Abstract: The Role of Research in Transforming Practice Among the Immigrant Poor (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

The Role of Research in Transforming Practice Among the Immigrant Poor

Thursday, January 14, 2016: 1:30 PM
Ballroom Level-Renaissance Ballroom West Salon A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Michael Reisch, PhD, Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD

During the late 19th and early 20thcentury the dramatic transformation of the U.S. inspired the development of the social work profession.  Histories of social work emphasize the impact of secular and religious ideas, the professionalizing impulse, and status anxieties among elites on the formation of the profession.  Less frequently acknowledged is how social work research shaped societal responses to this transformation and the development of the profession’s foundational assumptions, theories, and methods.  It introduced an environmental interpretation of poverty; redefined “assimilation”; combined advocacy with research; and altered how agencies responded to immigrants’ poverty. This paper discusses the influence of research on social work practice and the epistemology of practice in nascent social service organizations, particularly the Charities Organization Societies (COS) and settlement houses. 


Using NVivo, the author analyzed papers from national conferences; case records of several COS; foundation funded research reports; selected papers of Mary Richmond and Jane Addams; and articles published in The Surveyfrom 1873 to 1929.  Identified themes were then triangulated with contemporary newspaper accounts and policy developments to assess their effects on practice.


The findings suggest that studies of immigrants’ poverty during this period altered the profession’s views of causation and change; identified new issues to investigate; and evaluated the effectiveness of established interventions.  They produced a knowledge base for the profession, enhanced its status, and effected policy changes.  Researchers reflected seemingly contradictory beliefs in the inevitability of social progress and the immutability of human nature, culture, and historical laws.  This lead to a search for “universal” explanations of behavior and standardized practice methods.  Fear of offending powerful elites, however, precluded the emergence of practice theories that questioned societal structures. In the COS, research evolved from environmentalism to individual investigation, the first example of “intervention research,” creating the rational-scientific framework for practice whose influence continues today. In the 1920s, the Child Guidance Movement took intervention research a step further by incorporating psychodynamic theory into studies like its delinquency prevention project.  Although settlement researchers at the University of Chicago used statistics and social scientific methods to study similar issues and the limitations of existing services, they, too, reflected a modernist perspective on evidence and causation, a belief in the neutrality of scientific expertise, and elements of the emerging corporatist emphasis on order and efficiency.  Thus, both forms of research produced practice approaches that defined assimilation primarily as adaptation to prevailing social conditions, not systemic change.


By the Great Depression, mainstream social work research reflected practice divisions that emerged within the profession.  The evolution and impact of research during the formative years of the social work profession illuminates the role that research plays today in defining issues worthy of investigation and designing interventions to address them. It demonstrates the extent to which research has moved away from a structural examination of the causes of poverty to the evaluation of interventions that treat its symptoms.