The Research Process in social work


In this article we will have an understanding of the steps of research process in social work. As a research is a systematic process, each step has to be carried out in sequence which makes the research scientific. So let us move on to the first step towards research process, that is:

Problem Identification

The first step in the research process is the identification of the problem area which has to be studied. In social work we usually try to study social phenomena which hampers human development or prove to be oppressive to a specific social group. The aim is always to find solution to the existing conditions like, deprivation, marginality, poverty etc.  Therefore it becomes very important to choose a problem in a society and find solutions for itit, through a scientific and systematic research problem.

Now problem identification also involves few steps and some basic considerations before it is finalized. The first step in the problem identification is defining the problem. We may like to carry out our study in a particular area like drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy etc. These are broad areas which we need to narrow down to more specific statements.

So, the second step is making specific statements which can be in the form of specific questions which has to be answered or workable solutions sought. Statements in light of theoretical framework of previous research in that particular area is to be made. Here review of literature plays an important part in this task. Another very important task in problem formulation is specifying the meaning of each variable in context to the scope of the particular study.  It is also very important to identify the significance of a particular research which means that whether the findings would contribute to the knowledge base and up to what extent. If already such studies have been carried out in the past then there is no significance of doing it again.

Once the above stated aspects have been covered other considerations also have to be looked into like financial feasibility, time availability, resources present etc.

Review of literature

A significant step in the research process is the review of related literature.  It provides the background for problem formulation as well development of the hypothesis. It helps the researcher to understand the perspective and viewpoints of other researchers and their findings. The researcher through literature review can also identify the gaps in previous research undertaken. Based on the review of literature the researcher formulates the hypothesis or assumptions.

In the present era there are several types of resources available from where a researcher can review literature. For instance, books are the most traditional form of source for literature. These can provide a strong theoretical base for the topic of the research. Another very important source is journals and periodicals. Journal have research articles which provide significant information about research methodologies applied and findings of other researchers.  Research findings undertaken by many institutions are published in the form of reports which can be accessed for literature review. E-resources are the vast source having a plethora of literature. One can sit at one place and access the literature on a global level. Data bases like Jstore etc. are very commonly used E-resources by researchers. One very important aspect of literature review is the citation of the literature as per various approved referencing style Chicago style, APA referencing style etc.

Formulation of Hypothesis

Hypothesis gives a direction to the research. It is an assumption made based on the theoretical framework of the study. Though not required for all types of research, it is usually an important step in the research process. Hypothesis formulation is not required in exploratory studies. The hypothesis can be in several forms like “if –then prediction” or just a declarative statement. The hypothesis has to be tested through statistical tools and in order to test the hypothesis a null hypothesis (say H0) is formulated which nullifies the alternate hypothesis (H1). After the data analysis, the hypothesis is either accepted or rejected.

Example of alternate hypothesis (H1):

“Economic empowerment of women leads to reduction in violence against women”

The null Hypothesis (H0)) would be

“Economic empowerment of women has no impact on violence against women”

In the above stated example, relationship between two variables is studied, that is,

  1. Economic empowerment of women
  2. Reduction in violence against women

Selection of Research Design

Research Design is the blueprint of the strategies and procedure to be applied for carrying out the research. There are various types of research and the researcher has to apply any one as per the requirement and nature of the research study. Let us briefly discuss the various types of research in social work.

There are broadly three types of research carried out in social work.


Exploratory research is carried out to discover or explore an already existing social phenomena. The purpose is to generate hypothesis for further studies and provide a background for future research in this area. Some of the exploratory research are:   Survey, Case study, Action research.


Another important type of research is the descriptive research design. Its main purpose is to provide details about a particular phenomenon, community or demography. It focuses on answering what rather than why. Commonly used descriptive research are Longitudinal and Cross sectional study.


Another very widely used research design in social work is quasi-experimental. This research design aims to establish a causal relationship between two variables. It is widely used in evaluation of social intervention programs. Some of the studies under this category are: Ex-post facto, pre-test, post-test, Time series analysis etc.

Data collection

The next step in the research process is collection of observations or data. This involves mainly two aspects, developing the tools or instruments through which data would be recorded and deciding upon the sample of the study. Various types of tools are used for different type of research. These are broadly classified as qualitative and quantitative. The data collection consists of mainly three steps

  • Development of tools
  • Sample selection
  • Collecting of the data

An important step before sampling is to keep into consideration the universe or population on which the findings would be generalized. Accordingly sampling design is carried out.

Data Analysis and Generalizations

The next step is the analysis of the data to reach conclusions. The analysis is done through various instruments depending upon the type of data. Quantitative data is measured through statistical analysis like frequencies, correlation, standard deviation, mean etc. Qualitative data is put to thematical analysis.

After the analysis of the data the Hypothesis is either accepted or rejected.

Margin of Error

Another important aspect in hypothesis testing is the chances of error in accepting or rejecting of the hypothesis. In social sciences the prepositions or the assumptions are taken as probabilities. They are not in absolute terms as in natural sciences. We do not study the whole population of a society but we take only a representative sample to test the hypothesis. In the previous stated example the hypothesis can be true or false means there is a probability that economically empowered women may face violence (the causes can be many). Based on the statistical findings if the researcher rejects the research hypothesis when in reality it is actually true, then this is called as type I error. 

 If the researcher accepts the null hypothesis when in reality it is false then it is a type II error.

While doing the analysis significance of error is also taken into consideration.

And finally generalizations and conclusions are made based on the findings of the study. These generalizations forms the knowledge base on which further research studies are conducted or policy decisions are made.


By now you might have got a clear understanding about the steps of the research process in detail. These are general steps and individual studies may require specific tweaks depending upon the type of research.

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