Social Work Research Methods That Drive the Practice

A social worker surveys a community member.

Social workers advocate for the well-being of individuals, families and communities. But how do social workers know what interventions are needed to help an individual? How do they assess whether a treatment plan is working? What do social workers use to write evidence-based policy?

Social work involves research-informed practice and practice-informed research. At every level, social workers need to know objective facts about the populations they serve, the efficacy of their interventions and the likelihood that their policies will improve lives. A variety of social work research methods make that possible.

Data-Driven Work

Data is a collection of facts used for reference and analysis. In a field as broad as social work, data comes in many forms.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

As with any research, social work research involves both quantitative and qualitative studies.

Quantitative Research

Answers to questions like these can help social workers know about the populations they serve — or hope to serve in the future.

  • How many students currently receive reduced-price school lunches in the local school district?
  • How many hours per week does a specific individual consume digital media?
  • How frequently did community members access a specific medical service last year?

Quantitative data — facts that can be measured and expressed numerically — are crucial for social work.

Quantitative research has advantages for social scientists. Such research can be more generalizable to large populations, as it uses specific sampling methods and lends itself to large datasets. It can provide important descriptive statistics about a specific population. Furthermore, by operationalizing variables, it can help social workers easily compare similar datasets with one another.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative data — facts that cannot be measured or expressed in terms of mere numbers or counts — offer rich insights into individuals, groups and societies. It can be collected via interviews and observations.

  • What attitudes do students have toward the reduced-price school lunch program?
  • What strategies do individuals use to moderate their weekly digital media consumption?
  • What factors made community members more or less likely to access a specific medical service last year?

Qualitative research can thereby provide a textured view of social contexts and systems that may not have been possible with quantitative methods. Plus, it may even suggest new lines of inquiry for social work research.

Mixed Methods Research

Combining quantitative and qualitative methods into a single study is known as mixed methods research. This form of research has gained popularity in the study of social sciences, according to a 2019 report in the academic journal Theory and Society. Since quantitative and qualitative methods answer different questions, merging them into a single study can balance the limitations of each and potentially produce more in-depth findings.

However, mixed methods research is not without its drawbacks. Combining research methods increases the complexity of a study and generally requires a higher level of expertise to collect, analyze and interpret the data. It also requires a greater level of effort, time and often money.

The Importance of Research Design

Data-driven practice plays an essential role in social work. Unlike philanthropists and altruistic volunteers, social workers are obligated to operate from a scientific knowledge base.

To know whether their programs are effective, social workers must conduct research to determine results, aggregate those results into comprehensible data, analyze and interpret their findings, and use evidence to justify next steps.

Employing the proper design ensures that any evidence obtained during research enables social workers to reliably answer their research questions.

Research Methods in Social Work

The various social work research methods have specific benefits and limitations determined by context. Common research methods include surveys, program evaluations, needs assessments, randomized controlled trials, descriptive studies and single-system designs.

Surveys involve a hypothesis and a series of questions in order to test that hypothesis. Social work researchers will send out a survey, receive responses, aggregate the results, analyze the data, and form conclusions based on trends.

Surveys are one of the most common research methods social workers use — and for good reason. They tend to be relatively simple and are usually affordable. However, surveys generally require large participant groups, and self-reports from survey respondents are not always reliable.

Program Evaluations

Social workers ally with all sorts of programs: after-school programs, government initiatives, nonprofit projects and private programs, for example.

Crucially, social workers must evaluate a program’s effectiveness in order to determine whether the program is meeting its goals and what improvements can be made to better serve the program’s target population.

Evidence-based programming helps everyone save money and time, and comparing programs with one another can help social workers make decisions about how to structure new initiatives. Evaluating programs becomes complicated, however, when programs have multiple goal metrics, some of which may be vague or difficult to assess (e.g., “we aim to promote the well-being of our community”).

Needs Assessments

Social workers use needs assessments to identify services and necessities that a population lacks access to.

Common social work populations that researchers may perform needs assessments on include:

  • People in a specific income group
  • Everyone in a specific geographic region
  • A specific ethnic group
  • People in a specific age group

In the field, a social worker may use a combination of methods (e.g., surveys and descriptive studies) to learn more about a specific population or program. Social workers look for gaps between the actual context and a population’s or individual’s “wants” or desires.

For example, a social worker could conduct a needs assessment with an individual with cancer trying to navigate the complex medical-industrial system. The social worker may ask the client questions about the number of hours they spend scheduling doctor’s appointments, commuting and managing their many medications. After learning more about the specific client needs, the social worker can identify opportunities for improvements in an updated care plan.

In policy and program development, social workers conduct needs assessments to determine where and how to effect change on a much larger scale. Integral to social work at all levels, needs assessments reveal crucial information about a population’s needs to researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders. Needs assessments may fall short, however, in revealing the root causes of those needs (e.g., structural racism).

Randomized Controlled Trials

Randomized controlled trials are studies in which a randomly selected group is subjected to a variable (e.g., a specific stimulus or treatment) and a control group is not. Social workers then measure and compare the results of the randomized group with the control group in order to glean insights about the effectiveness of a particular intervention or treatment.

Randomized controlled trials are easily reproducible and highly measurable. They’re useful when results are easily quantifiable. However, this method is less helpful when results are not easily quantifiable (i.e., when rich data such as narratives and on-the-ground observations are needed).

Descriptive Studies

Descriptive studies immerse the researcher in another context or culture to study specific participant practices or ways of living. Descriptive studies, including descriptive ethnographic studies, may overlap with and include other research methods:

  • Informant interviews
  • Census data
  • Observation

By using descriptive studies, researchers may glean a richer, deeper understanding of a nuanced culture or group on-site. The main limitations of this research method are that it tends to be time-consuming and expensive.

Single-System Designs

Unlike most medical studies, which involve testing a drug or treatment on two groups — an experimental group that receives the drug/treatment and a control group that does not — single-system designs allow researchers to study just one group (e.g., an individual or family).

Single-system designs typically entail studying a single group over a long period of time and may involve assessing the group’s response to multiple variables.

For example, consider a study on how media consumption affects a person’s mood. One way to test a hypothesis that consuming media correlates with low mood would be to observe two groups: a control group (no media) and an experimental group (two hours of media per day). When employing a single-system design, however, researchers would observe a single participant as they watch two hours of media per day for one week and then four hours per day of media the next week.

These designs allow researchers to test multiple variables over a longer period of time. However, similar to descriptive studies, single-system designs can be fairly time-consuming and costly.

Learn More About Social Work Research Methods

Social workers have the opportunity to improve the social environment by advocating for the vulnerable — including children, older adults and people with disabilities — and facilitating and developing resources and programs.

Learn more about how you can earn your  Master of Social Work online at Virginia Commonwealth University . The highest-ranking school of social work in Virginia, VCU has a wide range of courses online. That means students can earn their degrees with the flexibility of learning at home. Learn more about how you can take your career in social work further with VCU.

