Author: newvoicesinsocialworkresearch

Beyond disconnection: A social worker thinking about faith and belonging

Monica Short lectures in Social Work and Human Services in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Charles Sturt University.  Monica is a currently undertaking her PhD by portfolio. You can contact Monica via email at

“Social work practice and people’s beliefs are two separate things, so why research about the church?”  It is not my view that practice/actions and beliefs are dualistic or disconnected. In response to this common question I could reply with three quick statements: 1. Australia is religiously diverse (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). 2. People’s faith (including faith in non-belief or no-religion) matters. 3. Faith can profoundly impact values, identity, motivation, justice, empathy and resilience (Tillotson, Short, Ollerton, Hearn, & Sawatzky, 2017, pp. 334-335).

Being a social worker, however, I cannot help but embrace the dialogue and aim to navigate the conversation towards critical self-reflection and the discussion of narratives (case studies). One of my favourite replies to this question begins with a common social work, sociological and theological concept – belonging.

Can you think of a time when have you felt like you belonged? When you felt loved, important, significant. What did it feel like for you to belong? (Short, 2017)

Social workers well know that not everyone feels like they belong in Australian society. Pockets of disadvantage, exclusion and isolation exist, and that many such pockets are in non-urban locations (Jesuit Social Services & Catholic Social Services Australia, 2015).

What, however, does disadvantage, isolation and exclusion feel like personally, emotionally and spiritually? To help create a connection to the topic can you think of a time where you felt ignored, where your faith and/or beliefs did not matter and you felt like you did not belong?

Sam (anonymised), a person participating in the research, also personally knows disadvantage, isolation and exclusion. “There is nothing here for [people living with disabilities]. You have services [government and non-government] in Sydney in Canberra … [This is one of] those spots where [name of town] gets forgotten. In country towns, a lot of [people living with a particular disability] are ignored.” Sam also has thoughts about belonging. She explains, “That is where [church] is different, they are trying to integrate everyone in”. (Short, 2018)

Maslow (1943, para. 34) recognises that people have a need to belong. In 2016, 52% of Australians identified as Christians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016) and many of the people I have interviewed through the research ‘love’ belonging to a church (Short, 2018).

My PhD (by portfolio – consisting of books and journal articles) is bringing Sam’s and other peoples’ voices into the public domain. The focus of the research is about how the Anglican ChurchPhoto by Jan Stead of Australia in rural, regional and remote communities engages with people living with disabilities, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Indigenous people groups. The research is centred on the Anglican Church because nationally it contains stories about the link between loving God and care for your neighbours (Anglicans Online, 2018; New International Version, 2011, Luke 10:27), and also themes like belonging. An integrated lens with an epistemological base in social work, sociology and theology is scaffolding the research. The research methodology is participatory, and through the process, people in rural Australia are narrating and publishing their stories of engagement (Short, 2015a, 2015b, 2018; Short, Broughton, Short, Ochala, & Anscombe, 2017). Consider for example, Joan’s and Joy’s stories.

Joan (anonymised) moved from her home country to an Australian town to study. She suffered from homesickness and loneliness. Local church members noticed her and also other international students’ struggles. The church members sensitively modified their day-to-day language to encourage clear communication, assisted people in crossing cultures and aimed to build people’s resilience and confidence (Short, 2015b). Joan declares, “They share their experience with you. I was doing [a course] and it was tough during the placement… I lost weight [a lot of weight]. She [friend from church] noticed and cooked me food [and encouraged me to eat] (Short, 2015b, p. 28).”  Joan also states, “I am touched by their compassion. At that time I was not a believer… Love in action touches peoples’ heart.” (Short, 2015b, p. 36)

Joy (also anonymised) too shares her experience of engaging with the church. Joy lives in a country town in another state of Australia. Joy lives with multiple disabilities, finds mixing with people confusing and has not always known kindness. On moving to a small rural town, Joy felt isolated with few resources. A neighbour invited Joy to church. Joy enjoyed church so she kept going and began reading the Bible and as a result, her life has radically changed. For example, Joy has moved from feeling isolated to belonging. Now when she walks down the street people from the church will ask her to join them for coffee or tea. Joy has found that she belongs at church and to God, belongs down the street and belongs in her community. (Short, 2017, 2018).

I am lead to believe by the 53 people from NSW and Victoria, whose stories have already been or are about to be published, that belonging occurs when the very essence of someone and what they believe is respected and valued (Short, 2017).  And yes the experiences of belonging documented are not dependent on connection with church. Rather the research is presenting examples of belonging in that specific context.

To return to the original question about why am I researching rural Anglican Church engagements? Based on Sam’s, Joy’s, Joan’s and other people’s testimonies, I am becoming increasingly convinced that faith expressed in community can have a profound impact upon people’s lives and provide a powerful experience of belonging.

afternoon tea
Photo by Jan Stead

Another reason is to further social work, sociological and theological knowledge about grassroots initiatives facilitating faith, dignity and belonging throughout Australia. Additionally, it appears possible to incorporate this knowledge into social work practice.

