1973 Joel Fischer
The father of professional scepticism
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Early in 1973 the little known Joel Fischer published a paper in Social Work, the journal of the US’ National Association of Social Workers. Following the professionalization of social work through the work of Mary Richmond and the establishment of higher education for social work, Fischer asked whether there was any indication of the effectiveness of social casework. Are the intended objecctives achieved?

To the surprise of many, research at the time indicated that social casework was not very effective and that about 50% of the clients were worse off after treatment than before. Fischer consequently argues that social work should not be satisfied with good intentions, but should look critically into the effects of its actions “The issue of effectiveness of practice always must be of paramount concern to the profession and cannot be brushed aside.”

Joel Fischer’s article sparked a debate in the subsequent issues of Social Work and other scholarly social work journals. It is probably one of the most reprinted and most cited single publications in the entire social work literature. The article and the ensuing debate can be seen as the start of professional scepticism, not in a cynical sense, but in terms of critical reflection and as a healthy basis for scrutinizing one’s work and monitoring the effects of social interventions with a view to ensuring continuous improvements.

Fischer did not linger in questioning the effectiveness of social work, but in the decades after 1973 published several manuals on how to integrate science and social work. His Evaluating practice (together with Martin Bloom and John Orme) received its sixth edition in 2009. It focuses on the use of single-system designs to evaluate social work practice.
Fischer had an infectious enthusiasm and optimism for the convergence of science and social work. He wrote in 1993: “By the year 2000, empirically based practice — the new social work — may be the norm, or well on the way to becoming so.” It could be argued that scientific based social work is still not the norm, but the questions of why and how are certainly dominating a great number of discussions within the profession.

Professional scepticism as the driving force behind innovation has gained a good deal of attention since 1973. Social work has followed the example of medicine and now invests in evidence based practice. Much has been written on this subject and organisations such as the Social Care Institute of Excellence (SCIE) and the Campbell Collaboration (C2) make it a core part of their role to contribute to the scientific grounding of social work.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 06-2011
Date of latest revision: 08-2014

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