In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evidence-based Social Work Practice: Issues, Controversies, and Debates

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Journals
  • Issues, Controversies, and Debates in Social Work
  • Issues, Controversies, and Debates in Allied Professions
  • Educational Issues

Social Work Evidence-based Social Work Practice: Issues, Controversies, and Debates
Edward J. Mullen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0044


This entry provides references to issues, controversies, and debates stimulated by the introduction into social work of evidence-based practice. These relate to differing views about meanings, limitations, values, and assumptions attributed to evidence-based practice. Issues, controversies, and debates have accompanied the introduction of evidence-based practice into medicine, psychology, nursing, and other professions. Many of these are found in nearly identical form in social work. However, perhaps because of social work’s complexity and history, these concerns have taken on a distinct character in social work, and other concerns are being expressed specific to social work. Accordingly, this entry includes key publications in the social work literature as well as key relevant publications in the literature of related professions. A final section of this entry provides references to seminal discussions of issues in education for evidence-based practice. Readers not familiar with this form of practice should read the Oxford Bibliographies article in Social Work “Evidence-Based Social Work Practice” as background for this entry. Also, the article “Evidence-Based Social Work Practice: Finding Evidence” compliments this article.

Introductory Works

For an overview of issues, controversies, and debates associated with evidence-based practice, review the Straus and McAlister 2000 essay and then the Mullen, et al. 2005 article. Begin with Straus and McAlister 2000 because it describes the most commonly debated issues in evidence-based medicine that apply equally well to social work. Because these issues are debated extensively in the following references, it is useful to make note of them here at the outset. The limitations cited are those stemming from a shortage of coherent, consistent scientific evidence; difficulties in applying evidence to the care of individuals; barriers to doing high-quality practice; the need to develop new skills; limited time and resources; and a paucity of evidence that evidence-based practice “works.” Straus and McAlister cite as common misperceptions that evidence-based practice denigrates clinical expertise, that it ignores patients’ values and preferences, that it promotes a cookbook approach to medicine, that it is simply a cost-cutting tool, that it is an ivory-tower concept, that it is limited to clinical research, and that it leads to therapeutic nihilism in the absence of evidence from randomized trials. After reading the Straus and McAlister 2000 essay, examine the Mullen, et al. 2005 article to deepen one’s understanding of the issues discussed by Straus and McAlister in the social work context. The Mullen, et al. 2005 article describes additional issues, controversies, and challenges that have emerged as evidence-based practice has been implemented in social work. Next peruse the Kirk and Reid 2002 essay to understand the philosophical, political, and practical issues associated with social work’s attempts to incorporate the fruits of scientific research into the profession’s knowledge base, of which evidence-based practice is a recent expression. Although it addresses issues associated with the introduction of evidence-based practices into psychology, the Norcross, et al. 2006 book provides an excellent introduction to the common issues found in the evidence-based practice debate argued by proponents of contrasting positions. The Norcross, et al. 2006 book can be read from beginning to end to gain a broad overview of all issues or, if one’s interest is in a specific area of debate, go to those of the nine chapters that correspond to that issue area. The Gray, et al. 2009 book provides a range of perspectives on issues associated with evidence-based social work practice and is the most comprehensive treatment available. Soydan and Palinkas 2014 can be read for a clear and succinct critical discussion of issues, controversies, and debates placed in a global and cultural context.

  • Gray, Mel, Debbie Plath, and Stephen Webb. 2009. Evidence-based social work: A critical stance. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203876626

    Provides a useful international perspective and a critical analysis of evidence-based social work practice. This is a good introduction to issues pertaining to what should be considered as social work knowledge, values and underpinning this form of practice and key issues regarding implementation. The views presented should be contrasted with perspectives presented in other key readings.

  • Kirk, Stuart A., and William J. Reid. 2002. Knowledge, science, and the profession of social work. In Science and social work: A critical appraisal. Edited by Stuart A. Kirk and William J. Reid, 1–28. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.7312/kirk11824-002

    Review this critical essay to learn how, since its beginnings, social work has attempted to use scientific research to strengthen clinical practice. Evidence-based social work practice, including its strengths and limitations, can be better understood when viewed in this historical context.

  • Mullen, Edward J., Aron Shlonsky, Sarah E. Bledsoe, and Jennifer L. Bellamy. 2005. From concept to implementation: Challenges facing evidence-based social work. Evidence and Policy: A Journal of Debate, Research, and Practice 1.1: 61–84.

    DOI: 10.1332/1744264052703159

    Read this essay for a critical assessment of key challenges in adapting evidence-based practice to the social work policy and practice contexts. This paper outlines the origins of evidence-based social work and current thoughts about its definition and application and includes a discussion of key challenges to the application of evidence-based practice and policy in social work.

  • Norcross, John C., Larry E. Beutler, and Ronald F. Levant, eds. 2006. Evidence-based practices in mental health: Debate and dialogue on the fundamental questions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/11265-000

    This is a unique reference contrasting positions on key issues, controversies, and debates stimulated by evidence-based practice in the context of psychology and psychotherapy. This reference provides a range of contrasting perspectives and position papers on nine key questions. This book focuses primarily on issues pertaining to evidence-based practices, especially psychotherapy, rather than the process of evidence-based practice.

  • Soydan, Haluk, and Lawrence A. Palinkas. 2014. Evidence-based practice in social work: Development of a new professional culture. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203077108

    In addition to providing a brief overview of EBP, including types of evidence, this work should be used to acquaint practitioners and students with organizational and cultural supports needed to make such practice possible. Most noteworthy are chapters 5–8, which address challenges, controversies, globalization, and professional culture.

  • Straus, Sharon E., and Finlay A. McAlister. 2000. Evidence-based medicine: A commentary on common criticisms. Canadian Medical Association Journal 163.7: 837–841.

    Begin with this essay because it presents a classification of criticisms of evidence-based medicine. It is recommended because of its relevance to social work and because many social work authors have adapted this classification as a basis for discussion. Straus and McAlister group the criticisms as pertaining to limitations common to medical practice in general, to limitations specific to evidence-based medicine, and to misperceptions.

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