The Imitation Game: understanding expertise is essential for an evidence based Social Work practice

Richard McKenny
Research Centre Manager

17 December 2018


The WWC Practitioner’s Panel meeting in November examined some of the evidence relating to skills transmission. One of the tricky questions that arises when thinking about such a centre is how can we influence the actual practices of social workers in the room with families?

Can simply knowing more about an approach, for example, through reading about it and understanding the evidence for it, lead to social workers successfully adopting the approach as a practice?

Harry Collins, a sociologist at Cardiff University, has spent many years trying to answer these kinds of questions. Harry has developed a typology of expertise, and he is particularly well known for making the distinction between contributory and interactional expertise.

Contributory expertise is the exclusive property of practitioners within a particular domain of prac-tice, such as social work. Interactional expertise is a form of expertise about a practice that is not gained through (recent) practice. For example, journalists who write regularly about social work will develop some interactional expertise in relation to social work practice over time, without de-veloping contributory expertise (although they will develop contributory expertise in journalism). Social work managers and academics will, over time, lose their contributory expertise in social work practice, while gaining contributory expertise in supervision, management, organisational leadership, research – whatever the actual practices required in their role. An important distinction to make is that contributory expertise seems to be based on the development and use of reflexive abilities while interactional expertise requires only reflective abilities.

Harry is particularly well known for the development of the Imitation Game, a test of the limits of interactional expertise in relation to contributory expertise. It can be very difficult to tell the dif-ference between an interactional expert and a contributory expert when they talk about the domain of practice, and there is a risk that this might create the impression that there is not much differ-ence between the two. However, Harry Collins’s experimental work has shown that for practi-tioners to develop new skills, contact with a contributory expert and learning directly through prac-tice is essential. Interactional expertise, being able to talk-the-talk, does not allow you to show others how to walk-the-walk, and so knowing what works is only a small part of the problem of knowing how to make what works work.

The relatively widespread possession of interactional expertise in social work practice – amongst teachers, health visitors, GPs, CAMHS clinicians, youth workers, academics, police officers, poli-ticians, volunteers in all sorts of organisations – coupled with the difficulty of distinguishing be-tween interactional and contributory expertise through talking, leads to a widespread under-appreciation of the high level of skill required to be a contributory social work practice expert. In-deed, there are many people who think the kinds of expert skills I am talking about do not exist, and the practice of frontline children’s social work – such as, what to say in situations like a child protection home visit – is a matter of common sense.

For further information about the Imitation Game see the linked video in which Harry Collins shows how he has used the Imitation Game to explore the concept of interactional expertise. I would invite you to watch the first 10 minutes: