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School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Looking for Evidence

Social work has long strived to place itself on a more scientific foundation, and in recent years, many policymakers and government officials have insisted that social services show results. But a new study concludes that social workers have not yet embraced evidence-based practice as their primary approach.

In “A Historical Analysis of Evidence-Based Practice in Social Work: The Unfinished Journey Toward an Empirically Grounded Profession,” published in the March 2014 Social Service Review, Nathanael Okpych, a PhD student at SSA, and James L-H Yu, a professor at Open University in Hong Kong, draw on Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts in the natural sciences to offer a new conceptualization to consider about the history of social work practice.

Early social work, they say, was a moral cause focused on urban poverty. Charitable organizations of the late 19th century tried to uplift poor households and restore self-sufficiency and independence. Settlement houses worked to integrate urban poor into the larger American society. As social workers strove for professional status, though, the moral paradigm gave way to one based on authority.

Thus began the rise, starting about 1915, of formalized social work practice. This included social work training in universities, the credentialing of social workers and the embrace of psychoanalytic theory.

Social work’s aim became less to address moral shortcomings than to treat identified conditions using methods developed by experts, resting on the authority of conceptual appeal, consensus or habit.

Efforts grew in the 1960s to place social work on a firmer scientific footing. These led to the emergence of “empirical clinical practice,” a movement that called for more research and the incorporation of its findings into everyday social work: William Reid and Laura Epstein’s “task-centered casework” was an important part of the ECP movement. Practicing social workers, however, continued to be guided less by empirical research than by values, theory and policy.

Since the 1990s, the evidence-based practice movement has revived interest in scientifically based social work. It has appeared in two variations. The top-down approach requires social workers to follow practice guidelines developed by others. The bottom-up approach places the burden of research and analysis on individual practitioners. Both require social workers to evaluate the results of their work.

Debate over these two variations continues today, and the authors say neither has displaced authority as social work’s governing paradigm. They suggest several reasons for this failure, including a lack of consensus about what evidence-based practice is, disagreement over how practitioners should evaluate their work, and a research base that is still inadequate for that task.

Okpych, Nathanael J., and James L-H Yu. “A Historical Analysis of Evidence-Based Practice in Social Work: The Unfinished Journal toward an Empirically Grounded Profession.” SocialService Review 88 (1): 3-58.