What do you as a social worker think about faith and belonging? Do you have ideas that could assist the research? I would be interested in connecting with other social workers exploring similar ideas about the connections between faith and belonging, I look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, let us as social workers stand in solidarity with other disciplines and let us celebrate people like Sam, Joan and Joy. Let us celebrate belonging, in church and in the community, wherever it exists (Short, 2017).


Anglicans Online. (2018). The Catechism. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Census: Religion. Retrieved from

Jesuit Social Services, & Catholic Social Services Australia. (2015). Dropping of the edge, 2015. Retrieved from

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

New International Version. (2011). Holy Bible: Biblica Inc.

Short, M. (2015a). The Anglican Church of Australia and engagement with people living with disabilities. St Mark’s Review, 232(July 2), 123 – 138.

Short, M. (2015b). Three Anglican Churches engaging with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Sydney, NSW: BCA.

Short, M. (2017). Belonging: Social work, sociological and theological insights into engagements with people living with disabilities. Paper presented at the SWift: Newsletter of the Australian Association of Social Workers New South Wales branch, Sydney, NSW.

Short, M. (2018). Anglican churches engaging with people living with disabilities. Sydney, NSW: The Bush Church Aid Society of Australia & CBM Australia’s Luke 14 Program.

Short, M., Broughton, G., Short, M., Ochala, Y., & Anscombe, B. (2017). Connecting to belonging: A cross-disciplinary inquiry into rural Australian Anglican Church engagements with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 32(1), 119-133. doi:10.1080/13537903.2016.1256657

Tillotson, N., Short, M., Ollerton, J., Hearn, C., & Sawatzky, B. (2017). Faith matters: From a disability lens. Journal of Disability and Religion, 21(3), 319-337.


Autoethnography – a reflection on method

This post is from Dr Lynelle Watts, an early career researcher and one of the curators of this blog. Autoethnography has become a popular method in social work research and this post is a reflection on it as a method. Lynelle finds methods interesting and is hopeful others out there do as well – you can contact her at

One of the methods I utilised in my doctoral research on reflective practice in Australian social work education was autoethnography. Autoethnography is an increasingly popular method for engaging in reflection on a range of social phenomena. Autoethnography is a term for research that explores the connections between culture, the wider society and the self (Chang, 2008). It does so by using the reflective practices of the researcher as subject. As I was embarking on studying an aspect of my own professional tribe the method seemed a good way to get started. The term autoethnography was first coined by David Hayano (Anderson, 2006Ellis & Bochner, 2000) and the method gained wider audiences through Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner’ paper Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity – Researcher as subject published in the Handbook of Qualitative Research (2000). Since then papers using autoethnographic practices have exploded – even a cursory Google Scholar search brings up approx 16,200 results in the date range 2000 to 2017.

The emphasis on culture is no accident. The method emerged from the discipline of anthropology and it retains this core foundational aspect. Prior to Ellis and Bochner’s paper, Deborah Reed-Danahay (1997) discussed autoethnography as a method for incorporating the autobiographical within ethnography. Likewise, in a recent text on autoethnography as

line up
Image by Bohanka via Fotolia

method, Chang (2008) also emphasises the cultural aspect suggesting that culture is inherently a group phenomenon but that it is accessible through the exploration of the self. The assumption is that culture is already in play. In my study, this meant exploring the impact of gaining a professional identity as a social worker and how reflection had become a marker or proxy for this development. I did so by tracing my trajectory from student social worker, practitioner and then back to university as a social work lecturer. The second aspect is also core to autoethnographic research: self as the researcher-subject. Negotiating these aspects – culture and self – makes autoethnography a tricky enterprise.

My interest in autoethnographic research began as an undergraduate when it was first presented by one of my lecturers. When I picked it as one of the methods for my own doctoral research some criticisms had begun to emerge about the method. One of these was ethics of consent (Medford, 2006; Tolich, 2010). Ethics of consent refers to “respect for the participants’ autonomy, the voluntary nature of their participation, or of documenting the informed consent processes” (Tolich, 2010, p. 1600). It means thinking about how people might be affected and/or represented by the story being told through the autoethnography. The thing specific to autoethnography is the need for anticipatory ethical reflection on these matters both during and after the research. For example, as Tolich points out retrospective consent is hardly possible as it would be compromised by the very process of the research which is exploring incidents where others are sometimes treated as bystanders. In other words, did these bystanders know their encounter with you is part of your research? This gets to the heart of a question posed by Clandinin and Connelly (2000, cited in Chang, 2008, p. 69); a question important for potential autoethnographers to consider “Do they own a story because they tell it?” I had to wrestle with this issue in terms of people around me as I was conducting the study. It is important to consider who might be affected by your telling of the story.

