7 7. Theory and paradigm

Chapter Outline

  1. Assumptions of social work research (22 minute read time)
  2. Social work research paradigms (21 minute read time)
  3. Theory and research (7 minute read time)
  4. Theory and paradigm in your project (11 minute read time)

Content warning: examples in this chapter contain references to post-traumatic stress disorder and similar culture-bound syndromes, trauma, colonization and Global North/West hegemony, sexism in medical science and STEM fields, dropping out of high school, poverty, addiction and the disease model, police violence and systematic racism, rape culture, depression, homelessness, “coming out” as LGBTQ+, and sexual harassment.

7.1 Assumptions of social work research

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Ground your research project and working question in the foundational assumptions of social science
  • Define the terms ‘ontology‘ and ‘epistemology‘ and explain how they relate to quantitative, qualitative, and critical research projects
  • Apply feminist, anti-racist, and decolonization critiques to your existing understanding of social science

At this point in the textbook, you have created a working question, reviewed the literature on your topic, and revised your working question to be more specific and clear based on what you learn in the literature. As you read more about your topic, you will develop a clear understanding of how a research project that you conduct can make a unique contribution to social work and social science.

In Chapter 3-5, we talked briefly about grounding what you think about your topic in both empirical information, the outcomes of qualitative and quantitative studies, as well as social theory. In this chapter and the next, we will build on the latter source of information about your topic, social theory. We will investigate the philosophical foundations of theories in this chapter, and in Chapter 6, we will talk about how theory and research inform one another.

No wait, don’t leave! I’ve heard from students who hear the word ‘philosophy‘ and think “this is above my head,” and tune out. That’s totally understandable. Although it may not seem like it right now, your project will benefit from a strong connection to previous theoretical and philosophical ideas about your topic. Moreover, the philosophical questions we review here should inform how you understand different theories and practice modalities in social work, as they deal with the bedrock questions about science and human knowledge.

The terms ‘paradigm‘ and ‘theory‘ are often used interchangeably in social science.  There is not a consensus among social scientists as to whether these are identical or distinct concepts. With that said, in this text, we will make a clear distinction between the two ideas because thinking about each concept separately is more useful for our purposes. We define paradigm as a way of viewing the world (or “analytic lens” akin to a set of glasses) and a framework from which to understand the human experience (Kuhn, 1962).[1] Seeing things through one lens (i.e., paradigm) can help you think about things in a new way, and learning about the assumptions of each paradigm can help you develop fluency in switching between them to capture the complex reality of a situation.

As you read this section, try to think about which assumptions feels right for your working question and research project. Which assumptions match what you think and believe about your topic? The goal is not to find the “right” answer, but to ground how you think about your topic.

Assumptions about what is real

In section 1.2, we reviewed the two types of truth that social work researchers seek—objective truth and subjective truths —and linked these with the methods—quantitative and qualitative—that researchers use to study the world. If those ideas aren’t fresh in your mind, you may want to navigate back to that section and review objective truth and subjective truths.

These two types of truth rely on different assumptions about what is real in the social world—i.e., they have a different ontology.  At first, it may seem silly to question whether the phenomena we encounter in the social world are real. Of course you exist, your thoughts exist, your computer exists, and your friends exist. You can see them with your eyes.

This is the ontological framework of realism, which simply means that the concepts we talk about in science exist independent of observation (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).[2] Obviously, when we close our eyes, the universe does not disappear. You may be familiar with the philosophical conundrum: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The natural sciences, like physics and biology, also generally rely on the assumption of realism. For example, we assume that gravity is real and that the mitochondria of a cell are real.  Mitochondria are easy to spot with a powerful microscope and we can observe and theorize about their function in a cell.  The gravitational force is invisible, but clearly apparent from observable facts, such as watching an apple fall from a tree.  The theories about gravity have changed over the years. Improvements were made when observations could not be correctly interpreted using existing theories.

As we discussed in section 1.2, culture-bound syndromes are an excellent example of where you might come to question realism. Of course, from a Western perspective as researchers in the United States, we think that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) classification of mental health disorders is real and that these culture-bound syndromes are mostly in people’s minds. But what about if you were a person from Korea experiencing Hwabyeong? Wouldn’t you consider the Western diagnosis of somatization disorder to be incorrect or incomplete? This conflict raises the question–do either Hwabyeong or DSM diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) really exist at all…or are they just social constructs that only exist in our minds?

If your answer is “no, they do not exist,” you are adopting the ontology of anti-realism, or the idea that social concepts do not exist outside of human thought.  Unlike the realists who seek a single, universal truth, the anti-realists perceive a sea of truths, created and shared within a social and cultural context. Unlike objective truth, which is true for all, subjective truths will vary based on who you are observing and the context in which you are observing them.  The beliefs, opinions, and preferences of people are actually truths that social scientists measure and describe.  Additionally, subjective truths do not exist independent of human observation because they are the product of the human mind. We negotiate what is true in the social world through language, arriving at a consensus and engaging in debate within our socio-cultural context.

These theoretical assumptions should sound familiar if you’ve studied social constructivism or symbolic interactionism in your other MSW courses, most likely in human behavior in the social environment (HBSE).[3] From an anti-realist perspective, what distinguishes the social sciences from natural sciences is human thought. When we try to conceptualize trauma from an anti-realist perspective, we must pay attention to the feelings, opinions, and stories in people’s minds. In their most radical formulations, anti-realists propose that these feelings and stories are all that truly exist.

What happens when a situation is incorrectly interpreted?  While a person’s interpretation may be incorrect, they think they are right. Thus, what may not be objectively true for everyone is nevertheless true to the individual interpreting the situation. Furthermore, they act on the assumption that they are right. In this sense, even incorrect interpretations are truths, even though they are true only to one person. This leads us to question whether the social concepts we think about really exist.  They might only exist in our minds, unlike concepts from the natural sciences which exist independent of thought.  For example, if everyone ceased to believe in gravity, we wouldn’t all float away.  It has an existence independent of human thought.

How do we resolve this dichotomy? As social workers, we know that often times what appears to be an either/or situation is actually a both/and situation. There is an objective thing called trauma. We can draw out objective facts about trauma and how it interacts with other concepts in the social world such as intimate relationships or mental health. However, that understanding is always bound within a specific cultural and historical context. Moreover, each person’s individual experience and conceptualization of trauma is also true. If a person tells you what their trauma means to them, it is real even though only they experience and know it that way. By using both objective and subjective analytic lenses, we can explore different aspects of trauma—what it means to everyone, always, everywhere, and what is means to one person or group of people, in a specific place and time.

Assumptions about how we study truth

Having discussed what is true, we can proceed to the next natural question—how can we come to know what is real and true? This is epistemology, or our assumptions about how we come to know what is real and true. Again, we began this discussion in Chapter 1 when we described the scientific method and objective and subjective truths. Epistemological subjectivism focuses on what people think and feel about a situation, while epistemological objectivism focuses on objective facts irrelevant to our interpretation of a situation (Lin, 2015).[4]

While there are many important questions about epistemology to ask (e.g., “How can I be sure of what I know?” or “What can I not know?” see Willis, 2007[5] for more), from a pragmatic perspective most relevant epistemological question in the social sciences is whether truth is better accessed using numbers or words.  Generally, scientists approaching research with an objective epistemology (and realist ontology) will use quantitative methods to arrive at scientific truth.  Quantitative methods examine numerical data to precisely describe and predict elements of the social world. For example, while people can have different definitions for poverty, an objective measurement such as an annual income of “less than $25,100 for a family of four” provides a precise measurement that can be compared to incomes from all other people in any society from any time period, and refers to real quantities of money that exist in the world. Mathematical relationships are uniquely useful in that they allow comparisons across individuals as well as time and space.  In this book, we will review the most common designs used in quantitative research: surveys and experiments. These types of studies usually rely on the epistemological assumption that mathematics can represent the phenomena and relationships we observe in the social world.

