Part 1: Introduction to research

2. Starting your research project

Chapter outline

  1. Choosing a research topic (10 minute read time)
  2. Your research proposal (14 minute read time)
  3. Practical and ethical considerations (14 minute read time)
  4. Raw data (10 minute read time)
  5. Critical considerations (5 minute read time)

Content warning: Examples in this chapter discuss substance use disorders, mental health disorders and therapies, obesity, poverty, gun violence, gang violence, school discipline, racism and hate groups, domestic violence, trauma and triggers, incarceration, child neglect and abuse, bullying, self-harm and suicide, racial discrimination in housing, burnout in helping professions, and sex trafficking of indigenous women.

2.1 Choosing a research topic

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Brainstorm topics you may want to investigate as part of a research project
  • Explore your feelings and existing knowledge about the topic
  • Develop a working question

Research methods is a unique class in that you get to decide what you want to learn about. Perhaps you came to your MSW program with a specific issue you were passionate about. In my MSW program, I wanted to learn about the best interventions to use with people who have substance use disorders. This was in line with my future career plans, which included working in a clinical setting with clients with co-occurring mental health and substance use issues. I suggest you start by thinking about your future practice goals and create a research project that addresses a topic that represents an area of social work you are passionate about.

For those of you without a specific direction, don’t worry. Many people enter their MSW program without an exact topic in mind they want to study. Throughout the program, you will be exposed to different populations, theories, practice interventions, and policies that will spark your interest. Think back to papers you enjoyed researching and writing in other classes. You may want to continue studying the same topic. Research methods will enable you to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of a topic or issue. If you haven’t found an interesting topic yet, here are some other suggestions for seeking inspiration for a research project:

  • If you already have practice experience in social work through employment, an internship, or volunteer work, think about practice issues you noticed in the placement. Do you have any idea of how to better address client needs? Do you need to learn more about existing interventions or the programs that fund your agency? Use this class as an opportunity to engage with your previous field experience in greater detail. Begin with “what” and “why” questions and then expand on those. For example, what are the most effective methods of treating severe depression among a specific population? Or why are people receiving food assistance more likely to be obese?  
  • You could also ask a professor at your school about possible topics. Read departmental information on faculty research interests, which may surprise you. Most departmental websites post the curriculum vitae (CV) of faculty, which lists their publications, credentials, and interests. For those of you interested in doctoral study, this process is particularly important. Students often pick schools based on professors they want to learn from or research programs they want to join.  

Once you have a potential idea, start reading!  A simple Google search should bring you some basic information about your topic. News articles can reveal new or controversial information. You may also want to identify and browse journals related to your research interests. Faculty and librarians can help you identify relevant journals in your field and specific areas of interest. We’ll also review more detailed strategies for searching the literature in Chapter 3. As you read, look for what’s missing. These may be “gaps in the literature” that you might explore in your own study.

It’s a good idea to keep it simple when you’re starting your project. Choose a topic that can be easily defined and explored. Your study cannot focus on everything that is important about your topic. A study on gun violence might address only one system, for example schools, while only briefly mentioning other systems that impact gun violence. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad study! The sooner you can arrive at something specific and clear that you want to study, the better off your project will be.

 

Writing a working question

There are lots of great research topics. Perhaps your topic is a client population—for example, youth who identify as LGBTQ+ or visitors to a local health clinic. In other cases, your topic may be a social problem, such as gang violence, or a social policy or program, such as zero-tolerance policies in schools. Alternately, maybe there are interventions such as dialectical behavioral therapy or applied behavior analysis that interest you.

Whatever your topic idea, begin to think about it in terms of a question. What do you really want to know about the topic? As a warm-up exercise, try dropping a possible topic idea into one of the blank spaces below. The questions may help bring your subject into sharper focus and bring you closer towards developing your topic.

  1. What does ___ mean?
  2. What are the causes of ___?
  3. What are the consequences of ___?
  4. What are the component parts of ___?
  5. How does ___ impact ___?
  6. What is it like to experience ___?
  7. What is the relationship between _____ and the outcome of ____?
  8. What case can be made for or against ___?
  9. What are the risk/protective factors for ___?
  10. How do people think about ___?

Take a minute right now and write down a question you want to answer. Even if it doesn’t seem perfect, it is important to start somewhere. Make sure your research topic is relevant to social work. You’d be surprised how much of the world that encompasses. It’s not just research on mental health treatment or child welfare services. Social workers can study things like the pollution of irrigation systems and entrepreneurship in women, among other topics. The only requirement is your research must inform action to fight social problems faced by target populations.

Because research is an , one that you will revise over and over, your question will continue to evolve.  As you progress through this textbook, you’ll learn how to refine your question and include the necessary components for proper qualitative and quantitative research questions. Your question will also likely change as you engage with the literature on your topic. You will learn new and important concepts that may shift your focus or clarify your original ideas. Trust that a strong question will emerge from this process. A good researcher must be comfortable with altering their question as a result of scientific inquiry.

Very often, our students will email me in the first few weeks of class and ask if they have a good research topic. We love student emails! But just to reassure you if you’re about to send a panicked email to your professor, as long as you are interested in dedicating a semester or two learning about your topic, it will make a good research topic. That’s why we would advise you to focus on how much you like this topic, so that three months from now you are still motivated to complete your project.

How do you feel about your topic?

Now that you have an idea of what you might want to study, it’s time to consider what you think and feel about that topic. Your motivation for choosing a topic does not have to be objective. Because social work is a value-based profession, scholars often find themselves motivated to conduct research that furthers social justice or fights oppression. Just because you think a policy is wrong or a group is being marginalized, for example, does not mean that your research will be biased. It means you must understand what you feel, why you feel that way, and what would cause you to feel differently about your topic.

Start by asking yourself how you feel about your topic. Sometimes the best topics to research are those about which you feel strongly. What better way to stay engaged with your research project than to study something you are passionate about? However, you must be able to accept that people may have a different perspective, and you must represent their viewpoints fairly in the research report you produce. If you feel prepared to accept all findings, even those that may be unflattering or distinct from your personal perspective, then perhaps you should begin your research project by intentionally studying a topic about which you have strong feelings.

