Matthew DeCarlo
Social Work
Material Type:
College / Upper Division
  • MOBIUS Social Science
  • Research Methods
  • Social Work Education
  • mobius-social-science
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    Test Module

    Test Module


    This is a test module for the Social Work Distance Education conference.  The materials are drawn from the open textbook Critical Inquiry in Social Work, adapted by Matt DeCarlo.  This book was adapted from Principles of Sociological Inquiry – Qualitative and Quantitative Methods by Susan Blackstone.  

    Introduction to Research

    This section introduces the student to social work research and ways of knowing.  

    Chapter 1:  Introduction to Research



    Do you like to know things? Do you ever wonder what other people know or how they know what they do? Have you ever made a decision, and do you plan to make decisions in the future? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you will probably find the information in this book—particularly the information on research methods—very useful. If you answered no to all of them, I suspect that you will have reconsidered by the time you finish reading this text. Let’s begin by focusing on the information in this chapter. Here we’ll consider the variety of ways that we know things and what makes social scientific knowledge unique. We’ll also consider why any of this might matter to you and preview what’s to come in later chapters.


    Chapter Outline:

    o   1.1 How do we know what we know?

    o   1.2 Science, social science, and social work

    o   1.3 Why should we care?

    o   1.4 Design and goals of this text



    1.1 How Do We Know What We Know?



                   LEARNING OBJECTIVES             


    ·        Define research methods.

    ·        Identify and describe the various ways of knowing presented in this section.

    ·        Understand the weaknesses of nonsystematic ways of knowing.

    ·        Define ontology and epistemology and explain the difference between the two.




    If I told you that the world is flat, I’m hoping you would know that I’m wrong. But how do you know that I’m wrong? And why did people once believe that they knew that the world was flat? Presumably the shape of the earth did not change dramatically in the time that we went from “knowing” one thing about it to knowing the other; however, something certainly changed our minds. Understanding both what changed our minds (science) and how might tell us a lot about what we know, what we think we know, and what we think we can know.


    This book is dedicated to understanding exactly how it is that we know what we know. More specifically, we will examine the ways that social workers come to know social facts. Our focus will be on one particular way of knowing: social scientific research methods. Research methods are a systematic process of inquiry applied to learn something about our social world. But before we take a closer look at research methods, let’s consider some of our other sources of knowledge.


    Different Sources of Knowledge


    What do you know about only children? Culturally, our stereotype of children without siblings is that they grow up to be rather spoiled and unpleasant. We might think that the social skills of only children will not be as well developed as those of people who were raised with siblings. However, sociological research shows that children who grow up without siblings are no worse off than their counterparts with siblings when it comes to developing good social skills (Bobbitt-Zeher & Downey, 2010). [1] A naïve social worker may use these types of assumptions and take for granted their assumptions are true.  Sometimes we find that our assumptions are correct. In this case, as in many others, we learn that the thing that everyone seems to know to be true isn’t so true after all. [2]


    The previous example used evidence from a different discipline—sociology. Reading across disciplines is common in social work inquiry. While the social work literature—including journals such as the Journal of Social Work, Social Service Review, and Child and Family Social Work—will provide an overview of how social workers understand a topic, a social work researcher must become familiar with evidence across all social scientific disciplines—including anthropology, political science, economics, sociology, and psychology. Additionally, it is important to note international journals such as The British Journal of Social Work and International Social Work are important sources of information about how other countries experience and attempt to solve social problems. 


    While scientific research is often used to challenge and support our knowledge of the social world, there are ways we know things that don’t involve scientific research methods. Some people know things through experiences they’ve had, but they may not think about those experiences systematically; others believe they know things based on selective observation or overgeneralization; still others may assume that what they’ve always known to be true is true simply because they’ve always known it to be true. Let’s consider some of these alternative ways of knowing before focusing on ways of knowing in social work.