Although mathematical relationships are useful, they are limited in what they can tell you. While you can learn use quantitative methods to measure individuals’ experiences and thought processes, you will miss the story behind the numbers. To analyze stories scientifically, we need to examine words using qualitative methods. Because social science studies human interaction and the reality we all create and share in our heads, subjectivists focus on language and how we communicate our inner experience. Qualitative methods allow us to scientifically investigate language–to pursue research questions that explore the words people write and speak. This is consistent with epistemological subjectivism’s focus on individual and shared experiences, interpretations, and stories.

It is important to note that qualitative methods are entirely compatible with seeking objective truth. Approaching qualitative analysis with a more objective perspective, we look simply at what was said and examine its surface-level meaning. If a person says they brought their kids to school that day, then that is what is true. A researcher seeking subjective truth may focus on how the person says the words—their tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth. By focusing on these things, the researcher can understand what it meant to the person to say they dropped their kids off at school. Perhaps in describing dropping their children off at school, the person winced, which could show that the drop-off was a difficult experience for the person. In this way, subjective truths are deeper, more personalized, and difficult to generalize.


  • Which ontology and epistemological perspectives make the most sense for your research project?
    • Are you more concerned with how people think and feel about your topic, their subjective truths?
    • Or are you more concerned with the objective facts of the situation?
  • Using your answer to the above question, describe how either quantitative or qualitative methods make the most sense for project.

Assumptions about the researcher’s frame of reference

So far, we have talked about knowledge as it exists in the world, but what about the process of research itself?  Doesn’t the researcher bring their own biases, perspectives, and experiences to the process? The critique of science as an enterprise dominated by the perspectives of white men from North America and Europe is one that has had a profound impact on how we view knowledge. Because scientists design research studies, create measures, and interpret results, there is always the risk that a scientist’s objectivity slips and as a result, biases are expressed.

Social work is concerned with the “isms” of oppression (ableism, ageism, cissexism, classism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, etc.), and so our approach to science must reconcile its history as both a tool of oppression and its exclusion of oppressed groups. Science grew out of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement which applied reason and empirical analysis to understanding the world. While the Enlightenment brought forth tremendous achievements, the critiques of Marxian, feminist, and other critical theorists complicated the Enlightenment understanding of science. For this section, I will focus on feminist critiques of science, building upon an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Crasnow, Wylie, Bauchspies, & Potter, 2018).

In its original formulation, science was an individualistic endeavor. As we learned in Chapter 1, a basic statement of the scientific method is that a researcher studies existing theories on a topic, formulates a hypothesis about what might be true, and either confirms or disconfirms their hypothesis through experiment and rigorous observation. Over time, our theories become more accurate in their predictions and more comprehensive in their conclusions. Scientists put aside their preconceptions, look at the data, and build their theories based on objective rationality.

Yet, this cannot be perfectly true. Scientists are human, after all. As a profession historically dominated by white men, scientists have dismissed women and other minorities as being psychologically unfit for the scientific profession. While attitudes have improved, science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and related fields remain dominated by white men (Grogan, 2019) [6]. Biases can persist in social work theory when social workers do not have similar experiences to the populations they study.

Gender bias can influence the research questions scientists choose to answer. Feminist critiques of medical science drew attention to women’s health issues, spurring research and changing standards of care. The focus on domestic violence in the empirical literature can also be seen as a result of feminist critique. Thus, critical theory helps us critique what is on the agenda for science. If science is to answer important questions, it must incorporate perspectives of all people.

Similarly, many of the older, classic social science theories were developed based on research which observed males or from university students in the United States or other Western nations. How these observations were made, what questions were asked, and how the data were interpreted were shaped by the same oppressive forces that existed in broader society, a process that continues into the present. In psychology, the concept of hysteria or hysterical women was believed to be caused by a wandering womb (Tasca et al., 2012).[7] Even today, there are gender biases in diagnoses of histrionic personality disorder and racial biases in psychotic disorders (Klonsky et al., 2002)[8] because the theories underlying them were created in a sexist and racist culture. In these ways, science can reinforce the truth of the white Western male perspective.

Finally, it is important to note that social science research is often conducted on populations rather than with populations. Historically, this has often meant Western men traveling to other countries and seeking to understand other cultures through a Western lens. Lacking cultural humility and failing to engage stakeholders, ethnocentric research of this sort has led to the view of non-Western cultures as inferior. Moreover, the use of these populations as research subjects rather than co-equal participants in the research process privileges the researcher’s knowledge over that from other groups or cultures. Researchers working with indigenous cultures, in particular, had a destructive habit of conducting research for a short time and then leaving, without regard for the impact their study had on the population. These critiques of Western science aim to decolonize social science, ridding it of the racist ideas the oppress indigenous and non-Western peoples (Smith, 2013). [9]


  • Reflect on the biases you bring to researching your topic as well as the limitations of your knowledge, given your identities and experiences.
  • Describe how previous or current studies and theories about your topic have been influenced by oppressive forces such as racism and sexism.

Assumptions about human action

When scientists observe social phenomena, they often take the perspective of determinism, meaning that what is seen is the result of processes that occurred earlier in time (i.e., cause and effect). As you will see in chapter 8, this process is represented in the classical formulation of a research question which asks “what is the relationship between X (cause) and Y (effect)?” By framing a research question in such a way, the scientist is disregarding any reciprocal influence that Y has on X. Moreover, the scientist also excludes human agency from the equation. It is simply that a cause will necessitate an effect. For example, a researcher might find that few people living in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty graduate from high school, and thus conclude that poverty causes adolescents to drop out of school. This conclusion, however, does not address the story behind the numbers. Each person who is counted as graduating or dropping out has a unique story of why they made the choices they did. Perhaps they had a mentor or parent that helped them succeed. Perhaps they faced the choice between employment to support family members or continuing in school.

For this reason, determinism is critiqued as reductionistic in the social sciences because people have agency over their actions. This is unlike the natural sciences like physics. While a table isn’t aware of the friction it has with the floor, parents and children are likely aware of the friction in their relationships and act based on how they interpret that conflict. The opposite of determinism is free will, that humans can choose how they act and their behavior and thoughts are not solely determined by what happened prior in a neat, cause-and-effect relationship. Researchers adopting a perspective of free will view the process of, continuing with our education example, seeking higher education as the result of a number of mutually influencing forces and the spontaneous and implicit processes of human thought. For these researchers, the picture painted by determinism is too simplistic.

A similar dichotomy can be found in the debate between individualism and holism. When you hear something like “the disease model of addiction leads to policies that pathologize and oppress people who use drugs,” the speaker is making a methodologically holistic argument. He or she is making a claim that abstract social forces (the disease model, policies) can cause things to change. A methodological individualist would critique this argument by saying that the disease model of addiction doesn’t actually cause anything by itself. From this perspective, it is the individuals, rather than any abstract social force, who oppress people who use drugs. The disease model itself doesn’t cause anything to change; the individuals who follow the precepts of the disease model are the agents who actually oppress people in reality. To an individualist, all social phenomena are the result of individual human action. To a holist, social forces can influence each other without necessitating an explanation of how individuals impacted that process.


  • Which assumption, determinism or free will, makes the most sense for your project and working question?
    • Is human action, or free will, central to how you understand your topic?
    • Or are humans more passive and what happens to them more determined by the social forces that influence their life?
  • Reflect on how your project’s assumptions may differ from your own assumptions about free will and determinism. For example, my beliefs about self-determination and free will always inform my social work practice. However, my working question and research project may rely on social theories that are deterministic and do not address human agency.


Assumptions about the social world

Another assumption scientists make is around the nature of the social world. Is it an orderly place that remains relatively stable over time? Or is it a place of constant change and conflict? The view of the social world as an orderly place can help a researcher describe how things fit together to create a cohesive whole. For example, systems theory can help you understand how different systems interact with and influence one another, drawing energy from one place to another through an interconnected network with a tendency towards homeostasis. This is a more consensus-focused and status-quo-oriented perspective. Yet, this view of the social world cannot adequately explain the radical shifts and revolutions that occur. It also leaves little room for human action and free will. In this more radical space, change consists of the fundamental assumptions about how the social world works.