Kathleen Blee (2002)[1] has taken this route in her research. Blee studies groups whose racist ideologies may be different than her own. You can listen to her lecture Women in Organized Racism that details some of her findings. Her scientific research is so impactful because she was willing to report her findings and observations honestly, even those contrary to her beliefs and feelings. If you believe that you may have personal difficulty sharing findings with which you disagree, then you may want to study a different topic. Knowing your own hot-button issues is an important part of self-knowledge and reflection in social work, and there is nothing wrong with avoiding topics that are likely to cause you unnecessary stress.

Social workers often use personal experience as a starting point to identify topics of interest. As we’ve discussed here, personal experience can be a powerful motivator to learn more about a topic. However, social work researchers should be mindful of their own mental health during the research process. A social worker who has experienced a mental health crisis or traumatic event should approach researching related topics cautiously. There is no need to trigger yourself or jeopardize your mental health for a research project. For example, a student who has just experienced domestic violence may want to know about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. While the student might gain some knowledge about potential treatments for domestic violence, they will likely have to read through many stories and reports about domestic violence as part of the research process. Unless the student’s trauma has been processed in therapy, conducting a research project on this topic may negatively impact the student’s mental health.

What do you think about your topic?

Once you figure out what you feel about your topic, consider what you think about it. There are many ways we know what we know. Perhaps your mother told you something is so. Perhaps it came to you in a dream. Perhaps you took a class last semester and learned something about your topic there. Or you may have read something about your topic in your local newspaper. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses associated with some of these different sources of knowledge in Chapter 1, and we’ll talk about other scientific sources of knowledge in Chapter 3 and 4. For now, take some time to think of everything you know about your topic. Thinking about what you already know will help you identify any biases you may have, and it will help as you begin to frame a question about your topic.

You might consider creating a concept map, just to get your thoughts and ideas on paper and beginning to organize them. Consider this video from the University of Guelph Library (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Key Takeaways

  • You should pick a topic for your research proposal that you are interested in, since you will be working with it for several months.
  • Investigate your own feelings and thoughts about a topic, and make sure you can be objective and fair in your investigation.
  • Research projects are guided by a working question that develops and changes as you learn more about your topic.

Exercises

Just as a reminder, exercises are designed to help you create your individual research proposal. We designed these activities to break down your proposal into small but manageable chunks. We suggest completing each exercise so you can apply what you are learning to your individual research project, as the exercises in each section and each chapter build on one another.

If you haven’t done so already, you can download this chapter’s exercises or the entire workbook in Google Drive. You might also create a document in a word processor on your computer or in a written notebook with your answers to each exercise.

  • Brainstorm at least 4-5 topics of interest to you and pick the one you think is the most promising for a research project.

  • For your chosen topic, outline what you currently know about the topic and your feelings towards the topic. Make sure you are able to be objective and fair in your research.
  • Formulate at least one working question to guide your inquiry. It is common for topics to change and develop over the first few weeks of a project, but think of your working question as a place to start.

2.2 Your research proposal

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Describe the stages of a research project
  • Define your target population and describe how your study will impact that population
  • Identify the aim of your study
  • Classify your project as descriptive, exploratory, explanatory, or evaluative

Most research methods courses are designed to help students propose a research project. But what is a research project? Figure 2.1 indicates the steps of the research project. Right now, we are in the top right corner, using your informal observations from your practice experience and lived experience to form a working draft of your research question. In the next two chapters, you’ll learn how to find and evaluate scholarly literature on your topic. After thoroughly evaluating the literature, you’ll conceptualize an empirical study based on a research question you create. In many courses, students will have to carry out these designs, and in so doing, their conclusions make a contribution to the research literature in their topic area.

 

A circular pattern starting at research literature and research question (which loops) and then moving to empirical study, data analysis, and conclusions
Figure 2.1 Steps in a research project

The subtitle of this book is “a project-based approach” because the authors’ courses use this approach. In an introductory research methods course, students often have to create a research proposal followed by a more advanced research class in which they conduct quantitative and qualitative data analysis. The , is a document produced by researchers that reviews the literature relevant to their topic and describes the methods they will use to conduct their study. Part 1 of this textbook is designed to help you with your literature review. Parts 2-4 are designed to help you figure out which methods you will use in your study.

Parts 3 and 4 should also help you conduct the study you propose to do, analyze your data (though you will probably need additional resources for that), and share it as part of the body of social science literature on your topic. Check with your professor on whether you are required to carry out the project you propose to do in your research proposal. Some of you may be off the hook! But for many of you, this book is designed to help you find a reasonable and practical project for you to complete, moving through all of the steps in Figure 2.1.

A research proposal is focused on a question. Right now, this is your working question from Section 2.1. If you haven’t created one yet, this is a good time to pause and complete the exercises from section 2.1.[2] It is likely you will revise your working question many times as you read more literature about your topic. Consider yourself in the cycle between (re)creating your research question and reviewing the research literature for Part 1 of the textbook.

Student research proposals

Student research projects are a big undertaking, but they are well within your capability as a graduate student. Let’s start with the research proposal. Think about the research proposal as a communication device. You are telling the reader (your professor, usually) everything they need to know in order to understand your topic and the study you plan to do. You are also demonstrating to the reader that you are competent and informed enough to conduct the study.

You can think of a research proposal like creating a recipe. If you are a chef trying to cook a new dish from scratch, you would probably start by looking at other recipes. You might cook a few of them and come up with ideas about how to create your own version of the dish. Writing your recipe is a process of trial and error, and you will likely revise your proposal many times over the course of the semester. This textbook and workbook are designed to get you working on your project little by little, so that by the time you turn in your final research proposal, you’ll be confident it represents the best way to answer your question. Of course, like with any time I cook, you never quite know how it will turn out.

Is writing a research proposal a useful skill for a social worker? On one hand, you probably won’t be writing research proposals for a living. But the same structure of a research proposal (literature review + methods) is used in grant applications. Writing proposals is often a part of practice, particularly in agency-based and policy practice. Instead of finding a gap in the literature to study, practitioners write grant proposals describing a program they will use to address an issue in their community, as well as the research methods they will use to evaluate whether it worked (see Chapter 23 for more details). Similarly, a policy advocate or public administrator might sketch out a proposed program and its evaluation as part of a proposal. Proposal writing may differ somewhat in practice, but the general idea is the same.