    Many of us know things simply because we’ve experienced them directly. For example, you would know that electric fences can be pretty dangerous and painful if you touched one while standing in a puddle of water. We all probably have times we can recall when we learned something because we experienced it. If you grew up in Minnesota, you would observe plenty of kids learn each winter that it really is true that one’s tongue will stick to metal if it’s very cold outside. Similarly, if you passed a police officer on a two-lane highway while driving 20 miles over the speed limit, you would probably learn that that’s a good way to earn a traffic ticket. So, direct experience may get us accurate information but only if we’re lucky (or unlucky, as in the examples provided here). In each of these instances, the observation process isn’t really deliberate or formal. Instead, you would come to know what you believe to be true through informal observation. The problem with informal observation is that sometimes it is right, and sometimes it is wrong. And without any systematic process for observing or assessing the accuracy of our observations, we can never really be sure that our informal observations are accurate.


    A common belief in society is that individuals who receive social welfare benefits spend their money irresponsibly and manipulate the system to maintain or increase their government payout. People expressing this belief may provide an example like Louis Cuff (, who bought steak and lobster with his SNAP benefits and resold them for a profit. However, this would be an example of overgeneralization, using limited observations—one individual’s SNAP fraud—to make assumptions about broad patterns—that all social welfare recipients engage in fraud. Also, focusing on the few individuals like Mr. Cuff who engage in fraudulent behavior ignores the majority of social welfare recipients who spend their money responsibly.  Noticing only the pattern you want to find is called selective observation.


    Another way that people claim to know what they know is by looking to what they’ve always known to be true. There’s an urban legend about a woman who for years used to cut both ends off of a ham before putting it in the oven (Mikkelson & Mikkelson, 2005). [3] She baked ham that way because that’s the way her mother did it, so clearly that was the way it was supposed to be done. Her mother was the authority, after all. After years of tossing cuts of perfectly good ham into the trash, however, she learned that the only reason her mother ever cut the ends off ham before cooking it was that she didn’t have a pan large enough to accommodate the ham without trimming it.


    Without questioning what we think we know to be true, we may wind up believing things that are actually false. This is most likely to occur when an authority tells us that something is so (Adler & Clark, 2011). [4] Our mothers aren’t the only possible authorities we might rely on as sources of knowledge. But what about trusting a supervisor as an authority figure? While social workers often rely on the experience of supervisors and mentors to guide practice, such guidance should be informed by the practice wisdom or tacit knowledge of more seasoned social workers. Practice wisdom refers to the “knowing by doing” that social workers develop as they encounter new client situations, develop hypotheses about what might work, and revisit knowledge of what has helped similar clients in the past. Tacit knowledge signifies that this knowledge is often difficult to articulate verbally, but nevertheless impacts how social workers act (Klein & Bloom, 1995). [5] 


    As a profession that values science, social work relies on a systematic process of inquiry for gaining knowledge. That process, as noted earlier, is called research methods. We’ll discuss that process in more detail later in this chapter and throughout the text. For now, simply keep in mind that it is this source of knowledge on which social workers rely most heavily.


    Table 1.1 Several different ways of knowing


    Way of Knowing


    Informal observation

    Occurs when we make observations without any systematic process for observing or assessing accuracy of what we observed.

    Selective observation

    Occurs when we see only those patterns that we want to see or when we assume that only the patterns we have experienced directly exist.


    Occurs when we assume that broad patterns exist even when out observations have been limited.


    A socially defined source of knowledge that might shape our beliefs about what is true and what is not true


    Practice wisdom

    The “knowing by doing” that social workers develop as they become more experienced in practice

    Research Methods

    An organized, logical way of learning and knowing about our social world.


    In sum, there are many ways that people come to know what they know. These ways include informal observation, selective observation, overgeneralization, authority, and research methods. Table 1.1 "Several different ways of knowing" summarizes each of the ways of knowing described here. Of course, some of these ways of knowing are more reliable than others. Being aware of our sources of knowledge helps us evaluate the trustworthiness of specific bits of knowledge we may hold.


