Simply put, research is the engine that drives our day-to-day actions, whether we work in an academic office or a direct-practice position. In the course of earning a degree in social work, we will need to conduct our own research, and do a lot of writing that recounts, analyzes, applies, and evaluates that research. So what is “research” anyway? Even if you already know, this section is designed as a refresher, a reminder that there’s more to the research process than Google and some good keywords. The next section, How Do I Start? - Part 1, will feature more hands-on exercises that should prove useful in responding to writing assignments.
The Idea of “Research”
For much of our daily lives, we can go about our business relying upon habits, or practical knowledge we’ve developed through experience. The 17th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume once offered an extreme example: We all “know” that the sun will rise tomorrow, but really all we have to go on is the fact that it’s risen on every other morning that we can remember. Until we develop an empirically-provable theory about what a “sunrise” really is, we can’t really know that the sun will rise tomorrow. All we have is habit and assumption.
The same can be said at a much smaller scale: before we can adequately serve our clients or advocate for social justice, we need to know that our actions stand the best chance of helping these specific clients with the specific challenges they face—and we need to know how to back up our claims and advocate effectively. Research is using methodical analysis to answer questions, and it generally tends to involve one or both of two basic activities:
- Reviewing the Literature (Secondary Research)
- Testing a Hypothesis (Intervention, Primary Research)
At each stage of this process, it’s important to make clear where our information comes from, not only to give other authors their due credit, but also to show future readers where our research fits. For more on how to document our sources, see the upcoming section, Why Cite?
1. Reviewing the Literature (Secondary Research)
Often writing assignments are going to ask us to make a case for a specific action—an intervention with a client or organization, or perhaps a policy or practice. In order to do that, we will need to find out what others have already learned about the situation we face. It won’t be enough to decide what we want to do, and then find a source or two to justify ourselves. “Reviewing the literature” means finding as many sources as possible, and figuring out what kinds of conclusions these sources allow. This is also a kind of “secondary research,” reading others’ conclusions to inform our own project. The Purdue O.W.L. site offers some specific tips for writing social work literature reviews, available here: Social Work Literature Review Guidelines. For further general information on secondary research, see the Purdue O.W.L. site’s resources: Research Overview, and Evaluating Sources. As we collect and read articles, we need to keep in mind: