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Social Work Research Methods by Allen Rubin LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017 LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0008

Social work research means conducting an investigation in accordance with the scientific method. The aim of social work research is to build the social work knowledge base in order to solve practical problems in social work practice or social policy. Investigating phenomena in accordance with the scientific method requires maximal adherence to empirical principles, such as basing conclusions on observations that have been gathered in a systematic, comprehensive, and objective fashion. The resources in this entry discuss how to do that as well as how to utilize and teach research methods in social work. Other professions and disciplines commonly produce applied research that can guide social policy or social work practice. Yet no commonly accepted distinction exists at this time between social work research methods and research methods in allied fields relevant to social work. Consequently useful references pertaining to research methods in allied fields that can be applied to social work research are included in this entry.

This section includes basic textbooks that are used in courses on social work research methods. Considerable variation exists between textbooks on the broad topic of social work research methods. Some are comprehensive and delve into topics deeply and at a more advanced level than others. That variation is due in part to the different needs of instructors at the undergraduate and graduate levels of social work education. Most instructors at the undergraduate level prefer shorter and relatively simplified texts; however, some instructors teaching introductory master’s courses on research prefer such texts too. The texts in this section that might best fit their preferences are by Yegidis and Weinbach 2009 and Rubin and Babbie 2007 . The remaining books might fit the needs of instructors at both levels who prefer a more comprehensive and deeper coverage of research methods. Among them Rubin and Babbie 2008 is perhaps the most extensive and is often used at the doctoral level as well as the master’s and undergraduate levels. Also extensive are Drake and Jonson-Reid 2007 , Grinnell and Unrau 2007 , Kreuger and Neuman 2006 , and Thyer 2001 . What distinguishes Drake and Jonson-Reid 2007 is its heavy inclusion of statistical and Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) content integrated with each chapter. Grinnell and Unrau 2007 and Thyer 2001 are unique in that they are edited volumes with different authors for each chapter. Kreuger and Neuman 2006 takes Neuman’s social sciences research text and adapts it to social work. The Practitioner’s Guide to Using Research for Evidence-based Practice ( Rubin 2007 ) emphasizes the critical appraisal of research, covering basic research methods content in a relatively simplified format for instructors who want to teach research methods as part of the evidence-based practice process instead of with the aim of teaching students how to produce research.

Drake, Brett, and Melissa Jonson-Reid. 2007. Social work research methods: From conceptualization to dissemination . Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

This introductory text is distinguished by its use of many evidence-based practice examples and its heavy coverage of statistical and computer analysis of data.

Grinnell, Richard M., and Yvonne A. Unrau, eds. 2007. Social work research and evaluation: Quantitative and qualitative approaches . 8th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Contains chapters written by different authors, each focusing on a comprehensive range of social work research topics.

Kreuger, Larry W., and W. Lawrence Neuman. 2006. Social work research methods: Qualitative and quantitative applications . Boston: Pearson, Allyn, and Bacon.

An adaptation to social work of Neuman's social sciences research methods text. Its framework emphasizes comparing quantitative and qualitative approaches. Despite its title, quantitative methods receive more attention than qualitative methods, although it does contain considerable qualitative content.

Rubin, Allen. 2007. Practitioner’s guide to using research for evidence-based practice . Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

This text focuses on understanding quantitative and qualitative research methods and designs for the purpose of appraising research as part of the evidence-based practice process. It also includes chapters on instruments for assessment and monitoring practice outcomes. It can be used at the graduate or undergraduate level.

Rubin, Allen, and Earl R. Babbie. 2007. Essential research methods for social work . Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks Cole.

This is a shorter and less advanced version of Rubin and Babbie 2008 . It can be used for research methods courses at the undergraduate or master's levels of social work education.

Rubin, Allen, and Earl R. Babbie. Research Methods for Social Work . 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks Cole, 2008.

This comprehensive text focuses on producing quantitative and qualitative research as well as utilizing such research as part of the evidence-based practice process. It is widely used for teaching research methods courses at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels of social work education.

Thyer, Bruce A., ed. 2001 The handbook of social work research methods . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

This comprehensive compendium includes twenty-nine chapters written by esteemed leaders in social work research. It covers quantitative and qualitative methods as well as general issues.

Yegidis, Bonnie L., and Robert W. Weinbach. 2009. Research methods for social workers . 6th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

This introductory paperback text covers a broad range of social work research methods and does so in a briefer fashion than most lengthier, hardcover introductory research methods texts.

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Social Work Research

Social research:.

Social Work Research:

Social work research is the application of research method to the production of knowledge that social workers needs to solve problems they confront in the practice of social work. Social work research provides information that can be taken into consideration by social workers prior to making decisions, that affect their clients, programs or agencies such as use of alternative intervention techniques or change or modification of programs and so forth.

