Practice-Oriented Genre

The “case study” is a term used to describe so many different documents that it almost makes up a “genre set” itself! Only the “reflection” essay takes on more different forms. However, generally speaking, all case studies present and analyze one or more parts of the helping process, as applied to a specific case, an individual or small group of individuals. Some case studies—of the kind often presented in textbooks—present only the very beginning of the helping process, by summing up a client’s situation and presenting issues. Others continue the process a little further, using theories of human behavior to understand how a client’s life works and why it works the way it does . Still others will take further steps, assessing the seriousness of the client’s issues, and proposing, or even completing an intervention. The most expanded version of the case study is the “integrative paper,” which takes the reader all the way through the helping process, from the client situation to intervention and evaluation.

Case studies usually address an audience of other social work practitioners who either have not worked with clients similar to the one that the writer discusses, or who have worked with similar clients, but are trying to find new techniques or strategies to use in dealing with them. These audiences will therefore be familiar with “the basics” of social work terms and practices, but might not be familiar with specific types of theory or intervention. It will therefore not be necessary to discuss “intervention” or “theories” as such, but it might be necessary to explain specialized interventions or theories in enough detail for an unfamiliar social worker to understand how they work. Likewise, these audience members have never met our individual client, so we will always want to a.) give the client a pseudonym (a fictitious name), to preserve confidentiality, and b.) start the document with a section detailing who the client is, and what the primary presenting issues are. We always want to start with information about the client, so that the audience can decide if they want to read the whole paper or not.

Case studies that present only the client’s situation generally do not make an argument, but function more as a brief summary of the client’s situation and presenting issues. After that, however, all sections of the case study will need to argue in favor of the approach being taken. Sections that use theories of human behavior to better understand the client must advance the argument that this theory/concept allows a clearer understanding of this or that client experience . The section should then use the theory’s concepts and logic to illuminate or explain aspects of the client experience. Likewise, a section that recommends a specific intervention (or states that the writer completed the intervention) should argue that this intervention is appropriate for this client’s issues, in this situation . Here, the burden of proof is even higher, since we will be intervening in the client’s life. We will need to establish that our intervention is evidence based .

It is also important to follow a sequence of sections that correspond more or less to the tasks involved in the helping process. We need to use theories of human behavior to understand the client better before we use an intervention to try to change the client’s behavior. As Professor Hollibert Phillips once pointed out, “We need to do anatomy and physiology… before surgery!” Likewise, we need to argue for and explain the intervention itself in detail before we evaluate how well it worked. This is why the most expanded case study, the integrative paper, is structured the way it is, with sections entitled: Client situation, human behavior, policy, engagement, assessment, intervention, evaluation, and conclusion. Note that things like “engagement” and “assessment” sometimes happen more or less simultaneously, but they are presented in this order because “engagement” logically precedes and underpins “assessment.” We have to have a working rapport with a client in order to then assess the seriousness of their situation.

Most case studies will require us to mix our direct experiences with the client and information from scholarly sources such as textbooks, theoretical books, or empirical journal articles. In larger projects, different sections will require different uses of these materials. In an introductory description of the client’s situation, we want to aim for a brief summary, to let the reader know the context and subject of the case, so descriptions of the interviewing process, or tags like “she said” usually are not appropriate—we would want to save these types of description for the engagement or assessment process. Likewise, discussions of human behavior should use foundational theoretical sources primarily, but should also introduce journal articles to help show how a theory would explain a specific case like the one the writer discusses . Finally, when deciding to use a specific intervention, it is particularly important to support that decision by using journal articles to provide evidence that the intervention is appropriate for a client like ours with issues like these .

Hybrid Writing

Because this genre relies upon the writer’s direct professional experiences and on scholarly sources, it will be important to be able to switch easily and appropriately between these. In some parts of the project, it may be appropriate to use “I,” while in other parts, it may not. For instance, it is often necessary to use “I” when explaining what assessment methods we used, whereas using theories to explain how a client’s life works likely will not require the “I” (as we will often not need to refer to ourselves directly here). Also, case studies are usually presumed to be written after the last stage in the helping process that they describe. For any activities that began and ended before this “time of writing,” the past tense is appropriate, but things that remain true, or are ongoing, the present tense is appropriate. So we might need to say:

“Sue” is a 90-year-old woman who resides in an assisted-living facility, and was referred to me after her husband died .