    Ontology and Epistemology


    Thinking about what you know and how you know what you know involves questions of ontology and epistemology. Perhaps you’ve heard these terms before in a philosophy class; however, they are relevant to the work of social workers as well. As we social workers begin to think about investigating something in the client’s world, we are probably starting from some understanding of what “is,” what can be known about what is, and what the best mechanism happens to be for learning about what is.


    Ontology deals with the first part of these sorts of questions. It refers to one’s analytic philosophy of the nature of reality. In social work, a researcher’s ontological position might shape the sorts of research questions he or she asks and how those questions are posed. Some researchers take the position that reality is “in the eye of the beholder” and that our job is to understand others’ view of reality. Other researchers feel that, while people may differ in their perception of reality, there is only one true reality. These researchers are likely to aim to discover that true reality in their research rather than discovering a variety of realities.


    Like ontology, epistemology has to do with knowledge. But rather than dealing with questions about what is, epistemology deals with questions of how we know what is. In social work, there are a number of ways to uncover knowledge. We might interview people to understand client experiences in a social program, or perhaps we’ll observe them in their natural environment. We could avoid face-to-face interaction altogether by mailing people surveys for them to complete on their own or by reading what people have to say about their opinions in newspaper editorials. All these are ways that social workers gain knowledge. Each method of data collection comes with its own set of epistemological assumptions about how to find things out. We’ll talk in more depth about these ways of knowing in Chapter 8 "Survey Research: A Quantitative Technique" through Chapter 12 "Other Methods of Data Collection and Analysis," our chapters on data collection.




    tacit knowledge- inarticulate knowledge people possess about how to do things that is difficult to express verbally

    ontology- study of what is true

    epistemology- study of how we know what is true




    ·        There are several different ways that we know what we know, including informal observation, selective observation, overgeneralization, authority, and research methods.

    ·        Research methods are a much more reliable source of knowledge than most of our other ways of knowing.

    ·        A person’s ontological perspective shapes her or his beliefs about the nature of reality, or what “is.”

    ·        A person’s epistemological perspective shapes her or his beliefs about how we know what we know, and the best way(s) to uncover knowledge.



    [1] Bobbitt-Zeher, D., & Downey, D. B. (2010). Good for nothing? Number of siblings and friendship nominations among adolescents. Presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, GA.

    [2] The findings from the Bobbit-Zeher and Downey study were featured in a number of news articles in 2010. For one such example, see the following article: Mozes, A. (2010). Being an only child won’t harm social skills. USA Today. Retrieved from

    [3] Mikkelson, B., & Mikkelson, D. P. (2005). Grandma’s cooking secret. Retrieved from

    [4] The definition for authority provided here comes from the following source: Adler, E. S., & Clark, R. (2011). An invitation to social research: How it’s done. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    [5] Klein, W. C., & Bloom, M. (1995). Practice wisdom. Social work, 40(6), 799-807.

    This section introduces students to social science, qualitative methods, and quantitative methods.  

    1.2 Science, Social Science, and Social Work



                   LEARNING OBJECTIVES             


    ·        Define science.

    ·        Describe the importance of social science to social work.

    ·        Describe the specific considerations of which social scientists should be aware.




    In Section 1.1 "How Do We Know What We Know?," we considered a variety of ways of knowing and the philosophy of knowing. But this is a social work text rather than a philosophy text. And social work is a scientific discipline. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the science of social work and some specific considerations of which social work researchers must be aware.