Goals of Social Work Research:

Social Work is a pragmatic subject. The major objective of social work research is to search for answer regarding the following questions- How to make intervention and treatment effective in social work practice, How to deal with the problems faced by the social work practioners in practicing their profession and how to develop the theory, Knowledge and social work practice.

Social Work Research Process:

Social work research begin with identification of problem and setting up of goals, followed is the process of need assessment of the clients problems, the next step is to set up goals is be achieved.

The goals should be specific, precisely defined and measurable. The next step is to have pre-intervention measurement, that is, measurement prior to intervention. It is used as basis through which clients’ condition has been compared after intervention. Next step is the introduction of intervention. In the last stage, research assesses the effects of intervention by comparing the two measurements that is pre-intervention measurement and post intervention measurement.

Nature of Social Work Research:

Social work research primarily deals with problems, faced by professional social workers, social work agencies and community in its concern with social work functions. In other words in social work research the problems to be investigated are always found in the course of doing social work or planning to do it. (Dasgupta, 1968)

Scope of Social Work Research:

Social work research is conducted to know the effectiveness of different methods of social work and to search for alternative treatment and intervention. Social work research also organised to identify social work needs and resources, evaluate the programs and services of social work agencies are the areas in which social work research are conducted.

Social work research may be conducted to know the problem faced by social work professionals and the concerned community. Overalls, social work research covers entire social work profession concept, theories, methods, program, services and the problems faced by social workers in their practice. As social work is diverse profession, other possible broad research area could be : community health, community mental health, child welfare, women welfare, youth welfare, aged welfare, substance abuse, poverty alleviation, mental retardation, juvenile delinquency crime and correctional administration etc.

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What are Social Work Research Methods?

social work research concept

Social Work research methods include surveys, ethnographic descriptions, studies, randomized trials, and needs tests. What makes one data point stronger than another? Ask any researcher, social work domain or otherwise. They’ll refer to the importance of avoiding the many forms of researcher bias, clearly expressing the problem, and using the properly structured methodology, among other essential steps.

Strategies for collecting reliable data may vary slightly depending on the nature of the study, but the underlying concept is this: nothing outside the natural environment can influence the data. If the researcher controls the data, then the correlation between the hypothesis and the results is weakened significantly.

So, how can researchers in the social work field strive for the highest standards of objectivity in their findings? The answer starts with the proper methodology. The structure of each study needs to conform to the environment in which the hypothesis was formed and not the other way around. For example, if a researcher wants to test how participants respond to different management styles in the workplace, they would do best not to remove the person from their work environment – even if the researcher simulated one of their own.

In some scenarios, observing participants in their environments like the above example is appropriate. Maybe a simple survey would indeed work when it comes to perceptions and behaviors that aren’t dependent on the environment. However, researchers in the social work field have to rely on several research methods to observe and collect the data as it exists in its natural domain. Let’s summarize some of the most common structures, starting with the already mentioned survey method.

Especially when researchers have access to large participant groups, surveys are a simple, affordable, and reliable research method. The structure is simple: participants answer a series of questions designed to test the researcher’s hypothesis. If the researcher wants to evaluate the effects of digital media on certain perceptions, for example, they could ask participants to express their thoughts on popular events and people. Then, researchers send out the surveys, aggregate the results and form their conclusions based on the trends within the data.

As with many of the following methods, it is not the implementation of the survey method itself that can be tricky but knowing when and how to use it properly. If the topic(s) being covered by the survey can’t be addressed with simple questions and answers, researchers need to opt for more open-ended data collection techniques. If respondents feel embarrassed or incriminated by answering truthfully, they may skew the results – observational methods would prevent this issue in many cases.

Ethnographic Description

Like a probe sent deep into a planet’s surface to collect data unobtainable from the surface, ethnographic studies seek to immerse the researcher in another culture for more significant insights into any number of behaviors and beliefs. Contrary to surveys, ethnographic methods are generally more time-consuming and costly. A researcher may travel across the world to live within a culture for weeks, months, or longer, adopting that culture’s practices to enrich their understanding. Then, they bring all of their data back home, where they use it to help other groups merge with members of the researched group.

Ethnographic research models can overlap with others. As mentioned, the researcher will generally travel to an area and immerse themselves in the culture. This can include:

Case Studies

Popular in the business world, case studies are also well-suited to research efforts in social work. Simply put, a case study is an example – a real-life scenario that provides a testing ground for a hypothesis. Researchers can examine data from an ethnographic study, for example, even if the survey had a completely different objective, to demonstrate certain behaviors’ social or individual impact (or lack thereof). Though everyday events can be justified as case studies, researchers are often hard-pressed to prove that no extraneous variables affect the data since real-life scenarios don’t occur in controlled environments.