For example, at the time of this writing, protests are taking place across the world to remember the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and other victims of police violence and systematic racism. Public support of Black Lives Matter, an anti-racist activist group that focuses on police violence and criminal justice reform, has experienced a radical shift in public support in just two weeks since the killing, equivalent to the previous 21 months of advocacy and social movement organizing (Cohn & Quealy, 2020). Abolition of police and prisons, once a fringe idea, has moved into the conversation about remaking the criminal justice system from the ground-up, centering its historic and current role as an oppressive system for Black Americans. Seemingly overnight, reducing the money spent on police and giving that money to social services became a moderate political position. A researcher centering change may choose to understand this transformation or even incorporate radical anti-racist ideas into the design and methods of their study. Contrastingly, a researcher centering consensus and the status quo might focus on incremental changes what people currently think about the topic. In so doing, it ignores the potential for radical change and social transformation and erases the role that social scientific research can play in actualizing that change.


  • Which assumption fits best with how you think about your study:
    • Research should focus on consensus and the status quo.
    • Research should address deeper social conflicts and radical change.
  • Reflect on what role you think research should play.
    • Should it help us envision a more radically equitable future?
    • Or should it assess the world as it is right now?


Assumptions about the purpose of research

Critical and radical views of science focus on how to spread knowledge and information in a way that combats oppression. These questions are central for creating research projects that fight against the objective structures of oppression—like unequal pay—and their subjective counterparts in the mind—like internalized sexism. For example, a more critical research project would fight not only against statutes of limitations for sexual assault but on how women have internalized rape culture as well. Its explicit goal would be to fight oppression and to inform practice on women’s liberation. For this reason, creating change is baked into the research questions and methods used in more critical and radical research projects.

As part of studying radical change and oppression, we are likely employing a model of science that puts values front-and-center within a research project. All social work research is values-driven, as we are a values-driven profession. Historically, though, most social scientists have argued for values-free science. Scientists agree that science helps human progress, but they hold that researchers should remain as objective as possible–which means putting aside politics and personal values that might bias their results, similar to the cognitive biases we discussed in section 1.1. Over the course of last century, this perspective was challenged by scientists who approached research from an explicitly political and values-driven perspective. As we discussed earlier in this chapter, feminist critiques strive to understand how sexism biases research questions, samples, measures, and conclusions, while decolonization critiques try to de-center the Western perspective of science and truth.

It is important to note that both values-central and values-neutral perspectives are useful in furthering social justice. Values-neutral science is helpful at predicting phenomena. Indeed, it matches well with objectivist ontologies and epistemologies. Let’s examine a measure of depression, the Patient Health Questionnaire (PSQ-9). The authors of this measure spent years creating a measure that accurately and reliably measures the concept of depression. This measure is assumed to measure depression in any person, and scales like this are often translated into other languages (and subsequently validated) for more widespread use . The goal is to measure depression in a valid and reliable manner. We can use this objective measure to predict relationships with other risk and protective factors, such as substance use or resiliency, as well as evaluate the impact of evidence-based treatments for depression like narrative therapy.

While measures like the PSQ-9 help with prediction, they do not allow you to understand an individual person’s experience of depression. To do so, you need to listen to their stories and how they make sense of the world. The goal of understanding isn’t to predict what will happen next, but to empathically connect with the person and truly understand what’s happening from their perspective. Understanding fits best in subjectivist epistemologies and ontologies, as they allow for multiple truths (i.e. that multiple interpretations of the same situation are valid).


  • What role will values play in your study?
    • Are you looking to be as objective as possible, putting aside your own values?
    • Or are you infusing values into each aspect of your research design?
    • Remember that although social work is a values-based profession, that does not mean that all social work research is values-informed. The majority of social work research is objective and tries to be value-neutral in how it approaches research.
  • Are you trying to predict how one thing will influence another? Or are you instead trying to understand people’s subjective realities?


Putting it all together

As you engage with theoretical and empirical information in social work, keep these paradigmatic assumptions in mind. They are useful shortcuts to understanding the deeper ideas and assumptions behind the construction of knowledge. See Table 7.1 below for a short reference list. The purpose of investigating paradigmatic assumptions isn’t to find out which is true and which is false, or to find the one that speaks to your perspective best. Instead, the goal is to identify the assumptions upon which the knowledge you discover in your research project is based.

Table 7.1 Paradigmatic assumptions in social science research
Assumptions Conflict
Ontology: assumptions about what is real Realism vs. anti-realism
Epistemology: assumptions about how we come to know what is real Objective truth vs. subjective truths

Math vs. language

Assumptions about the researcher Researcher as unbiased vs. researcher shaped by oppression, culture, and history

Researcher as neutral force vs. researcher as oppressive force

Assumptions about human action Determinism vs. free will

Holism vs. individualism

Assumptions about the social world Orderly and consensus-focused vs. disorderly and conflict-focused
Assumptions about the purpose of research Study the status quo vs. create radical change

Values-neutral vs. values-central

Prediction vs. understanding

Key Takeaways

  • Philosophers of science disagree on the basic tenets of what is true, how we come to know what is true, the purpose of research, properties of the social world, and the role of the researcher and human agency in the research process.
  • These paradigmatic considerations cannot be resolved, so social workers use a multi-paradigmatic lens that identifies the assumptions that best match the research question under examination.


  • Critique the following (deliberately problematic) statement using the philosophical assumptions described in this chapter. What’s wrong with this statement?
    • “When the scientist observes the social world, he does so objectively.”


7.2 Social work research paradigms

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Distinguish between the three major research paradigms in social work and apply the assumptions upon which they are built to a student research project

In the last section, we introduced some of the questions researchers need to ask as they approach scientific inquiry. Hopefully, you followed along with the exercises and reflected on where you project might be situated. In this section, we will build upon these assumptions and detail three paradigms: positivism, interpretivism, and critical, following the framework of Guba and Lincoln (1990)[10] and Burrell and Morgan (1979).[11] Most of social work research and theory can be classified as belonging to one of these three paradigms, though this classification system represents only one of many useful approaches to analyzing social science research paradigms.

These paradigms are three common ways of answering the conflicts we explored in Table 7.1. Some assumptions naturally make sense together, and research paradigms grow out of shared assumptions about social science. It’s important to think of paradigms less as three distinct categories and more as a spectrum along which projects might fall. For example, some projects may be somewhat positivist, somewhat interpretivist, and a little critical. No project fits perfectly into one paradigm, as we discuss in section 7.4.

Additionally, there is no paradigm that is more correct than the other. Each paradigm uses assumptions that are logically consistent, and when combined, are a useful approach to understanding the social world using science. The purpose of this section is to acquaint you with what research projects in each paradigm look like and how they are grounded in philosophical assumptions about social science.

You should read this section to situate yourself in terms of what paradigm feels most “at home” to both you as a person and to your project. You may find, as I have, that your research projects are more conventional and less radical than what feels most like home to you, personally. In a research project, however, students should start with their working question rather than their heart. Use the paradigm that fits with your question the best, rather than which paradigm you think fits you the best.

Positivism: Researcher as “expert”

The first paradigm we will review is positivism, or more accurately, post-positivism.  It is likely the paradigm that comes to mind when you think about science. Positivism is concerned with understanding what is true for everybody. Social workers whose working question fits best with the positivist paradigm will want to cite studies that are generalizable and can speak to larger populations. For this reason, positivistic researchers favor quantitative methods—probability sampling, experimental or survey design, and multiple, and well-established instruments to measure key concepts. Table 7.2 describes the main assumptions of positivism in terms of the core questions we posed in section 7.1.

Table 7.2: Assumptions of the positivist paradigm
Assumptions Conflict Answer
Ontology Realism vs. anti-realism Realism. Everything in the social world is objectively real. It exists independent of anyone observing it. When we describe a concept such as homelessness or violence, we are describing a real thing that exists in the world, not just in our own minds.
Epistemology Objective truth vs. subjective truths Objective truth. There is only one truth, the objective truth. People’s interpretations of reality and the stories they tell are not scientific facts. While contemporary positivists acknowledge that we can only come to know objective truth imperfectly, it is still the goal of social science.
Math vs. language Math is best. Objects in the social world are no different than objects in the natural world. They can be described in terms of what category they belong to or how much of a certain property they have. Social scientists figure out the best ways to mathematically measure a concept, in a way that works for everyone, and test for statistical relationships between concepts to understand cause and effect relationships. These relationships must make rational sense and follow a clear, linear, and causal relationship.

Language is okay, too. While language can be used to measure social concepts, we should limit ourselves to the surface-level content of what people say and not try to interpret deeply the meaning behind their words. Subjectivity is a source of bias. If you use word data, try to find ways to make the data quantitative, for example by counting themes that appear in the text.

Assumptions about the researcher Researcher as unbiased vs. shaped by culture, history, and oppression Researcher as unbiased. Historically, positivists believed that the researcher sits outside of the universe to observe it, weighing both methods and results rationally and objectively. Post-positivism acknowledges that our ability to achieve true objectivity is limited and that scientific consensus or contention over theories and empirical evidence is subject to tribalism and irrational thinking.
Research as a neutral force vs. researcher as an oppressive force Researcher as a neutral force. Positivists are concerned with the impact researchers have, but their focus is on maintaining objectivity and not biasing the results of a study. For example, if people know they are being observed for a study, they tend to act differently. Positivists are comfortable conducting research “on” populations, rather than “with” populations, as positivists are experts on designing and conducting a study while community members are not.
Assumptions about human action Determinism vs. free will Determinism. Positivists focus on predicting the future based on what happened in the past, with little attention to human action. There is less of a focus on decision-making processes than in stating how one concept (e.g., economic recessions) might impact another (e.g., suicide rates). Human action is assumed to take place, but it emerges deterministically from genetics or learned behavioral responses to reward and punishment.
Assumptions about the social world Holism vs. individualism Both. Some positivists assert that only human beings can act, causing changes in the social world, while others study how social forces impact one another without human action.
Orderly and consensus-oriented vs. disorderly and conflict-oriented Orderly and consensus-oriented. Positivists view the world as a cohesive social whole. Our job as researchers is to discover how each part interacts with the next to produce the system we see today, or how small changes can be made in one part to influence another. Change is incremental, not radical.
Assumptions about the purpose of research Status quo vs. radical change Status quo. Positivism tries to understand the world as it currently exists or make small changes to transform it for the better. It does not incorporate the idea of transforming society into its research methodology nor does it study radical change.
Values-neutral vs. values-central Values-neutral. Research is apolitical and should not be informed by personal values or social justice. Allowing values to influence which research questions or measures a researcher chooses biases the research project.
Prediction vs. understanding Prediction. The purpose of research is to build generalizable truths and understand what is true for all people, similar to the universal laws of physics. Think of the behaviorists who conditioned responses through punishment and reinforcement. Positivist research also aims to predict what will happen in the future, understanding what is true in any time period.

A positivist orientation to research is appropriate when your research question asks for generalizable truths. For example, your working question may look something like: does my agency’s housing intervention lead to fewer periods of homelessness for our clients? It is necessary to study such a relationship quantitatively and objectively. When social workers speak about social problems impacting societies and individuals, they reference positivist research, including experiments and surveys of the general populations.

Critiques of positivism stem from two major issues. First and foremost, positivism may not fit the messy, contradictory, and circular world of human relationships. A positivistic approach does not allow the researcher to understand another person’s mental state. This is because the positivist orientation focuses on quantifiable, generalizable data – and therefore encompasses only a small fraction of what may be true in any given situation. This critique is emblematic of the interpretivist paradigm, which we will describe next.

In the section after that, we will describe the critical paradigm, which critiques the positivist paradigm (and the interpretivist paradigm) for focusing too little on social change, values, and oppression. Positivists assume they know what is true, but they often do not incorporate the knowledge and experiences of oppressed people, even when those community members are directly impacted by the research. Positivism has been critiqued as ethnocentrist, patriarchal, and classist (Kincheloe & Tobin, 2009).[12] This leads them to do research on, rather than with populations by excluding them from the conceptualization, design, and impact of a project, a topic we discussed in section 2.4. It also leads them to ignore the historical and cultural context that is important to understanding the social world. The result is a one-dimensional and reductionistic view of reality.


  • From your literature search, identify an empirical article that uses quantitative methods to answer a research question similar to your working question or about your research topic.
  • Review the assumptions of the positivist research paradigm and how it resolves each conflict.
  • Discuss in a few sentences how the author’s conclusions are based on some of these paradigmatic assumptions.
    • How might a researcher operating from different assumptions (like anti-realism or free will) critique the conclusions of your study?
  • Reflect on how the truth gained from positivistic inquiry focuses on generalizability and prediction, attempting to establish what is broadly true for a population.

Interpretivism: Researcher as “empathizer”

Interpretivism develops from the idea that we want to understand the truths of individuals, how they interpret and understand the world, their thought processes, and the social structures that emerge from sharing those interpretations through language and behavior. The process of social construction is guided by the empathy of the researcher to understand the meaning behind what other people say.

While positivists seek “the truth,” the social constructionist framework argues that “truth” varies. Truth differs based on who you ask, and people change their definitions of truth based on social interactions. Truth also exists within social and historical contexts, as our understanding of truth varies across communities and time periods. This is because we, according to this paradigm, create reality ourselves through our social interactions and our interpretations of those interactions. Key to the interpretivist perspective is the idea that social context and interaction frame our realities.

Researchers operating within this framework take keen interest in how people come to socially agree, or disagree, about what is real and true. Consider how people, depending on their social and geographical context, ascribe different meanings to certain hand gestures. When a person raises their middle finger, those of us in Western cultures will probably think that this person isn’t very happy (not to mention the person at whom the middle finger is being directed!). In other societies around the world, a thumbs-up gesture, rather than a middle finger, signifies discontent (Wong, 2007).[13] The fact that these hand gestures have different meanings across cultures aptly demonstrates that those meanings are socially and collectively constructed. What, then, is the “truth” of the middle finger or thumbs up? As we’ve seen in this section, the truth depends on the intention of the person making the gesture, the interpretation of the person receiving it, and the social context in which the action occurred.

It would be a mistake to think of the interpretivist perspective as only individualistic. While individuals may construct their own realities, groups—from a small one such as a married couple to large ones such as nations—often agree on notions of what is true and what “is” and what “is not.” In other words, the meanings that we construct have power beyond the individuals who create them. Therefore, the ways that people and communities work to create and change such meanings is of as much interest to interpretivists as how they were created in the first place.