Focusing your project

Based on your work in Section 2.1, you should have a working question—a place to start. Think about what you hope to accomplish with your study. This is the of your research project. Often, social work researchers begin with a target population in mind. As you will recall from section 1.4, social work research is research for action. Social workers engage in research to help people. Think about your working question. Why do you want to answer it? What impact would answering your question have?

In my MSW program, I began my research by looking at ways to intervene with people who have substance use disorders. My foundation year placement was in an inpatient drug treatment facility that used 12-step facilitation as its primary treatment modality. I observed that this approach differed significantly from others I had been exposed to, especially the idea of powerlessness over drugs and drug use. My working question started as “what are the alternatives to 12-step treatment for people with substance use issues and are they more effective?”  The aim of my project was to determine whether different treatment approaches might be more effective, and I suspected that self-determination and powerlessness were important.

It’s important to note that my working question contained a —people with substance use disorders. A target population is the group of people that will benefit the most. I envisioned I would help the field of social work to think through how to better meet clients where they were at, specific to the problem of substance use.  I was studying to be a clinical social worker, so naturally, I formulated a micro-level question. Yet, the question also has implications for meso- and macro-level practice. If other treatment methods are more effective than 12-step facilitation, then we should direct more public money towards providing more effective therapies for people who use substances. We may also need to train the substance use professionals to use new treatment methodologies.

Exercises

  • Think about your working question.
    • Is it more oriented towards micro, meso, or macro-level practice?
    • What implications would answering your question have at each level of the ecosystem?

Asking yourself whether your project is more micro, meso, or macro is a good check to see if your project is well-focused. A project that seems like it could be all of those might have too many components or try to study too much. Consider identifying one ecosystemic level your project will focus on, and you can interpret and contextualize your findings at the other levels of analysis.

Exploration, description, and explanation

Social science is a big place. Looking at the various empirical studies in the literature, there is a lot of diversity—from focus groups with clients and families to multivariate statistical analysis of large population surveys conducted online. Ultimately, all of social science can be described as one of three basic types of research studies. As you develop your research question, consider which of the following types of research studies fits best with what you want to learn about your topic. In subsequent chapters, we will use these broad frameworks to help craft your study’s final research question and choose quantitative and qualitative research methods to answer it.

Exploratory research

Researchers conducting  are typically at the early stages of examining their topics. Exploratory research projects are carried out to test the feasibility of conducting a more extensive study and to figure out the “lay of the land” with respect to the particular topic. Usually, very little prior research has been conducted on this topic. For this reason, a researcher may wish to do some exploratory work to learn what method to use in collecting data, how best to approach research subjects, or even what sorts of questions are reasonable to ask.

Often, student projects begin as exploratory research. Because students don’t know as much about the topic area yet, their working questions can be general and vague. That’s a great place to start!  An exploratory question is great for delving into the literature and learning more about your topic. For example, the question “what are common social work interventions for parents who neglect their children?” is a good place to start when looking at articles and textbooks to understand what interventions are commonly used with this population. However, it is important for a student research project to progress beyond exploration unless the topic truly has very little existing research. 

In my classes, I often read papers where students say there is not a lot of literature on a topic, but a quick search of library databases shows a deep body of literature on the topic. The skills you develop in Chapter 3 and 4 should assist you with finding relevant research, and working with a librarian can definitely help with finding information for your research project. That said, there are a few students each year who pick a topic for which there is in fact little existing research. Perhaps, if you were looking at child neglect interventions for parents who identify as transgender or parents who are refugees from the Syrian civil war, less would be known about child neglect for those specific populations. In that case, an exploratory design would make sense as there is little, if any, literature about your specific topic.

Descriptive research

Another purpose of a research project is to describe or define a particular phenomenon. This is called . For example, researchers at the Princeton Review conduct descriptive research each year when they set out to provide students and their parents with information about colleges and universities around the United States. They describe the social life at a school, the cost of admission, and student-to-faculty ratios (to name just a few of the categories reported). If our topic were child neglect, we might seek to know the number of people arrested for child neglect in our community and whether they are more likely to have other problems, such as poverty, mental health issues, or substance use.

Social workers often rely on descriptive research to tell them about their service area. Keeping track of the number of parents receiving child neglect interventions, their demographic makeup (e.g., race, sex, age), and length of time in care are excellent examples of descriptive research. On a more macro-level, the Centers for Disease Control provides a remarkable amount of descriptive research on mental and physical health conditions. In fact, descriptive research has many useful applications, and you probably rely on such findings without realizing you are reading descriptive research.

Explanatory research

Lastly, social work researchers often aim to explain why particular phenomena operate in the way that they do. Research that answers “why” questions is referred to as . Asking “why” means the researcher is trying to identify cause-and-effect relationships in their topic. For example, explanatory research may try to identify risk and protective factors for parents who neglect their children. Explanatory research may attempt to understand how religious affiliation impacts views on immigration, for example. All explanatory research tries to study cause-and-effect relationships between two or more variables. A specific offshoot of explanatory research that comes up often is , which investigates the impact of an intervention, program, or policy on a group of people. Evaluation research is commonly practiced in agency-based social work settings, and Chapter 23 discusses some of the basics for conducting a program evaluation.

There are numerous examples of explanatory social scientific investigations. For example, Dominique Simons and Sandy Wurtele (2010)[3] sought to understand whether receiving corporal punishment from parents led children to turn to violence in solving their interpersonal conflicts with other children. In their study of 102 families with children between the ages of 3 and 7, the authors found that experiencing frequent spanking did in fact result in children being more likely to accept aggressive problem-solving techniques. Another example of explanatory research can be seen in Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee’s (2011)[4] research study on the connections between popularity and bullying. From their study of 8th, 9th, and 10th graders in nineteen North Carolina schools, they found that aggression increased as adolescents’ popularity increased.[5]

Exercises

  • Think back to your working question from section 2.1. Which type of research—exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory—best describes your working question?
  • Try writing a question about your topic that fits with each type of research.

Important things are more rewarding to do

Another consideration in starting a research project is whether the question is important enough to answer. For the researcher, answering the question should be important enough to put in the effort and time required to complete a research project. As we discussed in section 2.1, you should choose a topic that is important to you—one you wouldn’t mind learning about for at least a few months, if not a few years. Time is your most precious resource as a student. Make sure you dedicate it to topics and projects you consider genuinely important.

Your research question should also be contribute to the larger expanse of research in that area. For example, if your research question is “does cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively treat depression?” you are a few decades late to be asking that question. Hundreds of scientists have published articles demonstrating its effectiveness in treating depression. However, a student interested in learning more about CBT can still find new areas to research. Perhaps there is a new population—for example, older adults in a nursing home—or a new problem—like mobile phone addiction—for which there is little research on the impact of CBT.

Your project contribute something new to social science. It should address a gap in what we know and what is written in the literature. This can seem intimidating for students whose projects involve learning a totally new topic. How could I add something new when other researchers have studied this for decades? Trust us, by thoroughly reviewing the existing literature, you can find new and unresolved research questions to answer. Google Scholar’s motto at the bottom of their search page is “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Social science research rests on the work of previous scholars, and builds off of what they discovered to learn more about the social world. Ensure that your question will bring our scientific understanding of your topic to new heights.

Finally, your research question should be of import to the social world. Social workers conduct research on behalf of individuals, groups, and communities to promote change as part of their mission to advance human rights and further social and economic justice. Your research should matter to the people you are trying to help. Your research project should aim to improve the lives of people in your target population by helping the world understand their needs more holistically.

Research projects, obviously, do not need to address all aspects of a problem. As social workers, our goal in enacting social justice isn’t to accomplish it all in one semester (or even one lifetime). Our goal is to move the world in the right direction and make small, incremental progress. I encourage all students to think about how they will make their work accessible and relevant to the broader public and use their results to promote change.  

Key Takeaways

  • Research exists in a cycle. Your research project will follow this cycle, beginning from reading literature (where you are now), to proposing a study, to completing a research project, and finally, to publishing the results.
  • Social work researchers should identify a target population and understand how their project will impact them.
  • Research projects can be exploratory, descriptive, evaluative, or a combination therein. While you are likely still exploring your topic, you may settle on another type of research, particularly if your topic has been previously addressed extensively in the literature.
  • Your research project should be important to you, fill a gap or address a controversy in the scientific literature, and make a difference for your target population and broader society.

Exercises

  • State why your working question is an important one to answer, keeping in mind that your statement should address the scientific literature, target population, and the social world.

2.3 Practical and ethical considerations

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Identify potential stakeholders and gatekeepers
  • Differentiate between raw data and the results of scientific studies
  • Evaluate whether you can feasibly complete your project

Are you interested in better understanding the day-to-day experiences of maximum security prisoners? This sounds fascinating, but unless you plan to commit a crime that lands you in a maximum security prison, gaining access to that particular population would be difficult for a graduate student project. While the topics about which social work questions can be asked may seem limitless, there are limits to which aspects of topics we can study or at least to the ways we can study them. This is particularly true for student research projects.

refers to whether you can practically conduct the study you plan to do, given the resources and ethical obligations you have. In this section, we assume that you will have to actually conduct the research project that you write about in your research proposal. It’s a good time to check with your professor about your program’s expectations for student research projects. For students who do not have to carry out their projects, feasibility is less of a concern because, well, you don’t actually have to carry out your project. Instead, you’ll propose a project that could work in theory. However, for students who have to carry out the projects in their research proposals, feasibility is incredibly important. There are important practical and ethical considerations student researchers should start thinking about from the beginning of a research project.

Access, consent, and ethical obligations

One of the most important feasibility issues is gaining to your target population. For example, let’s say you wanted to better understand middle-school students who engaged in self-harm behaviors.  That is a topic of social importance, so why might it make for a difficult student project? Let’s say you proposed to identify students from a local middle school and interview them about self-harm. Methodologically, that sounds great. But practically, that sounds challenging. Think about the ethical obligations a social worker has to practice with adolescents who are engaging in self-harm (e.g., competence, respect). In research, we are concerned mostly with the benefits and harms of what you propose to do as well as the openness and honesty you

Gatekeepers

If you were the principal at your local middle school, would you allow an MSW student to interview kids in your schools about self-harm? What if the results of the study showed that self-harm was a big problem that your school was not addressing? What if the researcher’s interviews led to an increase in self-harming behaviors among the children?  The principal in this situation is a . Gatekeepers are the individuals or organizations who control access to the population you want to study. The school board would also likely need to give consent for the research to take place at their institution. Gatekeepers must weigh these ethical questions because they have a responsibility to protect the safety of the people at their organization, just as you have an ethical obligation to protect the people in your research study.

For student projects, it can be a challenge to get from gatekeepers to conduct your research project. As a result, students often conduct research projects at their place of employment or field work, as they have established trust with gatekeepers in those locations. I’m still doubtful an MSW student interning at the middle school would be able to get consent for this study, but they probably have a better chance than a researcher with no relationship to the school. In the case where the population (children who self-harm) are too vulnerable, student researchers may collect data from people who have secondary knowledge about the topic. For example, the principal may be more willing to let you talk to teachers, rather than children. I commonly see student projects that focus on studying practitioners rather than clients for this reason.

Stakeholders

In some cases, researchers and gatekeepers partner on a research project. When this happens, the gatekeepers become . Stakeholders are individuals or groups who have an interest in the outcome of the study you conduct. As you think about your project, consider whether there are formal advisory groups or boards (like a school board) or advocacy organizations who already serve or work with your target population. Approach them as experts an ask for their review of your study to see if there are any perspectives or details you missed that would make your project stronger.

There are many advantages to partner your research with stakeholders. As an example, in order to obtain access to interview children at this middle school, you will have to consider other stakeholders’ goals. School administrators also want to help students struggling with self-harm, so they may want to use the results to form new programs. But they may also need to avoid scandal and panic if the results show high levels of self-harm. Most likely, they want to provide support to students without making the problem worse. By bringing in school administrators as stakeholders, you can better understand what the school is currently doing to address the issue and get an informed perspective on your project’s questions. Negotiating the boundaries of a stakeholder relationship requires strong meso-level practice skills.

