Research in social work: An Introduction

In this article we will try to understand the basics of research in social work, by gaining an overview of few fundamental aspects of research. After reading this article you should be able to comprehend the following:

  • What is  research  in social work                                      
  • Need and importance of research
  • Types of research 
  • Process/steps of research  in social work

Since it involves critical thinking it can be stated that it is “a process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (Fisher & Scriven, 1997).

It is a systematic process of understanding a social phenomenon. The process involves a scientific approach to gain authentic information or knowledge about a particular social phenomena.

It is a process by which social workers ask questions, develop and carry out investigations, make hypotheses or predictions, gather evidence, and propose explanations or corroborate evidence (Gibbs & Gambrill, 1998).

What is Research in social work?

The following examples would simplify the understanding of social work research:

Example 1

One might observe in a particular community that people who are economically weak also have lower level of formal education. Based on the observation of a small group of people one may conclude or deduce/reflect that all poor people are educationally backward or low educational level leads to poverty.   

Example 2

One might observe in a particular community that economically well off women are more assertive and aware of their rights. One can make inferences from this observation that economic empowerment leads to woman empowerment.

These inferences or knowledge may or may not be a fact and true in a larger social context since there might   be people who are educated but still be poor or people who have low level of formal education but still be economically well off. Similarly there might be women who are not economically empowered but they are aware and assertive of their rights and vice versa.

Therefore to build an authentic knowledge a systematic and scientific approach towards understanding the phenomena is required which would be true universally or in the larger social context.

Since social work profession deals with solving human problems, research in social work can be described as a ‘process of production of knowledge which would help them to provide a better solution to the human problems within the realm of their practice’.  The information or knowledge can be used to measure the effectiveness of the intervention provided and plan new interventions.

In order to establish a knowledge as true, the inferences have to be tested through a systematic and scientific process.

 What do we mean by a scientific process?

Scientific approach starts with organizing the facts and moves towards theory building. It aims at systematic description of the observed facts and of their mutual relations. It consists of 3 basic steps: 

  • observations of facts
  • analysis of the pattern of observation
  • generalisations/conclusions

Need and Importance of Research in social work

Social work is action oriented and research gives a direction to the actions. Actions or interventions based on a systematic and scientific study, i.e, research, helps a social worker to solve or minimize the human problems.

Research helps in evaluating the outcome of an intervention and thus modify the intervention if required. In large scale community intervention it is crucial at two stages:


It is done before implementation of an intervention to gauge the existing situation. It is also termed as baseline which can be used later to measure the impact or effectiveness of the intervention  


It is done at two stages. One at the middle of the intervention, termed as Mid-term; and second at the end of the intervention termed as End term. Both are crucial to measure the progress made.

The mid-term helps to measure the progress made and evaluate the outcome and ascertain whether any change in the techniques or methods are required. End term also helps to measure the overall impact of the intervention, challenges faced, what went in favour, changes required if any in the methods and techniques.

Research in social work is also used to test the effectiveness of a specific social work technique as well as methods used in service delivery.  It is needed to build a knowledge base for social work theory as well as practice.

It is crucial to understand a social problem to find its solution. An authentic knowledge base is required to influence decisions at the policy level. A sound policy is needed to address any social problem and through research a new policy formulation or changes in the existing policy can be advocated for and influence the decision.For example, A strong policy for the welfare of the mentally challenged is important for a better implementation of an intervention for this group.  Research can also help in identifying any gaps in any existing policy and recommend changes. 

Types of research approach in social work

Inductive approach:

This approach starts with empirical observations of some facts, collect data on similar observations or try to identify similar pattern in the observations and analyses of those data to draw conclusions to formulate a new theory or knowledge. In other words inductive research starts with specific observations moving towards theory building.

For example: The researcher would observe that an economically backward/poor person is uneducated, observe ‘n’ no. of similar cases and conclude to give a generalization that “all poor people are uneducated”.

Deductive Approach:

This approach starts with an existing theory/knowledge, develop a hypothesis based on the theory, make observations or collect data and analyse the data to test the hypothesis. The hypothesis can be true or not. In other words it starts from a general fact to specific observations.

 For example: The researcher would start with an existing knowledge/theory “all poor people are uneducated”. To test this he can formulate a hypothesis ‘lack of formal education hampers skill building leading to poverty’. To test this hypothesis the researcher would collect n no. of data and analyse it. The hypothesis can be found to be true or false or null based on the observations. For instance some observations show that all poor people are not uneducated. In this case the hypothesis is rejected. 

Cycle of Inductive and Deductive Research: 

As social work is action oriented, knowledge generation do not end with one approach. It is a cyclic process inclusive of inductive and deductive approaches. Knowledge is created and tested simultaneously for the human service

Example :

let us take the previous example. The theory may be “illiteracy leads to poverty”. Based on this theory a hypothesis can be formulated such as if female students are made computer literate then it will improve their employability chances. “In order to test this hypothesis systematic observations would be made and the observations or the data would then be analysed with standardized scale. The result may support the hypothesis or may not support it.  If it is not supported and it was found that only few increased their employability, the causes of the failure can be observed and similar facts can be collected.

These observations can again be analysed and generalisations like lack of opportunities or cultural aspects hinder the chances of employment of females. With these generalisations a new addition in the existing theory can be developed such as “illiteracy along with lack of opportunity and cultural aspects leads to poverty” 


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