Developing understanding of the role of empathy in child and family social work.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Education and Social Work


Empathy has a central role in child and family social work (Grant, 2014) due to the significant and emotional nature of the relationship between social workers and families (Ferguson, 2017; Ruch, 2014; Lefevre et al, 2017; Lefevre, 2018). The importance of empathy is reflected in its inclusion in developing social work policy and practice guidance (McNeish et al, 2017) and supported by views of families (Ingram, 2018).
Empathy is, however, a complex concept to research due to its emotional and relational aspects and the varying definitions, approaches and methods that have been adopted. There is, as yet, no agreed definition of empathy, hence debate about whether it is best understood as a unitary concept, a trait or state or as a series of individual components within cognitive, emotional and behavioural domains persists (Bohart et al, 2002; Gerdes and Segal, 2009).The behavioural dimension of empathy in social work has been investigated within a programme of research using a quantitative approach (Whittaker et al, 2016; Forrester et al, 2017). Empathy skill was found to be relatively low overall and additional qualitative analysis identified key behavioural components of empathy skill (Lynch et al, 2018). However the research was not designed to explore hypotheses to explain why empathy was low nor to include exploration of any non-verbal dimensions of empathy.
This project aims to develop understanding of how empathy is conceptualised, theorised and operationalised in research and how social workers and families construct and experience empathy in their relationships. The overarching research question that the project seeks to explore is:
"How is empathy understood in the relationships between social workers and the families with whom they work?"
The research project will adopt a qualitative approach and will include a comprehensive literature review and empirical data collection. Data will comprise video observations of direct practice and interviews with social workers and families. A theoretical framework constructed from the literature review will inform analysis of the observation and interview data. Analysis will explore how social workers and families construct and experience empathy in their relationships, including the barriers that may be experienced and the conditions necessary to support empathic social work practice.
It is anticipated that project impact will be across both disciplinary and professional contexts of social work. Disciplinary impact will include a unique contribution to developing understanding of the concept of empathy as experienced relationally by social workers and families and to methodological and theoretical developments. Professional impact will include influencing development of social work practice and policy, linked to operationalising a definition of empathy and the creation of tools to support the enhancement of empathy engagement in social work practice. Impact will be maximised through face-to-face events and production and distribution of written materials, in collaboration with knowledge exchange networks in the sector, including publication in peer-reviewed academic journals.
In developing understanding of the role of empathy in social work, this practice-focussed research project will contribute to making a difference to how social workers conduct their practice and to the experiences of children and families.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P00072X/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2259128 Studentship ES/P00072X/1 22/09/2019 29/09/2023 Amy Jane Lynch