Tolich called for autoethnographers to adopt the same ethical standards outlined in the various position statements on Qualitative Research and Institutional Review Boards from the Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. These include considering who is likely to be affected. Hence, Tolich (2010, p, 1605) suggests two main considerations to think about at the outset “First, choose the topic very carefully. Second, treat all the persons mentioned in the text as vulnerable, including the researcher.” I highly recommend using Tolich’s (2010, pp. 1608-9) ten (10) foundational guidelines for autoethnography as these cover issues of consent, consultation and vulnerability. It is important to consider these issues not only at the outset but as your project evolves too.

Another issue I encountered with the method is that there are also different autoethnographic camps. The debate here is about whether autoethnographic accounts should incorporate objective vs. subjective stances. In the Ellis and Bochner camp, autoethnographic accounts are meant to be “evocative”, emotionally engaging and, thus, are considered primarily subjective (Chang, 2008). Thus this camp is known as evocative although this term is later contested by Ellis and Bochner (2006). Evocative means that the account uses a descriptive and expressive writing style that rejects a more sociological account. What this means is that the text itself is meant to work at eliciting emotion. In contrast, anthropologist Anderson (2006) argues for an autoethnography that is more realist (objective) in its orientation and outlines some basic principles for producing this kind of autoethnography. Anderson is also interested in ensuring that autoethnography utilises systematic forms of data collection and some basic criteria to establish cultural membership status pf the researcher in being able to speak to the topic. Anderson calls this analytic autoethnography. I opted for a third way. I felt that writing evocatively need not discount a realist orientation to produce a compelling account of self, culture and society but I agreed that thinking carefully about issues of data generation and analysis were equally important.

Autoethnographic accounts also rely on researcher reflexivity but appear to have a barely developed account of what this entails. Lynch (2000), helpfully outlined different varieties of reflexivity and these can be considered in relation to specific kinds of topics/projects. While it took some work I found it was useful to compare and contrast the different kinds of autoethnography. I did so against a number of categories and orientations: Reality, epistemology, data generation and researcher visibility in the text, membership of the cultural group, research or setting, focus of the research, kind of reflexivity and, lastly, the kind of reasoning required. The table below outlines the similarities and differences between analytic, evocative and my own approach:

AE table
Table of the different aspects of analytic, evocative and my own approach to autoethnography.

If you are thinking of using autoethnography, it is worth exploring your own assumptions at the outset – it will help in your research design, in choosing your methods for creating the self-culture-societal narratives, and assist you in thinking about other kinds of data that may be useful. It’s also important to consider the ethical dimensions of your project at the beginning but it’s likely you will need to do so all through the process. These processes and sources helped immensely with conducting my research as they provided a strong foundation through which to explore my topic. For folks interested in some contemporary examples in social work check out Narrating social work through autoethnography (2014), edited by Stanley Witkin. They are all great examples but a personal favourite of mine is by Karen Staller (2014) – evocative, analytical and at times lyrical – Staller ably showcases the results of the method beautifully.


Anderson, L. (2006). Analytic autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 373-395. doi: 10.1177/0891241605280449

Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, USA: Taylor and Francis.

Charmaz, K. (2006). The power of names. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 396-399. doi: 10.1177/08912416062869

Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity – Researcher as subject. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2 ed., pp. 733-767). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ellis, C. S., & Bochner, A. P. (2006). Analyzing Analytic Autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 429-449. doi: 10.1177/0891241606286979

Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Lynch, M. (2000). Against reflexivity as an academic virtue and source of privileged knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 17(26), 26-54. doi: 10.1177/02632760022051202

Medford, K. (2006). Caught with a fake ID: Ethical questions about slippage in autoethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(5), 853-864. doi: 10.1177/1077800406288618

Reed-Danahay, D. E. (1997). Introduction. In D. E. Reed-Danahay (Ed.), Auto/Ethnography (pp. 1-20). New York: Berg.

Schwandt, T. A. (2000). Three epistemological stances for qualitative inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 189-216). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Staller, K. (2014). What remains? Heroic stories in trace materials. In S. Witkin, L. (Ed.), Narrating Social Work through Autoethnography (pp. 141-176). New York: Columbia University Press.

Tolich, M. (2010). A critique of current practice: Ten foundational guidelines for autoethnographers. Qualitative health research, 20(12), 1599-1610. doi: 10.1177/1049732310376076

Witkin, S. (Ed.). (2014). Narrating Social Work through Autoethnography. Columbia, USA: Columbia University Press.




Field education research: Opportunities for collaboration and advancing social work education

Dr Ines Zuchowski is the field education coordinator in Social Work and Human Services at James Cook University. Ines completed her PhD in October 2015 exploring ‘Social Work Field Education with External Supervision’, and is a member of the National Field Education Network (NFEN) and ANZSWWER. This blog is a reflection on research practice. Ines can be contacted at

I am generally pragmatic and goal oriented, so, when I started thinking about a PhD I chose a topic that was connected to my work (field education) and presented an unanswered question I had (how do students fare in placements with external supervision?). Little did I know what a wonderful journey towards research partnerships and collaborations was ahead of me. When I started on this research journey in 2010 there was a sense that there was not that much research about field education out there. Well there wasn’t that much available, particularly when looking at my specific area of interest, but I would argue today, that field education research is an active space and, lots of good work is being done. My guess is that lots of it is done by overstretched field education academics and professional staff without much, if any, funding, so the projects are often small and likely primarily reported on at conferences.

My own research journey led me to discover that writing throughout the PhD is useful.  It can help you grow as a researcher and writer and help you finish your PhD in a timely manner (Zuchowski, 2016). While writing can be scary and receiving feedback from editors and reviewers daunting, the opportunities to expose my work to peer-review has helped me hone my skills and confidence (Zuchowski, 2016).


Writing throughout my PhD and sharing my ideas and disseminating my findings helped me also connect with others. Presenting papers and workshops at conferences, submitting articles for review and in turn reviewing manuscripts for journals has connected me with academics and professional staff in field education and to other important professional networks. Showing enthusiasm, commitment and interest in scholarship in field education led to invitations to join the Australian and New Zealand Social Work and Welfare Education and Research (ANZSWWER). My active engagement and interest in field education as an important area of research meant that I was an active driver in the formation of the National Field Educators Network (NFEN).

So, why is this note-worthy? Well, I would like to encourage PhD students and Early Career Researchers to keep writing as they undertake research. It can take determination and courage to manage to present manuscripts to editors and abstracts to conference organisers. However, it connects you with others and opens up new opportunities. For example, recently I collated a research audit on various inquiries being undertaken in Australian social work field education research. Some examples from the Audit are studies about how students persist in field education (Hemy, Boddy, Chee & Sauvage, 2016), placements with external supervision (Jones- Mutton, Short, Bidgood & Jones, 2015; Zuchowski, 2013), team-based rotational supervision models (Hosken, et al., 2016) and international field education (Fox, 2017). The research audit process helped showcase the research that is already taking place about social work field education in Australia. Further, as authors share the outcomes of their research we can now connect and collaborate with them, progress the work and get motivated and inspired to advance social work field education, practice and scholarship!


Fox, M. (2017). The international field placement: A reconciliation of identity. Social Work Education, 36(5): 495-507

Hemy, M., Boody, J., Chee, P. & Sauvage, D. (2016). Social work students ‘juggling’ field placement. Social Work Education. 35(2), 215-228. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1125878

Hosken, N., Green, L., Laughton, J., Van Ingen, R., Walker, F., Vassos, S., and Goldingay, S. (2016). A rotational social work field placement model in regional health. Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, 18( 1), pp. 72-87.

Jones-Mutton, T., Short, M., Bidgood, T., & Jones, T. (2015). Field education: Off-site social work supervision in rural, regional and remote Australia. Advances in Social Work & Welfare Education, 17(1), 83-9

Zuchowski, I. (2016). On becoming a researcher: The value of writing throughout the research process. Advances in Social Work & Welfare Education, 18(2), 66- 78.

Zuchowski, I. (2013). From being ‘caught in the middle of a war’ to being ‘in a really safe space’:  Social work field education with external supervision. Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, 15 (1), 104-119.

Using film in social work education: a medium for critical analysis

Dr Mim Fox, University of Wollongong discusses her teaching and learning innovation for engaging students about group work practice. For more information contact Mim at

Whilst developing an undergraduate social work subject this year in group work practice I started to reflect on the number of films I had seen over the years where support groups or group process had been depicted as a component of the protagonist’s life journey. Modern films such as Ruben Guthrie (2015) and Thankyou for Sharing (2012) came to mind, along with the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). As I started to think about this the list grew and I realised that social work students already had a wealth of representations to draw on when beginning to engage with group work practice. From there I became interested in the use of film as a medium for critical analysis and the development of practice skills more broadly in social work education, both with specific intervention methods and in the development of social work professional identity and socialisation to the profession.

Scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) (Source: Youtube via Google images)

There is a strong tradition of using film and video in social work education to critique social inequality, stereotype and sociopolitical context (Lee & Priester, 2015; Van Wormer & Juby, 2016). Principles of teaching and learning in social work education support the use of film both in the classroom and in remote learning, with transformational learning allowing for the locating of change to be within the student (Sandlin, Redmon Wright & Clark, 2013), and of great importance (Giles, Irwin, Lynch, & Waugh, 2010). Also crucial is the opportunity to engage with professional role models, learning from their practice wisdom. Practice wisdom is required in order to use professional judgement (Noble, 2011), grounded in professional values, and allowing for general social work theory to be applied to specific social work settings and context (Chu and Tsui, 2008). Practice wisdom is intimately linked to critical reflection, grounded in issues of power, privilege and inequality (Das and Anand, 2014).  Critical reflection requires students to connect their personal experiences with social, cultural and structural context (Fook & Askeland, 2007). By engaging in transformative learning, practice wisdom generated from professional social workers currently in practice and a process of critical reflection, the student is able to foster self-reliance (Kucukaydin & Cranton, 2013), and develop their own practice wisdom (Marlowe, Appleton, Chinnery & Van Stratum, 2015).  This is vital in the transition from university to career and in professional identity development (Cleak & Wilson, 2013). When students are able to “meet” professional social workers they are able to understand the experience of working in the human services sector, developing their social work identity in relation to organisational practice (Liles, 2007; Loya & Klemm, 2016). This, in turn, increases their transferable practice and eventual employability (Thomas & Marks, 2014).

To this end I undertook to embed film as a teaching and learning medium in the group work practice subject I coordinated this year. I did this in two ways. The first was relatively passive and benign in that I made accessible to students a list of links to various film trailers on Moodle that featured group work practice. I used one clip in class and actively demonstrated and engaged the students in critical analysis, but otherwise left them with the instructions to engage with the trailers and embed them as they saw fit in classroom discussions and in their assessment tasks. The second way was more direct in that I recorded myself interviewing a series of social workers discussing their group work practice in their agencies. I edited three of these mini-films, made them accessible on Moodle and used them all in active teaching in the classroom.

Upon the conclusion of the subject, I invited students to participate in a conversation as to how they had used the film resources in their learning. The students anecdotally reported a high level of engagement when the film trailers were introduced in the classroom and they were invited explicitly to engage in a process of critical analysis and discussion. However, when they were at home engaging on Moodle they were passive, reporting feeling unsure what they were meant to do, beyond watch as they would any other film. The benefits the students found when viewing the interviews with social workers were as I predicted. They enjoyed the examples of social work practice in action, they got a sense of what practice looks like in an agency, and they engaged with the socialisation process i.e. the way social workers speak and act in the workplace. In addition, hearing social workers talk about the challenges they face with group work practice in their organisations it made real for students the challenges we were discussing in class. The next step for my teaching practice is to structure the learning so that students are supported to critically analyse as a matter of course when engaging with film content throughout and around their social work studies.


Chu, W. C. K. & Tsui, M. (2008). The nature of practice wisdom in social work revisited, International Social Work, 51(1): 47-54.

Cleak, H. & Wilson, J. (2013). Making the Most of Field Placement. Third Edition. Cengage Learning, Sydney.

Das, C. & Anand, J. C. (2014). Strategies for critical reflection in international contexts for social work students, International Social Work, 57(2): 109-120.

Fook, J. & Askeland, G.A. (2007). Challenges of critical reflection: ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, Social Work Education, 26(5): 520-533.

Fox, M. (2016). Student isolation: the experience of distance on an international field placement, Social Work Education, DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2016.1215418.

Giles, R., Irwin, J., Lynch, D. & Waugh, F.  (Eds.) (2010). In the Field: From Learning to Practice. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Kucukaydin, I. & Cranton, P. (2013). Critically questioning the discourse of transformative learning theory, Adult Education Quaterly, 63(1): 43-56.

Lee, O. E. & Priester, M. A. (2015). Increasing awareness of diversity through community engagement and films. Journal of Social Work Education, 51, pp. 35-46.

Liles, R. E. (2007). The use of feature films as teaching tools in social work education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 27(3/4), pp. 45-60.

Loya, M. A. & Klemm, T. (2016). Using TED Talks in the Social Work Classroom: Encouraging Student Engagement and Discourse, Journal of Social Work Education,

Marlowe, J. M., Appleton, C., Chinnery, S. & Van Stratum, S. (2015). The integration of personal and professional selves: developing students’ critical awareness in social work practice, Social Work Education: The International Journal, 34(1): 60-73.

Noble, C. (2011). Field education: supervision, curricula and teaching methods in Noble, C. & Henrickson, M. (Eds.) Social Work Field Education and Supervision across Asia Pacific, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Sandlin, J. A., Redmon Wright, R. & Clark, C. (2013). Reexamining theories of adult learning and adult development through the lenses of public pedagogy, Adult Education Quaterly, 63(1): 3-23.

Thomas, K. A. & Marks, L. (2014). Action! Student-generated videos in social work education. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 32, pp. 254-274.

Van Wormer, K. & Juby, C. (2016). Cultural representations in Walt Disney films: implications for social work education. Journal of Social Work, 16(5), pp. 578-594.



Childhood adversity and the development of professional identity

Michelle Newcombe is a Sessional Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at Queensland University of Technology. This blog is based on Michelle’s doctoral research. Michelle also presented her research at the 2016 ANZSWWER Symposium in Townsville. You can contact Michelle at 

For many people entering social work and human services (SWHS) the journey prior to entering university is complex. Many SWHS students have had experiences of adversity, disadvantage and even trauma prior to, or, during their studies (Gilin & Kauffman, 2015; Thomas, 2016). These experiences can, in turn, lead many people to accessing health and human services. This can include SWHS students. But how do students with a history of adversity and service use integrate this into their own professional identity? Unravelling this phenomenon has been explored within my own PhD. My study used a mixed methods design to ask how childhood adversity and resilience impacts on student learning in SWHS. During my study, I was continually inspired by the way my research participants grappled with how these experiences of service use impacted their own emerging professional identity.

A part of my project I interviewed twenty SWHS students who identified as having a history of childhood adversity. Fifteen of the students I interviewed had also been service users as children and adults. Their stories varied; some had traumatic childhoods involving violence, abuse and escape. Many had experiences of accessing mental health services or supporting family members to do so. Some had learned to cope with the death of close family members or fled from violent partners through the use of services. Others had needed counselling to cope with the financial strain or the stress of adapting to being the first in their family to attend university.

What remained consistent in all their stories was the utility a history of service use had brought to their emerging practice. For many students, the experience of using a service had provided transformational learnings and interventions.

© Frank via Fotolia images

They had been able to see and experience the power of SWHS practice, which often inspired them to enter into the same fields. Even when service use was ‘bad’ it was useful in role modelling what ‘not to do’ in practice. These students became the living embodiment of what it is to survive adversity, to seek help and to transform from these past experiences. The experience of ‘being in the other seat’ was invaluable to students as they developed skills and knowledge about SWHS practice.

Yet within these tales of hope and inspiration were parallel narratives of shame and stigma. For many students’ their experience of service use could not be spoken about or referred to in the classroom. Students were overtly conscious of inappropriately disclosing past events or traumas with the majority choosing to keep this information secret from peers. Participants feared being judged as unfit for practice due to their history of service use. This meant that the beneficial knowledge and skills derived from their lived experience of using services had to remain hidden and secretive from peers, academics, future employers and service users.

Despite the transformational experiences service use had brought these students, merging their history of service use into a professional identity remained difficult. Participants wanted greater acknowledgement of their experience within the SWHS curriculum. This included recognition of their past but also an acknowledgement of the unique contributions they can bring to teaching and learning in SWHS. Such students embody the success of SWHS practice, without which many would be unable to enter or graduate from their courses. This research demonstrated that it’s time for academics to destigmatise students experience of service use and to celebrate the role that past, present and future help-seeking can have in their professional development.

The full findings of this research have been published at:

Newcomb, Michelle, Burton, Judith, & Edwards, Niki (2017) Service user or service provider? How social work and human service students integrate dual identities. Social Work Education. Doi: 10.1080/02615479.2017.1327574


Gilin, B., & Kauffman, S. (2015). Strategies for Teaching About Trauma to Graduate Social Work Students. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(4), 378-396.

Thomas, J. T. (2016). Adverse Childhood Experiences Among MSW Students. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 36(3), 235-255.


Reflections on the 2016 Berlin Summer School in Social Sciences – Linking theory and empirical research

This post is from Dr Suzanne Egan, Ewing Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Sydney about her attendance at the Berlin Summer School in Social Sciences in 2016. Suzanne completed her doctoral studies in 2015 and was a finalist in the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies PhD Thesis Award (2014-2015). Suzanne is currently working on a number of projects including one aimed at exploring the impacts of the ‘brain sciences’ on the field of feminist services. You can contact Suzanne at  and see more about Suzanne’s projects at

Thanks to the generous funding of the German Academic Exchange Programme (DAD), I was able to travel from Australia to attend the 2016 Berlin Summer School in the Social Sciences and I fully recommend it to others who are thinking of applying for a place in future. For me, it was an excellent opportunity to build networks, gain knowledge about academia and universities in countries outside the Global South and most importantly, the workshop theme – Linking theory and empirical research – was central to my research programme. I also found it both interesting and important to learn more about how concepts and ideas are used in social science disciplines outside of my own – in particular in economics and political science.

I found the way in which the summer school was structured in order to address the key themes particularly helpful. Following an evening welcome reception where we presented our research posters the first week consisted of two academics presenting each day on one of the workshop themes. These were the Epistemological Foundations of Methodological Paradigms (Sanjay Reddy & Gilbert Achcar), Causation and Explanation in the Social Sciences (Macartan Humphreys & Hendrik Wagenaar); Concepts as Building Blocks of Theories (Vera Troeger & Donatella Della Porta); Linking Micro and Macro Perspectives (Bob Jessop & Nina Glick-Schiller). The strategy taken by the organisers of pairing presenters with quite different positions on the given theme worked really well in highlighting key issues and areas of debate and provided many useful questions and areas of discussion when we broke into smaller seminar-style groups each afternoon. Having the respective presenter’s spend time in each of the seminar groups really added to the level of discussion and debate.