Table 7.3: Assumptions of the interpretivist paradigm
Assumptions Conflict Answer
Ontology Anti-realism Anti-realism. The facts of the social sciences are the experiences, feelings, stories, and otherwise subjective experiences of individual people and how they are communicated, shared, and revised through social interaction. Concepts have no reality or truth other than what people give to them through thought.
Epistemology Objective truth vs. subjective truths Subjective truth. There are multiple truths that exist simultaneously. As people communicate and act in the social world, their actions give social life to their truths. Objects in the social world are different than objects in the natural world because people, who constitute the social world, are self-aware and conscious.
Math vs. language Language. People communicate their subjective perceptions through language, both in terms of how they share their ideas with others and how they make sense of them internally. Social scientists find patterns in what people say and how they interact with one another, observing complex and often circular causal relationships.
Assumptions about the researcher Researcher as unbiased vs. shaped by culture, history, and oppression Researcher as biased. Researchers are people, and people’s experiences influence how they think about things. Researchers cannot be a blank slate. Interpretivist researchers acknowledge their biases openly and attempt to convey them in an authentic and trustworthy way.
Researcher as a neutral force vs. researcher as an oppressive force Researcher as an oppressive force. Interpretivism acknowledges that researchers have an impact on people they study and the communities in which their studies take place. As those who ultimately publish the study results and control access to confidential study data, researchers hold power in the research study. Research has also excluded perspectives from oppressed groups, and interpretivist research may explicitly give voice to these groups.
Assumptions about human action Determinism vs. free will Free will. People do not act or think in neat, rational cause-and-effect relationships. Instead, people can act spontaneously and in unexpected ways. The social world moves forward through human action, both that which is planned, and that which is unplanned, undirected, and emergent.
Holism vs. individualism Both. Interpretivists vary in the degree to which they apply individualism and holism. When interpretivists study small groups and communities, they will often adopt a methodologically holist approach. For example, they may say, “the community wants to do X.” Other interpretivists are less concerned with consensus and focus more on the individuality of thought.
Assumptions about the social world Orderly and consensus-oriented vs. disorderly and conflict-oriented Orderly and consensus-oriented. Interpretivists seek to understand the regularities and patterns in people’s shared subjective experiences. Researchers should not focus on predicting, but on interpreting data in a way that reveals a coherent order to the data. The focus is on consensus, rather than conflict.
Assumptions about the purpose of research Status quo vs. radical change Status quo. Interpretivism tries to understand the world as it currently exists. It helps give voice to perspectives excluded from positivist inquiry, though it does not incorporate the idea of transforming society into its research methodology.
Values-neutral vs. values-central Values-central. Interpretivism is compatible with feminist, anti-racist, and other perspective-based research frameworks. The role of values in the research inquiry does not bias the process but is a natural part of research that focuses on subjectivity and stories.
Prediction vs. understanding Understanding. The purpose of research is understanding. Researchers cannot control and predict the social world, but work to understand it by uncovering the themes and patterns in the stories people tell about their experiences. These understandings are specific to time and place. While knowledge may be transferable from one context to another, it is not generalizable in the sense that it applies to all people everywhere.

Positivists critique the interpretivist paradigm as non-scientific. They view the interpretivist focus on subjectivity and values as sources of bias. Positivists and interpretivists differ on the degree to which social phenomena are like natural phenomena. Positivists believe that the assumptions of the social sciences and natural sciences are the same, while interpretivists strongly believe that social sciences differ from the natural sciences because their subjects are self-aware.

Similarly, the critical paradigm finds fault with the interpretivist focus on the status quo rather than social change. Although interpretivists often proceed from a feminist or other standpoint theory, the focus is less on liberation than on understanding the present from multiple perspectives. Other critical theorists may object to the consensus orientation of interpretivist research. By searching for commonalities between people’s stories, they may erase the uniqueness of each individual’s story. For example, while interpretivists may arrive at a consensus definition of what the experience of “coming out” is like for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, it cannot represent the diversity of each person’s unique “coming out” experience and what it meant to them. For example, see Rosario and colleague’s (2009)[14] critique the literature on lesbians “coming out” because previous studies did not addressing how acting or looking like a butch or femme impacted the experience of “coming out.”


  • From your literature search, identify an empirical article that uses qualitative methods to answer a research question similar to your working question or about your research topic.
  • Review the assumptions of the interpretivist research paradigm and how it resolves each conflict.
  • Discuss in a few sentences how the author’s conclusions are based on some of these paradigmatic assumptions.
    • How might a researcher operating from different assumptions (like realism or determinism) critique the conclusions of your study?
  • Reflect on how the truth gained from interpretivistic inquiry focuses on the embeddedness of our ideas within our own consciousness, our relationships, and our cultural and historical context. The goal is to understand deep truths about a specific person or small group of people, rather than establishing what is broadly true for a large population.

Critical paradigm: Researcher as “activist”

As we’ve discussed a bit in the preceding sections, the critical paradigm focuses on power, inequality, and social change. Although some rather diverse perspectives are included here, the critical paradigm, in general, includes ideas developed by early social theorists, such as Max Horkheimer (Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, & Virk, 2007),[15] and later works developed by feminist scholars, such as Nancy Fraser (1989).[16] Unlike the positivist paradigm, the critical paradigm assumes that social science can never be truly objective or value-free. Furthermore, this paradigm operates from the perspective that scientific investigation should be conducted with the express goal of social change.

Researchers in the critical paradigm might start with the knowledge that systems are biased against certain groups, such as women or ethnic minorities. Moreover, their research projects are designed not only to collect data, but to impact the participants as well as the systems being studied. The critical paradigm not only studies power imbalances but seeks to change those power imbalances as part of the research process itself. If this sounds familiar to you, you may remember hearing similar ideas when discussing social conflict theory in your human behavior in the social environment (HBSE) class.[17] Because of this focus on social change, the critical paradigm is a natural home for social work research.

Table 7.4: Assumptions of the critical paradigm
Assumptions Conflict Answer
Ontology Realism vs. anti-realism Both. Critical researchers focus on power and oppression. The drive toward social change and liberation can have an impact in the material world or within people’s minds.
Epistemology Objective truth vs. subjective truths Both. Critical researchers vary in the degree to which they focus on oppressive structures as objective entities (e.g., patriarchy, capitalism) or as subjective and emergent social phenomena (e.g., internalized homophobia). Some critical researchers will adopt objective assumptions about the working class or economic structures while others will focus on the subjective perspectives of community members and those of oppressed groups to raise consciousness for social change.
Math vs. language Both. Critical researchers adopt those methods that suit their research question. If the goal is to address the objective forces of oppression, mathematics are the best tool. If the goal is to liberate people from subjective experiences of oppression, language is the best tool.
Assumptions about the researcher Researcher as unbiased vs. shaped by culture, history, and oppression Researcher as biased. The lack of diverse representation among researchers has privileged the white, male, Western perspective on the world and marginalized other perspectives on truth and social science. Because all scientists are people, their theories, measures, and other scientific practices are shaped by oppressive forces in the social world. Critical researchers explicitly adopt anti-oppressive research practices.
Researcher as a neutral force vs. researcher as an oppressive force Researcher as an oppressive force. Critical researchers address issues of oppression and are very sensitive to the history of research as an oppressive tool. Critical researchers incorporate these critiques into their practice by working with communities as equals in the research process, rejecting the expert role and embracing the partner role. This means researching “with” populations, rather than researching “on” them.
Assumptions about human action Determinism vs. free will Both. Critical researchers vary in the degree to which they believe in free will. Some focus on how history or material and economic conditions will naturally lead towards radical change. Others focus on how the free actions of individual leaders from oppressed groups can either organize people towards social change or maintain existing oppressions.
Holism vs. individualism Both. Critical researchers are split. Some focus on a radical individualism where finding commonalities with other stories can destroy the truth value of information. Others focus on how people belong to groups whose identity and thoughts are developed through a process of generalization.
Assumptions about the social world Orderly and consensus-oriented vs. disorderly and conflict-oriented Disorderly and spontaneous. Critical researchers view the social world as beset by conflicts over resources, power, and inequality. In this space, struggles for resources often lead to radical and transformational change.
Assumptions about the purpose of research Status quo vs. radical change Radical change. Critical researchers aim to transform society in radical ways. They may focus on liberating people from oppressive ideas they have internalized, or from objective structures like capitalism or racism. In either case, the goal of liberation and social justice is a part of the research process itself.


Values-neutral vs. values-central Values-central. Because of inequality and oppression in the world, values are a core part of the research process. Values-neutral science perpetuates existing oppression in the world because it naively assumes that values can be excluded from research.
Prediction vs. understanding Both. Critical theorists focus on generalizable, objective truths about oppression that are assumed to apply in all situations. Critical theorists are distinct from positivists in that their focus is on power as an objective structuring force in the world. Other critical theorists focus on understanding individual experiences of oppression for the purpose of social and personal transformation. This differs from the interpretivist understanding, as it focuses on transforming the understanding of individuals in the research project, rather than simply understanding their perspective.