Case studies are helpful in many scenarios, but they address a specific theory. Therefore, they can be used throughout the literature review and research phases to accomplish the following objectives:

Single-System Design

Experiments in the medical field especially tend to follow a model that compares the results (of a drug, treatment, etc.) across two groups: the control group, which doesn’t receive treatment, and the experimental group, which does. In a single-system design, however, there is only one group. Often, this “group” is just one person. Moreover, the person or group is generally studied to assess their response to different variables over a long period.

With no control group, though, how do researchers gauge the effects of any particular variable? By manipulating the variable itself, not the audience. Single-system designs test the products of different independent variables. The experimenter applies the dependent variable and the result of these changes, and the theory being tested.

Let’s say that a researcher in the social work domain wants to determine the effect of digital media consumption on antisocial behaviors. Instead of setting up a control group (no digital media consumption) and an experimental group (two hours of digital media consumption per day per participant) to test their hypothesis, the researcher will change the nature of the digital media consumption for a single participant, recording the results of each change.

Program Evaluation

This particular vein of research is highly relevant to social workers, who often ally with programs of all kinds as a way of increasing access to vital resources for their clientele. The government or private investors may fund a program. Regardless, nobody supports a project unless they think it will be successful. A program evaluation allows everyone to assess a program’s fitness across multiple dynamics.

This research method requires a comprehensive look at recent findings to prove the effectiveness of a particular program. Even after a program has launched, program evaluations can help to refine things for greater efficiency. The following list of questions will help to define the purpose and applications of a program evaluation:

Needs Assessment

Needs assessments are also fundamental to the sociological perspective because they seek to identify deficiencies in specific populations. Of course, one does not define a population only by region, income level, or ethnicity. However, these three factors comprise the majority of cases.

This research method is integral to social work at all levels. A social worker in the field, for example, can use needs assessments to identify opportunities for improvement with an individual client. Conversely, researchers, program planners, and executive-level social work professionals can apply needs assessments to entire communities to affect change on a larger scale. In either case, needs assessments are part of the planning process when conducting research, creating resources, or developing a care plan for one person.

Randomized Trials

Finally, the randomized trial is one of the purest and most broadly applied experimental models. Randomization, in this case, refers to how you select participants to be part of the control or experimental groups. Furthermore, you experiment with a formulaic, easily reproducible, and highly measurable fashion. First, the randomly assigned experimental group is subjected to the variable. It may be a treatment or a specific stimulus. Then, the randomly assigned control group is not. Next, the response of both groups are measured and compared, and when applicable, a new variable is tested in the same fashion.

This research model is most appropriate when responses are easily quantifiable in both social work and the medical field. Comparing subjective responses between two groups yields less actionable and prominent information than, for example, a measurable change in blood pressure.

To reiterate, no research model is objectively “better” than the other; each has its application. Properly selecting and applying a model (or a combination of models) requires researchers to comprehensively evaluate the subject’s environment, the nature of the data (subjective, objective, or both?), the hypothesis, and so forth. Nevertheless, the proper research method can introduce precious findings that hold up against future inquiries when used correctly.

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6.1 Basic concepts of sampling

Learning objectives.

In social scientific research, a population is the cluster of people you are most interested in; it is often the “who” that you want to be able to say something about at the end of your study. Populations in research may be rather large, such as “the American people,” but they are usually less vague than that. For example, a large study for which the population of interest is more generally “the American people” will likely specify which American people, such as adults over the age of 18 or citizens or legal permanent residents it is examining.

It is quite rare for researchers to gather data from their entire population of interest. This might sound surprising or disappointing until you think about the kinds of research questions that social workers typically ask. For example, let’s say we wish to answer the following research question: “How does gender impact success in a batterer intervention program?” Would you expect to be able to collect data from all people in batterer intervention programs across all nations from all historical time periods? Unless you plan to make answering this research question your entire life’s work (and then some), your answer is probably a resounding no. So, what to do? Do you have to give up your research interest because you don’t have the time or resources to gather data from every single person of interest?

Absolutely not. Instead, researchers use a smaller sample that is intended to represent the population in their studies.

Sampling frames

An intermediate point between the overall population and the sample that is drawn for the research is called a sampling frame . A sampling frame is a list of people from which researchers draw a sample. But where do you find a sampling frame? Answering this question is one of the first steps in conducting human subjects research. Social work researchers must think about locations or groups in which their target population gathers or interacts. For example, a study on quality of care in nursing homes may choose a local nursing home because it’s easy to access. The sampling frame could be all of the patients at the nursing home. You would select your participants for your study from the list of patients at the nursing home. An administrator at the nursing home would give you a list with every resident’s name on it from which you would select your participants. If you decided to include more nursing homes in your study, then your sampling frame could be all of the patients at all of the nursing homes you included.

social work research concept

The nursing home example is perhaps an easy one. Let’s consider some more examples. Unlike nursing home patients, cancer survivors do not live in an enclosed location and may no longer receive treatment at a hospital or clinic. For social work researchers to reach participants, they may consider partnering with a support group that serves this population. Perhaps there is a support group at a local church in which survivors may cycle in and out based on need. Without a set list of people, your sampling frame would simply be the people who showed up to the support group on the nights you were there.  In this case, you don’t start with an actual list; you have a hypothetical one.  The sampling frame only comes into existence after you go to the support group and collect names.