From M.S.W. to LCSW: Understanding Your Career Path as a Social Worker

How Palliative Care Social Workers Support Patients With Terminal Illnesses

How to Become a Social Worker in Health Care, Mixed Methods Study

MVS Open Press, Foundations of Social Work Research

Open Social Work Education, Scientific Inquiry in Social Work

Open Social Work, Graduate Research Methods in Social Work: A Project-Based Approach

Routledge, Research for Social Workers: An Introduction to Methods

SAGE Publications, Research Methods for Social Work: A Problem-Based Approach

Theory and Society, Mixed Methods Research: What It Is and What It Could Be


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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Work Research Methods


  • History of Social Work Research Methods
  • Feasibility Issues Influencing the Research Process
  • Measurement Methods
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  • Group Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Evaluating Outcome
  • Single-System Designs for Evaluating Outcome
  • Program Evaluation
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  • Qualitative Research Methods
  • Qualitative Data Analysis
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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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Research Methods for Social Work: A Problem-Based Approach

  • By: Antoinette Y. Farmer & G. Lawrence Farmer
  • Publisher: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Publication year: 2021
  • Online pub date: February 16, 2022
  • Discipline: Sociology
  • Methods: Survey research , Measurement , Dependent variables
  • DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781071878873
  • Keywords: critical thinking , depression , knowledge , persons , population , students , surveying Show all Show less
  • Print ISBN: 9781506345307
  • Online ISBN: 9781071878873
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Subject index

Research Methods for Social Work: A Problem-Based Approach is a comprehensive introduction to methods instruction that engages students innovatively and interactively. Using a case study and problem-based learning (PBL) approach, authors Antoinette Y. Farmer and G. Lawrence Farmer utilize case examples to achieve a level of application which builds readers’ confidence in methodology and reinforces their understanding of research across all levels of social work practice. These real case examples, along with critical thinking questions, research tips, and step-by-step problem-solving methods, will improve student mastery and help them see why research is relevant. With the guidance of this new and noteworthy textbook, readers will transform into both knowledgeable consumers of research and skilled practitioners who can effectively address the needs of their clients through research. FREE DIGITAL TOOLS INCLUDED WITH THIS TEXT SAGE Edge gives instructors and students the edge they need to succeed with an array of teaching and learning tools in one easy-to-navigate website. Learn more:

Front Matter

  • Acknowledgements
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Authors
  • Chapter 1 | Evidence-Based Practice
  • Chapter 2 | Research Ethics
  • Chapter 3 | The Research Process
  • Chapter 4 | Problem Formulation
  • Chapter 5 | Measurement
  • Chapter 6 | Experimental Designs
  • Chapter 7 | Quasi-Experimental Designs
  • Chapter 8 | Qualitative Research
  • Chapter 9 | Mixed-Methods Research
  • Chapter 10 | Observational Research
  • Chapter 11 | Sampling
  • Chapter 12 | Survey Research
  • Chapter 13 | Quantitative Data Analysis
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Qualitative Methods in Social Work Research

Qualitative Methods in Social Work Research

  • Deborah K. Padgett - New York University, USA
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“Padgett is the ultimate ‘pro’ researcher, methods expert, and communicator. This is the one book you need for master's study, professional practice research, doctoral study, and your continuing research agenda!”

“Dr. Padgett’s text Qualitative Methods in Social Work Research is informative and easy for students to read and understand. The book offers clear advice to students about how to design and execute qualitative research studies.” 

“Padgett uses her extensive experience to expertly achieve two seemingly contradictory ends: educate about the conceptual underpinnings of qualitative research methods, and provide the concrete steps needed to carry them out. As a research discipline that is often not fully understood by many, Qualitative Methods in Social Work Research will be appreciated by academics and students alike.”

“Padgett knows how to make students and even lecturers curious about qualitative methods and she copes in her book very well the gap between an overview and a deeper understanding of research methods.”

The book offers a good overview of qualitative methods that can be used within and beyond the field of social work- I think students struggling with the aims and methods of qualitative research can find it very helpful

A very informative and accessible resource for research and teaching!

Received too late for current class. However, I would strongly recommend this text for any social research methods class. The book is filled with excellent examples and wonderful suggested readings at the end of each chapter. This is one of the most comprehensive approaches to qualitative research methods I have ever read. I believe this text would serve upper-division undergraduates and grasduate stduents very well.

  • Expanded discussions of the six most commonly used qualitative approaches address ethnography, grounded theory, case study analysis, narrative approaches, phenomenological approaches, and action-oriented research.
  • Additional comprehensive coverage of topics includes action-oriented research, innovations in visual (photography and video) and Internet/online data collection, and recent advancements in meta-syntheses and implementation science.
  • Early introductions on ethical issues and strategies for rigor cover emotional issues for both researchers and study participants.
  • More in-depth discussion on cross-cultural and cross-language research prepares readers for engagement in community and multinational research.   
  • Data collection techniques in one chapter create a single point of reference for students and faculty to find examples of coding, use of ATLAS.ti software (including screenshots), codebook development, and online data collection.
  • A broad multidisciplinary perspective rooted in social work is applicable to other practice professions such as nursing, education, family and community medicine, public health, psychology, and public administration.
  • An emphasis on practical use is seen through exemplars of qualitative studies, information on computer software for qualitative data analysis, and detailed guidelines for writing a qualitative research proposal (Appendix).
  • Specific illustrative case examples from the literature and the author’s own research aid readers in understanding concepts.
  • A straightforward and conversational style makes this book accessible and engaging for readers.
  • Chapters thoughtfully organized follow the sequence of conducting a qualitative study, encouraging proper application of representative research methods.

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Article Contents

Introduction, what is practice research and why (and for whom) does it matter, practice research as an organisationally rooted participatory research methodology, practice research frameworks, how can service users benefit from participating in practice research, integrating practice research processes into social service organisational analysis, applications of practice research for social service organisations, methodological and ethical considerations for practice research-based organisational analysis, implications and an agenda for social work researchers, acknowledgements.

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Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and implications for social service organisations

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Bowen McBeath, Michael J Austin, Sarah Carnochan, Emmeline Chuang, Practice research methods in social work: Processes, applications and implications for social service organisations, The British Journal of Social Work , Volume 52, Issue 6, September 2022, Pages 3328–3346,

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Although social work research is commonly rooted within social service settings, it can be difficult for social work researchers and practitioners to develop and sustain participatory studies that specifically promote knowledge sharing and service improvement involving organisational practice. One participatory approach is practice research (PR), which involves social work researchers and practitioners collaborating to define, understand and try to improve the delivery of health and social care services and organisational structures and processes. The two goals of this commentary are to introduce essential methods and approaches to PR and to identify points of connection involving PR and social service organisational studies. Our specific focus on PR in statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations reflects efforts to connect practice, theory and qualitative and quantitative research methods to develop and share organisationally-situated knowledge.

This paper offers an overview of practice research (PR) that focuses on the delivery of social work services in social service organisations. PR is a participatory method used by researchers to address the needs of vulnerable populations, notably poor communities of colour, who receive health and social care services in formal organisational settings. PR is ‘a knowledge development process that focuses primarily on the roles of the service provider, service user, and the service researcher who all participate in defining the research questions and interpreting the findings’ ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ). PR therefore seeks to improve social work and other social services and promote the well-being of service users; and functions as a collaborative process that minimises power differentials between participants ( Austin, 2020 ).

