Academic writing: ‘Rigour and relevance in health and social care’ – is the best of both worlds possible?

Professor of Health and Social Care at the University of Birmingham Jon Glasby provides his views on how academic writing can not only serve to bridge the gap between research and practice in health and social care but can also generate a useful creative tension for the writing process.

Jon GlasbyWhen I was completing my social work training and thinking about a possible PhD, colleagues at the time said I was too academic for practice and too practical for academia… Luckily I found somewhere like the Health Services Management Centre (HSMC) at the University of Birmingham, where the stated commitment to ‘rigour and relevance’ enabled me to fulfil (and make a virtue out of) both sides of my personality.

For me, it’s crucial that we try to bridge academia and practice – but I’ve always been very aware of the tensions that this can entail. Leading universities are increasingly asked to demonstrate that they are internationally renowned in terms of their research, and yet translating this into everyday practice requires a detailed knowledge of/empathy with the realities of front-line services, the pressures they face and the difference they can make (both positive and negative) to the lives of people using such services.

two different directions

Being able to speak to an international research audience and a local practice audience at the same time can be challenging – and certainly requires an unusual mix of skills. The danger is that people trying to span this traditional divide get pulled in two different directions at once, and end up having to justify themselves against rules with which they don’t really agree (competing for influence against more traditional academics on the one hand and against more practice-orientated organisations on the other – and doing so on their own terms).

However, this has always felt to me like a creative tension – with scope to take the best of both worlds. Why would anyone want to contribute knowledge of what works to a practice audience unless they were really clear it was high quality, distinctive and helpful knowledge in the first place? Equally, why would anyone want to research the realities of front-line services, without wanting to be able to contribute to helping to improve such services?

“All too often we either ‘do’ or we ‘think’, with different approaches and different success criteria in both academia and in practice”

Rather than seeing these as separate worlds, we need more people who can act as a bridge or as a conduit: who can take the best research and help apply it, whilst also building on detailed knowledge of policy and of front-line practice in order to improve the quality and relevance of our research. Rather than competing in either an academic or a practice-orientated world, we need to be arguing that these are two sides of the same coin – that both ‘rigour and relevance’ matter.

Often, these issues have come to the fore for me when I’ve been writing for Policy Press. Having a detailed knowledge of the latest research and theory is important, but so too is being able to use this in a way that engages students, practitioners, managers and policy makers alike. Indeed, this has become something of an acid test for me over the years – if I understand something well enough to be able to try to explain it to others in everyday language and in a way that works for them, then I probably understand it pretty well.

Equally, if I can’t make a policy and practice audience interested in the research I’ve been doing, then should I have been doing it at all in the first place? All too often we either ‘do’ or we ‘think’, with different approaches and different success criteria in both academia and in practice. Yet the issues involved in running and in researching health and social care services are so complex and so important that we need to be able to ‘do’ and to ‘think’ at the same time – definitely a question of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or.’

Jon Glasby is Professor of Health and Social Care, Director of HSMC and incoming Head of the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. His latest with Policy Press include:
Partnership working in health and social care_ 2nd edn_[FC]Debates in personalisation [FC]Partnership working in health and social care (with Helen Dickinson) (2nd ed., 2014)

Debates in personalisation (edited with Catherine Needham) (2014)


Other titles by the same author:
Understanding health and social care (2nd ed., 2012)
Commissioning for health and well-being (edited collection) (2012)
Evidence, policy and practice (edited collection) (2011)
Direct payments and personal budgets (with Rosemary Littlechild) (2nd ed., 2009)
The Better partnership working series (2008) (edited with Helen Dickinson)

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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