Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Heather D'Cruz (2000) 'Social Work Research as Knowledge/Power in Practice'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <'cruz.html>

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Received: 31/1/2000      Accepted: 11/5/2000      Published: 31/5/2000


Traditionally, social research is represented as a neutral (objective) search for knowledge as an entity, for which claims of 'reliability', 'validity' and 'credibility' may be made if the researcher follows prescribed techniques of inquiry. From this perspective, techniques of inquiry may cause harm to informants who are subjected to the process of inquiry. Therefore, ethical research is about the legal and moral protection of subjects from the researcher's techniques of inquiry. The research relationship is constituted as one between 'powerful researcher' and 'powerless researched'. Alternative views which foreground the researcher (and informants') subjectivities as positioned sites of power challenge the unitary identities of 'more powerful researcher' and 'less powerful researched'. In this paper I show through reflection on my PhD research, how the identities of 'researcher' and 'researched' are fluid, dynamic relations of power, by which 'knowledge' is achieved through processes of negotiation and access to 'sites of knowledge/power'. From this perspective, knowledge is not an entity for which definitive claims of 'reliability', 'validity' and 'credibility' can be made. Nor are 'research ethics' simply the responsibility of the researcher but instead are complex and shifting micropractices of power/knowledge between 'researcher' and 'researched'.

Knowledge/power; Research Ethics; Research Practice; Social Research

Social Work Research as Knowledge/Power in Practice

The purpose of this paper is to reflect upon social work research as knowledge/power (Foucault, 1980) in practice. 'Traditional research' which is understood as 'positivism' (Bryman, 1988; Blaikie, 1993; Stanley and Wise, 1993) sees knowledge as an outcome, an 'objective' truth that can be achieved if the processes of inquiry can be appropriately managed, that is, by minimising 'subjectivity' (Riessman, 1994), also known as 'researcher bias' (Olesen, 1994). Research trustworthiness and credibility expressed as 'reliability' and 'validity' (Bryman, 1988) are reliant on these assumptions. Processes of inquiry as 'methods' are represented as neutral techniques (Bell, 1993; Bisman and Hardcastle, 1999; Kumar, 1996; Punch, 1998), separated from the personal positioning of the researcher, including values, epistemological perspectives and even researcher identities which may influence how the problem is perceived and investigated. Within this paradigm, 'power' associated with research refers to 'ethics' as moral and legal protection of subjects/informants from unwarranted intrusion by researchers. Participants are positioned as 'more powerful researcher' and 'less powerful researched' (Chandler, 1990; Everitt et al, 1992; Hall and Hall, 1996). However, the achievement of an 'outcome' as 'knowledge' is separated from the processes of engagement between informants and researchers, with 'power' embedded in these relationships minimised (Bisman and Hardcastle, 1999; Punch, 1998).

Interpretivist and feminist paradigms of social research (Burgess, 1984; Guba and Lincoln, 1982; Fook, 1996; Stanley and Wise, 1993; Riessman, 1994; Olesen, 1994) foreground the importance of researcher subjectivity, thus challenging traditional claims of neutrality and objectivity, and also the unitary identity of 'more powerful researcher'. 'Subjectivity matters' (Riessman, 1994, pp. 133-138) and cannot be separated from epistemology, particularly when experience and emotion become an integral part of research topics, engaging researchers and informants in dialogue, and in effect, blurring the boundaries between who is 'researcher' and who is 'informant'. Whilst there is an interest in rigour in the research process, this is understood within the acceptance of subjectivity (Guba and Lincoln, 1982). Interpretive and feminist paradigms centralise researcher reflexivity as integral to research processes and outcomes. The question of power from these perspectives is made explicit, first, as intrinsic to the researcher as 'positioned investigator' (Riessman, 1994, p. 133) in how social problems are selected and understood, and conceptualised as research questions, methodologies, and 'writing up' (Stanley and Wise, 1993; Truman and Humphries, 1994). Secondly, power is part of the relationship between 'researcher' and 'informant', not as a one way, top down possession of the 'researcher', but as a set of shifting relations depending on the identities of the participants of whom the researcher is one (Riessman, 1994; Humphries, 1994; Foucault, 1980). 'This view of power ... reveals not a simple hierarchical loading based on socially ascribed characteristics, but complex multifaceted power relations which have both structural dominance and structural subordination in play on both sides.' (Humphries, 1994, p. 187) (original emphasis). Thus, 'knowledge' is achieved and negotiated through interactions between 'researchers' and 'informants', and is situated and partial as a consequence of 'positioned investigation'.

In this paper I show how research as knowledge/power in practice is a shifting set of relations between primary identities of 'researcher' and 'researched' (Humphries, 1994; Broad, 1994). Reflecting on my PhD research, I focus on the connections between power and knowledge, inherent in processes of negotiating, maintaining and terminating access, data collection/analysis. Even apparently technical procedures such as sampling are presented as part of the process of negotiating knowledge within a power relation. Multiple subject identities and positions of participants operate as 'sites of power' (Barrett, 1987) which disrupt assumptions of one way domination by the 'researcher' of the 'researched'. This also has implications for what we 'know' and how we know and questions the meanings of 'reliable', 'valid' and 'credible' research (and 'knowledge').

Two concepts of relevance to this analysis are 'knowledge/power' (Foucault, 1972) and identities as 'sites of power' (Barrett, 1987). Foucault conceptualises knowledge as an outcome of power relations in which participants (representing institutional and sectional interests) engage in negotiations about legitimate versions, simultaneously de-legitimating others. Legitimate versions are known as discourses, expressed through language which symbolically represents particular ways of seeing and saying as 'discursive formations' (Cousins and Hussain, 1984; Foucault, 1978b). Barrett's concept of 'sites of power' understands participants' identities not as neutral in transactions over knowledge claims, but as struggles located in difference, in which versions are linked to positioned identities.


This paper is a reflection on the ethical issues associated with my PhD methodology, which I chose to discuss as knowledge/power relations, rather than an account of how I, as 'powerful researcher', protected the legal and personal interests of 'less powerful informants'.

The PhD topic, Constructing Meanings and Identities in Practice, focuses on how official meanings and identities are constructed in child protection practice. Statistical categories represent official meanings, as 'maltreatment' and its 'types';[1] and identities, of 'person believed responsible'[2], 'child'[3] and 'parent'. These categories operate as legitimate professional, organisational and institutional knowledge of the dimensions and boundaries of 'child maltreatment', and shape policy and practice responses called 'child protection'. The 'realist' assumptions associated with statistics as knowledge of child protection practice and policy outcomes are challenged by the thesis, which instead assumes that these categories are social constructions, named in prescribed ways[4]. Constructionist activity is an integral part of child protection intervention: from the 'reporting' of a private event to a public institution, and its 'intake', through 'investigation' and an eventual categorisation of 'outcome' as 'substantiated' (or not) of particular categories of 'maltreatment' and associated identities (Scott, 1989; Thorpe, 1994). The apparently unproblematic transition of the 'report' through to its 'outcome', named as 'child protection' intervention, is a composite of interactive processes of meaning and identity construction. Participants in these processes include 'professionals' as social workers/child protection workers, medical practitioners and police, and 'family members': children, parents and significant others.

The thesis looks at these processes of construction as told from the perspectives of different child protection workers, who co-ordinate the processes of construction and represent outcomes as statistical categories, and verbal and written versions. The thesis foregrounds these processes of construction of meanings and identities which are usually invisible (Pithouse, 1987), social and linguistic relations (Anderson, 1989; Scott, 1989), embedded in power, which are represented as public, unitary, homogeneous and unproblematic categories, and legitimate knowledge.

To explore these questions of how meanings and identities are constructed in practice, twenty cases were each analysed as separate entities, on the assumption that 'social facts' and the processes of construction are only contextually meaningful. The workers who were responsible for the cases at the time of the data collection were interviewed, to offer another version of what is contained in case files, which are a particular version of documentary reality (Smith, 1974; Pithouse, 1987). However, workers do not practice in isolation but are located at particular sites of practice. It was assumed that each site's interpretation of the organisationally prescribed discourse would be mediated by particular situated cultures. Individual workers would be simultaneously influenced by and negotiate these cultural rules in their practices with particular children and families (Pithouse, 1987; Knorr-Cetina, 1981) Thus participant observation at the sites from which the cases (and workers) were selected was essential.

A key intellectual assumption for the thesis is that language as symbolic representation and social practice, also operates as a device of power to legitimate and de-legitimate different knowledge claims. It is thus central to a question of how meanings and identities are constructed in practice (Foucault, 1972; 1980; Bourdieu, 1990, 1991; Rosenau, 1992; Potter, 1996). The methodology is described as a 'fractured lens' (D'Cruz, forthcoming), constructed primarily from Foucault (1972, 1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1980), Bourdieu (1990, 1991) and Potter (1996), each of whom explores and analyses language as representation, social practice, and the currency of social transactions. The methods of social inquiry adopted in my research were 'semiotic discourse analysis' (Manning and Cullum-Swan, 1994) incorporating the 'rhetorics of everyday life' (Holstein and Gubrium, 1994). Within this methodology, the two practice sites were understood as 'linguistic communities' (Bourdieu, 1991; Hodder, 1994), whose ways of naming the problems presented and the associated client identities would legitimise particular practices and preclude others. Interviews with caseworkers as key informants would be 'active' (Holstein and Gubrium, 1995) processes, rather than techniques for gathering 'knowledge' as a fixed entity. The case files were also read as representations of a particular, managed, documentary reality (Smith, 1974; Cicourel, 1974; Zimmerman, 1974; Pithouse, 1987), rather than a unitary 'truth'.

The research was conducted in a public child and family welfare organisation in Australia. The main bulk of the research was conducted when I was employed by this organisation, in which I had an extensive history, in casework, policy and programme development, research and evaluation. Data were collected in two stages, first in 1993, and then in 1995. The two sites were selected through opportunistic sampling (Burgess, 1984; Honigman, 1982) in 1993. Eight cases were initially selected (six from Site A and two from Site B) and four workers were interviewed. It was not possible to undertake participant observation at this stage, as will be explained below in 'negotiating access'. In 1995, the same two sites were approached again and negotiations of access re-commenced. This time, twelve cases were selected (six from each site) and eleven workers were interviewed. Ten days of participant observation were also conducted at each site.

Research as Knowledge/Power in Practice

Some commentators regard all social research as 'asymmetrical' (Chandler, 1990, p. 129) knowledge/power relations, characterised by one way flow of information (Hall and Hall, 1996, p. 177), 'with knowledge and power ... all on the side of the researchers' (Everitt et al, 1992, p. 89). Others, for example, Humphries (1994); Riessman (1994); Burgess, (1984); Smart, (1988, in Everitt et al, 1992, p. 87) see it as more fluid, in which the positionings of the 'researcher' and the 'researched' as situated identities may influence access to knowledges of sites, informants and documents.

This perspective which problematises the research process itself as a dynamic site of knowledge/power, with participants as more or less powerful at different times and places, necessitates researcher reflexivity. Reflexivity is a process by which the researcher reflects on his/her 'prior understanding' (Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994, p. 152) of how the research is conceptualised, designed, analysed and reported (Stanley and Wise, 1993, pp. 186-233). This disrupts claims of 'objectivity', in which methodology is 'ontologized' as separate from 'prior understanding linked to an "inside" view' (Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994: 152). A reflexive approach also allows exploration of personal positionings as 'sites of power' (Barrett, 1987), where the 'self' is an 'instrument of research' (Ganguly-Scrase, 1998, p. 44).

The conceptual, epistemological, and ethical dimensions (Stanley and Wise, 1993) of my PhD were influenced by my multiple and shifting identities as social work practitioner with children and families, researcher/policy officer and now social work educator; not-white, heterosexual, forty something, relatively able bodied female, an immigrant to Australia. In this paper, I show how these identities are also implicated in various key processes: of negotiation, maintenance and termination of access, 'data collection' and 'data analysis'. Social work research operates as knowledge/power in practice, in which participants' positionings influence access to particular knowledges, and thus influence how these accessed versions may be read, interpreted, constructed and re-presented.

Negotiating, Maintaining and Terminating Access

Negotiating, maintaining and terminating access to sites, documents and informants is part of the ethical process of research (Burgess, 1984; Van Maanen, 1988; Bogdewic, 1992), in which the researcher seeks particular outcomes, such as informed consent of participants and (the limits of) access to particular informants, sites and privileged documents. However, during this process, while the researcher seeks to maximise particular outcomes, as participant observer she must reflect upon those outcomes as relations of power/knowledge transacted from positioned subjectivities of participants as 'sites of power' (Barrett, 1987).

Professional experiences (Burgess, 1984, p. 89) and 'occupational identity' (Chandler, 1990, p. 128) gave me an advantage as 'in house researcher'. I did not require a lengthy negotiation process with the Director General, as a powerful 'sponsor' and 'gatekeeper' (Burgess, 1984, pp. 38-40; Hall and Hall, 1996, p. 17), to access sites, participants and documents (Fuller and Petch, 1995, p. 47). Additionally, a 'familiar system' (Burgess, 1984, p. 47) with colleagues who might be cooperative and encouraging, offered potentially unrestricted access to 'reliable, valid and credible knowledge'. However, Broad's (1994) experiences in undertaking 'practitioner research' indicate that this cannot be taken for granted. There is also the likelihood of having to negotiate multiple positions in regard to the research question and participatory approaches.

In return for access, I gave a commitment that the organisation would not be exploited and would benefit from the research (Hall and Hall, 1996, p. 18). I also minimised potential pressure to conform to an agency agenda (Burgess, 1984, pp. 47-48) by undertaking my project in unpaid time outside work, except for a few days granted for data collection. I also hoped that this version of 'independence'[5] would minimise colleagues' anxieties and suspicions (Burgess, 1984, pp. 47-48) that I was a 'spy ... on behalf of the gatekeeper' (Burgess, 1984, p. 50; Broad, 1994, p. 173-174; Van Maanen, 1988, p. 2).

A special ethical consideration during the negotiation of access was whether clients' consent should be sought, as I would have access to their files. While clients' identities would be concealed in the thesis, my concern related to their status as objects of research and an extension of oppressive power/knowledge in practice. This issue showed how different positioned identities (including the 'invisible clients') might regulate access, inclusion/exclusion and consent.

To protect client anonymity, I proposed that workers could seek clients' written consent on my behalf. However, senior managers and experts on ethics from the Australian Association of Social Workers argued against this. Their view was that workers seeking consent in 'active' cases could aggravate an already sensitive situation and confuse the role of the worker in relation to the client. The differential power relations between workers and clients might also raise doubts as to whether consent given was a result of coercion or choice. It was also considered unfeasible to contact clients where cases were 'closed' because of potential emotional distress to clients. Additional workload for staff was also cited as an argument against my proposal. These positioned gatekeepers offered an alternative argument that my occupational identity allowed me access to files as Departmental property, although this did not address the basic problem of the marginal position of clients in organisational activities, including their objectification within social work knowledge (Broad, 1994). However, having limited alternatives myself[6], I accepted the gatekeepers' views that my proposed process for obtaining clients' consent would cause more problems than it would solve.

In addition to gaining formal permission from organisational sponsors and gatekeepers, I had to negotiate 'multiple access points' (Burgess, 1984, p. 48; Bogdewic, 1992, pp. 50- 51) to sites (Burgess, 1982, pp. 120-121), and to different informants (Chandler, 1990, p. 125; Hall and Hall, 1996, p. 18). However, this 'generated other problems [such as] selecting informants and observing situations' (Burgess, 1984, p. 45).

Negotiating Access to Sites A and B: 1993

Positioning myself as an 'independent' researcher as described above, yet employed by the organisation that was central to the project, placed me in a vulnerable position, in that I had to undertake the negotiation process on my own, through a 'hierarchy of consent' (Burgess, 1984, p. 195; Bogdewic, 1992). In the first round of data collection in 1993, negotiating access at the two sites I had selected was a delicate process, in which I adhered to the recommended techniques of gaining access. I explained in writing to the Regional Directors the purpose of my project that had the Director General's approval (Bogdewic, 1992). I sought permission to access one site in each region. This was followed by a phone conversation with each Director, who then gave verbal approval. Next, I wrote to the Managers of each site, attaching all correspondence with 'sponsors' and 'gatekeepers' in the 'hierarchy of consent' (Burgess, 1984, p. 195; Bogdewic, 1992). At this time, I sought access only to case files and staff to minimise perceived disruption[7]. This was always a consideration in making requests of the sites, given the often crisis driven work they engaged in. 'Head office people' like 'researchers' often made demands which did not always account for the pressures and priorities of practitioners.

The particular cultures at each site, as well as perceptions of my identity influenced the willingness of gatekeepers to grant access. The Acting Assistant Manager at Site A gave approval in principle, and asked me to provide a list of cases linking children's identity numbers to names. He then informed me about the availability of and access to files and workers. I discussed the research with these workers and obtained their consent to participate in tape-recorded interviews (Burgess, 1984, p. 40). The right of refusal was also offered but, as Burgess (1984, p. 197) comments, this is 'seldom taken up'. In general, the relative ease of access to this site owed to my being well known to the gatekeepers and to their own willingness to participate in research.

A more protracted negotiation process occurred with Site B. A collective of gatekeepers refused access, initially without discussion with me. However, the Director facilitated resolution by convening a meeting with all the gatekeepers at the site, some of whom knew me well and others not at all. Some comments were critical of the methodology, indicating that I was seen as a relatively inexperienced employee/researcher. The Director quickly redressed this by commenting that I was undertaking a PhD (I had only described it as 'postgraduate research' in line with the recommended attitude of 'modesty' (Fuller and Petch, 1995, p. 49)).

At this time, as organisational research officer, I was also researching child protection intake practices at this Director's request, which validated my expertise from his perspective. This simultaneously created anxiety for workers at this site, particularly as they had been the focus of a recent coronial inquiry into a child's death. I perceived the staff response as defensiveness[8] about protection of anonymity of the site and individuals that was eventually addressed satisfactorily[9].

Consent was given to access files and workers. I negotiated with workers to interview them. Worker Three was willing to be interviewed, but was quite nervous. Worker Four eventually consented, but remained hostile, exercising her power by refusing permission to tape-record or provide details about her identity, such as country of birth and ethnicity. This is consistent with Smart's (1988, pp. 42-43) comments quoted in Everitt et al (1992, p. 87) that informants may exercise their power by '... refus[ing] to answer questions[,] ... tell[ing] you what they think of your research, or ultimately ... terminat[ing] the interview at their convenience.' There was some blurring between these interviews and the other research I was conducting for the organisation, as some cases were in both samples. I therefore clarified the differences between the purpose and methodologies of the two projects, and reiterated protection of workers' anonymity in both.

Negotiating Access to Sites A and B: 1995

The initial negotiation of access was in 1993. However, consent given in 1993 by gatekeepers at both sites and by Regional Directors did not necessarily apply in the second round of data collection in 1995 (Burgess, 1984). Through my occupational position, I knew there was one new Regional Director, new Managers at both sites, and policy changes that could affect access. This time I hoped that ten days of participant observation at each site would also be acceptable, in addition to accessing files and workers. I repeated my earlier process of memos and phone discussions with Regional Directors and Managers as gatekeepers. I obtained agreement in principle, with final approval obtained after attending staff meetings to explain the purpose of the project, the methodology and the protection of anonymity and voluntary participation (Burgess, 1984; Chandler, 1990; Bogdewic, 1992).

Access to Site A was more easily negotiated, partly because the female Manager knew me well, and partly from her own interest in research as a critical approach to practice and policy. A few female staff challenged my use of Departmental time to undertake a private project. This was resolved when the Manager and I pointed out the minimal amount of paid time and the benefits to the organisation. At Site B, the male Manager was also very supportive of the project at the staff meeting. It is possible that gender and heterosexual relations may have been relevant here, but I have no direct evidence of this. Staff appeared to resist, with some women who did not know me asking questions about my knowledgeability about social work practice, as a 'head office person'. Approval was grudgingly given.

Access to cases and the sampling process were also related to gatekeepers' perceptions of the project and to situated cultural differences. At Site A, team leaders provided me with a list of cases from which I could select a sample. This was based on theoretical sampling (Bryman, 1988), informed by themes arising from cases analysed in 1993. I negotiated access to individual caseworkers at Site A after having selected the cases, again with opportunities for refusal. All willingly participated, although some were anxious in case they appeared insufficiently knowledgeable in light of my inquiries into their practices. However, other key informants such as the Manager and Team Leaders willingly agreed to be interviewed. They also facilitated my access to team meetings, case forums and informal activities such as going to the coffee shop. With client permission, I also observed duty/intake with different workers (some of whom were also interviewed about the selected cases). This surprised me as I had expected resistance to my observation of what is usually an 'invisible' practice (Pithouse, 1987). Only one man resisted, swapping his duty with a colleague and often avoiding me thereafter. I was surprised at his response because he and I had previously engaged in quite detailed discussions about his postgraduate research on child protection so I expected that he would be supportive of my work. However, perhaps his identity as knowledgeable researcher was legitimate, but he could not engage with me (as a woman?) as researcher and as his 'equal'.

At Site B, the Manager and Acting Senior Casework Supervisor selected the cases (and workers) for me. I saw this process as part of the situated culture and as 'data'. It was also a way of validating managers as knowledgeable and their power in relation to me. As I had indicated the overall 'case types' of interest, I considered that the selected cases would meet my theoretical sampling objectives. I then negotiated with the workers. Most of them did not know me or of me. Some conveyed the impression that as a 'head office person', I was an aggravation to their already busy lives. For example, they constantly emphasised their busyness or did not re-negotiate appointments that had been cancelled due to work crises; or that I was trying to be more important than my perceived identity as 'inexperienced, young researcher' [10]. Most other workers at this site were anxious participants.

I also negotiated with difficulty, meetings with Senior Casework Supervisors (SCWS) and the Manager, in a context of work over load. However, some of them used the interview time to discuss unrelated topics at length, often beyond the negotiated time. I was unclear if this was a strategy of resistance (for example, Smart, 1988, in Everitt et al, 1992, p. 87) and/or an opportunity to talk. The male SCWS skilfully avoided being interviewed and remained hostile. He rejected the Manager's suggestion that I sat in his office to observe his consultancy with and supervision of workers, thus limiting my access to particular knowledge of the site.

I negotiated access to case conferences and pre-trial conferences as a 'team' approach (Burgess, 1984), as one way of observing the usually 'invisible' worker-client interaction which I could not have easily done otherwise. I asked the caseworker to gain clients' consent[11] before I observed these discussions, where I sat as unobtrusively as possible. Staff also invited me to attend a half-day 'duty of care training programme' which gave me insights into connections between practice and policy.

'Data collection/analysis': Engagement with key informants, sites and documents

My role at the sites was more as 'observer-as- participant' (Gold, 1958, in Burgess, 1984, pp. 80-82), in which the process is brief, formal and openly classified as observation. Gans' (1967, p. 440) concepts of 'total researcher' and 'researcher participant' also encapsulate this identity, where the participation is limited to observations but in more or less active capacities. I was limited in my opportunities as 'participant-as-observer' (Gold, 1958, in Burgess, 1984, pp. 80- 82), or 'total participant' (Gans, 1967, p. 440) mainly because I was not seen at either site as a competent social work practitioner. My offers to undertake social work practice through 'doing duty (intake)', (similar to Burgess's (1984, p. 40) participation as a teacher), were declined. I was told it would create more work because I would have to be supervised closely. However, (like Burgess (1984, pp. 85-86)), I achieved a version of competence at Site A, as 'social work researcher', whilst at Site B, I remained a 'visitor'.

My choice of where to sit so that I could at least observe, if not participate, also differed at each site. At Site A, 'a room of one's own' was a mark of politeness and validation of one's work by minimising interruptions, but after I explained the necessity for me to sit at a desk in a corner of the staff common area, this was accepted. At Site B, sitting in the staff area was strongly resisted as disruptive if a desk was also required, intrusive on staff privacy (Site B notes, 13 October, 1995, p. 9), and as deviation from a norm that 'everyone has an office'. When I could not sit in with the male SCWS, he then offered me other offices, which I explained would not meet my requirements, as they were isolated. I eventually sat in an armchair during the second week, from which I observed informal communal activities. (I had used the male SCWS's office in week one while he was on leave.)

At Site A my identity changed from 'newcomer' to 'provisional acceptance'[12] (Jones, 1961, in Burgess, 1984, p. 84) by the majority, for example, when my notes from observing an interview were used for casework in the absence of other information (Site A notes, 11 September, 1995, p. 59). My 'categorical acceptance'[13] (Jones, 1961, in Burgess, 1984: 84) was shown by different relationships at the site. For example, as a 'knowledgeable researcher', or by practitioners voluntarily telling me relevant case information; and for some, the opportunity to discuss their social work experiences with someone who was both insider and outsider. For one or two women, my 'personal acceptance'[14] (Jones, 1961, in Burgess, 1984, p. 84) was indicated by invitations to the coffee shop or to keep in touch with them even after I had left the site.

At Site B, my identities remained at the initial 'phases' of 'newcomer' and 'provisional acceptance', rather than achieving 'categorical acceptance', 'personal acceptance' and 'imminent immigrant'[15] (Jones, 1961, in Burgess, 1984: 84) associated with later phases. The emphasis was on my 'ignorance', rather than my social work identity. An example was a new (and twenty something) social work graduate's patronising tone in explaining basic casework and duty/intake practice to me, and then expressing surprise and embarrassment when she discovered the extent of my experience: 'I thought you were only a few years older than me.' (Site B notes, 27 October, 1995, pp. 139-140), a variation of how perceptions of researcher's age (Burgess, 1984, pp. 89-90; Chandler, 1990, p. 128; Corrigan, 1979, in Burgess, 1984, p. 83; Fine and Glassner, 1979, in Burgess, 1984, p. 83) might disrupt the apparently more powerful identity as 'researcher'. Others sought to exercise their power by invalidating my activity as a luxury, compared with their perceived overwork. For example, I was asked by a female social worker if I had only just woken up, when I arrived at the site at midday after a staff seminar (Site B notes, 27 October, 1995, p. 139).

The 'outsider' or 'stranger' is more likely to take the role of 'observer-from-a-distance' (Atkinson, 1990). My presence as 'outsider' or even temporarily accepted 'insider' marked me as a 'foreign presence' (Stanley and Wise, 1993, pp. 158-159) at both sites. I was self conscious about 'sitting in' on various activities and listening, but saying very little, to avoid appearing judgemental. I had to carefully time when I asked questions of clarification.

My experiences of being an 'outsider' were associated with ethnicity as 'colour of skin' (Burgess, 1984, pp. 91-92) at Site B in 1995. After two days at the site, a female Social Worker, visible[16] to me as 'white', called me 'Rosemary'. I corrected her. She explained, 'We had someone here who I think came from the same country as you - I don't know where you came from - and her name was Rosemary, so I made that association.' (Site B notes, 18 October, 1995, p. 65). Essentially the same exchange was repeated on the final day of my visit (Site B notes, 27 October, 1995, p. 139). These experiences strengthened my conclusions from other observations, that at this site, ethnic difference was the 'homogenised other'. For example, at the start of my visit to the site, a manager justified allocation of a case involving a 'Vietnamese' family to an 'Aboriginal' worker because Aborigines and Vietnamese have 'the same kinship dynamics' (Site B notes, 13 October, 1995, p. 9). My own experiences as 'ethnic other' signposted further exploration of how ethnicity at the site operated as embodied knowledge/power relations (Site B notes, 23 October, 1995, p. 88).

These experiences as 'outsider' contrasted with my ongoing presence at my usual work location or at conferences or seminars where I was both participant and observer, the latter being covert to participants. In these contexts, I reflected that through my continuous and covert recording of observations, I had acquired an overt identity of 'conscientious participant', differing from Bryman's (1988, p. 113) advice that the 'process of absorption' into a setting is facilitated by not taking copious notes. My observations as organisational research officer, of policy, research and evaluation issues in relation to child protection provided a partial institutional context for localised practice issues.

Whilst at the sites, I was sensitive to 'potential hostility' (Fuller and Petch, 1995, p. 49; Bogdewic, 1992). I sought to maintain and equalise my relations with the staff by two standard strategies. I provided morning tea (a reversal of informants' 'hospitality' referred to by Chandler (1990, p. 129)), and weekly feedback sheets to promote basic 'honesty and openness' and keep people 'informed about progress' (Fuller and Petch, 1995, p. 49). Similar to Burgess (1984, p. 40), I offered to undertake duty to help out as well as increase my participant role, but this was declined.

My feedback sheets consisted of two to three handwritten pages in point form, concerning my activities (completed and proposed) and observations. I was careful to represent myself as an outsider to validate the knowledges of informants and minimise any concerns about their inequality in relation to me. These notes were compiled at the end of each week and distributed to every worker at the office, irrespective of whether they were key informants. I also placed copies in the communal area to ensure their availability to everyone. In general, these feedback sheets significantly eased tensions and anxieties about my presence. Some staff informed me that they found the notes useful, although others remained anxious.

On reflection, perhaps this strategy would have been helpful had I introduced it when I first arrived at each site, to alleviate initial anxieties. I had assumed, as had Burgess (1984, p. 41), that everyone had been informed about the purpose of my visit, when in fact some people knew nothing at all about my activities, others had sketchy information, and while only a few were fully informed.

I also sought other ways to validate staff contributions and encourage their toleration of my presence at the sites. If informants talked about topics beyond the negotiated purpose of an interview, I listened, often giving priority to what could be called 'ramblings'[17] (Bryman, 1988, p. 46). I provided advice on research if requested (Oakley, 1981, in Hall and Hall, 1996, p. 177). I loaned books on work related or personal topics. On request, I provided photocopies of my notes of activities I had observed on several occasions, in short, going out of my way to be 'helpful' (Burgess, 1984, p. 49). Towards the end of the ten days at each site, some people were helpful and friendly, and others remained hostile and anxious.

'Active Interviews'[18]

Interviews, particularly 'structured, purposeful conversations', emphasise the 'asymmetry' between researcher and researched, because the latter are 'controlled' by the researcher who seeks 'special knowledge' from them and records it (Chandler, 1990, p. 129). The flow of information is also generally from informants, although like Chandler (1990, p. 129) and Oakley (1981) (cited in Hall and Hall, 1996, pp. 161-164), I provided 'perfunctory biographical details'. However, the interviews were also knowledge/power negotiations associated with identities as 'sites of power' (Barrett, 1987). By this I mean that the outcomes of the interviews as 'knowledge' sought from informants were entirely dependent on how the informants and I perceived each other and which aspects of identity were being engaged with at different times, even in the same interview (time/place). Our respective identities as 'knowledgeable informant' and 'knowledgeable researcher' could be legitimated and de-legitimated in different ways. While I was apparently 'more powerful (as) researcher' (as I was asking the questions), the informants could disrupt this identity by overtly or covertly subverting it and asserting their own knowledge/power in different ways, as these reflections show.

The researcher does not necessarily have to share identities with informants to be accepted. For example, Spindler, (1974, p. 385, in Burgess, 1984, p. 83), who sat in a third and fourth grade classroom, was quickly accepted by the children. Others, for example, Corrigan, (1979); Fine and Glassner, (1979) (both in Burgess, 1984, p. 83) argue that age, related to 'size and status' may be barriers to activities and relationships, whether with 'children' or even 'elderly adults'. 'For most researchers the dispute is over which role is adopted.' (Burgess, 1984, p. 83) (original emphasis).

As a former social work practitioner, I did have a shared identity; for example, as Burgess' identity as a teacher (1984, p. 41) 'helped [him] to identify with teachers and for them to identify with [him]'. I extended this at both sites, as an 'ignorant inquirer' into their practice experiences. This was similar to Chandler's (1990) 'common ground with the women she interviewed' as '... woman/wife/mother ... but no personal knowledge of the specific issue of marriage to a sailor; ignorance of this was, after all, what prompted the research.' (Chandler, 1990, p. 127; emphasis added).

I aimed to equalise relationships by simultaneously emphasising shared identities and differences between us (e.g. Chandler, 1990, p. 123), where respondents were not objects to be judged by a 'superior and detached researcher' (Stanley and Wise, 1993). Shared identities such as 'social worker', 'employee' and 'colleague' facilitated discussion about the organisation, its policies and practices, (Burgess, 1984, p. 41, p. 89; Chandler, 1990, p. 128). I contextualised my knowledge of 'care and protection' of children recalling a major review in 1984 after which the contemporary child protection discourse emerged. Simultaneously, I legitimated my inquiries through my difference as 'researcher' and 'policy officer'. Thus I was able to present myself as not totally ignorant of the contemporary context, and could ask legitimate but possibly 'na´ve' questions.

In line with recommended 'ethical research practice', interviews began and ended with discussions of informed consent, including audio taping (Hall and Hall, 1996, pp, 161-164), protection of anonymity and 'reassurance' (Chandler, 1990; Fuller and Petch, 1995, p. 49). Interviews with workers were structured by three themes.

The first theme, 'talk about yourself', sought information on how different categories of identity might position workers' child protection practices (Truman and Humphries, 1994). This uncovered layers of knowledge/power. First, my deliberate (unwilling) exclusion of 'disability' and 'sexual preference' as potential identities from the more traditional list of 'age', 'gender', 'ethnicity' and 'culture', 'religion', and 'qualifications' was an ethical/political act in itself. My awareness was of organisational marginality of homosexuality and disability; through the stories of lesbian colleagues, managers' reluctance to employ people with disabilities, and my policy work and reading. However, I did not want these topics to provide excuses to refuse access to sites or workers. Surprisingly, even asking about religion produced an angry response from Site B in 1993, being seen as intrusive. Yet, the taken for granted normality of both heterosexuality and ability discursively, organisationally and in practice cried out for exploration. I was therefore pleased to make explicit these assumptions which influenced the practical constructions of meanings and identities in many of the cases (D'Cruz, in progress).

Of the seemingly innocuous identity categories that I did explore, I was able to reflect upon my own assumptions and also those of informants, and how these might be implicated in the interviews. Burgess (1984: 90) and Smart (1988, pp. 42-43, in Everitt et al, 1992, p. 87) comment on how the researcher's sex and gender may ' ... limit or impede the progress and process of research ...' (Burgess, 1984, p. 90). Being a woman was a shared identity with other women, although ethnic and cultural differences represented a point of separation and discussion of difference as expertise. Gender differences facilitated discussions with a man, when I expressed my interest in how those differences gave different knowledges. This was a very effective strategy as most of the workers discussed at length how their identities as men and women connected to their discursive understandings and practical performances in relation to men, women and children as clients.

Few workers connected age as an influence on their work. Possibly asking about how life experience influenced their work may have been more productive, as many workers talked about their previous experiences, often referring to these as 'qualifications'. In terms of the politics of the interviews, age was a negligible influence, although as discussed above, assumptions about my age did operate as an expression of my inexperience/incompetence in some contexts where my professional and/or occupational identities were not known.

The researcher's ethnicity manifested as 'linguistic problems' between 'black and white', and 'colour of skin' separating 'insiders' and 'outsiders' is written by Burgess, (1984, pp. 91-92) as advice to researchers assumed to be 'white, English speaking', and the researched as 'black, non English speaking'. This was partially reversed in my case, being 'not white' whilst also speaking fluent English, this being my first language. In general, my asking informants about their ethnicity and cultural identity caused them anxiety, partly because most perceived this category as 'other', with white Anglo Saxon/Celt as normal, expressed as not having an ethnic identity or being irrelevant (Frankenberg, 1993; hooks, 1981). I noted that workers who were white, Northern European immigrants had little trouble with this question. After I explained how ethnicity/culture might be relevant to practice, using myself as an example, most workers gave considered responses to my questions, some in extensive detail. Unfortunately, in one case, a white woman worker (Site B, 1993), interpreted this to mean that I had difficulties working with people of other ethnic backgrounds, which she herself did not, prompting her to dismiss the question about her ethnicity as irrelevant.

'Qualifications' as part of the first interview theme were associated with a social work identity. Workers who were not social workers claimed they were not (seen as) qualified, until encouraged to think beyond social work to 'qualifications' they considered relevant. Or they justified their practitioner identity as temporary. One considered that a social work qualification was unimportant at the site, as the 'only real question [she] was asked [at the job interview] was how did [she] feel about taking children away from their parents'. Some social workers claimed qualification conditional on their years of experience since graduation or spoke of their multiple and varied experiences as social workers, especially as child protection workers. Others included prior employment and social work identity as qualifications. All these versions of knowledgeable identities of self (and by implication, others) required different strategies to encourage, reassure and validate their contributions to my project.

The second theme was a variation of the structured questions on 'role orientation' (Ballenden et al, 1993). Ballenden et al (1993) had asked pathologists how they would report sudden deaths amongst infants, relating this to how they positioned themselves as legal or social experts. This seemed to be a productive approach to take in my thesis, but instead I asked an open ended question about informants' roles in child protection, expressed metaphorically or in images. This caused a great deal of anxiety, many seeing it as a trick or trap, which I had to repair, hoping that it would not disrupt the rest of the interview.

The third theme, 'talking about the case' further increased informants' anxieties. I represented a pseudo-supervisor, asking for details of practice which normally would only be given to superiors within a carefully preserved identity of competence (Pithouse, 1987). I also asked awkward questions which the worker(s) had either not thought about previously or preferred not to discuss: for example, how it came about that, although both biological parents were reported for 'physical abuse', only the mother was interviewed? Or why it was that in a clearly violent family context, the worker had never interviewed the mother on her own? I had to disguise the intent and tone of the questions, including posing as ignorant and naive, to avoid offence or judgement (not always possible), while pursuing clearly important theoretical issues for the thesis. My identity as social worker precluded responses that were implausible, yet workers could and did avoid responding. Being 'less knowledgeable' in relation to them as child protection workers complicated the relationship, with some workers communicating their perceptions of my 'ignorance' by their patronising and exasperated tones.

Whilst occupying an identity as pseudo-supervisor I was trying to hold together both the 'realist' and 'relativist' ethical and epistemological positions, rather than polarise them. By this I mean I acknowledged as 'real', children's reported experiences of oppressive practices, and the social, legal and ethical necessity for child protection intervention, and all the contradictions of power it presents to practitioners, knowing this from my own experiences as a social worker. However, I also wanted to explore the 'relative' meanings given to these reports called 'child maltreatment' and how and when practitioners categorised them as such. However, inquiring into particular assumptions and practices as outlined above, in some ways seemed intrusive and made me uneasy about seemingly taking the high moral ground about complex and contentious work. I also was engaging with the cases retrospectively when I had the luxury of doing the sort of critical analysis which is perhaps the lowest priority for practitioners and their supervisors engaged in making almost immediate decisions about often small children's lives.

These personal presentations highlight the contradictions between my identities and perceived knowledgeability, in which knowledge(ability) is a fluid construction achieved through interaction. I was simultaneously knowledgeable and ignorant: an 'acceptable incompetent' (Lofland, 1971, in Pithouse, 1987, p. 125). This facilitated knowledge/power relations with key informants, by strategically deploying (perceptions of) my 'incompetence' to subvert (knowledgeable) informants' power to withhold their knowledge either because they perceived themselves to be my 'inferior' or the reverse, even though it often meant that I was in a position of inequality.

Research-minded practitioners critically reflecting on the practice of social welfare, may well be less powerful, both in themselves and in their emancipatory ideas in organizations and in contexts which are fundamentally sexist, heterosexist and racist. (Everitt et al, 1992, p. 87).

However, the benefits of the interviews to at least some workers, for example as opportunities to 'reflect-on-action' particularly by their 'stimulation by surprise' (Schon, 1988, p. 68) disrupted the assumption of total asymmetry and exploitation. This was possible through our shared social worker/practitioner identities intersecting with our differences as researcher/not researcher. I was able to ask questions which problematised the taken for granted assumptions of practice.

Burgess (1984, p. 93) discusses the importance of 'learning the language' in order to build relationships and equalise participation. However, in my case, my already shared language of child protection created difficulties when so much was taken for granted and integrated into the 'representational and evocative symbolism' (Hodder, 1994, p. 397) of the context. This was especially apparent in direct interactions with workers, or when reading the files, when in effect, I was speaking or reading in the familiar, shared language of child protection, whilst simultaneously translating this language into the alternative theoretical language to which I have/had access. I chose to participate through shared language, rather than the theoretical and unshared language, to minimise my 'foreign presence', potential for 'arrogance' and unequal knowledge/power relations; and to maximise my connectedness. As I discussed elsewhere

[I] was viewing that world [of the public service] through a pair of lenses: one of which was my fractured constructionism, and the other, the clear, unitary lens of the 'bureau-professional' (Dingwall, Eekelaar and Murray, 1983). This made the daily view of my work somewhat uncomfortable, but I adapted to its disorienting effects. (D'Cruz, forthcoming).

Ongoing reflexivity helped, but posed its own contradictions, especially related to methodological and ethical considerations of 'subjectivity' and 'objectivity'. For example, when reading files and transcripts:

Files and transcripts were read several times, with each reading requiring reflexive critique of my taken for granted assumptions in how I read what I read, and how I interpreted it. From the initial reading which produced major panic because 'there was nothing there', (which I attributed to my occupational identity and inculcation), to each subsequent reading in which reflexivity paradoxically produced a version of objectification/objectivity, I 'saw more things'. This also coincided with my increasing distance from the discursive context and my subsequent identity change from organisational researcher to social work academic (D'Cruz, in progress).


In this paper, I have reflected upon research as knowledge/power in practice, exemplified by my PhD work on how practitioners construct reports as 'maltreatment' and identities of 'person believed responsible', 'child' and 'parent'. Drawing on interpretive and feminist paradigms that offer a view of research as itself a process of knowledge construction, rather than implementation of neutral knowledge gathering techniques, I have made explicit the embeddedness of power in the production of knowledge through research.

In particular, I have shown how power in research processes is fluid and dynamic, rather than a one way, top down 'possession' of the researcher. Researcher and informant identities are explored as fluid and not fixed. 'Being a researcher' and 'being an informant' are not single identity positions throughout the process. Instead, taking a view that multiple subjectivities articulate in these more overt identities in the research process, I have shown how different subject positions of both 'researcher' and 'informant' may interact in different situations, with particular consequences for access to sites of knowledge (as settings, key informants and documents). I have shown how some identities may be expressions of powerlessness and also be deployed as strategies of power, for example, the researcher self-presenting as an 'acceptable incompetent' as a way of managing perceptions of informants' feelings of inequality or superiority. These reflections raise questions about 'research ethics' as solely legal and moral protection of informants from 'research methods', and instead are shown as an ongoing dynamic of power in which apparently neutral techniques of 'data collection' and 'analysis' are embedded. Whilst 'researcher' knowledge/power must be acknowledged, in terms of how social problems are conceptualised and researched, the process of research itself becomes an ongoing relation of knowledge/power struggles. Informants whose 'knowledge' is being sought can exercise their 'power' to withhold or to share it with the researcher, who also deploys strategies of knowledge/power to in relation to informants to achieve research objectives. Thus 'knowledge' gained through research is shown to be an achieved outcome of power relations, within which questions and claims about the meanings of 'reliable', 'valid', 'credible' and 'trustworthy' research need to be understood.


1'Types of maltreatment' are 'sexual', 'physical', 'emotional' and 'neglect'.

2This category refers to an individual as 'direct cause' of harm to a child. Also known as 'perpetrator'.

3The 'child' in the thesis is problematised as a constructed identity within a particular case, and is relational to how 'parent' (and 'adult') is also constructed.

4The thesis takes a 'dualist' (Heap, 1995) ethical position, in which children's experiences of oppressive practices, often manifested in their physical bodies, are taken as 'real'. However, the practical constructions given to these experiences by different participants may differ, offering 'relative' meanings.

5Whilst I could claim 'independence' from organisational agendas in conceptualising and conducting the research, this was mediated by my connection within the organisation. I describe this problem below, as looking at the world through two different lenses, or trying to engage with different languages about a problem called 'child maltreatment'.

6Broad (1994, p. 177) comments that legislation in Britain such as the 1989 Children Act would offer ways of subverting managers or service providers who resist including service users in research. Unfortunately, there is no such legislation in Australia. One alternative was for me to contact clients directly, but which would breach confidentiality and privacy, and could also create other problems of access, for example, to workers as informants.

7The activity that I have called 'participant observation', compared with recommendations that this should be conducted for 'lengthy periods', (Van Maanen, 1988, p. 2; Bogdewic, 1992; Burgess, 1984; Pithouse, 1987) is analysed in this paper as a consequence of the power/knowledge relation, rather than a technical failure.

8This 'defensiveness' is quite normal given that the site had experienced a coronial inquiry. Added to this is the perception of my identity as 'head office person' and possibly 'spy', into essentially 'private' aspects of their site and practices (Bogdewic, 1992, p. 50). However, within the research process, such a stance as an expression of 'powerlessness' also operated as a strategy of power and resistance in what knowledge about the site could be accessed and by whom.

9Both the Director and I explained in detail very practical ways in which anonymity of the site and informants would be achieved, for example, that pseudonyms would be used and identifying information excluded. This was acceptable to the gatekeepers.

10By this stage in the process, the stress of trying to be accepted and show that I was a 'reasonable person' combined with my isolation as lone researcher, perhaps gave a 'biased' view of what was 'really happening'. Suffice to say that a detailed list of unrelated practices, including the subtleties and nuances of interaction, that I perceived as oppressive might be seen (by myself, included) as 'misperceiving' or 'overreacting', and feeling 'slightly crazy' (Young, 1990, p. 134).

11At one case conference, I was disturbed to see that I had been given a copy of the case conference notes, whilst the client was not, on the grounds of 'confidentiality' (because people other than the client and his daughter were also mentioned). I wanted to object to my unnecessarily privileged position in relation to this man, but I did not know what effect this might have on the overall management of the case. Instead, I put my copy aside and just listened and took notes.

12'Provisional acceptance' is understood as conditional legitimacy, still being tested by the inside group.

13'Categorical acceptance' is understood as legitimacy associated with particular identities, rather than unconditional acceptance.

14'Personal acceptance' is understood as being unrelated to any particular identity, instead being an unconditional acceptance given by insiders. This however assumes unitary subjectivity, glossing which identities have been legitimated by insiders and which have not.

15'Imminent immigrant' is understood as being on the brink of joining the social group, unconditional acceptance.

16The physical body is a marker of identity and a site of articulating discourses about identity (Young, 1990). How we read what is 'visible' influences how we categorise others and engage with them. So I categorised the woman in this interaction as 'white' as a reading of her skin colour. She had clearly done the same with me, based on my visible difference as our interaction shows. In my identification of her as 'visibly white', I also positioned myself as 'not visibly white', as 'black' and as different from her. I also did not know how she may have positioned herself, because her visible identity as 'white' could have conflicted with the potential identification of herself as 'black' as a political and cultural identity (Tizard and Phoenix, 1993; Tyler, 1993).

17This is defined as 'areas of most interest to the interviewee' (Measor, 1985, p. 67, in Bryman, 1988, p. 46).

18'All interviews are reality-constructing, meaning making occasions [...] the process of meaning production [is] as important for social research as the meaning that is produced.' (Holstein and Gubrium, 1995, p.4)


I would like to thank Struan Jacobs, Linda Briskman and Jenny Hughes from the School of Social Inquiry, Deakin University, for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

I would like to thank the Director General, Managers and staff of 'the Department' for granting me access to sites, documents and workers and to the workers for their participation.


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