5 1.4 Understanding research

Learning Objectives

  • Describe common barriers to engaging with social work research
  • Identify alternative ways to thinking about research methods


I’ve been teaching research methods for six years and have found many students struggle to see the connection between research and social work practice. Most students enjoy a social work theory class because they can better understand the world around them. Students also like practice because it shows them how to conduct clinical work with clients—i.e., what most social work students want to do. However, while I typically have a few students each year who are interested in becoming researchers, it’s not very common. For this reason, I want to end this chapter on a more personal note. Most student barriers to research come from the following beliefs:

Research is useless!

Students who tell me that research methods is not a useful class to them are saying something important. As a scholar (or student), your most valuable asset is your time. You give your time to the subjects you consider important to you and your future practice. Because most social workers don’t become researchers or practitioner-researchers, students feel like a research methods class is a waste of time.

Our discussion of evidence-based practice and the ways in which social workers use research methods in practice brought home the idea that social workers play an important role in creating new knowledge about social services. On a more immediate level, research methods will also help you become a stronger social work student. The next few chapters of this textbook will review how to search for literature on a topic and write a literature review. These skills are relevant in every classroom during your academic career. The rest of the textbook will help you understand the mechanics of research methods so you can better understand the content of those pesky journal articles your professors force you to cite in your papers.

Research is too hard!

Research methods involves a lot of terminology that is entirely new to social workers. Other domains of social work, such as practice, are easier to apply your intuition towards. You understand how to be an empathetic person, and your experiences in life can help guide you through a practice situation or even theoretical or conceptual question. Research may seem like a totally new area in which you have no previous experience. It can seem like a lot to learn. In addition to the normal memorization and application of terms, research methods also has wrong answers. There are certain combinations of methods that just don’t work together.

The fear is entirely understandable. Research is not straightforward. As Figure 1.1 shows, it is a process that is non-linear, involving multiple revisions, wrong turns, and dead ends before you figure out the best question and research approach. You may have to go back to chapters after having read them or even peek ahead at chapters your class hasn’t covered yet.


research is more of a squiggle than a straight line
Figure 1.1 Research as a non-linear process


Moreover, research is something you learn by doing…and stumbling a few times. It’s an iterative process, or one that requires lots of tries to get right. There isn’t a shortcut for learning research, but hopefully your research methods class is one in which your research project is broken down into smaller parts and you get consistent feedback throughout the process. No one just knows research. It’s something you pick up by doing it, reflecting on the experiences and results, redoing your work, and revising it in consultation with your professor.

Research is boring!

We’ve talked already about the arcane research terminology, so I won’t go into it again here. But research methods is sometimes seen as a boring topic by many students. Practice knowledge and even theory are fun to learn because they are easy to apply and give you insight into the world around you. Research just seems like its own weird, remote thing.

I completely understand where this perspective comes from and hope there are a few things you will take away from this course that aren’t boring to you. In the first section of this textbook, you will learn how to take any topic and learn what is known about it. It may seem trivial, but it is actually a superpower. Your social work education will present some generalist material, which is applicable to nearly all social work practice situations, and some applied material, which is applicable to specific social work practice situations. However, no education will provide you with everything you need to know. And certainly, no education will tell you what will be discovered over the next few decades of your practice. Our work on literature reviews in the next few chapters will help you in becoming a strong social work student and practitioner. Following that, our exploration of research methods will help you further understand how the theories, practice models, and techniques you learn in your other classes are created and tested scientifically.

Get out of your own way

Together, the beliefs of “research is useless, boring, and hard” can create a self-fulfilling prophecy for students. If you believe research is boring, you won’t find it interesting. If you believe research is hard, you will struggle more with assignments. If you believe research is useless, you won’t see its utility. While I certainly acknowledge that students aren’t going to love research as much as I do (it’s a career for me, so I like it a lot!), I suggest reframing how you think about research using these touchstones:

  • All social workers rely on social science research to engage in competent practice.
  • No one already knows research. It’s something I’ll learn through practice. And it’s challenging for everyone.
  • Research is relevant to me because it allows me to figure out what is known about any topic I want to study.
  • If the topic I choose to study is important to me, I will be more interested in research.

Structure of this textbook

While you may not have chosen this course, by reframing your approach to it, you increase the likelihood of getting a lot out of it. To that end, here is the structure of this book:

In Chapters 2-4, we’ll review how to begin a research project. This involves searching for relevant literature, academic journal articles specifically, and synthesizing what they say about your topic into a literature review.

In Chapters 5-9, you’ll learn about how research informs and tests theory. We’ll discuss how to conduct research in an ethical manner, create research questions, and measure concepts in the social world.

Chapters 10-14 will describe how to conduct research, whether it’s a quantitative survey or experiment, or alternately, a qualitative interview or focus group. We’ll also review how to analyze data that someone else has already collected.

Finally, Chapters 15 and 16 will review the types of research most commonly used in social work practice, including evaluation research and action research, and how to report the results of your research to various audiences.


Key Takeaways

  • Anxiety about research methods is a common experience for students.
  • Research methods will help you become a better scholar and practitioner.


  1. Untitled image created by Ohio State University Libraries (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/choosingsources/front-matter/introduction/. Shared under a CC-BY 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


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