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Research Process in Social Work

Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods

Research work in social work is either qualitative or quantitative in nature. Qualitative research, according to Neill (2007, p. 1) is used when the data that is gathered, or the research that has been performed, can not be quantified or assigned numerical weight. For example, phenomena like love, attitudes, and tastes of customers in market research can only be carried out qualitatively. It is an in-depth inquiry into human behavior.

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Compare this with quantitative research, which, according to Engel and Schutt (2005, p.19), involves empirical analysis of phenomena that can be assigned numerical weight. The chief goal of this form of analysis is to come up with mathematical models and theories that can be used to analyze the identified phenomena. For example, when finding out the number of units that have been sold in a particular period and the amount of money that was accumulated, quantitative analysis is more appropriate.

There are some outstanding features differentiating these two forms of research methods. While the qualitative research method aims at a comprehensive detailed description of the phenomena, quantitative is concerned with the classification and counting of the same (Neill 2007, p. 25). For example, the qualitative research method will be concerned with analyzing the reason why people fall in love, while quantitative will be concentrating on aspects like how many people have fallen in love at which rate. But they also share some similarities. For example, both are used to determine the relationship between two or more phenomena.

These two methods are very important in social work research. They help the researcher to order the seemingly chaotic nature of human society. For instance, complex phenomena such as attitudes and love are reduced to numbers and theories that can be easily analyzed.

Descriptive, Exploratory, Explanatory, and Evaluation Research Methods

These are research methods that combine both the aspects of quantitative and qualitative research.

Descriptive research is best applied in situations where the researcher wants to narrate their findings to the audience (Engel and Schutt 2005 15). A case in point is during an ethnographic study when the researcher wants to describe what they observed in the group. It is more of a narration, where the reader is regaled with a description of a phenomenon such as how a certain community is organized.

Exploratory, on its side, is best utilized when the researcher wants to gain in-depth knowledge about a phenomenon (Engel & Schutt, 2005, p. 20). They move beyond mere description, and they want to find out the dynamics, the inter-relationship of several features of a phenomenon. For example, a researcher may use an exploratory method to conduct research as to the causes of teen pregnancies in society.

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The explanatory study is used when the researcher finds it important to illuminate the dynamics of a certain phenomenon. For example, a researcher may be interested to make it known to the reader why first-time offenders become hardened criminals when they are taken into jail. This will take the form of explanation to lay bare the pattern between the two, and the rationale behind the pattern.

Evaluation research is usually carried out to investigate the progress of something or the effects of a certain aspect of society. For example, to determine how successful anti-drugs legislation have been, the researcher will need to evaluate the difference between pre-legislation and post-legislation periods.

Sample Generalizability and Cross-Population Generalizability

Engel and Schutt (2005, p. 19) conceptualize generalizability as the degree to which findings and conclusions garnered from a study sample can be attributed or extended (applied) to the whole population from which the sample was drawn. This means that the researcher will make an assumption that what the sample population displayed represents the characteristics of the whole population. It is also referred to as transferability-The degree to which findings from one study can be applied to other situations.

There are two types of generalizability; sample and cross population. Sample generalizability, according to Engel and Schutt (2005, p. 20) is the process of applying findings from a sample to the population from where the sample was drawn from. For example, a sample of twenty students in a school was found to have ten percent of drug abusers. The researcher can assume that ten percent of the school is made up of drug abusers.

Cross population generalizability, on the other hand, is the application of findings from one population to another (Engel & Schutt, 2005, p. 22). This goes beyond the population from which the sample was drawn from, to another population beyond. For example, the researchers above who found that ten percent of students in a school are drug addicts may make an assumption that ten percent of all American students are drug addicts. Note that, the researchers have moved out of the school population (the school within which the study was conducted) to the whole of the American school system.

Four Types of Social Research Methods

From page thirteen to fifteen of their book The Practice of Research in Social Work, Engel and Schutt (2005) give us the four research methods used in social work. These are description, exploration, explanation and evaluation.

For a descriptive study, thee authors give us an example of a study seeking to answer the question “who are the homeless?” The researcher in this case will embark on regaling the reader with details of the several attributes of the homeless; a person with no place to call home, who owns nothing and such. For a study on teen pregnancy using this method, the researcher will seek to answer the question “what is teen pregnancy? The major strength of this method is that it gives the reader a vivid picture of what is being described. The researcher is able to paint a clear picture of the homeless, teen pregnancy. But it fails to capture the rationale behind the observations. Why is the person homeless? What causes teen pregnancy? It is thus a shallow account of the phenomenon.

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Engel and Schutt (2005, p. 13) gives an example of an exploration study as the one seeking to find out the experience of living in an emergency shelter. The attitudes of the homeless are captured here, and their account of living in such shelters. For a teen pregnancy study fashioned along these lines, the researcher may seek to find out what it is like to be a teen mother. This research method provides the reader with a deep insight into the phenomenon, highlighting the relationship between several facets. However, the reader can get lost in the minute details, some of which are irrelevant, that the researcher provides.

Engel and Schutt provide an example of a study seeking to establish the causes of homelessness as an explanatory one (Engel & Schutt, 2005, p. 14). For teen pregnancy, the researcher may seek to find out what causes teen pregnancies. This study helps in highlighting to the reader the cause and effect attribute of the phenomenon. But the researcher may concentrate so much on giving the explanations and fail to give an insightful account of the same.

An evaluation study is for example that aiming to find out the services that can help the homeless (Engel & Schutt, 2005, p.15). For teen pregnancy, an evaluation study may take the form of “how can teen pregnancies be avoided?” This study helps to measure the effectiveness of certain initiatives, for example empowerment of teen mothers and emergency shelters, but it may ignore the dynamics behind those policies. For example, it may not answer the reason why educating teen mothers is better than finding them employment.

The Four Social Research Methods in Practice

Consider this scenario; a person working for a community development organization seeks to explain how the four research methods mentioned earlier can be used to start and maintain an afternoon computer training program for young people. The organization is in a city with high rates of poverty, unemployment, high school attrition, juvenile delinquency among others.

A descriptive study can be used to determine who the potential beneficiaries of the program are. This is before it starts. It will help the organization to tailor the program to the needs of the target population. An exploration study can identify how similar programs in other parts of the country have faired. This will inform the decisions of the implementers, as they will know what to avoid and incorporate. An explanation study may be aimed at finding out why such programs benefit the youth or the target populations. This will help the program implementers have an insight on the features that are likely to be beneficial, and those that will not add value. An evaluation study can be carried out after the program has been started. It may be interested on finding out the benefits accrued to the target population, and how the program can be improved.


Engel, R. J., & Schutt, R. K. (2005). The Practice of Research in Social Work. New York: Sage Books.

Neill, J. (2007). Qualitative versus Quantitative Research: Key Points in a Classic Debate. Wilderdom. Web.

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