This paper considers the validity of evidence-based practice in social work. It critically examines various underlying presuppositions and assumptions entailed in evidence-based practice and draws out their implications for social work. The paper is divided into three main parts. Following a consideration of the background to the development of evidence-based practice and a discussion of its key organizing concepts, the paper goes on to examine its underlying scientific assumptions. It shows that evidence-based practice proposes a particular deterministic version of rationality which is unsatisfactory. Evidence-based practice is derived from ideas based on optimal behavior in a planned and systematically organized environment. By concentrating on 'epistemic processes' involved in planning and psychological inference it is claimed that cognitive heuristic devices are the determinants of decision making and not evidence. The heuristic model suggests that decision making is indeterminate, reflexive, locally optimal at best and based on a limited rationality. It is argued that social workers engage in a reflexive understanding and not a determinate or certainty based decision-making process based on objective evidence. Complex phenomena such as decision making are not rationally determined or subject to 'control'. The paper goes on to suggest that the tendency to separate processes into 'facts' and 'values' implicit in evidence-based procedures undermines professional judgement and discretion in social work. The third part of the paper focuses on the connection between method and ideology in evidence-based practice. It examines how the evidence-based preoccupation with positivistic methods and determinate judgement entraps social workers within a mechanistic for of technical rationality. This framework restricts social work to a narrow ends-means rationality such that only certain forms of action are considered legitimate. This feeds into the rhetoric of new managerialist strategies aimed at developing a performance culture by further regulating and controlling individual practitioners. In the conclusion a number of critical indicators are given which should be addressed by the proponents of evidence-based practice. It is suggested that unless these are adequately dealt with, social work is not greatly advanced by adherence to an evidence-based approach. Moreover, the problematic epistemological and ideological base associated with it are to be regarded as inherently insuperable.
British Journal of Social Work Vol. 31, Issue 1, p. 57-79