A Method Worth Telling? Exploring the potential of Story Completion through a study on Discriminatory Abuse

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Background: Story Completion is an emerging qualitative method, but there is limited engagement with this narrative approach in social work research. This presentation draws on a story completion study on social work practice with discriminatory abuse in adult safeguarding in England as part of a larger project to clarify the concept and understand practice responses and low reporting in this area.

Method: The study was designed in order to understand practice responses to discriminatory abuse in safeguarding adults. Self-report methods such as interviews and focus groups were rejected because official statistics suggest that discriminatory abuse is under-reported by social work practitioners. Instead, story completion methods were used to elicit short story responses from 57 social work participants. Each participant was asked to imagine a social work visit to someone experiencing discriminatory abuse and to finish the story based on one of three story stems. Each of the three story stems dealt with different characteristics (race, gender identity and mental ill-health), enabling comparative analysis and to see if discrimination targeted at different characteristics might elicit different responses. The story completion exercise was followed by focus group discussion to understand the experience of using the method and writing the stories.

Findings: Analysis of the stories produced insights into practice with discriminatory abuse across the three story stems, highlighting common practice responses. Practitioners identified issues relating to knowledge (lack of personal experience and institutional resources), skills (empathy, communication, rapport and trust), values (own biases and societal prejudice) and organisational issues (supervision, staff networks and obstacles to support). The study also highlighted comparisons between how each story stem was responded to. Whilst the gender identity story stem led to stories of self-doubt and anxiety about a lack of knowledge or fear of offence, the mental health story stem was responded to in a more task-oriented way. The story stem looking at race elicited some responses that acknowledged experiences of racism, but in general there were fewer ideas about how to effectively respond and more limited reflection on how this might impact on the person. The focus groups helped to validate and contextualise the data gathered from the stories.

Conclusions and implications: Story completion methods have significant methodological potential in social work research. Using this method to understand approaches to discriminatory abuse produced data that self-report is unlikely to have yielded. The approach has advantages in relation to researching sensitive topics, especially where participants may not feel experienced enough to self-report. The approach is also highly amenable to comparative analysis. Although some stories were less rich than others, the addition of a focus group helped to draw out any reasons for this. The stories identified that significant work is required to support practitioners to respond to effectively to discriminatory abuse and take sufficient account of people’s protected characteristics when working in this area.

Conference aims and themes: The presentation responds to conference themes 5 (theorising social work research), 6 (connecting social work research and practice) and 7 (methodological development and innovation)

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2023
EventEuropean Social Work Research Conference 2023: Social work research through and towards human relationships - Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy
Duration: 12 Apr 202314 Apr 2023
Conference number: 12


ConferenceEuropean Social Work Research Conference 2023
Abbreviated titleESWRA 2023
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