Author: Munn, Jean Correll
Date published: January 1, 2012
IT IS INCREASINGLY APPARENT that international social work belongs at the forefront of the profession. As Midgley (2008) states, "It is simply impossible to take an isolationist position in a globalized world" (p. 615). This statement, along with the Council on Social Work Edu ca - tion's (CSWE) Educational Policy and Ac cred i - ta tion Stand ard (EPAS) 2.1.2: "Social workers recognize the global interconnectedness of oppression and are knowledgeable about theories of justice and strategies to promote human and civil rights" (CSWE, 2008), indicates that international social work is important to the profession in the 21st century (Midgley, 1990). In deed, social workers today are involved in more in ternational activities than at any other time (Hok enstad & Kendall, 1995; Midgley, 2001). This increased emphasis includes professional conferences, organizations, and the growing number of social work journals dedicated to international social work. In its simplest form, international social work encompasses issues that are innately global (e.g., ag - ing, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking), systems of social welfare in countries other than one's own, and issues related to immigration and refugee status. Current experts are divided on a common definition of international social work (Cox & Pawar, 2006; Midgley, 2001) and call for theoretical examination as well as cross- national and single- country studies to further the understanding of the field (Healy & Thomas, 2007). Furthermore, human rights and social justice are core professional values that are deeply embedded in international social work. Human rights work springs directly from our values about the worth and dignity of every person, and our traditional emphasis on advocacy is central to advancing human functioning through political, social, and economic strategies (Healy, 2007, 2008; Inter na tion al Federation of Social Workers and Inter na tional Association of Schools of Social Work, 2000; Midgley, 2008). Despite social work's long- term engagement in international ex changes and the natural affinity between global human issues and the profession, there is still room for growth (Healy, 2008). More coordination within the profession; expansion of knowledge beyond a small group of experts; understanding beyond the Western, in dividualistic perspective (Midgley, 2001); enhanced advocacy in international realms (Midg ley, 2008); greater exposure to international issues (Healy, 2008); and increased curriculum content (Nagy & Falk, 2000) are necessary to advance social work's standing and prepare social workers for the myriad issues that fall under the rubric of international social work.
Not surprisingly, one useful method of advancing international social work education is study outside one's own country. Such programs provide the opportunity to study both global issues within the classroom as well as direct exposure to social welfare systems in other cultural and political contexts. This exposure can mitigate the tendency to apply Western models of social work in other countries (Healy & Thomas, 2007) by increasing culturally aware models of practice (Turner, 1998). Specifically, site visits and guest speakers from the host countries, universities, and social welfare systems can expand the base of knowledge, and this direct contact can facilitate communication among social work professionals that supports crosscountry, comparative analyses and collaborative efforts (Healy & Thomas, 2007). On the other hand, there are multiple challenges to providing courses that are specific to the host country or countries.
Social Work Education
According to the CSWE, social work must take a global perspective with knowledge based on scientific inquiry (CSWE, 2008). Indeed, scientific inquiry is noted as a core value (CSWE, EPAS 1.1) and social work education is "grounded in the liberal arts," a perspective that provides an intellectual basis for and informs the design of the profession's educational curriculum (CSWE, EPAS 2.0). Ac cord - ingly, social workers use scientific inquiry and critical thinking to evaluate and integrate multiple sources of knowledge, including knowledge that is research based (CSWE, EPAS 2.1.3). Furthermore, comprehending qualitative and quantitative research is important to "ethical approaches to knowledge building." Ideally, the relationship between scientific knowledge based on research and practice is synergetic: Social work practice informs research and research provides evidence to support practice (EPAS 2.1.6). This learning is enhanced when social workers "view themselves as learners and engage those with whom they work as informants" (CSWE, EPAS 2.1.4). This process characterizes an accepted social work perspective, person in environment (CSWE, EPAS 2.2), and also characterizes qualitative research meth od ology. Therefore, qualitative inquiry provides an appropriate, indeed optimal, ap proach to social work research in cross- cultural settings.
