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What is research?

To understand how a research-minded perspective can help you in your work it is worth first of all being reminded of what research actually is.

Research can be broadly defined as:

a form of systematic enquiry that contributes to knowledge.

There are many ways to classify or categorise research, e.g. by academic discipline, method of data collection or purpose. More often research is separated into pure or academic research and applied research. This polarisation can be unhelpful, particularly in social work and social care research where the relationship between research, practice and theory development (new knowledge) is a more dynamic one with each dimension usefully informing the others.

Social work and social care research has been greatly influenced by other professional and disciplinary developments. Current debates about the nature and purpose of social work research are now focusing on its distinctive contribution to the scope of social scientific research, whilst recognizing its interdisciplinarity. The Theorising Social Work Research Seminar Series at Social Care Online is a valuable resource to explore these issues in more depth. A contrasting perspective is provided by Geraldine Macdonald in a SCIE report on Using systematic reviews to improve social care (pdf file).

You may also hear or read of other types of research or research-related activities. These include:

  • Evaluative research
  • Action research
  • Rapid participatory appraisal
  • Case study research
  • Experimental research.
  • Community profiling
  • Systematic reviews
  • Quantitative research
  • Qualitative research
  • Scientific research
  • Field studies

It would take a long time to deconstruct all the different terminology related to research. The reading list for this resource provides a range of existing sources that attend to this in detail. Social work, however, has not been alone in debating definitions and exploring how research should adapt to a changing world. The following quote comes from The Science and Environmental Health Network debating what social work research often refers to as ‘user involvement’ in research:

The requirements are a "systemic, synthetic and humanistic approach" which incorporates a dialogue between stakeholders and scientists about the shape and structure of the scientific study. This demands that scientists tolerate the initial confused phases and ambiguity, and engage in, essentially an inductive process to establish the kind of scientific framework in which the research will be carried out.

Raffensperger, C.(1996). Article IV. Defining Good Science: A New Approach to the Environment and Public Health. Public Interest Science Volume 1(2).

A core of common research skills and principles should be used in any good quality research, whatever label it has. Central to these are the need to be:
  • systematic
  • purposeful
  • organised
  • critical
  • analytical
  • able to communicate findings effectively
  • assertive– sometimes researchers have to report things others may not want to hear!

At the end of the day all research is a process of enquiry. Research findings offer a way of enhancing your existing knowledge, understanding or skill, or of uncovering something new.

Fact file

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