Knowledge That Changes Social Work Practice

An Exploration of its Sources and Content


  • Florian Sichling University of Missouri - St. Louis
  • Diane Beckerle O’Brien University of Missouri



Evidence-based practice, social work practice, professional knowledge


There is continuing interest in the relationship between knowledge and practice in social work. Overly narrow conceptualizations of the EBP model deepened the gap between practice knowledge and formal research evidence in the profession. While much has been written about the dissemination and adaptation of research findings to practice, much less is known about the actual sources of knowledge social workers draw on in their practice. This paper reports findings from an exploratory survey about the sources and content of knowledge that changed professional practice among social work field instructors (n=250) in St. Louis. An analysis of open-ended responses revealed that co-workers and continuing education programs are the most important sources for knowledge and information that influence practice. While academic journals are perceived by practitioners to be relatively unimportant sources for such knowledge, research findings on the background and effectiveness of interventions, make up the primary content that appears to affect social work practice. The findings suggest that formal research knowledge is important but that it is primarily accessed through professional networks and training programs instead of directly from peer-reviewed journals. Social media platforms seemed to be insignificant sources for professional knowledge. These insights raise important questions about how social workers use social media and the role of occupational networks and associations for the dissemination of research findings. Finally, our findings suggest that agencies and researchers think more purposefully about the infusion of knowledge into practice through opportunities for professional socialization, the use of research briefs, and open-access, peer-reviewed journals.


Allen-Meares, P., & Lane, B. A. (1990). Social work practice: Integrating qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques. Social Work, 35(5), 452-458.


Botha, P. (2012). Continuous professional development workshops can be an opportunity for conscious and intentional knowledge development: Case-specific reflections. Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk, 48(4), 420-434. doi:

Brekke, J. S., Ell, K., & Palinkas, L. A. (2007). Translational science at the National Institute of Mental Health: Can social work take its rightful place? Research on Social Work Practice, 17(1), 123-133.


Brownson, R. C., Colditz, G. A., & Proctor, E. K. (2017). Future issues in dissemination and implementation research. In R. C. Brownson, G. A. Colditz, & E. K. Proctor (Eds.), Dissemination and implementation research in health: Translating science to practice (pp. 481-490). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Burt, R. S. (2009). Structural holes: The social structure of competition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Carelse, S., & Dykes, G. (2014). Integration of theory and practice in social work: Challenges and triumphs. Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk, 49(2), 165-182.


Cha, T., Kuo, E., & Marsh, J. C. (2006). Useful knowledge for social work practice. Social Work & Society, 4(1), 111-121.

Chonody, J., & Teater, B. (2018). Exploring how practicing social workers define evidence-based practice: A research note. Advances in Social Work, 18(4), 1237-1249. doi:

Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94, S95-S120. doi:

Drake, B., Hovmand, P., Jonson-Reid, M., & Zayas, L. H. (2007). Adopting and teaching evidence-based practice in master's-level social work programs. Journal of Social Work Education, 43(3), 431-446. doi:

Duncan‐Howell, J. (2010). Teachers making connections: Online communities as a source of professional learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(2), 324-340. doi:

Ehrenreich, J. H. (1985). The altruistic imagination: A history of social work and social policy in the United States. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Evidence-Based Medicine Working Group. (1992). A new approach to teaching the practice of medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association, 268(17), 2420–2425. doi:

Fook, J. (2001). Linking theory, practice and research. Critical Social Work, 2(1), 1-8.

Fook, J. (2004). What professionals need from research. In D. Smith (Ed.), Social work and evidence-based practice (pp. 29-46). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Gambrill, E. (1999). Evidence-based practice: An alternative to authority-based practice. Families in Society, 80(4), 341-350. doi:

Gambrill, E. (2003). Evidence-based practice: Implications for knowledge development and use in social work. In A. Rosen & E. K. Proctor (Eds.), Developing practice guidelines for social work intervention: Issues, methods, and research agenda (pp. 37-58). New York: Columbia University Press.


Gilgun, J. F., & Abrams, L. S. (2002). The nature and usefulness of qualitative social work research: Some thoughts and an invitation to dialogue. Qualitative Social Work, 1(1), 39-55. doi:

Gitterman, A., & Knight, C. (2013). Evidence-guided practice: Integrating the science and art of social work. Families in Society, 94(2), 70-78.


Goldstein, H. (1990). The knowledge base of social work practice: Theory, wisdom, analogue, or art? Families in Society, 71(1), 32-43.


Grote-Garcia, S., & Vasinda, S. (2014). Pinning and practice: Using Pinterest as a tool for developing pedagogical content knowledge. Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 2(1), 36-45.

Guo, C., & Saxton, G. D. (2014). Tweeting social change: How social media are changing nonprofit advocacy. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(1), 57-79. doi:

Hartman, A. (1990). Many ways of knowing. Social Work, 35(1), 3-4.

Herie, M., & Martin G. W. (2002). Knowledge diffusion in social work: A new approach to bridging the gap. Social Work, 47(1), 85-95. doi:

Howard, M. O., McMillen, C. J., & Pollio, D. E. (2003). Teaching evidence-based practice: Toward a new paradigm for social work education. Research on Social Work Practice, 13(2), 234-259. doi:

Hudgins, C. A., & Allen-Meares, P. (2000). From the editor: Translational research: A new solution to an old problem? Journal of Social Work Education, 36(1), 2-5.


Imre, R. W. (1991). What do we need to know for good practice? Social Work, 36(3), 198-200.

James, S., Lampe, L., Behnken, S., & Schulz, D. (2018). Evidence-based practice and knowledge utilisation–a study of attitudes and practices among social workers in Germany. European Journal of Social Work, 22(5), 763-777.


Lubove, R. (1969). The professional altruist: The emergence of social work as a career 1880-1930. Basingstoke, UK: MacMillan Publishers.


Margetts, H., John, P., Hale, S., & Yasseri, T. (2015). Political turbulence: How social media shape collective action. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Marsh, J. C., Cha, T., & Kuo, E. (2004). Social work readers describe "useful knowledge". Social Work, 49(4), 533-534. doi:

Moorley, C., & Chinn, T. (2015). Using social media for continuous professional development. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 71(4), 713-717.


Okpych, N. J., & Yu, J. L. (2014). A historical analysis of evidence-based practice in social work: The unfinished journey toward an empirically grounded profession. Social Service Review, 88(1), 3-58.


Osmond, J., & O’Connor, I. (2004). Formalizing the unformalized: Practitioners’ communication of knowledge in practice. British Journal of Social Work, 34(5), 677-692. doi:

Palinkas, L. A., & Soydan, H. (2012). New horizons of translational research and research translation in social work. Research on Social Work Practice, 22(1), 85-92. doi:

Parton, N. (2000). Some thoughts on the relationship between theory and practice in and for social work. British Journal of Social Work, 30(4), 449-463.


Pendell, K. (2018). Behind the wall: An exploration of public access to research articles in social work journals. Advances in Social Work, 18(4), 1041-1052.


Portes, A. (1998). Social capital: Its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 24(1), 1-24. doi:

Proctor, E. K. (2003). Developing knowledge for practice: Working through "trench-bench" partnerships. Social Work Research, 27(2), 67-70.


Rosen, A. (2003). Evidence-based social work practice: Challenges and promise. Social Work Research, 27(4), 197-208. doi:

Rosen, A., Proctor, E. K., & Staudt, M. M. (1999). Social work research and the quest for effective practice. Social Work Research, 23(1), 4-14.


Segerberg, A., & Bennett, W. L. (2011). Social media and the organization of collective action: Using Twitter to explore the ecologies of two climate change protests. The Communication Review, 14(3), 197-215.


Sheppard, M. (1995). Social work, social science and practice wisdom. British Journal of Social Work, 25(3), 265-293.

Titler, M. G. (2018). Translation research in practice: An introduction. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, 23(2). doi: 10.3912/OJIN.Vol23No02Man01

Trevithick, P. (2008). Revisiting the knowledge base of social work: A framework for practice. British Journal of Social Work, 38(6), 1212-1237.


Walker, J. S., Briggs, H. E., Koroloff, N., & Friesen, B. J. (2007). Guest editorial: Implementing and sustaining evidence-based practice in social work. Journal of Social Work Education, 43(3), 361-376.


Webb, S. A. (2001). Some considerations on the validity of evidence-based practice in social work. British Journal of Social Work, 31(1), 57-79.


Zayas, L. H., Drake, B., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2011). Overrating or dismissing the value of evidence-based practice: Consequences for clinical practice. Clinical Social Work Journal, 39(4), 400-405. doi: