In social work, research-practice engagement has been emphasized as holding particular promise for enhancing research use in practice. However, theory and research in this area have tended to focus more on why collaboration is important rather than on how it unfolds. The few available reflections of researchers on their experiences highlight the importance of opening up discussion about the complex nature of research-practice collaboration. Thus, this study explored collaborative research and development projects involving social work researchers and practitioners in the German-speaking area (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). We aimed to capture the complexity of these collaboration projects by systematically examining and describing the various forms linkages can take between research and practice in social work.
We identified 89 collaborative projects conducted in the German-speaking area between 2006 and 2012. From these, we selected a maximum variation sample consisting of 17 projects. For data collection, we performed document analyses and semi-structured interviews with a researcher and a practitioner from each project (34 interviews). We analyzed the data using open coding and the constant comparative method to identify emerging concepts and broader categories. Using the core concepts as dimensions of comparison, we defined a set of five emergent ‘types’.
We identified five types of collaborative projects: Collaboration for i) scientific knowledge production; ii) the development of new procedures; iii) the development of service organizations, professional practice and practitioners; iv) the implementation of a specific practice; and v) the support of political decision-making.
In type 1, 2 and 5 projects, exchange between researchers and practitioners was limited and often restricted to discussions about outputs. In some cases, type 1 and 2 projects seemed to reflect a strategic use of collaboration facilitating researchers' access to ‘linkage’ funds and resources not otherwise accessible for service organizations.
Type 3 and 4 projects reflected intensive, mutually proliferating processes. Type 3 projects in particular were deliberately designed and organized to enable mutual interpenetrations between scientific knowledge and practitioner wisdom and ‘know-how’. In these projects, we observed the unfolding of an ‘intermediate’ space, in which the relevance and structures of scientific and professional practice were respected, and in which output was shared with both the scientific and the professional community.
The welfare regime in place and its specific funding arrangements seem to create either opportunities or barriers to particular types of collaboration.
Seen through a cultural lens, many of the collaborative projects appeared to be new endeavors which were not supported by longer-term sustained collaboration between researchers and practitioners. Participants could not draw on an established culture of collaboration, but had to build new partnerships to support each project.
Regarding the relational aspect, quality interactions that involve attention to power and value issues might indeed be a crucial variable influencing effective collaboration.
Context matters: We identified five types of collaboration. Their emergence and prevalence seem to be influenced by the specific social welfare regime, cultural issues, as well as the configuration of, and dynamics between the participants.