Abstract: History vs. Historiography of Social Work: Methodological Considerations (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

12748 History vs. Historiography of Social Work: Methodological Considerations

Friday, January 15, 2010: 3:30 PM
Seacliff C (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Elizabeth Ann Danto, PhD , Hunter College, Associate Professor, New York, NY
While a history is a narrative based on recorded evidence, historiography is the analysis of how that history is transcribed. Purposeful collection of historical data is just one component of this methodology. A historical study in social work must include a problem definition, a hypothesis, definition of the variables, gathering and analyzing historical evidence, and interpretation of the findings. Reliability and validity must be factored into historical studies in social work. Robert Fisher's 1999 study of the place of historical research in social work explores its incidence, persistence, and marginalization. Despite the dominance of other methods, historical research has a solid and legitimate tradition for doctoral research in social work. Nevertheless “the current state of historical research seems terribly myopic,” Fisher writes, “especially given developments in other social science disciplines and challenges to contemporary social work research.”

The social work history investigator generally pursues two threads simultaneously: one that presents social work as a practice and, second, another that places this practice within the larger political, linguistic and cultural contexts of the community. Data is collected from four types of historical evidence: primary sources (original documents in public and private archival collections), secondary sources (the work of other historians writing about history), running records (agency reports, case notes) and recollections (autobiographies, memoirs, oral history). In addition, “Realia” or artifacts (including architecture, maps, objects, specimens, artwork) enhance the credibility of the historical study.

The issues of context (culture, community, origin), construction (subjectivity, narratives, migrations), contingency (time, place) and competence (individual or collective assets, resilience) have become progressively more significant over the last fifteen years. Consequently, the method of historiography is exceptionally useful in both the study and the teaching of social welfare policy, human behavior in the social environment, and clinical and community practice.

Social work scholars employ many frames of reference in order to construct historical knowledge. These frames include (but are not limited to) ethnic background, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, language usage, and religious, cultural, and political identities. A solid historical study can bring together a number of these frameworks. Historical studies can also provide new evaluative strategies, and can be used to develop a model for a contemporary social service program.

Overview of the Method

• Perspectives: empiricism vs. structuralism in historiography

• Emerging Areas – feminism, public history, post-colonialism

• Issues of validity and reliability

Method Specifics

• Purpose, rationale, and significance of a historical study

• Problem formulation

• Hypothesis development

• Term definitions

• Presuppositions and Values

Data Collection Procedure and Analysis

• Developing the research instrument

• Nature of the data

• Archival research

• Oral history research

• Sources: Primary, secondary, non-traditional, realia


Fisher, R. and Dyblcz, P. (1999) The place of historical research in social work. Journal of sociology and social welfare. vol. 26/3, pp. 105-124

Judd, C.M., Smith, E.R. and Kidder, L., (1991) Research Methods in Social Relations, 6th edition,