Of course, partnering with administrators probably sounds quite a bit easier than bringing on board the next group of stakeholders—parents. It’s not ethical to ask children to participate in a study without their parents’ consent. We will review the parameters of parental and child consent in Chapter 8. Parents may be understandably skeptical of a researcher who wants to talk to their child about self-harm, and they may fear potential harms to the child and family from your study. Would you let a researcher you didn’t know interview your children about a very sensitive issue?

Social work research must often satisfy multiple stakeholders. This is especially true if a researcher receives a grant to support the project, as the funder has goals it wants to accomplish by funding the research project. Your MSW program and university are also stakeholders in your project. When you conduct research, it reflects on your school. If you discover something of great importance, your school looks good. If you harm someone, they may be liable. Your school also provides you with support through instruction and access to resources like the library and data analysis software.

Target population

So far, we’ve talked about access in terms of gatekeepers and stakeholders. Let’s assume all of those people agree that your study should proceed. But what about the people in the target population? They are the most important stakeholder of all!  Think about the children in your proposed study on self-harm. How open do you think they would be to talking to you about such a sensitive issue? Would they consent to talk to you at all?

Maybe you are thinking about simply asking clients on your caseload. As we talked about before, leveraging existing relationships created through field work can help with accessing your target population. However, they introduce other ethical issues for researchers. Asking clients on your caseload or at your agency to participate in your project creates a dual relationship between you and your client. What if you learn something in the research project that you want to share with your clinical team? More importantly, would your client feel uncomfortable if they do not consent to your study? Social workers have power over clients, and any dual relationship would require strict supervision in the rare case it was allowed.

Resources and scope

Let’s assume everyone consented to your project and you have adequately addressed any ethical issues with gatekeepers, stakeholders, and your target population. That means everything is ready to go, right? Not quite yet. As a researcher, you will need to carry out the study you propose to do. Depending on how big or how small your proposed project is, you’ll need a little or a lot of resources. Generally, student projects should err on the side of small and simple. We will discuss the limitations of this advice in section 2.5.

Raw data

One thing that all projects need is . It’s extremely important to note that raw data is not just the information you read in journal articles and books. Every year, I get at least one student research proposal that simply proposes to read articles. It’s a very understandable mistake to make. Most graduate school assignments are simply to read about a topic and write a paper. A research project involves doing the same kind of research that the authors of journal articles do when they conduct quantitative or qualitative studies. The raw data that is often a part of student projects are the results of a survey they give to participants or transcripts of interviews and focus groups.

Some social work researchers do not collect raw data of their own, but instead use to analyze raw data that has been shared by other researchers. One common source of raw data in student projects from their internship or employer. By looking at client charts or data from previous grant reports or program evaluations, you can use raw data already collected by your agency to answer your research question. Whether a researcher should use secondary data or collect their own raw data is an important choice which we will discuss in greater detail in section 2.4. Nevertheless, without raw data there can be no research project. Reading the literature about your topic is only the first step in a research project.

Time

Time is a student’s most precious resource. MSW students are overworked and underpaid, so it is important to be upfront with yourself about the time needed to answer your question. Every hour spent on your research project is not spent doing other things. Make sure that your proposal won’t require you to spend years collecting and analyzing data. Think realistically about the timeline for this research project. If you propose to interview fifty mental health professionals in their offices in your community about your topic, make sure you can dedicate fifty hours to conduct those interviews, account for travel time, and think about how long it will take to transcribe and analyze those interviews.

  • What is reasonable for you to do over this semester and potentially another semester of advanced research methods?
  • How many hours each week can you dedicate to this project considering what you have to do for other MSW courses, your internship and job, as well as family or social responsibilities?

In many cases, focusing your working question on something simple, specific, and clear can help avoid time issues in research projects. Another thing that can delay a research project is receiving approval from the (IRB), the research ethics committee at your university. If your study exposes people who participate to potential harm, you may have to formally propose your study to the IRB and get their approval before gathering your data. A well-prepared study is likely to gain IRB approval with minimal revisions needed, but the process can take weeks to complete and must be done before data collection can begin. We will address the ethical obligations of researchers in greater detail in Chapter 8.

Money

Most research projects cost some amount of money, but for student projects, most of that money is already paid. You paid for access to a university library that provides you with all of the journals, books, and other sources you might need. You paid for a computer for homework and may use your car to drive to go to class or collect your data. You paid for this class. You are not expected to spend any additional money on your student research project.

However, it is always worth looking to see if there are grant opportunities to support student research in your school or program. Often, these will cover small expenses like travel or incentives for people who participate in the study. Alternately, you could use university grant funds to travel to academic conferences to present on your findings and network with other students, practitioners, and researchers. Chapter 24 reviews academic conferences relevant to social work practice and education with a focus on the United States.

Knowledge, competence, and skills

Another student resource is knowledge. By engaging with the literature on your topic and learning the content in your research methods class, you will learn how to study your topic using social scientific research methods. The core social work value of competence is key here. Here’s an example from my work on one of my former university’s research ethics board. A student from the design department wanted to study suicide by talking to college students in a suicide prevention campus group. While meeting with the student researcher, someone on the board asked what she would do if one of the students in her study disclosed that they were currently suicidal. The researcher responded that she never considered that possibility, and that she envisioned a more “fun” discussion. I hope this example set off alarm bells for you, as it did for the review board.

Clearly, researchers need to know enough about their target population in order to conduct ethical research. Because students usually have little experience in the research world, their projects should pose fewer potential risks to participants. That means posing few, if any, questions about sensitive issues, such as trauma. A common way around this challenge is by collecting data from less vulnerable populations such as practitioners or administrators who have second-hand knowledge of target populations based on professional relationships.

Knowledge and the social work value of ethical competence go hand in hand. I see the issue of competence often in student projects if their question is about whether an intervention, for example dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), is effective. A student would have to be certified in DBT in order to gather raw data by practicing it with clients and tracking their progress. That’s well outside the scope of practice competency for an MSW student and better suited to a licensed practitioner. It would be more ethical and feasible for a student researcher to analyze secondary data from a practitioner certified to use DBT or analyze raw data from another researcher’s study.

If your working question asks about which interventions are effective for a problem, don’t panic. Often questions about effectiveness are good places to start, but the project will have to shift in order be workable for a student. Perhaps the student would like to learn more about the cost of getting trained in DBT, which aspects of it practitioners find the most useful, whether insurance companies will reimburse for it, or other topics that require fewer resources to answer. In the process of investigating a smaller project like this, you will learn about the effectiveness of DBT by reading the scholarly literature but the actual research project will be smaller and more feasible to conduct as a student.

Another idea to keep in mind is the level of data collection and analysis skills you will gain during your MSW program. Most MSW programs will seek to give you the basics of quantitative and qualitative research. However, there are limits to what your courses will cover just as there are limits to what we could include in this textbook. If you feel your project may require specific education on data collection or analysis techniques, it’s important to reach out to your professor to see if it is feasible for you to gain that knowledge before conducting your study. For example, you may need to take an advanced statistics course or an independent study on community-engaged research in order to competently complete your project.

In summary, here are a few questions you should ask yourself about your project to make sure it’s feasible. While we present them early on in the research process (we’re only in Chapter 2), these are certainly questions you should ask yourself throughout the proposal writing process. We will revisit feasibility again in Chapter 7 when we work on finalizing your research question.

  1. Do you have access to the data you need or can you collect the data you need?
  2. Will you be able to get consent from stakeholders, gatekeepers, and your target population?
  3. Does your project pose risk to individuals through direct harm, dual relationships, or breaches in confidentiality?
  4. Are you competent enough to complete the study?
  5. Do you have the resources and time needed to carry out the project?

 

Key Takeaways

  • People will have to say “yes” to your research project. Evaluate whether your project might have gatekeepers or potential stakeholders. They may control access to data or potential participants.
  • Researchers need raw data, which may include raw bits of information such as survey responses, interview transcripts, or client charts. Your research project must involve more than looking at the analyses conducted by other researchers, as the literature review is only the first step of a research project.
  • Make sure you have enough resources (time, money, and knowledge) to complete your research project during your MSW program.

Exercises

  • Think about how you might answer your question by collecting your own data.
    • Identify any gatekeepers and stakeholders.
    • Do you think it is likely you will get access to the people or records you need for your study?
  • Describe any potential harm that could come to people who participate in your study.
    • Would the benefits of your study outweigh the risks?

2.4 Raw data

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Identify potential sources of available data
  • Weigh the challenges and benefits of collecting your own data

In our previous section, we addressed some of the challenges researchers face in collecting and analyzing raw data. Just as a reminder, raw data are unprocessed, unanalyzed data that researchers analyze using social science research methods. It is not just the statistics or qualitative themes provided in journal articles, but the actual data from which those statistics or themes are derived (e.g., interview transcripts or survey responses).

There are two approaches to getting raw data. First, students can analyze data that are publicly available or from agency records. Using secondary data like this can make projects more feasible, but you may not find existing data that are useful for answering your working question. For that reason, many students gather their own raw data. As we discussed in the previous section, potential harms that come from addressing sensitive topics mean that surveys and interviews of practitioners or other less-vulnerable populations may be the most feasible and ethical way to approach data collection.

Using secondary data

Within the agency setting, there are two main sources of raw data. One option is to examine client charts. For example, if you wanted to know if substance use was related to parental reunification for youth in foster care, you could look at client files and compare how long it took for families with differing levels of substance use to be reunified. You will have to negotiate with the agency the degree to which your analysis can be public. Agencies may be okay with you using client files for a class project but less comfortable with you presenting your findings at a city council meeting. When analyzing data from your agency, you will have to manage a stakeholder relationship.

Another great example from my class this year was a student who used existing program evaluations at their agency as raw data in her student research project. If you are practicing at a grant funded agency, administrators and clinicians are likely producing data for grant reporting. Your agency may consent to have you look at the raw data and run your own analysis. Larger agencies may also conduct internal research—for example, surveying employees or clients about new initiatives. These, too, can be good sources of available data. Generally, if your agency has already collected the data, you can ask to use them. Again, it is important to be clear on the boundaries and expectations of your agency. And don’t be angry if they say no!

Some agencies, usually government agencies, publish their data in formal reports. You could take a look at some of the websites for county or state agencies to see if there are any publicly available data relevant to your research topic. As an example, perhaps there are annual reports from the state department of education that show how seclusion and restraint is disproportionately applied to black children with disabilities, as students found in Virginia. In my class last year, one student matched public data from our city’s map of criminal incidents with historically redlined neighborhoods. For this project, she is using publicly available data from Mapping Inequality, which digitized historical records of redlined housing communities and the Roanoke, VA crime mapping webpage. By matching historical data on housing redlining with current crime records, she is testing whether redlining still impacts crime to this day.

Not all public data are easily accessible, though. The student in the previous example was lucky that scholars had digitized the records of how Virginia cities were redlined by race. Sources of historical data are often located in physical archives, rather than digital archives. If your project uses historical data in an archive, it would require you to physically go to the archive in order to review the data. Unless you have a travel budget, you may be limited to the archival data in your local libraries and government offices. Similarly, government data may have to be requested from an agency, which can take time. If the data are particularly sensitive or if the department would have to dedicate a lot of time to your request, you may have to file a Freedom of Information Act request. This process can be time-consuming, and in some cases, it will add financial cost to your study.

Another source of secondary data is shared by researchers as part of the publication and review process. There is a growing trend in research to publicly share data so others can verify your results and attempt to replicate your study. In more recent articles, you may notice links to data provided by the researcher. Often, these have been de-identified by eliminating some information that could lead to violations of confidentiality. You can browse through the data repositories in Table 2.1 to find raw data to analyze. Make sure that you pick a data set with thorough and easy to understand documentation.

Table 2.1 Sources of publicly available data
Organizational home Focus/topic Data Web address
National Opinion Research Center General Social Survey; demographic, behavioral, attitudinal, and special interest questions; national sample Quantitative https://gss.norc.org/
Carolina Population Center Add Health; longitudinal social, economic, psychological, and physical well-being of cohort in grades 7–12 in 1994 Quantitative http://www.cpc.unc.edu/projects/addhealth
Center for Demography of Health and Aging Wisconsin Longitudinal Study; life course study of cohorts who graduated from high school in 1957 Quantitative https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/wlsresearch/
Institute for Social & Economic Research British Household Panel Survey; longitudinal study of British lives and well- being Quantitative https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/bhps
International Social Survey Programme International data similar to GSS Quantitative http://www.issp.org/
The Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University Large archive of written data, audio, and video focused on many topics Quantitative and qualitative http://dvn.iq.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/mra
Institute for Research on Women and Gender Global Feminisms Project; interview transcripts and oral histories on feminism and women’s activism Qualitative https://globalfeminisms.umich.edu/
Oral History Office Descriptions and links to numerous oral history archives Qualitative https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/
object/20002%3A19840025
UNC Wilson Library Digitized manuscript collection from the Southern Historical Collection Qualitative http://dc.lib.unc.edu/ead/archivalhome.php? CISOROOT=/ead
Qualitative Data Repository A repository of qualitative data that can be downloaded and annotated collaboratively with other researchers Qualitative https://qdr.syr.edu/

Ultimately, you will have to weigh the strengths and limitations of using secondary data on your own. Engel and Schutt (2016, p. 327)[6] propose six questions to ask before using secondary data:

  1. What were the agency’s or researcher’s goals in collecting the data?
  2. What data were collected, and what were they intended to measure?
  3. When was the information collected?
  4. What methods were used for data collection? Who was responsible for data collection, and what were their qualifications? Are they available to answer questions about the data?
  5. How is the information organized (by date, individual, family, event, etc.)? Are identifiers used to indicate different types of data available?
  6. What is known about the success of the data collection effort? How are missing data indicated and treated? What kind of documentation is available? How consistent are the data with data available from other sources?

In this section, we’ve talked about data as though it is always collected by scientists and professionals. But that’s definitely not the case!  Think more broadly about sources of data that are already out there in the world. Perhaps you want to examine the different topics mentioned in the past 10 State of the Union addresses by the President. One of my students this past semester is examining whether the websites and public information about local health and mental health agencies use gender-inclusive language. People share their experiences through blogs, social media posts, videos, performances, among countless other sources of data. When you think broadly about data, you’ll be surprised how much you can answer with available data.

Collecting your own raw data

The primary benefit of collecting your own data is that it allows you to collect and analyze the specific data you are looking for, rather than relying on what other people have shared. You can make sure the right questions are asked to the right people. For a student project, data collection is going to look a little different than what you read in most journal articles. Established researchers probably have access to more resources than you do, and as a result, are able to conduct more complicated studies. Student projects tend to be smaller in scope. This isn’t necessarily a limitation. Student projects are often the first step in a long research trajectory in which the same topic is studied in increasing detail and sophistication over time.

Students in my class often propose to survey or interview practitioners. The focus of these projects should be about the practice of social work and the study will uncover how practitioners understand what they do. Surveys of practitioners often test whether responses to questions are related to each other. For example, you could propose to examine whether someone’s length of time in practice was related to the type of therapy they use or their level of burnout. Interviews or focus groups can also illuminate areas of practice. A student in my class proposed to conduct focus groups of individuals in different helping professions in order to understand how they viewed the process of leaving an abusive partner. She suspected that people from different disciplines would make unique assumptions about the survivor’s choices.

It’s worth remembering here that you need to have access to practitioners, as we discussed in the previous section. Resourceful students will look at publicly available databases of practitioners, draw from agency and personal contacts, or post in public forums like Facebook groups. Consent from gatekeepers is important, and as we described earlier, you and your agency may be interested in collaborating on a project. Bringing your agency on board as a stakeholder in your project may allow you access to company email lists or time at staff meetings as well as access to practitioners. One of our students last year partnered with her internship placement at a local hospital to measure the burnout of that nurses experienced in their department. Her project helped the agency identify which departments may need additional support.

Another possible way you could collect data is by partnering with your agency on evaluating an existing program. Perhaps they want you to evaluate the early stage of a program to see if it’s going as planned and if any changes need to be made. Maybe there is an aspect of the program they haven’t measured but would like to, and you can fill that gap for them. Collaborating with agency partners in this way can be a challenge, as you must negotiate roles, get stakeholder buy-in, and manage the conflicting time schedules of field work and research work. At the same time, it allows you to make your work immediately relevant to your specific practice and client population.

In summary, many student projects fall into one of the following categories. These aren’t your only options!  But they may be helpful in thinking about what students projects can look like.

  • Analyzing chart or program evaluations at an agency
  • Analyzing existing data from an agency, government body, or other public source
  • Analyzing popular media or cultural artifacts
  • Surveying or interviewing practitioners, administrators, or other less-vulnerable groups
  • Conducting a program evaluation in collaboration with an agency

Key Takeaways

  • All research projects require analyzing raw data.
  • Student projects often analyze available data from agencies, government, or public sources. Doing so allows students to avoid the process of recruiting people to participate in their study. This makes projects more feasible but comes with some limitations based on the data that are available.
  • Student projects should avoid potentially harmful or sensitive topics when surveying or interviewing clients and other vulnerable populations. Since many social work topics are sensitive, students often elect to collect data from less-vulnerable populations such as practitioners and administrators.

Exercises

  • Describe the difference between raw data and the results of research articles.
  • Identify potential sources of secondary data that might help you answer your working question.
    • Consider browsing around the data repositories in Table 2.1.
  • Identify one of the common types of student projects (e.g., surveys of practitioners) and how that might help you answer your working question.

2.5 Critical considerations

Learning Objectives

Learners will be able to…

  • Critique the traditional role of researchers and identify how action research addresses these issues

So far in this chapter, we have presented the steps of student research projects as follows:

  1. Find a topic that is important to you and read about it.
  2. Pose a question that is important to the literature and to your community.
  3. Propose to use specific research methods to answer your question.
  4. Carry out your project and report the results.

These were depicted in Figure 2.1 earlier in this chapter. There are important limitations to this approach, and this section examines those problems and how to address them.

Whose knowledge is privileged?

