6 important steps in Social Work Research

6 important steps in Social Work Research


Content Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Identification of the problem
  3. Review of literature
  4. Sample selection
  5. Data collection
  6. Interpretation and analysis of data
  7. Reporting 


Social work research basically involves people who may be seen as vulnerable or isolated within the community and the researcher has to be careful at all times of her approach towards the community as well as towards the research process. Being research-minded means being able to assess whether a piece of research has been ethical in its design, delivery and reporting. Social workers engaged in research should carefully consider possible consequences and should follow guidelines developed for the protection of research participants.
It is important that an ethical approach is maintained through the entire research project and not just at the pre-project planning. It needs to remain alive even in the dissemination of the findings. This embodies a reflective, value-led approach which can better deal with the realities of research, where changes in the community or in situations may require the researcher to move away from the ideal plan of work and create an alternate contingency plan

1-Identification of the problem

The social work researcher may select the focus of her research influenced by several factors. These may include evaluation of a programme implemented by the agency employing the researcher (for e.g. evaluation of the midday meal nutrition programme being implemented in government run school) or an assessment of needs of the community that the agency either already intervenes in or is planning an intervention with(for e.g. status of health care received by and overall health needs of preadolescent girls in a community)

The researcher may also select a topic depending on personal or professional interest in the issue being researched (for e.g. studying the professional interests and aspirations of women professionals who have quit and are currently stay-at-home moms); the felt or projected need of the community that participates in the development programme (for e.g. a study on sanitation and the safety of women in a slum community).

As we will see in  on Sample selection, it is important for the participants in the research to give their informed consent for collection of information or data. Social workers should be careful when designing or conducting research that does not use consent procedures, such as certain forms of naturalistic observation, unless a responsible review of the research has found it to be justified because of its prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and unless equally effective alternative procedures are not feasible. Research should be designed, reviewed and undertaken to ensure integrity, quality and transparency.

2-Review of literature

The next step in the research process is the review of existing literature concerning the focus of the current research.

While reading through and reviewing literature, it is but natural to make relevant notes for the purpose of the study. It is important to note that the social work researcher cites references wherever applicable even if they have been paraphrased. (Drake B. and Jonson-Reid M, 2008). One must also take care not to present portions of another researcher’s work or data as one’s own, instead both verbatim and adapted quotes should be duly acknowledged. 

3-Sample selection

This is an extremely important step in social work research. Selecting a sample population for the purpose of your study is crucial to the methods of data collection employed by the researcher as also for the process of data collection and the relevance of the data collected thence.
A responsible researcher must keep the following points in mind at this stage:
  1. Informed consent
    Social workers engaged in evaluation or research should obtain voluntary and written (where possible) informed consent from participants. Informed consent should include information about the nature, extent, and duration of the participation requested for the research and disclosure of the risks and benefits of participation in the research.
    When research participants are incapable of giving informed consent, social workers should provide an appropriate explanation to the participants regarding the research objectives, methodology and goals, obtain the participants’ assent to the extent they are able (this may be need to be clearly specified with regard to children or similar groups) and obtain written consent from an appropriate proxy (such as the parent, social worker or other responsible adult guardian). In this case one must ensure that this third party is acting in the interests and greater welfare of the participants.
    An appropriate example of this would be a research on the health status and needs of pre-adolescent girls would require the consent not just of the respondents but also of their parents or guardians, as the respondents are minors. The researcher would need to explain the objectives of this study, the goals, methodology being followed, the tools being used for data collection, etc. while also ensuring complete confidentiality of the respondents and their families.
    In instances when clients are not literate or have difficulty understanding the primary language used in the practice setting, social workers should take steps to ensure clients’ comprehension. This may include providing clients with a detailed verbal explanation or arranging for a qualified interpreter or translator whenever possible. http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.aspAn example of this would be a study covering two or more states where the languages or dialects would vary, thus requiring an appropriate translation of the tool of data collection as well as a qualified translator or interpreter.
  2. Confidentiality
    Social workers engaged in research should ensure the anonymity or confidentiality of participants and of the data obtained from them. Social workers should inform participants of any limits of confidentiality, the measures that will be taken to ensure confidentiality, and when any records containing research data will be destroyed.
    Social workers who report evaluation and research results should protect participants’ confidentiality by omitting identifying information unless proper consent has been obtained authorizing disclosure. http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp
  3. Inducement
    Participation of the clients in a research study should be of their own free will, devoid of inducement, either verbal or indicated, without any implied or actual deprivation or penalty for refusal to participate and with due regard for participants’ wellbeing, privacy, and dignity. In other words, if an eligible respondent refuses to participate in the research, one must respect his/ her decision rather than pressurizing them to participate, (for e.g. telling respondents that their participation would entitle them to services offered by the organization or non-participation would lead to discontinuation of particular services.
  4. Deception
    Participants must not be deceived about important aspects of the research project that may affect their willingness to participate such as physical risk, discomfort, emotional distress or other similar experiences. An example of this would be a research study concerning spouses of HIV/AIDS affected individuals, their care giving methods and problems faced by them. One needs to be very sensitive when dealing with such an issue and be honest with the respondents about the objectives and goals of the study, the confidentiality of the information gathered and how it will be utilized.
    In the event of any deception occurring, the participant should be clearly informed of the same at the earliest, so as to permit the participant the option of destroying data obtained by deception. Social workers should inform participants of their right to withdraw from the research at any time without penalty
  5. Conflict of interest
    Social worker researchers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest with participants, should inform participants when a real or potential conflict of interest arises, and should take steps to resolve the issue in a manner that makes participants’ interests primary.
  6. Protection from harm
    Social worker researchers should strive to protect participants from unwarranted physical or mental distress, harm, danger, or deprivation which may occur during the course of the research project. In the eventuality of such harm occurring, the social worker should take appropriate steps to ensure that the participants have access to appropriate supportive services.
    Hence, a study which is assessing the extent of loss experienced by survivors of an earthquake in terms of personal, physical, financial and emotional loss will be extremely emotionally stressful to the participants. They would need to be briefed about the details of the study and provided with supportive services wherever necessary.

4-Data collection

Research staff and participants must normally be informed fully about the purpose, methods and intended possible uses of the research, what their participation in the research entails and what risks, if any, are involved.
Prior to recording information divulged by the participants, the researcher should take their consent for the audiotaping or the videotaping as also for recording observed and written information given by the client.

5-Interpretation and analysis of data

Social workers should report evaluation and research findings accurately. They should not fabricate (makeup data) or falsify results (give false results) and should take steps to correct any errors later found in published data by means of a published note or correction. One must also be cautious not to delete or omit relevant data in order to misinterpret results
Similarly, if data analyzed leads a researcher to the conclusion that the findings are contrary to the expectations of or disagreeable to the organization, funding or support agency, or other significant stakeholders, he/ she must not ethically choose to withhold such findings.

6-Reporting and Intrepritation

Following the previous point, the researcher must take care that the research is designed to minimize the chances that the results will be misleading. One must also be careful not to misinterpret the work of others in the process of reporting research results.


  • Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://anzasw.org.nz/documents/0000/0000/0113/ Media_News Release_Code_of_Ethics__1_.pdf. 
  • Australian Association of Social Workers (2010). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/120 on 12/10/ 2014. 
  • Banks, S. (2006). Ethics and values in social work (3rd ed.). Hampshire, England: Palgrave Mcmillan. 
  • Banks, S & Gallagher, A (2009). Ethics in professional life: virtues for health and social care. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Bowles, W., Collingridge, M., Curry, S., & Valentine, B. (2006). Ethical practice in social work: an applied approach. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. 


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