Combining ethnography and corpus to research writing practices in social work: challenges and opportunities in methodology, epistemology and application

Lillis, Theresa; Leedham, Maria and Twiner, Alison (2016). Combining ethnography and corpus to research writing practices in social work: challenges and opportunities in methodology, epistemology and application. In: ALAPP 2016 (Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice Conference), 3-5 Nov 2016, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Abstract

The production of written texts is a high-stakes activity in professional social work, playing a central role in all decisions about services and simultaneously used to evaluate social workers’ professional competence. Social work writing (often referred to as recording or paperwork) is frequently the target of criticism in reviews and public media reporting. Despite its significance, little empirical research has been carried out on writing in professional practice. ‘Writing in professional social work practice in a changing communicative landscape’ (WiSP) is a 2-year, ESRC-funded project which aims to address this gap. Involving 50 social workers from a range of social work domains, including children’s, adults and mental health, the project explores the range of written texts produced, the writing practices of social workers and the perspectives of social workers on the nature and place of recording in everyday professional practice.

This paper will illustrate and critically explore the potential value and challenges of combining an ethnographic with a corpus approach to document and theorize contemporary social work writing practices. Using a range of data including texts, interviews and observations, from 20 social workers, we will discuss: a) the methodological and ethical challenges in adopting this combined ethnographic-corpus approach; b) the epistemological tensions between the two approaches - corpus typically values textual patterns where ethnography values context-rich case studies; c) the application opportunities (making findings relevant to practitioners) that a combined approach potentially offers.

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