First, let’s critically examine your role as the researcher. Following along with the steps in a research project, you start studying the literature your topic, find a place where you can add to scientific knowledge, and conduct your study. But why are you the person who gets to decide what is important? Just as clients are the experts on their lives, members of your target population are the experts on their lives. What does it mean for a group of people to be researched on, rather than researched with? How can we better respect the knowledge and self-determination of our community members?

A different way of approaching your research project is to start by talking with members of the target population and those who are knowledgeable about that community. Perhaps there is a community organization you can partner with on a research project.  The researcher’s role in this case would be more similar to a consultant, someone with specialized knowledge about research who can help communities study problems they consider to be important. The social worker is a co-investigator, and community members are equal partners in the research project. Each has a type of knowledge—scientific expertise vs. lived experience—that should inform the research process.

The community focus highlights something important about student projects: they are localized. Student projects can dedicate themselves to issues at a single agency or within a service area. With a local scope, student researchers can bring about change in their community. This is the purpose behind action research.

Action research

 is research that is conducted for the purpose of creating social change. When engaging in action research, scholars collaborate with community stakeholders to conduct research that will be relevant to the community. Social workers who engage in action research don’t just go it alone; instead, they collaborate with the people who are affected by the research at each stage in the process. Stakeholders, particularly those with the least power, should be consulted on the purpose of the research project, research questions, design, and reporting of results.

Action research also distinguishes itself from other research in that its purpose is to create change on an individual and community level. Kristin Esterberg puts it quite eloquently when she says, “At heart, all action researchers are concerned that research not simply contribute to knowledge but also lead to positive changes in people’s lives” (2002, p. 137).[7] Action research has multiple origins across the globe, including Kurt Lewin’s psychological experiments in the US and Paulo Friere’s literacy and education programs (Adelman, 1993; Reason, 1994).[8] Over the years, action research has become increasingly popular among scholars who wish for their work to have tangible outcomes that benefit the groups they study.

A traditional scientist might look at the literature or use their practice wisdom to formulate a question for quantitative or qualitative research, as we suggested earlier in this chapter. An action researcher, on the other hand, would consult with people in target population and community to see what they believe the most pressing issues are and what their proposed solutions may be. In this way, action research flips traditional research on its head. Scientists are not the experts on the research topic. Instead, they are more like consultants who provide the tools and resources necessary for a target population to achieve their goals and to address social problems using social science research.

According to Healy (2001),[9] the assumptions of participatory-action research are that (a) oppression is caused by macro-level structures such as patriarchy and capitalism; (b) research should expose and confront the powerful; (c) researcher and participant relationships should be equal, with equitable distribution of research tasks and roles; and (d) research should result in consciousness-raising and collective action. Consistent with social work values, action research supports the self-determination of oppressed groups and privileges their voice and understanding through the conceptualization, design, data collection, data analysis, and dissemination processes of research. We will return to similar ideas in Part 4 of the textbook when we discuss qualitative research methods, though action research can certainly be used with quantitative research methods, as well.

See https://www.actionresearchtutorials.org/ for free self-guided tutorials on conducting action research.

Student projects can make a difference!

One last thing. We’ve told you all to think small and simple with your projects. The adage that “a good project is a done project” is true. At the same time, this advice might unnecessarily limit an ambitious and diligent student who wanted to investigate something more complex. For example, here is a Vice News article about MSW student Christine Stark’s work on sex trafficking of indigenous women. Student projects have the potential to address sensitive and politically charged topics. With support from faculty and community partners, student projects can become more comprehensive. The results of your project should accomplish something. Social work research is about creating change, and you will find the work of completing a research project more rewarding and engaging if you can envision the change your project will create.

In addition to broader community and agency impacts, student research projects can have an impact on a university or academic program. Consider this resource on how to research your institution by Rine Vieth. As a student, you are one of the groups on campus with the least power (others include custodial staff, administrative staff, contingent and adjunct faculty). It is often necessary that you organize within your cohort of MSW students for change within the program. Not only is it an excellent learning opportunity to practice your advocacy skills, you can use raw data that is publicly available (such as those linked in the guide) or create your own raw data to inform change. The collaborative and transformative focus of student research projects like these can be impactful learning experiences, and students should consider projects that will lead to some small change in both themselves and their communities.

Key Takeaways

  • Traditionally, researchers did not consult target populations and communities prior to formulating a research question. Action research proposes a more community-engaged model in which researchers are consultants that help communities research topics of import to them.
  • Just because we’ve advised you to keep your project simple and small doesn’t mean you must do so! There are excellent examples of student research projects that have created real change in the world.

Exercises

  • Apply the key concepts of action research to your project. How might you incorporate the perspectives and expertise of community members in your project?

 


  1. Blee, K. (2002). Inside organized racism: Women and men of the hate movement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; Blee, K. (1991). Women of the Klan: Racism and gender in the 1920s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  2. The exercises we created for this textbook are designed to break down the research proposal into bite-sized chunks. Completing the exercises as you read the textbook helps you apply the knowledge you've gained right away and remember what you thought about concepts you read about a few weeks ago.
  3. Simons, D. A., & Wurtele, S. K. (2010). Relationships between parents’ use of corporal punishment and their children’s endorsement of spanking and hitting other children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34, 639–646.
  4. Faris, R., & Felmlee, D. (2011). Status struggles: Network centrality and gender segregation in same- and cross-gender aggression. American Sociological Review, 76, 48–73. The study has also been covered by several media outlets: Pappas, S. (2011). Popularity increases aggression in kids, study finds. Retrieved from: http://www.livescience.com/11737-popularity-increases-aggression-kids-study-finds.html
  5. This pattern was found until adolescents reached the top 2% in the popularity ranks. After that, aggression declined.
  6. Engel, R. J. & Schutt, R. K. (2016). The practice of research in social work (4th ed.). Washington, DC: SAGE Publishing.
  7. Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  8. Adelman, C. (1993). Kurt Lewin and the origins of action research. Educational Action Research, 1, 7-24.; Reason, P. (1994). Participation in human inquiry. London, UK: Sage.
  9. Healy, K. (2001). Participatory action research and social work: A critical appraisal. International Social Work, 44, 93-105.

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Graduate research methods in social work 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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