Qualitative research focuses on understanding the meaning and nature of phenomena and is characterized by direct contact between researcher and subject; small rather than large samples that are examined in- depth; and unstructured interviewing guides, which can be adjusted as the research progresses (Association for Qualitative Research, 2005). This interpretive, naturalistic approach (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998) often takes place in a natural setting and allows the researcher to develop a detailed knowledge based on lived experience (Creswell, 2003). Qualitative methods are useful in studying social problems and vulnerable populations because they are less intrusive and provide greater empathy than surveys or structured interviews (Padgett, 2008). Finally, qualitative data are understandable to both research professionals and laymen, supporting their use to examine topics of interest to a wide range of individuals (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Anthropologists and sociologists led in the development of these methods and, building on seminal work conducted by Bateson and Meade (1942), these professions continue to use qualitative methods to understand social phenomena (e.g., organizational structure, social networking, family interactions) and underlying processes. Accordingly, clinical social work skills (e.g., assessment) further enhance the use of this research methodology. In return, qualitative methods allow the social work profession to learn from those they serve.
As noted in other studies (Hurdley, 2007; Liebenberg, 2009), the use of visual data is appropriate for international settings. Appro - priate visual data include images made and collected by students or created by others (Keats, 2009), such as photographs of drug paraphernalia on the Prague streets, published images from drug prevention literature, student photographs of decrepit buildings and littered streets in Roma neighborhoods, and images from an audiovisual presentation at a drug treatment facility. This teaching note describes a course, Visual Inquiry in Inter - national Settings, conducted within a summer study abroad program that took place in Prague, Czech Republic, 2009.
The purpose of this course was to develop knowledge of and skills in qualitative inquiry with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach using visual data. A definition of visual data included "any object, person, place, event or happening which is observable to the human eye" (Em - mison & Smith, 2004, p. 4) and which are inherently qualitative. Specifically, the course introduced students to the usefulness of qualitative methods in understanding sensitive topics that are often the focus of social work research without the stigmatization associated with more intrusive methods. Didactic sessions gave students some background in relevant philosophies of science, methods of observation, use of theory, and the relationship of qualitative methods to other types of research. However, the bulk of the course was hands- on, with each student designing and conducting a research project. Students submitted final papers after they had returned to the United States, allowing them to reflect on their experiences as well as access additional research materials that might enhance their final products.
Course objectives (see Table 1) reflected the research nature of the course and at the same time required that students develop these research skills around topics of interest to social work in the Czech Republic or Cen tral Europe. This course was unique in that it focused on the use of images such as photography or videography as sources of qualitative data. Using these images, the students collected, managed, and analyzed qualitative data. Focusing on social issues grounded the course in a context of social work values and social justice while developing qualitative research skills. Site visits provided opportunities to record and interpret data from programrelated visits to Terezin, Auschwitz, the Jewish ghettos of Prague and Krakow, and various social programs in the Czech Republic.
There were two required texts for the course. The first was Padgett's (2008) Qualitative Meth - ods in Social Work Research, a basic qualitative text written by a social work scholar that provided background for understanding the nature of qualitative research. It was important to include an introductory text because many students had no prior experience with this methodology. The other text, by Emmison and Smith (2004), Researching the Visual, gave a detailed description of the use of images in qualitative research. Notably, these two texts were current, available in paperback, and therefore easily transported. In addition, there were supplementary journal articles available at the course Blackboard site.
Five students from two universities enrolled in the course. Two were graduate students, and three were undergraduate students. Of the five students, four were social work majors and one majored in English. All five of the students were female and were concurrently enrolled in a course in international social work.