The macro-organisational context of PR studies includes concerns of managerialism amidst neoliberalism, involving increased professionalisation, the use of evidence-based practices and the structuring of service programmes around carefully defined performance measures in response to administrative and policy requirements ( Hasenfeld and Garrow, 2012 ; Harlow et al. , 2013 ; Yan et al. , 2017 ). The meso-organisational context of PR studies involves the development and sustainment of organisational spaces for reflection and sharing that support practitioner engagement in evidence-informed practice ( Carnochan et al. , 2017 ; Brandt et al. , 2020 ). The immediate context for PR is the bureaucratic encounters that involve staff and service users as well as practitioner use of research to promote organisational learning ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). With its specific focus on statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations, PR aims to strengthen the collaborative capacity of practitioners and researchers to support service improvement and responsiveness to the perspectives of service users (capturing the expertise of experience).

In order to describe PR within organisations providing health and social care services, our paper is divided into four sections. First, we provide a brief introduction to PR to characterise its core elements. We also provide a brief review of the major approaches to PR, distinguishing between PR frameworks at different levels of practice and in different geographic contexts. We then identify how service users can benefit from PR. Secondly, we identify how PR processes can be integrated within social service organisational analysis, focusing in particular on how practice researchers and their agency partners (notably front line staff and managers) collaboratively seek to improve social service delivery, support organisational learning and promote interorganisational knowledge sharing. We also summarise PR processes that are based on the core concepts embedded in the science of the concrete (SOC) ( Flyvbjerg, 2001 ). Thirdly, we illustrate the applications of PR for local authorities/counties and voluntary social service organisations with the use of three brief examples featuring methodological and ethical considerations for researchers using PR approaches. Finally, we conclude by identifying implications for social work organisational researchers participating in PR studies and proposing a future research agenda.

At its core, PR is a negotiated process involving multiple stakeholders ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ). These stakeholders include statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations; managers, staff and service users within the organisation; researchers; and policymakers and community leaders. They all function within the context of intergroup communications, negotiation and shared learning needed to address the gap between research and practice and support learning across role-based social, cultural and organisational distances ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ).

In order to address this gap, PR involves elements of both practice and research. The elements of practice include: (1) engaging and including diverse types of stakeholders; (2) an effort to rebalance power relationships across organisational contexts, by validating the experiences and expertise of participants at different levels of the organisation; (3) open and frequent conversations to promote dialogue and sustain norms of trust and reciprocity; and (4) an appreciation for the critical role of organisational supports (notably managers) for exploring service innovation ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ).

Essential research elements of PR include the use of quantitative and qualitative data, as well as the reliance on evidence collected within the agency setting. The use of different types of evidence can generate two major research tensions; namely, balancing the breadth (as seen in large organisational surveys and administrative service databases) and depth (e.g. analysis of client case records, in-depth interviews) of research while navigating the tension between research rigour and practice wisdom displayed by practitioners and service users ( Julkunen, 2011 ).

These practice and research elements are integrated into PR studies that evolve in response to ongoing and changing agency needs and priorities. Facilitated group dialogue is used to collaboratively identify practice concerns, conduct research in response to the concerns, and share findings with a focus on assessing current social work practices and identifying opportunities for improvement ( Austin, 2020 ). PR involves power sharing and role shifting through reciprocal learning, as traditionally less-engaged stakeholders explore new roles (e.g. from service user to PR partner); and as managers and researchers reframe their traditional roles (e.g. exploring the emergence of practice-informed management research and research-informed management practice) ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ).

As one of several participatory social science research methods, PR reflects the emphasis of researchers on practice-in-context. In particular, PR shares a number of characteristics with participatory action research (PAR) and empowerment evaluation. In each method, collaboration with service users and other stakeholder groups is central to identifying basic research questions that relate to practices, programmes and/or policies as expressions of larger institutional forces. Furthermore, these approaches draw on diverse sources of literature, including practice and policy reports as well as academic research studies, to inform research questions. Lastly, collaborative collection and analysis of qualitative and/or quantitative data is carried out by research and practice partners across the three research traditions ( Healy, 2001 ; Fetterman et al. , 2017 ).

However, while PR shares many similarities with PAR and programme evaluation principles, it also differs in several important ways related to goals, data sources, data interpretation and the nature of knowledge development and dissemination (see Table 1 ). For example, a main goal of programme evaluation includes the central role of specifying programme objectives to inform funder or organisational decision making in a narrowly defined area (e.g. continue, modify or eliminate a programme). In contrast, PR goals may be much broader, and intended to inform participants’ conceptual thinking about current practice or service delivery and create dialogical opportunities without the same emphasis on direct implications for organisational decision making. Differences also appear in the area of research dissemination. Specifically, programme evaluation results are often used to support organisational planning in response to formal funding and policy requirements, and PAR is often used to support socio-political action or community change. In comparison, PR focuses more on service and practice improvement as well as the relationship between theory and practice, with the goal of encouraging more research-minded practitioners and more practice-minded researchers ( Saurama and Julkunen, 2012 ).

Comparing PR with other research frameworks a

Adapted from Austin and Carnochan (2020 , p. 199).

Another critical factor that distinguishes PR from other participatory research methods is the connection between social work practice and social service managers. Compared to action research and empowerment evaluation methodologies, PR is more explicitly organisational in understanding how managers, front line staff and service users make sense of their diverse roles and often competing statuses. PR is also more attentive to the collaborative interrelationships of service users, front line agency staff and managers in their interorganisational and institutional context. Finally, PR demonstrates an awareness of how questions of service delivery reflect the professionalisation of social work and social services vis-à-vis questions of organisational learning ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ).

Finally, another key difference between PR and its related methodologies can be found in the relationship of organisationally situated theories vis-à-vis practice. For practice researchers, considerations of theory-informed practice and practice-informed theory are important ( Fisher, 2011 ). The exploration and development of diverse theories (e.g. cultural–historical activity theory; Foot, 2014 ) helps practice researchers and participants identify shared practice challenges and explore possible solutions. For example, practice researchers can share lessons learned and practice implications of different theories of group-based learning and relational work, so that managers, workers and service users can determine how each theory enhances shared understanding of service problems and possible solutions ( Austin, 2020 ; Muurinen and Kaarianen, 2021 ).

In sum, PR is explicitly rooted within social service organisations, with a basic goal of collaborating to improve the delivery of health and social care services and organisational capacity within and between organisations ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). Practice researchers pay close attention to the delivery of front line services as well as multilevel practice issues relating to managers, staff and service users.

The evolution of PR has reflected theoretical and practical developments. Practice researchers have used person-in-organisation theories of practice in an effort to explain the ‘everyday actions’ ( Feldman and Orlikowski, 2011 , p. 1241) and ‘concrete activities’ ( Barley and Kunda, 2001 , p. 76) that capture the relationship between agency-based service providers and service users. Researchers have also proposed ways of enhancing the practical relevance of research that involves social work researchers and practitioners promoting shared learning, with a goal of resolving fundamental service delivery dilemmas ( Austin et al. , 2014 ).

