How social workers reflect in action and when and why they don’t: the possibilities and limits to reflective practice in social work

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The need for professionals to use reflection to learn about and develop their practice is now a universally stated goal. In social work however there has been little research into whether and how reflection in action actually occurs and this paper explores the possibilities and limits to reflective practice by drawing on research that observed encounters between social workers and children and families as the work was being conducted in real time. The findings show that practitioners often do reflect in action by elevating their minds above the interactions they are having so that they can think critically about and adjust what they are doing. But there are times when reflection is either limited or non-existent because practitioners defend themselves against the sensory and emotional impact of the work and the high anxiety they are experiencing. Drawing on psychoanalysis and social theories of the body and senses, the paper argues for a revision of the concept of reflective practice to take account of how the self is defended. The limits to reflection must be fully recognised while seeking ways to develop the capacity of practitioners to think clearly and critically so that vital insights about service users and the helping process can occur.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-427
JournalSocial Work Education
Issue number4
Early online date4 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - May 2018