    Science and Social Work


    The sources of knowledge we discussed in Section 1.1 "How Do We Know What We Know?" could have been labeled sources of belief. In social work research, however, our aim is to discover knowledge for the purpose of intervening with our clients. Social work is a science-informed discipline, so while we may examine beliefs in order to understand what they are and where they come from, ultimately, we aim to contribute to and enhance knowledge for the purpose of helping others. Science is a particular way of knowing that attempts to systematically collect and categorize facts or truths. A key word here is systematically; conducting science is a deliberate process. Unlike the ways of knowing described in Section 1.1 "How Do We Know What We Know?," scientists gather information about facts in a way that is organized and intentional and usually follows a set of predetermined steps. More specifically, social work is informed by social science. In other words, social work research uses organized and intentional procedures to uncover facts or truths about the social world. And social workers rely on social scientific research to promote individual and social change. 


    A New Yorker cartoon once portrayed a little boy looking up at his father while the father tells him, “I’m a social scientist, Michael. That means I can’t explain electricity or anything like that, but if you ever want to know about people I’m your man” ( As the cartoon implies, social scientists aim to understand people. And while the cartoon may also imply that social scientists don’t have much to contribute that will be of interest to others, hopefully you will be convinced this is not the case by the time you finish this text. But first, let’s move on to a few specific considerations of which all social scientists should be aware.


    Specific Considerations for the Social Sciences


    One of the first and most important things to keep in mind about inquiry in social work is that research aims to explain patterns. Most of the time, a pattern will not explain every single person’s experience, a fact about social science that is both fascinating and frustrating. It is fascinating because, even though the individuals who create a pattern may not be the same over time and may not even know one another, collectively they create a pattern. Those new to social science may find these patterns frustrating because they may believe that the patterns that describe their gender, their age, or some other facet of their lives don’t really represent their experience. It’s true. A pattern can exist among your cohort without your individual participation in it.


    Let’s consider some specific examples. One area that social workers commonly investigate is the impact of a person’s social class background on his or her experiences and lot in life. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a person’s social class background has an impact on his or her educational attainment and achievement. In fact, one group of researchers (Ellwood & Kane, 2000) [1] in the early 1990s found that the percentage of children who did not receive any postsecondary schooling was four times greater among those in the lowest quartile income bracket than those in the upper quartile of income earners (i.e., children from high- income families were far more likely than low-income children to go on to college).  Another recent study found that having more liquid wealth that can be easily converted into cash actually seems to predict children’s math and reading achievement (Elliott, Jung, Kim, & Chowa, 2010). [2]


    These findings, that wealth and income shape a child’s educational experiences, are probably not that shocking to any of us. Yet, some of us may know someone who may be an exception to the rule. Sometimes the patterns that social scientists observe fit our commonly held beliefs about the way the world works. When this happens, we don’t tend to take issue with the fact that patterns don’t necessarily represent all people’s experiences. But what happens when the patterns disrupt our assumptions?


    For example, did you know that teachers are far more likely to encourage boys to think critically in school by asking them to expand on answers they give in class and by commenting on boys’ remarks and observations? When girls speak up in class, teachers are more likely to simply nod and move on. The pattern of teachers engaging in more complex interactions with boys means that boys and girls do not receive the same educational experience in school (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). [3] You and your classmates, both men and women, may find this news upsetting.


    Objectors to these findings tend to cite evidence from their own personal experience, refuting that the pattern actually exists. The problem with this response, however, is that objecting to a social pattern on the grounds that it doesn’t match one’s individual experience misses the point about patterns. Patterns don’t perfectly predict what will happen to an individual person. 



    One final consideration that social scientists must be aware of is the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitative methods examine words or other media to understand their meaning. Some of the most common qualitative methods include interviews and focus groups. Quantitative methods, on the other hand, examine numerical data to precisely describe and predict elements of the social world.  Survey research and experimental research are the most common quantitative method in social work. Qualitative methods aim to gain an in-depth understanding of a relatively small number of cases. Quantitative methods offer less depth on each case, but can say more about broad patterns in society because they typically focus on a much larger number of cases.


