Types of Research Design in social work


Research design in social work research is the blueprint of the research which is to be carried out. In simple words it is the structure of the systematic process to be followed. The design of the study depends upon the type of information the researcher is seeking. It varies according to the type of question the researcher wants to find an answer to. Research design is often interchangeably used with research methodology but these are inherently  different from each other. Research design is an overall plan for a study focussing on the research question or the results to be obtained and research methodology is the procedure to implement the plan in a structured way like sampling, data collection, data analysis.Two different research designs may have similar methodology. 

Following section explains various types of research design involved in social work research:

Exploratory Research 

This type of research is carried out to find a new knowledge base or an in-depth study of an existing phenomena. The idea is to explore a particular social phenomena and reach a conclusion. It is easier to make new discoveries due to the flexible nature of the study. Exploratory research design is often used in social work research to formulate hypotheses as this provides as a base for further studies. It does not solve a social problem but is used to gain in-depth insight into a phenomena to conduct an informed large-scale hypothetical study.

Exploratory studies are either primary research or secondary research. In social work it is usually a mix of primary and secondary data which is used for analysis.

Types of exploratory research:


Surveys are conducted to know the opinion of the masses to predict results of a forthcoming event. It mainly uses primary data for analysing the results.

For e.g. exit polls during election. 

Surveys are also conducted by large companies before they launch a product in the market.

Action research

Action research is carried out by teachers and practitioners to enquire about the situations in their practice area. It is often used to study the outcome of any changes introduced or to identify any problem area of their practice and improve it. It is often a cyclic process of taking action and reflection on the action. 

For example, a study of the impact of an online course on student achievement .

Case study

This type of research is undertaken for an in-depth understanding of a single unit,viz, Individuals, institution, socially significant group etc. 


A case study of an educational institution.

While the above three categories involve analysis of primary data, exploratory study can also be done using secondary data. 

Content Analysis

Content Analysis is carried out by making use of secondary data sources like research reports, literature survey etc. 

Exploratory research is usually qualitative in nature as its main purpose is to make enquiries about a phenomena.

Descriptive Research Design

Another type of research design used in social work research is descriptive research. As the name suggests it is used to describe the demography or characteristics of a specified population. It seeks to answer questions like what, when, how about a population either at a particular time or over a period of time. The causality is not answered by descriptive research. It is a popular method to gauge the details of the existing problem within a population. 

It is of two types:


Longitudinal research involves study of a population over a period of time. It studies the same characteristics over a long period of time which may even be up to several years. 


Study of Impact of Vitamin A supplement on health of children upto 5years or correlation between Vitamin A supplement and better  eyesight of children. The observations are made for 5 years.


A cross sectional study is carried out to analyse different characteristics of a population at a particular given time. This may be used to generate data for comparison of data at different points of time. 


A study of the role of education on decrease in domestic violence. 


It is a type of longitudinal study in which a small population is chosen and is studied over a long period of time to gauge the characteristics and trends and often the impact of the intervention or sustainability of an intervention. It is observational in nature and provides an in-depth and detailed description of the chosen group.  

Quasi Experimental Research Design

In social sciences absolute quantification of the variables is not feasible as in natural sciences. Therefore, to establish a causal relationship between variables, quasi-experimental research design is used. This type of research design answers the why of a particular phenomena. Quasi Experimental  designs are also used when there are ethical issues related to experimental studies.  These are also of several types:

Non randomized Control Trial

In this type of study the researcher chooses two groups which seem identical and provide intervention/treatment to one group. Unlike true experiments where control and treatment groups  are identical in all respects, in quasi experimental  study the groups may vary in some respect. This is also called nonequivalent group design of study. The groups are as similar as possible. 

The observations of the changes taking place in the treatment group are made and compared with the situation in the control group.


Two groups are chosen by the researcher. One group is provided with vitamin A supplement and the other is not. The difference in the impact is measured.

Pre-post study design

As the name suggests this  type of research involves study of the prevailing conditions of a population before the intervention and study of the changes or outcomes after the intervention. One of the drawbacks of the study is that it has room for a doubt that the  changes were due to the intervention and not because of any other factor. It is to be noted here that unlike non- randomized control trials, the pre-post design is carried out on the same group of population. A pre-post study is the most popular research design in social work for determining the impact of an intervention.


A baseline study before a WASH intervention and an end-term evaluation of the same Intervention.

Time Series Analysis

Time series analysis consists of a series of studies conducted on a group before the intervention and after the intervention. This is to measure the trend  in an existing condition and the trends in the situation after the intervention. A series of studies minimises the chance of factors other than the intervention to affect the results.


Choosing the right research design makes social work research more valid and reliable. The methods applied are heavily drawn from the design of the research. By now you might have got clarity about various research  designs after reading this article.

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