While there is not space to comment on all the presentations (though all were excellent – really demonstrating the depth of the lecturer’s knowledge and their facility in their areas of research) two have stayed with me over the past 12 months. The first Professor Gilbert Achar ( an academic located culturally (although not geographically) outside the West. Professor Achar provided an excellent historical analysis of the discipline of sociology, drawing significantly on the lengthy scholarship that exists outside the Western canon as well as one of the most thought-provoking critiques of Edward Said’s scholarship that I have heard to date. Second, the keynote by Professor Karin Knorr Cetina ( whose engaging lecture traversed her own career trajectory, through to the role of intuition in empirical research and her current research on financial markets.  While science studies appear to become increasingly popular in recent years in disciplines such as sociology and feminist studies, Knorr Cetina I discovered began conducting sociological research in science laboratories in the 1970s, contemporaneously with Bruno Latour and colleagues.

One of the things I especially liked about Knorr Cetina, in addition to the obvious rigour of her approach to empirical research, was her respectful approach to the scientists and more recently financial marketers on whom she conducts her research. Learn from them, she said, respect their work, they are the experts in their fields. She was also generous with her advice to us as early career researchers giving many concrete examples of her day-to-day life as an academic researcher as well as some humorous anecdotes and pointed advice to Faculties. Interestingly PhD candidates in the Berlin Graduate School in Social Sciences are referred to as doctoral researchers rather than doctoral students, as seems more usual in Australia.

The second week we worked in four thematic groups based on our respective areas of research. Each day began with a lecture in our seminar groups by a local (most at an early stage of their career)  researcher who then stayed on to provide feedback on the presentations by group members that occurred each afternoon.  Prior to the summer school, the organisers had paired us with another participant so that we could act as each other’s discussant during the presentations.

Image sourced via Google Images at

This was my first experience of presenter /discussant format and I highly recommend it both from a presenter and a discussant perspective. Because my discussant had read my paper beforehand and discussed with me my purpose in presenting and the type of feedback I was looking for, they were able to provide their initial feedback and then lead the open floor questions in a directed and purposeful manner. Consequently, the questions asked, the feedback as well as the discussion generated were considerably more in depth and detailed than I have experienced when presenting my work in other forums.  Although I do have to say that presenting after my particular discussant’s paper was a bit of a downer. A paper focusing on one’s methodological struggles is never going to be quite as gripping as research about what do straight people do when they have sex! Essentially a question of how to operationalise the concept of heteronormativity in empirical research and one, which turns the more usual foci in feminist and queer theories on their head.

Something that struck me throughout the two weeks was the seemingly different approach taken to ‘risk’ in Europe and in South America.  For example, there were several doctoral level, as well as senior academics, conducting ethnographic research on either right wing political groups or guerrilla groups. Not one, when discussing their research mentioned any particular problems with gaining ethics approval for their project. Compare this to my, (frankly ‘low risk’) doctoral project involving interviews with sexual assault workers, which took twelve months to pass through the requisite ethics processes, two different ethics committees and seven governance processes. Several years ago, when I attended my first conference in Europe delegates were adamant that they were not going to go down the UK and USA path risk adverse research, policy or practice. Based on the Berlin Summer School it would seem that they have succeeded!

In retrospect, it would have very useful if I had had access to this type of workshop during my doctoral research as I encountered many difficulties with working out how to operationalise the theoretical concepts of a particular social theorist (Foucault) to use as methodological strategies for an empirical research project. Here is a link to my poster about the project Egan Poster Berlin 2016  Even so, I benefited enormously from having the opportunity of presenting the solutions I did come up with and have continued to draw on the ‘learnings’ from the Summer School in my postdoctoral research programme, a key element of which involves examination of the relationship between contemporary social theory, methodology and empirical research.  For example in the semester after returning home I organised a Feminist symposium programme 11 Nov 2016, which focused on the challenges and opportunities afforded for empirical research of recent theoretical developments in feminist theoretical work. Here is a link to my paper sexual assault as trauma: a Foucauldian examination of knowledge practices in the field of sexual assault service provision

The organising team did an amazing job both in the lead up to and during the summer school.  It is an extraordinary amount of work to organise an event like this especially when it is in addition to your own research and study programme! They also did a great job of organising social activities (drinks, dinners, and sightseeing) for us. One practical tip I would give to others would be to try to stay fairly close to the Humboldt University. Although the Berlin public transport system is exceptionally good I still found that by staying a bit further out from the centre I missed some of the social events, as due to jetlag, I sometimes found it too much to go home after classes and then back again in the evening. It was a wonderful experience.

