Do social workers use theory in their practice? — A practitioner’s view

Christian Kerr
7 min readDec 21, 2018

The following is basically an edited version of the executive summary of my social work master’s dissertation which, in 2012/13, explored social work practitioners’ perspectives on the use of theory in practice with children and families involved in family court proceedings. To say it’s ‘a practitioner’s view’ is a tad disingenuous. It is, in fact, a student social worker’s view.

Student social workers occupy a privileged, though challenged and challenging space at the nexus of practice and academia. It’s a formative time in our careers and, while I wince at some of things written, I still agree, more or less, with that slightly younger, greener self who wanted to understand what social work consists of, and who still does.

So, I’m revisiting it in light of recent discussions on Twitter in which I’ve been a participant. These have concerned, broadly, the nature and types of knowledges that social workers bring to bear in their daily practice.

With that in mind, I ask is that you are forgiving about any aspects of the piece that are outdated, to bear in mind that it’s small-scale, not peer-reviewed and also that it’s the work of a student clumsily feeling his way round the perilous and imperiled, hotly contested terrain of theory- and research-informed practice. At the same time, I hope it prompts thought and maybe some fruitful debate, and I am open to feedback of any kind.

Here goes…


Models of good practice informed by “the latest theory and research” (DfE 2011, p23) are seen to be key to the liberation of social workers from the shackles of proceduralised practice (Munro 2005, Fish et al 2008, Cross et al 2010, DfE 2011, Munro & Hubbard 2011). However, the complex interrelationship between theory and practice has not been satisfactorily explicated, contributing to perceptions of a 'theory-practice gap'. The study aims to uncover the reality of social workers' use of theory in everyday practice with children and families involved in family court proceedings by seeking the perspectives of qualified practitioners in a non-departmental government court advisory service and a Local Authority Safeguarding Children team.

The promotion of social work as an academic discipline has coincided with the rise of positivism in the late twentieth century (Gray & McDonald 2006). However, social work is also a practical-moral activity (Parton & O’Byrne 2000, cited in Gray & McDonald 2006), founded in the Kantian principle of respect for the intrinsic worth of all humans. Therefore, social work’s foundations are, arguably, more moral-philosophical than empirical. There are growing calls for evidence-based practice in social work, yet social work is premised on humanistic values, principles and knowledges which do not yield readily to vivisection. Social work knowledge “can be difficult to identify because, in reality, we know little about the theories and concepts that are used on an everyday basis in social work” (Trevithick 2008, p1231), partly because social work practice “has not yet been defined as a research site” (Preston-Shoot 2004, p30).

Questions & Methods

The research aims to answer the overarching research question, “What value has theory in the reality of everyday social work practice with children and families involved in family court proceedings?” which stems from the working hypothesis that qualified social workers, having received extensive training through which the synthesis of theory and practice is inculcated, use theory in their practice. This invites consideration of a set of sub questions:

  • How do social workers define 'theory’?
  • Do social workers use theory? How? For what purposes?
  • Which theory/ies do social workers use?
  • What factors influence social workers' use/non use of theory/ies? What do social workers see as opportunities and challenges in using theory in their practice?
  • Is the use of theory in social work practice implicit or explicit, knowing or tacit?
  • What (comparative) value, if any, do social workers place other knowledges, e.g. experience, 'tacit knowledge' and 'practice wisdom’?

Coinciding with the recent move from the erstwhile GSCC’s National Occupational Standards to the College of Social Work’s Professional Capabilities Framework (College of Social Work 2012), the research question has direct relevance to the training and ongoing professional development of social workers. It also speaks directly to pressing concerns about current social work practice. The dissertation aims to at least partly uncover the reality of theory- and research-informed practice by qualified social workers and suggest possible directions for further research. It is hoped the research will also illuminate some possible areas for improvement for social work training and professional development.

The study aims to capture the richness and depth of social workers' perspectives in order to explore their experiences of using (or not using) theory, thereby illuminating the underlying reasons behind their use/non-use of theory. The research uses a qualitative, flexible design strategy aimed at enabling ongoing modification and refinement of the questions in line with emerging themes, rooted in a constructivist ontological viewpoint that recognised that data would be jointly constructed through participant-researcher interaction (Bryman 2001, Robson 2002).

The researcher interviewed eight qualified social work practitioners: five from a non-departmental government court advisory service, and three from a Local Authority Safeguarding Children team. Each interview was loosely structured to ensure relevance while allowing the capture of rich data on participants' experiences of using theory in practice. Each interview was transcribed and the data analysed as it came in, using a constant comparative approach. An iterative approach allowed emerging themes to guide subsequent interviews.

Main findings

The researcher found that participants:

  • Used and valued a range of theories, models and approaches, and were research-informed, consistent with models of good practice advanced in the literature (Adams et al 2009, DfE 2011).
  • Were more likely to use theory implicitly than explicitly, as also found by Barratt (2003), Trotter & Leech (2003) and Collins & Daly (2011).
  • Identified factors influencing the implicit/explicit use of theory, e.g. time constraints impacting on time to reflect, organisational support with professional development, and 'audit culture’, consistent with the views of Munro (2005, DfE 2011).
  • Viewed practice placements as the location of key learning around the synthesis of theory and practice. Whether particular placements supported this was for some a matter of “luck”.
  • Made links between the use of theory with notions of experience, 'practice wisdom’, professionalism and expertise (Payne 2007, Cameron & Keenan 2010).
  • Viewed awareness of the implicit theoretical underpinnings of proforma and proceduralised practice as necessary to exercising professional discretion in order to practice in a flexible and humanistic way, as found by Fellowes (2013).
  • Used theory to justify and legitimate decisions in a multi-professional context; and also to explain decisions, plans and interventions to parents.
  • Viewed theory as an important component of practice that was also informed by other important factors, e.g. human-relational skills and experiential knowledge, consistent with the findings of Munro (2005) and Cameron & Keenan (2010).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The researcher concluded:

  • Theory constitutes part of an integrative model of practice that also comprises values, relational skills and experiential knowledge.
  • Awareness of the theoretical underpinnings of the instruments of practice promotes professional discretion and judgement.
  • Critical reflection supports the explicit use of theory.
  • Organisational support in the form of learning resources and appropriate leadership is key to promoting theory-informed practice.

The researcher recommends:

  • Organisations that provide social services need to do more to support theory- and research- informed, critically reflective practice in order to meet their moral and legal duties to improve outcomes for service users.

The researcher suggests:

  • Social work educators also have an obligation to support theory- and research- informed practice. They should do this by promoting critically reflective conversations and debate among students while also building assignments and exercises around examples of current proforma to support critical engagement with the theoretical underpinnings of the instruments of everyday practice.
  • In addition, there is a paucity of research on service users' perspectives on social workers' use of theory, which would be of benefit in light of calls for collaborative theory-building between social workers and service users (Beresford 2000, Beresford & Croft 2001).


Adams. K.B., LeCroy, C.W. & Matto, H. C. (2009) 'Limitations of evidence-based practice for social work education: unpacking the complexity' Journal of Social Work Education 45 (2) 1-22

Beresford, P. (2000) ‘Service Users' Knowledges and Social Work Theory: Conflict or Collaboration?’ British Journal of Social Work 30, 489-503

Beresford, P. & Croft, S. (2001) ‘Service Users’ Knowledges and the Social Construction of Social Work’ Journal of Social Work 1 (3) 295–316

Bryman, A (2001) Social Research Methods. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Cameron, M. & Keenan, E.K., (2010) 'The Common Factors Model: Implications for Transtheoretical Clinical Social Work Practice' Social Work 55 (1) 63-73

Collins, E. & Daly, E. (2011) Decision making and social work in Scotland: The role of evidence and practice wisdom. Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services: Glasgow

Cross, S., Hubbard, A. & Munro, E. (2010) Reclaiming Social Work. London Borough of Hackney Children and Young People’s Services: London

Department for Education (2011) The Munro review of child protection: Final report, a child-centred system. Stationery Office: London

Fish, S., Munro, E. & Bairstow, S. (2008) SCIE Children's Services' Report 19: Learning together to safeguard children: developing a multi-agency systems approach for case reviews Social Care Institute for Excellence: London

Fellowes, E. (2012) 'Risk assessment, the professional judgement model and organizational anxiety – a practitioner response to 'In the eye of the storm: Implications of the Munro Child Protection Review for the future of Probation' by Wendy Fitzgibbon' Probation Journal 59 (1) 66-70

Gray, M. & McDonald, C. (2006) 'Pursuing Good Practice? : The Limits of Evidence-based Practice' Journal of Social Work 2006 6 (7) 7-20

Munro, M. (2005) 'Improving practice: Child protection as a systems problem' Children and Youth Services Review 27, 375–391

Munro, E. & Hubbard, A. (2011) A Systems Approach to Evaluating Organisational Change in Children’s Social Care British Journal of Social Work 41, 726–743

Payne, M.(2007) 'Performing as a 'wise person' in social work practice' Practice 19 (2) 85-96

Parton, N. and O’Byrne, P. (2000) Constructive Social Work. Macmillan: London

Robson, C. (2002) Real World Research. Blackwell: Oxford

Trevithick, P. (2008) 'Revisiting the Knowledge Base of Social Work: A Framework for Practice' British Journal of Social Work 38, 1212-1237

Trotter, J.& Leech, N. (2003) 'Linking research, theory and practice in personal and professional development: gender and sexuality issues in social work education' Social work Education 22 (2), 203-214



Christian Kerr

Concerned citizen/novice by experience. Thru a social work lens. Working class person.