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Common Sense and Surprise in Social Work Research

Lisa, R. Kiesel, MSW, LICSW

I've been sitting here staring at my wall of post-it notes for some time now. Each note bears its
own variable name, each is color coded and carefully arranged to organize my research design, and
more importantly my thoughts. I'm accustomed to patiently sitting, puzzling over problems, but
usually it is facing a human being and not a wall brightly festooned with post-it notes.
Fifteen months ago I began pursuit of my PhD in social work following nearly two decades of
social work practice. And just four months ago I closed a thriving psychotherapy practice, committing
solidly to my studies and more specifically to the research opportunities that were coming my way.
Deciding to close my practice was no small leap and not without consequence: for the many people
who had invested themselves in change relationships with me, and for myself as I step away from a
career of clinical practice toward the career unknown.
My current research, which has me staring at the wall, is an investigation of the impact over
time upon children of exposure to both intimate partner violence and child maltreatment. I hypothesize
that the impact of this exposure is cumulative, and I suspect I will find results over time of
compromised academic achievement, more frequent moves and life disruptions, and increased
emotional / behavioral problems and disability compared to their non-exposed and less exposed peers.
This project was planned to address gaps in the knowledge about children's experiences following
family violence, to add to the social work knowledge base and better inform care of this vulnerable
I eagerly shared details of this project with interested clients in the process of concluding their
care and saying goodbye. Again and again clients expressed their own expectations that I would indeed
find these children compromised by violence. Of course they would struggle with school; obviously
they would be emotionally damaged. It was just common sense.
Common sense?
A little panic set in as I questioned whether I was abandoning a meaningful career to
demonstrate what everyone already knows via common sense. Panic that I have perhaps been duped
by the academy to think there was really something new to uncover when it appeared there clearly was
not. One year into my studies and have I already abandoned the value of service and become a pursuer
of the redundant or irrelevant?
Deep breath....
Obviously, I made the leap. And I’ve embraced common sense not as a threat, but as an ally to
good social work research. Merriam Webster provides a nice definition of common sense as sound and
prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts; or normal native intelligence.
I’ve come to believe that there is nothing irrelevant in social work research about the
examination of common sense conclusions. Common sense is a great place to begin to understand the
things that matter to us, to take the pulse of our shared expertise of this life, but from there to form new
questions. Common sense will seldom note the exception, be unlikely to reveal a causal pattern, and
will need help to determine what might actually be done to alter these conclusions. I believe good
social work research can help do that.
The preparation for my current study provides an example of a common sense beginning
leading to new understanding. Beyond the common sense expectation of damaged and disrupted lives,
is found within this group of children the surprise of resilience. The concept of resilience is simply the
quiet phenomenon of children doing just fine despite all the common sense reasons why they should
not; children maintaining adaptive development despite adversity (Rutter, 1987; Werner 1993). It is an
amazing thing, resilience. It doesn't shine bright lights or wave banners to be seen. Some children just
keep on keeping on due to some seemingly normal configuration of risk and protective factors. My
review of the work previously completed in examining child violence exposure reveals that these
resilient children make up the majority of violence exposed children (Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima,
Herrenkohl & Moylan, 2008; Yates, Dodds, Sroufe & Egeland, 2003).
Who are these children who will not conform to common sense? What's different about them in
comparison to their abused peers who can't help but wear their hurt out front? What catches these
children and not the rest? Or do they save themselves?
Much is yet to be understood and clarified about resilience and its processes (Luthar, Cicchetti,
Becker, 2000). Can it be constructed or can we better learn to see those truly at risk? Who knows?
Common sense set the stage and now there is definitely plenty more research yet to be done. I'll begin
with these post-its on the wall.


Herrenkohl, T.I.; Sousa, C.; Tajima, E.A.; Herrenkohl, R.C. & Moylan, C.A. (2008).
Intersection of child abuse and children’s exposure to domestic violence. Trauma,
Violence, and Abuse, 9, 84-99.
Luthar, S.S.; Cicchetti, D. & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience A critical evaluation and
guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71(3), 543-562.
Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. American Journal of
Orthopsychiatry, 57(3), 316-331.
Werner, E.E. (1993). Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai longitudinal study.
Development and Psychopathology, 5(4), 503-515.
Yates, R.M.; Dodds, M.F.; Sroufe, L.A. & Egeland, B. (2003). Exposure to partner violence and
child behavior problems: A prospective study controlling for child physical abuse and
neglect, child cognitive ability, socioeconomic status, and life stress. Development and
Psychopathology, 15, 199-218.