There were 45 contact hours for the course. Within this structure, there were six 3-hour class meetings (one per each week of the summer abroad session) that took place within the study center. Three of these consisted of didactic sessions designed to explain the underlying principles of qualitative research, the specifics of visual qualitative inquiry, and the use of data analysis software. For these sessions, the instructor used PowerPoint presentations, hands- on demonstrations of coding and analytic techniques, and a series of documentaries on photography as a tool for promoting social justice. On one occasion a professional photographer visited the class session and instructed the students on technical aspects of photography and then led students on a field trip to a nearby public park to practice these techniques. The remaining two class sessions consisted of opportunities for students to present their work as described in Assignments 2 and 3. In addition, there were multiple site visits specific to social work including the Prague Office of Amnesty International, an orphanage, a senior living center, a residential drugtreatment facility, and a residential living facility for Prague citizens who were HIV positive. Other program activities such as visits to Terezin, Auschwitz, and the Jewish ghettos in Prague and Krakow provided opportunities for students to hear lectures by indigenous guides and collect images for work.
Four assignments, designed to demonstrate knowledge and skills necessary for conducting qualitative research, comprised course grades. Students could choose to work in small groups or to complete the assignments individually. Assignment 1 consisted of a brief three- to fivepage exercise in which students identified an interest area with theoretical and/or practical relevance to social work and proposed a related research question and/or hypothesis focused on a specific social problem in Prague (e.g., poverty, substance abuse, family violence, juvenile crime). In Assignment 2, students analyzed images and associated narrative using ATLAS.ti analytic software. This analysis included immersion in the data (reviewing images and associated field notes), open coding (attaching labels to the images, using the constant comparative method, allowing for new codes to emerge), axial coding (finding relationships among codes, developing code families), and identifying overarching themes (i.e., themes that appear throughout the data images). Qualitative data analysis required an iterative approach because new data could present new codes or fit within existing codes. The students could insert memos during data analysis by using the ATLAS.ti qualitative software program and refer back to these notes as coding progressed. Assignment 3 was an oral presentation: Each student or student group presented to the class and the instructor exemplars of the visual and narrative data, preliminary findings regarding the research question posed in Assignment 1, and questions regarding coding and interpretation. The class and instructor provided constructive feedback. As - signment 4 (see Figure 1) consisted of a paper (approximately 10-15 pages, excluding images) that described a series of images re garding an ethnographic or phenomenological theme chosen in Assignment 1. Students submitted this assignment (via Blackboard using the assignments function) approximately 3 weeks after completing the class.
All students completed projects within the allotted time frame and met the overall re - quirements described in Figure 1. Two of the students chose to work together on the final project. The other three students completed projects on their own. One project (completed by the pair of students) related to Roma children in the Czech Republic and involved analyzing images of the sections of Prague associated with the Roma populations. These images captured the impoverished nature of the environment. Two of the individual projects described drug use and treatment and included images of drug paraphernalia in the Prague streets, anti drug literature, and photos supplied by a drug treatment facility. One project related to adoption laws in this setting with images of children. Notably, no students chose to include visits to Holocaust sites within their projects.
This course presented a unique opportunity to teach qualitative methods, using visual data, within a setting that provided multiple opportunities and challenges associated with learning in the Czech Republic. Global social work issues and systems of delivery comprised the content of the course. All students learned about substantive areas of social welfare in the Czech Republic and developed varying levels of skill in qualitative inquiry. Overall, students were able to collect and analyze data (Ob jec - tives 6-8). With one exception, students produced visual images relevant to their topic and integrated them appropriately with their narratives (Objective 9).
Despite reaching these learning objectives, students did have difficulty understanding the inductive nature of qualitative research. For example, Objective 1, demonstrating an understanding of the philosophies of science, presented the greatest intellectual challenge. This was not surprising; qualitative research, unlike more widely used methods, requires that students think inductively and relies on finding meaning from the data rather than more traditional hypothesis testing. It was hard for students to start with a blank slate and allow the data to lead the inquiry. On the other hand, the two students who worked together did demonstrate this phenomenon- the powerful visual images (e.g., run- down buildings, graffiti, and litter) they observed when they visited neighborhoods in which the Roma population was concentrated led them to change their research question. This change during the research process represented a more sophisticated use of qualitative inquiry in which the process allowed for evolving themes throughout design and implementation of research (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In the other projects, students tended to seek images that illustrated their premise (photo essay) rather than allowing the data to guide the process (qualitative research).