    Sometimes these two methods are presented or discussed in a way that suggests they are somehow in opposition to one another. The qualitative/quantitative debate is fueled by researchers who may prefer one approach over another, either because their own research questions are better suited to one particular approach or because they happened to have been trained in one specific method. In this text, we’ll operate from the perspective that qualitative and quantitative methods are complementary rather than competing. While these two methodological approaches certainly differ, the main point is that they simply have different goals, strengths, and weaknesses. A social work researcher should choose the methods that best match with the question they are asking. 


    We’ll explore the goals, strengths, and weaknesses of both approaches in more depth in later chapters. In sum, social scientists should be aware of the following considerations:


    -        Social science is concerned with patterns in society.

    -        While individuals make up patterns, every individual need not be a part of a pattern in order for a pattern to exist.

    -        Qualitative methods analyze data such as words or pictures; quantitative methods analyze numerical data.



    qualitative methods- examine words or other media to understand their meaning

    quantitative methods- examine numerical data to precisely describe and predict elements of the social world




    ·        Social work research aims to understand patterns in the social world.

    ·        Social scientists use both qualitative and quantitative methods. While different, these methods are often complementary.



    [1] Ellwood, D., & Kane, T. (2000). Who gets a college education? Family background and growing gaps in enrollment. In S. Danziger & J. Waldfogel (Eds.), Securing the future (p. 283–324). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

    [2] Elliott, W., Jung, H., Kim, K., & Chowa, G. (2010). A multi-group structural equation model (SEM) examining asset holding effects on educational attainment by race and gender. Journal of Children & Poverty, 16, 91–121.

    [3] Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness: How America’s schools cheat girls. New York, NY: Maxwell Macmillan International.

    This section provides a brief overview of evidence-based practice and evaluation research.  

    1.3 Why Should We Care?



                   LEARNING OBJECTIVES             


    ·        Be able to describe and discuss some of the reasons why students should care about social scientific research methods.

    ·        Identify how social workers use research as part of evidence-based practice. 




    At this point, you may be wondering about the relevance of research methods to your life. Whether or not you choose to become a social worker, you should care about research methods for two basic reasons: (a) research methods are regularly applied to solve social problems and issues that shape how our society is organized, thus you have to live with the results of research methods every day of your life, and (b) understanding research methods will help you evaluate the effectiveness of social work interventions, and important skill for future employment. 


    Consuming Research and Living with Its Results


    Another New Yorker cartoon depicts two men chatting with each other at a bar. One is saying to the other, “Are you just pissing and moaning, or can you verify what you’re saying with data?” ( Which would you rather be, just a complainer or someone who can actually verify what you’re saying? Understanding research methods and how they work can help position you to actually do more than just complain. Further, whether you know it or not, research probably has some impact on your life each and every day. Many of our laws, social policies, and court proceedings are grounded in some degree of empirical research (Jenkins & Kroll-Smith, 1996). [1] That’s not to say that all laws and social policies are good or make sense. However, you can’t have an informed opinion about any of them without understanding where they come from, how they were formed, and what understandings our policymakers relied on in order to craft them.  All social workers, from micro to macro, need to understand the root causes and policy solutions to social problems that their clients are experiencing. 


    A recent lawsuit against Walmart provides an example of social science research in action. A sociologist named Professor William Bielby was enlisted by plaintiffs in the suit to conduct an analysis of Walmart’s personnel policies in order to support their claim that Walmart engages in gender discriminatory practices. Bielby’s analysis shows that Walmart’s compensation and promotion decisions may indeed have been vulnerable to gender bias. In June 2011, the United States Supreme Court decided against allowing the case to proceed as a class-action lawsuit (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 2011). [2] While a class-action suit was not pursued in this case, consider the impact that such a suit against one of our nation’s largest employers could have on companies and their employees around the country and perhaps even on your individual experience as a consumer. [3]


    In addition to having to live with laws and policies that have been crafted based on social science research, you are also a consumer of all kinds of research, and understanding methods can help you be a smarter consumer. Ever notice the magazine headlines that peer out at you while you are waiting in line to pay for your groceries? They are geared toward piquing your interest and making you believe that you will learn a great deal if you follow the advice in a particular article. However, since you would have no way of knowing whether the magazine’s editors had gathered their data from a representative sample of people like you and your friends, you would have no reason to believe that the advice would be worthwhile. By having some understanding of research methods, you could avoid wasting your money by buying the magazine and wasting your time by following inappropriate advice.


    Pick up or log on to just about any magazine or newspaper, or turn on just about any news broadcast, and chances are you’ll hear something about some new and exciting research results. Understanding research methods will help you read past any hype and ask good questions about what you see and hear. In other words, research methods can help you become a more responsible consumer of public and popular information. And who wouldn’t want to be more responsible?


    Evidence-Based Practice


    Probably the most asked question, though seldom asked directly, is “why am I in this class…when will I ever use this information?”  Social work supervisors and administrators at agency-based settings will likely have to demonstrate that their agency’s programs are effective at achieving their goals.  Most private and public grants will require evidence of effectiveness in order to continue receiving money and keep the programs running.  Social workers at community-based organization commonly use research methods to engage in needs assessments and community scans to target their interventions to the needs of their service area.  Clinical social workers must also make sure that the interventions they use in practice are effective and not harmful to clients.  Social workers may also want to track client progress on goals, help clients gather data about their clinical issues, or use data to advocate for change. 


    In all of these cases, a social worker needs to be able to understand and evaluate scientific information.  Evidence-based practice (EBP) for social workers involves making decisions on how to help clients based on the best available evidence.  A social worker must examine the literature, understanding both the theory and evidence relevant to the practice situation.  According to Rubin and Babbie (2017), [4] EBP also involves understanding client characteristics, using practice wisdom and existing resources, and adapting to environmental context. As we’ve discussed before, the patterns discovered by scientific research are not perfectly applicable to all situations.  Instead, we rely on the critical thinking of social workers to apply scientific knowledge to real-world situations. 


    Take an example of a social work administrator at a children’s mental health agency. The agency uses private grant funds to fund a program that provides low-income children with bicycles, teaches them how to repair and care for their bicycles, and leads group bicycle outings after school. Physical activity has been shown to improve mental health outcomes in scientific studies, but is this social worker’s program improving mental health in its clients? Ethically, the social worker should make sure that the program is achieving its goals. If the program is not beneficial, the resources should be spent on more effective programs. Practically, the social worker will also need to demonstrate to the agency’s funders that bicycling truly helps children deal with their mental health concerns. 


    The example above to the need for social workers to engage in evaluation research, or research that evaluates the outcomes of a policy or program.  She will choose from many acceptable ways to investigate program effectiveness, and those choices are based on the principles of scientific inquiry you will learn from this text. 



    evidence-based practice- making decisions on how to help clients based on the best available evidence

    evaluation research- research that evaluates the outcomes of a policy or program




    ·        Whether we know it or not, our everyday lives are shaped by social scientific research.

    ·        Understanding research methods is important for competent and ethical social work practice.

    ·        Understanding social scientific research methods can help us become more astute and more responsible consumers of information.

    ·        Knowledge about social scientific research methods is important for ethical practice, as it ensures interventions are based on evidence. 



    [1] Jenkins, P. J., & Kroll-Smith, S. (Eds.). (1996). Witnessing for sociology: Sociologists in court. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    [2] Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. (2011); The American Sociological Association filed an amicus brief in support of what would be the class of individuals claiming gender discrimination. You can read the brief at

    Dukes_et_al.pdf. For other recent amicus briefs filed by the ASA, see

    [3] Want to know more about the suit against Walmart or about Bielby’s analysis for the case? Check out the following sources: Hart, M., & Secunda, P.

    M. (2009). A matter of context: Social framework evidence in employment discrimination class action. Fordham Law Review, 78, 37–70. Retrieved from

    [4] Rubin, A., and Babbie, E. R. (2017). Research methods for social work (9th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth.