The Voice of the Social Worker: A Narrative Literature Review

The Voice of the Social Worker: A Narrative Literature Review Abstract A consistent observation in the social work literature is that remarkably little attention has been paid to the day-to-day practice of social work or the experiences of social workers. This narrative review explores the positioning of the social worker’s ‘voice’—whether spoken, written or enacted—in past and present writing about social work practice. Drawing on a wide range of published literature, from autoethnography to narrative and ethnographic research, the review finds evidence of increasing interest in conveying the practitioner’s lived experience in the literature. ‘Bottom-up’ approaches to understanding the micro practices of social work are generating new knowledge about how everyday social work is performed, with potential benefits to the profession, the quality of practice and the lives of service users and carers. The review’s findings emphasise the importance of a critical approach that recognises the situated and sometimes contradictory nature of voice in all its forms. It concludes that, although the social worker’s voice is beginning to be heard more clearly, research into the ‘doing’ of social work is only just getting off the starting block. Opportunities for future research, including the further development of a range of narrative and practice-near approaches, are identified. Social work education, history of social work, practitioners, voice, literature review Introduction In 1970, in their groundbreaking book, The Client Speaks, Mayer and Timms wrote, of social work services: ‘We are profoundly ignorant about the ways in which the consumers of these services respond to the help that the community makes available’ (1970, p. 2). Since then, service user and carer voices have begun to emerge as a significant force in research and policy development (Beresford et al., 2008; Daniel et al., 2014). There is still much to be done to ensure that their voices are heard and have influence. In a parallel process, the voices of social work practitioners have, it is argued, also been marginalised and silenced (Jones, 2001; Jones et al., 2008). In 2001, Phyllida Parsloe, looking back over fifty years of social work education, commented on the puzzling lack of research into how social workers ‘actually work with the users of their service’ (Parsloe, 2001, p. 11). Ten years later, Ferguson noted the same ‘curious absence’ of references to day-to-day practice in social work writing, theory and research (Ferguson, 2011, p. 4). The aim of this narrative literature review is to explore the representation of social work voices in current and past published writing. Even a quick glance at the literature of ‘voice’ in social work demonstrates that this topic of inquiry is not a straightforward or neatly bounded one. There is no single body of writing that explicitly focuses on the social worker’s voice. Social work voices are heard in many ways in the literature, through quoted speech and autobiographical writing as well as the day-to-day actions of social workers as they go about their work. This literature review therefore draws on a wide range of sources and research methodologies that stretch from biography and political activism to narrative and ethnographic research. I start with a description of the review methods, and go on to ask what it is we mean when we talk or write about ‘voice’. The claim that social workers’ voices are under-represented in the literature will be investigated before identifying different genres of writing and research that privilege the social worker’s voice. Although this literature is wide-ranging, and sometimes apparently quite disparate, taken together, it provides some powerful arguments for improving our understanding of the social work voice. These arguments will be outlined, alongside some constraints and challenges associated with hearing the practitioner’s voice. Finally, some future directions for continuing and expanded research will be identified. Literature review: methods and terminology The decision to undertake a narrative, rather than systematic, literature review was guided by the broad and inclusive definition of voice identified above. Systematic reviews identify explicit criteria to identify and analyse primary studies with the aim of synthesising research findings and drawing robust conclusions (Evans and Benefield, 2001). Narrative literature reviews are useful for studying a more varied literature to identify connections and synergies between different, and sometimes apparently unrelated, forms of evidence. In this way, a narrative review creates a ‘map’ or ‘mosaic’ of studies that ‘focus on different parts of a single picture’ (Hammersley, 2001, p. 548)—an approach that coincides with the ambitions of this review. Narrative review comes with some disadvantages, including potential problems with transferability and replicability, as well as overreliance on the reviewer’s judgement about suitable sources (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 2007). Some of these issues will be explored at the end of the paper. Whether narrative or systematic, transparency about the methods used for literature review is a necessary first step (Hammersley, 2001). Four bibliographic databases were searched (ASSIA, Social Care Online, Social Work Abstracts and Web of Knowledge) as well as Google and Google Scholar. Searches of journal databases were also made, focusing on titles that address social work theory and practice, such as the British Journal of Social Work, Journal of Social Work, Social Work Education and Australian Social Work. Selection of databases and journals was guided by the desire to bring together international literature specific to social work practice with writing from different disciplines and formats about the broader theme of ‘voice’. The literature accessed was all in English, and peer-reviewed, apart from policy-related publications that have been used to set national contexts, and a small number of biographies and autobiographies. No restrictions were placed on date of publication. These selection criteria excluded some key voices, including spoken and online voices, unpublished accounts of practice, grey literature and writing by non-English speakers. All offer important, and, arguably, more direct, access to practitioner voices than peer-reviewed literature. However, although the inclusion of this body of writing could have made a significant contribution to the review’s findings, it would have been difficult to do justice to such a large and methodologically complex body of writing in a single journal article. The main search terms used were ‘social work(er)’ OR ‘practitioner’ combined with ‘voice’, ‘speaks’, ‘talk’, ‘view’, ‘perspective, ‘story’, ‘narrative’, ‘write’ ‘publish’, ‘experience’ and ‘(in)visible’. Additionally, taking account of relevant research methods, variations of ‘(auto)ethnographic’, ‘(auto) biographic’, ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ were combined with these terms. ‘Practice-near (research)’ was added as the literature review progressed. This term is increasingly employed to refer to a range of research approaches, such as case vignettes, role play and participant observation, that aim to get close to practitioners and practice (see e.g. White et al., 2009). Some clarity is required about terminology. Social workers come in all shapes and sizes, with unique histories, life experiences and multiple identities. In this paper, ‘social worker’ refers to someone who talks, writes about or performs social work in direct practice with service users and carers. This is not to discount the fact that social workers may also be service users or carers, manage services or teach and research in higher education. However, the subject of this particular inquiry is the ‘voice’ in relation to the practice of social work, and all the things that social workers do, from visiting a family at home or an older person in hospital to attending meetings, writing reports, making telephone calls and advocating for service users and carers. What is a voice? ‘Voice’ has multiple meanings; we listen to voices, we voice ideas, and train our voices to sing, act and make speeches. We also hear voices, whether these are the inner dialogues of our everyday thoughts or voices that seem to come from outside us, from imaginary friends to deities and intrusive thoughts (Fernyhough, 2016). Voices are, it is argued, best understood in the plural because we all have different things to say, and express ourselves differently in different social, cultural and historical contexts (Witkin and Chambon, 2007). Power and voice are intimately related. So, on the one hand, voice can be seen as liberating, as a means of countering exclusion and oppression. On the other, voices can be dismissed, hijacked by more dominant discourses, or make paternalistic claims to ‘speak for’ others (Gray, 2007). Voice is, therefore, a shape shifter of a concept, both multidimensional and socially constructed (Komulainen, 2007). Witkin (2002) identifies three uses for ‘voice’ in social work: consideration, representation and expression. The first refers to having a voice in some matter or question. It implies a right to speak and be heard, in relation to decision making, for example. Representation refers to ways in which opinions are conveyed, and is closely related to advocacy. These voices are expressed collectively, as ‘the service user’s voice’ or ‘the practitioner’s voice’. Finally, voice as ‘expression’ conveys who we are and what we think. This last definition reminds us that voice is not just about speech. Rather, it is shorthand that implies presence and positioning whether that is achieved through talking, writing, research or the many embodied ways in which voice is expressed through people’s lived experience. This paper began with the contention that social workers’ voices, in these many forms, are under-represented in the literature: to what extent is this really the case? Unheard voices? The perception that social workers and their practice are missing from social work literature goes back a long way. In 1977, Helen Evans, a retired child-care officer in the UK, wrote: ... while I was training ... I searched in vain for a direct, straightforward introduction to the field of practical work that was to be my setting ... and a description of the people and the problems one was bound to meet (Evans, 1977, p. 15).Nearly forty years later, the literature continues to lack examples of interactions between social workers and service users. Instead the focus has tended to be on theory and more distanced approaches to practice (Hall and Slembrouck, 2009; Swenson, 2012) or prescription about what social workers should not do (Jones et al., 2008). Meanwhile, there are few narrative accounts of social workers’ lives (Stevenson, 2013) or research about day-to-day social work practice (Ferguson, 2003; Jones and Watson, 2013). Lack of systematic inquiry into the ‘doing’ of social work has been identified in relation to a range of roles and specialisms, including child protection (Forrester et al., 2008), hospital social work (Wilder Craig, 2007), practice education (Bell and Webb, 1992) and social work with asylum seekers and refugees (Robinson, 2014). Historically, social workers have also been undervalued as researchers (Shaw, 2005), and practitioner research has struggled to emerge from ‘near invisibility’ (Hardwick and Worsley, 2011, p. 135). Many obstacles stand in the way of practitioners getting their voices into print, so that their firsthand accounts of practice and workplace research rarely reach the public (Gordon et al., 2016). A number of reasons have been identified for these absences of voice. First, it is noted that social workers typically work with the most disadvantaged and excluded members of society (Jones, 2001), simultaneously advocating for service users and acting as gate-keepers for services (Cree, 2003). Countering the ‘dirty work’ designation of social work, especially in fields such as child protection, continues to be challenging (Flaherty, 2014, p. 130). This positioning of the profession, Cree (2013, p. 3) argues, has caused social workers to be ‘stigmatised and discriminated in turn’, contributing to their exclusion from more powerful discourses. That social work continues to be a predominantly female profession further contributes to this marginalisation and lack of influence and voice (Weick, 2000). Social work practice also happens out of sight, in service users’ homes or social work offices (Broadhurst and Mason, 2014). Social workers are required to protect the privacy of the people they work with, so the social worker’s ability to speak or write about practice outside the confines of their professional role is necessarily constrained. Social work is ‘an inherently invisible trade’ (Pithouse, 1998, p. 2). This invisibility is not only material, but related to the uncertainty and ambiguity of the role. The profession’s diversity and continuing debates about the ‘contested endeavour’ of social work (Butler et al., 2007, p. 293) contribute to lack of public understanding about what social workers actually do (Davidson and King, 2005). Moreover, public perceptions are often informed by hostile media representations of the profession and its work, particularly in the field of child protection (Galilee, 2005; Shoesmith, 2016). Ferguson (2003, p. 1005) describes social work as having a ‘deficit culture’, citing the destructive impact of highly publicised abuse inquiries and the neo-liberal ‘modernisation’ of UK services as key causes. An increasingly bureaucratic and marketised working context has, Ruch (2000, p. 100) suggests, further fragmented social work’s identity and ‘de-personalised practice’. Critiques of social work have also come from inside the profession, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, when radical social work hotly challenged the prevailing psychodynamic orientation of social work education (Frost, 2008). As a result, the profession has become accustomed to ‘being contested from within and criticised from without’ (Jones and Watson, 2013, p. 191). There are indications, however, that this picture is beginning to change—that the practitioner voice is becoming louder and demanding to be heard. This contention will now be explored drawing on literature that illuminates the social worker’s voice in very varied ways. Hearing social work voice(s) In the UK, the need to pay more attention to the role of the social worker has emerged as a matter of public interest and policy. Cooper et al. (2015) summarise the recommendations of a series of policy reviews in the UK, including Scotland’s 21st Century Review of Social Work (Scottish Executive, 2006) and, in England, the Social Work Taskforce (SWT, 2009) and the Munro Review of Child Care and Protection (Munro, 2011). Key policy messages include a desire to inculcate a more balanced public understanding of social work by sharing the profession’s successes and positive stories. Similar themes are evident in a more recent review of proposed reforms to children and family social work in England (House of Commons Education Committee, 2016, p. 27), which has called for a national campaign to celebrate ‘the positive aspects of social work, and, explaining its complexities, to boost the profile of the profession’. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the need for a ‘national conversation’ about social care work and its value and reward has been identified in relation to its social care workforce (Cunningham et al., 2015, p. 6). These repeated calls to amplify the social work voice have a number of drivers, including evidence of the impact of increasing caseloads, poor public regard and managerialism on recruitment and retention (Huxley et al., 2005). This context for practice also, it is argued, has a negative impact on social workers’ sense of self and their ability to practise in therapeutic and non-defensive ways (Whittaker and Havard, 2016). Surveying a very varied literature, from biographical writing to research, that draws on a range of methodologies, including narrative and ethnographic approaches, it appears that there is growing interest in using literature to convey the social work experience and role. Five outlets for social work voices will be explored: biographical writing, narrative research, ethnographic research, the use of self in practice and the political arena. These are not mutually exclusive categories, and have many overlaps and commonalities as well as differences. The volume, source and geographical location of the literature accessed for this review voice are summarised in Table 1. Table 1 Narrative literature review sources by literature type, source and geographical location of first-named author Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Table 1 Narrative literature review sources by literature type, source and geographical location of first-named author Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Biography and first-person narratives This genre of literature is composed of autobiographical first-person narratives and biographies of social workers. There are surprisingly few accounts, personal or professional, written from the perspective of the social worker. Niechcial (2010, p. xii) suggests that, as public servants, social workers may be regarded as too unglamorous—‘mere plodders’ at the margins of society—to be of interest to the reading public. Notable British exceptions include biographies of Clare Winnicott (Kanter, 2004), Eileen Younghusband (Jones, 1984) and Lucy Faithfull (Niechcial, 2010) and Olive Stevenson’s autobiography (Stevenson, 2013). These important historical documents offer a window into the development of the social work profession. Less-well-known social workers have also written first-person practice narratives. These include a small, but growing, number of collections of social workers’ firsthand accounts of their motivations and experiences, gathered together to promote learning and expand understanding of the international context for, and history of, social work (LeCroy, 2002; Cree, 2003, 2013; Burnham, 2016). An important genre within the narrative tradition is autoethnography—‘a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context’ (Reed-Danahay, 1997, in Witkin, 2014). Autoethnography has been used to illuminate a range of social work practices, from international adoption, through end-of-life care, to case recording (Witkin, 2014). The autoethnographic writer, unlike the autobiographer, is simultaneously inside the experience they are describing and outside, analysing and interpreting that experience within its social and cultural context. For example, Wilder Craig (2007) has used a ‘Day in the Life’ format to demonstrate the hallmarks of her job as a hospital social worker in Canada. She sees this form of writing as having multiple functions, including individual and collective validation and a form of advocacy for a social work specialism that has experienced ‘a profound loss of voice’ (Wilder Craig, 2007, p. 436). Weick has emphasised the importance of this ‘first voice’ of social work, informed by practice wisdom. She contrasts it with the ‘second voice’ of the dominant culture which replaces emotions with ‘studied disinterest’ and responds to complexity by ‘narrowing the point of study’ (Weick, 2000, p. 398). Taking this ‘first voice’ seriously opens up opportunities to draw on multiple writing formats, from poetry (Furman and Coyne, 2008) to fiction (Bolton, 1994), to express practitioner perspectives. Although first-person narratives appear to be flourishing, they also struggle to assert their credibility within a field dominated by logico-scientific methods and academic publishing traditions (Witkin, 2000; Swenson, 2012). Narrative research Closely related to, and building on, the use of first-person narrative and biography are examples of empirical research informed by constructivist narrative and linguistic theory. Although social work researchers have been slow to take up narrative methods (Roscoe et al., 2011), they provide a means of giving ‘voice to unheard stories’ (Larsson and Sjöblom, 2010, p. 278). Narrative can, however, also be defined very loosely, with the risk that voices become ‘abstracted from their contexts of production, stripped of language and transformed into brief summaries’ (Riessman and Quinney, 2005, p. 398). In contrast, Parsloe and Stevenson’s study (1978) of British social services teams provides an early example of how detailed observation and loosely structured interviews can work together to convey the practitioner’s experiences of everyday practice. More recently, researchers have been combining a range of narrative methods to privilege the social worker’s voice. Osmond and O’Connor (2004), for example, undertook a multi-method study which used a combination of in-depth interviewing, observation, concept mapping and personal narratives to access Australian social workers’ understandings of knowledge for practice. Another seam of research that aims to bring out the practitioner’s narrative voice is the critical best-practice perspective. This approach aims to promote learning by making visible live examples of what social work looks like when it is done well (Ferguson, 2003). Critical best practice is informed by critical theory, taking account of multiple perspectives, and the need to negotiate complex tensions and power relations within varied contexts for practice (Jones et al., 2008). Drawing on in-depth interviews and live practice interactions, critical best practice is generating a growing body of analytical inquiry, including research into social workers’ use of knowledge (Gordon and Cooper, 2010), social work with older people (Jones and Watson, 2013) and children and family practice (Cooper et al., 2015). Ethnographic research Understanding what it is that social workers think and do, and how they go about their everyday practice, requires approaches that ‘capture what social work feels like, looks like and smells like on the ground’ (Howe, in Cooper et al., 2015, p. vii). Listening to social workers reflecting on a social work career, or talking about their practice, offers a valuable way of hearing practitioner voices. However, it is possible to get even closer to practice if the researcher takes an ethnographic approach that enables more direct access to the doing of social work, wherever this may take place. This literature, which mostly originates in the UK, comprises ethnographic research into how social workers work within organisations and directly with service users and their families. Pithouse (1998) provides an early example of this approach in his institutional ethnography of a UK local authority social work department. He spent a year immersed in this environment, making visible the complexities of everyday social work which escape ‘the analytic gaze of more distanced perspectives and commentators’ (Pithouse, 1998, p. 5). However, until recently, researchers have rarely attempted to ‘the real world’ of social work practices such as making home visits (Winter et al., 2016). Ferguson has been a leading exponent of ethnographic methods to shadow workers, seeking to capture social work encounters as practitioners travel in their cars, meet families and visit homes (Ferguson, 2010, 2011, 2014). Broadhurst and Mason (2014), who undertook a small-scale ethnographic study of home visits in England, concluded that there needs to be a greater focus on the nature of face-to-face social work practice. A UK-wide project, Talking and Listening to Children (TLC), which is disseminating its findings at the time of writing, has researched how social workers communicate with children in everyday practice using observational methods and video-stimulated recall (Winter et al., 2016). Other creative methods to get close to practice include simulations based on case vignettes (Forrester et al., 2008) and use of audio recordings (Hall and Slembrouck, 2009). Use of self in practice Getting up close to the day-to-day work that social workers perform enables researchers to evoke what it is to be a social worker in practice. The fourth category of literature accessed is writing about how social workers draw on their personal and professional selves in practice—a topic that is receiving increasing interest in the literature (Harrison and Ruch, 2007; Gordon and Dunworth, 2017). Jones and Watson (2013) stress the importance of enabling practitioners to carve out and share confident narratives about themselves as self-aware practitioners. Conversely, in inter-professional settings social workers have described the difficulties they face in making themselves heard by professional colleagues (O’Connor and Leonard, 2014, p. 1815). Lack of space precludes further discussion of this aspect of social work voice. However, it does appear that identity, self-awareness and skilful use of self are closely related to social workers’ ability to give voice in ways that benefit the service users and carers they work with. Political voices Social justice and human rights have been identified as core principles for social work practice (IFSW/IASSW, 2014). Social workers have a public as well as a professional duty to confront injustice and promote equal rights for all. However, this kind of participation is often restricted by lack of time, energy and the confidence to voice views within managerialist working contexts that discourage this form of professional autonomy (Wilks, 2005). Notwithstanding these obstacles, practitioners can and do have a voice through political campaigning, collective action and micro-political forms of advocacy and resistance in their day-to-day practice—the final grouping of literature explored here. Ferguson (2013b) identifies a range of examples from collective action through the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) in the UK to international political protests against governmental responses to refugees and asylum seekers. The role of social work education in enabling social workers to develop the confidence and skills to participate in the public arena has been stressed. For example, Israeli social work students who participated in a media project, writing newspaper articles to promote social justice and influence policy, gained an enhanced sense of power and voice. Students who initially described their voices as ‘quiet’, ‘private’ or ‘oppressed’ came to view their professional voice as ‘one that is important, unique and may be heard in the public domain’ (Weiss-Gal and Peled, 2007, p. 378). Social media are now beginning to provide new opportunities for practitioner voices to be heard through Twitter, blogging sites, Tumblr and other applications. The importance of promoting digital literacy and the use of social media for advocacy, information sharing and community action has been stressed (Sitter and Curnew, 2016). Discussion This review started with the contention that the social work ‘voice’ is a marginalised and frequently silent one. The evidence presented has been widely drawn, extending the concept of voice as the spoken or written word to include the many ways in which everyday social work practice is positioned and understood through social workers’ lived experience and action. Taken as a whole, literature from a quite diverse range of sources tends to confirm the view that ‘not nearly enough attention is given to the detail of what social workers actually do, where they do it and their experience of doing it’ (Winter and Cree, 2016, p. 1175). In