Putting the woman’s gender and residence in the past tense could convey the impression that she is now deceased!

Client Summary/Situation/Issues: These versions of the case study summarize briefly only the client’s basic information.

Client Assessment and Intervention: This version will require us to provide our assessment of the client’s issues, and propose an intervention, in addition to an initial summary of the client’s situation.

Macro Case Study: This version of the assignment will usually focus on a larger group of people, ranging from a family to an entire neighborhood. The difference in focus will mean that we want to choose different types of theory and/or intervention. Note that this label is sometimes also used to describe a community assessment , or community intervention  project.

Integrative Paper: This is the full, complete case study, including the following sections:

Note: Exact requirements may vary from instructor to instructor and from assignment to assignment!

So check the instructions carefully!

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Writing Guide: Student Edition

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Real Case Studies in Social Work Education

The central elements of the Real Cases Project curriculum integration effort are three case studies, drawn from the ChildStat Initiative—an innovative, agency-wide case review process of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. As documented in Brenda McGowan’s introduction to the case studies and their development, we went through a rigorous selection process to insure that the cases would be diverse, engaging, and useful in meeting the objectives of the Real Cases Project . The overview of the case studies, by Tatyana Gimein, (Co-Chair of the Project before her retirement from ACS), highlights key elements of each case study, and the profound challenges facing the families, staff and communities involved.

The decision to use real case studies in a curriculum integration effort was adopted after an extensive assessment phase. In 2004, the Planning Committee initially began the case selection process, focusing on cases drawn from the ACS Accountability Review Process. An expert panel convened by the Committee narrowed the selection to one case. After recruitment and preliminary work by faculty on individual teaching guides, this case became unavailable. The ChildStat approach was then proposed and access to cases was granted, resulting in the selection of the three cases in this document. Faculty authors adopted these three cases as framing elements in their teaching guides. The three case studies collectively raise critical issues in public child welfare practice today, show a diverse range of practices, family issues, and populations, as well as showcase the ChildStat Initiative.

The Real Cases Project is part of the social work tradition of case study education. During our profession’s history, social work educators have used case studies in the classroom to teach particular course content (Richmond, 1897; Towle, 1954), drawing vignettes from students’ work in the field (Reynolds, 1965; Wolfer & Gray, 2007), published case studies and cases from their own practice (Cohen, 1995). The case study approach appears to be experiencing resurgence, as indicated by the number of published books of cases and suggestions for their use in the classroom (Fauri, Wernet & Netting, 2007; Haulotte & Kretzschmar, 2001; Hull & Mokuau, 1994; LeCroy, 1999; Rivas & Hull, 2000; Stromm-Gottfried, 1998; Wolfer & Scales, 2006). Even with its widespread use, the efficacy of the case study approach for learning specific content or integrating multiple content areas has not been extensively tested and remains a fruitful area for inquiry.

Case studies are especially useful for training professionals in disciplines as social work, where critical thinking and problem solving skills are necessities (Ross & Wright, 2001). Case studies are often utilized in professional social work education in order to provide students with a real life example on which to practice their skills of critical analysis and assessment. In addition to practicing a particular skill set, case studies also allow faculty to assist students in their application of theory into practice. In addition, when used properly, case studies can provide students an opportunity to accept responsibility for their own learning (Armisted, 1984).

This Project contributes to the growing literature on using child welfare case studies in social work education (Brown, 2002; Johnson & Grant, 2005). We advance this effort, especially considering that the cases are drawn from a public child welfare agency and are accompanied by teaching guides that demonstrate how the cases can be used successfully in different courses across the curriculum. The Real Cases Project does not suggest that the cases supplant the content of a particular course. Rather, the cases can be used to illuminate and expand course content. While students may become familiar with the cases in more than one class, the teaching guides will insure that the use of the cases is not redundant, and is appropriate to each course in the curriculum. Thus, both the individual courses and the understanding of child welfare as a part of social work are enriched.

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