In response to these developments, the interrelated streams of PR have been explored in the form of collaboration and negotiation. For example, the foundational perspective of PR invites practitioners and service users to collaboratively identify opportunities to improve social work practices and organisational processes—particularly in response to administrative requirements and statutory mandates ( Fook and Gardner, 2007 ; Epstein, 2009 ). Similarly, there are opportunities to negotiate across differing approaches and perspectives that practitioners, service users and researchers bring to the knowledge production process ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ).

Based on the original formulation of PR, Julkunen (2011) developed a typology of PR studies, distinguishing between practitioner-oriented, generative, method-oriented and democratic models. In the practitioner-oriented model, the practitioner reflectively dialogues with others in order to address pressing practice issues. The generative model involves cycles of agency practice and research designed to connect practical knowledge to action by testing and evaluating potential practice innovations. The method-oriented model involves the service user, practitioner and researcher collaboratively developing practice-based knowledge as well as knowledge that can inform theory development and application. Finally, the democratic model focuses specifically on service users, practitioners, researchers and organisational and system leaders using PR to advocate for practice reforms, thereby connecting PR to policy change (also see Fisher, 2013 ).

Although scholarship on PR has historically reflected the perspectives of Nordic and US academic institutions and social welfare states, a globally diverse body of PR literature is emerging ( Chan and Sim, 2020 ). This literature demonstrates that different PR studies may reflect different: political, policy and organisational contexts of social service delivery; research methods; understandings of service user and practitioner involvement and collaboration and understandings of practice ( Sim et al. , 2018 ).

Empirical research on benefits accrued by service users when engaging in PR is currently limited. However, preliminary evidence suggests that benefits can be organised in terms of empowerment processes and measurable outcomes built on the service user premise of ‘nothing about us, without us’ ( Beresford and McLaughlin, 2020 ). Such processes invite PR participants to learn how to participate in non-hierarchical relationships that ensure diversity, equity and inclusion among service users and providers. This partnership relationship often involves joint problem-solving as well as developing a critical consciousness leading to an alliance through the articulation of shared and different needs and challenges ( Fook and Gardner, 2007 ). Engaging in this process can help service users gain a greater understanding of the contextualised nature of social problems they face.

Another key benefit of participating in PR involves expanding the capacities of service users to amplify their own voices and assume the position of representing the perspectives of peer-colleagues ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). Service users may advocate internally (in response to management directives) and externally (in response to policy dicta and fiscal requirements). As they engage in advocacy efforts, service users can also increase their skills in identifying and accessing community resources (e.g. job training programmes that enhance employability). The process of engaging in humanising power-sharing relationships using dialogical communications between service users, staff and managers can thus involve a shared search for community resources and organisational funding needed to maintain service delivery at needed levels ( Ramon et al. , 2019 ).

The benefits of service user involvement do not necessarily lead to major organisational changes when the focus is on modifying or improving direct service or managerial practice. However, service user involvement can lead to both changes in practice as well as changes in organisational policies and structures ( Julkunen, 2011 ; Fisher, 2013 ). Through involvement in PR, service users can also participate in training and other learning-oriented events as co-equals with staff and other community stakeholders. These opportunities can involve service users playing critical roles of knowledge navigation and translation within social service organisational contexts, particularly where service user perspectives are needed to translate deep knowledge of programme and policy gaps to staff, managers and policymakers ( Muurinen and Kaarianen, 2021 ). Such PR efforts can help spur organisational change and the development of new approaches to system transformation. For service users, skills acquired through participation in PR can also be leveraged in future advocacy efforts or employment opportunities (e.g. serving as a consultant or staff member based on their expertise of experience with a particular social issue) ( Voronka and Grant, 2021 ).

In summary, some of the major benefits derived from service user involvement have been documented ( Natland and Celik, 2015 ) by noting the transition of service user from functioning with a sense of shame or trauma to one of pride and empowerment, in addition to learning how services can be evaluated and improved based on timely and strategic input from service users. A major limitation related to service user involvement could be that their involvement in which their service user experiences are contextualised or revisited could result in being retraumatised (e.g. reliving the experiences of being homeless, incarcerated, unemployed, physically disabled or mentally disabled), especially when acquiring the ‘big picture understanding’ of the pervasiveness of social problems in the larger society ( Müller and Pihl-Thingvad, 2020 ).

The next section identifies common approaches for practice researchers to collaborate with agency-based practitioners and managers in support of service user preferences.

PR processes reflect the evolving interests of social service organisational researchers and practitioners, as seen in their concerns with the formal delivery of contract-based public services, with specific focus on service access and equity considerations ( Jindra et al. , 2020 ). In a similar way, PR processes capture the concerns of managerialism as a response to neoliberalism and austerity, especially in European, Australian and Asian social welfare contexts ( Yan et al. , 2017 ; Alexander and Fernandez, 2021 ). Underlying these interests is an abiding focus on studies that validate and feature the perspectives of service users and service providers ( Hasenfeld and Garrow, 2012 ; Harlow et al. , 2013 ). These studies reflect decades of organisational research, as seen in Table 2 (for a review, see Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ). The overarching effort is to democratise knowledge sharing within social service organisational settings by identifying complementary ways for service users, practitioners, researchers and advocates to contribute to social service delivery.

Complementary types of practice research with social service organisations

For social service organisational scholars, PR processes support exploratory, explanatory and interventive research aims. In exploratory research, PR is used to identify the diverse organisational experiences of service users and service providers ( Austin, 2020 ). These exploratory studies are analogous to participatory needs assessments. In contrast, explanatory PR examines connections between service, programme or policy logics, and identifies broken or missing logics reflecting needed resources (notably, time, funding and training). For example, the identification of gaps between needs and services often reflects historically and/or currently unaddressed service needs (as seen by service users), programme needs (as perceived by front line staff) and organisational learning and policy implementation needs (as viewed by agency leaders) ( Hasenfeld and Garrow, 2012 ; Spitzmueller, 2018 ). Finally, PR can support intervention studies that involve the co-design, co-development, refinement and sharing of new practices within programmes (e.g. practical innovations that benefit service users and front line workers) ( Schalock et al. , 2014 ).

PR-based social service studies can be viewed from the perspectives of the SOC ( Flyvbjerg, 2001 ) that invites researchers to propose person-oriented research questions related to those individuals and groups most impacted by the issues at hand. The SOC also asks researchers to focus on small practices that support big events or processes by exploring everyday activities and their contexts that connect people and their organisational milieu. Finally, the SOC involves engaging multiple stakeholders while reducing power differentials. In PR, managers are viewed as essential linchpins who facilitate shared learning, by validating the multiple organisational identities of participants.

Although social service organisational research based on the SOC can take many forms, it ordinarily begins with question formulation around one or more practical problems or concerns. As elucidated by Austin and Carnochan (2020) , PR questions can take a variety of forms but generally involve three fundamental questions: How can we improve social services and, more broadly, enhance opportunities for health and social care? How can we amplify the voices of service users? and How can we sustain small innovations and promising practices in social work, particularly in different organisational and policy settings? Jointly defining PR questions involves validating the perspectives of each type of participant. Questions derived from the perspectives of service users and staff require considerable outreach in order to engage and amplify service user and practitioner voices (e.g. via service user- and staff-led meetings) ( Uggerhøj, 2011 ).

