The Limits of Objective Knowledge in Social Work

Why courts should consider the expertise of case workers

(This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Melissa Hardesty wanted to study how social service agencies license foster parents. Along the way she stumbled upon a much bigger issue: how case workers in the child welfare system are caught between conflicting demands for the "objective" knowledge required by courts and the nuanced, empathetic and highly contextual knowledge needed to help families.

Hardesty, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University and a 2014 graduate of the SSA's PhD program, spent 15 months at a large Midwestern social service agency. She conducted interviews, attended meetings, and spent hours listening and observing.

She found that caseworkers spent an inordinate amount of time struggling to find objective facts to back up their judgments. These facts were only a part of their knowledge of a case and often not the most important part, but they could be documented as evidence in family court. Caseworkers might develop a keen sense of whether birth parents were sincere about improving their parenting. But what mattered to judges was whether the parents were attending parenting classes.

"Epistemological Binds and Ethical Dilemmas in Frontline Child Welfare Practice," which appears in the September 2015 Social Service Review, is an ethnographic study of the turmoil at a child welfare agency. It offers a rare glimpse into what Hardesty calls "the rapidly shifting, multifarious interactions that comprise day-to-day case work." It is also an inquiry into the philosophical basis of social work and the contradictions in the provision of services to vulnerable children.

Casework in a child welfare agency is intense. The decision whether a child should stay with his parents or be taken into state custody is hugely consequential. Hardesty suggests that making the right call demands a subtle understanding of families, the kind of knowledge that skilled social workers arrive at through experience and ongoing engagement with their clients.

She calls this knowledge "perspectivalism." It can develop out of "the little things parents do over a long period of time that causes workers to develop particular opinions—how we all develop opinions about people.” Excluding it risks ignoring "many of the  nuances and value judgments that inform the many evaluations they make while doing frontline practice."

And yet Hardesty says social workers are increasingly expected to produce objective facts, not nuanced judgments. This expectation arises from the growing interest in "accountability" among policy makers and from the apparent unwillingness of courts to credit the judgment and expertise of social workers. It also springs from the enormous power and prestige of science.

Hardesty says that exalting objective over perspectival knowledge has serious consequences. At some points during her fieldwork, she says, the different kinds of knowledge available led in opposite directions, with the agency recommending actions that caseworkers believed were not in the best interest of children. Claims of objectivity can also hide moral positions and politicalagendas—such as the current emphasis on keeping a child with her birth family.


Hardesty, Melissa. "Epistemelogical Binds and Ethical Dilemmas in Frontline Child Welfare Practice." Social Service Review 89 (3): 455-498.