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Evaluation and Social Work Practice

Ian Shaw and Joyce Lishman
Sage Publications: London
1999
0761957936 (pb); 0761957928 (hb)
16.99 (pb); 49.50 (hb)
256

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This is a collection of chapters newly written, by authors with a wide spectrum of interests. It presents arguments that support evaluation as an integral part of social work - that evaluation is an aspect of practice, properly conceived. This is usually suppressed by concentration on evaluation about social work, or programme service evaluation, which remain valuable, but do not exhaust the field. In her introduction, Lishman reviews the evaluation/research distinction, which, she suggests, can be blurred without loss. She identifies reasons for the relative lack of interest in evaluation thinking and theorising. Considering the present enthusiasm for evidence-based practice, she insists on a theoretical awareness and openness that allows schools to contend, and without simplification. Contributors were asked to attend these points, and to make their own partisan commitments explicit. Chapters 1-5 are on the theoretical background, chapters 6-10 on examples of evaluation in keeping with the general orientation of the book, and chapters 11-13 on outcomes of social work evaluation by discrete methods.

The Empirical Practice movement provides a point of reference throughout: Chs. 2, 12 and 13 provide an interesting and powerful account of the current state of play: historical review, (Reid and Zettergren), focus on single-systems design (Bloom) and cognitive and behavioural intervention (Vanstone). These are well-written, fully exemplified, attractive and modest, recognising the power of their critics, without surrendering their positions.

Ch.4, "Qualitative Practice Evaluation" (Gould) and Ch.5, "Evaluation and Empowerment" (Dullea and Mullender) are brief reviews. For the first, issues of validity, receptivity and accountability are central. For the second, effective democracy based in group experience and a full emancipatory interest provides the base for assessment. Ch.6, Evans and Fisher: "Collaborative Evaluation with Service Users" exemplifies the possibilities of democratisation by presenting research (with evaluation as one component) along a dimension of user control - from "to" through "for" and "with" to "by". Outcomes include empowerment for users and involved practitioners in developed and stable user organisations. Again with a radical theme, Ch.7, "Feminist Evaluation" (Humphries), explores (critically) Mies's postulates, as applying to evaluation: conscious partiality, the view from below, praxis orientation, change of the status quo, and conscientization. Developing each of these, she argues that all evaluation is political, and suggests the feminist grounds under which evaluation could be valid: enlarged understanding and critique.

Chs.8 "Histories in Social Work" (Martin), 9, "Contribution of observation to the development of good practice and evaluation. (Work in Progress)" (Tanner and Le Riche) and 10, "Interviewing and Evaluating", (Fook, Munford and Sanders) are all, in one sense or another, about methods. Martin suggests (persuasively) the use of oral history and its interpersonal techniques as a sensitising experience for social workers. Tanner and Le Riche provide reflections on interpretive and intentional observation, perhaps not yet fully digested, and Ch.10 seeks to deal at once with evaluation as a dimension of interviewing practice, and with the evaluation of interviews, which makes it sometimes complex. It reviews methods for evaluating interviews: and then looks at the areas of disability and research on children, constructing principles for research, and hence for interviewing. Ch.11, "Qualitative Clinical Research and Evaluation" (Ruckdeschel), is a high-level assessment of the present situation and its opportunities. Qualitative evaluation is legitimate, and on the points of an explosion. Obstacles include the handling of text from qualitative work, palliatives the emergence of qualitative computer packages.

Given the permanently-disputable character of the term "Evaluation", it is unsurprising that there is no consistent usage across these varied papers. Nonetheless, there is sometimes a sense of strain, particularly in the 'methods' papers, with what exactly evaluation means in these contexts. In the main, authors work reasonably with the openness, and distinguish their own senses with clarity, but the outcomes are difficult to summarise and generalise. The book sketches out a field, with "pioneering" and "premature" vying as judgements. It is not for beginners. There will be few institutional converts from empirical practice - and maybe a few individuals the other way.

Dianne Phillips
Manchester Metropolitan

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