In comparison, organisational and policy-focused research questions are often formulated by senior management in regards to intra-organisational issues (e.g. cross-departmental coordination and collaboration) and inter-organisational issues (e.g. contracting and implementation challenges involving statutory, voluntary and private social service organisations) ( Fisher, 2013 ). Negotiating among the diverse types of research questions involves explaining why the questions are relevant for different groups, how each envisioned research study can support mutually beneficial goals, and what benefits and challenges might arise as a result.

Other key concepts of the SOC that support PR studies include collaboration and engagement with partners based on persistent communication, representation of diverse memberships, fostering inclusiveness, engaging in difficult conversations and consensus building. Other needed skills involve managing critical tensions, often relating to the responsibilities and expectations of different PR stakeholders. Additional tensions reflect the evolving demands of the organisation vis-à-vis its institutional environment. These tensions need to be addressed through shared dialogue in PR teams ( Julkunen, 2011 ).

As the PR team coalesces, it informs research design, data collection, data interpretation and research dissemination and utilisation in unique ways ( Austin, 2020 ). For example, the more traditional use of literature reviews is to ensure that the research questions and study design are informed by the latest peer-reviewed research studies, by reflecting their findings, key concepts, research methods and implications for future research. In comparison, building on existing knowledge in PR may also involve review of organisational documents, grey literature and the practice wisdom of practitioners and service users ( Austin and Carnochan, 2020 ).

In PR, literature reviews can also become ends in themselves. For example, PR-informed literature reviews can assist in reframing service processes (i.e. identifying how service users and practitioners understand the theories of action underlying service logic models); help staff to become more evidence-informed by reflecting on diverse practice literature and inform managerial decision-making processes. Similarly, in contrast to the traditional scholarly approach of disseminating research findings via peer-reviewed publications in academic journals, practice researchers also share findings directly with service providers and service users in the form of reports and presentations so that practice partners can identify novel applications and more effective approaches to practice.

This section provides three brief examples of PR-based organisational studies. The institutional context of the examples reflects a longstanding PR centre located in a US public research university, a regional consortium of county organisations that administer statutorily required social services and a regional consortium of non-profit organisations that provide voluntary social services. Regionalisation of PR efforts is not uncommon, particularly when organised through academic–practice partnerships involving research, education and training and service functions (often in metropolitan areas).

PR centres serve as network hubs for developing service, workforce and programme studies in response to institutional and local demands (e.g. new policy implementation requirements impacting service delivery). They share PR-based knowledge in order to advocate with local and regional policy and practice bodies, and work to promote mutual support and shared leadership among social service organisations. From the social service organisational perspective, consortium membership and affiliation with the PR centre can advance knowledge development and utilisation that might not otherwise be possible due to considerations of cost, research capacity or timing ( Schalock et al. , 2014 ). Whilst some PR centres are university-based ( Austin et al. , 1999 ), others are located in public settings (e.g. ministries of health and social services) ( Muurinen and Kaarianen, 2021 ). However, the general purpose of PR centres is similar to centres providing applied evaluation and technical assistance.

For over twenty-five years, the PR centre from which the following examples are drawn has supported collaborative, usable knowledge related to the management and improvement of social work services across the public and non-profit social service sectors ( Austin, 2018 ). Its studies have involved research at the front line, organisational and inter-organisational levels, ranging from qualitative agency-based case studies to large quantitative surveys that span public and non-profit organisations across the region. The studies have supported the collection and sharing of three types of research evidence as noted by Nutley et al. (2007) . The first type relates to conceptual evidence that is often drawn from exploratory PR studies that are designed to support future applications. The second type includes persuasive research evidence that often involves explanatory PR, and is used to advocate (within organisations) and externally (notably, with policymakers, funders and civic leaders). And the third type involves instrumental evidence that often relates to explanatory or interventive PR that is designed to support practice improvements (notably in response to identified service and training needs).

To illustrate some of these PR-informed studies of service delivery, we note the purpose of each study, and then summarise its use by study partners and the consortia of local authorities/counties and non-profit social service organisations. As each study evolved, practice researchers attended to the perspectives of organisational partners through persistent communications, relational work centred in interpersonal and small group meetings, managing tensions in response to ongoing and new challenges and celebrating successes.

The first example involved an exploration of the attributes and sustainability of pioneering non-profit social service organisations through in-depth case histories ( Austin, 2013 ) and focused on the organisational developmental needs of long-serving nonprofits. The study partners and regional consortium of non-profit social service organisations expressed significant interest in findings, leading to requests for self-assessment-based organisational and management support tools designed to promote front line service improvement.

The second example was a survey-based study of how front line and management practitioners across eleven county-based public social service organisations engaged in evidence-informed practice. The quantitative aspect of the study noted the importance of organisational roles and resources, and individual practitioner attitudes towards practice and innovation, in supporting different levels of evidence use ( McBeath et al. , 2015 ). The qualitative component of the study identified the specific cognitive, interactive, action and compliance dimensions of evidence-informed practice that are embedded within agency-based social and organisational practices and priorities ( Carnochan et al. , 2017 ). This explanatory study resulted in the provision of recommendations to the eleven county social service organisations, focused on identifying needed resources and opportunities for peer sharing and social support.

The third example involved a mixed methods study examining the collaborative nature of non-profit contracting amidst technical challenges that reflect the underlying complexity of social service delivery. Qualitative, comparative case study analysis was used to explore the multiple dimensions of relational contracting between non-profit and county social service organisations in three counties ( McBeath et al. , 2017 ). The quantitative component of the study entailed surveying non-profit and county social service organisations across different counties to assess the importance of cross-sector communications, trust-building and shared client accountability for collaborative contracting and social service outcome achievement ( Carnochan et al. , 2019 ; Chuang et al. , 2020 ). Study findings identified the need for public-non-profit social service contracting support structures and processes, including: regularly scheduled cross-sector meetings to identify emergent needs and promising service approaches; and cross-sector training and technical assistance to promote collaborative contracting and improved service outcomes.

Each example involved engagement with agency directors, division heads, senior managers and line staff. In each study, the research design and reporting process was iterative between levels, in support of facilitating communication on broadly relevant topics involving diverse staff groups. Overall, these and other studies from the specific PR centre have regularly featured critical information exchange sessions, involving agency staff presentations of local practices as well as research staff presentations of research syntheses, and in which the audience is cross-division and multi-level.

PR methods complement social service organisational research methodologies in at least two ways. First, PR offers an alternative to traditional organisational research that relies on quantitative analysis of elite surveys (notably agency directors). In comparison, PR studies incorporate diverse types of data (e.g. use of agency documents, interviews, focus groups, surveys) and the perspectives of individuals at different levels of analysis (including administrators and managers, front line staff and service users). These qualitative and quantitative data collection methods are intended to address common source bias and validity concerns. Mixed methods PR studies therefore need to anticipate concerns about the perceived trustworthiness, credibility, confirmability and dependability of the data (e.g. by pilot testing survey instruments and interview guides). (For a summative review concerning how to promote the rigour and relevance of PR studies, see Austin and Carnochan (2020 , pp. 183–189)).