Positivists critique the critical paradigm on multiple fronts. First and foremost, the focus on oppression and values as part of the research process is seen as likely to bias the research process, most problematically, towards confirmation bias. If you start out with the assumption that oppression exists and must be dealt with, then you are likely to find that regardless of whether it is truly there or not. Similarly, positivists may fault critical researchers for focusing on how the world should be, rather than how it truly is. In this, they may focus too much on theoretical and abstract inquiry and less on traditional experimentation and empirical inquiry. Finally, the goal of social transformation is seen as inherently unscientific, as science is not a political practice.

Interpretivists often find common cause with critical researchers. Feminist studies, for example, may explore the perspectives of women while centering gender-based oppression as part of the research process. In interpretivist research, the focus is less on radical change as part of the research process and more on small, incremental changes based on the results and conclusions drawn from the research project. Additionally, some critical researchers’ focus on individuality of experience is in stark contrast to the consensus-orientation of interpretivists.  Interpretivists seek to understand people’s true selves, while critical theorists argue that people have multiple selves or no self at all.


  • From your literature search, identify an article relevant to your working question or broad research topic that uses a critical perspective. You should look for articles where the authors are clear that they are applying a critical approach to research like feminism, anti-racism, Marxism and critical theory, decolonization, anti-oppressive practice, or other social justice-informed approaches. If you have trouble identifying one, consult your professor for some help.
  • Review the assumptions of the critical research paradigm and how it resolves each conflict.
  • Discuss in a few sentences how the author’s conclusions are based on some of these paradigmatic assumptions.
    • How might a researcher operating from different assumptions (like values-neutrality or researcher as neutral and unbiased) critique the conclusions of your study?
    • For those assumptions on which the critical paradigm can fall into either side, identify how the author resolves those conflicts and relies on one set of assumptions over another.
  • Reflect on how the truth gained from critical inquiry establish oppression and liberation as a part of our individual and social reality.


A multi-paradigmatic perspective

We have reviewed three general paradigms that researchers employ when conceptualizing and carrying out their research. It is important to emphasize again that there is no “correct” paradigm. All paradigms rely on assumptions about the social world that are the subject of philosophical debate. Each paradigm is an incomplete understanding of the world, and it requires a scientific community using all of them to gain a comprehensive view of the social world. This multi-paradigmatic perspective is a unique gift of social work research, as our emphasis on empathy and social change makes us more critical of positivism, the dominant paradigm in social science. We offered the metaphors of expert, empathizer, and activist for each paradigm. It’s important not to take these labels too seriously. For example, some may view that scientists should be experts or that activists are biased and unscientific. Nevertheless, we hope that these metaphors give you a sense of what it feels like to conduct research within each paradigm.

One of the unique aspects of paradigmatic thinking is that often where you think you are most at home may actually be the opposite of where your research project is. For example, in my graduate and doctoral education, I thought I was a critical researcher. In fact, I thought I was a radical researcher focused on social change and transformation. Yet, often times when I sit down to conceptualize and start a research project, I find myself squarely in the positivist paradigm, thinking through neat cause-and-effect relationships that can be mathematically measured. There is nothing wrong with that! Your task for your research project is to find the paradigm that best matches your research question. Think through what you really want to study and how you think about the topic, then use assumptions of that paradigm to guide your inquiry.

Another important lesson is that no research project fits perfectly in one paradigm or another. Instead, there is a spectrum along which studies are, to varying degrees, interpretivist, positivist, and critical. For example, all social work research is a bit activist in that our research projects are designed to inform action for change on behalf of clients and systems. However, some projects will focus on the conclusions and implications of projects informing social change (i.e., positivist and interpretivist projects) while others will partner with community members and design research projects collaboratively in a way that leads to social change (i.e. critical projects).

Feeling a bit confused? Here is a short blog post on paradigms in social science that might explain things further.



Key Takeaways

  • Social work research falls, to some degree, in each of the three paradigms: positivism, interpretivism, and critical.
  • Researchers should choose whichever paradigm best matches their research question.
  • No paradigm is more correct than another, and research in all paradigms is necessary to advance social work knowledge.


  • Describe which paradigm best fits your perspective on the world. Does that fit with how you are thinking about your research project? For example, are you a more critical and radical thinker but have chosen a more “expert” role for yourself in your research project? Describe how the paradigm of your project differs from the paradigm you feel most at home in.


7.3 Theory and research

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Differentiate between theories that explain specific parts of the social world versus those that are more broad and sweeping in their conclusions
  • Identify the theoretical perspectives that are relevant to your project and inform your thinking about it
  • Identify specific theories relevant to your project

Much like paradigms, theories provide a way of looking at the world and of understanding human interaction. Paradigms are grounded in big assumptions about the world—what is real, how do we create knowledge—whereas theories describe more specific phenomena. A common definition for theory in social work is “a systematic set of interrelated statements intended to explain some aspect of social life” (Rubin & Babbie, 2017, p. 615). [18]

Theories: Big and small

In your Human behavior and the social environment (HBSE) class, you were introduced to the major theoretical perspectives that are commonly used in social work. These are what I like to call big-T ‘T’heories. When you read about systems theory, you are actually reading a synthesis of decades of distinct, overlapping, and conflicting theories that can be broadly classified within systems theory. For example, within systems theory, some approaches focus more on family systems while others focus on environmental systems, though the core concepts remain similar.

Similarly, different theorists define concepts differently, and their theories may explore different relationships. For example, Deci and Ryan’s (1985)[19] self-determination theory discusses motivation and establishes that it is contingent on meeting one’s needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness. By contrast, ecological self-determination theory, as written by Abery & Stancliffe (1996),[20] argues that self-determination is the amount of control exercised by an individual over aspects of their lives they deem important across the micro, meso, and macro levels. If self-determination were an important concept in your study, you would need to figure out which of the many theories related to self-determination helps you address your working question.

Theories can provide a broad perspective on the key concepts and relationships in the world or more specific and applied concepts and perspectives. Table 7.5 summarizes two commonly used lists of big-T Theoretical perspectives in social work. See if you can locate some of the theories that might inform your project.

Table 7.5: Broad theoretical perspectives in social work
Payne’s (2014)[21] practice theories Hutchison’s (2014)[22] theoretical perspectives
Psychodynamic Systems
Crisis and task-centered Conflict
Cognitive-behavioral Exchange and choice
Systems/ecological Social constructionist
Macro practice/social development/social pedagogy Psychodynamic
Strengths/solution/narrative Developmental
Humanistic/existential/spiritual Social behavioral
Critical Humanistic
Anti-discriminatory/multi-cultural sensitivity

Within each area of specialization in social work, there are many other theories that aim to explain more specific types of interactions. For example, within the study of sexual harassment, different theories posit different explanations for why harassment occurs.

One theory, first developed by criminologists, is called routine activities theory. It posits that sexual harassment is most likely to occur when a workplace lacks unified groups and when potentially vulnerable targets and motivated offenders are both present (DeCoster, Estes, & Mueller, 1999).[23]

Other theories of sexual harassment, called relational theories, suggest that one’s existing relationships are the key to understanding why and how workplace sexual harassment occurs and how people will respond when it does occur (Morgan, 1999).[24] Relational theories focus on the power that different social relationships provide (e.g., married people who have supportive partners at home might be more likely than those who lack support at home to report sexual harassment when it occurs).

Finally, feminist theories of sexual harassment take a different stance. These theories posit that the organization of our current gender system, wherein those who are the most masculine have the most power, best explains the occurrence of workplace sexual harassment (MacKinnon, 1979).[25] As you might imagine, which theory a researcher uses to examine the topic of sexual harassment will shape the questions asked about harassment. It will also shape the explanations the researcher provides for why harassment occurs.

