Social Science blog

15 October 2012

What Do Practitioners Need to Know About Research?

The British Library is here as a resource for anyone interested in research and in social science this includes groups of 'practitioners' who have a practical day job outside of academia, but are have a need to carry out research for various reasons. We have some dedicated resources created for practitioners, such as the Social Welfare Portal and are always looking for new ways to serve these communities. We hope to hear from practitoners in different fields on this blog and find out more about the research methods and resources they are using or would like to use. Dr Helen Kara is a friend and collaborator of the Social Science team and has recently written Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners (Policy Press, 2012). In this guest post Helen talks about some of the issues facing practitioners.

Practitioners in the front line of public services include a wide range of roles: nurses, advice workers, probation officers, midwives, teachers, museum staff, prison officers, counsellors, social workers, and so on.  You might not think practitioners from these different groups have much in common, but there is one topic that spans the disciplines: practitioners need to do research related to their work.

This research falls into two categories: work-based research and continuous professional development (CPD) research.  Work-based research includes such tasks as service evaluations, needs assessments, audits and feasibility studies.  The need for practitioners to undertake work-based research is increasing steadily, as a result of both the demand for evidence-informed practice and the impact of budget cuts on the ability to outsource this work. CPD research has also increased as a result of the pressure on the public service workforce to become more highly qualified, often through postgraduate courses with a research element.

So practitioners not only need to know how to do their job, they also need to know how to do research.  Yet there is very little training or support for most practitioners when it comes to research methods.  Practitioners I work with, when faced with the need to conduct research, often respond, ‘We’ll do a questionnaire.’ But research involves more than just data collection, and questionnaires are not always the best way to collect data.

Research is a complex activity, yet it’s not particularly difficult, taken one stage at a time with enough thinking and planning at the outset. The first step is always to define the research questions, then work out what the best tools are to find answers to those questions.  Perhaps data doesn’t need to be collected directly; Governments and other bodies already collect a vast amount of data, most of which is available online. It’s also important to work out, at an early stage, how to prepare and analyse data; write it up, and present the findings. 

It is also essential to plan when to do each part of the research. A common problem faced by practitioners is fitting their research around a full-time job, family responsibilities, and other commitments. For these practitioners, it can feel very difficult to carve out the time needed to think through and plan; they are often impatient to start and finish actual tasks.  However, time invested at the start will save time and frustration later by helping to prevent mistakes and avoid blind alleys.  Planning can feel especially problematic for novice researchers, as it means learning about the research process – but, again, any time invested in this will pay dividends in due course. Like any other project, research is easier to conduct and manage if it’s thought through and planned out before the work begins. My book will provide a framework and some insights into how to manage this process.


Book cover

Dr Helen Kara
has been an independent social researcher and writer since 1999, and is also Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, Birmingham University. Her background is in social care and the third sector, and she works with third sector organisations and social care and health partnerships. She is the author of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners (Policy Press, 2012). Helen is Managing Director of We Research It.

The Launch of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners is being hosted at The British Library on Thursday 18 October

If you are a practitioner and would like to share information about your research with others please contact [email protected]


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