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Social Work Research and Evaluation Foundations

May 06, 2024
Female social work researcher observes a young boy's social behavior.

Studying social work and its effect on societies is essential to understanding and enhancing human and community well-being. By effectively measuring and evaluating social work outcomes, practitioners can employ evidence-based social work practices and evidence-based treatments (EBTs) to provide structured approaches to addressing client needs. For example, in the case of a client with an anxiety disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and behavioral science can be applied as efficient and ethical frameworks to address communication and collaboration problems.1

Read on to learn more about the essential role of social work research and evaluation.

The Importance of Research and Evaluation in Social Work Practice

By rigorously assessing and evaluating social work studies, researchers can better identify the most effective strategies to achieve their client’s objectives.2 Instead of trial and error, a data-driven approach ensures researchers make better use of the resources available to them.

Evidence-based interventions result from analyzing past research findings. After choosing a solution, researchers test it to verify replicability in multiple real-world scenarios before it’s deemed successful.3 New intervention methods are constantly being standardized across the social work field of study, letting practitioners choose from a wider range of tools and techniques suitable for their study. These are usually taught in more advanced research courses in graduate or master's programs.

For example, at Wurzweiler School of Social Work, students participate in individual research projects and learn the basics of conducting social work research. This includes learning how to use measurement instruments; logic of research design, including sampling and design selection; ethical and legal issues; quantitative and qualitative modes of observation; analysis of data; use of computers and computer programs; and research report writing.

Methodologies and Approaches for Conducting Social Work Research

Conducting social work research requires access to large amounts of data supplied by study participants, which can be historical data or up-to-date surveys.4 Due to social work’s multifaceted nature, researchers must then use their understanding of how psychosocial factors intersect. They need to develop and adhere to strict research methodologies that are evidence-based instead of preconceived notions of a particular social issue.5

Action Research and Participatory-Action Research (PAR)

By emphasizing the importance of direct collaboration with communities, researchers can hope to identify and address a demographic’s needs.6

Empowerment Research

Studies, surveys and experiments aim to increase the feelings of empowerment, equality and social justice among people in communities by having them participate directly in the research process.7

Constructivist Research

Constructivist research begins with the individual and their social contexts instead of the community as a whole.8 It highlights the importance of perspective and social standing in shaping communities.

Designing Effective Evaluation Frameworks for Social Programs

Data collected from participants in a target demographic is considered raw data that needs to go through several stages of cleaning and refining before any insights can be extracted.9 That’s why researchers need to be able to develop robust evaluation frameworks that facilitate access to the data.

Logic Models

Logic models are often used to evaluate a single program or intervention.10 Logic models are designed to offer:

  • Development approaches: Using forward logic to develop models starts from activities to predict outcomes, or vice versa in the case of reverse logic
  • Framework utility: Frameworks guide the implementation and reporting of the logic model by clarifying its methodology and expected results
  • Visual representation: Graphical depictions of data illustrate the connections between a study’s input, activities and outputs, showcasing the anticipated outcomes
  • Components: Key elements include the problem statement, outcomes, outputs, resources and strategies

Theories of Change and Program Theory

Merging theories with logic models adds depth to frameworks by outlining the research process, mechanisms and the logic behind the expected outcomes.11 Furthermore, theories explain the “how” and “why” the desired changes and outcomes are expected to occur in the program’s context, including factors outside the program’s control.

Furthermore, leveraging resources such as The Kellogg Foundation Logic Model Development Guide and the CDC Framework for Program Evaluation in Social Work can offer guidance and tools for constructing and utilizing robust evaluation frameworks.12,13

Data Collection and Analysis Techniques in Social Work Research

Researchers can collect relevant data in a variety of ways, such as surveys, in-person focus groups, observations and official census reports. They can then select the suitable social work data analysis technique based on the type of data they have and the nature of the insights they’re looking for.14 These techniques include:

  • Thematic analysis: A qualitative approach that identifies, analyzes and reports patterns and anomalies
  • Descriptive statistics: Mean, medians, modes and averages of datasets
  • Inferential statistics: Predictive models that provide insights based on patterns

Ethical Considerations in Social Work Research and Evaluation

Ethical considerations determine the efficacy of social work research methods and evaluations.15 Participants in the study must give informed consent to the data being collected on them without attempts to persuade or influence their answers.16 Similarly, confidentiality and anonymity, especially when handling socially sensitive topics, are needed to ensure candid responses from study participants.

Utilizing Research Findings to Inform Evidence-Based Practice

In order to use results from past studies to inform future practices, researchers need to translate the studies’ outcomes through systematic reviews and guideline development.17 The outcomes of earlier implementations often require constant monitoring to detect any underlying biases that can be addressed early on.

Challenges and Limitations in Social Work Research and Evaluation

Research in social work often faces numerous challenges that might impact the quality and efficacy of studies. Some of the most common ones include:

Case Study of Successful Research and Evaluation Initiative

Despite the many complexities, many research studies can be successfully conducted in the field of social studies. One example is the study of developing new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients.

First developed in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing has been successful in treating emotional distress associated with PTSD. The method’s application was then expanded to include a wide range of issues from trauma and anxiety to addiction.

It’s been supported by over 30 controlled outcomes studies and has since been recognized by the World Health Organization and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as an effective therapeutic method.18

Deepen Your Impact Through Social Work

The intersection between theoretical research and practical evaluation in the field of social work produces solutions that make a profound impact on the quality of life of communities and individuals.19 This is a testament to the commitment of researchers to advance the field through progressively available means, particularly technology for data collection and mathematical algorithms for Big Data analytics.

Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work focuses on cultural responsiveness, social justice, and human transformation. You will gain hands-on experience in the field of social work and obtain CSWE accreditation that qualifies you for the post-graduate state exam. The expert faculty will equip you with the tools to create positive change in the world. Make an appointment to speak with an admissions outreach advisor today.

  1. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from hbr.org/podcast/2021/01/using-behavioral-science-to-improve-well-being-for-social-workers
  2. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from researchgate.net/publication/323370072_Evaluating_effectiveness_in_social_work_sharing_dilemmas_in_practice
  3. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547524/
  4. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from researchgate.net/publication/298697140_Big_data_in_social_work_The_development_of_a_critical_perspective_on_social_work’s_latest_electronic_turn
  5. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from https://caseworthy.com/articles/why-is-evidence-based-practice-important-in-social-work/
  6. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from nature.com/articles/s43586-023-00214-1
  7. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from academic.oup.com/bjsw/article/51/4/1482/6202975
  8. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/16094069231186257
  9. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/17456916221137350
  10. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from sopact.com/guides/theory-of-change-vs-logic-model
  11. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from betterevaluation.org/frameworks-guides/rainbow-framework/define/develop-programme-theory-theory-change
  12. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from naccho.org/uploads/downloadable-resources/Programs/Public-Health-Infrastructure/KelloggLogicModelGuide_161122_162808.pdffrom-being-a-breeding-ground-for-threats/
  13. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from cdc.gov/evaluation/framework/index.htm
  14. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from nesta.org.uk/feature/eight-ways-councils-are-using-data-create-better-services/the-data-driven-social-worker/
  15. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from cmsindia.org/sites/myfiles/Guidelines-for-Ethical-Considerations-in-Social-Research-Evaluation-In-India_2020.pdf
  16. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from researchsupport.admin.ox.ac.uk/governance/ethics/resources/consent
  17. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from health-policy-systems.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12961-020-00662-1
  18. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/emdr.asp
  19. Retrieved on April 10, 2024, from researchgate.net/publication/8480043_Future_directions_in_evaluation_research_People_organizational_and_social_issues