Describing substance abuse treatment through actor-network theory

Brad Roberg (BSW) has been a social worker within the field of substance abuse treatment for the past 13 years. He has graduate qualifications in substance abuse studies and philosophy. Brad is currently enrolled in a Social Science Honours program at RMIT. He has a particular interest in research looking at how social workers practice, and the forces that shape these practices. Email Brad at

I have recently commenced an Honours thesis, looking at how actor-network theory can contribute to the description and analysis of practice. Methodologically, I will be conducting an ethnography of practice. In part, this comes about because of the importance to understand and research practice, even though, as Pithouse (1985) states, practice is a largely invisible world. So, in the context of evidence-based practice, it seems to make sense that we would try to open up this world of practice to understand and explore what’s going on.

It would come as no surprise to many in the health and welfare sectors that much of the details of practice are hidden, and practice frequently takes place behind closed doors. This presents a problem for a student-researcher who also happens to be a manager: Who is looking? Why? What happens with the evidence gathered? How can one be an ‘insider’ and retain the sufficient objectivity required for research to be valid? These are not unusual questions, and form much of the reasoning for research ethics scrutiny; deservedly so, too.

Practice may be the object of my research, but what I am interested in is not so much what professionals say and do, as it is how people and objects relate, and how this shapes practices, forming the objects of intervention? This is what I take actor-network theory to offer. Actor-network theory is a view of the world where non-human objects have a kind of agency (Sayes, 2014; Latour, 2005); where the boundary that makes humans the locus of action and objects the passive tools of our intent is revealed as unstable, shifting, permeable. For example, the social lives of professionals in a multidisciplinary team for the treatment of opiate dependence are mediated by many non-human objects: laptops, urine drug screen results, patient identification numbers, files and software, proformas and meeting templates requiring dates and signatures. Without these objects, I hypothesise that the kinds of practices that are enacted and the decisions that are made and the outcomes that are produced can be transformed.

From the methodology of actor-network theory, the research involves writing accounts of practice. This is an insistent message from actor-network theory. Write an account. In doing so, assemble an account that reconstructs the ways in which the social worlds of informants come into being…or fall apart. It is a critical insight of the approach to insist on widening our frame of reference for ‘the social’ (Strum & Latour, 1987).

© Julien Eichinger via Fotolia

Such an approach calls for the researcher to dispense temporarily ‘the social’ as a frame, and to start with the basic building blocks of sociality, which are conceptualised as associations (Latour, 2005). What associations can be mapped that go together to compose something like a social world? This calls for what I’ve been thinking of as a strict or radical empiricism – leave nothing out. Describe everything, the scene of practice and the various elements composing it, and describe what happens within it.My research aim is to map social worlds of practice in their specificity, and as multiplicities. This is something Mol (2002) describes with remarkable limpidity; the multiplicity of an object (in her case, the disease

My research aim is to map social worlds of practice in their specificity, and as multiplicities. This is something Mol (2002) describes with remarkable limpidity; the multiplicity of an object (in her case, the disease artherosclerosis) has many realities, depending on where it is encountered (the outpatient clinic, the pathology lab), under what conditions (acute illness presentations, chronic disease management needs), in the context of which practices (under the surgical knife, or in the occupational therapists assessment). The object ‘artherosclerosis’ is multiple here, the life of interpretivism (multiple perspectives on one object) doesn’t hold; artherosclerosis is done differently and differentially. Bodies (human and non-human) are taken up into multiple practices, brought into multiple relations with other bodies, producing multiple worlds. This approach demands that as a researcher I take on an ontological shift, away from describing a world of being (“What is it?”) to worlds of becoming (“how is it done?”).

Which brings me back to my original point – it’s easy to think of the invisibilities of practice in terms simply of what professionals do ‘in the room’, matters of technique, whether what’s said is ‘evidence-based’ or not. But if we accept that social worlds are constructed as much of non-human objects as human subjects, and if we accept that non-human objects can have a form of agency,  then the things we often fail to see become visible and important to understanding practice. In this sense, The world dissolves into a multiplicity of world-making practices, and the things we assumed were inert and therefore of little account, tools to be used by an intentional subject, suddenly take on a life of their own or, at least, lives in relation to us. And this really is the point – a life is one that takes place in relations. Which is what Social Work has been trying to say all along.


Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press

Mol, A.  (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Pithouse, A. (1985). Poor visibility: Case talk and collegial assessment in a social work office. Work & Occupations. 12(1), pp. 77-89.

Sayes, E. (2014). Actor-Network theory and methodology: Just what does it means to say that nonhumans have agency? Social Studies of Science. 44(1), pp. 134-149.

Strum, S. & Latour, B. (1987). Redefining the social link: From baboons to humans. Social Science Information, 26(4), 783-802.