common issue of ending up with a large amount of irrelevant or disconnected data (Thurlow – Brown 1988) as such a method usually means that the sample has a certain level of knowledge and experience in relation to the topic (Smith 2009).
A total of six interviews took place over a four week period, with all working in hospital social work at management level. This represents a small sample, but it was within the limits of this piece of work, and since qualitative methods are not reliant on large samples for credibility unlike quantitative methods (Anastas 2004), coupled with the level of research undertaken, meant a greater understanding of the issues could be uncovered (Denscombe 2007). Working with a smaller sample allows for more depth and detail of meaning, and subsequently avoids a more general and abstracted level of explanation (McLaughlin 2007). Indeed, it allowed for a more sharpened focus of this study, particularly as all the informants were in very similar roles.
During the interview process, informants offered recommendations of others to interview, otherwise known as snowball sampling (Knight 2002). Whilst this was appreciated, the recommendations involved other areas of social work. Although this would have generated further data, it was felt that having a random sample would obfuscate more pertinent findings from the core interviewees and affect the generalisability of the findings. The criticisms of using a convenience sample are well noted, particularly the impact this has on generalisability to the wider population (Bryman 2012). Using informants who are already known to the researcher may have its drawbacks, but it is argued that these are outweighed by merits of such projects being used to further larger studies (Herr and Anderson 2005).
Interviews were arranged through email, at which point the respondents were told of the nature and purpose of the study and what was going to be covered in the interview. This involved a general overview of the main themes that were to be explored. It was not felt necessary to give the informants a copy of the interview schedule for fear that this would impact on the conversational flow that was being aimed for.
Interviews followed a semi-structured model and enabled the investigative process to remain mostly conversational and informal; the inherent flexibility of this approach allowing for detailed probing when necessary (Becker and Bryman 2004). It is a simple method of data collection but allows for detailed excavation of people’s experiences. Open ended questions were consciously used to avoid bias and encourage a free flowing narrative that was in line with the interviewees’ views and opinions whilst also following the overarching themes that were being explored (Rubin and Babbie 2007). Whilst the interview schedule did not have to be strictly adhered to, it was designed in a way that started with descriptive, open questions such as “Can you give me a description of your current role?” and slowly moved to more direct questions that aimed to elicit thoughts and opinion, “How do you feel about the statement ‘If you can manage a factory, you can manage a team of social workers?’” Having the interview designed in this meant that the range of questions were general enough to stimulate free flowing dialogue, but also specific enough to gather relevant data.
All of the interviews were recorded, and subsequently transcribed as soon as possible for reasons of confidentiality; informants could be indirectly attributed through a collection of characteristics (McLaughlin 2007). This was particularly important as the sample represents the majority of two local authority management teams, in secondary settings, and therefore could be easily identified. For this reason, transcripts of interviews were not provided in an appendix and no contextual detail has been provided about any of the interviewees. Despite the onerous process of transcribing data (O’Leary 2004: 169), it was important because it meant that more attention could be spent actively listening and tuning in, as opposed to writing notes. The interview itself, as a communication interchange establishing a framework for future evaluation and enquiry, lies at the heart of social work practice (McLaughlin 2007), and drew on some of the skills that had been developed on placement, particularly active listening, signposting and probing. Qualitative methodologies mirror the focus placed upon person-centredness in social work practice (Connelly and Harms 2012). This highlights the transferability of skills from practice into research and vice versa. With this in mind, it was important to use these skills to ensure interviews was being guided and not led. This meant avoiding leading questions and generally putting words in the mouth of the informant. For example, asking “What do you feel the main reasons for this are?”, as opposed to “Is this a direct consequence of the increased use of key performance indicators?”
Key findings and discussion
Thematic analysis is a commonly used method for analysing such data (Bryman 2008, Davies 2007), and was used to explore the transcripts and highlight recurrent themes as it has been defined as a method for identifying, analysing and recording themes within data (Braun and Clarke 2006). Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six stage thematic analysis model was used as a guide, and involved getting immersed in the data in the first instance followed by creating, searching, reviewing and defining/naming themes.
Initial coding was done by highlighting particular extracts that were interesting (Boyatzis 1998), separated by different colours to represent the various different topics that emerged. This was a useful way of organising what was initially a large amount of data by marking recurrent topics and words (Ryan and Bernard 2003). This stage represented an organisation of data into individual building blocks of particular topics; the next stage aimed to bring together blocks into groups of similar colours. At this stage, it was possible to identify themes.
Limitations of study
It would be nave to think that such a study could be generalised to a wider population (Gomm 2008, Smith 2009). However, it has been argued that although such studies are not generalisable in the traditional sense, they have redeeming qualities which set them above that requirement (Myers 2000). Small scale research highlights the importance of viewing such studies as focusing on discovery, and not proof (Denscombe 1998). The development of managerialism is not unique to the UK (Politt and Bouckaert 1997, Hood et al. 1999, Brunsson and Sahlin- Andersson 2000), and highlights the relevance and necessity of shedding light on management experiences within a paradigm that triumphs managerial prerogative (Thomas and Davies 2005).
The sample represent one of convenience, as all but one of the informants were known to the researcher in a professional capacity. Whilst this has been deemed the least credible of sampling techniques (Bryman 2008), it must also be stressed that it was also purposive as highlighted previously. With this in mind it is important to recognise how the researcher’s own views and values can create a bias, particularly as the constructivist framework of qualitative research states that individuals construct their own understanding through experience (Denscombe 2003, Kuper 2008). Rigorous testing of the interview schedule was done to avoid any bias by recognising and removing leading questions.
It was necessary to follow well established protocol within the university school, as well as the local council to ensure that the study was carried out in a way that was ethically sound. This firstly involved completing an ethical level one self audit, as well as qualitative appraisal tool identified in literature (McLaughlin 2007). It was important to gain informed consent from the interviewees, and discuss the extent and manner in which absolute confidentiality was to be achieved. Contingent confidentiality (Dominelli 2005) is more commonly discussed in social work, as it is necessary to spell out the precise conditions this would need to be broken, such as a criminal offense being disclosed, however this was not the case in this study.
The local council’s policy on research meant that the research design was scrutinised to glean what use this had. Indeed the request form specifically states answer “What benefit will the dissertation offer to the council, if any?”. The question better asked would be “What benefit will the dissertation offer social work?”, as the organisation would arguably benefit if their goals were parallel with social work. Social work as a profession risks having its own priorities sidelined for those of employing organisations, and although workers are accountable to their organisation, social work’s struggle with developing an evidence base (Marsh and Fisher 2005) highlights the need to build a solid research infrastructure that informs best practice (Davies et al. 2000, Trinder 2000).
The council procedure involved providing information on was to be interviewed and the interview schedule itself. As was briefly discussed earlier, having to tell the council who was being interviewed and the impact this has on anonymity is questionable; indeed the impact of tighter ethical and regulatory frameworks for social work students and having a research capable workforce are well noted (Dominelli and Holloway 2008). Arguably, social work research should place ethics at the centre of what it aims to achieve, and this is well noted (Hugman and Smith 1995). This is particularly important as ethics are or at least should be at the centre of practice. What this raises are issues of accountability for the researcher that mirror those of workers and managers as is discussed in the following chapters. As a social work researcher, to whom am I accountable? The current research governance framework (Department of Health 2005) has been seen to focus more towards accountability to funders and regulators as opposed to anybody else (Dominelli and Holloway 2008). How this affects larger research projects is unclear, but as an ethical researcher, since I was unable to guarantee the anonymity of further informants it was decided that a sample of six was enough. How this subsequently affects participation is interesting but unfortunately not within the scope of this particular piece of research.
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