the process of summarising evidence drawn from biography, narrative and ethnographic research, practice and political engagement, a number of claims have been made about why it is important for social workers to have a voice. These claims will now be examined in the light of this evidence before exploring some challenges for the social work voice. The first claim is that the act of giving voice is validating both for the individual social worker and the social work profession. Social workers, it is argued, cannot assert their identity if they do so with a ‘borrowed’ voice (Weick, 2000). Practitioners need to be visible and to be heard if they are going to be confident, assertive, self-aware workers who can advocate for service users. This conclusion is mostly inferred from evidence of deficit: of social workers’ lack of confidence; of their internalising of critiques from politicians, media and public and sometimes from within the profession itself. These traits can become self-fulfilling prophecies that contribute to workplace stress and burnout (Butler et al., 2007). Narrative and autoethnographic approaches, it is argued, offer opportunities for self-discovery and shared learning about creative, reflective social work practice. The critical best-practice approach also serves as a means of challenging negative portrayals of the profession to demonstrate, celebrate and debate what social work looks like at its best (Jones et al., 2008). A second, related, claim is that social workers can learn from in-depth accounts of experience and practice—forms of research and biography that social workers have hitherto had very little access to. It is argued that personal accounts and research that illuminate how social workers practise can generate new understandings that more distanced research and commentary cannot. Narrative, ethnographic and critical best-practice research share a commitment to inductive, ‘bottom-up’ forms of inquiry that recognise the complexity and contingency of social work. So a third claim is that, if we recognise the importance of the ‘micro’—as well as the ‘macro’—of social work practice, we open up the possibility of different kinds of theory for practice (Ferguson, 2013a). This perspective on everyday practice not only has important implications for social work education, but has the potential to unsettle assumptions about what is ‘good’ or ‘efficient’ practice (Forrester et al., 2008). For example, Gillingham and Humphreys (2010) have demonstrated how risk assessment tools are used by practitioners in Australia in quite different ways from those intended by policy makers. In England, White et al. (2009) have researched the ‘modernisation’ of children’s services and identified the lack of practice-near research as a contributory factor in allowing the introduction of unsafe work regimes. This suggests that hearing the voice of the social worker may go further than individual learning to prevent damaging practices and potential misdirection of resources, based on flawed understandings of what works, at an institutional level. As Mayer and Timms (1970, p. 2) reflected in relation to the absence of the service user’s voice, without this knowledge, we ‘can’t be sure that resources are being deployed most effectively, achieving goals for which they were designed, or know how to improve services in the future’. Practice-near research, and practitioners themselves, are also well placed to identify pressing issues and develop new and relevant research questions (Hardwick and Worsley, 2011). A further claim is that a stronger and more informative voice for social work will contribute to educating the public about the profession, and improve social work recruitment and retention. Social workers with strong voices can also have a political impact, using their firsthand evidence of the impact of welfare cuts on service users and carers, for example, to advocate for change (Winter and Cree, 2016). Taken as whole, these are powerful reasons to seek to expand our understanding of social work voices in their widest sense. However, accepting the ‘romance of the speaking subject’ (Gray, 2007, p. 425) can also take us into some quite murky waters. Unless a critical, inquiring approach is taken to the persuasive idea of ‘voice’, then biography can become hagiography, and narratives can veer towards the self-indulgent or excessively introspective. This is perhaps particularly evident when we look at the role of voice in social media where story making can be empowering and inspirational but also ill-informed and damaging. It is perhaps no coincidence that the current interest in narrative and the stories comes at a time when there are unrivalled opportunities to share one’s story in the online world. There is, Paley and Eva (2005, pp. 94–5) argue, ‘nothing intrinsically authentic or sacrosanct or emancipatory or paradigmatic’ about people’s stories or accounts of their lives. It is vital therefore that researchers, whatever theoretical perspective they choose to adopt, take a critical approach and make cogent arguments to support their knowledge claims (Polkinghorne, 2007). Adopting research methods that get up close to social work practice poses other theoretical and ethical challenges. Practice-nearness does not of itself mean that researchers have unfettered access to ‘truths’ about a social worker’s perspective or the nature of practice (Ferguson, 2016). Practice-near researchers can never be naive listeners; they select and shape knowledge, and are influenced by their own preconceptions and assumptions (Cooper et al., 2015; Gordon et al., 2016). Ethical questions about confidentiality and informed consent are also inevitable and may, sometimes quite rightly, limit the extent to which especially sensitive or risky practice situations can be investigated using practice-near methods, or written about in autoethnographic accounts. Conclusion Reviewing the literature about the social worker’s voice, in the face of the reported absence of this voice in writing about social work, has turned out to be a revealing project. The rationale for bringing together a wide range of literature, from first-person narratives to empirical ethnographic research, was that, however differently they may be conceived and conveyed, these sources collectively have something to say what social work is, and can be. They shine a light on something we still know remarkably little about: the views and practices of social workers. Taking different routes into understanding the social worker’s world allows us to get up close to ‘the comic, tragic, busy, exhausting, exasperating, loving, angry, rumbustious elements’ of an often hidden profession (Stevenson, in Evans, 1977, p. 13). Importantly, there appears to be a steadily growing consensus that there are significant gaps in our knowledge of social work—ones which have potentially serious implications for the quality, safety and effectiveness of social work practice, education and policy making. The literature review identifies an increasing concern to get to grips with social work’s many absences in the literature. There are important developments, for example, in ethnographic and narrative research, particularly in relation to social work practice with children and families. However, it is early days. Ferguson (2014), who has been at the forefront of moves to research social work from ‘the bottom up’, suggests that we have scarcely begun to generate empirical evidence from practice-near research. The significance of the social worker’s voice to policy making, practice and, crucially, to outcomes for service users and carers is only just starting to be understood. Research that accesses the voices of service users and carers alongside those of practitioners is also in its infancy. With some notable exceptions (Cree and Davis, 2007; De Boer and Coady, 2007; Winter et al., 2016), this terrain is ripe for investigation (Ruch, 2013). Study of the increasingly prominent online voice of the social worker could also make an important contribution to understanding the perspectives and experiences of practitioners. Notwithstanding the continuing challenges for a profession that struggles against many competing voices to make itself heard, these are potentially exciting times for the social work voice in all its forms. Acknowledgements I would like to thank my critical readers—Moira Dunworth, Aileen Robinson, Barry Cooper, Sue Dumbleton and Richard Robinson—for their valuable feedback and encouragement. References Bell L., Webb S. A. ( 1992) ‘ The invisible art of teaching for practice: Social workers’ perceptions of taking students on placement’, Social Work Education , 11( 1), pp. 28– 46. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Beresford P., Croft S., Adshead L. 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( 2001) ‘ Voices from the front line: State social workers and new labour’, British Journal of Social Work , 31( 4), pp. 547– 62. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Jones K. ( 1984) Eileen Younghusband: A Biography , London, Bedford Square Press. Jones K., Watson S. ( 2013) Best Practice with Older People: Social Work Stories , Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Jones K., Cooper B., Ferguson H. ( 2008) Best Practice in Social Work: Critical Perspectives , Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kanter J. ( 2004) Face to Face with Children: The Life and Work of Clare Winnicott , London, Karnac Books. Komulainen S. ( 2007) ‘ The ambiguity of the child’s “voice” in social research’, Childhood , 14( 1), pp. 11– 28. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Larsson S., Sjöblom Y. ( 2010) ‘ Perspectives on narrative methods in social work research’, International Journal of Social Welfare , 19( 3), pp. 272– 80. 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Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

The Voice of the Social Worker: A Narrative Literature Review

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0045-3102
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Abstract

Abstract A consistent observation in the social work literature is that remarkably little attention has been paid to the day-to-day practice of social work or the experiences of social workers. This narrative review explores the positioning of the social worker’s ‘voice’—whether spoken, written or enacted—in past and present writing about social work practice. Drawing on a wide range of published literature, from autoethnography to narrative and ethnographic research, the review finds evidence of increasing interest in conveying the practitioner’s lived experience in the literature. ‘Bottom-up’ approaches to understanding the micro practices of social work are generating new knowledge about how everyday social work is performed, with potential benefits to the profession, the quality of practice and the lives of service users and carers. The review’s findings emphasise the importance of a critical approach that recognises the situated and sometimes contradictory nature of voice in all its forms. It concludes that, although the social worker’s voice is beginning to be heard more clearly, research into the ‘doing’ of social work is only just getting off the starting block. Opportunities for future research, including the further development of a range of narrative and practice-near approaches, are identified. Social work education, history of social work, practitioners, voice, literature review Introduction In 1970, in their groundbreaking book, The Client Speaks, Mayer and Timms wrote, of social work services: ‘We are profoundly ignorant about the ways in which the consumers of these services respond to the help that the community makes available’ (1970, p. 2). Since then, service user and carer voices have begun to emerge as a significant force in research and policy development (Beresford et al., 2008; Daniel et al., 2014). There is still much to be done to ensure that their voices are heard and have influence. In a parallel process, the voices of social work practitioners have, it is argued, also been marginalised and silenced (Jones, 2001; Jones et al., 2008). In 2001, Phyllida Parsloe, looking back over fifty years of social work education, commented on the puzzling lack of research into how social workers ‘actually work with the users of their service’ (Parsloe, 2001, p. 11). Ten years later, Ferguson noted the same ‘curious absence’ of references to day-to-day practice in social work writing, theory and research (Ferguson, 2011, p. 4). The aim of this narrative literature review is to explore the representation of social work voices in current and past published writing. Even a quick glance at the literature of ‘voice’ in social work demonstrates that this topic of inquiry is not a straightforward or neatly bounded one. There is no single body of writing that explicitly focuses on the social worker’s voice. Social work voices are heard in many ways in the literature, through quoted speech and autobiographical writing as well as the day-to-day actions of social workers as they go about their work. This literature review therefore draws on a wide range of sources and research methodologies that stretch from biography and political activism to narrative and ethnographic research. I start with a description of the review methods, and go on to ask what it is we mean when we talk or write about ‘voice’. The claim that social workers’ voices are under-represented in the literature will be investigated before identifying different genres of writing and research that privilege the social worker’s voice. Although this literature is wide-ranging, and sometimes apparently quite disparate, taken together, it provides some powerful arguments for improving our understanding of the social work voice. These arguments will be outlined, alongside some constraints and challenges associated with hearing the practitioner’s voice. Finally, some future directions for continuing and expanded research will be identified. Literature review: methods and terminology The decision to undertake a narrative, rather than systematic, literature review was guided by the broad and inclusive definition of voice identified above. Systematic reviews identify explicit criteria to identify and analyse primary studies with the aim of synthesising research findings and drawing robust conclusions (Evans and Benefield, 2001). Narrative literature reviews are useful for studying a more varied literature to identify connections and synergies between different, and sometimes apparently unrelated, forms of evidence. In this way, a narrative review creates a ‘map’ or ‘mosaic’ of studies that ‘focus on different parts of a single picture’ (Hammersley, 2001, p. 548)—an approach that coincides with the ambitions of this review. Narrative review comes with some disadvantages, including potential problems with transferability and replicability, as well as overreliance on the reviewer’s judgement about suitable sources (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 2007). Some of these issues will be explored at the end of the paper. Whether narrative or systematic, transparency about the methods used for literature review is a necessary first step (Hammersley, 2001). Four bibliographic databases were searched (ASSIA, Social Care Online, Social Work Abstracts and Web of Knowledge) as well as Google and Google Scholar. Searches of journal databases were also made, focusing on titles that address social work theory and practice, such as the British Journal of Social Work, Journal of Social Work, Social Work Education and Australian Social Work. Selection of databases and journals was guided by the desire to bring together international literature specific to social work practice with writing from different disciplines and formats about the broader theme of ‘voice’. The literature accessed was all in English, and peer-reviewed, apart from policy-related publications that have been used to set national contexts, and a small number of biographies and autobiographies. No restrictions were placed on date of publication. These selection criteria excluded some key voices, including spoken and online voices, unpublished accounts of practice, grey literature and writing by non-English speakers. All offer important, and, arguably, more direct, access to practitioner voices than peer-reviewed literature. However, although the inclusion of this body of writing could have made a significant contribution to the review’s findings, it would have been difficult to do justice to such a large and methodologically complex body of writing in a single journal article. The main search terms used were ‘social work(er)’ OR ‘practitioner’ combined with ‘voice’, ‘speaks’, ‘talk’, ‘view’, ‘perspective, ‘story’, ‘narrative’, ‘write’ ‘publish’, ‘experience’ and ‘(in)visible’. Additionally, taking account of relevant research methods, variations of ‘(auto)ethnographic’, ‘(auto) biographic’, ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ were combined with these terms. ‘Practice-near (research)’ was added as the literature review progressed. This term is increasingly employed to refer to a range of research approaches, such as case vignettes, role play and participant observation, that aim to get close to practitioners and practice (see e.g. White et al., 2009). Some clarity is required about terminology. Social workers come in all shapes and sizes, with unique histories, life experiences and multiple identities. In this paper, ‘social worker’ refers to someone who talks, writes about or performs social work in direct practice with service users and carers. This is not to discount the fact that social workers may also be service users or carers, manage services or teach and research in higher education. However, the subject of this particular inquiry is the ‘voice’ in relation to the practice of social work, and all the things that social workers do, from visiting a family at home or an older person in hospital to attending meetings, writing reports, making telephone calls and advocating for service users and carers. What is a voice? ‘Voice’ has multiple meanings; we listen to voices, we voice ideas, and train our voices to sing, act and make speeches. We also hear voices, whether these are the inner dialogues of our everyday thoughts or voices that seem to come from outside us, from imaginary friends to deities and intrusive thoughts (Fernyhough, 2016). Voices are, it is argued, best understood in the plural because we all have different things to say, and express ourselves differently in different social, cultural and historical contexts (Witkin and Chambon, 2007). Power and voice are intimately related. So, on the one hand, voice can be seen as liberating, as a means of countering exclusion and oppression. On the other, voices can be dismissed, hijacked by more dominant discourses, or make paternalistic claims to ‘speak for’ others (Gray, 2007). Voice is, therefore, a shape shifter of a concept, both multidimensional and socially constructed (Komulainen, 2007). Witkin (2002) identifies three uses for ‘voice’ in social work: consideration, representation and expression. The first refers to having a voice in some matter or question. It implies a right to speak and be heard, in relation to decision making, for example. Representation refers to ways in which opinions are conveyed, and is closely related to advocacy. These voices are expressed collectively, as ‘the service user’s voice’ or ‘the practitioner’s voice’. Finally, voice as ‘expression’ conveys who we are and what we think. This last definition reminds us that voice is not just about speech. Rather, it is shorthand that implies presence and positioning whether that is achieved through talking, writing, research or the many embodied ways in which voice is expressed through people’s lived experience. This paper began with the contention that social workers’ voices, in these many forms, are under-represented in the literature: to what extent is this really the case? Unheard voices? The perception that social workers and their practice are missing from social work literature goes back a long way. In 1977, Helen Evans, a retired child-care officer in the UK, wrote: ... while I was training ... I searched in vain for a direct, straightforward introduction to the field of practical work that was to be my setting ... and a description of the people and the problems one was bound to meet (Evans, 1977, p. 15).Nearly forty years later, the literature continues to lack examples of interactions between social workers and service users. Instead the focus has tended to be on theory and more distanced approaches to practice (Hall and Slembrouck, 2009; Swenson, 2012) or prescription about what social workers should not do (Jones et al., 2008). Meanwhile, there are few narrative accounts of social workers’ lives (Stevenson, 2013) or research about day-to-day social work practice (Ferguson, 2003; Jones and Watson, 2013). Lack of systematic inquiry into the ‘doing’ of social work has been identified in relation to a range of roles and specialisms, including child protection (Forrester et al., 2008), hospital social work (Wilder Craig, 2007), practice education (Bell and Webb, 1992) and social work with asylum seekers and refugees (Robinson, 2014). Historically, social workers have also been undervalued as researchers (Shaw, 2005), and practitioner research has struggled to emerge from ‘near invisibility’ (Hardwick and Worsley, 2011, p. 135). Many obstacles stand in the way of practitioners getting their voices into print, so that their firsthand accounts of practice and workplace research rarely reach the public (Gordon et al., 2016). A number of reasons have been identified for these absences of voice. First, it is noted that social workers typically work with the most disadvantaged and excluded members of society (Jones, 2001), simultaneously advocating for service users and acting as gate-keepers for services (Cree, 2003). Countering the ‘dirty work’ designation of social work, especially in fields such as child protection, continues to be challenging (Flaherty, 2014, p. 130). This positioning of the profession, Cree (2013, p. 3) argues, has caused social workers to be ‘stigmatised and discriminated in turn’, contributing to their exclusion from more powerful discourses. That social work continues to be a predominantly female profession further contributes to this marginalisation and lack of influence and voice (Weick, 2000). Social work practice also happens out of sight, in service users’ homes or social work offices (Broadhurst and Mason, 2014). Social workers are required to protect the privacy of the people they work with, so the social worker’s ability to speak or write about practice outside the confines of their professional role is necessarily constrained. Social work is ‘an inherently invisible trade’ (Pithouse, 1998, p. 2). This invisibility is not only material, but related to the uncertainty and ambiguity of the role. The profession’s diversity and continuing debates about the ‘contested endeavour’ of social work (Butler et al., 2007, p. 293) contribute to lack of public understanding about what social workers actually do (Davidson and King, 2005). Moreover, public perceptions are often informed by hostile media representations of the profession and its work, particularly in the field of child protection (Galilee, 2005; Shoesmith, 2016). Ferguson (2003, p. 1005) describes social work as having a ‘deficit culture’, citing the destructive impact of highly publicised abuse inquiries and the neo-liberal ‘modernisation’ of UK services as key causes. An increasingly bureaucratic and marketised working context has, Ruch (2000, p. 100) suggests, further fragmented social work’s identity and ‘de-personalised practice’. Critiques of social work have also come from inside the profession, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, when radical social work hotly challenged the prevailing psychodynamic orientation of social work education (Frost, 2008). As a result, the profession has become accustomed to ‘being contested from within and criticised from without’ (Jones and Watson, 2013, p. 191). There are indications, however, that this picture is beginning to change—that the practitioner voice is becoming louder and demanding to be heard. This contention will now be explored drawing on literature that illuminates the social worker’s voice in very varied ways. Hearing social work voice(s) In the UK, the need to pay more attention to the role of the social worker has emerged as a matter of public interest and policy. Cooper et al. (2015) summarise the recommendations of a series of policy reviews in the UK, including Scotland’s 21st Century Review of Social Work (Scottish Executive, 2006) and, in England, the Social Work Taskforce (SWT, 2009) and the Munro Review of Child Care and Protection (Munro, 2011). Key policy messages include a desire to inculcate a more balanced public understanding of social work by sharing the profession’s successes and positive stories. Similar themes are evident in a more recent review of proposed reforms to children and family social work in England (House of Commons Education Committee, 2016, p. 27), which has called for a national campaign to celebrate ‘the positive aspects of social work, and, explaining its complexities, to boost the profile of the profession’. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the need for a ‘national conversation’ about social care work and its value and reward has been identified in relation to its social care workforce (Cunningham et al., 2015, p. 6). These repeated calls to amplify the social work voice have a number of drivers, including evidence of the impact of increasing caseloads, poor public regard and managerialism on recruitment and retention (Huxley et al., 2005). This context for practice also, it is argued, has a negative impact on social workers’ sense of self and their ability to practise in therapeutic and non-defensive ways (Whittaker and Havard, 2016). Surveying a very varied literature, from biographical writing to research, that draws on a range of methodologies, including narrative and ethnographic approaches, it appears that there is growing interest in using literature to convey the social work experience and role. Five outlets for social work voices will be explored: biographical writing, narrative research, ethnographic research, the use of self in practice and the political arena. These are not mutually exclusive categories, and have many overlaps and commonalities as well as differences. The volume, source and geographical location of the literature accessed for this review voice are summarised in Table 1. Table 1 Narrative literature review sources by literature type, source and geographical location of first-named author Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Table 1 Narrative literature review sources by literature type, source and geographical location of first-named author Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Literature type  Books/book chapters  Journal articles  Total publications  Location of first-named author  Biography and first-person  10  35  45  UK (22) USA (18) Canada (5)  Narrative research  8  31  39  UK (28) USA (4) Australia (3) Sweden (2) Canada (1) Ireland (1)  Ethnographic research  2  16  18  UK (17) Australia (1)  Use of self  2  2  4  UK (4)  Political voices  1  4  5  UK (2) South Africa (1) USA (1) Israel (1)  Total  23  88  111    Biography and first-person narratives This genre of literature is composed of autobiographical first-person narratives and biographies of social workers. There