In social work, research-practice engagement has been emphasized as holding particular promise for enhancing research use in practice. Drawing on theory, various models emerged conceptualizing the linkage between research and practice. The often-considered translation model, for example, posits that research and practice as essentially separate spheres between which a ‘bridge’ can be forged by involving practitioners at particular points in the research process. The more recent hybridization model views research as a cooperative process in which research and practice-based knowledge become intimately connected and intertwined. However, research on collaboration is scarce and it remains unclear how it unfolds. 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. Of 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 output. In some cases, type 1 and 2 projects seemed to reflect a strategic use of collaboration; they facilitated researchers' access to ‘linkage’ funds and resources not otherwise accessible for practice organizations. The nature of linkages between researchers and practitioners in these projects is reflective of the translation model.
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 a truly ‘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. These intense linkages are consistent with the hybridization model.
Findings make visible a diversity of types of research-practice collaboration. They suggest moving beyond the umbrella term ‘collaboration’ to consider the various types of collaboration identified in this study. Reflecting on the theoretical models conceptualizing research-practice engagement, no model seems to capture the whole range of collaboration types identified. Some types of collaboration seem to reflect the translation model while others seem to be an expression of the hybridization model.