Secondly, PR provides a balanced response to the understanding of researchers as either directing and managing the research process, or serving in subsidiary roles. In comparison, PR is a participatory process in which the research interests and perspectives of the researchers and practitioners are actively negotiated, and often reflect multiple objectives ( Fisher et al. , 2016 ). As noted previously, these include instrumental objectives (e.g. to use PR to enhance understanding of services and programmes, and/or to support organisational learning) along with process and interactional objectives (e.g. to support PR-based participation and collaboration). Among the most challenging aspects embedded in negotiations are values-based objectives that are designed to enhance equity and empowerment through PR projects.

Practice researchers therefore need to be prepared to take on co-facilitative roles on issues ranging from research question formulation to the interpretation, use and wider sharing of PR findings in organisations and broader contexts. These co-roles are essential for addressing group dynamics and cross-sector challenges, celebrating shared wins and fostering inclusiveness and active dialogue. Working through these critical tensions depends on power sharing—particularly for practice researchers and senior agency staff vis-à-vis front line staff and service users—and reflects key elements of intergroup dialogue amidst difference ( Austin, 2020 ).

Whilst there is a wide range of ethical issues associated with PR that draws heavily from social science research, some of the more prominent issues include service user and case record confidentiality, final report contributor equity, teamwork accountability derived from participatory decision making in search of consensus and adherence to data source protocols. The theme of confidentiality is wide ranging. It includes respecting the confidential nature of service user information collected as part of a PR project. It also involves the confidential discussions among research team members, who can include service users and staff. A final concern relates to the ethics of the timely reporting of the research to service users, other agency stakeholders and the larger community (e.g. elected officials, other organisations and researchers). In essence, PR involves the various ethical views of three different communities; namely, the research community, the service provider community and the service user community. The convergence of these three perspectives can be challenging for the various participants to both understand and accept.

These methodological and ethical considerations lead to four suggestions for social service organisational researchers when co-facilitating PR studies to enhance their ability to anticipate common PR challenges. First, PR presents communication-based coordination challenges (involving questions of trust, ethical dilemmas and available expertise), as practice and research partners may need to dialogue regularly amidst already-demanding work schedules. Secondly, partners may face changing and/or limited capacity for and engagement with PR, particularly as practice and research roles and priorities evolve. Thirdly, navigating PR projects requires attending to differing perspectives on the time frame to generate research results, viewed as fast by university standards and slow by agency standards. Fourthly, practice researchers need to demonstrate the capacity to convert research implications into practical recommendations for organisational change given the limited experience with the unique aspects of organisational cultures that differ across participating agencies and research institutions. Underscoring these suggestions is the importance of practice researchers and agency partners remaining flexible with respect to different role-based expectations and university versus agency-based priorities.

We conclude with two major recommendations for social work researchers and practitioners in the social service organisational milieu. First, developing, maintaining and supporting collaborative, trust-based relationships is essential for PR studies. Relationship-building involves recognising mutually beneficial capabilities and shared objectives across different organisational roles (e.g. service users, staff and managers within the agency, and practice-informed researchers inside and outside the agency) to advance collaborative planning. Supporting relationships can involve power-sharing to promote mutual respect and trust as well as social support, particularly amidst the complex dynamics of PR teams. Sustaining relationships calls for transparent information-sharing, consistent communication to address evolving practice and research dilemmas and reciprocal risk-taking that respects the negotiated boundaries of various partners. Finally, sustained relationships often require continuous boundary spanning within the organisation and between agency and university partners.

For productive PR relationships to evolve, an ongoing assessment of practice and research relationships includes monitoring evolving organisational and community contexts, revisiting shared goals in light of changes, and managing PR project expectations in response to evolving stakeholder needs and ethical challenges. Relational work is perhaps the most essential dimension of collaborative, participatory research with social service organisational partners.

Secondly, for practice researchers and agency-based practitioners, the balancing of diverse relational commitments requires sustained self-reflection . Self-reflection involves considering the tensions between the breadth and depth possible in empirical research as well as between the commitment to peer-reviewed empirical research and the investment in practice-based research (e.g. grey literature, agency statistics, practice wisdom). Self-reflection also relates to addressing the different expectations and emphases of service users, staff, managers and other agency stakeholders as well as the different collaborative roles that researchers are required to play when they are invited to step up as co-leaders or step back (e.g. comfortably serving as a research consultant), depending on the specific needs of the research team in its organisational context. These reflexive considerations are centred in an ethos of collaboratively improving service delivery to enhance service user well-being.

While reflecting on identified tensions is a critical aspect of the efforts of practice researchers in relationship with agency-based partners, it is also essential for researchers located in university-based settings. Self-reflection on these tensions can involve deeper questions of how to: (1) reconcile the often-competing expectations of one’s academic home, one’s social service organisational partners and one’s role as a scholar–researcher and (2) reframe these competing expectations into complementary aims. Regular dialogue involving practice and research partners concerning these two issues can involve iterative processes of shared debriefing, deconstructing and redefining key needs. The overall goal is to find win–wins that benefit the university, agency and oneself in carrying out research and disseminating practical knowledge in community-based organisational settings.

In order to identify mutually beneficial PR opportunities for social service organisational researchers, we propose a research agenda in the form of ten questions designed to promote speculation and dialogue as illustrated in Table 3 . The array of questions captures the tensions related to the different ways that practice researchers: engage and consider collaborating with possible agency partners; transition from the development of participatory research studies to their dissemination in complex agency contexts and sustain participatory studies in larger institutional settings. The questions seek to capture a lifecycle of participatory research projects at different stages of organisational development and across different contexts.

New directions for practice research-informed social service organisational analysis.

In summary, PR is a participatory, organisationally focused approach that combines the search for practice-relevant knowledge with qualitative and quantitative research methods in order to enhance services and promote organisational improvement in diverse contexts. PR therefore complements participatory methodologies as well as other applied social science methods used in social service organisational analysis. The future challenges include promoting more participatory studies of social service organisations as well as articulating additional perspectives on PR processes, applications and implications.

The authors would like to express their appreciation to the anonymous peer reviewers and Editors for their very helpful suggestions regarding the manuscript.

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Social Work Research Method

types of research methods in social work

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. Research methods include, sage research methods, qualitative methods, methods map, research methods in social workers research project, social workers evidence based practice

types of research methods in social work

Especially when researchers have access to large participant groups, surveys are a simple, affordable, and reliable 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 research 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. Research methods include, quantitative and qualitative methods, sage research methods, methods map, evidence based practice in social work

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

  • Informant interviews in social work research
  • Surveys and census data in social work research
  • Observation in social work research
  • Participation in social work research

types of research methods in social work

Case Studies

Popular in the business world, case studies are also well-suited to research methods and 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, research methods in qualitative research and evidence based practice social work 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 methods phases to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Practically demonstrate a theory
  • Call for more research methods
  • Debunk a hypothesis
  • Test research methods and their findings in the real world
  • Uncover new social work research methods and variables affecting the hypothesis

types of research methods in social work

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 social workers 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 social work research methods 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. Key concepts allow everyone to assess a program’s fitness across multiple dynamics.

