Is There Room for the Self in Research?

(Citation: Barusch, Amanda S. (2009) ‘From the Editor: Is There Room for the Self in Research?’, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 52: 7, 651 — 652.)

Social work practitioners are well-versed in the effective use of self. Critical self-reflection is a key skill. Yet in research the self seems to get in the way. This sets up a peculiar dissonance – one that reinforces the pernicious gap between research and practice.

In a traditional, positivist paradigm the self is not seen as an asset or a tool, but as a source of error or bias. In pursuit of objectivity, we seek to minimize intrusion from the self through ritualized data collection procedures and rigorous criteria for hypothesis testing. We teach staff on our research projects to differentiate between clinical assessment and research interviews, reminding them that they are there to observe, but not to change the respondent’s situation.

This presents a difficult dilemma, especially when our interviewers are social work students. I experienced this during a pilot study of older adults coping with depression. Social work students that I hired as interviewers encountered people living in unbearable circumstances, some of them asking quite directly for help. Carefully drawn-out research plans collided head-on with our professional mandate to alleviate suffering. I could not advise my students to remember their research training, collect their data, and walk away “like a thief in the night.” (Kieger, 1991) Instead, we devised an approach that allowed first for completion of the standardized instruments, then for a direct conversation about what hurt and what resources might be available to help. I imagine other researchers have worked through similar processes.

The post-positivist or qualitative paradigm offers a different role for the self. Read more . . .

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