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The vices and virtues of transgression: building disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in social work and social care research

posted on 2023-06-08, 09:09 authored by Elaine SharlandElaine Sharland
Amidst well-trumpeted calls for a ‘step change’ in the quality and range of UK social work andsocial care research to improve the evidence base for policy and practice, have come contrastingclaims for interdisciplinarity on the one hand and disciplinarity on the other. For some,disciplinarity has little purchase: academically we live in a ‘post disciplinary era’, andprofessionally the boundaries between social work, social care and related human services areincreasingly diffuse. According to this argument, ‘transgression’ - in the literal sense of ‘movingacross or beyond’ disciplinary boundaries - is the prerequisite for high quality, high impactresearch in the field. For others, disciplinary (along with professional) identities and integrity areheld more dear. Discarding or diluting them amounts to ‘transgression’ in the idiomatic sense -an ‘act of wrongdoing or sin’. Few who hold to this view doubt that the intellectual and researchcontributions of many disciplines can and should combine to grow the best possible evidencebase for social work and social care. But distinct disciplines bring with them their own historiesand culture, their own distinctive priorities and approaches to understanding the worlds theyinform. Without strong disciplines, the argument goes, and in particular without a strong socialwork discipline, claims for interdisciplinarity amount to rhetoric at best, intellectual colonisationat worst.This discussion draws on the research of the Strategic Adviser to the UK Economic and SocialResearch Council (2008-10), commissioned to develop recommendations for building academicresearch capacity in social work and social care. The paper examines how the challenges ofresearch capacity development throw into sharp relief political, intellectual and professionaltensions around disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, calling into question both the vices and thevirtues of ‘transgression’. It explores how these tensions are embedded in the distinctionbetween social work and social care research. The former is a recognised but emergentdiscipline, with distinctive focus on practice and ‘pockets of research excellence’, but in need ofimprovement in its social science research base, engagement with context, investment andcritical mass. Social care is not a recognised discipline, but a research field (broadly equivalent tohuman services research elsewhere) to which a wide range of well established cognatedisciplines might contribute their insights and rigour, with the potential to complement but alsoto occlude the focus on practice. Unpacking some of the distinct and different models ofinterdisciplinarity that might be brought to bear, this paper looks critically at the opportunitiesand threats that they present. In doing so, it suggests how research capacity development insocial work and social care might best build on the virtues, not the vices, of transgression.


Publication status

  • Published

Presentation Type

  • paper

Event name

1st European Conference: Social Work and Social Care Research: Innovation, Interdisciplinarity and Impact

Event location

St Catherine’s College, Oxford

Event type


Event date

23–25 Mar 2011

Department affiliated with

  • Social Work and Social Care Publications

Full text available

  • No

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


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