The purpose of this research was to examine contemporary social work practice deeply through my unique position as a trained researcher doing participant observation as a practitioner, and then reflexively translating this knowledge for use in social work education.
Methods: Auto-ethnographies are methods of research that involve deliberate and reflective self-observation in the context of ethnographic field work, yielding knowledge that reveals tacit understanding, and in-depth analyses of complex processes.
In this project, I situated myself as a clinician in an agency for 10 months. Using auto-ethnographic techniques, I documented my immersive practice experience with a daily field journal, photographs, and the collection of artifacts. After a period of intensive introspection of these data, I constructed narratives of my practice reality, deconstructed elements of that practice through reflective questioning, and then reconstructed its meaning for social work education. Trustworthiness, particularly credibility and confirmability, was achieved via prolonged engagement, persistent observation, peer debriefing and triangulation strategies unique to practitioner-researcher-educator perspectives.
Results: Primary among my findings were a devaluation of human relationship in the practice context, concomitant with the privileging of adherence to specific practice models; a relentless focus on accountability and the privileging of the billable minute over human connection found in practice versus its understanding and use in the educational context; and the nature of support for developing newly graduated MSW practitioners, many of whom struggled to manage the rigors and demands of contemporary practice.
Reflecting on the meaning these findings may have for social work education, the following were considered: support for field learning where hope is endemic, and the primacy of relationship is taken for granted; creating academic cultures that assume a positive, compassionate, collaborative demeanor, radiate a resilient attitude, convey positive expectations and encouragement, and affirm the possible; developing learning experiences that embrace complexity and end dichotomous thinking, while centering racial equity and social justice, and supporting flexible, self-searching, and reflective perspectives.
Conclusions and Implications: This autoethnographic investigation examined the complicated craft of contemporary social work practice deeply through my unique position as a trained researcher returning to practice. Findings reflect the challenges of this task, for it’s not the same profession, and I’m not the same social worker I once was.
My lived experience reflects the oft-discussed schism between what is taught in schools of social work, and what actually is valued and performed in practice. Through this autoethnography, I lay a coherent trail of both self-understanding and useful, professional knowledge. I am hopeful that my product encourages compassion and empathy across our profession, and helps us to know better how to cope with the challenges that confront us as social worker scholars and practitioners.