These social work research methods requires a comprehensive look at recent findings to prove the effectiveness of a particular program. Even after a program has launched, key concepts 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:

  • Will this program work?
  • How much will the program cost per participant?
  • How can we expand the program?
  • Is there a better way to serve the program’s population?
  • Are there any disadvantages for program participants?

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.

These research methods are 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 social work research methods, creating resources, or developing a care plan for one person.

Types of research methods

  • quantitative and qualitative methods
  • qualitative research
  • qualitative methods
  • sage research methods

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 group is not in social work. Next, the response of both groups are measured and compared, and when applicable, a new variable is tested in the same fashion.

These social work research methods 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 social work research methods can introduce precious findings that hold up against future inquiries when used correctly. Methods include sage research methods, quantitative methods, program evaluations in such research.

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4.1 Types of research

Learning objectives.

  • Differentiate between exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory research

A recent news story about college students’ addictions to electronic gadgets (Lisk, 2011) describes findings from some research by Professor Susan Moeller and colleagues from the University of Maryland . The story raises a number of interesting questions. Just what sorts of gadgets are students addicted to? How do these addictions work? Why do they exist, and who is most likely to experience them?

Social science research is great for answering just these sorts of questions. But in order to answer our questions well, we must take care in designing our research projects. In this chapter, we’ll consider what aspects of a research project should be considered at the beginning, including specifying the goals of the research, the components that are common across most research projects, and a few other considerations.

types of research methods in social work

One of the first things to think about when designing a research project is what you hope to accomplish, in very general terms, by conducting the research. What do you hope to be able to say about your topic? Do you hope to gain a deep understanding of whatever phenomenon it is that you’re studying, or would you rather have a broad, but perhaps less deep, understanding? Do you want your research to be used by policymakers or others to shape social life, or is this project more about exploring your curiosities? Your answers to each of these questions will shape your research design.

Exploration, description, and explanation

You’ll need to decide in the beginning phases whether your research will be exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory. Each has a different purpose, so how you design your research project will be determined in part by this decision.

Researchers conducting exploratory research are typically at the early stages of examining their topics. These sorts of projects are usually conducted when a researcher wants to test the feasibility of conducting a more extensive study and to figure out the “lay of the land” with respect to the particular topic. Perhaps very little prior research has been conducted on this subject. If this is the case, a researcher may wish to do some exploratory work to learn what method to use in collecting data, how best to approach research subjects, or even what sorts of questions are reasonable to ask. A researcher wanting to simply satisfy her own curiosity about a topic could also conduct exploratory research. In the case of the study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets, a researcher conducting exploratory research on this topic may simply wish to learn more about students’ use of these gadgets. Because these addictions seemed to be a relatively new phenomenon, an exploratory study of the topic made sense as an initial first step toward understanding it.

It is important to note that exploratory designs do not make sense for topic areas with a lot of existing research. For example, the question “What are common interventions for parents who neglect their children?” would not make much sense as a research question. One could simply look at journal articles and textbooks to see what interventions are commonly used with this population. Exploratory questions are best suited to topics that have not been studied. Students may sometimes say there is not much literature on their chosen topic, when there is in fact a large body of literature on that topic. However, that said, there are a few students each semester who pick a topic for which there is little existing research. Perhaps, if you were looking at child neglect interventions for parents who identify as transgender or parents who are refugees from the Syrian civil war, less would be known about child neglect for those specific populations. In that case, an exploratory design would make sense as there is less literature to guide your study.

Descriptive research is used to describe or define a particular phenomenon. For example, a social work researcher may want to understand what it means to be a first-generation college student or a resident in a psychiatric group home. In this case, descriptive research would be an appropriate strategy. A descriptive study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets, for example, might aim to describe patterns in how many hours students use gadgets or which sorts of gadgets students tend to use most regularly.

Researchers at the Princeton Review conduct descriptive research each year when they set out to provide students and their parents with information about colleges and universities around the United States. They describe the social life at a school, the cost of admission, and student-to-faculty ratios (to name just a few of the categories reported). Although students and parents may be able to obtain much of this information on their own, having access to the data gathered by a team of researchers is much more convenient and less time consuming.

types of research methods in social work

Social workers often rely on descriptive research to tell them about their service area. Keeping track of the number of children receiving foster care services, their demographic makeup (e.g., race, gender), and length of time in care are excellent examples of descriptive research. On a more macro-level, the Centers for Disease Control provides a remarkable amount of descriptive research on mental and physical health conditions. In fact, descriptive research has many useful applications, and you probably rely on findings from descriptive research without even being aware that that is what you are doing.

Finally, social work researchers often aim to explain why particular phenomena work in the way that they do. Research that answers “why” questions is referred to as explanatory research. In this case, the researcher is trying to identify the causes and effects of whatever phenomenon she is studying. An explanatory study of college students’ addictions to their electronic gadgets might aim to understand why students become addicted. Does it have anything to do with their family histories? With their other extracurricular hobbies and activities? With whom they spend their time? An explanatory study could answer these kinds of questions.

There are numerous examples of explanatory social scientific investigations. For example, in one study, Dominique Simons and Sandy Wurtele (2010) sought to discover whether receiving corporal punishment from parents led children to turn to violence in solving their interpersonal conflicts with other children. In their study of 102 families with children between the ages of 3 and 7, the researchers found that experiencing frequent spanking did, in fact, result in children being more likely to accept aggressive problem-solving techniques. Another example of explanatory research can be seen in Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee’s (2011) research on the connections between popularity and bullying. From their study of 8th, 9th, and 10th graders in 19 North Carolina schools, they found that aggression increased as adolescents’ popularity increased. (This pattern was found until adolescents reached the top 2% in the popularity ranks. After that, aggression declines).

The choice between descriptive, exploratory, and explanatory research should be made with your research question in mind. What does your question ask? Are you trying to learn the basics about a new area, establish a clear “why” relationship, or define or describe an activity or concept? In the next section, we will explore how each type of research is associated with different methods, paradigms, and forms of logic.

Key Takeaways

  • Exploratory research is usually conducted when a researcher has just begun an investigation and wishes to understand the topic generally.
  • Descriptive research is research that aims to describe or define the topic at hand.
  • Explanatory research is research that aims to explain why particular phenomena work in the way that they do.
  • Descriptive research- research that describes or define a particular phenomenon
  • Explanatory research- explains why particular phenomena work in the way that they do, answers “why” questions
  • Exploratory research- conducted during the early stages of a project, usually when a researcher wants to test the feasibility of conducting a more extensive study

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Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences pp 3–8 Cite as

Traditional Research Methods in Health and Social Sciences: An Introduction

  • Pranee Liamputtong 2  
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  • First Online: 13 January 2019

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Acquiring knowledge through the use of research findings that were derived from the scientific method is the most objective way of knowing something. (Grinnell et al. 2014, p. 12).

  • Research approaches
  • Qualitative research
  • Quantitative research
  • Mixed methods research

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Liamputtong, P. (2019). Traditional Research Methods in Health and Social Sciences: An Introduction. In: Liamputtong, P. (eds) Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences. Springer, Singapore.