More challenging still is recruiting people who are homeless, those with very low income, or people who belong to stigmatized groups. For example, a research study by Johnson and Johnson (2014) attempted to learn usage patterns of “bath salts,” or synthetic stimulants that are marketed as “legal highs.” Users of “bath salts” don’t often gather for meetings, and reaching out to individual treatment centers is unlikely to produce enough participants for a study as use of bath salts is rare. To reach participants, these researchers ingeniously used online discussion boards in which users of these drugs share information. Their sampling frame included everyone who participated in the online discussion boards during the time they collected data. Regardless of whether a sampling frame is easy or challenging, the first rule of sampling is: go where your participants are .

selecting study participants

Once you have a sampling frame, you need to identify a strategy for sampling participants.  You will learn more about sampling strategies later in this chapter.  At this point, it is helpful to realize that there may be some people in your sampling frame that you do not ultimately to enroll in your study.  You may have certain characteristics or attributes that individuals must have if they participate in your study. These are known as inclusion and exclusion criteria. Inclusion criteria are the characteristics a person must possess in order to be included in your sample. If you were conducting a survey on LGBTQ discrimination at your agency, you might want to sample only clients who identify as LGBTQ. In that case, your inclusion criteria for your sample would be that individuals have to identify as LGBTQ. Comparably, exclusion criteria are characteristics that disqualify a person from being included in your sample. In the previous example, perhaps you are mainly interested in discrimination in the workplace and don’t want to focus on bullying in schools.  You might exclude individuals who have not worked, who are currently enrolled in school, or might even set an age limit to people who are legal adults and exclude people who are less than 18 years old.  Many times, exclusion criteria are often the mirror image of inclusion criteria.  This would be the case if the inclusion criteria included being age 18 or older and the exclusion criteria included being less than 18 years old.

At this stage, you are ready to recruit your participants into your study. Recruitment refers to the process by which the researcher informs potential participants about the study and attempts to get them to participate. Recruitment comes in many different forms. If you have ever received a phone call asking for you to participate in a survey, someone has attempted to recruit you for their study. Perhaps you’ve seen print advertisements on buses, in student centers, or in a periodical.  As you learn more about specific types of sampling, you can make sure your recruitment strategy makes sense with your sampling approach.

social work research concept

Once you recruit and enroll participants, you end up with a sample. A sample is the group of people you successfully recruit from your sampling frame to participate in your study. If you are a participant in a research project—answering survey questions, participating in interviews, etc.—you are part of the sample of that research project. Some social work research doesn’t use people at all. Instead of people, the elements selected for inclusion into a sample are documents, including client records, blog entries, or television shows. A researcher conducting this kind of analysis, described in detail in Chapter 10, still goes through the stages of sampling—identifying a sampling frame, applying inclusion criteria, and gathering the sample.

Applying sampling terms

Sampling terms can be a bit daunting at first. However, with some practice, they will become second nature.  The process flows sequentially from figuring out your target population to thinking about where to find people from your target population to finding a sampling frame of people in your population to recruiting people from that list to be a part of your sample. Through the sampling process, you must consider where people in your target population are likely to be and how best to get their attention for your study. Sampling can be an easy process, like calling every 100th name from the phone book one afternoon, or challenging, like standing every day for a few weeks in an area in which people who are homeless gather for shelter. In either case, your goal is to recruit enough people who will participate in your study so you can learn about your population.

A figure showing the progression from population to sample using boxes with arrows between the boxes: Population to Identify Sampling Frame to Choose Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria to Recruit and Enroll Participants to Sample

In the next two sections of this chapter, we will discuss sampling approaches, also known as sampling techniques or types of samples. Sampling approach determines how a researcher selects people from the sampling frame to recruit into her sample. Because the goals of qualitative and quantitative research differ, so too does the sampling approach. Quantitative approaches often allow researchers to make claims about populations that are much larger than their actual sample with a fair amount of confidence. Qualitative approaches are designed to allow researchers to make conclusions that are specific to one time, place, context, and group of people. We will review both of these approaches to sampling in the coming sections of this chapter. First, we examine sampling types and techniques used in qualitative research. After that, we’ll look at how sampling typically works in quantitative research.

Key Takeaways

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Foundations of Social Work Research by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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