For a graduate student beginning their study of a new topic, it may be intimidating to learn that there are so many theories beyond what you’ve learned in your theory classes. What’s worse is that there is no central database of theories on your topic. However, as you review the literature in your area, you will learn more about the theories scientists have created to explain how your topic works in the real world. There are other good sources for theories, in addition to journal articles. Books often contain works of theoretical and philosophical importance that are beyond the scope of an academic journal. Do a search in your university library for books on your topic, and you are likely to find theorists talking about how to make sense of your topic. You don’t necessarily have to agree with the prevailing theories about your topic, but you do need to be aware of them so you can apply theoretical ideas to your project.

Identifying key concepts and relationships

The key to applying theories to your topic is learning the key concepts associated with that theory and the relationships between those concepts, or propositions. Again, your HBSE class should have prepared you with some of the most important concepts from the theoretical perspectives listed in Table 7.5. For example, the conflict perspective sees the world as divided into dominant and oppressed groups who engage in conflict over resources. If you were applying these theoretical ideas to your project, you would need to identify which groups in your project are considered dominant or oppressed groups, and which resources they were struggling over. This is a very general example. Challenge yourself to find small-t theories about your topic that will help you understand it in much greater detail and specificity. If you have chosen a topic that is relevant to your life and future practice, you will be doing valuable work shaping your ideas towards social work practice.

Integrating theory into your project can be easy, or it can take a bit more effort. Some people have a strong and explicit theoretical perspective that they carry with them at all times. For me, you’ll probably see my work drawing from exchange and choice, social constructionist, and critical theory. Maybe you have theoretical perspectives you naturally employ, and if so, that’s a great place to start. But if you aren’t aware of whether you are using a theoretical perspective when you think about your topic, try writing a paragraph explaining what you think about that topic and try matching it with some of the ideas from the broad theoretical perspectives from Table 7.5. This can ground you as you search for more specific theories.

Another way to easily identify the theories associated with your topic is to look at the concepts in your working question. Are these concepts commonly found in any of the theoretical perspectives in Table 7.5? Take a look at the Payne and Hutchinson texts and see if any of those look like the concepts and relationships in your working question or if any of them match with how you think about your topic. Even if they don’t possess the exact same wording, similar theories can help serve as a starting point to finding other theories that can inform your project. Remember, HBSE textbooks will give you not only the broad statements of theories but also sources from specific theorists and sub-theories that might be more applicable to your topic. Skim the references and suggestions for further reading once you find something that applies well.

The final goal is here is the same as it was in Chapter 4: to deepen your understanding of what we already know about your topic. While your literature review will cover mostly empirical information, it should also provide some theoretical perspectives for your topic. Much like paradigm, theory plays a supporting role for the conceptualization of your research project. Making connections between concepts will be supported both by empirical evidence showing that relationship exists, as well as theory telling us why that relationship exists and how it operates in the real world.


Key Takeaways

  • Just as empirical evidence is important for conceptualizing a research project, so too are the key concepts and relationships identified by social work theory.
  • Using theory your theory textbook will provide you with a sense of the broad theoretical perspectives in social work that might be relevant to your project.
  • Try to find small-t theories that are more specific to your topic area and relevant to your working question.


  • Identify a theoretical perspective from Hutchison, Payne, or another theory textbook that is relevant to your project. Using the textbook or other key sources, provide a list of at least five important concepts from those theories, what relationships between these concepts the theory establishes, and how you can use this theory to better understand the concepts and variables in your project.

7.4 Theory and paradigm in your project

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Apply the assumptions of each paradigm to your project
  • Summarize what aspects of your project stem from positivist, interpretivist, or critical assumptions


Paradigm and theory have the potential to turn some people off. I’ve often heard students say that they don’t like philosophy and don’t understand where they would fall along research paradigms. This is understandable, since there is a lot of abstract terminology and thinking about rather obvious aspects of daily life. In this section, I’ll use an example from my own research, and I hope it will illustrate a few things. First, it will show that paradigms are really just philosophical statements about things you already understand and think about normally. It will also show that no project neatly sits in one paradigm and that a social work researcher should use whichever paradigm or combination of paradigms suit their question the best.

Thinking as an expert: Positivism

In my undergraduate research methods class, I used an open textbook much like this one and wanted to study whether it improved student learning. You can read a copy of the article we wrote on based on our study. We’ll learn more about the specifics of experiments and evaluation research in Chapter 12, but you know enough to understand what evaluating an intervention might look like. My first thought was to conduct an experiment, which placed me firmly within the positivist or “expert” paradigm.

Experiments focus on isolating the relationship between cause and effect. For my study, this meant studying an open textbook (the cause, or intervention) and final grades (the effect, or outcome). Notice that my position as “expert” lets me assume many things in this process. First, it assumes that I can distill the many dimensions of student learning into one number—the final grade. Second, as the “expert,” I’ve determined what the intervention is: indeed, I created the book I was studying, and applied a theory from experts in the field that explains how and why it should impact student learning.

Theory is part of applying all paradigms, but I’ll discuss its impact within positivism first. Theories grounded in positivism help explain why one thing causes another. More specifically, these theories isolate a causal relationship between two concepts while holding constant the effects of other variables. That is why experimental design is so common in positivist research. The researcher isolates the environment from anything that might impact or bias the cause and effect relationship they want to investigate.

But in order for one thing to lead to change in something else, there must be some logical, rational reason why it would do so. In open education, there are a few hypotheses (though no full-fledged theories) on why students might perform better using open textbooks. The most common is the access hypothesis, which states that students who cannot afford expensive textbooks or wouldn’t buy them anyway can access open textbooks because they are free, which will improve their grades. It’s important to note that I held this theory prior to starting the experiment, as in positivist research you spell out your hypotheses in advance and design an experiment to support or refute that hypothesis.

Notice that the hypothesis here applies not only to the people in my experiment, but to any student in higher education. Positivism seeks generalizable truth, or what is true for everyone. The results of my study should provide evidence that anyone who uses an open textbook would achieve similar outcomes. Of course, there were a number of limitations as it was difficult to tightly control the study. I could not randomly assign students or prevent them from sharing resources with one another, for example.

Thinking like an empathizer: Interpretivism

One of the things that did not sit right with me about the study was the reliance on final grades to signify everything that was going on with students. I added another quantitative measure that measured research knowledge, but this was still too simplistic. I wanted to understand how students used the book and what they thought about it. I could create survey questions that ask about these things, but to get at the subjective truths here, I thought it best to use focus groups in which students would talk to one another with a researcher moderating the discussion and guiding it using predetermined questions. You will learn more about focus groups in Chapter 18.

Researchers spoke with small groups of students during the last class of the semester. They prompted people to talk about aspects of the textbook they liked and didn’t like, compare it to textbooks from other classes, describe how they used it, and so forth. It was this focus on understanding and subjective experience that brought us into the interpretivist paradigm. Alongside other researchers, I created the focus group questions but encouraged researchers who moderated the focus groups to allow the conversation to flow organically.

We originally started out with the assumptions, for which there is support in the literature, that students would be grateful for the lower cost and might have negative attitudes about research. But unlike the hypotheses in positivism, these are merely a place to start and are open to revision throughout the research process. This is because the researchers are not the experts, the participants are! Just like your clients are the experts on their lives, so were the students in my study. Our job as researchers was to create a group in which they would reveal their informed thoughts about the issue, coming to consensus around a few key themes.

When we initially analyzed the focus groups, we uncovered themes that seemed to fit the data. But the overall picture was murky. How were themes related to each other? And how could we distill these themes and relationships into something meaningful? We went back to the data again. We could do this because there isn’t one truth, as in positivism, but multiple truths and multiple ways of interpreting the data. When we looked again, we focused on some of the effects of having a textbook customized to the course. It was that customization process that helped make the language more approachable, engaging, and relevant to social work practice.

Ultimately, our data revealed differences in how students perceived a free textbook versus a free textbook that is customized to the class. When we went to interpret this finding, the remix hypothesis of open textbook was helpful in understanding that relationship. It states that the more faculty incorporate editing and creating into the course, the better student learning will be. Our study helped flesh out that theory by discussing the customization process and how students made sense of a customized resource.

In this way, theoretical analysis operates differently in interpretivist research. While positivist research tests existing theories, interpretivist research creates theories based on the stories of research participants. However, it is difficult to say if this theory was totally emergent in the dataset or if my prior knowledge of the remix hypothesis influenced my thinking about the data. Interpretivist researchers are encouraged to put a box around their prior experiences and beliefs, acknowledging them, but trying to approach the data with fresh eyes. Interpretivists know that this is never perfectly possible, though, as we are always influenced by our previous experiences when interpreting data and conducting scientific research projects.

Thinking like an activist: Critical

Although adding focus groups helped ease my concern about reducing student learning down to just final grades by providing a more rich set of conversations to analyze. However, my role as researcher and “expert” was still an important part of the analysis. As someone who has been out of school for a while, and indeed has taught this course for years, I have lost touch with what it is like to be a student taking research methods for the first time. How could I accurately interpret or understand what students were saying? Perhaps I would overlook things that reflected poorly on my teaching or my book. I brought other faculty researchers on board to help me analyze the data, but this still didn’t feel like enough.

By luck, an undergraduate student approached me about wanting to work together on a research project. I asked her if she would like to collaborate on evaluating the textbook with me. Over the next year, she assisted me with conceptualizing the project, creating research questions, as well as conducting and analyzing the focus groups. Not only would she provide an “insider” perspective on coding the data, steeped in her lived experience as a student, but she would serve as a check on my power through the process.

Including people from the group you are measuring as part of your research team is a common component of critical research. Ultimately, critical theorists would find my study to be inadequate in many ways. I still developed the research question, created the intervention, and wrote up the results for publication, which privileges my voice and role as “expert.” Instead, critical theorists would emphasize the role of students (community members) in identifying research questions, choosing the best intervention to used, and so forth. But collaborating with students as part of a research team did address some of the power imbalances in the research process.

Critical research projects also aim to have an impact on the people and systems involved in research. No students or researchers had profound personal realizations as a result of my study, nor did it lessen the impact of oppressive structures in society. I can claim some small victory that my department switched to using my textbook after the study was complete (changing a system), though this was likely the result of factors other than the study (my advocacy for open textbooks).

Social work research is almost always designed to create change for people or systems. To that end, every social work project is at least somewhat critical. However, the additional steps of conducting research with people rather than on people reveal a depth to the critical paradigm. By bringing students on board the research team, study had student perspectives represented in conceptualization, data collection, and analysis. That said, there was much to critique about this study from a critical perspective. I retained a lot of the power in the research process, and students did not have the ability to determine the research question or purpose of the project. For example, students might likely have said that textbook costs and the quality of their research methods textbook were less important than student debt, racism, or other potential issues experienced by students in my class. Instead of a ground-up research process based in community engagement, my research included some important participation by students on project created and led by faculty.

Multi-paradigmatic framework as a guide to social work thought

I hope this conversation was useful. While I am talking about education research here, the same would apply for social work research of social welfare programs, clinical interventions, or other social work topics. Paradigm and theory are covered first in this part of the textbook on conceptualization because they are logically come first as you think about your project. Each of the research steps that occur after this chapter (e.g., forming a question, choosing a design) rely upon philosophical and theoretical assumptions. As your project develops, you may find yourself shifting between paradigms. That is normal, as conceptualization is not a linear process. As you move through the next steps of conceptualizing and designing a project, you’ll find philosophies and theories that best match how you want to study your topic.

Viewing theoretical and empirical arguments through this lens is one of the true gifts of the social work approach to research. The multi-paradigmatic perspective is a hallmark of social work research and one that helps us contribute something unique on research teams and in practice.

Key Takeaways

  • Multi-paradigmatic research is a distinguishing hallmark of social work research. Understanding the limitations and strengths of each paradigm will help you justify your research approach and argue against those who believe one paradigm is better than another.
  • Paradigmatic assumptions help you understand the “blind spots” in your research project and how to adjust and address these areas. Keep in mind, it is not necessary to address all of your blind spots, as all projects have limitations.


  • Sketch out which paradigm applies best to your project. Second, building on your answer to the exercise in section 7.3, identify how the theory you chose and the paradigm in which you find yourself are consistent or are in conflict with one another. For example, if you are using systems theory in a positivist framework, you might talk about how they both rely on a deterministic approach to human behavior with a focus on the status-quo and social order.

  1. Burrell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis. Routledge. Guba, E. (ed.) (1990). The paradigm dialog. SAGE.
  2. Burrell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis. Routledge.
  3. Here are links to two HBSE open textbooks, if you are unfamiliar with social work theories. https://uark.pressbooks.pub/hbse1/ and https://uark.pressbooks.pub/humanbehaviorandthesocialenvironment2/
  4. Lin, C. T. (2016). A critique of epistemic subjectivity. Philosophia, 44(3), 915-920.
  5. Wills, J. W. (2007). World views, paradigms and the practice of social science research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Grogan, K.E. (2019) How the entire scientific community can confront gender bias in the workplace. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 33–6. doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0747-4
  7. Tasca, C., Rapetti, M., Carta, M. G., & Fadda, B. (2012). Women and hysteria in the history of mental health. Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health: Clinical practice & epidemiology in mental health8, 110-119.
  8. Klonsky, E. D., Jane, J. S., Turkheimer, E., & Oltmanns, T. F. (2002). Gender role and personality disorders. Journal of personality disorders16(5), 464-476.
  9. Smith, L. T. (2013). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd.
  10. Routledge. Guba, E. (ed.) (1990). The paradigm dialog. SAGE.
  11. Burrell, G. & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis. Here is a summary of Burrell & Morgan from Babson College, and our classification collapses radical humanism and radical structuralism into the critical paradigm, following Guba and Lincoln's approach. We feel this approach is more parsimonious and easier for students to understand on an introductory level.
  12. Kincheloe, J. L. & Tobin, K. (2009). The much exaggerated death of positivism. Cultural studies of science education, 4, 513-528.
  13. For more about how the meanings of hand gestures vary by region, you might read the following blog entry: Wong, W. (2007). The top 10 hand gestures you’d better get right. Retrieved from: http://www.languagetrainers.co.uk/blog/2007/09/24/top-10-hand-gestures
  14. Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E. W., Hunter, J., & Levy-Warren, A. (2009). The coming-out process of young lesbian and bisexual women: Are there butch/femme differences in sexual identity development?. Archives of sexual behavior38(1), 34-49.
  15. Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S., & Virk, I. (Eds.). (2007). Classical sociological theory (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  16. Fraser, N. (1989). Unruly practices: Power, discourse, and gender in contemporary social theory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  17. Here are links to two HBSE open textbooks, if you are unfamiliar with social work theories and would like more background. https://uark.pressbooks.pub/hbse1/ and https://uark.pressbooks.pub/humanbehaviorandthesocialenvironment2/
  18. Rubin, A., and Babbie, E. R. (2017). Research methods for social work (9th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth
  19. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of research in personality19(2), 109-134.
  20. Abery, B., & Stancliffe, R. (1996). The ecology of self-determination. in Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 111-145.) Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company
  21. Payne, M. (2014). Modern social work theory. Oxford University Press.
  22. Hutchison, E. D. (2014). Dimensions of human behavior: Person and environment. Sage Publications.
  23. DeCoster, S., Estes, S. B., & Mueller, C. W. (1999). Routine activities and sexual harassment in the workplace. Work and Occupations, 26, 21–49.
  24. Morgan, P. A. (1999). Risking relationships: Understanding the litigation choices of sexually harassed women. The Law and Society Review, 33, 201–226.
  25. MacKinnon, C. (1979). Sexual harassment of working women: A case of sex discrimination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


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Graduate research methods in social work Copyright © 2020 by Matthew DeCarlo, Cory Cummings, Kate Agnelli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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