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types of research methods in social work

Home Market Research

Social Research – Definition, Types and Methods

Social Research

Social Research: Definition

Social Research is a method used by social scientists and researchers to learn about people and societies so that they can design products/services that cater to various needs of the people. Different socio-economic groups belonging to different parts of a county think differently. Various aspects of human behavior need to be addressed to understand their thoughts and feedback about the social world, which can be done using Social Research. Any topic can trigger social research – new feature, new market trend or an upgrade in old technology.

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Social Research is conducted by following a systematic plan of action which includes qualitative and quantitative observation methods.

  • Qualitative methods rely on direct communication with members of a market, observation, text analysis. The results of this method are focused more on being accurate rather than generalizing to the entire population.
  • Quantitative methods use statistical analysis techniques to evaluate data collected via surveys, polls or questionnaires.

LEARN ABOUT: Research Process Steps

Social Research contains elements of both these methods to analyze a range of social occurrences such as an investigation of historical sites, census of the country, detailed analysis of research conducted to understand reasons for increased reports of molestation in the country etc.

A survey to monitor happiness in a respondent population is one of the most widely used applications of social research. The  happiness survey template  can be used by researchers an organizations to gauge how happy a respondent is and the things that can be done to increase happiness in that respondent.

Learn more: Public Library Survey Questions + Sample Questionnaire Template 

Types of Social Research

There are four main types of Social Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Research, Primary and Secondary Research.

Qualitative Research: Qualitative Research is defined as a method to collect data via open-ended and conversational discussions, There are five main qualitative research methods-  ethnographic research, focus groups, one-on-one online interview, content analysis and case study research. Usually, participants are not taken out of their ecosystem for qualitative data collection to gather information in real-time which helps in building trust. Researchers depend on multiple methods to gather qualitative data for complex issues.

Quantitative Research: Quantitative Research is an extremely informative source of data collection conducted via mediums such as surveys, polls, and questionnaires. The gathered data can be analyzed to conclude numerical or statistical results. There are four distinct quantitative research methods: survey research , correlational research , causal research and experimental research . This research is carried out on a sample that is representative of the target market usually using close-ended questions and data is presented in tables, charts, graphs etc.

For example, A survey can be conducted to understand Climate change awareness among the general population. Such a survey will give in-depth information about people’s perception about climate change and also the behaviors that impact positive behavior. Such a questionnaire will enable the researcher to understand what needs to be done to create more awareness among the public.

Learn More:  Climate Change Awareness Survey Template

Primary Research: Primary Research is conducted by the researchers themselves. There are a list of questions that a researcher intends to ask which need to be customized according to the target market. These questions are sent to the respondents via surveys, polls or questionnaires so that analyzing them becomes convenient for the researcher. Since data is collected first-hand, it’s highly accurate according to the requirement of research.

For example: There are tens of thousands of deaths and injuries related to gun violence in the United States. We keep hearing about people carrying weapons attacking general public in the news. There is quite a debate in the American public as to understand if possession of guns is the cause to this. Institutions related to public health or governmental organizations are carrying out studies to find the cause. A lot of policies are also influenced by the opinion of the general population and gun control policies are no different. Hence a gun control questionnaire can be carried out to gather data to understand what people think about gun violence, gun control, factors and effects of possession of firearms. Such a survey can help these institutions to make valid reforms on the basis of the data gathered.

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Secondary Research: Secondary Research is a method where information has already been collected by research organizations or marketers. Newspapers, online communities, reports, audio-visual evidence etc. fall under the category of secondary data. After identifying the topic of research and research sources, a researcher can collect existing information available from the noted sources. They can then combine all the information to compare and analyze it to derive conclusions.

LEARN ABOUT: Qualitative Research Questions and Questionnaires   

Social Research Methods

Surveys: A survey is conducted by sending a set of pre-decided questions to a sample of individuals from a target market. This will lead to a collection of information and feedback from individuals that belong to various backgrounds, ethnicities, age-groups etc. Surveys can be conducted via online and offline mediums. Due to the improvement in technological mediums and their reach, online mediums have flourished and there is an increase in the number of people depending on online survey software to conduct regular surveys and polls.

There are various types of social research surveys: Longitudinal , Cross-sectional , Correlational Research . Longitudinal and Cross-sectional social research surveys are observational methods while Correlational is a non-experimental research method. Longitudinal social research surveys are conducted with the same sample over a course of time while Cross-sectional surveys are conducted with different samples.  

For example: It has been observed in recent times, that there is an increase in the number of divorces, or failed relationships. The number of couples visiting marriage counselors or psychiatrists is increasing. Sometimes it gets tricky to understand what is the cause for a relationship falling apart. A screening process to understand an overview of the relationship can be an easy method. A marriage counselor can use a relationship survey to understand the chemistry in a relationship, the factors that influence the health of a relationship, the challenges faced in a relationship and expectations in a relationship. Such a survey can be very useful to deduce various findings in a patient and treatment can be done accordingly.

Another example for the use of surveys can be  to gather information on the awareness of disasters and disaster management programs. A lot of institutions like the UN or the local disaster management team try to keep their communities prepared for disasters. Possessing knowledge about this is crucial in disaster prone areas and is a good type of knowledge that can help everyone. In such a case, a survey can enable these institutions to understand what are the areas that can be promoted more and what regions need what kind of training. Hence a disaster management survey  can be conducted to understand public’s knowledge about the impact of disasters on communities, and the measures they undertake to respond to disasters and how can the risk be reduced.

Learn more:  NBA Survey Questions + Sample Questionnaire Template

Experiments: An experimental research is conducted by researchers to observe the change in one variable on another, i.e. to establish the cause and effects of a variable. In experiments, there is a theory which needs to be proved or disproved by careful observation and analysis. An efficient experiment will be successful in building a cause-effect relationship while proving, rejecting or disproving a theory. Laboratory and field experiments are preferred by researchers.

Interviews: The technique of garnering opinions and feedback by asking selected questions face-to-face, via telephone or online mediums is called interview research. There are formal and informal interviews – formal interviews are the ones which are organized by the researcher with structured open-ended and closed-ended questions and format while informal interviews are the ones which are more of conversations with the participants and are extremely flexible to collect as much information as possible.

LEARN ABOUT: 12 Best Tools for Researchers

Examples of interviews in social research are sociological studies that are conducted to understand how religious people are. To this effect, a Church survey can be used by a pastor or priest to understand from the laity the reasons they attend Church and if it meets their spiritual needs.

Observation: In observational research , a researcher is expected to be involved in the daily life of all the participants to understand their routine, their decision-making skills, their capability to handle pressure and their overall likes and dislikes. These factors and recorded and careful observations are made to decide factors such as whether a change in law will impact their lifestyle or whether a new feature will be accepted by individuals.

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Qualitative Observation


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  1. Definition and Types of Social Research Methods

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    The book answers the demand for a practical, fast and concise introduction to the key concepts and methods in social research, supplies students with impeccable information that can be used in essays, exams and research projects, and demystifies a field that students often find daunting.

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  21. Traditional Research Methods in Health and Social Sciences: An

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  22. Social Research

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