Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

38 Mining the Gaps: Using Ethnographic Methods to Study the Interface of Policy, Administration, and Clinical Social Work Practice

Friday, January 13, 2012: 8:00 AM-9:45 AM
Independence E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
Cluster: Research Design and Measurement
Symposium Organizer:
Yvonne N. Smith, AM, University of Chicago
Summerson Carr, PhD, University of Chicago and Jerry Floersch, PhD, Rutgers University
Social work researchers have demonstrated a growing interest in using ethnographic methods to advance knowledge in the field. By examining social work practice in “real world” settings, ethnography can produce empirically rich descriptions of complex social problems, shed light on contradictions in social policy, attend to change across multiple scales of human action, and assist in translations between research and practice. Ethnography shares with social work an appreciation of the value of local knowledge and practices and a commitment to preserving space for diverse vantage points in research.

This symposium explores the utility of ethnographic methods for studying processes that span traditional distinctions between direct practice, research, administration, and public policy in social work. By taking these professional domains as sites of socio-cultural practice and bringing them under the analysis of a single investigation, ethnography can elucidate relationships between social processes that often remain hidden in studies that observe traditional boundaries between, for example, “intervention research” and “policy analysis.”

Ethnography is an interpretive approach to social science research. It does not seek to preserve the objectivity of the researcher through rigorous control of variables, but uses close relationships with key informants to gain highly contextualized, in-depth understandings of social phenomena. In the studies presented here, informants are drawn from across traditional divisions in social work. They are clients, agency administrators, researchers, direct service workers, policymakers, and private sector stake-holders who provide multiple perspectives on the problem at the center of each study. As is typically the case in ethnography, these studies use an inductive, iterative process of theory development and analysis to generate theory with high internal validity and relevance for the field of social work more broadly.

The first author expands analysis of turnover in the home care industry to include worker reassignment within agencies, arguing that both internal and external turnover impact the quality of care. The author uses ethnographic methods to trace the impact of aging policy and management practice on home care delivery in publicly- and privately-funded home care agencies, finding that greater resources for and attention to matching workers and recipients may improve continuity of care.

The second author describes the interactive practices of collective decision-making among mental health workers at a residential treatment center for children, answering the question: In an organization that does not support the evidence-based practice process or stipulate the use of a particular evidence-based practice, through what processes do workers know what to do at critical decision points? The author suggests that successful implementation of prescriptive models of clinical decision-making must account for existing decision-making practices constitutive of organizational culture.

The third author examines the role of “recovery” as a guiding policy idea in community mental health reform, paying close attention to how organizations respond to tensions between consumer- and medically-driven definitions. The author finds that these policy uncertainties delegate to the street-level, producing sharp conflicts between administrators and line workers over how to define their service mission and reducing what consumers can expect in terms of socially supportive care.

* noted as presenting author
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