What is Social Work Research?

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:

  1. Reviewing the Literature (Secondary Research)
  2. 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:

Few authors can claim to have the last word

Every study was conducted in particular circumstances, with particular methods, and for particular purposes. As we read our sources, we’ll need to keep a “questioning” stance. Is this the only way they could have done this? Is this the only source for this kind of data? How else might we re-think the basic concepts?

Experts do not always agree

Because different scholars start off with different theory-bases, methods, and trial populations, they may reach different results. Disagreements are often the best sign that there’s something that we can do to contribute to the topic, so it’s important to figure out why different scholars reach different conclusions.

Our own writing has its own purpose

It’s important to keep in mind what we want to find out, so that we can focus our inquiries carefully. If I choose to research “homelessness in the USA,” I could spend years reading the available literature, and never finish! But if I choose to do some research about “homelessness in suburbs of major US cities during the recession of 2007-9,” I will have a much narrower collection of possible sources (How do I get that specific? See the next section, How Do I Start? Part 1)

Explain the sources

Most importantly, the argument I want to make will tell me how I’ll need to explain my sources. It’s easy to assume that the information is “just there,” and that my own writing is redundant because I’m repeating what others have already said. But when I am making my own argument, I need to carefully pick and choose from among the wealth of available information, developing new connections between different sources to best support (and critique!) my points.

Testing a Hypothesis (Intervention, Primary Research)

Once we know how others have already attempted to answer questions like ours, we can develop new strategies to test their conclusions, or to try out conjectures of our own. In a direct-practice setting, this may mean trying out an intervention with a client (this is also called single-system design). In an academic setting, this may mean trying to fill a gap in the established literature by conducting a new kind of study, or perhaps repeating a study with a new population, or other source of data. For further general information about primary research, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s resources on Primary Research.
Common writing assignments (for examples, see Common Assignments in Social Work Education) may ask you to review the literature without moving on to test a hypothesis (carry out an intervention or collect data), but the reverse is never true. We will always have to review the literature to justify how we carry out an intervention or collect data. This justification happens at three distinct, but related levels:

Theory Base

At the broadest level, working with many others, scholars can synthesize large collections of work to create a general picture of how people live and behave. These general frameworks have to be tested constantly, but they’re often useful to help us define how we want to tackle questions or problems. They divide up domains of knowledge into manageable sizes, and help us explain what we already know. As we begin to create a hypothesis, we’ll have to decide very quickly which general area of knowledge we want to work with—so we’ll have to choose a theory-base.


At an intermediate level, either individually or working with others, scholars can propose, test, and refine specific methods for applying a theory-base to a specific situation. Within this general realm, we can find a range of categories. In beginning to try to answer a specific question—for example, “What causes homelessness in sub-urban communities today?”—we’ll need to decide whether to conduct qualitative or quantitative research, and then we’ll need to decide how to collect our data. Qualitative research tries to answer research questions by collecting information in depth from a few individuals or groups. It usually involves reading and interpreting large amounts of text in great detail. Quantitative research tries to answer research questions by figuring out how to convert larger-scale questions into numerical amounts. Using numbers lets us analyze far larger amounts of data from large populations, but it limits the kinds of questions we can ask, and makes us work harder to turn those questions into numerically measurable quantities. We’ll learn more about qualitative and quantitative methods in our Research courses here at UTA. For further information about using statistics in our writing, the Purdue O.W.L. site offers an overview.

Purdue O.W.L. site offers an overview

Conclusions or Findings

When an individual scholar has run a study, she will interpret the results of the intervention, or the data gathered in a qualitative or quantitative study. Taken alone, the conclusions of a specific study are the narrowest, most specific level of knowledge in social work. Many studies cannot be generalized beyond the specific circumstances or populations they measured. Taken in large groups, however, many studies together can suggest very convincing conclusions. This is why the review of the literature (see above!) is so important: it lets us draw broader conclusions that would be unavailable based on just one or two studies. Here the serpent eats its tail: reviews of the literature allow us to decide on appropriate theory bases and methods, which help us create our own conclusions, which in turn feed further work on the theory-bases and methods we’ve used.