Can practitioners help shape a science of social work?

Jeane Anastas, PhD, LMSWWe are social workers in a time when the evidence-based practice movement has been a major influence on direct practice, the design of social programs, and policy in the major social work fields, like mental and behavioral health, child welfare, family services and many others.

In the last 20 years there has also been steady growth in the number of social workers receiving federal and other major funding for their research, and many schools of social work, especially those in research universities, now enact a robust knowledge development mission along with their educational one.

In a paper given at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Work and Research in January 2011, professor John Brekke, of the University of Southern California School of Social Work, challenged the profession to define and shape a “science of social work.” Since then, small groups of social work academics, including a few from abroad, have met annually to discuss this topic, sponsored by USC’s School of Social Work, the School of Social Work at the University of Washington, and SSWR’s leadership. As NASW president, I was honored to attend the third of these meetings in July to talk about the relationship of a social work science to practice.

Although the group still struggles with whether we are talking about a science of social work or science in social work, there are many new and promising aspects of this discussion.

The first is that the discussion is not framed around research but science, which is important because it brings in topics like contemporary epistemology; recognizes the validity of many methods of inquiry; and can embrace the insights of feminists, critical race theorists and others who have developed critiques of standard scientific enterprises.

Most importantly, it recognizes that theory is essential to the work. Relevant theories include our understandings of the genesis of “private troubles” and social problems. They also include theories of change, meaning our conceptual models of how interventions — from psychotherapy to social programs — work. Science requires more than data; it requires theories to explain what is observed. While practitioners may not regard themselves as experts in research, most are engaged with theories or conceptual models that guide the work they do.

I would like to see interested social work practitioners — especially NASW members — become part of the conversation about science and social work. As one step, we are planning to collaborate with SSWR and the Council on Social Work Education during our next NASW national conference, to be held July 23-26, 2014.

We plan to offer a day of discussion about issues in science and practice. This part of the conference program will be open to anyone, and I urge you to join us.

Some of the best ideas about social work practice that now have scientific validation — such as the ACT model for community-based care for those with serious mental illness and harm reduction models in substance abuse services — have come from practitioners.

Despite their differences, science and practice share important value commitments. They also share a common goal: to make the services we provide as effective as possible and to inform social policies and the development of social programs that can help all human beings flourish.

I would like to hear from our practitioner members on this topic. Email me at with the subject line “science” to answer one or more of these questions:

  • What kinds of research questions have been generated in your work?
  • What innovative models of social work practice deserve greater scientific study?
  • In terms of learning about science that might improve your practice, what knowledge needs do you have and what would you wish for?
  • Are there ways that NASW could help you meet those needs?
  • In addition to being based in our values and ethical commitments, do you think your practice is informed by science in any way? Why or why not?

Every profession benefits from reflection and renewal. This current and creative discussion of science and social work provides us with a wonderful mechanism to reshape the profession —and not just our science — but only if we all speak up and join the conversation.