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The scientific method

Modern research has not abandoned the early raw materials, especially experience and observation, but it has to quite an extent subjugated them to approaches which are seen as more appropriate for an industrial and technological society. Researchers have sought to give their work certain characteristics - such as a systematic and replicable methodology, and an orderly and controlled presentation of data and conclusions. They have also wanted to make fullest use of technological opportunities (especially computers) to enhance the scope and scale of research, the depth and variety of analysis, and the speed of reporting.

With the growth of interest in such subject areas as physics and biology has come an emphasis on the important role played by experiments, whether in a laboratory or set in a wider community context. Experimental research is used in social work, but is not widespread. However social workers work with other professions who extensively use experimental methods. It is important to understand something about them in order to appreciate research findings from other disciplines, including medicine.

Following on the growth of interest in experimentation came the focus on gathering data or information and analysing it in order to reach conclusions. The survey is perhaps the best known research method based on the gathering and analysing of data, though not the only one. As research became more scientifically based, so a new vocabulary of concepts came onto the research methods agenda. Research started to be categorised according to:

  • its location within the growth of knowledge as pure, applied or developmental;
  • its economic context as near-market (meaning commercially exploitable) or basic (not yet exploitable);
  • or its purpose, such as descriptive, explorative or predictive;
  • or the nature of the evidence on offer, in particular whether it was qualitative or quantitative.

New tools emerged, like the questionnaire, and as part of a more systematic approach to data gathering, along with concepts such as variables which can be controlled. Within the framework of data analysis come such procedures as tabulation and cross-referencing. You should look at the results of a piece of research to see how it rates in terms of validity, significance and generalisability, as well as the replicability of the research process.


Use the Glossary to look up all those terms highlighted above.

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