It also was evident from the initial assignment that students had difficulty understanding which topics were appropriate for visual inquiry (Objectives 4 and 9). For example, the analysis of adoption laws in the Czech Re pub - lic relied on narrative, archival data. The student who chose this topic had difficulty understanding that images depicting the outcome of those laws (e.g., pictures of older children in orphanages due to difficulties associated with adoption) were important to research design. Future courses may need to involve more pretrip preparation to ensure grounding in the principles of qualitative research in general and visual qualitative research in particular because students had difficulty grasping this paradigm shift within a 6-week time period.
However, students demonstrated more success in less abstract course objectives such as understanding the strengths (e.g., rich data, use with sensitive topics) and limitations (e.g., lack of generalizability) of qualitative methods (Objectives 3 and 12) or following a step- bystep analytic process (Objective 10). In- class work sessions were most helpful in supporting the learning process. The instructor concurrently completed a sample project and used her experience to demonstrate methods. Student- to- student feedback became a powerful learning tool, especially in Assignment 3, the in- class presentation. The instructor directed students to use this presentation as the outline for their final papers and thus organ - ize the presentation using the project outline included in Figure 1. Based on feedback during this session, they were able to adjust major organizational issues prior to finalizing the written project. The two students who worked together produced the most methodologically sound results.
Another challenge was the collection of data during site visits. Site visits produced some areas of interest but were not sufficient sources of data collection. There were several reasons for this. Ethical considerations (Objec - tive 5) regarding the privacy of residents within these settings were paramount. Due to privacy issues, it was determined from the outset that these papers would not be published. However, children in the orphanage interacted with the students, enjoyed having their pictures taken by both the students and the orphanage staff, and the orphanage director agreed to the use of images for the class project. In residential settings for drug treatment and HIV/AIDS care, instructor and students considered the taking of photographs to be invasions of privacy. Therefore, students photographed buildings and used images supplied by the staff at these facilities, but did not photograph residents.
Understandably, there are ways that the course could be improved. Time restraints led to oversimplification of the complexity of qualitative research including data collection and analysis. This experience suggested that some familiarization with the required texts and supplementary reading be undertaken prior to arriving abroad. The presence of a professional photographer was helpful in allowing students to develop more technical expertise with photography, the source of most of their primary data collection (Hurd - ley, 2007). However, the presence of the photographer blurred the line between photo essay and naturalistic qualitative inquiry. The photographer talked about interacting with subjects to promote their participation in the photos; however, ideally, qualitative research takes place in a natural setting (Creswell, 2003), and arranging photos interferes with this aspect (Hurdley, 2007). The instructor spent some time in the next class discussing how these two approaches differed, yet this proved to be a major hurdle in supporting the inductive research approach that characterizes qualitative inquiry rather than visual images as illustrations of narrative text (Mason, 2005).
Despite these challenges, the course was enjoyable for students, and student evaluations reflected this, rating the course "excellent" or "very good." The course integrated the experiential advantages of study abroad, the qualitative research paradigm, and social issues that are appropriate for international study and qualitative methodologies. In addition, it is applicable in different countries and the instructor plans to teach it, with some revisions, in different settings and countries in the future.
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Jean Correll Munn
Florida State University
Jean Correll Munn is assistant professor at Florida State University.
Address correspondence to Jean Correll Munn, Florida State University, College of Social Work, C2511 University Center, PO Box 3062570, Tallahassee, FL 32306-2570; e- mail: email@example.com.