are surprisingly few accounts, personal or professional, written from the perspective of the social worker. Niechcial (2010, p. xii) suggests that, as public servants, social workers may be regarded as too unglamorous—‘mere plodders’ at the margins of society—to be of interest to the reading public. Notable British exceptions include biographies of Clare Winnicott (Kanter, 2004), Eileen Younghusband (Jones, 1984) and Lucy Faithfull (Niechcial, 2010) and Olive Stevenson’s autobiography (Stevenson, 2013). These important historical documents offer a window into the development of the social work profession. Less-well-known social workers have also written first-person practice narratives. These include a small, but growing, number of collections of social workers’ firsthand accounts of their motivations and experiences, gathered together to promote learning and expand understanding of the international context for, and history of, social work (LeCroy, 2002; Cree, 2003, 2013; Burnham, 2016). An important genre within the narrative tradition is autoethnography—‘a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context’ (Reed-Danahay, 1997, in Witkin, 2014). Autoethnography has been used to illuminate a range of social work practices, from international adoption, through end-of-life care, to case recording (Witkin, 2014). The autoethnographic writer, unlike the autobiographer, is simultaneously inside the experience they are describing and outside, analysing and interpreting that experience within its social and cultural context. For example, Wilder Craig (2007) has used a ‘Day in the Life’ format to demonstrate the hallmarks of her job as a hospital social worker in Canada. She sees this form of writing as having multiple functions, including individual and collective validation and a form of advocacy for a social work specialism that has experienced ‘a profound loss of voice’ (Wilder Craig, 2007, p. 436). Weick has emphasised the importance of this ‘first voice’ of social work, informed by practice wisdom. She contrasts it with the ‘second voice’ of the dominant culture which replaces emotions with ‘studied disinterest’ and responds to complexity by ‘narrowing the point of study’ (Weick, 2000, p. 398). Taking this ‘first voice’ seriously opens up opportunities to draw on multiple writing formats, from poetry (Furman and Coyne, 2008) to fiction (Bolton, 1994), to express practitioner perspectives. Although first-person narratives appear to be flourishing, they also struggle to assert their credibility within a field dominated by logico-scientific methods and academic publishing traditions (Witkin, 2000; Swenson, 2012). Narrative research Closely related to, and building on, the use of first-person narrative and biography are examples of empirical research informed by constructivist narrative and linguistic theory. Although social work researchers have been slow to take up narrative methods (Roscoe et al., 2011), they provide a means of giving ‘voice to unheard stories’ (Larsson and Sjöblom, 2010, p. 278). Narrative can, however, also be defined very loosely, with the risk that voices become ‘abstracted from their contexts of production, stripped of language and transformed into brief summaries’ (Riessman and Quinney, 2005, p. 398). In contrast, Parsloe and Stevenson’s study (1978) of British social services teams provides an early example of how detailed observation and loosely structured interviews can work together to convey the practitioner’s experiences of everyday practice. More recently, researchers have been combining a range of narrative methods to privilege the social worker’s voice. Osmond and O’Connor (2004), for example, undertook a multi-method study which used a combination of in-depth interviewing, observation, concept mapping and personal narratives to access Australian social workers’ understandings of knowledge for practice. Another seam of research that aims to bring out the practitioner’s narrative voice is the critical best-practice perspective. This approach aims to promote learning by making visible live examples of what social work looks like when it is done well (Ferguson, 2003). Critical best practice is informed by critical theory, taking account of multiple perspectives, and the need to negotiate complex tensions and power relations within varied contexts for practice (Jones et al., 2008). Drawing on in-depth interviews and live practice interactions, critical best practice is generating a growing body of analytical inquiry, including research into social workers’ use of knowledge (Gordon and Cooper, 2010), social work with older people (Jones and Watson, 2013) and children and family practice (Cooper et al., 2015). Ethnographic research Understanding what it is that social workers think and do, and how they go about their everyday practice, requires approaches that ‘capture what social work feels like, looks like and smells like on the ground’ (Howe, in Cooper et al., 2015, p. vii). Listening to social workers reflecting on a social work career, or talking about their practice, offers a valuable way of hearing practitioner voices. However, it is possible to get even closer to practice if the researcher takes an ethnographic approach that enables more direct access to the doing of social work, wherever this may take place. This literature, which mostly originates in the UK, comprises ethnographic research into how social workers work within organisations and directly with service users and their families. Pithouse (1998) provides an early example of this approach in his institutional ethnography of a UK local authority social work department. He spent a year immersed in this environment, making visible the complexities of everyday social work which escape ‘the analytic gaze of more distanced perspectives and commentators’ (Pithouse, 1998, p. 5). However, until recently, researchers have rarely attempted to ‘the real world’ of social work practices such as making home visits (Winter et al., 2016). Ferguson has been a leading exponent of ethnographic methods to shadow workers, seeking to capture social work encounters as practitioners travel in their cars, meet families and visit homes (Ferguson, 2010, 2011, 2014). Broadhurst and Mason (2014), who undertook a small-scale ethnographic study of home visits in England, concluded that there needs to be a greater focus on the nature of face-to-face social work practice. A UK-wide project, Talking and Listening to Children (TLC), which is disseminating its findings at the time of writing, has researched how social workers communicate with children in everyday practice using observational methods and video-stimulated recall (Winter et al., 2016). Other creative methods to get close to practice include simulations based on case vignettes (Forrester et al., 2008) and use of audio recordings (Hall and Slembrouck, 2009). Use of self in practice Getting up close to the day-to-day work that social workers perform enables researchers to evoke what it is to be a social worker in practice. The fourth category of literature accessed is writing about how social workers draw on their personal and professional selves in practice—a topic that is receiving increasing interest in the literature (Harrison and Ruch, 2007; Gordon and Dunworth, 2017). Jones and Watson (2013) stress the importance of enabling practitioners to carve out and share confident narratives about themselves as self-aware practitioners. Conversely, in inter-professional settings social workers have described the difficulties they face in making themselves heard by professional colleagues (O’Connor and Leonard, 2014, p. 1815). Lack of space precludes further discussion of this aspect of social work voice. However, it does appear that identity, self-awareness and skilful use of self are closely related to social workers’ ability to give voice in ways that benefit the service users and carers they work with. Political voices Social justice and human rights have been identified as core principles for social work practice (IFSW/IASSW, 2014). Social workers have a public as well as a professional duty to confront injustice and promote equal rights for all. However, this kind of participation is often restricted by lack of time, energy and the confidence to voice views within managerialist working contexts that discourage this form of professional autonomy (Wilks, 2005). Notwithstanding these obstacles, practitioners can and do have a voice through political campaigning, collective action and micro-political forms of advocacy and resistance in their day-to-day practice—the final grouping of literature explored here. Ferguson (2013b) identifies a range of examples from collective action through the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) in the UK to international political protests against governmental responses to refugees and asylum seekers. The role of social work education in enabling social workers to develop the confidence and skills to participate in the public arena has been stressed. For example, Israeli social work students who participated in a media project, writing newspaper articles to promote social justice and influence policy, gained an enhanced sense of power and voice. Students who initially described their voices as ‘quiet’, ‘private’ or ‘oppressed’ came to view their professional voice as ‘one that is important, unique and may be heard in the public domain’ (Weiss-Gal and Peled, 2007, p. 378). Social media are now beginning to provide new opportunities for practitioner voices to be heard through Twitter, blogging sites, Tumblr and other applications. The importance of promoting digital literacy and the use of social media for advocacy, information sharing and community action has been stressed (Sitter and Curnew, 2016). Discussion This review started with the contention that the social work ‘voice’ is a marginalised and frequently silent one. The evidence presented has been widely drawn, extending the concept of voice as the spoken or written word to include the many ways in which everyday social work practice is positioned and understood through social workers’ lived experience and action. Taken as a whole, literature from a quite diverse range of sources tends to confirm the view that ‘not nearly enough attention is given to the detail of what social workers actually do, where they do it and their experience of doing it’ (Winter and Cree, 2016, p. 1175). In the process of summarising evidence drawn from biography, narrative and ethnographic research, practice and political engagement, a number of claims have been made about why it is important for social workers to have a voice. These claims will now be examined in the light of this evidence before exploring some challenges for the social work voice. The first claim is that the act of giving voice is validating both for the individual social worker and the social work profession. Social workers, it is argued, cannot assert their identity if they do so with a ‘borrowed’ voice (Weick, 2000). Practitioners need to be visible and to be heard if they are going to be confident, assertive, self-aware workers who can advocate for service users. This conclusion is mostly inferred from evidence of deficit: of social workers’ lack of confidence; of their internalising of critiques from politicians, media and public and sometimes from within the profession itself. These traits can become self-fulfilling prophecies that contribute to workplace stress and burnout (Butler et al., 2007). Narrative and autoethnographic approaches, it is argued, offer opportunities for self-discovery and shared learning about creative, reflective social work practice. The critical best-practice approach also serves as a means of challenging negative portrayals of the profession to demonstrate, celebrate and debate what social work looks like at its best (Jones et al., 2008). A second, related, claim is that social workers can learn from in-depth accounts of experience and practice—forms of research and biography that social workers have hitherto had very little access to. It is argued that personal accounts and research that illuminate how social workers practise can generate new understandings that more distanced research and commentary cannot. Narrative, ethnographic and critical best-practice research share a commitment to inductive, ‘bottom-up’ forms of inquiry that recognise the complexity and contingency of social work. So a third claim is that, if we recognise the importance of the ‘micro’—as well as the ‘macro’—of social work practice, we open up the possibility of different kinds of theory for practice (Ferguson, 2013a). This perspective on everyday practice not only has important implications for social work education, but has the potential to unsettle assumptions about what is ‘good’ or ‘efficient’ practice (Forrester et al., 2008). For example, Gillingham and Humphreys (2010) have demonstrated how risk assessment tools are used by practitioners in Australia in quite different ways from those intended by policy makers. In England, White et al. (2009) have researched the ‘modernisation’ of children’s services and identified the lack of practice-near research as a contributory factor in allowing the introduction of unsafe work regimes. This suggests that hearing the voice of the social worker may go further than individual learning to prevent damaging practices and potential misdirection of resources, based on flawed understandings of what works, at an institutional level. As Mayer and Timms (1970, p. 2) reflected in relation to the absence of the service user’s voice, without this knowledge, we ‘can’t be sure that resources are being deployed most effectively, achieving goals for which they were designed, or know how to improve services in the future’. Practice-near research, and practitioners themselves, are also well placed to identify pressing issues and develop new and relevant research questions (Hardwick and Worsley, 2011). A further claim is that a stronger and more informative voice for social work will contribute to educating the public about the profession, and improve social work recruitment and retention. Social workers with strong voices can also have a political impact, using their firsthand evidence of the impact of welfare cuts on service users and carers, for example, to advocate for change (Winter and Cree, 2016). Taken as whole, these are powerful reasons to seek to expand our understanding of social work voices in their widest sense. However, accepting the ‘romance of the speaking subject’ (Gray, 2007, p. 425) can also take us into some quite murky waters. Unless a critical, inquiring approach is taken to the persuasive idea of ‘voice’, then biography can become hagiography, and narratives can veer towards the self-indulgent or excessively introspective. This is perhaps particularly evident when we look at the role of voice in social media where story making can be empowering and inspirational but also ill-informed and damaging. It is perhaps no coincidence that the current interest in narrative and the stories comes at a time when there are unrivalled opportunities to share one’s story in the online world. There is, Paley and Eva (2005, pp. 94–5) argue, ‘nothing intrinsically authentic or sacrosanct or emancipatory or paradigmatic’ about people’s stories or accounts of their lives. It is vital therefore that researchers, whatever theoretical perspective they choose to adopt, take a critical approach and make cogent arguments to support their knowledge claims (Polkinghorne, 2007). Adopting research methods that get up close to social work practice poses other theoretical and ethical challenges. Practice-nearness does not of itself mean that researchers have unfettered access to ‘truths’ about a social worker’s perspective or the nature of practice (Ferguson, 2016). Practice-near researchers can never be naive listeners; they select and shape knowledge, and are influenced by their own preconceptions and assumptions (Cooper et al., 2015; Gordon et al., 2016). Ethical questions about confidentiality and informed consent are also inevitable and may, sometimes quite rightly, limit the extent to which especially sensitive or risky practice situations can be investigated using practice-near methods, or written about in autoethnographic accounts. Conclusion Reviewing the literature about the social worker’s voice, in the face of the reported absence of this voice in writing about social work, has turned out to be a revealing project. The rationale for bringing together a wide range of literature, from first-person narratives to empirical ethnographic research, was that, however differently they may be conceived and conveyed, these sources collectively have something to say what social work is, and can be. They shine a light on something we still know remarkably little about: the views and practices of social workers. Taking different routes into understanding the social worker’s world allows us to get up close to ‘the comic, tragic, busy, exhausting, exasperating, loving, angry, rumbustious elements’ of an often hidden profession (Stevenson, in Evans, 1977, p. 13). Importantly, there appears to be a steadily growing consensus that there are significant gaps in our knowledge of social work—ones which have potentially serious implications for the quality, safety and effectiveness of social work practice, education and policy making. The literature review identifies an increasing concern to get to grips with social work’s many absences in the literature. There are important developments, for example, in ethnographic and narrative research, particularly in relation to social work practice with children and families. However, it is early days. Ferguson (2014), who has been at the forefront of moves to research social work from ‘the bottom up’, suggests that we have scarcely begun to generate empirical evidence from practice-near research. The significance of the social worker’s voice to policy making, practice and, crucially, to outcomes for service users and carers is only just starting to be understood. Research that accesses the voices of service users and carers alongside those of practitioners is also in its infancy. With some notable exceptions (Cree and Davis, 2007; De Boer and Coady, 2007; Winter et al., 2016), this terrain is ripe for investigation (Ruch, 2013). 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Oct 25, 2017

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